One of Jessica’s reflections on Arnold’s Dover Beach, came to mind as I pondered yesterday’s post and some of the responses to it. If you follow the link you will find the full text of the poem, in which the poet responds to the ebbing of the ‘sea of faith’ with the reflection that the lovers should cling to each other, as that was all they could know to be true in a society where the certainties were fading away. She suggested that there might have been a spot of self-indulgence in the attachment to despair. That may well be how it might strike a younger person, but to an older one, it seems a realistic enough reaction to an otherwise intolerable situation. She also mentioned Larkin’s line from An Arundel Tomb that ‘what will survive of us is love’. Larkin, of course, calls this an ‘almost true’ ‘almost instinct’. hinting at the difficulty the modern sensibility has with something that looks like a sincere expression of deep emotion; there seems to need to be at least some nod toward the direction of a knowing cynicism. That, too, is part of the modern malaise. In losing God we lose also that sense that we are loved, loved unconditionally, and that we have a unique value simply by being who we are. In losing that, in losing God, we lose an anchor which holds us to a place our ancestors would have recognised, but which is increasingly foreign to us.
We are not ‘alone’ as on a darkling plain, we are children of the living God, and as such we are part of a relationship, even as the Trinity is a relationship between its three persons; as it is characterised by mutual love, then so, too, should our fellowship with each other. Christ the Word became Incarnate, thus honouring our flesh; we are not simply creatures of spirit, we are material beings, and the material world in which we live, not least its local manifestations such as our churches and homes and communities, matter to us; they help nurture and support us, and we do the same to them. Traditional religion has contributed immensely to social cohesion and our sense of justice; indeed it has helped define our society and our laws; it helps locate us where we are, and, at the same time, to connect us to the transcendent. Catholic social teaching has much in it from which a society lost in materialism could still learn. The social order cannot, or should not at any rate, be reduced to a set of market transactions; culture is not simply a commodity to be traded at whatever price can be had for its material artefacts. If there is no more to the world than secular materialism, then there really is not that much purpose to life beyond eating, drinking and being merry, because tomorrow we die. But not can eat and drink, and many cannot be merry, and so what purpose did their lives serve? Down that road lies an instrumentalisation of the human person, where it seems quite ‘normal’ to celebrate the ability of one person to exercise their ‘freedom’ to realise their ‘happiness’ at the cost of a a human life in the womb, and where to argue over what everyone used to call a ‘baby’ seems wisdom rather than folly.
Is democracy simply a means to the end of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or has it some more moral purpose? Even to ask such a question in a society which lacks a common morality (or at least in which this is increasingly so) is to realise how far we have come from ‘Dover Beach’.