Summer Days With Nietzsche and Hopkins

I am taking a few days of vacation in August, and I love it. Once we get into a break like this, we suddenly realize how much we need it. I’m sure you know what I mean. But the long days of sunlight, playing catch with my grandsons, Fourth of July parades, burgers on the grill, great tomatoes and peaches, more time to read and reflect — wow, summer is something else, isn’t it?

But I’ve also been thinking and writing of late about the steady rise of secular culture. This persistent shift has been going on, of course, for well over a century. We woke up one day as a culture and discovered that people of faith were on the margins of influence in our society. And I ask myself: How did this happen? Did Christians just blow it? Were the secular intellectuals simply more persuasive? The answer to those questions is a long and complex story.

But the contemporary philosopher and historian Charles Taylor calls this shift nothing less than “a titanic change in our Western civilization.” In his recent book A Secular Age, Taylor talks at length about how we moved “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” “The presumption of unbelief,” he says, “has become dominant…has achieved hegemony.”

The late 19th century was perhaps the tipping point for this seismic cultural shift. This is the time, of course, when the hugely influential Friedrich Nietzsche declared famously that “God is dead.” He claimed we had unhitched the earth from its sun.

And there were consequences: “Whither are we moving now?…Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” When “God is dead,” Nietzsche concludes, there is simply “no resting place…any longer open to your heart.” Not a pretty picture, this secular culture we have created.

At just about the same time, the marvelous poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was painting a very different picture. I was imagining the other day a conversation between Nietzsche and Hopkins. Hopkins may have said something like this: “No, no, you don’t get it, Nietzsche. I believe there is something more, something at a deeper level, something ready to spring loose, something ready to be discovered. I know you think that’s all an illusion, but I believe I have spotted, time and again, a sign-post, a hint, a reality not readily recognized in our day.” This is what Hopkins might have been saying as he crafted his beautiful poems.

In Hopkins’ great poem “God’s Grandeur,” for example, he recognizes the drift of culture to discount and dismiss the sacred in the world around us. And yet for all of this, this banishment of the sacred, Hopkins offers up a fundamental affirmation that

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like the shining from shook foil…

You’ve got to keep your eyes open. You’ve got to remain watchful, attentive. It’s there!

In the end, Hopkins claims “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This requires no more a leap of faith than for Nietzsche to proclaim we are “straying as through an infinite nothing.” But if Hopkins is right, things will turn out profoundly different. In our lives. In our culture.

Hopkins concludes this marvelous poem with a gentle encouragement, really an assertion of something more:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

How exuberant. How joyful. How hopeful, even as we live our lives in a “bent world.”

These two great writers and intellectuals at the tipping point of history, start from two radically different places. And it seems clear that our culture has chosen Nietzsche’s path for now. And so I ask: Is it possible to engage this culture with another way of looking at things, another starting point, something like Hopkins’ perspective that God hovers over his world because he loves his world? Is it possible to reclaim for our culture Hopkins’ way of looking at things?

That’s one of my thoughts that fill these beautiful days of August.

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Categories: Change, Culture, Faith, Joy

3 replies

  1. Dr. Eaton,

    With the valuable historical perspective you provide, it becomes clear to me that the church, having no significant challenge to its dominance, became complacent, and failed to notice and respond to the subtle shift that was occurring in society. The church lost its focus on actively evangelizing the next generation, and just assumed that the next generation would inherit the faith of the current one.

    Instead, each subsequent generation inherited a watered-down faith, a weaker faith than the one before it. Then, when that faith was challenged by events like the Great War and World War II, this weakened faith bent or broke under the pressure, like badly tempered steel. (Of course, this was not the case for everyone, but it was the case for a high percentage of families.)

    Now, we are faced with the task of not only leading our own children to a healthy relationship with God, but also of evangelizing a generation that has become jaded by religion, saying, “We tried that, it didn’t work,” when, in fact, they’ve never really tried it.

    The church has got to wake up and realize that it has given up a large amount of ground over the past few generations, and that ground can only be regained by a long campaign, waged with initiative, determination, creativity, and most of all, prayer. First, we must pray for revival. Second, we must work for revival, using all the resources at our disposal. Third, we must make sure that in the midst of this campaign we continue to nurture the faith within our own families and communities.

    Those are my thoughts on the secularization of society. I hope they add something of value to this discussion.

  2. I think Mr. Pearson misses Dr. Eaton’s point, his encouragement is identical to the typical cliche sent down from the pulpit every sunday, calling for revival and a campaign for lost righteousness. Mr. Pearson is correct that it must begin with a foundation of prayer. But the point of Dr. Eaton’s blog is that in the last century Christians have become so alienated from their “own” society that the message they preach falls on deaf ears. There is a “presumption of unbelief” that can be found even among the children of strong believers. In answer to to this Christians must find a new way to engage this culture, from a different starting point, perhaps a more radical one. Christians need to discover that “dearest freshness” found at a deeper level that Hopkins speaks of. And they need to hope, hope that this freshness may give them a new avenue by which to revitalize their own belief. Then they can take the step of evangelizing and reclaiming the culture.

  3. And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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