Today's date:
  Fall 2004

The Fate of the Religious Imagination

Czeslaw Milosz Winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz was the author of The Captive Mind and Unattainable Earth. In the following essay he wrote for NPQ in 1995, Milosz explored the historic tension between religious imagination and scientific innovation.

When the Bottom Falls Out

What is surprising in the present moment (as the Cold War order collapses) are those beautiful and deeply moving words pronounced with veneration in Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertory of honesty, the rights of man and the dignity of the person.

I wonder at this phenomenon because, maybe, underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas have had their foundation in religion, and I am not over-optimistic as to the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. In Eastern Europe, notions that seemed buried forever by communism, like the value of the individual, have been resurrected. But how long can they stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?

--1990, from an interview with Nathan Gardels in NPQ, "From the East: A Sense of Responsibility"

Krakow--How to penetrate what is going on in the minds of our contemporaries? We may know their opinions, their convictions, beliefs, everything which they communicate through language. Yet language is not very reliable, for it usually lags behind the transmutations of a mentality occurring on a deeper level--of not quite conscious adjustments of the mind to the changing world.

I have always been fascinated by the fate of religion in our century, much less, though, by what believers or disbelievers say, much more by what one may guess behind their pronouncements. I assume we all, living in the same epoch, bear in our heads a set of images of the universe and the place of man in it which might tell us about the workings of religious imagination, now and in the past. Religious imagination cannot be today the same as it was in the time of Dante, but also it must differ from that of 100 or 200 years ago. Certain external signs point to an awareness of this fact, for instance when going to church we do not expect to hear a sermon on the sufferings of the dammed in Hell amid fire and brimstone, though this once was the normal fare of churchgoers. Such external signs, however, are few and probably the language of theologians and priests is at a certain variance with the unformulated imaginings of the faithful.

Access to the religious imagination of modern man might be possible only indirectly, through the changing forms of language and also of art and music. Assuming all creations of the human mind in a given period are linked in a common episteme, so that looking at a painting or listening to a musical composition we are able to date it quite precisely, any given oeuvre is less an isolated island than it seems. To the contrary, a subterranean bond unites, let us say, Samuel Beckett's desperate vision of the human condition and religious fundamentalism of today even if in appearance they have nothing in common. Thence the known phenomenon of preachings and writings that are hollow, resembling shells out of which life has escaped.

The scientific revolution has been gradually eroding the religious imagination. First came the Copernican blow toppling the central position of the Earth; Newton introduced the idea of eternal space and eternal time stretching infinitely; a new cosmology has been victoriously replacing the old one based upon the privileged place of man who was created in the image of God and saved by that very resemblance, i.e. through the Incarnation. The new cosmology somehow dissolved man into the immensity of galaxies, where he became merely a speck arrogantly assigning to himself an exceptional role. Even more destructive proved to be the life sciences. For Descartes animals were living machines, thus the barrier between them and humans, endowed with an immortal soul, was still maintained. To abolish that barrier the theory of evolution was needed and the churches immediately sensed the danger. (To believe an anecdote, Darwin hesitated whether to publish The Origins of the Species because of the implorations of his pious wife.) As the difference between the "lower" species and man became blurred, grave questions of moral order appeared. If all life is submitted to certain laws, among them the law of the survival of the fittest, the same law also applies to the struggle between men (or classes, or nations) and the moralists' or the humanitarians' tears are of no avail. It is possible that the crime of genocide characteristic of our century has been a side effect of viewing man as a biological entity no less expendable than are the myriads of live entities squandered every second by Nature. On the other hand, some questions have been leading us in the opposite direction: If we are so closely related to animals who are, indeed, our brothers, should not man in his unrelenting protest against suffering, in his complaint of Job, speak also in the name of all creatures? They suffer, they die, yet they won't receive any recompense. Would it be decent to imagine that only man would receive it?

