The Dream of the Rood
Who sits on the empty throne?
Let me tell you a story.
This story begins in a garden, at the very beginning of all things. All life can be found in this garden: every living being, every bird and animal, every tree and plant. Humans live here too, and so does the creator of all of it, the source of everything, and he is so close that he can be seen and heard and spoken to. Everything walks in the garden together. Everything is in communion. It is a picture of integration.
At the centre of this garden grows a tree, the fruit of which imparts hidden knowledge. The humans - the last creature to be formed by the creator - will be ready to eat this fruit one day, and when they do they will gain this knowledge and be able to use it wisely for the benefit of themselves and of all other things that live in the garden. But they are not ready yet. The humans are still young, and unlike the rest of creation they are only partially formed. If they ate from the tree now, the consequences would be terrible.
Do not eat that fruit, the creator tells them. Eat anything else you like, but not that.
We know the next part of the story because it is still happening to us all the time. Why should you not eat the fruit? says the voice of the tempting serpent, the voice from the undergrowth of our minds. Why should you not have the power that you are worthy of? Why should this creator keep it all for himself? Why should you listen to him? He just wants to keep you down. Eat the fruit. It's your right. You're worth it!
So we eat the fruit, and we see that we are naked and we become ashamed. Our mind is filled with questions, the gears inside it begin to whir and turn and suddenly now here is us and them, here is humanity and nature, here is people and God. A portcullis of words descends between us and the other creatures in the garden, and we can never go home again. We fall into dis-integration and we fall out of the garden forever. Armed angels are set at the gates; even if we find our way back to the garden again we cannot re-enter. The state of questless ease that was our birthright is gone. We chose knowledge over communion; we chose power over humility.
The Earth is our home now.
This Earth is a broken version of the garden; of our original integration with creator and creation. On Earth we must toil to break the soil, to plant seeds, to fight off predators. We will sicken and die. Everything is eating everything else. There is war and dominion and misery. There is beauty and love and friendship too, but all of it ends in death. These are the consequences of our pursuit of knowledge and power, but we keep pursuing them because we know no other way out. We keep building towers and cities and forgetting where we came from. Outside of the garden, we are homeless and can never be still. We forget the creator and worship ourselves. All of this happens inside us every day.
There comes a time when the creator takes pity. After so many centuries of this, after so many years of humans missing the mark, of wandering from the path, of rising and falling and warring and dying, of eating the fruit again and again, the creator stages an intervention. He comes to Earth in human form to show us the way back home. Most people don't listen, naturally, and we all know how the story ends. God himself walks on Earth and what does humanity do? We torture and kill him.
But the joke is on us, because it turns out that this was the point all along. The way of this creator is not the way of power but of humility, not of conquest but of sacrifice. When he comes to Earth he comes not as warlord, king or high priest, but as a barefoot artisan in an obscure desert province. He walks with the downtrodden and the rejected, he scorns wealth and power and through his death he conquers death itself, and releases us from our bondage. He gives us a way out; a way back home. But we have to work at it. The path back to the garden can only be found by giving up the vainglory, the search for power and the unearned knowledge which got us exiled in the first place. The path is the path of renunciation, of love and of sacrifice. To get back to the garden, we have to go through the cross.
Now imagine that a whole culture is built around this story. Imagine that this culture survives for over a thousand years, building layer upon layer of meaning, tradition, innovation and creation, however imperfectly, on these foundations.
Then imagine that this culture dies, leaving only ruins.
If you live in the West, you do not have to imagine any of this. You are living among those ruins, and you have been all your life. Many of them are still beautiful - intact cathedrals, Bach concertos - but they are ruins nonetheless. They are the remains of something called 'Christendom', a 1500-year civilisation in which this particular sacred story seeped into and formed every aspect of life, bending and changing and transforming everything in this story's image.
And it really was everything. No aspect of daily life was unaffected by the story: the organisation of the working week; the cycle of annual feast and rest days; the payment of taxes; the moral duties of individuals; the very notion of individuals, with ‘God-given’ rights and duties; the attitude to neighbours and strangers; the obligations of charity; the structure of families; and most of all, the wide picture of the universe - its structure and meaning, and our human place within it.
In my last essay I wrote about the decline of the West. What I didn’t write about was what the ‘West’ actually was. A lot of people are arguing about this at the moment, and the answer tends to differ according to the tribe posing the question. For a liberal, the West is the ‘Enlightenment’ and everything that followed - elective democracy, human rights, individualism, freedom of speech. For a conservative, it might signal a set of cultural values, such as traditional attitudes to family life and national identity, and probably broad support for free-market capitalism. And for the kind of post-modern leftist who currently dominates the culture, the West - assuming they will concede that it even exists - is largely a front for colonisation, empire, racism and all the other horrors we hear about daily through the official channels.
