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Religions Dead and Living

What exactly is the remaining pull of a place that is notionally holy? And if, as seems obvious, religion is in such sharp decline, what will be the ultimate fate of such places when they fall into disuse and ruin? Might they be objects of superstitious terror, unlucky places? Or will they be special and magical, thin spaces where different worlds encounter each other, where women come to seek healing for sick children, where some might hope to see the dead walking.

In recent columns, I looked at what happened to a religion heavily focused on hierarchy and clergy when it was cut loose from those moorings – how in fact it reverted to what we might call a default kind of religion. I noted for instance the emphasis on sacred places and objects, on charismatic individuals, and the central focus on preserving relations with the dead. Believers are also drawn by the prospect of healing. I produced a ten point system, which I invite you to look at. Just to speculate here: might that model await us in the future, much as we have known it in the past? If future Western (and particularly European) societies did secularize even more than they are doing presently, do these ten points provide a predictive framework for what would remain?

Not long since, I blogged at about Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem “Church Going,” which I regard as one of the greatest meditations on faith in an age of secularization. If you don’t know it, it is very well worth seeking out. For copyright reasons, I won’t quote the whole thing here, but you can find the full text easily online at lots of sites.

In the poem, a passing cyclist, presumably an agnostic like Larkin himself, steps into a deserted church. Finding nothing of special aesthetic interest, he leaves fairly rapidly but is still puzzled at why even he bothered to stop. What exactly is the remaining pull of a place that is notionally holy?

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