The waning of Christian faith among the people, especially the intelligentsia did not happen over night. In the middle of the nineteenth century Matthew Arnold wrote poems concerning this development. His well-known “Dover Beach” and “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” are prime examples of his own yearning in the midst of the waning of Christian faith in the West.
“Dover Beach” begins in exultation as the poet describes the sea and strand at night. He beckons his beloved and the reader to come to the window to see this prodigy of nature–the moon, the calm sea, the vast cliffs on the bay. But, the waves of the sea also announce a deep sadness. Like Sophocles we hear “the ebb and flow Of human misery.” The sea of faith was once “at the full.” Now one can hear its receding roar. Exultation turns to a melancholy the poet calls his beloved to share in order “to be true to one another.” Let us admit then that the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;” The poet recognizes that we are “on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.” Arnold has a profound regret for the loss of faith that he knows cannot return, certainly not for him. One can feel intensely the emotional and spiritual pain that he feels. One may even feel it in himself.
A similar theme is found in “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse.” This poem was inspired by a honeymoon trip to the great monastery and mother house of the Carthusian Order, located in the Chartreuse Mountains near Grenoble. Arnold describes the hike, guide-led, up the mountain to the monastery and then the monastery and its religious activity. The poet asks, why is he in this place? He remembers his teachers who taught him the truth that involves leaving behind Christian faith. Though he is in this religious place, he does not deny this loss. He came only to lament it as an ancient Greek or Roman might do at the collapse of the ancient religion of the many gods. As the ancient pagan religion, Greek, Roman, or Runic, has passed, so is the Christian faith passing. Arnold stands beside the ancients to shed tears that the old faith is dead, paganism for them; Christianity for him. An old faith has passed away; a new faith has not yet been born. Ironically, he asks for the help of the monks. He would grieve among the last believers. Like an army, described vividly in the poem, society moves onward. The poet wishes that the desert of monastic life be left in peace.
The conflict continues even unto the twenty-first century. Full-scale secularism has been born; Christianity has not died. While in the West the numbers of Christians has waned, an explosion of Christian faith has occurred in the Third World. The American Church is showing new vitality despite the waning numbers. The funeral is premature. Arnold’s tears were shed long before the final illness, death, and the funeral. Those who believe highly doubt that there will be obsequies.
The apologetic task of the Church continues in the face of a strident, but faltering secularism. Mr. Arnold is a great poet whom this writer much appreciates. But, his vision of a passing and dead faith is premature. The Christian apologist and witness need not be melancholic over the idea that Christianity will inevitably disappear from the earth. The modern ebbing of faith, if it is ebbing, may be an episode in human history that will pass away. Or, it will remain until the end when Christ will return to gather his people. If the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, neither will modern secularism and unbelief. The apologist and witness must often pray for confidence and hope and must rest assured in the final victory of Christ.
Michael G. Tavella
July 13, 2019