All of these things could be true at the same time, but each is also a fairly recent development. The West is a lot older than liberalism, leftism, conservatism or empire; by the time Hume, Marx and Baudrillard arrived at the party, it was already winding down. The West, in fact, is at the same time a simpler, more ancient and immensely more complex concoction than any of these could offer. It is the result of the binding together of people and peoples across a continent, over centuries of time, by a sacred order constructed around an interpretation of that Christian story.
In his book Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, written shortly after World War Two, the medieval historian Christopher Dawson explained it like this:
There has never been any unitary organisation of Western culture apart from that of the Christian Church, which provided an effective principle of social unity ... Behind the ever-changing pattern of Western culture there was a living faith which gave Europe a certain sense of spiritual community, in spite of all the conflicts and divisions and social schisms that marked its history.
Your personal attitude to that ‘living faith’ is beside the point here. In one sense, whether the faith is even true is beside the point as well. The point is that when a culture built around such a sacred order dies then there will be upheaval at every level of society, from the level of politics right down to the level of the soul. The very meaning of an individual life - if there is one - will shift dramatically. The family structure, the meaning of work, moral attitudes, the very existence of morals at all, notions of good and evil, sexual mores, perspectives on everything from money to rest to work to nature to kin to responsibility to duty: everything will be up for grabs.
Or as Dostoevsky has one of the Brothers Karamazov put it more pithily: ‘Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted.’
The West, in short, was Christendom. But Christendom died. What does that make us, its descendants, living amongst its beautiful ruins? It makes ours a culture with no sacred order. And this is a dangerous place to be.
The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argued in his classic work After Virtue that the very notion of virtue itself would eventually become inconceivable once the source it sprung from was removed. If human life is regarded as having no telos or higher meaning, he said, it will ultimately be impossible to agree on what ‘virtue’ means, or why it should mean anything. Macintyre’s favoured teacher was Aristotle, not Jesus, but his critique of the Enlightenment and prediction of its ultimate failure was based on a clearsighted understanding of the mythic vision of medieval Christendom, and of the partial, empty and over-rational humanism with which Enlightenment philosophers attempted to replace it.
Macintyre, writing four decades ago, believed that this failure was already clearly evident but that society did not see it, because the monuments to the old sacred order were still standing, like Roman statues after the Empire’s fall. To illustrate his thesis, Macintyre used the example of the taboo. This word was first recorded by Europeans in the journals of Captain Cook, in which he recorded his visits to Polynesia. Macintyre explains:
The English seamen had been astonished at what they took to be the lax sexual habits of the Polynesians and were even more astonished to discover the sharp contrast with the rigorous prohibition placed on such conduct as men and women eating together. When they enquired why men and women were prohibited from eating together, they were told that the practice was taboo. But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little further information.
Further research suggested that the Polynesian islanders themselves were not really sure why these prohibitions existed either; indeed, when taboos were abolished entirely in parts of Polynesia a few decades later there were few immediately obvious consequences. So were such prohibitions meaningless all along? Macintyre suggested instead that taboo rules have a history which develops in two stages:
In the first stage they are embedded in a context which confers intelligibility upon them … Deprive the taboo rules of their original context and they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions, as indeed they characteristically do appear when the original context is lost, when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten.
Once a society reaches the stage where the reason for its taboos has been forgotten, one shove is all it takes to start a domino effect that will knock them all down. Macintyre believed that this stage had already been reached in the West:
A key part of my thesis has been that modern moral utterance and practice can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past and that the insoluble problems which they have generated for modern moral theorists will remain insoluable until this is well understood.
These ‘fragmented survivals’ were a remnant of the Western sacred order; the story of Christendom. Macintyre was keen to remind his readers that this story also incorporated elements from previous ‘pagan’ value systems, as well as aspects of Greek philosophy, especially that of his lodestone, Aristotle. But whatever its precise genesis, the resulting story had built the shape of the Western mind.
The ‘original context’ of that story, especially to the millennial and post-millennial generations, is now long gone. Many of them don’t even know it in outline (even in my generation, schooled in England in the eighties, it was barely clinging on) and many more are viscerally opposed to what they imagine it represents. Now, as Macintyre predicted, the final taboos are falling like ninepins, and from all across the cultural spectrum the effects are being felt.
