Burning Down God's House
The desecration implicit in the proposal to reconstruct the basilica of Notre-Dame in the image of Woke may announce the culmination of a shift in human consciousness that began centuries ago.
I remember well the morning of April 16th 2019, waking up in a hospital bed, to a message from a French friend who wrote that the fire at Paris’s great cathedral of Notre Dame was ‘only the beginning ‘de l'expression de sa colere’ — the ‘expression of the anger of God’. For reasons connected to my condition, I had not at the time heard anything of a fire, and had to spend a stupefied half-hour verifying that I was not on some kind of anti-viral trip.
This friend is a man who does not say such things conversationally. His faith does not yield to a formal nomenclature or structure, but he is a believer who knows that these things matter in the deepest way. I thought on his words as I contemplated video images from other friends in Paris of fellow citizens singing hymns as they watched the flames rise from where the basilica’s spire used to be. In December 2019, Notre-Dame did not host Christmas Mass for the first time in 116 years.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported that the proposal for the restoration of the beautiful 800 year-old cathedral is to include ‘modernist’ elements.
‘Under the proposed changes,’ the report elaborated, ‘confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces.”’ There is also something about ‘themed chapels’ on a ‘discovery trail’, intended to ‘emphasise Africa and Asia’. These, it appears, will ‘project Bible verses ‘in various languages, including Mandarin,’ onto the chapel walls. The cathedral’s plans, genuflecting before the ideological obsessions of the current Bishop of Rome, will also include a chapel with a ‘strong environmental emphasis.’ Traditional straw chairs will be replaced by illuminated benches that retract into the floor. The tabernacle and baptistery, along with most of the 19th century traditional confessionals, will be moved away from the main floor, the confessionals replaced by ‘contemporary art installations.’ Portraits from the 16th and 18th centuries will be presented ‘in dialogue with modern art objects’, to be called ‘a cycle of tapestries’.
Father Gilles Drouin, who has responsibility for overseeing the reconstruction of the cathedral, denied the plans were radical, saying the goal is to preserve Notre-Dame as a place that can welcome the public ‘who are not always from a Christian culture,’ because ‘Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity.’
‘Foreign visitors see signs and magnificent paintings but don’t understand a thing. Images and sculptures and paintings count but so do words. So there are plans to project certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English.’
Grayson Quay, writing in the Spectator, ‘explained’ things a little more ironically: ‘Everything old is bad. European history is primarily (if not exclusively) a story of oppression and exploitation. Human spirituality should be conceived of primarily in therapeutic terms. Climate change is the greatest threat we face. Sin is an uncomfortable concept best swept under the rug. All experiences can and ought to be technologically mediated. Diversity is our strength.’
‘In this vision, Christianity apologizes for everything secular modernity disapproves of and tries to take at least some credit for everything secular modernity likes. The Church becomes a domesticated lapdog. She might occasionally bark out some unwelcome condemnation of IVF or gay marriage, but these defiances are more annoying than threatening. A quick command will bring her back to heel. Wag your finger and say “bad!” and she’ll cower in shame like a good girl.’
More solemnly, it is all, of course, a recipe for the final obliteration of the central meaning of the basilica, part of the revolution of cultural demolition that is now at full tilt, intent upon the pancaking of the world, all in the name of a pseudo-diversity that rapidly contrives to turn the West into one anti-culture and every formerly genuine culture into chaos and meaninglessness. This is the precise object: Pure tourism, the institutionalisation of selfie anti-culture at the heart of God’s House.
You would think — no? — that the kind of people making and influencing the decision-making process would have given some thought to the possibility that the fire might have being guided by some kind of supernatural intent, and more recently to the question of how their plans for the restoration of the cathedral were likely to be received ‘upon high’ — supernaturalism being, so to speak, their very stock-in-trade. We do not need to list probable causes for God’s undoubted anger. But perhaps it is something the world and its putative spiritual leaders ought to reflect on while the opportunity remains to avoid any further defilement of the great temple of Paris, once one of European civilisation’s crowning jewels.
Introduced to it by my daughter who was studying at the time in Paris, I first attended at Notre-Dame with my wife about six years ago and, until 2020, when the world as we knew it ended, had been returning whenever I could. I have shed more tears there than in any church in any part of the world, and, that April morning, though ill and confined to a hospital bed 650 miles away, I shed some more on meditating on the conflagration of this symbol of Christian civilisation.
I had one particular sense of why God’s anger might have been provoked by Notre-Dame: that, in common with almost all the great churches of Europe, it had been allowed to become commodified and cheapened by being absorbed into the tourism infrastructure of Paris. This is a fate that has befallen many of the great Christian buildings of Europe, as the de-absolutisation of our culture continued apace: It is as if we have turned the formative faith of our civilisation into a theme park for curious and condescending pseudo-rationalists to use as background photographic evidence of their being on holiday.
