An Encomium for Richard Holloway

I admire Richard Holloway for his courage. Here is a religious man who, from 1986-2000, was Bishop of Edinburgh; a man of virtue concerned with his neighbor, with social justice, and with the common good; and, not the least, a contemplative man who somewhere along the way lost his faith but not his desire for transcendence. I don’t know when his doubts became so substantial that they compelled him to leave the Anglican Church, but I imagine that the decision came only after the crisis had become too acute to ignore and too great to bear.

What brought on this crisis, one that emerged, no doubt, over the course of many years only to reach critical mass in the past decade, was the feeling that traditional religion had lost its grip on the modern world together with the sense that the general account offered by evolution could no longer be denied.

The loss of traditional religion is still movingly recorded in Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” a poem with which Holloway is all too familiar. Here, the speaker describes his experience of walking into a church and of finding that this hallowed space, a space that had once been suffused with life, meaning, and community, has since been abandoned. And what does he do? He goes through the motions, taking off his hat, signing the guest book, and intoning “Here endeth” too loudly. Is this a museum, a tomb, a ruin? And what does he wonder? Only how we’ll get on after the rituals that in previous epochs had bound us together have ceased to be practiced. He sees that this life-world has lost its sense; that the people have gone elsewhere (but where have they gone?); that the church, for millennia a symbol of communion and love, is now but a relic of another world, one dimly remembered yet still vaguely felt.

And that is the thing, really: the poem speaks to us because it inhabits a certain post-religious sensibility, marking off the death of traditional religion but also the absence of some serviceable replacement. There is honesty in this (if one can describe a poem as being “honest”) since the poem voices the question rising up from a life need. Accordingly, “Church Going” is inoculated against “bland nihilism,” a matter-of-fact ethos of a later generation where the question—whither has fled?—no longer arises, at least not with the urgency it once did. 

I admire Holloway first, therefore, because he is attuned to the melancholy of our time but also to the hope for something more, something else. Throughout his writings, he acknowledges that something deep has gone missing but that we can’t go home again. For even if we abandon traditional religion, “we have not necessarily abandoned the religious quest,” he says in Looking in the Distance, “not if we think of it as the name we give to humanity’s preoccupation with its own meaning or lack of meaning.”

Here we are in exile for once we grant the general truths of evolution, we realize that there is no going back. Darwin’s revolution, we know, amounted to replacing a providential order with an interminable process of adaptation to contingencies, pressures, and circumstances. Under this new dispensation, human beings do not fit into a hierarchy of being. Rather, they are natural organisms in many respects like any others, participating in a world filled with remarkable complexity as well as ineradicable transience. In consequence, we have no pre-given purpose, no all-encompassing framework with which to make sense of our lives, no shared structure that gives weight to our life projects.

On the one hand, the feeling of secularism resembles that of spring: both lighten our metaphysical load. We modern secularists needn’t worry that our lives do not conform to an alien ideal. As Hegel beautifully put it, unhappy consciousness was always a temptation resulting from positing an ideal that went beyond our human capacities. However much we strive to approach the essential, however steadfast we remain in our endeavors, still the distance between the real and the ideal shall remain. But, thankfully, no more of that.

On the other hand, it seems that it’s difficult to get comfortable in our post-metaphysical seats no matter how hard we try. During the morning well before dawn, we might fall into nihilistic despair, a mood Holloway describes as flowing from a “sense of bafflement at the massive indifference of the universe.” How puzzling, Holloway remarks, that we’re conscious beings surrounded on all sides by an unconscious universe. To be sure, we have no trouble understanding how we came about—Antonio Damasio, among others, has given us a naturalistic account of the emergence of phenomenal and introspective consciousness out of embodied life—but we are still no closer to explaining why we’re here. Unless, that is, we assign the “why” question to another epoch and seek to assure ourselves that such an inquiry betokens an error in judgment or, to be more precise, an illusion harking back to premodernity.

And if it doesn’t? And if we still take nihilism seriously, working to quiet our despair not by diagnosing our condition as megalomania but by engaging in rational inquiry? Then what ensues is a perilous antinomy between traditional faith (God imbues the world with meaning) and existentialism (crudely put, meaning is constructed). But while the idea of a providential order has collapsed, the existential slogan that “we make life meaningful” seems more like a catch-all marketing slogan than like rigorous speculative philosophy.

“Traditional religion has collapsed? Hardly!,” replies the theist pointing to sociological studies indicating an uptick in self-identified religious observers in the developing and developed world. What’s more, eclectic, “postmodern” religions are springing up every day in American suburbs near you and in exurbs around the corner. A latter-day Dr. Johnson, the theist kicks the stone in front of him and, foot now throbbing, blurts out, “I refute it thus!”

Not exactly. Traditional religion lives on because it promises to fulfill what Hegel calls “objective spirit”: the identification of a subject with an institution. In Hegel’s account, I am positively free insofar as I can see myself as embodied in institutional life, embodied, for instance, within the walls of the church, in its practices, and through its forms of charity. Indeed, in his First Encyclical God is Love (Deus Caritas Est), Pope Benedict echoes this line of thought, arguing that the spirit of the Catholic Church is caritas. (To be sure, this line of thought of necessity throws up the doubt that the Church is not, or has not always been, an instrument of caritas in practice.) God’s love thereby finds expression in the giving of alms to the needy, and who among us has never been needy? Especially in Latin American countries where tradition is still an integral part of everyday life, we should expect to see Catholicism remain a living force for some time to come.

