Words fail me as I look at the news and Facebook pages and see the blindness descending upon England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. It now seems late in the day to denounce details of the political process leading to Brexit and a new definition of democracy in our country. To speculate would lead to my being accused of scare-mongering. Who knows? The honeymoon might be quite glorious. Then what? It is said that if there were to be a new referendum, “leave” would win again, and perhaps by a much bigger majority.
In these gloomy Advent days, I mediate on the words of Novalis in his Hymnen an die Nacht, which I read in English translation. I also find inspiration in my favourite Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Both he and Freidrich von Hardenberg were inspired by the great German cobbler and mystic Jakob Böhme. The theme of the night (the Ungrund) pervades Christian mysticism, especially the Carmelite saints like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. Holiness comes through suffering and long periods of desolation and spiritual hardship. Winter is a time when the days are at their shortest, but the true Sol Invictus, the incarnation of God in Christ, brings us light and inner deliverance within from whatever can befall us.
Without comparing our political crisis (there is another in France and all over Europe – and elsewhere in the world) with past tyrannies, I quote Thomas Mann in the mid 1930’s:
How on earth will it end? This nightmare has been going on for three years, and who knows how long it will last. The barbarous and reactionary forces have made a pact with everything that is the enemy of intellect and culture, a diabolical pact of fear and bitterness. Erudition and thinking are obviously unwelcome, and the savage, sadistic propaganda spreads a political view that is hostile toward the future and lacks any vision or ideas. Nowhere can one descry anything grand or noble.
Berdyaev reflects the ideas of Joachim of Fiore, the best-known being that of the three ages. The Age of the Father corresponds with the Old Testament, obedience to God’s Law. The Age of the Son would be from the Advent of Christ to about 1260, the New Testament. Then would come an Age of the Holy Spirit, heralding the freedom brought by the Christian message. In this new age, the institutional Church would be replaced by something like the Franciscan Order. The Church never condemned Joachim himself for heresy, but many aspects of his theories were condemned, notably by St Thomas Aquinas. Some of the movements he inspired were severely persecuted by the Inquisition. There is almost a Romantic aspiration to an age of beauty and light.
The aspirations to such a new age and renewed humanity proved to be largely illusory, as the same legalism and inhumanity continued, firstly in the institutional Church, then in political authorities and man’s lust for money and power. The “blue flower” is beyond our grasp in this world, but is the object of our love and yearning. It is not a new religion, but a fulfilment of Christian revelation, true universality that transcends both globalism and nationalism.
We look through a glass darkly (cf. I Corinthians xiii.12 –For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known). In the religion of freedom and the Spirit, there will not be authorities, rewards and punishments. The legalistic idea of Christianity has to disappear as we are transfigured within.
After this night of Advent, of winter and the dark days ahead for our country (though I am clear about the shortcomings of globalism and European federalism), we can only aspire towards and try to create a new human and humane fellowship. How? I don’t know. We have our churches and liturgies and our silent witness in the darkness. Joachim was wrong about the year of his promised Age of the Spirit. We have yet to pass through shadows and the night. Nature is devastated by man’s greed, history is denied and changed by materialism and the mind is taken away by psychological manipulation. Humaneness is disappearing as we don’t care about each other and horrible acts of cruelty are committed. As Nietzsche cried out, it is if God himself had died. We must ourselves die and face the hereafter with courage.
However, man is not condemned because he carries within himself a spark of divinity, and image of God, possibilities of greatness, beauty and sublimity. We participate in Christ’s universal consciousness. This is something we can believe in and be encouraged to withstand the evil day and everything we have to suffer.
Like democratic centralist politics, lukewarmness is no longer an option. We enter a time of radical choice and division, where we have to eschew “moderate” Christianity and seek the mystical way, not even more polarised political ideologies and violence. Pope John Paul II was often criticised for his “cult of man” in his vision of human dignity and transcendence. Here is one characteristic quote from this man who lived in the darkness of both Nazism and Communism:
As a Christian, my hope and trust are centred on Jesus Christ, the two thousandth anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated at the coming of the new millennium . . . . Jesus Christ is for us God made man, and made part of the history of humanity. Precisely for this reason, Christian hope for the world and its future extends to every human person. Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one . . . . Thus as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.
Revelation of God is accomplished in man and humanity. We also live a terrifying crisis of our creativity, not only through poetry, music and art – but also our capacity to make families and procreate children.
Before we see the light, we must face an age of darkness and destruction, where evil seems to triumph over God himself and becomes inevitable and banal. We are afraid of being “replaced” in the world with which we have been familiar all our lives, but our own culture is shallow and ugly. Yet our aspiration and longing can never be taken away. But, this is not a passive longing, but also a determination to transfigure the world through creativity. God will help those who help themselves and discover our transcendence.
Like Thomas Mann and Berdyaev in the 1930’s, we stand on the brink of the abyss and cry to God in our prayers and supplications. We are torn apart, crushed, disappointed, ignored by those who don’t care, and we live in dread and anxiety. The monster of the 1930’s was finally defeated in 1945 at the cost of millions of lives and monuments of human culture destroyed forever. We are still reduced to tears by the atrocities committed against innocent men, women and children more than seventy years ago. Have we learned the lesson? I don’t think so entirely. I was born into an era of optimism and aspiration to freedom and joy, a reaction against the war and social conservatism. Many errors were committed, but there was an aspiration at the bottom of the anarchy of “flower power” and drugs. Liberalism has come to an end, and we must face authoritarianism and the brute struggle for money and power all over again. We can guess the form that will take, not of military dictators but a class of obscenely wealthy oligarchs leaving the rest of us to find a new way to rebuild some kind of new civilisation.
We are concerned about being on the right or wrong side of history. The present time has brought a sense of hopelessness and anger against the old elites and the dinosaurs of this world. Nothing is endless or inevitable. History has not ended with neo-liberal capitalism, nor with blind and angry populism, but will go on beyond our own limit of earthly life.
The end is a Divine-human matter. And the final word, which belongs to God, will include a word of man, as well.