The progress of science has created a strange duality in the education of the young. They are trained at school in empirical thinking and receive a more or less coherent vision of the world as governed by chains of material causes and effects. They go out to the street and are surrounded there by products of technology which apply the discoveries of science and thus confirm the authority of scientific methods. And yet the majority of those students belong, at least nominally, to religious denominations and have somehow to harmonize two clashing propositions as to the structure of reality, unless--and this happens more and more often--they opt for the scientific variety. Some defenders of religion enter into polemics with scientists and question their theories, for instance, by opposing the theory of evolution. Yet the general line is different: We hear that science and religion cannot clash, for religion is a matter of faith, not of facts. Unfortunately, a need for coherence is our inborn feature and it is difficult to keep our thoughts moving constantly on two parallel tracks.

And yet no one would dare today to announce the end of religion or even the end of Christianity. Such predictions sounded plausible in the 19th century when the positivist Auguste Comte went even as far as laying the foundation for "a scientific church." The number of churchgoers may fluctuate, from very high in Catholic countries like Poland, Ireland and Italy to very low, as in Catholic France and Protestant Sweden, but the losses in some areas of the globe are compensated by the ardor of new congregations--in Africa, in Latin America. The travels of Pope John Paul II and the crowds he attracts should give skeptics some food for thought. It is also worth noting that in technologically minded America the people, in their preponderant majority, consider themselves religious--either of Christian orientation, Jewish or some kind of Asiatic influence, in the first place, that of Buddhism. The revival of the Orthodox church in Russia, after persecutions surpassing in their cruelty anything known in the history of Christianity, is another sign of the permanence of human needs.

Obviously, then, the onslaught of science upon the religious imagination, though unquestionable, represents only one element of the problem. It seems to me that by comparing our thinking with that of the 18th century we may receive some hints that can help us avoid simplification. That century has been called the Age of Reason and our scientific-technological civilization has been traced back to the basic premises laid down by thinkers and scientists of that time. It may appear, though, that by assessing the ways of people who lived then, we fall victim to our propensity to project into the past our own habits. What should surprise us about that century is its optimism, in contrast to the mood of pessimism prevalent today, of which we are not always aware because it so much pervades our thought. Human reason approached then the super-abundance of existing phenomena with a confidence in its own unlimited forces because God assigned to it the task of discovering the marvels of His creation. In this sense, it was the Age of Pious Reason. Isaac Newton was a profoundly believing man. Carl Linneus, the great Swedish botanist who invented the classification of species, opens his Systema Nuturae with a quotation from a Psalm (in Latin): "O Jehovah! How manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the Earth is full of thy riches!" There is a tendency today to suspect the Age of Reason scientists of duplicity, of using their belief in the Deity as a mask for their basically materialistic philosophy. Yet the atmosphere pervading their writings and the very style of the fine arts and music in that period speak to the contrary. The notion underlying all its artifacts is that of order. God established the immutable laws for the movements of the planets, for the growth of vegetation, for the working of the animal organism, and the life of man on Earth is providentially arranged in accordance with the universal rhythm. Some ideas, like the idea of the inalienable rights of every human being, seem to imply a stability underneath the changing forms of social existence. The episteme of the 18th century, centered upon order, is best expressed in its music. I believe the greatest music ends around 1800. Those who would disagree must concede, in any case, that around that date music switches to a new direction.

The 18th century, let us not forget, brought about in several countries pietistic movements and a spiritual search through free-masonic lodges (like the lodge in Mozarts' Magic Flute), some of which constituted themselves as "mystical lodges." It was also the age of mystical writers--Claude de Saint-Martin, Swedenborg, William Blake.

Was it so that the full implications of the scientific revolution were not yet grasped (or grasped and fought against, as in Blake's struggle against the diabolical trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke)? That is possible. Be as it may, by comparing our fates with that of our ancestors we may draw a lesson as to the simultaneous existence of many trends and inclinations within a given span of time. The next century, the 19th, would exacerbate some tendencies of its predecessor and elaborate what can be called a scientific Weltanschaung, in fact quite distant from those harmonious visions of the earlier scientists. Destructive of values, it would prompt Frederic Nietzsche to announce the advent of "European nihilism" in which he cannot be denied a gift of prophecy.

