Navigating Between Reactionary Traditionalism and Naïve Modernism

Division is an all-pervasive affliction in the contemporary world. In a country like the United States we are often tempted to admit that we live under no shared dominant cultural model. Instead, we are torn from allegiance to allegiance in a matrix of mutually contradictory partisan groups unhappily mingled under one national banner. At the very level of language, our world exists in an ever-deepening crisis of disunity. We might take the coinage and widespread application of the term “post-truth” in the past few years as a clear sign that the world as we know it is at the verge of semiotic collapse. Nothing seems to mean what it ought—or anything else. Even the most basic linguistic utterances are treated with suspicion and often paranoia and fear.[1] It is no coincidence that, in the same cultural moment, so many fear isolation and loneliness. Disunity in thought and in the social sphere are perhaps two aspects of the same alienation that terrifies so many: alienation from each other and even from reality itself.

For Catholic Christians, the picture I paint looks less bleak. We know that above however deep a sea of muddled meaning and unmeaning is the immutable and omnipotent Logos from Whom we derive all meaning. If culture, language, and philosophy fail to satisfy, their failure gives only greater glory to the One who can satisfy and unite. That being said, it is difficult to communicate in worldly terms to non-believers the glory of the supernatural in the best of conditions. Even harder is to preach the Word of God where so few words command any common consensus of what they might possibly mean. With the West now entering the last twilight of the Enlightenment, our cultural milieu becomes more and more reminiscent of the world before the Gospel.

We, like they, are not only remote from God, but self-alienated as well. Still, those ancient deserts of salvific knowledge were far from devoid of goodness. From Augustine[2] to Gregory,[3] and from Boniface to Boethius,[4] the early Church taught the Western world that Christ brought not only the twilight of their gods, but a certain fulfilment of them, and a rendering of their individual goods to the totality of God’s goodness. There is much to despoil from Egypt, and the ancient temples can be converted to Christ, as it were.

The difficulty now, as it was then, is that there are many false gods about. Each person believes in different individual goods: each person has their “own truth.”  There is no common language for conversion of the heretic, as there was in the scholastic Middle Ages, nor has the American experiment’s common denominator of living “under God” shown much longevity. The Church loses her ability to easily describe, categorize, and beautify human experience as experience becomes more and more distant from the institutional boundaries of the Church, and the world she (re-)created in her own image.

The reaction of modern Christians to the Church’s shrinking horizons has often veered to two extremes: reactionary traditionalism, or naïve modernism. In the former, contemptus mundi becomes too quickly contemptus mundi sui: contempt not of “the world,” but fear and hatred of one’s own world. In hindsight, the errors of the past seem less grave than our own, and too often one Catholic response to the modernity of 2022 is to condemn it as if we would be better off with the world as it was in 1822. On the other extreme, complacency with a secularism that slowly gnaws away at the Church, and at truth itself as if it were a cancerous structure of oppression, is simply not viable. It is necessary for us both to concede that the Church has lost much of its ancestral claim to the Western world, while contenting ourselves with the consolation that God’s redeeming grace is still present in the whole world, which still awaits conversion.

And await the world does. The secularism of the Enlightenment no longer burdens us univocally. Nor does its false optimism. Few now choose to delude themselves that we inevitably move onward and upward, and all is well in the world. Mechanical rationalism no longer holds a monopoly among philosophers, and everyone from social justice activists to Evangelical homeschoolers are quick to remind us that knowledge and education are not aloof from strong moral conviction. Even still, many of our contemporaries are as far from the Church as humanity has been since the Church’s beginning.

But there is in this milieu a great and conscious yearning for higher realities. Jesus still desires to reconcile the whole world to himself, as he ever did, and it is imperative for us modern Christians to remember even this world has much wheat growing among the chaff. As the world becomes even more distant from Christianity, it becomes more and more difficult to conceive it as being anti-Christian, as a Catholic might have accused a Protestant in the seventeenth century. Even true atheism in the world is becoming more difficult to define, as the strong institutionalized belief in God against which it reacted no longer reigns in popular culture. We live not in a secular world, but a post-secular world, where the saeculum is not placed in militant opposition to Christianity, but is simply, often unreflectively, there.

This is a significant advantage that Christ and His Church have, which was absent in the days of the strength of the Enlightenment. The world is no longer dominated under the forced creed of secular free thought and disbelief in higher reality. We live again in a free land, often unclaimed by the Church, yes, but also unclaimed by systematic error and unmeaning. And God still desires to fulfill this world’s yearning for meaning in union with the supernatural. As always, he seeks to accomplish this salvific mission with the cooperation of the great saints and prophets of history. This age needs saints as much as any other. But it also needs a prophet, a prophet who sees the natural (i.e., the world distinct from the Christian mysteries) as genuinely good, and not wholly separate from God—who sees that a world as confused as this still desires and still has access to union with Christ.

