I have tried several times on this blog to express political views, and – as would be expected – they were not always well received. I came from a Tory-voting family, but one with moderate and tolerant views. You don’t get owt for nowt we say up north. We are not entitled to anything in life but we have to earn it. It is a simple philosophy of life, one in which we take pride in ourselves and our own achievements. We have the idea in our minds of a craftsman who built up his little business and takes great pride in doing an excellent job for a fair price. The same principle applies to the craftsman as to a teacher or a doctor. So far, great, but then comes the idea of larger and larger businesses and employees not getting a fair wage or safe working conditions. This problem dominated the era of the Industrial Revolution and the nineteenth century, and up to our own times in both manufacturing and services.
As I went through university and seminary, I came across Catholic social teaching from Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI and the attempt to defuse the tensions between international and national socialists in the 1920’s and 30’s. There was an attempt to revive ideals of medieval corporations and workers owning the means of production, and these notions were highly seductive. However, in the traditionalist Roman Catholic milieux in which I found myself, there was always the totalitarian temptation, the restoration of Christendom by taking away man’s freedom by means of military dictators. This would be one interpretation of the notion of Pius XI in Quas primas on Christ the King. I believe that this idea of Christ the King came about to soften and dilute the nefarious influence of ideologies like Fascism and Nazism in which the human person could be totally crushed by the needs of the all-powerful State. From there, certain right-wing Catholics would make of Christ an absolute monarch, and therefore these powers would be conferred on the institutional Church and enforced by a Catholic caudillo like Franco or Pinochet, or any number of two-bit military dictators in South America.
Since I returned to Anglicanism, I reverted to my old sympathies for the world view of Romanticism and German Idealism, of so-called Modernists like George Tyrrell – and a more social-democratic view of social teaching. The events in England since 2016, which I did not take very seriously until last October, have been something of a process of catharsis in me. This change in me coincides also with a notion of Gnosis I encountered in Russian philosophers like Berdyaev and Soloviev when I was at university. My neurological condition of high-functioning autism or Aspergers Syndrome gave me an extreme degree of emotional empathy and the ability to see the hollow and corrupt sociopathy (or its influence) of a large proportion of humanity. From trusting people almost without condition, I found myself in a very cold and hostile world about as supportive of life and freedom as outer space or one of the outer planets of our solar system. What would that do to my faith in God, let alone humanity? It was by will that I refused to believe that most of us could be so horrible, but that many of us can get manipulated by those who are truly corrupt.
I am English and lived in that country until I was twenty-three, the time when I set off for France seeking my own unicorns and the ever-elusive paradise. Aspergers makes aliens of us, travellers and pilgrims who never find our rest – until we come to terms with things and make a compromise. My mother died six years ago, and with her earthly life went the last fragments of my childhood. I see the last illusions of a heavenly destiny of England and the other nations of the UK being sold to rapacious billionaires and returning to a new form of feudalism. We seem to be moving to a time of evil and darkness. In what form? It is impossible to say with any clarity.
At this point, I find myself at one with Thomas Mann and Nikolai Berdyaev as they faced the black heart of Hitler’s empire. The darkness is not in something with an identifiable appearance or some buffoon shouting at the crowds, but a state of mind, a kind of personality in individuals and collectives. This is something I have seen on videos, the callous disregard and indifference of politicians whose job would normally be the common good, the winner take all attitude. What Mann and Berdyaev taught us is that there is a nobility or aristocracy of spirit that comes from the divinity within and man’s transfiguration. In Europe, including my native country which I see as part of Europe, I have seen too many great glories of art, science and philosophy. If men and women like Bach, Göthe, Böhme, Michelangelo, Novalis, Kant, Beethoven, Wollestoncraft, Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman and so many others brought such beauty to our world, then there is a humanity capable of redeeming the rest of us in such need of restoration and rebuilding. Much of this humanism came from the Renaissance, but also from antiquity and pre-Christian spiritual traditions.