Today as well many currents, ascending and descending, are at work simultaneously and in some domains the impact of 19th-century science has reached its apogee, while in others it seems to recede. Any literary critic is familiar with the voices of despair, of derision, of universal senselessness uttered by poets and novelists. They are former students who learned to think about the world and human life in the terms of science, which does not offer, however, anything positive in the realm of values. Eminent poets of this age are despairing nihilists, perhaps meriting admiration because of their frankness, to name but a few: Gottfried Benn, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin. The enigmatically high number of poets and painters who became Marxists is explainable by their search for meaning which they found through their faith in the earthly salvation of communism: Paul Eluard, Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Pablo Picasso and many, many others. Judging by literature and art, the individual existence of a human being is viewed as absurd and devoid of any justification, because life, of which it is a part, made its appearance on the Earth not by a decree of a Divinity but by a mere chance. Now, after the breakdown of the Communist utopia, we may expect the intensification of the mood of hopelessness, going together with rapacious consumerism.

In such a predicament, people may turn to religion in the first place because they search for a moral order. In this respect the shift of emphasis in the teachings of the Roman Catholic church is highly significant. A hundred or 200 years ago, the basic topic of sermons was the salvation of the soul; in the last decades one hears more and more about man's participation in society, often to such an extent that the zeal of the clergy seems to be directed mainly toward various social "causes" like the emancipation of the poor, national independence or obsessive anti-abortion campaigns. Religion, which traditionally was vertically directed, becomes horizontal, probably because the images founding Christian metaphysics are lacking. Yet that horizontal orientation often makes the words of preachers sound hollow, for they are too much social activists to intimate they are also men of contemplation and faith.

Religion as a social institution is not identical with a deeper spiritual life and even can prosper for a time when such a life is lacking. The basic question that confronts us today is whether there are signs indicating that the religious imagination, devastated by the onslaught of 19th-century science, can revive. Transformations of mentality proper to a given moment in history are usually slow and even now, at the very end of the century, it is difficult to disentangle the criss-crossing multiple trends often opposing each other. And yet we are not at the same point as, let us say, in 1900. I would be wary in joining all those who hail the new physics as the beginning of an era of recovered harmony – like Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (what, after all, is Tao if not a sense of the universe as harmony?). Yet I am more cynical when in the biochemist Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity I find his desperate statement about the one-way path we are launched on by science: "a track which 19th-century scientism saw leading infallibly upward to an empyrean noon hour of mankind, whereas what we see opening before us today is an abyss of darkness." I think Jacques Monod was writing a dirge to bygone attitudes, while science now again stands before a breathtaking, miraculous spectacle of unsuspected complexity and it is the new physics which is responsible for this change of orientation. After all, William Blake was right when he denounced the absolute space and absolute time of Newton, and he would have greeted Einstein's relativity as a discovery liberating the human spirit from the oppressive images of the void completely "objective" and thus torn off from the human mind. The universe so conceived was for Blake "the land of Ulro," the realm of Death, in which all things are mere "spectres," dead to Eternity. The theory of quanta, independently of conclusions drawn from it (including Einstein's resistance to Bohr's proposal), is anti-reductionist as it restores the mind to its role of a co-creator in the fabric of reality. This favors a shift from belittling man as an insignificant speck in the immensity of galaxies to regarding him again as the main actor in the universal drama – which is a vision proper to every religion (Blake's Divine Humanity, Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, Logos Christ of the Christian denominations).

For a believer as myself the key to the mystery of the universe is the mystery of man--not vice versa; or rather, every part of the mystery is a function of the other. The enthusiasm of the 18th-century scientists who searched for an objective order looks naive today, yet I sense at the end of our century something like a renewal of a hopeful tone.

One possibility should not be excluded in advance: that science would move away from the reductionism and crude materiality of scientism and yet that state of affairs would not help the religious imagination at all. Science may explore a world become again miraculous but use a language unaccessible to the public and untranslatable into any visualization, while once science was potent enough to attract converts to its myth.

In such a case various religious denominations will become more and more horizontal, captive as it were of local, national and social surroundings and allied with political forces. It seems to me American fundamentalism could be one example of such a development and I am afraid Roman Catholicism in Poland, though in many respects different, has some components announcing a similar future. Or should we look at Latin America? Ireland? The fate of Shintoism in Japan as a national religion?

It is safer not to make predictions. Much depends on the number of serious religious thinkers in every country--and not religiously minded social reformers who everywhere abound but those who would try to deal with the basic enigmas of Being in the present conditions when all the premises have to be restated anew.