Robert Hugh Benson, dead and largely forgotten for almost a century, is not at first blush a prophet fit for our times. A prophet is said to be honored in all lands except his own, but Benson is lately honored in none at all. Despite his endorsement by both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis,[5] Benson’s work is little more than a rumor in the Anglophone Catholic world, and less than that beyond it. Though this was not always the case. As the precocious youngest son of the Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883-1896, Benson had public recognition from his youth. At his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1903 and ordination to the Catholic priesthood in 1904, Benson had become to the English establishment a very visible sign of contradiction. His literary output was no less contrarian.

In 1907 his most famous novel, Lord of the World, threatened to become too much a sign of contradiction. In it, a world beleaguered by freemasonry slowly consolidates power behind its secular humanist leaders. They squabble for a time, but are eventually reined in, nearly without bloody conflict, under the yoke of an American politician turned Lord of the World. This hero among men, Julian Felsenburgh, restores religion to the planet, but only as a perversion of traditional religion. First, mankind is worshipped in positivist abstractions beyond Comte’s most ambitious dreams and, after a subtle sleight of hand, Felsenburgh himself is worshipped as God (or is it Man?) incarnate. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Catholic Church is persecuted nearly to extinction and, following the military destruction of Rome, the papacy, with a few hundred faithful Christians remaining, meets the return of the true Lord in the 1907 equivalent of what now we would call a nuclear holocaust.

Benson’s prophecy is notably prophetic. He predicts a number of technological innovations from aerial warfare to climate control. He predicts injustices against the human person ranging from euthanasia to thought policing. And, most troubling of all, he predicts the offenses against God brought about by the return of “natural religion” to the Western world. Readers of Lord of the World are, in my own experience at least, consistently shocked by Benson’s perspicacity in reading the secular world.

But much less agreeable to modern ears are Benson’s predictions about the Roman Church. Into it the eastern churches are dissolved, heresy is restored as a capital crime in the Vatican, and the clergy of all the world conduct their business entirely in Latin. His fantasy of the future Church strays toward ultramontane triumphalist fetish, and is somewhat jarring to those more familiar with the postconciliar culture of the institutional Church. In a Church that is more skeptical of its hierarchy, and perhaps more optimistic about the world, Benson’s most famous novel frankly seems naïve and old fashioned.

But in Benson’s other mature novels, particularly his supernatural short stories, is a theme and tone remarkably different from Lord of the World. Benson’s “Catholic ghost stories,” collected in The Light Invisible (1903) and A Mirror of Shalott (1907) are, with religious conviction and prose style exempted, clearly attempts at a different aesthetic project. The characters and events of Lord of the World are flat and archetypical. The ghost stories, very differently, make human and super-human “personality” their study. Lord of the World is a romance of God’s final revelation of himself to the world, resulting in the destruction of all that is of the world, and the salvation of all who are not of it but merely in it. In Benson’s supernatural stories, God’s revelation is particular and difficult to discern.

But the most important difference in my mind is between Lord of the World’s treatment of worldly experience and the world’s treatment by Benson’s ghost stories. Lord of the World is immensely skeptical of any good coming from beyond the visible boundaries of the institutional Church and dogmatic faith. Purported supernatural experiences are categorically treated with suspicion,[6] and even Christ’s second coming is only alluded to, rather than described (how could it be?) at the end of the novel. For the Church at the end of days, few lights can be trusted indeed. And rightly so. Benson is simply teaching the contemptus mundi which the Church has always taught to her faithful. There are many false prophets in the world, some of which are better ignored than considered. But the Church, in the mouths of her defenders from Augustine to Balthasar has just as often taught her children that there is much good beyond her institutional boundaries. The Church must mistrust the world and be ever vigilant for its ending, but this is sometimes best accomplished by despoiling Egypt and seizing signs of God’s glory from out of the failing saeculum.

This is what Benson’s ghost stories accomplish. In anticipation of postmodern approaches to religious experience, Benson’s stories, particularly in The Light Invisible explore encounters with the supernatural in a world that is no longer homogeneously and naïvely Christian. In the novel, a priest recounts stories of visions he received from his less-than-devout youth through his ordination, and to the end of his life. The experiences are usually quite obviously supernatural, though their provenance is often difficult to define. Private revelations from the Deity are occasionally named as such, but usually one wonders whether the encounters described are divine, angelic, demonic, or, simply, something else. In these supernatural accounts, the truths of the faith are never doubted. In describing the protagonist’s experience in The Light Invisible, the narrator clarifies his wholehearted trust in the Church:

Had his experience, however, even seemed to contravene Divine Revelation, he would have rejected them with horror: entire submission to the Divine Teacher upon earth, as he more than once told me, should normally precede the exercise of all other spiritual faculties. The deliberate reversal of this is nothing else than Protestantism in its extreme form, and must ultimately result in the extinction of the faith (1-2).[7]

Benson’s approach to the Church then, is as faithful as one could hope. But he does not allow his knowledge of the truth the Church espouses to unnecessarily exclude what knowledge quotidian human experience can provide, even and perhaps especially experiences of those who do not have the privilege of knowing God as clearly as faithful, spiritually mature Catholics. Benson, then, is an agnostic of the best sort: that is, a Catholic one. Any other creed (religious or otherwise) either is too credulous, or too skeptical. But the Catholic knows his bounds. Faith defines exactly what he must believe; the rest is left to any sort of speculation. This allows for a remarkable broad-mindedness (though without relativism), as in the prologue of A Mirror of Shalott:

“I have not the slightest idea [how to explain supernatural anomalies], any more than I have the slightest idea why Providence made me break a tooth this morning. I accept the fact; I believe that somehow it works into the scheme. But I do not for that reason claim to understand it . . . And as for purgatory—well, I ask you, What in the world do we know about purgatory except that there is such a thing, and that the souls of the faithful there detained are assisted by our suffrages? What conceivable possibility is there that we should understand the details of its management? My dear Father, no one in this world has a greater respect for, or confidence in dogmatic theology than myself; in fact, I may say that it is the only thing which I do have confidence in. But I respect the limits which it itself has laid down.”

“Then you are an agnostic as regards everything but the faith?”

“Certainly I am.”[8]

The corollary of this argument, as seen in Benson’s supernatural novels, is that the world of spirit is largely unknown to us. In an age when neither Catholicism, nor any sort of Christianity holds the unified belief of Western man, old and new spiritualities of many sorts have filled the void. One source of this new spiritual order, says another novel, The Necromancers, is demonic. So run many of the stories in Shalott. But in Shalott, and especially in The Light Invisible, there is another tale to be told. Or several. The tales of Light and Shalott propose that there are other orders of the supernatural that are benign, that, without seeming “to contravene Divine Revelation,” need not be doubted, nor condemned. The Light Invisible forms its narrative around a man whose revelation is Christian, through and through, but is actually revelatory: it reveals what was not already known, either by the priest protagonist, or by the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church.

And, indeed, his revelations help him to achieve a greater union with the heavenly Founder of the Church. The old priest recounts stories of “intense spiritual perception,” (6) which, while obviously supernatural, do not always take on explicit or distinctly Christian coloring. But from his adolescence to the old priest’s death at the end of the collection, his vaguely spiritual encounters become more and more deeply connected to Christianity, despite their contours looking a bit different at times from the more canonical mystical experiences with which Catholics are familiar.

Importantly, the novel begins in a Christian cultural context, and to a certain degree within a Christian spiritual context, but certainly not with a protagonist whose faith and holiness are exceptional. His experiences, then, are “organic” to the mind of a secular reader (whom we and Benson assumed many of his original readers would have been), and not immediately perceived through a strongly Christian hermeneutic framework. This would largely have been impossible for the young priest-to-be, whose religious sense was not robust enough even to assent to and defend religious dogma, let alone reconcile it to mundane experience. In his own words, “Here about me lay the tangible enjoyable world—this was reality: there in a misty picture lay religion, claiming, as I knew, my homage, but not my heart” (9). 

This perspective is of some interest to Benson, writing as he was at the height of the Spiritualist movements, and at the peak of Christian apostasy in England up to his time. The novel seems to very intentionally be directing its readers’ attention to secular experience, not unlike our own, when faith had become to so many a simple and barely defensible intellectual assent. Benson’s faith in everyday experience forms the crux of his agnosticism, which in turn begins to corroborate Christian Faith as the priest begins to intimately experience the supernatural, outside the normal cultural bounds of Christianity.

But even from the beginning, the future priest’s experiences begin to point at least vaguely to Christianity. In the “Green Robe” episode which opens the story cycle, our protagonist priest perceives that the world is a great green robe shot with many colors, which is owned and worn by a great Person beyond comprehension. It is a Person whom the young protagonist has some difficulty reconciling to his view of the Godhead:

But who was this Person I had suddenly perceived? And then it came upon me with a shock, and yet I was incredulous. It could not be the God of sermons and long prayers who demanded my presence Sunday by Sunday in His little church, that God Who watched me like a stern father. Why religion, I thought, told me all was vanity and unreality, and that rabbits and pools and glades were nothing compared to Him who sits on the great white throne (10-11).