However, this does not belie the fact that the spirit of traditional religion is slowly dying. Alienation from institutional life seems to be an undeniable fact about the modern world. Perhaps this is the natural result of the spirit of Protestantism. For once Reformers rejected the authority of the Church and once our relation to God became a matter of the heart, it was only a matter of time—the slow drift of time—before the divine itself was put into question. In this story, sociality gave way to interiority which, after the Darwinian revolution, gave rise to nihilism. The God hypothesis, finally, becomes unnecessary. Unable thus to regard our potentialities as being actualized in and through traditional institutions—the bourgeois family which has yet to accommodate the plurality of sexual practices, educational establishments which feed on individual achievement and which seek to foster “self-esteem,” and, above all, the church whose messages seem somehow written for those that came before us—we muddle on. Some experiment with new forms of mystical and religious practices such as Cafh, New Ageism, and ecological pantheism while others like Holloway admit with stirring honesty to being lost in the wilderness.

On other side of the antinomy lies existentialism, which, I’m about to argue, is just as spiritually unsatisfying. In “Navigating Past Nihilism,” Sean Kelly claims that we need no more than pluralism in order to flourish. He writes approvingly (Hegel would have said “tragically”) that the modern world is filled with “many distinct and incommensurate good ways of life.” There is thus no single summum bonum toward which we strive. Rather, there are many to choose from and plenty, he implies, that are choiceworthy. It is this latter implication that sounds suspect.

Robert Nozick’s distinction between value and meaning sheds some light on the problem with Kelly’s pluralistic solution. In The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, Nozick claims that “[v]alue involves something’s being integrated within its own boundaries, while meaning involves its having some connection beyond these boundaries.” If I value a painting, then I must be attending to whatever salient features bring a certain unity to the work. And if I find meaning in my participation in a neighborhood cause, then I must be making a connection with some larger whole that is beyond me but of which I am a part. Crucially, Nozick goes one step further, arguing that value and meaning are “coordinate notions”: “[m]eaning can be gained by linking with something of value.” (To up the ante, I would add the word “only” after gained.)

Here, Nozick has put his finger on something, and that something is the “wastrel problem.” I may take my relationship to some larger entity to be a meaningful one, but what if that object to which I am attached is not something of intrinsic value? I may, after all, be deluded or self-deceived. Suppose I were expending time, effort, and care on behalf of a particular cause yet suppose that cause turned out to be not at all worthwhile. Then wouldn’t I be wasting my life? Indeed, how do we know that we’re not also wasting ours?

I don’t see how the pluralism Kelly defends can immunize us from living in a society whose shelves are well-stocked with real and make-believe wastrels. “But perhaps that’s simply the price we pay for living in a pluralistic society. Give people freedom. Tell them that there’s only one constraint on their doing what they want: that they don’t go out and harm their neighbors. If they don’t live meaningful lives, what of it? That’s their business, not mine.”

This libertarian reply, whether caricatured or accurate I can’t say for sure, is shocking inasmuch as it assumes that there is no such thing as society. The essence of our being is to be an individual. Yet if in an atomistic, pluralistic society we can all be wastrels, unsure exactly what end we should aim at, then how are we not slipping even deeper into nihilism? Or have we simply managed to forget the problem of nihilism entirely as we go about pursuing our enlightened or not so enlightened self-interest?

My provisional conclusion is that we need a telos that directs and organizes our ideas, actions, and life plans, yet, in a secular age, we seem to have no idea where to look for it. What then?

We need to be careful lest we confuse being virtuous with finding meaning. New Atheists are right to say that we needn’t resort to religious absolutism in order to be good. Of course, one can lead a life of virtue, a life of kindness, thoughtfulness, and tolerance, without grounding one’s virtues in religious principles or practices. I would even go further and say that all morality is of its very nature “godless”: it is without god, not of or about god, that is to say, not pertaining to the category of god. But the person who fulfills all her duties may still be paralyzed by early morning despair. Unlike positivists who insist that the question of meaning is unintelligible and that we’d do well to swear off the problem of meaning altogether, Holloway seeks to preserve some spiritual orientation in human life. But this dimension is scarcely more than a mode of vague, indistinct intuiting. Sensing that there is an absence of the divine when he “looks in the distance,” he feels not “neutral agnosticism” but “committed unknowing.”

This, I think, is the stuff of tragedy with cognition claiming not to know conflicting with passion’s demand that there be something. And this tragic conflict would help explain why Holloway resorts to poetry and why he speaks in terms of moods. His early morning mood, nihilistic despair, is followed by a predawn wistfulness, which will lead to others in turn. The first mood accompanies the claim of absolute absence, the second alludes to an absence that could have once been but now is not. Both moods describe poetic experiences where giving expression to a feeling is not all that matters, yet—for all that and at least for the time being—it is all that can be hoped for.

All this makes life into something of a gamble. Living well thus requires honesty and humility in order to persevere as well as courage and constancy in order to be strong enough to look on in wonder and in horror. This is also something I admire about Holloway.

About the Author

Andrew Taggart is a writer and philosophical counselor based in New York. His essays are archived at his website.

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