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Columnists

Evolving spirituality

Agnostics Anonymous

AA.jpgEverybody has surely heard enough for one year about Darwin and God. 2009 has already seen innumerable revisitings of the great clash of science and faith. But what seems to be neglected in all of these is the condition of Christianity in England prior to Darwin conceiving the theory of natural selection. A little historical perspective would show that before Darwin even boarded the Beagle, huge upheavals in the spiritual consciousness of the people of the Victorian Age were already underway.

In those years, the citadel of Christian belief was culturally besieged: undermined by geological discoveries that pushed the age of the earth back into unimagined depths of antiquity, battered by the Enlightenment's moral critique of the church, starved of the comforting belief in its own unique significance by the increasing knowledge of Chinese and Indian religion, evolution was only the final breach in the walls. Christianity, to thinking people, had already begun to seem inadequate: historically irrelevant, morally ugly, geographically provincial. 19th-century intellectuals knew they had outgrown their faith, and that they had to move beyond its limitations.
Hegel's philosophy anticipated the replacement of traditional religion by 'secular spirituality.' Carlyle, Ruskin, Eliot, and Matthew Arnold, among others, invested great efforts to forge just such a faith, preserving the moral and spiritual core of their Christian inheritance in an age where the doctrines had ceased to be credible.

Back in 2009 this struggle seems to have availed nought. We still seem stuck between Richard Dawkins and unreconstructed Christianity. These two ignorant armies seem happy to continue clashing on the darkling plain. In fact, both sides seem to have a vested interest in keeping debate polarised.
For Dawkins, the disputes are akin to the confrontation of Galileo and the Catholic Church, a battle in which truth confronts bigotry. Christians can rejoice in such an opponent. He argues for a frigid ideal of science, exultantly empty of human meaning, as the only alternative to religion. By his own logic, those who recoil from this should head back to the faithful fold.

There's no doubt that people crave meaning and spirituality in their lives; but it's dispiriting that the church can still represent itself as the only source of such meaning more than two centuries after Christianity started to die of natural causes. As the Victorians understood even before Darwin, the modern world needs a wiser, broader faith. Hegel's 'secular spirituality' hasn't yet evolved, but the effort to realise it is our only way out of our current position, stuck between two worlds, 'one dead, the other powerless to be born.'