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What the Church of England learned from rock & roll

Last weekend I was asked to come and talk about my experience doing the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge. I was happy to agree, as I’d enjoyed Alpha, and my ego is always flattered to be asked to speak. There were five of us lined up to give ‘testimonials’, and I rapidly realised the other four had a very clear, strong message: ‘I was lost,  I went on Alpha, now Jesus has saved me and I’m happy all the time’. They went up on stage, one by one, and told Nicky Gumbel their joyous stories. Then it was my turn. I was called up on stage, in front of an expectant congregation of 500 born-again believers.

‘Er…I had depression and anxiety about a decade ago…and I think perhaps the Holy Spirit helped me…’

Go on…

‘but funny thing is, haha, it…er….led me to Greek philosophy.’

Come again?

‘…and…I became interested in how Greek philosophy inspired modern therapy…’

Get to the Jesus bit!

‘…but I’m also interested in Christianity, so I came on Alpha…’


‘…and it was fun. I met some nice people…’


‘…and…er…that’s it!’

CUT! Cue a shepherd’s crook yanking me off from the side of the stage.

Not really, but the audience cheered every other testimonial, while I felt my more nuanced message failed to hit home. I sloped off stage feeling like a rapper at a country and western festival. And then I got driven off to another church, and had to do it all over again.

Anyway, this newsletter is not about that. It’s about this. While I was waiting to go on stage at HTB, the service began. The video screens around the church flickered to life, and various uplifting images came on, of people finding transcendence in the outdoors, mothers hugging their children, the stars twinkling and so on, with big lettering superimposed saying ‘Come to find MEANING’ and ‘God is MASSIVE’. The music got louder and faster, and then suddenly the band came on stage and started playing, the lead-singer was this girl with an amazing voice, and everyone got to their feet to sing along, and I swear, I nearly cried. My heart swelled with emotion. I was tired, no doubt, somewhat frazzled. Yet a few chords of Christian rock, some lights and video, and the floodgates almost opened.

An event at HTB for worshippers from Hong Kong and China

And what better proof of the Holy Spirit would there be than that? All around me, the Spirit was filling people. The second service was even more full on – it was the student service, for teenagers. Well, you can imagine. They were crying, laughing, shaking, hands aloft, on their knees, eyes closed in ecstasy. Feeling it. It reminded me of the Whirligig, the club my friends had gone to when we were 16, where we’d all taken ecstasy for the first time, except these kids were just on Jesus. Still, some of them seemed just as strung out as my friends and I back then – one kid was giggling away to himself, and I thought, in the scientific materialist paradigm of the DSM, that young fellow might be considered to have mental health issues, but here, at this church, he is loved and his eccentricity is seen as a sign of grace. (I later found out that this sort of laughter is actually quite typical of charismatic worship, so I was perhaps being a bit judgmental in thinking the boy had mental problems!)

What HTB gets is the power of music. It’s a non-cognitive form of persuasion. There I was, all ready to deliver my nuanced message of liberal ambivalence, and the music nearly swept me away. Plato best understood the power of music, how it works not by persuading our reason, but by side-stepping it, and connecting directly with our feelings. Before you know it, you’re tapping your foot, singing along, and you realise the words are ‘I Love Jesus’. Sing it enough times, and a belief or attitude is formed in your character, without you ever necessarily considering it. This is the power of music. That’s why Plato thought music should be carefully controlled in his Republic – it was too important to the formation of national character to be left to musicians, those mad prophets of ecstasy.

When I was growing up, pop music meant far more to me than anything I heard or sang in church. I had to go to church every day at school, and it left me cold. But when I listened to Otis Redding, or Public Enemy, or the Happy Mondays, or Primal Scream, then I felt something. When I played drums with my band, that meant something. The beat and the melody convinced me of the whole ideology of pop: don’t fight it, feel it, as Bobby Gillespie told me. Come together, get loaded, get higher than the sun. And when, a few weeks ago, I first saw a Christian rock band on stage at HTB, I thought: you apostates! You heretics! How dare you exploit my music to spread your religion. Stick to Onward Christian Soldiers and leave rock and roll alone!