Berdyaev had a fairly original view of history, with the idea that we had reached the end of Renaissance humanism, and that modernity would bring us to a new middle-ages via a period of purgation and darkness. We find these ideas in German mysticism, Jakob Böhme in particular, who attempted an original theory to explain evil and the role of freedom. Redemption in Christ is impossible without freedom, but the institutional Church has tried so many times to take it away from us. Light is only light as it contrasts from darkness. Böhme left us with a meaning of darkness, the night and the Ungrund (ground without a ground) of chaos. It is the history of man that provides a source of light. Berdyaev also wrote at length about a new middle ages, certainly the key to understanding Von Herdenberg’s Christenheit oder Europa. His notion of evil to some extent reflects the “shadow” of C.G. Jung, an aspect not to be eliminated but integrated into the good. Evil is overcome from within by knowledge of the deepest self. St John made plentiful use of the metaphors of light and darkness, day and night. This understanding of the mystery of evil will give us context for the symbols of darkness and the night. They are not merely metaphors of good and evil, but rather reason and mystical union with the God within.
The meaning of night and darkness is vital. As St Paul said “We see through a glass darkly“. Night is a symbol of sleep and death, but also of resurrection, a source of love and the ascetic life. I look out of my window and see the Stygian gloom of night, and I write this article whilst listening to Rachmaninov’s setting of Byzantine Vespers. I feel the Russian spirit acutely, something shared with the German spirit of Novalis, Göthe, Schelling and so many others from that era, with our own William Blake. This is knowledge of the divine spark within. Through the love and hope Christ brings us, man can become creative in art, which becomes a prophetic expression. Only this inspiration can enable Europe to emerge from nihilism. The Ungrund touches one of the most unfathomable mysteries of Christianity. The notion is one of a bottomless abyss, dark and irrational, a basis for the infinite in the finite. It is also a kind of primitive freedom, a blazing fire in the darkness. Freedom is contrary to nature, but nature came from freedom. This freedom is not light or darkness, good or evil, but lies in darkness and yearns for the light. Here we find the root of the Romantic Sehnsucht, this freedom that gives light. This is the context in which we will understand something of Von Hardenberg’s Hymnen an die Nacht (1897 translation of George MacDonald) that paean of darkness and longing for eternity. These poems are an expression of grief for the death of his beloved Sophie, but there is another layer of interpretation and meaning
Berdyaev’s notion of the middle ages is not the historical period we call by that name. It is characterised by asceticism and the struggle against the base nature that enslaves us. However, its mission was far from perfect because it involved dominance and constraint. The humanism of the Renaissance rebelled against the old theocracy and affirmed an optimistic view of man. Humanism affirmed nature and antique paganism. The Reformation sought to restore freedom from ecclesiastical constraint, but not in respect to God. The Enlightenment extolled human reason, but denied mystery and humanity. The French Revolution sought to affirm freedom and human rights, but took them all away under the tyranny of Robespierre. Berdyaev’s view of Romanticism was somewhat limited, seeing it as promoting man’s imaginative and spiritual resources but stopping short of his destiny. He saw our age (early twentieth century) as a new barbarism manifested by Soviet Communism, Nazism and the total war. Man becomes no more than a machine for the use of the rich and powerful. Art is destroyed and culture means something we cannot relate to.
It may be that England’s destiny is penance, a long and hard ascetic night in which freedom and hope will be rediscovered. Maybe something great lies down the road in a totally different perspective than that of politics. A vision such as that of Novalis of a new Christendom in an England of misery and the images conveyed by William Blake seems unlikely. What has been experienced a posteriori will remain, and innocence is gone forever. Our shattered country is one of bestial competition and deceit. We must take a leaf out of the book of the old Gnostic tradition within Christianity: look within ourselves rather than from without, find the object of our yearning in the inner light or the imago Dei.
