‘Nostalgia For The Absolute’ By George Steiner

“Unless I read the evidence wrongly, the political and philosophic history of the West during the past 150 years can be understood as a series of attempts-more or less conscious, more or less systematic, more or less violent-to fill the central emptiness left by the erosion of theology. But I think we could put it more accurately: the decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct.” (2)
Ever since, modern human thought has sought an alternate or “surrogate creed” – something to fill the the necessity of a coherent view of the really real. What Steiner calls myth, is just another word for a worldview, and these, besides seeking coherence, seek to explain everything in total. It is also impossible to have a worldview without some “founding prophetic vision,” which “will be preserved in a series of canonic texts.”(3) It is a characteristic of a worldview that it creates its own drama, a story of the way things are or should be.
The new attempts at a world and life view are in fact a “substitute theology…systems of belief and argument.” (4) “These features directly reflect the conditions left by the decline of religion and by a deep seated nostalgia for the absolute.” (5) “We are starving for guaranteed prophecy.” (6) There is also the attempt to explain “the nature of original sin.” (6) Conversely there is a desire to return to some sort of Edenic vision of past innocence that will prefigure a future utopia . In short, all worldviews betray “a religious and messianic vision…the resurrection of man in the kingdom of justice.” (9)
“We have the vision of the prophet and the canonic texts which are bequeathed to the faithful by the most important apostle.” (9) “The vision, the promise, the summons to total dedication and a renewal of man, were, in the full sense, messianic, religious, theological. Or to borrow the title of a celebrated book, it is ‘a God who failed’” (11) Steiner’s focus here is on Marxism, but all to give an example of what is characteristic of all worldviews. Steiner sees the same dynamics in Freudian psychoanalysis (12-23).
“Marx and Freud took over from religion and from systematic theology the inference of original sin, of a fall of man-though neither mythology is really completely specific as to the occasion of this disaster. Levi-Strauss is specific. Necessary as it was, imprinted as it must have been in the genetic code and evolutionary potential of the human race, our transition from a natural to a cultural state was also a destructive step, and one that has left scars on both the human psyche and the organic world.” (28)
Steiner highlights the French anthropologist as one who drank from the streams of both Marx and Freud, seeing in them both, “two modes of radical understanding and reconstitution.” (24) For Steiner these are among “the great mythologies which have attempted to fill the vacuum left by religion.” (25) “There is an Hassidic parable which tells us that God created man so that man might tell stories…to give coherent expression to reality.” (26-27) “The fall of man did not, at one stroke, eradicate all the vestiges of the Garden of Eden.” (31)
However, “In Levi-Strauss there is the obsessive sense of retribution, of man’s failure to observe his contractural responsibilities to creation. We have never in modern times had a more powerful, a more explicit, reading of man’s breach of covenant with the mystery of creation, and of his own borrowed being in a world which he should guard and preserve, in a garden which was his to cultivate and not to destroy. Here are three great mythologies devised to explain the history of man, and our future.” (37)
“All three are rational mythologies claiming a normative, scientific status. All three stem from a shared metaphor of original sin. Can it be altogether accidental that these three visionary constructs-two of which, Marxism and Freud, have already done so much to change Western, and indeed, world history-should derive from a Jewish background? Is there not a logic in the fact that these surrogates to a moribund Christian theology and account of history, that these attempts to replace a dying Christianity, should have come from those whose own legacy Christianity had done so much to supplant.?” (37)
Although not specifically stated by Steiner, it is ironic that the secular drift of western culture, having dismissed the Christian worldview as a myth in the full sense of being the opposite of factuality, should now evolve into a society that has fallen before the idols of superstition and irrationality. “Ours is the psychological and social climate most infected by superstition, by irrationalism, of any since the decline of the Middle ages and, perhaps, even since the time of the crisis in the Hellenistic world.” (38) This is seen in the widespread and profitable enterprise of astrology, and astral and galactic forces.
“The occult is now a vast industry with multifarious sub-divions. Pychic, psychokinetic, telepathic phenomena are being studied with the utmost seriousness. Clairvoyants of every hue flourish, ranging from the lay of the tea leaves on an amusement pier, to practitioners of graphology, palmistry, geomancy, and the Tarot pack. Modern man is enmeshed in a network of psychic forces.” (41) “There is a fundamental review in progress of such basic notions as chance, probability, law.
“It is a truism to say that Western culture is undergoing a dramatic crisis of confidence.”(46) Lest one think that Steiner sees the answer to be a return to divine revelation, he regards the Christian worldview, as he understands it, as being helpless and corrupt in the face of the evil of wars, “and in the face of totalitarian and genocidal terrors thereafter. It is not often said plainly enough. Those who realize that the same church blessed the killer and the victim…are not surprised by the bankruptcy of any theological stands since.” (46)
So sadly we see Steiner’s ignorance here. The Christian stand today, in particular to the question of evil, has been that very doctrine that Steiner has said other mythologies have sought to replace, namely the fall of man in a pivotal covenantal rebellion. His main point is this – “the absence of a commanding theology of a systematic mystery such as was incarnate in the church.” (48) “I have argued that the gradual erosion of organized religion and systematic theology, particularly of Christian religion in the West, has left us with a deep unsettling nostalgia for the absolute.” (50)
In his concluding chapter Steiner asks – ‘Does the truth have a future?’(50) When he delivered these lectures on what he called ‘Secular Messiahs’ in 1974, the question as to whether truth would have a future may have been received in jest. However, now some 45 years later, or what is the next generation, this question is no joke. Nostalgia being a sentimental feeling, rather than anything rational, reveals what is Steiner’s conception is of religion and faith.
Even the ‘secular messiahs’ or mythologies he has highlighted are to be commended, according to Steiner, because they “are monuments of reason and celebrations of the ordering powers of rational thought.” (50) However, Steiner believed that the answer was more obvious. The then current emotional climate, as he saw the 70’s, was do to the absence of science. “It was precisely the belief that the natural sciences would fill-indeed more than fill-the emptiness left in the human spirit by the decay of religion and supernaturalism, which was one of the major forces bringing about this decay.” (50)
Thus, it is not so much the natural sciences, but naturalism itself which would be the sole definition of truth. “As the ancient darkness of unreason and credulity receded, the light of the sciences was to shine forth. The ‘impassioned countenance’ of scientific discovery, to borrow Wordsworth’s phrase, would replace the childish mask of the gods and serve as a beacon for human progress.” (51) For Steiner, divine revelation, such as the Gospels are therefore not true truth, as Schaeffer would say.
“The mystical tradition, from the time of the gospels on right to modern times, always insisted on a vision of truth beyond rational grasp, beyond logic, beyond experimental control or refutation.” (53) But for Steiner the only truth is what can be subject the the so-called scientific method of naturalism – experimental control or refutation. Despite the fact that John spoke of Christ as the word or logic of God, Steiner reinterpreted his words at 8:32, that the truth will set one free, as a purely mystical conception (51).
Strangely enough, Steiner sees another villain more subtle in their attack on the naturalistic conception of truth, in the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’. “Their argument goes something like this. Objectivity, scientific law, truth-functions, indeed logic itself, are neither neutral nor eternal…Truth, in their explanation, is in fact a complex variable dependant on political social aims. Different classes have different truths. Logic is a weapon of the literate bureaucracy as against the intuitive sensory modes of speech and feeling among the less-well-educated masses.” (54).
The problem for Steiner is that his own world view of naturalism itself can have no place for logic. He gives but three risks to his naturalism. One is the the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, that the universe is running down. Quoting Bertrand Russel he writes, “it is open to us to say that when the time comes God will wind up the machinery again: but if we say this, we can base our assertion only upon faith, not upon one shred of scientific evidence.” (55)
Secondly, Steiner claimed that there was evidence accumulating that “it is very hard for man, particularly for so-called developed, highly skilled and technologically equipped man to endure long periods of peace.” (56) From this perspective, “war…would be a kind of essential balancing mechanism to keep us in a state of dynamic health.” (56). His third risk is that posed by genetics, but he tread carefully here, because of some thoughts at the time, that there were different intellectual capacities posited based on race.
Based upon Steiner’s conception of truth as naturalism, helps us understand what he has used as threats to the future of his “truth”. “The enshrinement of scientific laws, whether Newtonian, Darwinian, or Malthusian, reflects a conscious investment in intellectual and technological control over society.” (54) The three risks he posited he himself admits came in the context of a cold war and threat of nuclear holocaust. Given his naturalistic view of truth, it is not surprising that he viewed it as an “affliction.” (58)
It is also not surprising, given all the above, that he concludes that truth may be “more complex than man’s needs, that it may in fact be wholly extraneous and even inimical to these needs.” (60) If the only truth is the truth of naturalism, there is indeed reason to fear. However, there was a time when there was a conception of truth that was indeed based upon the logic of God as he has revealed himself in nature and the word. This truth indeed sets one free.
Sadly, Steiner’s naturalistic conception of the truth, he acknowledges may result in the death of humanity. “It is the eminent dignity of our species to go after truth disinterestedly. And there is no disinteredness greater than that which risks and perhaps sacrifices human survival. The truth, I believe, does have a future; whether man does is much less clear. But I cannot help having a hunch as to which of the two is more important.” (61). Make no mistake about it, Steiner had a deep religious commitment to his conception of truth!