Sweet Soul Music

What I’m belatedly realising is this is a slightly upside-down way of looking at it. Pop music – rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, dance – came from the church. It took the melodies and the emotions of gospel, and secularised them. It created a secular faith, an experience, a feeling, which brought people together, pink and brown, believers and non-believers, and gave us an emotional outlet and a brief feeling of unity, transcendence and power.

I’m reading a great book about this. It’s called Sweet Soul Music, by Peter Guralnick, and it’s about the rise of Southern Soul in the 1960s. It starts off by looking at three pioneers of soul music – Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke – all of whom took music from the gospel church into the realm of the secular and the profane. Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, released in 1954, was a cover of a gospel song called ‘It Must Be Jesus’. Charles used the same wails, shouts, calls and response as you would find in any Pentecostal church, re-packaged it, and brought it into the white, secular mainstream. That opened the floodgates for a whole litany of other shakers and shouters, from the angelic Sam Cooke, to the screaming James Brown, to the pitiful Otis Redding.

Please, Please, Please

In their trembling voices is a plea – they’re begging, they’re pleading, they’re yearning. It’s like a Sufi singer, crying for their spiritual home. Except in soul music, it’s usually about a woman, ostensibly. But in that plea, we are all re-connected to a much older religious emotion, a longing for God, a longing for deliverance. The best soul songs show what Guralnick, quoting Hitchock, calls ‘knowledgeable apprehension’: they build, then fall back, then build again, then finally reach a moment of ecstasy, a wail, like the arch of a gothic cathedral – and just for a moment, you’re in the realm of the sacred. That’s how I feel, anyway, when Al Green wails 2 minutes 42 seconds into ‘Tired of Being Alone’. My favourite songs all have a moment of ecstasy, like when, 3 minutes 22 seconds into ‘Heroes’, David Bowie goes up an octave and cries ‘I…I will be king’.

The leap from the church to R&B was seen as scandalous in the 1950s. Singers like Sam Cooke were inspiring powerful, uncontrollable emotions in their female audience, but directing them not to God but to…sex! And when the music swept away white teenagers too through radio and TV, it provoked even more moral panic. One friend described the first time Sam Cooke played the white-only nightclub, the Copacabana: ‘man, those chicks were popping, it was almost like a sex act man, like he was beating up on them to get an orgasm’.

When Cooke was shot dead by a motel owner in 1964, apparently after trying to rape a girl, it was taken by many in the gospel community as divine judgement on his decision to leave the church and move into R&B. There was even a gospel song about the danger of being lured away from the church into pop music, for the money and power and sex, called ‘He Gained the World (But Lost His Soul)’:

He started out in church
Singing in the gospel choir
Every Sunday he sang a solo
That made the sisters shout and cry
The children danced the Holy Ghost
When he sang and played his tambourine
After church he’d tell the preacher
All about his plans and dreams…
It hurt the congregation when they found out the news
That he’d stopped singing for the Lord
And started singing that rhythm and blues…
Now he gained the world, but he lost his soul…

Some pop icons would repent, abandon rock and roll and go back to the church to become ministers: Al Green, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, even Richard Coles from the Communards. But most stayed where the party was, using music to try and get rich and get laid. Over the years, pop music perfected the mechanics of ecstasy – the art of driving a crowd wild with the beat, the break, the call and response, the dance moves, the histrionics, the lights, the props, the pageantry. For 50 years, from 1950 to 2000, pop music was the unofficial cult of western industrial societies (now it’s been replaced by the cult of technology and we’re mainly left with nostalgia).

Popular music provided a temporary community through dancefloors, moshpits, festival sing-alongs. It also provided community through being in a band. Bands are mini ethical communities, where you learn about obligations and commitments to one another – the commitment to show up to practice, to work on getting tight. This is what Roddy Doyle, was getting at in The Commitments: how bands are a form of spiritual community, albeit an incredibly fragile one, constantly on the verge of falling apart.

