Friday, December 2, 2011

Anyone for Postmodernism and New Age Spirituality?

In a (very fine) article in this week's Irish Catholic, Father Pat Collins writes: "I have found that a growing number of people don't even believe in Heaven or Hell. As faith has weakened in these and other ways, many Catholics have adopted New Age and occult beliefs and practices".

I don't doubt Father Collins's pastoral experience, and I note he mentions "many Catholics" specifically, rather than "many people" in general. But the passing reference reminded me how frequently, in articles by Catholics, "New Age spiritualities" and "neopaganism" are mentioned as rivals to Christian faith. They are often reeled out in a list of contemporary rivals to the Faith, one which also tends to mention postmodernism and pluralism.

I often wonder if we are fooling ourselves about these things. Of course, we all know that there are neopagans and Wiccans out there, just as there are postmodernists and people who believe that all religions are different stained glass windows through which the same divine sunlight shines.

But I think these elements are, to be blunt, insignificant-- both in quality and quantity. How many pagans do you know? How many people do you know who would even use the term "postmodern", except ironically? How many dabblers in different world religions? Very few, I imagine.

Now, how many people do you know who-- either vocally or implicitly-- treat all religious belief, all spiritual assumptions, as so much baloney?

I may be wrong, of course, and perhaps I'm simply reading my own preoccupations into the world around me. But I really do doubt the importance of these supposed opponents. I am a Chesterton fanatic, and of course I think there is truth in the aphorism so often attributed to Chesterton (though it doesn't appear to actually occur in his works), "When people stop believing in god, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". Rightly understood, I think that is bang on the money. But typically-- in our age at least-- the false idols they flee to are not spiritual or religious in nature, at least not ostensibly. They nearly always claim to be the purest rationalism; to be stoutly scientific, as did psychoanalysis and Marxism and libertarianism. In other words, the believers would themselves be unlikely to use the term "believe". In their own minds, they have jettisoned faith for evidence and cool, calm evaluation.

I think of the words of C.S. Lewis:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, 'Would that she were.' For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man.

I believe Christians like the idea of New Age Spirituality, because it's an easier target, and it seems more congenial. We like the idea of postmodernism, because it's so obviously nonsensical, so quickly "desconstructed"-- even something of a straw man. These antagonists, I think, are a little like the nobodies that would be so often thrown into the ring with Hulk Hogan and other WWF stars.

When it comes to the struggle for souls, I fear the real rivals to the Faith are much more formidable and much more hostile. At the moment, bestriding the Western world like a collosus, is philosophical materialism, which tends to be attended by libertarianism and scientism. Its assumptions are utterly different to those of the Catholic religion; there is little for the Catholic to grab hold of, so to speak. If the materialist believes in human equality, we can ask him where he gets his belief from. But many materialist and scientistically-minded people do not believe in human equality, or believe in it simply as a legal fiction. If they believe the cosmos is intelligible, we can ask them why that should be so, but this seems like an obscure point of metaphysical wrangling to most people. If they believe in morality, this is also an Achilles heel. But many philosophical materialists don't believe in morality, at least not in any meaningful way. They might think it's nice to be nice, they might even be willing to die for the things they care about, but they would deny that moral principles are anything but a human construct.

To be sure, most philosophical materialists wouldn't use that term for themselves. They are simply the increasing number of people who don't believe (they claim) in anything; who believe in "science", or "rationality", or "the modern world".

Of course, looming on the horizon like a stormcloud are the ever-strengthening forces of Islam, which I fear will use the weapons of demographics and fanaticism rather than ideas. (I am rather surprised that Islam has not begun to win Western converts in any great numbers; surely it is only a matter of time, given Europe's current state of spiritual limbo?) Beyond that, I sometimes fancy that the Mormons will be the great twenty-first century rival of the Catholic Church. But I admit that is speculation.

If only we really did have pagans and postmodernists to worry about!


  1. The problem I would think is that philosophical materialism is what it is and makes no bones about it. New Age and pantheism seem more "spiritual" but they tend to end up in the same place -seeing oneself as God and proclaiming "non serviam". Chesterton is quite good on this - and CS Lewis's warning about the "Materialist Magician" who does not realise what he has become is also pretty apposite.

  2. Well, I just think that all the New Age stuff is a half-way house-- either towards the Church (or some established faith) or towards out-and-out atheism. Maybe I just haven't met enough pagans though!

    I don't recognise the "materialist magician" reference-- which Lewis book is it in? It sounds very interesting!

  3. It's in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS- Screwtape says the ideal for the devils would be to produce people who will worship them without realising that they are in fact supernatural beings, and cites George Bernard Shaw's belief in the Life-Force as an example. The same idea underlies Weston's deterioration in VOYAGE TO VENUS which results from dabbling in spiritualism (as compared to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET where he is a morally obtuse atheist but possesses genuine virtues) and the activities of the scientists in THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH who believe they have got in touch with superior beings called "macrobes" without realising what these beings actually are. In his pre-Christian days Lewis had some very nasty experiences with acquaintances who went in for seances and so forth, and this made him very aware of the dangers of occultism (all the more so because his Platonism made him somewhat susceptible to such temptations.

  4. Excellent post friend! I think you are correct that the pagans and post-moderns aren't much of a threat in the sense of being some unified or identifiable foe, but perhaps those terms do describe general (lazily attained) sentiments of a large population.

    That is to say that I think that the greatest 'threat' to Christendom doesn't come from militant pagans or militant post-moderns or even militant atheists or Muslims. It seems to me that the demise of man is likely to be found in the vast majority of folks who are too lazy to believe anything, and yet are lazily influenced by the pop-attraction of pagan and post-modern ideas.

    It's more a 'drift' than a 'drive' that worries me.

  5. Thank you, sir!

    I see your point and you may well be right, but I wonder if the decisive force in any era are the people who DO have drive and convictions? Just like it was the Puritans who drove the English Cvil War, even though they were a minority, and the Bolsheviks who grabbed the moment during the Russian Revolution. Of course, both those examples are from the realm of politics, which does not represent the totality of human life.