Leszek Kolakowski's death reminds us that Terry Eagleton's recent attack on the atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is only the latest instance of a curious but now familiar trajectory, in which


July 18, 2009

Leszek Kolakowski's death reminds us that Terry Eagleton's recent attack on the atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is only the latest instance of a curious but now familiar trajectory, in which a left thinker in his or her latter days (think of Christopher Lasch among Americans, and, among the British, Gillian Rose) embraces, if not the truth of religion, the validity and endurance and even inescapability of its cultural power.

A formidable intellectual, Kolakowski is part of the tradition of scathing post-communist critique associated, among his Polish compatriots, with Czeslaw Milosz. In remembering him here, I'd like to focus instead on his delicate and moving embrace of religion. But I hope it will become clear that his disenchantment with various forms of radical - and even liberal - politics, and his growing appreciation of religious faith are connected.

I say delicate embrace because, like Lasch and Eagleton and, let's say, Philip Rieff, Kolakowski came to believe that communal faith and its rituals and prohibitions, as well as the personal experience of the sacred that underlies faith, was foundational to culture, and to the recognition and maintenance of human dignity; yet Kolakowski ultimately seemed to be saying something like what Freeman Dyson says, in an 2002 essay in the New York Review of Books: "I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension."
To accept that there are powerful mysteries that order and give meaning to our lives and deaths, and to find meaning in what you take to be the earthly creations and expressions of that mystery, is perhaps a weak dilution of religion; but it is a kind of faith.

To get more of an idea of this faith, consider this Christopher Lasch interview. Lasch rejects optimists -- progressivists who believe, more or less, that everything's always getting better -- and allies himself instead with the attitude he characterizes as "hope." He stands with "people who believe in the goodness of life and in some kind of underlying justice in the universe... in spite of all the evidence that would justify cynicism and despair. [Hope is] a religious quality. It doesn't need to be attached to any formal creed. [It is] faith."

The poet Richard Wilbur expresses the same idea: "To put it simply, I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy [and that] the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith…"
It's a matter of experience, a non-doctrinal faith and hope emerging out of the sort of 'astonishment' Kolakowski describes in this way:

People - and by no means professional philosophers only - often have experiences which they describe as astonishment at the fact of existence, awe in the face of 'Nothingness', apprehension of the unreality of the world or the feeling that whatever is impermanent must be accounted for by what is indestructible. Experiences of this kind are not mystical in the strict sense, i.e., not events people interpret as direct encounters with God. They might rather be described as a strong feeling that in the fact of being and of not being - in this very fact and not only in the experiencing person's existence - there is something unobvious, alarming, puzzling, queer, astounding, something which defies all the ordinary, daily norms of understanding. Such feelings cannot be and need not be converted into scientific 'problems'; they are expressed, more or less clumsily, as metaphysical riddles. There is in them no stuff for 'proving' anything if 'to prove' retains the sense it usually has in scientific procedures. Indeed, inserted as links into a chain of reasoning they usually look poor and unconvincing. Yet it is astonishingly foolish to dismiss them, as empiricists often do, as errors generated by the wrong usage of words or subject to explanation as an abuse of semantic standards.

There is a defense here of the simple ground of human feeling and thought, of the primary value for most people of their efforts to work out their relationship to a mystery. Obviously a political movement like communism ignores or belittles this sort of experience; yet even what Michael Sandel calls technocratic liberalism has a tendency, in its championing of the values of strict secularity, and its view of people as above all simple consumers with material needs and wants, to disregard this fundamental, often overwhelming sense of strangeness, and its accompanying sense of / desire for overarching meaning.

Rather than find the incomplete analyses, the tentative affiliations, of some of the writers I've mentioned here contemptible -- Hitchens would no doubt, with Jean-Paul Sartre, dismiss all of this as a species of bad faith -- I find it real. I find in it the feel and the sound and the sense of the actual. Leszek Kolakowski knew in his bones the poverty of vulgar progressivism; if he found himself increasingly attracted to something else, it's because he was capable of awe.



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