In The Unquiet Grave Cyril Connelly, the 20th century Anglo-Irish critic, writer, and editor, having acknowledged the existence of the thousands of people like him (“…Liberals without a belief in progress, Democrats who despise their fellow-men, Pagans who still live by Christian morals, Intellectuals who cannot find the intellect sufficient—unsatisfied Materialists…”), concludes nonetheless that “there can be no going back to Christianity, nor can I inhabit an edifice of truth which seems built upon a base of falsehood.”
Connelly’s conclusion is poignant and tragic. How many kings and prophets, Christ remarks to His disciples, have longed to see and hear the truth as you have seen and heard it, without ever doing so. And how many wise men and philosophers of the ancient world struggled heroically, and with equal poignancy, through no fault of the virtue and of the intellect that were in them but rather by temporal accident of birth, to make sense of a world without possessing the Key which alone could allow them to do so.
One is struck, reading Clive Fisher’s excellent biography of Connelly, by the pagan character of English literary society (reflecting English society as a whole) in the first half of the twentieth century (Yeats, Orwell, Woolf, Huxley, Greene), relieved by a small though distinguished minority of literary Christians (Chesterton, Belloc, Eliot, Waugh). Despite two cataclysmic wars that nearly destroyed Europe in the short run, and may well have been fatal to European civilization in the long one—wars that represented, as Waugh memorably said of the second World War, the modern scientific-materialist world in arms—for most Western writers and artists of the period the Faith, core and lodestone of the western intellect and sensibility for centuries, seemed to have exhausted itself through its belligerence, its persecutions, cupidity, reaction, and hypocrisy. To them, Christianity was an integral organ of the same bourgeois materialist-scientific world whose center, after two millennia, could no longer hold and was visibly collapsing all around them.
In with the Old, out with the New—even if nobody, Cyril Connelly included, had the vaguest notion of what the New might be.
From the Christian perspective, the situation has not improved since Connelly’s time (born in 1903, he died in 1974). Instead it has deteriorated still further. Connelly, his colleagues, and his friends were civilized people, recognizably the products of European civilization unlike their literary inheritors today, the large majority of whom are not writers and artists at all but simply examples of the modern ideological social construct of “the writer” as liberal activist: shallow and ignorant ideologues without talent, revolutionary poseurs, publicity seekers hungry for reputation and the material reward that accompanies it. Nor are they bearers of what Chesterton called the huge and healthy sadness of the pagan world, but rather aggressive pushers of a relentless and intolerant atheistic nihilism that frankly acknowledges its aim to rid its brave new world of Christian practice and belief.
The natural and altogether healthy response of contemporary Christians to the ferocious ideological rejection of Christianity and all its works is a shocked uncomprehending grief compounded by a very real, very present, and very practical fear. Is this really how it ends: the thousand years of prophecy; the birth in the stable in Jerusalem; the public teaching of Christ; the founding of the Church; the Crucifixion; the Resurrection; the savage early martyrdoms; the exuberant growth and missionary enterprise of the Church; Her preservation of civilization after the barbarian invasions; the simple piety of the Middle Ages joined with the soaring Faith elaborately and exquisitely expressed by the great cathedrals, each of them a Summa wrought in gushing fountains of stone; the grimly glorious pageantry of the Crusades; the brave opposition to the powers and principalities of the modern age; the latter-day prophets warning of the impending threat to a humanized world; the new martyrs to that hideous strength foreseen by C.S. Lewis–all these things confounded by the offhand conclusion of the best minds of the most knowledgeable and enlightened age in history that “there can be no going back to Christianity”?
The prospect is sufficient to cause Christians to speculate whether, at the Second Coming, the Christian community will amount to more than a remnant; a relative handful of observant Christians instead of the mass of faithful believers that the prospect of the Church triumphant once led us to expect, or at least to hope for.
Yet, if we pause for reflection, we should realize that we all know better than that.
Connelly himself, further along in his book, points the way by wise reflection of his own. “The goal of all cultures,” he writes, “is to decay through over-civilization; the factors of decadence,—luxury, skepticism, weariness and superstition,—are constant. The civilization of one epoch becomes the manure of the next. Everything over-ripens in the same way. The disasters of the world are due to its inhabitants not being able to grow old simultaneously. There is always a raw and intolerant nation eager to destroy the tolerant and mellow.”
It is only human nature to seize upon the latest looming novelty, to nourish it and delight in it awhile—perhaps a long while—before, from impatience and boredom, twisting, deforming, and diluting it, tiring of it, and finally turning on it in disillusionment and blind hatred. So is it with Christianity; and why should we be shocked by the apostasy of an entire civilization when we witness daily how individuals can be carried away on what seems a divine wind by their enthusiasm for Christ and His Church, only to grow lukewarm in time and in the end (but is it really the end?) fall away or apostasize from the Faith.
I myself have often given thanks that I was not raised a Catholic but was left to find the Church for myself in early middle age, as otherwise my fundamentally rebellious nature might well have caused me to revolt against a Faith bequeathed me by my upbringing so that I should, as the Gospels says, find myself infinitely worse off than before. Even so, Christ does not debar the apostate from the chance at a second conversion: Why should he deny a people the same opportunity, made possible by a new infusion of grace? I for one cannot believe that there is no going back to Christianity: Indeed, I believe that our civilization will discover that there is nowhere else for it to go, though it may be some time yet before it becomes aware of this truth.
Chesterton’s dictum that people who won’t believe in Christianity will believe in anything has been spectacularly justified since GKC’s death in 1936. Modern people have now tried everything, while remaining unsatisfied and lost. Researchers engaged in comparative anthropological studies have found that the beneficiaries of the fabulously wealthy modern technological societies are no happier than members of those few hunter-forager societies that have survived into the 21st century.
In a wonderful passage from one of her letters (in The Habit of Being, perhaps the greatest of all her books), Flannery O’Connor describes faith as rising and falling like the tides of an invisible ocean. Like every genius, she was merely stating, simply and strikingly, a truth that everyone—in this case, every Catholic person—knows already. What every Catholic may not have considered is that her insight holds hope for formerly Christian civilizations, as well as for the individual souls who comprise them.