Summer Days With Nietzsche and Hopkins

I am taking a few days of vacation in August, and I love it. Once we get into a break like this, we suddenly realize how much we need it. I’m sure you know what I mean. But the long days of sunlight, playing catch with my grandsons, Fourth of July parades, burgers on the grill, great tomatoes and peaches, more time to read and reflect — wow, summer is something else, isn’t it?

But I’ve also been thinking and writing of late about the steady rise of secular culture. This persistent shift has been going on, of course, for well over a century. We woke up one day as a culture and discovered that people of faith were on the margins of influence in our society. And I ask myself: How did this happen? Did Christians just blow it? Were the secular intellectuals simply more persuasive? The answer to those questions is a long and complex story.

But the contemporary philosopher and historian Charles Taylor calls this shift nothing less than “a titanic change in our Western civilization.” In his recent book A Secular Age, Taylor talks at length about how we moved “from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” “The presumption of unbelief,” he says, “has become dominant…has achieved hegemony.”

The late 19th century was perhaps the tipping point for this seismic cultural shift. This is the time, of course, when the hugely influential Friedrich Nietzsche declared famously that “God is dead.” He claimed we had unhitched the earth from its sun.

And there were consequences: “Whither are we moving now?…Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” When “God is dead,” Nietzsche concludes, there is simply “no resting place…any longer open to your heart.” Not a pretty picture, this secular culture we have created.

At just about the same time, the marvelous poet and Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, was painting a very different picture. I was imagining the other day a conversation between Nietzsche and Hopkins. Hopkins may have said something like this: “No, no, you don’t get it, Nietzsche. I believe there is something more, something at a deeper level, something ready to spring loose, something ready to be discovered. I know you think that’s all an illusion, but I believe I have spotted, time and again, a sign-post, a hint, a reality not readily recognized in our day.” This is what Hopkins might have been saying as he crafted his beautiful poems.

In Hopkins’ great poem “God’s Grandeur,” for example, he recognizes the drift of culture to discount and dismiss the sacred in the world around us. And yet for all of this, this banishment of the sacred, Hopkins offers up a fundamental affirmation that

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like the shining from shook foil…

You’ve got to keep your eyes open. You’ve got to remain watchful, attentive. It’s there!

In the end, Hopkins claims “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This requires no more a leap of faith than for Nietzsche to proclaim we are “straying as through an infinite nothing.” But if Hopkins is right, things will turn out profoundly different. In our lives. In our culture.

Hopkins concludes this marvelous poem with a gentle encouragement, really an assertion of something more:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

How exuberant. How joyful. How hopeful, even as we live our lives in a “bent world.”

These two great writers and intellectuals at the tipping point of history, start from two radically different places. And it seems clear that our culture has chosen Nietzsche’s path for now. And so I ask: Is it possible to engage this culture with another way of looking at things, another starting point, something like Hopkins’ perspective that God hovers over his world because he loves his world? Is it possible to reclaim for our culture Hopkins’ way of looking at things?

That’s one of my thoughts that fill these beautiful days of August.