If you’re broadly socially conservative, for example - which in practice means that you hold views which were entirely mainstream until about about five years ago - the questions are currently coming at you in a rolling barrage. Why should a man not marry a man? Why should a man not become a woman? Why should a child not have three fathers, or be born from a female womb transplanted into a man’s body? Since the source of our old understanding of marriage, family, sexuality and perhaps even biological dimorphism was the now-problematic Christian story, these are the kinds of questions to which there is now only one officially legitimate answer.
Things are not much better, though, for those on the left who are concerned about the destructive inequalities created by the modern economy. ‘Woe to you who are rich’, said Jesus, in one of many blasts against wealth and power that we can read in the Gospels. ‘Greed is a sin against God’, wrote Thomas Aquinas, one of the giants of Western Christian theology. Not any more. Now the Machine runs on greed, and it laughs in the face of any foolish and unrealistic Romantic who rejects it. The shaky binding straps with which medieval Christendom kept the traders, the merchants and the urban bourgeoisie tied down have long since broken, leaving us with no better argument against rampant greed and inequality than against total sexual licence or the remaking of the human body itself.
This is what Nietszche knew, and what today’s liberal humanists will too often deny: if you knock out the pillars of a sacred order, the universe itself will change shape. At the primal level, such a change is experienced by people as a deep and lasting trauma - whether they know it or not. Whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Heathen or an atheist, it should be obvious that no culture can just shrug off, or rationalise away, the metaphysics which underpin it and expect to remain a culture in anything but name - if that.
When such an order is broken, what replaces it? It depends on how the breakage happens. When the taboos were abolished in Polynesia, reported Macintyre, an unexpected ‘moral vacuum’ was created, which came to be filled by ‘the banalities of the New England Protestant missionaries.’ In this case, a certain colour of Christianity had stepped into the breach created by the death of a previous sacred story. The end of the taboos had not brought about some abstract ‘freedom’; rather, it had stripped the culture of its heart. That heart had, in reality, stopped beating some time before, but now that the formal architecture was gone too, there was an empty space waiting to be filled - and nature abhors a vacuum.
It seems to me that we are now at this point in the West. Since at least the 1960s our empty taboos have been crumbling away, and in just the last few years the last remaining monuments have been - often literally - torn down. Christendom expired over centuries for a complex set of reasons, but it was not killed off by an external enemy. No hostile army swept into Europe and forcibly converted us to a rival faith. Instead we dismantled our story from within. What replaced it was not a new sacred order, but a denial that such a thing existed at all.
In After Virtue, Macintyre explains what happened next. The Enlightenment project of the 18th century was an attempt to build a 'morality' (a word that had not existed in this sense before that time) loosed from theology. It was the project of constructing a wholly new human being After God, in which a new, personal moral sense - no longer eternal in nature, or accountable to any higher force - would form the basis of the culture and the individual.
Did it work? In a word: no. Post-Enlightenment ‘morality’, said Macintyre, was no subsitute for a higher purpose or meta-human sense of meaning. If the correct path for society or the individual was based on nothing more than that individual’s personal judgement, then who or what was to be the final arbiter? Ultimately, without that higher purpose to bind it - without, in other words, a sacred order - society would fall into ‘emotivism’, relativism and ultimately disintegration.
In some ways, I am a roundhead at heart. Maybe we all are. The Enlightenment may have failed, but it taught modern Western people something useful: how to interrogate power, and identify illegitimate authority. But while I learned this early, it was much later that I learned something else, dimly and slowly, through my study of history, mythology and, well, people: that every culture, whether it knows it or not, is built around a sacred order. It does not, of course, need to be a Christian order. It could be Islamic, Hindu or Daoist. It could be based around the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin. But there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force you take your instruction from.
The modern experiment has been the act of dethroning both literal human sovereigns and the representative of the sacred order, and replacing them with purely human, and purely abstract, notions - ‘the people’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘progress.’ I’m all for liberty, and for democracy too (the real thing, not the corporate simulacra that currently squats in its place), but the dethroning of the sovereign - Christ - who sat at the heart of the Western sacred order has not led to universal equality and justice. It has led - via a bloody shortcut through Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler - to the complete triumph of the power of money, which has splintered our culture and our souls into a million angry shards.