This drift of thinking first insinuated itself to me in Florence, a few years earlier, at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, constructed as a homage to the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Walking around the building for the first time, it struck me that there is something tawdry about the way modern Christianity presents such buildings to the world, inviting the de-absolutised public to come and gawp and snap without any requirement of reverence or affection. On the same visit, during the Consecration at Mass in the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, I felt a slight jostle behind me and, turning around, was confronted by a Chinese woman with a camera held high to take a picture. There was nothing new about the experience. We had by then grown used to tourists in our churches, wearing shorts and T-shirts, brandishing cameras and semi-contemptuous disregard for the context in which they have contrived to manifest their often quite astonishing ignorance. It’s strange how you become accustomed to something troubling, perhaps experiencing an occasional slight irritation, but mostly remaining insufficiently motivated or bothered to focus on the feeling. Then, one day, a short series of experiences causes that previously unremarked phenomenon to register in a new and disturbing way.
Of course buildings require maintenance, and priests need to eat. And I don’t believe the problem is anything as obvious or banal as the mere ‘consumerisation of religion’. Nor is it really all that much about the way tourists in general dress or behave: most of them, to be fair, are respectful and dignified.
The deeper issue is that, here we are, at the height of the Age of Unreason, when it is becoming close to impossible for the human heart to breathe true air, and we permit — in fact, encourage — a disposition towards faith that, in almost every respect, tends to confirm the dominant mentality of the time. For what does it suggest that we allow tourists to wander around our places of worship, without commitment or investment of anything but curiosity and a handful of small change? To me, it suggests acquiescence in a growing cultural mentality that treats faith as a residue of a former naïvete — fascinating, diverting, maybe even beautiful beyond — as it were — belief, but ultimately belonging to a prior and condescended-to understanding of reality. To permit this is tacitly to concur with a characterisation of the religious impulse as something like a museum piece — to be looked at, studied, admired and recorded as part of the cultural diversion of a weekend away. It is to allow the Cross and the womb of Mary to be treated as fossils, upon which the world now gazes archeologically but without gravity or dread.
I have heard it argued that this practice of encouraging unbelievers to visit our churches as tourists at least prompts people to visit places where they might be liable to be visited by an epiphany of some kind. I don’t doubt that this sometimes occurs. But I also believe that, far more often, the effect of the teeming crowds nowadays recreationally invading our places of prayer and devotion is to consolidate in the unconscious of many believers the consciousness that our formal culture no longer gives a moment’s serious thought to the possibility that the basis of the Christian proposal might continue to be true.
Oddly, Notre-Dame also taught me that it may not be necessary to pander to the Wokeness of visitors in order to allow them be slain in the spirit. It is the only church I have ever been in which I watched the tourism-driven process of cultural and spiritual debasement being put in reverse by the ineluctable beauty of both building and event, and not an ‘emotional space’ in sight.
I recall with a surging joy that brief period in which we went regularly to visit my daughter where she lived close to the Avenue de la République and we would set off on the four kilometre walk through the 3rd arrondissement to the cathedral in time for Vespers. It was on our very first such attendance there, in the autumn of 2016, that I came to realised the power of the place. Not since my childhood days as an altar boy had I been so moved by the spectacle of a religious occasion or ceremony, the service in Latin and French drawing me into a nexus of feeling in myself that, even on barely glimpsing this state in myself hitherto, I had invariably thought of as nostalgia, an involuntary spasm of reminiscence, powerful in its way but incapable of achieving a true note. For a few minutes I surrendered to the feeling, shutting out all awareness of the ceaseless streams of tourists trooping up and down in the aisles in either side. Tears flowed abundantly. When I awoke from my reverie I glanced to my left and saw that the people in the isles had stopped moving and were staring towards the altar, each at least as rapt as I.
I had not been a fan of President Macron, but I feel obliged to say that his words in response on the night of the calamity of April 2019 were not unimpressive: ‘Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives,’ he said, standing before the burning ruin. ‘Notre-Dame is burning, and I know the sadness, and this tremor felt by so many fellow French people. But tonight, I’d like to speak of hope too,’ he said. ‘Let’s be proud, because we built this cathedral more than 800 years ago. We’ve built it and, throughout the centuries, let it grow and improved it. So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.’
For these carefully secularised words I was for a short time prepared to forgive much in President Macron, especially as it struck me that, not being a stupid man, he must have been conscious of the missing part of what he said.
Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe, wrote at the time in the Spectator that the future of European civilisation would be decided by our attitude towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of the past. ‘Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what the politicians leave behind: most of all on how they have treated what the past has handed into their care. Even if [the conflagration of Notre-Dame] was simply the most freakish of accidents, our era would still be remembered for that loss more than any other. We would have to tell future generations what it was like, this treasure that we lost.’
But there are worse kinds of loss than the pure absence of something desired or much loved. One is bastardisation — the continued presence of something once loved as no more than a husk, a mockery of itself. This, it seems, is what is now planned for the restoration of Europe’s greatest cathedral.
There is, of course, something of a folly in preserving relics of a civilisation we seem to imagine can survive without its driving energies. If they are mere fossils, does it really matter if they become further debased? Yes, because these building serve as the most profound mnemonic of the human condition though time.
We have to ask ourselves if we think it was merely innocence that led human beings to create the greatest buildings in history. This would be foolish: They built the great cathedrals of the world out of love, love for their existences and the Power/Being that had brought them into existence. They built them in correspondence to a feeling for the Beauty they detected in the world that confirmed for them the existence of Something Else, something greater and more abiding than themselves.
