Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Pentecost (or Whistun) Homily by Peter Hitchens

Read it here. It's eloquent and from the heart and it gives plenty of think about.

I'm honestly not sure what to make about the kind of cultural Christianity to which Hitchens so often, and so nostalgically, refers:

Tomorrow would have been a holiday, and not just tomorrow. The big industrial towns would have held what they called ‘Whit Weeks’, when mines and factories would shut completely. It was the time of year when the poor would traditionally buy new clothes. Christenings and weddings (with much wearing of white, hence ‘Whitsun’) were especially common, which is why there were Whitsun Weddings for Philip Larkin (I’m coming to him) to write about.

I feel the same kind of nostalgia for Irish Catholicism (and, to a lesser extent, for English Anglicanism). I feel it intensely, sometimes overwhelmingly.

I can remember, many years ago, when I was still an unbeliever and would remain one for many years, walking down Grafton Street at Christmas time and hearing, drifting from a shop, the voice Frank Sinatra singing the words: "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel." At that moment it occurred to me that Ireland had once been a Christian country, that within my own lifetime we had gone from a situation where any given group of people would be likely to contain a majority who accepted the Christian revelation (and where those who did not accept it were at least respectful of it) to one where no such assumption could be made. The sudden sense of loss was devastating.

There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, but in the case of nostalgia for a Christian society I think it's important to distinguish between simple nostalgia-- the kind of nostalgia everybody feels for a collective past, and especially for the festivals and traditions and ceremonies of that past-- and recognition of what was uniquely Christian in that past. I think there is certainly an argument to be made that Christian societies have a specific character which makes them special and admirable-- what comes immediately to my own mind is the importance put upon humility and forgiveness.

Everybody accepts those two values in general, but when it comes to the crunch (to use a cliché I like) it often takes a prior commitment to Christianity to stay true to them, or even to try to stay true to them. At least, it does in my case. I have a very strong propensity to feel scorn for those who antagonise me, or who embarrass me, or who I fear will embarrass me. (For instance, I remember feeling murderous anger towards one particular woman because of the ridiculous and undignified faces she would pull all day long. I was embarrassed for her.) When I was younger (and only a little younger), I would revel in indulging the most vicious thoughts about such people, as a kind of mental revenge for being embarrassed. I still catch myself doing this all the time, but the point is that I catch myself.

I've said this before, but one of the losses of a post-Christian society, I think, is that the concept of a 'loser' becomes more easily bandied about. The basic assumption of a Christian society is that every human being has infinite value, being made in the image of God. The descent from that to a kind of hazy, conditional social solidarity seems, to me, enormous.

Of course, the Christian character of a society is not simply to be seen in the behavior of its members. It's a mood as well, a mood that (surely) has tangible effects. Christmas carols, for instance, have a unique atmosphere. The idea of God becoming the child of a poor family gives a unique flavor to the festival that celebrates that event.

There are other interesting points in the sermon. Mr. Hitchens once more laments the loss of the King James Bible and its replacement by more prosaic translations. I would have wholeheartedly agreed with this even two or three years ago. But since I started reading the Bible on a more regular basis, and trying to use it, I find that it is better to have a Bible in contemporary English. Trying to make a book written in archaic English a part of your everyday life is mentally exhausting. And besides, the writers of the Gospels were not literary geniuses and apparently the original Greek is so idiomatic and so awkward that translators have never dared to render it word-for-word.

Hitchens's final reflection is, to be blunt, bizarre: "I’d add that this, our Church of England, in its modesty and reasonableness, its unmilitant poetic vagueness, what Larkin didn’t quite call ‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to proclaim we never die’, seems to me to offer the best answer available to the certain fury of the atheist and the worldly utopian."

How is it possible to believe this? It seems to an outside observer like me, one who is by no means unsympathetic to the Church of England, that it is suffering an ignominious and undignified rout, and has been for some decades. When it comes to religion, is modesty really reasonable? Or does an institution that claims to possess a Revelation from God all the better for being audacious and, upon essentials, uncompromising?


  1. I found the sermon very moving, as well. I'd agree with what you say about nostalgia (in particular). It is strong enough to overcome all kinds of barriers and gulfs. The films of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, who filmed ordinary people in northern England at the turn of the 20th century, are some of my favourite films (though they probably don't count for your recent article!). There is one of a congregation leaving church in 1902 (in Hull in fact), and notwithstanding the visible pride, severity and hardship in the film, and the century between the age it records and ours, it is plain as day to see what they shared and held dear and what modern British people do not - and I think you can see the two kinds of sources of nostalgia in the film, the cultural past and the lost religious consciousness.

    Here is the film. Sorry about the long address. I hope it can be viewed from Ireland.

    1. Yes, it can! Thanks for that. Watching it brought to mind Orwell's observation that, when he was a boy, a man risked having a stone thrown at him in the street if he was not wearing a hat.

      Kenyon and Mitchell actually did some filming in Ireland, though the footage was lost for ages. I bought a DVD of it some years back. I kind of regretted the purchase because it was expensive and, after the first fifteen minutes or so, it quickly palled. But it had similar scenes of people leaving Mass and in Ireland it was even busier-- in fact, all you could see were heads.

      And on the Hessle road, too! For some reason, I find that a very poetic street name. During my five-day sojourn in Hull, I saw a book by a local author entitled "Goodbye Hessle Road", which has very much stuck in my mind. I think all titles that begin with the word 'Hello' are very poignant, and the street name only added to it.

  2. I also wonder whether Peter Hitchens doesn't actually have a point of sorts here. I think he means that modesty and reasonableness, even in the face of provocation and mockery, ought to disarm the forthright atheist, and slow him down until he is sober enough to consider human nature's weight and complexity. He wants the atheist to realise that he is not in fact being burnt at the stake, ridiculed from the pulpit, cast out, and so on, and then to realise his mistake...

    It's true that Hitchens usually gives his readers such a superbly strong brew himself that it seems quite self-contradicting. But I think it's the 'certain fury' of the atheists, and their man-made doctrine, that he wants to run into the sand. I suppose he is suspicious of doctrine in general - as we would be, if the doctrines we accept were not in fact Catholic, trustworthy and God-given (and each of these three things because of the others).

  3. Well, I'm not sure what to think of that, though. The kind of atheists he is talking about tend to be, to put it bluntly, spoiling for a fight, and I don't think modesty and reasonableness are going to disarm them. I agree with Edward Feser that polemical force sometimes has to be met with polemical force.

    But I actually suspect the reason and modesty he is talking about is the (to be, once again, blunt) the fuzziness and vagueness of the Church of England's doctrine.