We have lost the big Christian thinkers in our present age. The W.H. Auden’s, Eliot’s, Bonhoeffer’s, and Kierkegaard’s are no longer amongst us. It might be fair to draw a line of comparison between them as it relates to their confrontation with and critical take on modernity, and more particularly, on modernity’s capacity to quelch the spirit and draw a, steady erosion of inwardness (Eliot would have said “spiritual depth”) resulting from the omnipresence of commercial messages (the “nightmare” of “advertisement”) and electronic media.
Kierkegaard’s indictement of western secularism in The Present Age, was written in 1864, but in many ways it is even more relevant now. In it, he argues that the primary problem of modernism is the loss of inwardness. His argument is somewhat circular, but inteesting because ot relies neither on Orthodox Christianity, nor on metaphysics. He argues that:
‘In ancient times only an individual here and there knew the truth; now all know it, but the inwardness of its appropriation stands in an inverse relationship to the extent of its dissemination.'” Ultimately the individual himself disappears, swallowed up in the public.
To Kierkegaard, “the abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything.” This inwardness, whose fateful disappearance Kierkegaard is prophesying is for him the only true form of life. Neither the existence of God nor any other important truth can be known with absolute certainty.
If we go inside ourselves and remain there, we will eventually be confronted, out of our own depths, with choices, decisions, ultimate questions, which can only be resolved by an act, a leap of faith. “An objective uncertainty held fast [with] the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.” To grasp the necessity of this existential decision, or leap of faith, is to live in what Kierkegaard called “fear and trembling” and what he meant by the “consciousness of sin.”
The present age distracts us from this terrifying but soul-creating awareness. Getting and spending, texting and twitting, we lay waste our spirits. Amid this carnival of stimuli, the soul, that dense kernel of spiritual gravity, evaporates, leaving behind a light ontological froth.
Eliot, who also sought to revolt against the present age on grounds that it was unable to promote inwwardness and authentic spirituality, remained, (similar to Kierkegaard) very committed to tradition. He belived that in the modern age which is full of “programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism, and revolutions,” of “cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness,” what really matters is “Sin and Redemption.” and perceived that “the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform, and dress reform … that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation – of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living.”
The most powerful passage of Eliot on the topic is one written in one of his letters, where he delineates religion in its true sense as a kind of confrontation of a terrifying real:
To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert.
To me, the phrase “to be damned for the glory of God” is sense and not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.
And I don’t know whether this is to be labeled “Classicism” or “Romanticism”; I only think that I have hold of the tip of the tail of something quite real, more real than morals, or than sweetness and light and culture.