Nostalgia for the Absolute
George Steiner (CBC Publications, 1974)
These were Steiner’s Massey Lectures, given in 1974. The basic argument he presents can be briefly stated: despite the waning influence of religion in Western culture, the secular would-be substitutes for Christianity, which he calls “mythologies” on account of their world-defining ambitions, are nonetheless constructed in its image. They owe more to it than they would like to admit.
“The major mythologies constructed in the West since the early nineteenth century are not only attempts to fill the emptiness left by the decay of Christian theology and Christian dogma. They are themselves a kind of substitute theology. They are systems of belief and argument which may be savagely anti-religious, which may postulate a world without God and may deny an afterlife, but whose structure, whose aspirations, whose claims on the believer, are profoundly religious in strategy and in effect.” [emphasis in original]
This unconscious aping of the model set by Christianity he attributes to a “nostalgia for the absolute”.
The particular “secular religions” under consideration are Marxism, Freudianism, and the structural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss. All, says Steiner, are deeply involved with myth and myth-making, and the thought of each pivots around analogues of the Fall, original sin, and salvation. Each offers a vision of the nature and history of man against an eschatological horizon. Each spawned a kind of church, as well, with foundational texts, standards of orthodoxy, interpretative disagreements, and consequent anathemas.
The receding tide of religious faith has also let the riff-raff loose on our Dover Beach, and Steiner devotes a chapter of the book to the many varieties of pseudo-science and the occult that have found space to build their little castles in the sand. Alien abductions, clairvoyance, astrology, and the whole rich stew of such things are, to his thinking, especially inept but telling responses to the weakening cultural authority of the Christian religion.
In his closing pages Steiner argues that all of these attempts to supplant religion have been inadequate. The only body of thought that he believes capable of succeeding in this mighty endeavor is science itself, and, in particular, he contends that only the selfless devotion to truth that animates scientific practice can possibly serve as an adequately defensible moral ground for secular life. But this vision too (he rightly acknowledges) is troubled. For all of its many great successes, the scope of science is — and, there is reason to think, always will be — too narrow to really serve as the principal foundation for society. This is precisely why Marxism and Freudianism, for instance, arose. Each claimed for itself the mantle of science, and cloaked itself in scientific language, but in substance neither was actually scientific, because the deep issues each addressed were not amenable to scientific treatment.
Furthermore, although a devotion to truth might well serve as a personal foundation for something like a religious life, it is far from clear, worries Steiner, that it can serve as a cultural foundation, and this is so because, apart from the Christian religion, we have little grounds for supposing that truth is allied with goodness and beauty. Jesus said that the truth would make us free, but is that true apart from the truth that he proclaimed? Might it be that the truth about us, as revealed by a materialist science, destroys our belief in human freedom, or in human equality, or in morality, or in the meaningfulness of goodness, beauty, and – yes – even truth and reason? If this is so, we cannot afford to be devoted to science above all else.
While this last reflection is, in my opinion, worth thinking over long into the night, I am not sure I can say the same for the earlier argument that Steiner presents: namely, that a notable feature of modern ideologies is their similarity to Christianity. Perhaps he has a point when he considers the content of these ideologies, but he is less convincing when drawing structural parallels between the two. True, these secular movements formed around important texts, and different schools of thought emerged, and there was in-fighting, and so on. This bears a broad resemblance to Christianity, I suppose, but, ask yourself, how else could things have been? In a literate culture books are obviously important, and clarity about ideas is an abiding passion of the West, as is a devotion to the principle of non-contradiction. These facts are enough to account for the basic structural features of the intellectual and social movements under consideration. The claim, therefore, that these “secular religions” are structural copies of Christianity appears to put the emphasis in the wrong place.