It is as well to admit when your enemies are onto something. Today the antagonists of Western culture and civilisation throw many accusations at us — almost all of them untrue. They say that our history has been especially cruel, whereas it has been no crueller than any other and significantly less cruel than most. They claim that we act only for ourselves, whereas it is doubtful if any society in history has been so unwilling to defend its own or more ready to assume the opinions, and fill the pockets, of its detractors.
But on one single thing it is possible that our critics are on to something. They do not identify it well, and when they do identify it they prescribe the worst possible remedies. But it remains a problem worth identifying, not least in order to raise ourselves to answers.
The problem is one that is easier to notice and feel than it is to prove, but I would suggest that it is something like this: that life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow. I do not mean that our lives are meaningless, nor that the opportunity liberal democracy uniquely gives to pursue our own conception of happiness is remotely misguided. On a day-to-day basis most of us find deep meaning and love from our families and friends and much else. But there are questions which remain, which have always been at the centre of each of us and which liberal democracy on its own not only cannot answer but was never meant to answer.
“What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” These are questions which human beings have always asked and are still there even though today to even ask such questions is something like bad manners. What is even more, the spaces where such questions might be asked — let alone answered — have shrunk not only in number but in their ambition for answers. And if people no longer seek for answers in churches will they find them in occasional visits to art galleries or book clubs?
Jürgen Habermas addressed an aspect of this in 2007 when he led a discussion at the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Munich titled, “An Awareness of What is Missing”. There he attempted to identify a gap at the centre of our “post-secular age”. In 1991 he had attended a memorial service for a friend at a church in Zürich. The friend had left instructions for the event which were closely followed. The coffin was present and there were speeches by two friends. But there was no priest and no blessing. The ashes were to be “strewn somewhere” and there was to be no “amen”. The friend — who had been an agnostic — had both rejected the religious element and was also publicly demonstrating that non-religious burial had failed. As Habermas interprets his friend, “The enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rîte de passage which brings life to a close.”
The challenge which Habermas’s friend presented can be quietly heard around us in our daily lives, as can the results of the questions going unanswered. Perhaps we are wary of this discussion simply because we no longer believe in the answers and have decided on some variant of the old adage that if we have nothing nice to say then it is better to say nothing at all. But perhaps there should be a new urgency about asking these questions. After all, all this could very easily change. Having been for some years, as Roger Scruton has put it, downstream from Christianity, there is every possibility that our societies will either become unmoored entirely or be hauled onto a very different shore. Very unsettling questions lie dormant beneath our current culture.
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