Short book review: God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization by A.N. Wilson

Wilson’s book is a tour de force of the unraveling of bourgeois Christianity in the English speaking world during the Victorian Era. He guides us through the minds of the great believers-at-all-costs and unbelievers, including both the at-all-costs and the because-I-must types, with skill, wit, and precision. In his own sympathy for the various figures of this period, he leads us to sympathize with the plight of those who wouldn’t and those who couldn’t believe. This sympathy, in turn, leads us to a great understanding of our own modern situation as we fall in at the tail end of the dismantling of bourgeois Christianity.

In spite of the excellence of this book, however, I have two complaints to lodge against it and its author. The first: as I mentioned twice in the preceding paragraph, this is a book about bourgeois Christianity and about those members of the bourgeoisie (and, yes, that includes Karl Marx) who came to disbelieve in it, and came to disbelieve in it largely because both it and they were (and are) bourgeois. What might have been a great credit to this book, or perhaps to another study as it might not have fit in this book, is the effect that, for example, Darwin’s and Lyell’s theories or perhaps the biblical criticism a la the Tubingen School had upon believers of other classes in society and castes of mind.

The other complaint is that A.N. Wilson seems himself to advocate a form of Christianity that is no-Christianity at all; while complaining – rightly – about the watered-down pseudo-religiosity of the Deists, Wilson seems very close to their ideas, especially in the conclusion of his book. Whether that is the effect he intended, I do not know, but it is the impression I received. A Christianity without the Resurrection, with a God who intervenes directly and is/can be experienced by mystics and saints, etc. – that is, a Christianity without passion, asceticism, and zeal — is not Christianity at all.

The usual notion of prayer is so absurd

The usual notion of prayer is so absurd. How can those who know nothing about it, who pray little or not at all, dare speak so frivolously of prayer? A Carthusian, a Trappist will work for years to make of himself a man of prayer, and then any fool who comes along sets himself up as judge of this lifelong effort. If it were really what they suppose, a kind of chatter, the dialogue of a madman with his shadow, or even less — a vain and superstitious sort of petition to be given the good things of this world, how could innumerable people find until their dying day, I won’t even say such great “comfort” — since they put no faith in the solace of the senses — but sheer, robust, vigorous, abundant joy in prayer? Oh, of course “suggestion,” say the scientists. Certainly they can never have known old monks, wise, shrewd, unerring in judgment, and yet aglow with passionate insight, so very tender in their humanity. What miracle enables these semi-lunatics, these prisoners of their own dreams, these sleepwalkers, apparently to enter more deeply each day into the pain of others? An odd sort of dream, an unusual opiate which, far from turning him back into himself and isolating him from his fellows, unites the individual with mankind in the spirit of universal charity!

This seems a very daring comparison. I apologize for having advanced it, yet perhaps it might satisfy many people who find it hard to think for themselves, unless the thought has first been jolted by some unexpected, surprising image. Could a sane man set himself up as a judge of music because he has sometimes touched the keyboard with the tips of his fingers? And surely if a Bach fugue, a Beethoven symphony leave him cold, if he has to content himself with watching on the face of another listener the reflected pleasure of supreme, inaccessible delight, such a man has only himself to blame.

But alas! We take the psychiatrists’ word for it. The unanimous testimony of saints is held as of little or no account. They all affirm that this kind of deepening of the spirit is unlike any other experience, that instead of showing us more and more of our own complexity it ends in sudden total illumination, opening out upon azure light — they can be dismissed with a few shrugs. Yet when has any man of prayer told us that prayer had failed him?

Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest

More than a dog

For a long time during those frightful years [of the Holocaust and World War II] I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation when faced with force. It seems that that voice did speak up. But I assure you that millions of men like me did not hear it and that at that time believers and unbelievers alike shared a solitude that continued to spread as the days went by and the executioners multiplied.

It has been explained to me since that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not at all clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood! Who could fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case and to see that this example by itself gives part of the reply, perhaps the whole reply, that you ask of me. What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. When a Spanish bishop blesses political executions, he ceases to be a bishop or a Christian or even a man; he is a dog just like one who, backed by an ideology, orders that execution without doing the dirty work himself. We are still waiting, and I am waiting, for a grouping of all those who refuse to be dogs and are resolved to pay the price that must be paid so that man can be something more than a dog.

Albert Camus, “The Unbeliever,” in Jaroslav Pelikan (ed.), The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought