Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!
Reflecting on the state of affairs in our societies, it is hard for Yeats’ poem The Second Coming not to come to mind. The palpable anger which Trump’s presidential campaign feeds off, it the same sort of anger that fuelled Bernie Sanders’ campaign; we see much the same thing in the UK with the Brexit campaign and with the surge of support for Corbyn and UKIP. There is a palpable sense that whilst our political elites may have papered over the cracks of the 2008 crash, the house rests on uneasy foundations. This is part of a wider malaise. In the era of big government which has lasted since the Second World showed how government controls could help win wars, spawning the idea that, in that case, it could also win the peace too, there was an implied, and in the UK explicit social contract between the electorate and the government – in return for higher taxes and great government control, the government would deliver a decent standard of living for all and prosperity. That contract seems not to have been fulfilled, and the electorate, used to blaming others for things, blames the government.
At a deeper level, the promises held out for a secular utopia have not been fulfilled. Just as science cannot answer the question of why we are here, the State cannot answer the question of what makes us happy; money can certainly allow to be be miserable and anxious in comfort, but it is not the answer to an inner spiritual malaise; and now the money is running out, not even the comfortable spiritual misery is on offer. Having been brought by the State into a child-like dependence upon it, it should surprise no one that the reaction to being disappointed is also somewhat child-like. It is a reminder, were one needed, that the answer to what ails mankind is not to be found in worldly things. Indeed, as Jesus knew, attachment to worldly wealth can be a hinderance to realising that true contentment lies elsewhere.
The insurgent political movements mentioned above offer nothing new. Trump is an incoherent spasm of rage from the Right for a lost golden age; UKIP is something similar; Sanders and Corbyn a nostalgic call to young people who can’t remember how bad socialism was when it was tried the first time. But the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns are in a way more interesting, because they resemble what I imagine a secular version of a religious revival movement would look like – with Sanders and Corbyn taking on a prophetic mantle. What appeals to the young, and perhaps not so young, is the impression both have tried to give that they are not interested in ‘politics as usual’ and are ‘sea green incorruptibles’. The original possessor of that sobriquet was Robespierre, and one of the features of idols of the left has been the way in which, at least before they got power, they made a parade of their puritanical life-style; in times of unrest, people like their Messiahs to be men of puritanical mien.
This was one of the problems the Pharisees had with Jesus. A John the Baptist they could understand – a wild man of the wilderness was well within their experience of prophets; not so Jesus. Jesus ate and drank with publicans and women, he let a woman of dubious character wash his feet, he talked to Cannanite and Philistine women. The point of a prophet seemed to be to point to great feats of asceticism which were necessary to atone for your sins; one who frequented winebibbers and women with bad reputations was quite novel. There is, in mankind, a tendency to dualism, to regarding the things of this world as of now account, and to value only the spiritual; it has allowed men to torture and kill each other in the name of their gods or God, confident that it was the unworthy body which suffered so that the worthier soul might be saved. Jesus was different. He was God Incarnate. He did not simply appear in the form of a man, or occupy a human form, he was man, and his body suffered the worst that men can inflict on each other’s bodies. He did not offer a future of disembodied souls, but one where the body would be resurrected. He came to save us, not part of us. In the eyes of God we are all of unique worth. He did not offer a worldly solution to what ails us, but he offered us the only real solace that exists for it in this world. If we can recover some of that ‘passionate intensity’ that the encounter with him gives, that would be a better road than those signposted by the anger prophets of doom or utopia.