Well, of course there are all kinds of problems with pop music as a secular religion. It inspired and channeled religious emotions not towards God but towards the Pop Star, and this messed people up – particularly the pop stars. The drugs which fueled the religious exaltation also messed many people up – out of the four people in my first band, fatefully named Lunatic Fringe, three of us developed mental illnesses because of drugs. And, finally, something that was meant to be about community and transcendence ended up, in gangsta rap, in the glorification of money, power and violence. Hip hop has more power than any other contemporary music, but now you listen to the lyrics and think, my God, this is hateful. But at its best, soul and rock and roll gave us an outlet for emotions that were often left out of the rationalised world of modern capitalism. It let us feel broken, lost, hurt, lonely, longing for release, and let us know other people felt the same – like prisoners communicating with each other by tapping on the pipes in their cell.

Meanwhile, the church has moved from its initial condemnation of rock and roll, towards embracing its spirit and its music. In the 1960s and 70s, the Charismatic Renewal movement swept through western churches, with intense services accompanied by signs, wonders and ecstasies, and often powered by joyous rock music. In the 1970s, a musician called John Wimber left the Righteous Brothers, found Jesus and started the Vineyard Movement, which briefly converted Bob Dylan, and from which Mumford and Sons originate. The Vineyard Movement emphasised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and rock music played a big part in its services. Wimber came over to the UK in the 1990s, and helped to inspire the ill-fated 9 O’Clock Service in Sheffield (the so-called ‘rave church’), and spread the charismatic embrace of rock to the affluent kids of HTB in Knightsbridge. HTB and Alpha is soaked in rock references: the first sermon I saw there, the preacher played a clip from Pink Floyd in the sermon! And from HTB, the rock-infused charismatic movement is gradually spreading into the entire Church of England. Who’d have thought it: the staid old Anglican Church has picked up the mechanics of ecstasy from rock and roll.

Check it out: this is a video from HillSong, a massive charismatic rock church in Australia. If you find it a bit too, er, plain vanilla, try this playlist I made of some great 60s soul tracks. Way more uplifting! And you know why? Because the soul songs go lower. They go down into the pain in a way this ultra-white preppie Christian rock never does. It’s so upbeat and chirpy, it doesn’t have any room for the possibility of failure. It has no blues.


In other news:

The journalist Miranda Sawyer has been exploring similar themes to this piece in a series for Radio 6 on music and emotions. In this episode, she considers the emotion of Jubilation, and interviews Sister Bliss – who hopefully I’ll be interviewing next week!

Interesting Prospect review of Antony Pagden’s new book on the Enlightenment, which argues it was based not so much on reason as on sympathy. But did it fatally lack sympathy for the majority of the world who believed in God?

Here’s an interview I did with the Irish Times.

Nice piece by Juliet Michaelson of new economics foundation, critiquing the Justin Wolfers paper on income and well-being that I linked to last week.

This is well interesting: a cultural history of exhaustion, from the Medical Humanities Centre in Durham.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, which is the main funder of mental health research in the US, has shaken up the world of psychology by rejecting DSM 5, the so-called ‘bible of psychiatric diagnosis’, as too inaccurate – before it’s even been published. Its director says NIMH is building its own new diagnostic criteria, which are alas likely to be even more biomedical than DSM.

Meanwhile, a new art show in New York is called DSM V. Can the musical be far behind?

A novelist with MS says she has a new lease of life thanks to the ‘brain enhancing drug’, Modafinil.

Look, we did a philosophy picnic on Hampstead Heath! It was fun.

That’s all for this week. Buy the book and give it to a friend!


Simon Critchley’s Politics of the Sacred

Simon Critchley, an English philosopher at the New School in New York, has suggested that all philosophy is an attempt to deal with two disappointments: religious disappointment, or the loss of faith; and political disappointment, or the search for justice. In his most recent book, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, he attempts to put these disappointments behind him, and work out a relationship between religion and politics. He’s not a theist himself, so this is a tricky task, but he nonetheless tries to build an atheist Utopian religion which he calls ‘mystical anarchism’.

He’s thus one of several English philosophers (AC Grayling, John Gray, Alain de Botton) currently trying to re-invent religion for a secular age. I’m not certain his attempt will be more successful than these earlier attempts, but before we criticize the project, let’s first outline his argument, because it’s certainly interesting.

1) Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Nazi philosopher

Firstly, Critchley argues that all modern political ideology involves a reformulation or metamorphosis of the sacred. In this he follows the German philosopher and ardent Nazi, Carl Schmitt, who wrote in an influential 1922 essay, ‘Political Theology’, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.

The Age of Reason might have congratulated itself on doing away with the old superstition of Christianity and the Divine Right of Kings. But Enlightenment political philosophies simply created new ‘sacred fictions’ to put in the old gods’ place: The People (or Volk), the Fuhrer, Representative Democracy, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand, and so on.

So, for example, American democracy is built on the strange Deism of the Freemasons / Illuminati. The Invisible Hand, meanwhile, was taken by Adam Smith from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – at the end of the play Oedipus is carried up by an invisible hand to the Gods. Sophocles took the image from the ancient fertility myth of Demeter. So an image that originally symbolised the divine power of Nature over human affairs came to be used to symbolise the divine power of the Market.

In seeing Enlightenment politics as competing ‘sacred narratives’, Critchley follows John Gray, who made a similar critique of neoliberalism as a Utopian religion in his 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. It’s also, interestingly, in line with the recent work of the social scientist Jonathan Haidt, which has looked at how different political narratives of the sacred push different emotional buttons within our psyches. Haidt wrote last year:

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

2) Rousseau’s civil religion

The Enlightenment philosopher who best understood the irrationalism of politics and the need for a conscious reformulation of the sacred was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau understood, better than most Enlightenment philosophers, that man “consults solely his passions in order to act”. The challenge of passionate politics (as Rousseau sees it) is how to transform a handful of alienated and selfish individuals into a mystically fused whole, in which no citizen is subordinated to any other, because all are united in the General Will. How can this mystical transformation happen? Rousseau writes in his Considerations on the Government of Poland: “Dare I say it? With children’s games: spectacles, games, and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’”. As Critchley notes, this idea “had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fetes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution”.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution: ecstatic politics in action

Rousseau was also the only Enlightenment political philosopher to follow Plato in seeing music as absolutely crucial to the formation of the national soul. In his ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages, Melody and Musical Imitation’, he blamed the decay of melody for the loss of political virtue, and expressed some hesitant hope that music might be revived and once again used as an organ to shape the national genius. Again, Rousseau’s Romantic nationalism was prescient, anticipating not just the importance of the Marseillaise and of national anthems in general to 19th century Romantic nationalism, but also the zenith of Romantic nationalism in the Nazi regime’s use of Wagner.

The crucial ‘fiction’ in Rousseau’s civil religion is the fiction of the legislator,  an almost superhuman Leader who will guide the people to their mystical oneness in the General Will. The Leader is a ‘superior intelligence who saw all of man’s passions and experienced none of them, who had no relation to our nature yet knew it thoroughly” – not a man, so much as a God.

Goering understood Rousseau’s call for national festivals to create the proper volksgeist

While one can applaud Rousseau’s prescience in understanding the power of the passions in politics, his plan for a civil religion is also a little chilling, bringing to mind Robespierre’s Dictatorship of Virtue and, even more, Goering’s Myth of Hitler, which likewise relied heavily on grand festivals, parades, games, music and cinema. Critchley admits: “It would seem there is little to prevent the legislator from becoming a tyrant, from believing that he is a mortal god who incarnates the General Will. Such is the risk that is always run when politics is organized around any economy of the sacred”.

Another risk of this politics of the sacred, of course, is that the politics of national ecstasy quickly turns into a bad trip of paranoia and bloodletting: Woodstock mutates into Altamont. To keep the people ‘high’, to keep the national festival going, at some point you need to start finding scapegoats to murder.

Critchley recognises the risk of bloody totalitarian dictatorship is a bit of a problem with Rousseau’s politics. He notes that the French philosopher Alain Badiou is happy to follow Rousseau and advocate violent dictatorship. Badiou writes: “Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of political will.” But Critchley, noble fellow, decides this “is a step I refuse to take”. So if a cult of the Fuhrer doesn’t appeal, what other models are there of passionate politics?

