Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fear in the Modern Age

Crossing a fog-enveloped West Country camp-site in the early hours of the morning and seeing nothing in the thick damp darkness, I was recently surprised by a sudden sheer aversion to - even fear of - the night around me.  Any city-dweller might be unused to the utterness of country darkness, but I had not expected the dread seeping into me as intangibly as the fog.  I realised what an ordeal such a night presented to lighthouse-keepers (let alone to seafarers).  All they had about them were ears, the imagination (and its tricks), and the taunting tingling of dampness on their cheeks.  How greatly they must have feared a shipwreck and how they must have longed for dawn.


Since in such circumstances it is suddenly very easy to believe wholeheartedly in God, and every residue of supercilious rationalism crumbles away, I wonder whether one of the reasons for secularism's rise might well be our attempted abolition of night, and of fear with it.  Most of us live in towns or suburbs which we are content to have drenched in bronze light,  so as to make us think that our senses' dominion over our surroundings is absolute.  I had no particular reason to feel much more at ease inside my torch-lit tent - the same night was only on the other side of the canvas - but I did, and could quench my unease at the touch of a button.  Robert Macfarlane, at the other end of the country, has much of interest to say on the subject in this video:


Afterwards I had second thoughts, and became less sure that twenty-first century Britain has quite seen off fear.  I think that many people are still afraid of various things, but fear privately, and also seek consolation elsewhere than in church.  People are afraid of permanence; they are afraid of marriage; they are afraid of their own weaknesses.  This is borne out, I think, by the way in which the National Health Service, for instance, is regarded in public life.  Somewhere, somebody has said that the N.H.S. is now really the national religion.  Certainly it makes sense, since people have always worried about physical health, that the nation should turn to a national service, and that there should be fierce opposition to any attempt by the Government to prune it back, and that politicians tend consequently to speak reverently of 'our N.H.S.' in order to win their audience over.  The N.H.S. also has direct involvement in many people's lives, either as employer or physician.  Then there are the reports that come out from time to time suggesting that medication is consumed by the British at a staggering rate.  (I should make it clear that this is not to say that people do not necessarily need such medication).  It makes sense, in a secular mind, that health in this world should take the place of salvation in the next.

It has also occurred to me that the lack of self-restraint in modern British culture actually conceals a fear in its very swagger; this time the inward fear of feelings and conscience.  The famous British restraint once subdued feelings for the sake of politeness.  The louder tone of conversation and behaviour that replaced it is still, however, a kind of discipline, since it still finds a disclosure of the inmost heart embarrassing, and indeed has much less patience for it.  This also goes some way to explain the roughness of our culture.  Once steeped in a televisual culture of violence, swearing and ungentleness, as night-time city streets are in fake light, nobody has any need to worry about others' behaviour, to be afraid of causing undue offence or the bonds of civility between human beings.  Any suggestion otherwise is to be fled from.

Modern fear, it seems to me, is worth bearing in mind for the New Evangelisation, not so that we should frighten people into church attendance, but because people really do, in spite of appearances and in spite of themselves, still have their fears.  We can remind them, and ourselves, where they can be sure of safety.

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