Notre-Dame was built at perhaps the zenith of the human love for Christ and his mother Mary, in the time of — if we are to judge by the buildings, cultures and paintings — the greatest love of God the world’s people ever experienced. It was also a time of enormous civilisational striding. Although once regarded as a time of obscurantism, superstition, and social oppression, the Middle Ages are nowadays seen as a dynamic period during which the idea of Europe as a distinct cultural unit emerged, a time of vibrant evolution in the political, social, economic, and cultural structures of the emerging civilisation, now in the process of undoing itself.
This undoing is a much deeper story than the ‘mere’ conflagration of a cathedral, and yet it is the same story, one rooted in a atrophying of the collective imagination extending back into history, a shift that contrived to make man feel cleverer while at the same time shutting him off from adequate understanding of his own nature
In his book The End of the Modern World, written around the year I was born, Romano Guardini wrote that the Middle Ages were ‘filled with a sense of religion that was as deep as it was rich, as strong as it was delicate, as firm in its grasp of principles as it was original and fertile in their concrete expression. From cloister and monastery there shone a religious light whose strength cannot be overestimated. We cannot exaggerate the impact which was made on the corporate consciousness by the ever-fresh stream of worshippers, penitents and mystics which poured forth from the springs of medieval piety. From all these sources of faith tumbled the waters of religious experience, wisdom and certitude which constantly freshened and quickened every class and degree of society.’
Medieval man, in Guardini’s words, ‘thirsted for truth’, which he found through adherence to authority of Scripture, Church and inherited wisdom, through meditating on the nature of reality and reading the symbolism of the world in terms not just of the appearance of things but also of ‘their own other side’, understandings that crept into art and the customs and speech of everyday life.
The consciousness of the religious connection was imbued, moment to moment, on the individual and the collective. by sign, symbol, ritual, icon, language, architecture, music, bells.
Prior to the Renaissance, wrote Guardiani, the world was incontrovertibly the creation of God; afterwards, it ceased to be such. ‘Similarly, the work of a man ceased to be an act of obedience to God’s ordained service; it became a “creation” in itself. Man had become a “creator”, and in a sense it had appeared to transpire that he had created the world and himself. All the great disciplines and endeavours of man — science, art, architecture, economics, philosophy — all these became unmoored from considerations of Faith. Each in turn developed its own discrete set of laws, independent of the others but connected via culture — itself among the progeny of man’s creation. Hence, culture emerged to stand in opposition to God and Revelation.’
It may be tempting for some ‘modern’ minds, afflicted by secularist myopia, to fancy what Guardini describes here as something positive, a thawing of the ice of ‘obscurantism’ and ‘superstition’, a dawning ‘enlightenment’ that rendered man more powerful, knowing and independent. But with these seemingly propitious shifts came others that were less so. Man lost the narrative that gave him an infinite, optimistic vision of his own destiny, and with it the energy that had flowed through him in the circuitry between his destination and origin. More immediately and disturbingly impactful was that man, now appointed by his ambition to the role and authority of ‘Creator’, took on also the responsibilities that hitherto lay with God.
Man, insists Guardini, is not an animal, and not ‘like’ an animal. What distinguishes him is that, as well as body, he is also spirit, which has not derived from any material source. The philosophies of materialism and positivism therefore cannot explain him. And, since spirit is what elevates man above the animal, spirit is what makes man what he is: the mover of history, which is the fruit of man’s freedom, a freedom dependent on the understanding that it derives from God. When this understanding is dissolved, as it was by the Enlightenment, the potential for evil enters. And with this change comes another: the dissolution of the sense of the human dignity and ‘qualitative uniqueness’ of each person, inscribed in the Christian proposal for humanity. Absent the connection to Revelation, man’s sense of himself and his constituent elements begins to twist and corrupt, a process barely noticeable in the beginning but osmotically escalating in what we call the ‘Modern World’ — a story we know only too well.
We are now in the third phase. Before, the medieval; then the modern — Renaissance, Enlightenment and their aftermath — ; now something else. The Something Else, which sprang into life, according to Guardini, this side of a ‘Time Divide’ that fell between the two world wars of the last century, retains residues of the modern, but these grow weaker as a new an unfamiliar reality dawns on a world moving ever faster with no direction home. There are two key problems: Man is in control now, but is not God in a world where there is no God, and some men seek to usurp the throne once occupied by Him. This is man’s most pressing problem, but — as Guardini outlines —not the only one. Another is that the intellectual-technical skeleton that supported the culture and functioning of man’s ‘creation’ is losing its solidity, causing man’s sense of his own progress to disintegrate. For example, although science has increased his longevity and guaranteed him better health, the technocratic society ushered in under the same writ, man’s natural powers of recuperation, his natural immunity, his self-confidence, his vitality, are now reduced in the new dependency he has built for himself. Progress becomes ambiguous. Now he does not know whether he is going forward or back. New disparities have developed in the equations that define his calculations: between knowledge and ethics, power and value, desire and satisfaction. All these things, which once drew man out of himself and onwards into the world, have become involuted, cancerous. Moreover, the markets of sensation draw him into their ambiguous delights, occupying his mind and time with pointless, useless distraction. Still, man’s hunger for power grows and so does the threat it represents to himself; his knowledge does nothing to reassure him. But he just can’t help himself. His desire, unmoored from its proper object, is out of control, pursuing things that have no prospect of satisfying the hunger. God’s ‘banishment’ has turned man’s existence into a Hell on Earth. Man urgently needs to upgrade his human qualities — ethical, moral, civilisational — or he will perish under the attrition of his own incoherence, but the world he imagines he has built by himself, without a consciousness of God, has locked him into his ignorance and misery.