3) John Gray’s passive nihilism

Critchley’s search for what Wallace Stevens called an ‘acceptable fiction’ – some myth we can believe in even when we know it’s not true – brings him onto similar terrain as John Gray, whose new book, The Silence of Animals, also quotes Stevens heavily and is also a search for a myth we can believe in. But Critchley wittily rejects Gray’s sacred narrative:

[Gray’s pessimism] leads to a position which I call ‘passive nihilism’…The passive nihilist looks at the world with a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening, or, as was the case with the aged Rousseau’ botany. In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades  which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling into a meaning. In the face of the coming decades, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge… Nothing sells better than epigrammatic pessimism….


4) Mystical anarchism

So what form would Critchley’s more positive and optimistic politics take? He looks to medieval Millenarian anarchist movements, like the People’s Crusade of the 11th century and the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit of the 14th century. He uses Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium as a source, and notes the power of various self-proclaimed Messiahs – Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, John of Leyden – “to construct what Cohn calls…a phantasy or social myth around which a collective can be formed”.

Critchley is inspired by the ecstatic movements described in Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium

Once again, there are some risks to such Millenarial movements: like the French Revolution or the Nazi regime, the fires of political ecstasy were stoked by identifying scapegoats and declaring a Holy War on them. Violence, Critchley notes, “becomes the purifying or cleansing force through which the evil ones are to be annihilated”. But Critchley hopes to build an ‘ethical anarchism’ that rejects such violence, or rather, than seeks to violently annihilate the self, rather than the Other. He looks to Marguerite Porete, a mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, and how she tried to annihilate herself to become one with God. He’s also interested in Christine the Astonishing, who also tried to annihilate herself: “she threw herself into burning-hot making ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days”. Astonishing indeed.

We might simply reject such movements as Medieval nuttiness, but Critchley sees them as anticipating modern anarchist movements, particularly the Paris Commune, and the Situationism of Paris 1968. He doesn’t discuss the Occupy movement, but it also struck me as having something of the Millenarial uprising to it, not least in its occasional Woodstock-esque emphasis not on process reform but on a radical transformative politics of love. This is what Critchely is groping towards. He writes: “love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty and engage with its own annihilation”. Mystical anarchism, then, is an annihilation of the self and an attempt at the ‘infinite demand’ of love – not of God, but of one’s fellow men.

Critchely also explores St Paul’s writings at length, partly through the interpretations of Heidegger and Alain Badiou, and sees in Paul a role model of sorts for the Utopian anarchist in late capitalism, longing for another world which is not present, and suffering in anguish in a fallen world that is so alien to one’s desires. And yet Paul somehow manages to hope, to believe and have faith in the not-yet, which is an attitude that the mystical anarchist also clearly needs.

6) Critchley’s spat with Zizek

The last chapter summarises an argument Critchley has been having with Slavoj Zizek, who is supposedly one of the top ten thinkers in the world, according to Prospect magazine’s new poll (if anything exposes the limits of representative democracy, it is that assertion). Zizek sees Critchely’s politics of anarchist protest (for example, his advocation of protest against the Iraq War) as simply playing into the hands of the ruling regime. It makes the protestors feel better, and even helps the regime by giving the appearance of lively liberal disagreement.

Zizek, dreaming of cataclysmic violence

Zizek by contrast, in Critchley’s words, asserts that “the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby”. Go to bed, like John and Yoko. However, Zizek also dreams of  “a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed”. Yikes. Stay in bed Slavoj!

Critchley rejects this position, arguing it involves a misinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. This seems a weird reason to reject it: surely one can reject it simply because it’s evil? Why is Walter Benjamin suddenly granted biblical authority? Critchley can sometimes get lost in critical theory’s jargon and guru-worship, and not see the ethical wood for the semantic trees. I’m glad he rejects Badiou’s call for a Maoist dictatorship, for example, but why does he still quote Badiou so reverently? He called for a Maoist dictatorship! Why quote Carl Schmitt at such length, without fully spelling out quite what a book-burning Nazi anti-Semite he was? Critchley comes across as a sympathetic and decent voice (I have no idea how the man actually lives) but the philosophers he looks to (Rousseau, Heidegger, Schmitt, Badiou, Lacan) hardly inspire confidence in the ethical authority of philosophers.  You sometimes feel Critchley is too reverent before charlatan bullshit merchants like Lacan, that he lacks common sense, lacks Orwell’s ability to see through intellectual bullshit and to recognise a scoundrel when he sees one.

