Sentimentality

I have often wondered why it is that, for many people in contemporary Western culture, truth is not very important. A good deal of the reason for this is the all-pervasive air of relativism that, consciously or not, underpins much of modern thinking. However, the full force of relativism only really comes into play when encountering someone for whom truth is still important – the proviso being that it is their truth that must be retained (though others remain relative), or that truth is what each person makes of it; i.e.; it is a selective truth, and not a humble submission to truth in all its fullness and objectivity.

Another, equally frustrating attitude is when one meets people that do not care about truth at all. In such cases, the presentation of logical argument and displaying the necessary consequences of premises granted by the person one is debating with, are met with a shrug of the shoulders. At least the relativists hold on to some (albeit deeply attenuated) concept of truth; in this case, it is not considered to be of any real consequence at all. Why is this? One possible answer is that we live in a deeply utilitarian culture, and if truth isn’t ‘useful’ then it isn’t worth addressing or apprehending. Another root cause that I would suggest though, is sentimentality.

We constantly reassure ourselves that we live in an enlightened age, one which has its eyes fixed firmly on the ‘real world’ (a.k.a. the materialist paradigm) and doesn’t need the childish wishful thinking of religion to console us or distract us from this supposed reality. However, the truth is, the materialist worldview we have adopted and/or inherited has created a deeply sentimental society – one that sees the sufferings and injustices of the world, and retreats into a narrowed version of reality to avoid confronting these things. After all, when the here and now is all that exists, what else is there to do when the going gets rough? If the material world looks scary sometimes, and the material world is all there is, then it is a perfectly natural response to draw the curtains and create a smaller world for ourselves, where all is comfortable and under our control.

A few years ago, on one of the rare occasions that the BBC actually allowed some specifically religious programming to be broadcast at Easter, there was an interesting documentary shown, where an attempt was made to discover what role Christianity had in modern Britain, and what had grown in its place. One of the talking heads (a sociologist I think, though I cannot remember exactly) mentioned a ‘secular trinity’ comprised of Self, Friends, and Family, as a rough guide to where we place our hopes and find support in lieu of a coherent belief system. This idea, I think, has a great deal of truth in it, and represents the attitudes of many people I know. Essentially it suggests that we are increasingly placing our hopes in ‘earthen vessels’ and more specifically those with whom we are most familiar and from which we can draw the most comfort.

In addition to this framework, the essence of the sentimental-materialist worldview can be further explained by drawing attention to certain elements that are common to most expressions of it:

  1. The ‘we should all just love one another’ attitude (c.f.; John Lennon’s Imagine): an extension of the misguided cultural revolution of the sixties, that saw ‘peace and love’ as the key to liberation and happiness, where love is equated with either sensuality or an indulgent kindness. This has resulted in an increasingly individualistic view of ‘love’ that has become divorced from both truth and any concept of corporate responsibility.
  2. A rejection of the idea that love is costly, that if one truly wishes the good of the other, self-sacrifice is required. Following on from this, a rejection of the fact that if one wants to grow in virtue, suffering of some kind is inevitable.
  3. Another rejection then follows – the rejection of virtue and subsequently of all objective truth. For if growing in virtue and living in harmony with what is known to be true makes demands on the self, then the modern idea of self-determination and radical autonomy is threatened.
  4. If free will is real, and morality is objective, then hell is a real possibility.

The last point is only really of relevance to secularised Christians, but the other three apply to most modern people. The question remains though, where did this attitude come from? The sentimental attitude has grown up alongside materialism, utilitarianism, etc, and so clearly must be able to be traced back in part to the sources that inform secularism as a whole. However, I would suggest that sentimentality, as well as having its roots in the Enlightenment and liberal Protestantism (e.g.; Friedrich Schleiermacher), can be linked to the effects of the First and Second World Wars too. The horrors of mechanised warfare on such a large scale undoubtedly left an enormous dent in the armour of the hopeful secularists (and indeed liberal Christians) of the previous generation. The twentieth century thereafter continued to witness more and more of this kind of destruction, and with the advent of television, its effects were communicated with greater frequency into the living rooms of the West. Perhaps then, Western society began to feel that it was becoming saturated with violent imagery, and, having disowned its previously strong-held beliefs in a transcendent realm, had nowhere to retreat to, and so hid within the confines of an increasingly affluent and comfortable way of life.

Also, not long after the Second World War, the sexual revolution began in earnest, and a wholesale rejection of the values that had informed Western society for so long was put into practice. Clearly this revolution had as a major cause a desire to be ‘liberated’ from traditional sexual morality, but could a desire to throw ourselves into the realms of pleasure without boundaries as a way of escaping from the harshness of a world without God have been a cause as well? One could argue that our sentimentality and commitment to sexual freedom are simply two ways of escaping from the truth that our worldview has left us without hope and consolation in the world.

However, I must confess, that I do not really know how much or little these things have contributed to the sentimental materialism of our society. But I do know that it exists – it is everywhere I go – and that its driving force is fear. We retreat into the ordered, controlled worlds of Self, Friends and Family, and surround ourselves with material comforts to forget that we are afraid. We have created for ourselves a view of the world that, deep down, we know leaves us purposeless and alone, and it scares us. But having firmly disavowed the transcendent theism of our ancestors, which we associate with a control on our freedom, we have nowhere to turn to assuage our fears, so we dose ourselves on sentiment and place our hopes in short-term, material consolations.

There is a long-term solution to this fear, and yet unfortunately it is the very thing that we as a culture least wish to return to – Truth; more specifically, He who is the Truth, and is also Love. Perfect love ‘casts out fear’, and the truth really will set us free, but if we do not want it, or cannot see this because of our inherited prejudices, then how can we saved from our fears? In my previous post, I drew attention to a video posted by Father Robert Barron, where he highlights C. S. Lewis’ presentation of Christian truth via the means of narrative engagement. I reiterate this point – that if we wish to bring our neighbour to a knowledge of the truth, then we must give them a sense of the overarching Christian story, and show them how much better an account it gives of our experiences, reason and desires (and the very real hope it offers). But also, we must live this story out ourselves – if our neighbour does not see the joy that our faith in Christ brings us, and the deliverance from fear and despair that it provides, how can we make that story believable? Perhaps too many Christians have allowed themselves to be convinced by the secular narrative as well, and have also begun to place their hopes in earthen vessels. If so, it is time for the salt of the earth to regain its saltiness.

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One thought on “Sentimentality

  1. Pingback: Sentimentality and Cruelty | Journey Towards Easter

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