At stake in the Fall of Man, Guardini emphasises, is not just that, in defying God, man had gotten too big for his intellectual headgear, or merely that he became greedy for licentious pleasure. The temptation unloosed by the serpent was that, by coming to know good from evil, man challenged God’s power and in doing so claimed it. God was reduced to myth, and thereby cast within man’s power to debunk and abolish. And more and more, man drifts towards the embrace of his discovery: evil.
The Tree of Knowledge represents the compact God offered to man: Know thy place and I will give thee everything. But, instead of omniscience, man has brought shame upon himself: shame at his nakedness and shame at his littleness before God. The compact broken, order is demolished and replaced by its antithesis. This disorder has in our age manifested the evidence of its culmination: postmodernism and its consequences, ideology, concentration camps, gas chambers, gulags, apartheid, Woke, Covid, lockdown. Man has dominion over a world he has not made and cannot therefore fully comprehend what is going wrong. The circle of man’s self-governance grows bigger, but at the same time more reductive. The natural continuity that seemed to exist before has disappeared. All is disorder. Man has been subsumed by his own shadow side.
In the ancient world, man had acted with proportion and discretion, restraining his interventions in the world to within the limits of nature and its laws, using his instincts, reason and necessary humility to moderate himself. He sought not to damage the earth — having permission to ‘subdue’ it on God’s terms, not those of his own will. In the modern world, man began to push his luck, disrespecting the limits and laws of nature, seeking to borrow and steal from the future to accomplish his own designs in the present. The onset of the technological age accelerated these tendencies, increasing the scope of what was achievable, but also removing man from the zone of immediate engagement through sensate connection with the world. Man rendered himself remote from the destruction he decreed, secreting himself behind screens in lofty towers, and watching his victories over nature from afar. Tools gave way to machines, which gave way to self-regulating systems, programmed with man’s desires, but completely independent of the human body, and increasingly the human mind. And out of this emerged an entire system of human society in which the human being functions as a cog, but the whole remains mechanistic, imposing machine-logic on all its flesh-and-blood parts. Man’s senses, imagination and creativity become increasingly remote from his activities, which consist increasingly in pushing buttons, isolating him from sensual contact with the world. The logic by which man operates in the world is increasingly distant from the logic he uses to know himself in it; his thinking, cut off from direct, tactile experience of reality, grows ever more unhinged. Guardini calls this the phase of ‘non-human humanity’ and then apologises for using such a potentially misleading phrase, adding that he can find no better one. He is not, he stresses, speaking of the architects of the bloodbaths of the 20th century, but of the man in whom the previous harmony — between knowledge and works on the one hand, and humanity’s direct experience of these processes on the other — is no longer to be found. In the old world, each act of work was also an act of worship. But man lost that understanding, and with it the capacity, so beautifully described by Charles Péguy in L’Argent, to make the leg of a chair in a manner that was natural, ‘understood’, for itself, for its own sake, for the sake of the tradition emanating from the depths of history, an absolute requirement that the chair leg be well made: ‘And every part of the chair that was not visible was made with the same perfection as the parts that were visible. According to the same principle as cathedrals . . .’
With this loss has coincided a change in the demeanour of man. Whereas his forebears were engaged at many levels with the activities and accompanying moods that filled their days — emotional, intellectual, moral, sensual, etc. —the contemporary man has about him what Guardini describes as a ‘matter-of-factness’ towards reality. He becomes colder, more indifferent to the substance of the world and the work he conducts to exploit it. He no longer allows himself to feel real feelings, but surrenders to ersatz sentiments and sensations: excitement, lust, addiction, emoting. True feeling and perception become elusive and increasingly threatening, even terrifying. Guardini does not see all this necessarily as evidence of decline. He seeks merely to describe what is there. He does not view it with disquiet, acknowledging that whatever baneful symptoms may be associated with present drifts were matched by equally disquieting elements in the past. He urges his reader to avoid false conclusions. Even the past ubiquity of Revelation, he says, had its dark side. Christian truths are by no means self-evident, and imply judgement and punishment as well as grace and redemption. Their acceptance therefore requires an unending process of conversion, of daily re-persuasion. To put it another way, Christianity requires the free engagement of the will, an acceptance of the total package, voluntarily and knowingly entered into, moment to moment.
