Thursday, December 30, 2010

Do the English have a soul?

Paul Adams

I felt like a bit of a spoilsport posting this Amazon review of Kate Fox's book, Watching the English. I loved the book, it is so full of spot-on observations, expressions, and anecdotes. And I recognize myself in her observations of the basic social dis-ease she sees as the defining characteristic (if it could be reduced to just one) of the English.

What is sad, though, is not only the loss she ascribes to our tribe of any sense of the transcendent. It is also her own (and presumably the tribe's) complete lack of any sense of loss at this flattening of the English character into two-dimensional soullessness. Here's my review:

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
business as usual, December 27, 2010
4.0 out of 5 stars
Paul Adams (Honolulu)
This review is from: Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Paperback)

As others have said, Fox's book is witty and full of insights about English culture, understood as the way we do business as usual. Like other ex-pats, I found it a wonderful articulation of my English ways. After nearly 40 years in the U.S., I notice how English I am in ways Fox identifies--a self-deprecating habit of turning away compliments, for example, along with all the class-marking prejudices about word usage and having an untidy car.

And I made my way to the end of this lengthy book I felt a growing unease. I had to keep reminding myself that its subject is culture in that anthropological business-as-usual sense, so perhaps I should not expect any exploration, or even hint, of anything like an English soul, equivalent to the way people talk about the Russian soul. My England, after all, is also the land of rebellions and revolution, great strikes and marches and movements, of martyrs and saints, of Shakespeare's tragedies, Milton, and D.H. Lawrence ("my Englishness is my very vision"), to pick just a few of the less mundane elements of English culture. Fox's England seems soulless.

The author is wonderful at identifying all the cultural and class markers of behaviors, tastes, and attitudes that we tend to think of as our own autonomous choices or original thoughts. At times, though, she expresses her own upper middle-class, secular-liberal, cultural-elite prejudices as if they were scientific observations. This is nowhere clearer than in her superficial and, frankly supercilious discussion of Christianity (and paganism)in relation to the English. The book is best read, not as (even loosely) scientific, but as a very perceptive expression of the author's own class, academic milieu, and generational outlook.

Of course the book was published well before the recent and first-ever papal state visit to England and Scotland. As I've noted in other posts, the visit was preceded by an intense barrage of unrestrained anti-Catholicism, not from the old Protestant fundamentalists this time, but from the mainstream media and secularist intellectuals.

The success of the visit speaks volumes about the extent to which the cheerfully secularist account Fox gives of the English is missing something important beneath the surface. The sense of loss, and even spiritual longing, that comes through in Roger Scruton's better but gloomier vision--see his England: An Elegy and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life.

And without belaboring the point, I want to point to how well Scruton gets the point here. See in particular the final paragraph:

Missionary to the Multiculturalists
What does it mean for the pope to visit post-Christian Britain?

By Roger Scruton
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain brought home the strange spiritual condition in which the British people in general, and the English in particular, now find themselves. The English have an official church — the Church of England — whose dominant position is guaranteed by the unwritten constitution, and whose head is the Head of State. Bishops have seats in the House of Lords, and act as legislators. And each English village has its Anglican church — usually an ancient building of stone, whose Gothic spire is like a badge of ownership, a guarantee from God that the place around will always be England and that England will always be Christian.

Yet these churches are hardly visited: more people attend Friday prayers in the mosque than attend Sunday worship in the Anglican Church. And still more people attend mass at whatever crowded Catholic Church they can find, in a country where Catholic churches have been legal for less than two centuries.

Most English people say that they believe in God, though only a minority claim to be Christian, and of that minority fewer still are observant. The official culture, represented by the BBC, the TV chat shows and the opinion pages of the quality press, is neither Christian nor English, but “multicultural” — and even Pope Benedict ended his visit with praise for the multicultural identity that has emerged in our country. Nobody really knows what multiculturalism is, or how you belong to it or affirm it in your daily life. But it is the official religion of the British Isles. The main sign of this is that less and less people in public life bear witness to the Christian faith or express any opinion in matters of religion other than a vague hope that the many faiths will learn to live together peacefully. You can be outspoken about religion, but only if you are an atheist, and only if your target is Christianity — the once official faith, whose loosened grip exposes it to assault from all who might once have been obliged to endorse its Credo.

The Pope’s beatification of John Henry Newman had a special poignancy, therefore. Newman was an Anglican priest who joined the Oxford movement in protest against the Wesleyan assault on ritual and mystery. The Anglican Church, he believed, had made too many concessions to the drearier forms of Protestantism, and was losing the core of enchantment that draws ordinary people into its fold. Once he had thought through what this criticism really meant, Newman left the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic, founding the Oratory at Brompton and taking an active part in the establishment of churches, religious institutions and places of education dedicated to the Roman Catholic faith. As Rector of the new Catholic University in Dublin, he delivered the lectures that were later published as The Idea of a University. These describe the ideal university, like the ideal church, as a place of enchantment. The Church delivers God’s grace; the university delivers grace of another kind — the kind that prepares us for society. Both depend upon a mysterious encounter with authority, revealed in ritual and submission.

The beatification of Cardinal Newman can be read as endorsing the path that Newman took, from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. It can also be read as endorsing the Anglican Church, as a valid purveyor of sacramental gifts — the gifts that Newman sought to protect from disenchantment in the face of Protestant austerity. But for most English people, I suspect, the beatification has been a piece of mumbo-jumbo that does not concern them. Who was this J.H. Newman anyway? That he was author of The Dream of Gerontius would be known to lovers of Elgar; that he wrote the great hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’ would be known to Anglican church-goers — some of them at least. That he is the author of one of the great autobiographies, as well as the best defense of the university as an institution that we now possess will be known to scholars. Some might even be familiar with The Grammar of Assent, that strange reflection on the truth-discerning aspect of the human mind that has baffled logicians and philosophers for a century and a half.

But what do ordinary multicultural Englishmen know about those things? BBC News will not have informed them, any more than it would have explained to them the doctrinal differences between the Anglican and the Roman churches. So far as the BBC was concerned the main interest of the Pope’s visit lay in the protests that surrounded it — protests from marginal groups pressing for the ordination of women, for gay rights, or for an apology to the victims of sexual abuse by members of the priesthood. The Pope gave the apology, and skirted the other issues. The BBC, as the voice of the official multiculture, could find little of significance in his remarks other than their divergence from current secular morality, and the fact that from time to time the Pope rebuked the atheists who have such standing with the BBC.

The most positive effect of the Pope’s visit, however, was one that even the BBC could not prevent — and that was the public display of Roman Catholic ritual at its most gorgeous and replete. For many television viewers the mass at Westminster Cathedral was their first experience of sacramental religion. The mystical identity between the ordinary worshipper and the crucified Christ is something that can be enacted, but never explained. It is enacted in the Mass, and as Cardinal Newman recognized, it is the felt reality of Christ’s presence that is the true gift of Christianity to its followers. For those who experience it the quibbles of the atheists and the protestors seem as trivial as BBC News. For many Englishmen, I suspect, the Pope’s Westminster mass was the first inkling of what Christianity really means.

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