We often look outside ourselves for beauty, hope, love and light, but the light is within, not to be found anywhere else. We alone as persons can bring about that new light. We find an analogy of this light in history, and this is why we look for it in time, why we connect it with our sense of destiny and purpose. This term of light is also an analogy for spirit or spirituality. Spirituality is not that narrow idea of retreating into a comfortable inner world from the suffering of this world but blossoming or opening out of what is prophetic and mystical within us. We turn to something which is new, exciting and challenging the status quo. Another way of expressing this notion is aristocracy or nobility of spirit. Many would bring about converging ideas like a new age, a point of hope beyond the present cave of shadows. This theme is found in several historical movements of thought, not only in Romanticism but also in much older tendencies like Gnosticism which was too easily written off as a heresy by the Church.
We look to a higher consciousness and reality. In this quest, it is a temptation to sin by pride. However, humility is truth, not unjust abasement. It is present in any person who is deeply shocked by man’s inhumanity to man. Such inhumanity is not only expressed by torture and killing like in the case of totalitarian regimes and criminals, but also by high ideas that become banal, cheapened or perverted. This inspiration is also known as the life of the mind, but something beyond intellectual learning. It is what keeps us distinct from barbarism and from our reptilian and animal instincts. Human history is full of this value of humanism against which the evil forces of this world fight.
I have been particularly uplifted by Rob Riemen’s book Nobility of Spirit. This slim tome has no need of being rewritten, but there are elements in it that need to be expanded and correlated with thoughts that are already present in the minds of the Romantics and men of the same line of thought to the present day.
Thomas Mann was profoundly shocked in his native land by the way any thinkers and artists allied themselves with the Nazi regime. The way education, politics and “culture” have been democratised go against the notion of nobility of spirit, coined by Walt Whitman. There is a notion of excellence which is accessible only to very few. Only thus can there be freedom and a quest for love, truth, beauty and goodness. I will also add that it is the condition of true liberalism, of law confirming the highest freedom guided by virtue and rectitude.
As goes England and the United Kingdom, so goes Europe. The European Union is not Europe, but is an economic entity which seems to have only a passing interest in humanism. The Belgian EU politician Guy Verhofstadt is one of the rare personalities who thinks outside the box of money and power. I often look at his column on Facebook in which he expresses notions of freedom, human rights and peace as being of highest priority. Europe itself, in its diversity of languages and cultures, became the mother of humanism and civilisation. It inspired those who fought for justice and truth against the all-powerful tyranny of money, power and stupidity. Humanism is largely the fruit of the Christian way. Christianity was very severely corrupted by its contact with secular power, but it continued to bring a world view of compassion and pity, of love and mercy. Humanism brought the optimism of the ancient world.
With the bitter experience of Brexit, it is my hope and prayer that we in Europe can devote ourselves to promoting our long tradition of culture and philosophy, the true role of Christianity and other spiritual traditions. We need to rediscover the influence of Christianity on the ancient Roman Empire, but also the heritage of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. I would like to see a renaissance of schools and universities, the renewal of the old German notion of Bildung, a philosophy of education aimed at giving students moral awareness and above all a critical mind, going back to ancient Greece. Without such a liberal education, such as I myself experienced at Fribourg in the 1980’s, democracy is impossible and civilisation collapses. I discovered the infinite distance between university Bildung and indoctrination in seminaries! My time as a “convert” to a certain type of Catholicism was at an end.
We need to understand current events through philosophy, a balanced notion of epistemology and founded truth, the art of logic and debate. English public schoolboys are taught the art of debate, but one wouldn’t believe it seeing the shambles in the House of Commons with the embattled Speaker, John Bercow crying Order! Order! and trying to teach people these simple rules of respect and courtesy. We need to learn from diversity, Christians in dialogue with Muslims, Hindus and everyone present in our continent, right-wingers with left-wingers, even with the wealth of the rest of the world.
I believe that the light will prevail, and that we will not lapse into the conditions in the 1930’s that brought Hitler to power. Our identity is cultural and spiritual, steeped in the ages of Christendom and the Renaissance, tempered by the Enlightenment and Romanticism. There is a vital interplay between faith, knowledge, reason and heart that makes the whole Mensch. This is my inspiration and vocation as a Christian priest and ordinary guy living in France.
I wish you all a holy feast of Candlemas.
 Rob Riemen, Nobility of Spirit, a forgotten ideal, Yale 2008.