It was easier to do this in the pre-technical age, because the world appeared intensely natural, given. It is no longer so. The psychological conditions of this Medieval epoch converged to make the entire package of Christian propositions and conditions appear axiomatic. There was what Guardini calls an ‘organic harmony’ between all the elements — and all the elements and reality as it presented itself. But no epoch can be taken as having guaranteed a sound, dignified existence. To see things in this way, says Guardini, is an error, because man is constructed in such a way that he can cross over into and adapt to many different modes of living without becoming less ‘human’. Different conditions provoke different forms of crises for man, but his nature is such that he can always find and choose ways to ameliorate the risks of the times. In a sense, this is what the human journey consists in, so if the tendency to choose negatively appears to loom larger in the personality of contemporary man, this is not the new thing. What is new is the intensity of the dangers, a factor existing outside of man himself. It is a mistake to see the inadequacies of man faced by new challenges and crises as a failure of man qua man, man measured in his metaphysical nature.
The temptation towards pessimism is strangely seductive. But what is required is renewal of mind and an increment of grace to face these dangers, which had their equivalents in all previous ages. Man has been in decline since close to the beginning, since the fall of Adam and Eve. But in particular conditions, particular times, this truth about man can become concealed behind his ostensible progress. Still, he concedes, there are challenges now that humanity has never encountered before. The disintegration of human creativity is mirrored in the dissolution of family structures. ‘Congregation, city, country are being influenced less and less by the family, clan, workgroup, class. Humanity itself appears ever more as a formless mass to be purposefully ‘organised.’
At the moment of his writing, Guardini was able to see that increases in population were a significant factor in these shifts. Science and technology had enabled man to become healthier, live longer, survive natural catastrophes. But these benefits also seemed to track decreasing human creativity, more uniformity of culture and thought. More and more, races, nations, cultures seemed to merge, to lose their particularities of speech, dress, personality. The whole world became more interdependent, economically and politically, its systems of governance increasingly indistinguishable. To live an individual life in such a world was becoming more difficult. Guardini saw the dangers graphically, to the extent of contradicting his earlier sanguinity: ‘A type of man is evolving who lives only in the present, who is “replaceable” to a terrifying degree, and who all too easily falls victim to power.’
This new man was being mimicked by — or was perhaps mimicking? — the evolution of the modern state, which was losing its prior organic structure, becoming more complex, bureaucratic, more controlling, an apparatus that removed the human dimension from the relations between state and, increasingly, the ‘subject’ who became as though the raw material fed to a machine. A new kind of ‘unity’ was becoming ubiquitous, not the old unity born of faith and spirit, but a mechanistic unity of rationality and technocratic power.
Not just man but nature also was becoming subject to this escalation of the naked assertion of dissociated power. Man controlled nature, but also men — other men — in previously undreamt of ways. The will-to-dominion is present at all times in man’s endeavours. It is, says Guardini, the taproot of all man’s greatness, tragedy, joy and sorrow. The permission extended by God to allow man to rule has been vitiated by man’s fall. He rules now without God’s blessing, and must seek his own guidance. He seeks his own lost image by the pursuit of dominion.
Ethical principles seemed impotent in the face of these shifts, perhaps because they had lost their roots in a human-nature soil of conscience, spirit, values, tradition, culture and spontaneous socialisation. Now, these ancient structures had atrophied and been replaced by rules and regulations, systems of organisation, which do not lend themselves to ethics. Where ethics once reigned, now is mere expediency. Guardini cites the cultural shifts that rendered respectable such horrors as abortion and euthanasia. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘may one not do to people?’ By ‘one’, he makes clear, he means ‘the average man.’
In noting the disintegration of the religious content of reality, he was speaking not of the influence of Christian values or understandings (which he acknowledged may have been disintegrating also) but the severing of the religious roots that had hitherto connected man to reality and to every aspect of his life. His work, play, prayer, speech, home, city — all these come from the divine and possess magical powers. But when man usurps the throne once occupied by God, when he uncrowns Christ and dons his own coronet, his awareness of these phenomena declines. The world becomes rationally understandable and technically controllable, but increasingly remote and confusing of its essence. The important understandings of human nature, built up through the centuries, lose their metaphysical significance. Marriage becomes contract, birth a biological function, death merely the end of a life. Providence is abolished. Everything that happens, good or bad of it, is in the hands of chance and luck. Things, phenomena, people, all lose their mystery. The state and its institutions and benefits exists not, as in the Constitution of Ireland, ‘In the name of the Most Holy Trinity’, but at the ‘pleasure’ of the people, who may extend or withdraw rights and entitlements from one another at will or on a whim. Except that this understanding does not survive for very long, as the state, increasingly a bureaucratic apparatus operating to psychological and sociological logic, becomes progressively independent of the people, who become first its hypnotised subjects and later on its slaves.
Guardini, speaking from the edge of our age, asked many questions that remain pertinent seven decades later, even though the particularities of that era have since abated. Though the specific conditions have changed, the underlying paradigm remains intact. He wrote at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of mutual destruction both endangered human existence and guaranteed it. A war such as was intimated by the conditions under which the world laboured then would be a war that obliterated both losers and victors. His questions remain potent. Do we understand what confronts us? Are our leaders up to the job? Is the quality of responsibility still intact in our public life? Do our young people receive an adequate education in the nature of power and its dangers? Can an ethic of power emerge from the corridors of power? Guardini spelled out the nature of the threats in clear terms: not just the threat of economic, cultural, political or even physical destruction, but also the destruction of the last remnants of the spiritual-ethical order of respect for human life and for the dignity of man. When this process reached a certain threshold, he warned, the last vestiges of the human sensibility and character would crumble. Nihilism and violence would rule.