7) Problems with Critchley’s politics of the sacred

My main problem with Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless – similar to my problem with Gray’s new mythology – is that, for an attempt at a ‘passionate politics’, it is far too intellectual, tepid and, well, theoretical. Take this passage, where he attempts to formulate his faith of the faithless:

Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.

How is such airy-theory ever going to inspire an ecstatic popular uprising? The problem, I think, is that both Critchley and Gray are trying to construct a faith or myth and give it sacred power, but for a myth to have that power, you have to really believe it. You can’t just suspend your disbelief. This is the major difference between Critchley and St Paul or Christine the Astonishing. The latter two were perfectly happy to risk their lives for their sacred narratives, because they really believed in Jesus and in the after-life and so were happy to give up the world, even to see the world destroyed. And, crucially, they didn’t think it was possible to meet the ‘infinite demand’ of love without God’s help. They are weak, but God is strong. Critchley embraces Paul’s sense of human weakness, but is not capable of accepting the idea of God’s strength, which renders the ‘infinite demand’ of love even harder to meet. This, to my mind, is a problem with humanism in general: how to meet the infinite demand of ‘love thy neighbour’. I think Tobias Jones may be right: it is much easier to love thy neighbour when you have a common God above you and within you. Beneath modern cosmopolitanism, after all, is the Stoics’ sacred belief that we are all citizens of the City of God.

More broadly, do Critchley or Gray really believe their myths, or are they just playing? What are they prepared to sacrifice for them? Likewise, what are the followers of De Botton’s Religion for Atheists prepared to sacrifice, other than the occasional Sunday morning? It all seems very post-modern, very cafe-cosmopolitan, ironic, safe, non-committal, and a million miles away from either medieval Millenarianism or modern fascism or Jihadism. It seems like cafe chat. Talk is cheap.

Myths use us as vessels, and can destroy us

My second issue with this new postmodern embrace of religious myth is this: let’s say you succeed in creating a Supreme Fiction which people really do believe in, which pushes their sacred emotion buttons and mobilises a mass movement. How can you be sure that your new religion doesn’t veer into the orgy of scapegoat-sacrificing that previous ecstatic politics have veered into? How do you make sure your Woodstock doesn’t turn into Altamont? How do you make sure the leaders of this movement don’t start believing, as Hitler started to believe, that they really are the Messiah, the embodiment of the national genius, Wotan? As I said in my review of Gray’s book, myths are slippery things – they take hold of us and use us as vessels, like the alien face-suckers in Prometheus.

My final concern is that it seems like the Two Cultures are getting further and further apart. On the one hand, philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) seems to be rejecting the Enlightenment, rejecting liberal humanism, and looking to irrational and often violent religious myths for consolation and inspiration. On the other hand, the social sciences are informing a new ‘evidence-based politics’ – what Carl Schmitt would perhaps say as the deification of the Randomised Controlled Trial. The Two Cultures seem more and more incapable of talking to each other.

We need both! Critchley looks out into a bleak future likely to be characterized by “religious violence and environmental devastation”. In such a future, I am certain we will need good myths. But we also need a way to preserve scientific literacy and a respect for scientific evidence. That’s why I find Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics one optimistic meeting ground, bringing together both philosophers and social scientists. I think we should be wary of entirely rejecting Socratic humanism and completely embracing an irrationalist or Dionysiac politics. We are a generation that didn’t experience Nazism, and so have a more optimistic attitude to the politics of ecstasy. I like Dionysiac ecstasy as much as the next man, but I prefer it in church to a nationalist Fuhrer rally. As Eric Voegelin put it, don’t immanentize the eschaton.