The Israelites of Jeremiah's time put their trust in empty temple rituals, and the prophet mocked their incantations: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord ..." Today we believe in politics. The voting booth is where we go to assure ourselves of the peace and prosperity for which we long. Just as temple worship was an Israelite essential, as Jeremiah would affirm, so, too, is the democratic process. But the latter is even less likely than the former to rectify the kind of deep-seated cultural and spiritual ills by which we are today beset.
The Trinity Forum recently published on its website a sobering jeremiad by the distinguished British historian Paul Johnson. In it Johnson pulled no punches, declaring the 20th century to have been "the worst age since the human race came into existence, in terms of moral turpitude," due largely, he argued, to the "growth of secularism and the spread of ideologies based on the proposition that ideas matter more than people," an ideological characteristic for which, he argues, Islamic jihadists have countless Koranic proof-texts ready at hand.
"Between them," he wrote, "the three anti-God regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung were directly responsible for the death of 120 million people. Mao Tse-Tung’s regime accounted for 70 million of these, and on the evidence of Jung Chang’s meticulous investigative biography, he must be accounted the most evil man who ever lived, of whom we have detailed knowledge, without any redeeming qualities whatever."
Nor is there reason to think that the appropriate lessons have been learned, for, as Johnson warns, we see around us "the rise of a brutal technological adventurism which may deprave and ultimately destroy us." And he sums up this lament with an anecdote:
I recall attending the opening of Tate Modern, brainchild of Nicholas Serota, said to be the most powerful individual ever to hold sway over art in Britain. I found a room there empty except for a large video screen and three children, a girl of about ten and her younger brother and sister. They were sampling modern art—a video of a man masturbating. That this kind of episode was no accident I deduce from the latest obiter dicta of Charles Saatchi, said to rival even Serota in the power he wields over our art:A jeremiad to be sure, but not without an expression of the kind of theological hope that not only cannot be extinguished by historical catastrophes, but which is stirred to life by them:
"I know I sound like some ghastly creep, but there is something enchanting about seeing children sitting around a Chapman Brothers piece showing penises coming out of girls’ eyes, and drawing it neatly to take back to their teacher."
Pushing aside this distasteful nihilism, it is worth remembering that art produced in an age of faith often reveals human beings at their most constructive, rational, and eirenic. I recently had the pleasure of painting the glorious west façade of Strasbourg Cathedral. This noble edifice is surrounded by a parade of secular European history and progress, modernistic glass and steel buildings of unspeakable ugliness and repellent design, housing the European Parliament, the Court of Human Rights, the international this and that—and of course thousands of identikit bureaucrats. Here we have the basic machinery which recently tried to foist on Europe a constitution which repudiated their Christian past. Yet in the midst of this moral chaos is the Cathedral, actually built by Europeans cooperating together, designed and decorated equally by French and Germans over five long centuries of devotion and worship, a building which grew almost organically under the overarching religion which they all shared.
Somehow we have to bring back into our private lives, and into our public life, the spiritual element, the sense of awe at the magnificence and possibilities of creation, the pride in goodness and altruism, the fear of wrong-doing and materialistic arrogance, the poetry of the numinous, and, above all, the love of our fellow human beings which is inseparable from the belief that all human life, in some way, is created in the image of divinity.
Amen to that. At the end of the day, the purpose of all the dire warnings is a positive one: to bring us to our senses by bringing us to our knees.