Friday, August 12, 2005

Dover Beach

When I was a senior in high school, more years ago than I like to think of, I first came across the poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, and was captivated. I was struck by its imagery of the moonlit cliffs of Dover and the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the "sea of faith" -- even though it wasn't apparent to me, as a teenager who had grown up in the days when my Catholic Church seemed vigorous, that the tide was ebbing. I thought at the time that Arnold was far too pessimistic. Almost forty years later, I no longer think so.

The influence of Christian faith, and specifically the Catholic faith, in our culture has waned drastically in my lifetime, with terrible consequences. Worse, the strength of belief among believers seems to have waned, too. An aggressive materialism is intent on establishing itself as the new and exclusive orthodoxy, denying any role for Christianity in public life, relegating it to the sidelines as mere private piety, or even condemning it as a harmful force to be destroyed. Despite materialism's close association with the most vicious movements of the twentieth century, somehow it is still able to present itself as the voice of sweet reason struggling against superstition. And it still seems to be winning.

I could be fooling myself, but the sound of those melancholy waves might be changing, almost imperceptibly. It may be that the tide is now coming to that moment of equipoise when the ebb finally slows and stops, and the flood tide imperceptibly starts to take hold again. Or the ebb may only be gathering itself for another slide towards the ends of the earth.

Either way, I'll be watching and listening here, on the beach.