Guardini warns against Pollyanna clichés: ‘Truth will prevail!’; ‘The human spirit cannot be suppressed for long’; ‘Everything will come out all right.’ Auschwitz and the gulags further east had already put paid to such notions. All of culture’s prior achievements had been trod underfoot: ‘The dignity of truth and the loftiness of justice; human dignity; the inviolability of man’s spiritual and physical being; freedom of the individual, of personal enterprise; the right to private opinion; the right to freedom speech; . . . the freedom of science, art, education, medicine . . . which of these was not destroyed? And let us nurse no illusions: these things took place not only in the temporary confusion of anarchy, but within the studied patterns of theoretical and practical systems carefully prepared.’
Can the spirit of man sicken? Yes, says Guardini, seeming to walk back his own sally of optimism. He mentions Plato and Augustine, both of whom warned against this: The health of the spirit depends on its relation to truth, to the good and the holy, to knowledge, justice, love, adoration. These qualities must be processed in the ‘personal centre’ of the human heart. This much, he says, is certain: Once truth loses its significance, ‘once success usurps the place of justice and goodness, once the holy is no longer perceived as even missed’, the spirit becomes stricken.
Only conversion can save man then. To build culture on rational and technical foundations alone, he says, is to use force — ’naked power’ — to deal with man in ways that are disrespectful of his freedom. When a man is deemed ‘marketable’, or ‘managed’ or ‘laid off’, he is rendered less than human. Mass suggestion, mass formation and propaganda can harm man spiritually, because they trample on truth in order to force man along predetermined paths.
Nothing corrupts purity of character or the lofty qualities of the soul of man more than the temptations of power: Only by maintaining his spiritual balance can a man resist its blandishments. Power wielded without moral responsibility corrupts the one rendered tyrannical as much as it dehumanises the one whose freedom is abused. The deed cannot remain outside the doer, but permeates the perpetrator even before the impact of the blow is felt by his victim. So, if the abuses of power such as have been seen continue, the perpetrators will experience a dissolution, an ‘illness of the soul such as the world has never seen.’
These factors, Guardini allows, are all new: the rejection by man of a higher norm; the general public’s acquiescence in autocracy; the usurpation of power for political or economic advantage. These, he says, are without precedent in history. The postmodern world is a shrunken one, a world that at once seems to be everything and yet increasingly appears small. Man’s attitude and demeanour has changed accordingly: Once he saw the world as the totality; now it is the sum total of the ‘given’, which allows man to adopt a different, more critical position towards — against — the world. Man is no longer in awe of the gift of reality, but seeks to remake and reshape it. He is somehow both ‘in’ the world and ‘outside looking in’, like an impotent god-man, inhabiting his own imagined creation. The world is no longer mysterious, simply a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome. The world has become a single political field, subject to a single logic: globalism. One size fits all. The One Best Way is both attainable and recommended. Everything becomes more uniform, interdependent, and the attendant processes are couched in such a way that the people mostly embrace their new chains with enthusiasm. Opinion polling, statistics, propaganda, congealing bureaucracy, constant chatter, culture-clotting catchwords — all these instruments serve to create the sense of a herd rather than a people. Socio-political manipulation is perhaps the most vital instrument of modern power, with the purpose of preventing problems of dissent and rebellion before they occur. Guardini saw all this coming.
In seeking independence from God, man has made himself dependent on his own kind, in the process losing connection with himself, which he can only erratically regain at the price of outright isolation or with continuous guardedness combined with deep and constant reflection. The religiously-oriented mindset was ‘sheer liberalism’, writes Guardini, compared to the mind of the average man under ideology. Freedom, independence, self-possession, all these have altered profoundly. The inner life of a man is no longer purely his own, but is intimately connected to the external world of state coercion and propaganda, conditions which survive long after the collapse of Nazism and Communism, into our own day.
Guardini, writing a lifetime ago, summoned up ‘the coming existence’, describing the New Man of his time, one who saw himself in an utterly different kind of being, if a being at all. Man’s perception of his own body had changed, for example: What he exhibited now was not the given autonomy of the past, a clearly defined free agent with an embodied spirit and free will. Instead, Guardini’s observation of man revealed a kind of body-in-motion through space and time, animated by some kind of mysterious psycho-spirit but incomplete of itself — neither autonomous, material nor spiritual, and not necessarily something intermediate either.