Navigating the dichotomy between the extremes of an almost Gnostic distancing of God from the world and idolatrous nature-worship in a post-Christian reality becomes the primary project of the early part of the story collection. In a later episode, the priest as a boy encounters remnant practitioners of Anglo-Saxon religion who, far from being dreamers or artists of quaint antiquarian leanings, actually worship demonic and obviously evil higher powers. Nevertheless, in the same chapter, the priest remarks in the middle of his story, “My parents used to think that all religions except Christianity were of the devil. But I think St. Paul teaches us a larger hope than that” (25).

Indeed, in the very next chapter, the priest receives his first unequivocally Christian vision, the first to succeed his encounter with pagan gods or demons. In a moment of intense anguish, he receives from God “the clear vision again,” and sees a priest interceding from heaven on the behalf of a grief-stricken soul (42). Although the clear sight comes just as it did in earlier episodes, this time it reveals life in heaven hidden with God to the direct vision of our protagonist. In an abrupt, but not wholly unexpected ascent, the vague spiritual gestures made by what is perhaps the Divinity suddenly open themselves to true clarity, and are made more intelligible by this sight that our priest receives from God.

By the end of the story cycle, there is no doubt of what function these visions serve. The priest is confronted on his deathbed by “the sorrows of the world”:

“The sorrows of the world,” he cried again; “they are crying at my window, at the window of a hard old man and a traitorous priest . . . betrayed them with a kiss . . . Ah! the Holy Innocents who have suffered! Innocents of man and bird and beast and flower; and I went my way or sat home in the sunshine; and now they come crying to me to pray for them. How little have I prayed!” (147)

Even at this moment, when it is clear that all things most needful in the few hours left of this man’s life are prayers, the consideration of those first, worldly, and particular visions of the natural through supernatural eyes are at the front of the old man’s mind. The “face of a dog who has suffered” and “rose with drenched petals—a rose whom I forgot” are, if not as important, not entirely eclipsed by the needs of “the souls from under the earth, crying for one to release them and let them go” (147-48). The priest dies a good Catholic death; the narrator gives us to believe that we may rather unreservedly hope in his salvation. This salvation is brought about by a reconciliation of vague, natural or preternatural experience to a final all-informing Christian and supernatural reality.

Benson’s outlook is, despite its age, a timely one. He manages to not only describe but demonstrate, quite beautifully, the proper middle way between reactionary traditionalism and naïve modernism. In a surprisingly modern, even postmodern outlook, The Light Invisible manages to show the openness of the boundaries of Christianity to worldly experience, without compromising the Church’s own pre-eminent and all-informing truth. To the secular reader, the truth of Christianity is at best a viable faith among equally viable religions. Benson’s work addresses and ultimately satisfies this attitude, first by accepting with agnostic tolerance experiences not doctrinally defined by the faith.

But then, most importantly, it demonstrates that even those experiences that seem to originate from a place the Faith does not know are ultimately derived from the same source of truth revealed by Faith: Jesus Christ and the beatific life he lives in the Holy Trinity. Benson’s fiction paints a picture for us where darkness indeed exists. There is grave evil still in the world, perhaps more than ever before. But Benson reminds us that, if the darkness cannot approach the light, the light can certainly break into the darkness and turn it to light. Even the murkiest human experience is illumined by the Godhead, who calls everyone in heaven and on earth and everything under the sun to communion with his truth and his life. 

[1] For a perceptive study on this suspicious trend, see Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: Chicago University, 2015).

[2] Green, R.P.H., Saint Augustine: On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 64-65.

[3] Who, in his letters to St. Augustine of Canterbury on his missions to the Anglo-Saxons, urged that pagan temples not be destroyed, nor inoffensive pagan customs be forgotten but, rather, be converted to Christian use. See Farmer, D.H., Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: Penguin, 1990), 92.

[4] Boniface followed a similar program to St. Augustine in his missions to the continental Germanic people. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was the last and greatest work of his career as a philosopher and theologian, though it never names Christ and refers to the Trinity only by allusion in pagan and neo-Platonic language.

[5] See the Preface of Bosco, Mark, Lord of the World, A Novel (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 2016).

[6] See Paschal Baumstein, “Impact of the Will on Mysticism: Compiling Benson's Theory,” Christendom College Press IX, no. 2 (1983). 

[7] Benson, Robert Hugh, The Light Invisible: A Novel (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2018).

[8] Benson, Robert Hugh, A Mirror of Shalott: Composed Tales Told at a Symposium (London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, LTD., 1912), 10.

Featured Image: Odilon Redon, The Yellow Sail, 1905; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Nicholas Babich

Nicholas Babich is a PhD Candidate in (Medieval) English at The University of Notre Dame. He is also a lay brother of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Washington D.C.

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