This has been the terrible irony of the age of reason, and of the liberal and leftist theories and revolutions which resulted from it. From 1789 to 1968, every one of them ultimately failed, but in destroying the old world and its sacred order they cleared a space for capitalism to move in and commodify the ruins. Spengler, who I wrote about last time, saw this clearly. ‘The Jacobins’, he wrote of the French revolutionaries, ‘had destroyed the old obligations of blood and so had emancipated money; now it stepped forward as lord of the land.’ Revolution, he claimed, will always play the role of handmaiden to the Machine:
There is no proletarian, not even a Communist, movement that has not operated in the interest of money, in the directions indicated by money and for the time permitted by money - and without the idealist amongst its leaders having the slightest suspicion of the fact.
The vacuum created by the collapse of our old taboos was filled by the poison gas of consumer capitalism. It has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives in the way that the Christian story once did, so much so that we barely even notice as it colonises everything from the way we eat to the values we teach our children. Cut loose in a post-modern present, with no centre, no truth and no direction, we have not become independent-minded, responsible, democratic citizens in a human republic. We have become slaves to the power of money, and worshippers before the monstrous idol of the Machine.
The old taboos are not coming back, and Christendom will not be returning to Europe any time soon. Neither do we need to desire it. The point is not to make an idol of an obviously imperfect past - one which regularly betrayed the teachings it was supposedly built around - but to recognise that when a culture kills its sovereign, the throne will not remain empty for long. Dethrone Christ if you like - dethrone any representative of any sacred order on Earth. But when you do, you will understand that the sovereign, however imperfect his rule, may have been the only thing standing between you and the barbarians massing outside - and inside - your gates.
What is the way out of this? Here Macintyre elides with Spengler, and also with the French philosopher René Guénon, who believed that what he called 'the Western deviation' away from the sacred order had unleashed materialist demons which 'now threaten to invade the whole world.' Writing in 1927 in his short book The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon could presciently see that the power of materialist science, allied with the values of commerce, would cause the West to 'disappear completely' if it did not change course:
Those who unchain the brute forces of matter will perish, crushed by those same forces, of which they will no longer be masters; once having imprudently set them in motion, they cannot hope to hold their fatal course indefinitely in check. It is of little consequence whether it be the forces of nature or the forces of the human mob, or both together; in any case it is the laws of matter that are called into play and that inexorably destroy him who has aspired to dominate them ...
After Virtue famously ends with its author declaring that the task we face today is similar to that set for those living through the collapse of Rome: not to 'shore up the imperium' but to start building anew. Guénon similarly believed that the work was not political but spiritual: to rediscover the eternal truths which must be at the base of any functional culture. 'Truth is not a product of the human mind', he wrote; a notion which the Enlightenment philosophers rejected, but which we are now perhaps beginning to understand the truth of all over again.
Spengler predicted that the failure of the Enlightenment would lead to a new search for that beyond-human truth. All of the theoretical edifices constructed by modern Western intellectuals to replace their old sacred order - liberalism, leftism in its myriad forms, conservatism, nationalism - had failed. Beginning in the 21st century, the grandchildren of the revolutionaries and the rationalists, adrift in a failing materialist culture, would enter what he called a ‘second religiousness’:
The age of theory is drawing to its end. The great systems of Liberalism and Socialism all arose between about 1750 and 1850. That of Marx is already half a century old, and it has had no successor. Inwardly it means, with its materialist view of history, that Nationalism has reached its extreme logical conclusion: it is therefore an end-term … In its place is developing even now the seed of a new resigned piety, sprung from tortured conscience and spiritual hunger, whose task will be to found a new hither-side that looks for secrets instead of steel-bright concepts.
When a sacred order collapses, despair can ensue, even amongst those who would not want its return, or who are not even aware what is missing. Day by day, more people are realising that our new sovereign, the Machine, is a false god, and we have no idea how to dethrone him. But the cycle of rise and fall is an inevitable part of the human historical pattern; and a necessary one. 'The passage from one cycle to another', wrote Guénon, 'can take place only in darkness.'
We are in that passage now; we live in a darkness between worlds. Macintyre concluded that the West was waiting for 'a new - and doubtless very different - St Benedict.' That was forty years ago, and we are still waiting, but it’s not a bad way to see the challenge we face. Modernity is not at all short on ideas, arguments, insults, ideologies, strategems, conflicts, world-saving machines or clever TED talks. But it is very short on saints; and how we need their love, wisdom, discipline and stillness amidst the roaring of the Machine. Maybe we had better start looking at how to embody a little of it ourselves
In my next (subscriber only) essay, I’ll begin a series tracing the rise of the Machine, and attempting to define it.
If you have made it to the end of this entry, and you can bear any more words from me, I’ve recently published an essay tracing my own unexpected journey to Christianity. You can find it here.