What Guardini describes is a kind of nothing, a being without being, a body without spirit. When you enter into his sketch of the New Man, it becomes clear that he is describing a process by which man seeks a working definition of his own mysterious being without acknowledging its mystery, or rather suppressing his sense of the mystery in order to maximise propulsion potential over everything else. This condition exists as part of a quasi-mechanical understanding of the human body in repose, a kind of ‘backline’ definition of the human that emphasises the biological/medical/anatomical/surgical to a degree that overflows into other understandings of the human, occluding aspects like spirit, personality, conscience and subjectivity. The individual merges into a kind of herd, his advance measured not individually but collectively, or at least by quasi-eugenic concepts of human usefulness, intelligence, evolution, thought, success. Medieval man had lived by an ethic of engagement with the world in which he perceived his own efforts as governed by the authority and guidance of God. Modern man cast this aside, insisting on his own autonomy. Postmodern man, instead of reposing his toil at the lotus feet of the Lord, sees himself as merely an atom of the whole, one sheep among the flock — no longer in a given world in which man deems himself different. Denying any debt to a Creator, man surrenders his freedom, but this time to the herd rather than to God, and the sense of responsibility that once accompanied man’s efforts in the service of God has fallen away.
Man is for the moment trapped between his hubris and his powerlessness, caught in a moment of empty conceit, but as yet saved from the inevitable consequences by a residue of religious (mostly read ‘Christian’) understandings. He rattles around in his self-made chains, imagining this to be freedom. He is past the point of rescue by anything except conversion. By Guardini’s blueprint, he must rediscover his sense of Truth, of understanding that there is a Right Thing, and an urgency for the doing of it. Above all, what confronts man is the urgency of saving himself from his own power and the absence of an ethic of responsibility to curtail it.
Guardini: ‘There are people — not a small number either —who still feel at home in the era before the great Time Divide which runs between the two world wars. Some of them manage to hold onto a little corner of existence in which they are still at ease; others are at least able to create for themselves an interior world of memories, books, and art. In the main, however, they are the defeated ones. But is that all? Or does such defeat indicate more than the fate of one particular generation caught fast in yesterday? Might not the trend towards objectivism in the development of human power mean that man has ceased to be the subject of history, that he has become a mere channel for processes beyond his reach? That he no longer controls power; rather, that power controls him?’ The man who has emerged from modernity, Guardini concludes, may not be equivalent to ‘mankind’.
Still, he had hope: God is greater than all this, greater than all historic processes, greater than man, whom He created. He is biding His time before he intervenes to divert the movement of his given world, with man aboard it, from the characteristics of a machine. There are other forms of causality at play in the world aside from man-generated machine causality. There is spirit, and hope, and desire, and creativity, and imagination. These are the forces that drive reality and, under their attrition, even the machine will weaken in its power.
The idea of a ‘necessary’ historical process is unrealistic, says Guardini. What drives this myth is not knowledge, as man claims, but what Guardini calls ‘metaphysical infamy’, which might be another term for the totalitarian impulse. History remains unpredictable, despite man’s best efforts to colonise it, past and future. ‘History starts anew every minute as long as it is constantly determined anew in the freedom of every individual — but also as long as from its creative depths ever new structures and forms of events are born.’
Just as the modern world created a new type of man, so too might the world that succeeds it. Modern man let loose a new form of engagement with the world, by which power, too, took on a new form, separating itself from man, simultaneously enabling and controlling him. The New Man of the post-modern age, says Guardini, could even become the one who brings this feral form of power under control, a man who will have power ‘not only over nature, but also over his own powers’. This New Man would subdue this mutant power and rediscover the true meaning of human existence, becoming the true ‘regent’ who would save the world and its human cargo from going down in violence and chaos. In the coming era, this man would restore the idea of God’s dominion, restoring man to his proper relationships to his Creator and the world.
Guardini described his own conceptualisation of the new world as a ‘utopia’, though not a fantasy of some idealised future, but an imagining of a new spiritual map for man in the world — a map of what ‘should be’ — by which the will of God may be restored to reality and future history. This would be a world in which human sovereignty would express itself in the forms of responsibility and freedom. This does not come naturally to man, who shrinks from both quantities, seeks to disguise his power appetites with benign codes concerning ‘security’, ‘utility’ and ‘the common good’. These quantities, though important, must come second, says Guardini, to putting the ‘greatness of the coming world image first.’
In this hypothesis, one might say, Guardini appears to have been overly optimisitic in his vision of the New Man and the New Age. His first thought has endured better than his second, in which he seemed to see something about to happen that has not happened, at least not yet. Guardini, remember, was writing a decade and a half after the end of WWII. He felt that the kind of human being emerging from that catastrophe might have an awareness of his responsibility to safeguard the world and the species from the consequences of his own inventiveness. But it is now clear that Guardini was gravely mistaken in this. His idea that man was beginning to overcome his tendency towards progress-worship was almost laughably off the mark. He was wrong, too, about man’s emerging sense of responsibility concerning freedom. His idea that love would triumph sounds as hollow now as the beatnik songs that were about to be released as he wrote. His belief in man’s ‘chivalry’ and ‘tenderness’ towards existence raises a sardonic laugh as I write in late 2021. He also believed that the coming man would be ‘un-liberal’, by which he did not mean a man who did not love freedom but one who embraced absolutes. Guardini did not see coming the pandemic of relativism that would be unleashed by the decade soon to begin.
Beyond that, he also postulated the emergence of another kind of New Man, a correction to the Nietzschean concept. The man Guardini saw coming was averse to relativistic notions of let’s-just-all-get-along and live-and-let-live. He would see such attitudes as counterproductive in the face of the existential problem facing humanity. He might be a priest or a farmer or a doctor or an artist or a research scientist. He would be able to see things in fundamental terms: the choices to be made between obedience to God and obedience to human slavemasters; between slavery to the passions and instincts and a deliberately achieved freedom of the mind; between the Truth and an impenetrable fog of lies. He would see through the tricks and illusions that fool men into handing their souls and lives over to the dominion of machines and other man-machines. He would see through the totalitarian colonisation of past and future time, the insinuation of a One Best Way for human beings to live and be. He would be ascetic in his outlook and habits; disciplined, but not in his acquiescence to earthly despotism, rather to the beating heart of his own trained conscience, sense of honour and intellect. He would not be an obvious ‘hero’, doggedly determined and possessed of a fanatic heart, but someone whose courage was born not of recknessness but of a belief in the truth and a surrendering of the heart to its vindication. By adhering to the ethic of humility that lies at the heart of the Christian proposal, he would seek in his life the achievement for all men of what he had achieved for himself: the creation of a world in which human beings might live according to their authentic structural natures, honouring their personal dignity and observing the absolute laws of given reality by taking instruction only from the Creator of that reality. Above all, the New Man would be religious of mind and attitude. The foremost symptom of this condition would be a piety based on obedience to Truth. He would be willing to be guided by revelation of the true nature of events. His piety would reside not in sentimentalism, ritual, or blind faith, still less in ‘psychological interiority’, but in a determined effort to understand reality as God in generating it wished.
My attention was caught by the phraseology of some of the criticisms that emerged in France about the proposed defilement of the cathedral. A prominent French architect Maurice Culot said: ‘It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame.’ What is proposed, he added, ‘would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial, given the grandeur of the place.’ The proposal, he implied in an almost Guardinian way, is also disrespectful to the workmen who will be required to carry out the debasement: ‘When you see the seriousness with which the cathedral is being restored using top craftsmen and first-rate materials, this seems totally inappropriate.’
In Holy Week 2019, just after the fire, I drafted an article about the destruction of the cathedral, which I now realise was too affected by anti-virals to pass muster with even the most indulgent editor. This part is about the most salvageable:
‘There is no point in embracing the imagined grief of a people from whom the essential meaning of Notre-Dame has been taken. If Macron needs to rebuild Notre Dame, he needs also to start to help rebuild the structure of the civilisation of which Notre-Dame was but the crowning glory. He, like the rest of Europe’s population, needs to hear the ‘Wake-up!’ beyond the roaring of the flames and the keening of fire engines: Do we want this civilisation or do we want to pretend to want it? Do we want the flesh and blood heart of Christ or the husks of long-dead perceptions? Do we want the fruit or are we content with the peel? If merely the latter, I say: ‘Let it burn!’ For why should the French people — or any people — care what happens to a building that has for the official culture of France become no more than an iconic fossil to be paraded as a beautiful relic of a ‘deluded’ past, trampled over and photographed like some aging diva whose voice has seized up?’
Unless we acknowledge the absolute source and nature of Beauty, it is pointless acknowledging it at all, for minus its absolute resonance it has no meaning beyond theories of the humanly constructed order of human reality, and is thus a fiction.
Beauty only seems to be gratuitous. Of its essence it is a sign that resonates with the human appetite for a Beauty so intense that it has not been — cannot be —imagined, Beauty is not even merely ‘about God’: Beauty IS God.
Our culture’s attitude to religion, as evidenced by the Notre-Dame debacle, is a mixture of neurosis and condescension. We miss something but do not understand what it might be, and secretly imagine that its absence represents some kind of improvement. This loss of understanding has driven us back towards darkness. This, at bottom, is the meaning of the sullying of Notre-Dame, itself a parable of the condition of man in the third millennium. It is an example and a symbol of, as diagnosed by Romano Guardini, man’s imposition of his own ‘designs’ on the world, an expression of his ‘non-human humanity’. It is not that he no longer sees or recognises Beauty — it is much worse than that: He sees it, recognises it and then seeks to create something ‘better’, by moving in the opposite direction, by undoing, unsaying, uncreating. What he ‘creates’ is usually unmitigated ugliness.
The Church of Woke is already dead. We surely recognise the rigor mortis in the phony reverence of the ‘emotional space’? Perhaps not: We seek change out of frenetic, directionless restlessness, and insist on calling it progress. We have lost the key of life but think it’s that we are not ‘free’ enough, misunderstanding the meaning of freedom but ploughing on to the next disaster born of do-what-thy-wilt. We hand our true freedoms away as though they were ours to jettison, as though they belonged to us like furniture and were not eternal gifts borrowed from posterity. In losing our sense of wonder, worship, veneration, honour, we imagine ourselves more rational, realistic, pragmatic, when in reality we are as children who, having briefly and mischievously shaken off their parents in the carnival crowd, now cried out in vain and scanned the mob with increasing desperation for a face they might recognise.