Thursday, 5 March 2015

Religion and the Rebel by Colin Wilson (1957) - an Outsider Mormon perspective


I have just had a careful re-read of Colin Wilson's follow-up to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel - and found it thoroughly worthwhile and stimulating.

Wilson self-consciously takes up the baton from Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918) which is given a fairly extended analysis, supplemented by consideration of some other rather analogous 'big picture' historians such as Toynbee.

Wilson accepts the conviction, dating especially from the early twentieth century, that the West needs 'a new religion'. The perspective of 1957 therefore works on the assumption that Christianity has failed, in its mainstream aspects anyway. Events since have, of course, confirmed this - at least in a broad-brush socio-political sense.


In Religion and the Rebel, Wilson gives biographical summaries and analytic interpretations of numerous representative figures from the existentialist tradition - some secular, but mostly Christian. These include mystics such as Boehme, Anglican monastic revivalists such as Farrer, Law and the early JH Newman - and the book culminates with the philosopher AN Whitehead who is regarded as the most important modern figure.

Wilson's other analytic frame is The Outsider - who is regarded as a type of socially-rejecting-social-reject proto-genius that is generated by end-phase civilization in an attempt to reverse the decline and revitalize the civilization. Most of the figures discussed fall into the Outsider category in some way - for instance, Wittgenstein is an Outsider having an Insider philosophy, while AN Whitehead is the opposite.

As often happens in my reading, I found myself broadly agreeing with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. In particular, I feel that 1956-ish was a time, perhaps the last time' when the Western civilization was 'meant' to re-evaluate and re-structure its goals and move into a new phase. This didn't happen, and we instead opted for 'more of the same' - and plunged into the still dominant and fluctuating combination of hedonic consumerist materialism with self-hating and self-destroying Leftism.


What of the 'new religion'? How did that idea fare?

I was brought-up on this idea from the work of Bernard Shaw - which is given considerable emphasis in religion and the Rebel - Shaw's choice was Creative Evolution, as outlined in my favourite of his plays Man and Superman, and the later dull, clunky and unperformable Back to Methuselah. This idea was dead-in-the-water, in terms of being a socially-viable and effectively motivating religion, but distracted and stimulated a few people for a while - the philosopher CEM Joad and the mystical nature writer John Stewart Collis (both teenage favourites of mine) for example.

The New Age movement is the most obvious New Religion - but this has proven itself to be merely a semi-effective way of individual coping-with the consumerist materialism of modernity. New Age discourse is conducted in an eclectic, semi-serious tone of ironic detachment ('if it works for you...', take it or leave it) - and the really serious and motivating ideology in New Ageis secular Leftism; radical politics is the only subject that New Agers really get 'passionate' about. So New Age is part of the problem, not part of the solution.


From my personal stance as a believer in Mormonism, what always strikes me about these overviews is that from 1830 there was a New Religion of exactly the kind that Colin Wilson hoped-for - that is, something Christian, real and motivating, that was also a fresh start, and which left-behind those aspects of Christian metaphysics and philosophy which seemed to have become ineffectual or counter-productive.

Of course, Mormonism was tiny in the years leading up to 1957, and even now the profoundly original and transformative metaphysical and philosophical aspects of Mormonism are hardly appreciated, even among Mormons - the 'new religion' is seen as (and in general functions as) a way of life, rather than an astonishingly transformative set of ideas.

But Mormonism pretty much has done, and does, what Bernard Shaw, Oswald Spengler and Colin Wilson wanted from a new religion. On the other hand, Mormonism stands at the furthest pole from the kind of bohemian existentialist life exemplified and practised by Colin Wilson in 1957.

Yet, in principle, there is no reason why there should not be existentialist bohemian intellectuals who regard those who practise Mormonism and who administer the LDS church as being an elite 'priesthood' who are regarded as an authoritative source of guidance.


Accepting that not every Man can live the highest path, and that the path of an active Mormon is too strait and narrow ever to become universal, there is scope for a wider form of non-practising Mormonism - which humbly and explicitly accepts itself as a lower calling, but from this situation tries to be supportive of the higher calling, and tries to make the kind of contribution which is difficult for the high status people.

I am thinking of a situation much the same as lay Roman Catholics who accept that they are operating at a lower level than priests, and non-monastic Eastern Orthodox (including priests) who accept that they are operating at a lower level than ascetic monks.


In terms of Wilson's terminology, I tend to regard Mormonism is the New Religion he hoped for - and a religion of socially-minded Insiders - because Mormonism has continued to grow and thrive as the West declined. However, it has not had a visible positive impact on Western civilisation in general - its benefits have been mostly restricted to Insiders.

But there is, I believe, also room for Outsider Mormons of one sort and another (inside the church and outside it too), who support the Insiders, and accept the reality and validity of the framework they provide.

It is Insiders - with their ability to organise and cooperate - who may change the world and save (some of) the West. But Outsiders may also be necessary - or at least useful. 


Outsiders, by their nature, cannot themselves live inside the communal and disciplined structure of society, of the priesthood - yet, so long as they are loyal to the goals, Outsiders may legitimately aspire to make a positive (albeit rightly low status) religious contribution.

Organised Religion is substantially (but not entirely and not as its core) about social cohesion. Outsiders are those who live psychologically out-with social cohesion (being an outsider is primarily a state of mind: e.g. Wittgenstein mostly lived physically inside the walls of Trinity College, Cambridge); they are loners not joiners.

But loners need not undermine society, it is possible that loners are functionally (albeit intermittently) necessary to society - rather as the shaman or the hermit has apparently been necessary to past societies.

Indeed, Outsiders are by their nature and location in a position to do things that cannot necessarily be done by Insiders. And so Outsiders may perhaps turn-out to be necessary to Mormonism in the long run - and via Mormonism to The West - as they have seemed to be necessary to Philosophy, Literature, Art and Science.   



Unknown said...

Society is a large, complex system which makes it hard to assess how good it is since this inevitably involves selection of which aspects are indicative of its overall goodness or 'health'.

There are more than a few indicators which to me make it seem like the West is actually improving. e.g. there's been no major war for 60 years; violence, rape, child abuse are declining. Notably a precursor to the decline of child abuse was discovering just how prevalent it has been. Perhaps the same will be said of internet trolling one day.

But these are unhelpful in the absence of a rigorous explanation of why any particular set of indicators is systemically fundamental.

My own view is that no such explanation exists. The problem is rather like that of trying to measure knowledge. Exams can't do it. So better to simply keep improving.

In which direction is improvement most needed, and how can it be effected?

At the risk of giving offense: I doubt any religious revival could take hold if it requires adopting beliefs about the physical world which conflict with science, such as creationism. People aren't going to take such things seriously any more.

But perhaps they don't need to. As this blog recently pointed out, the most important commandment of Christianity is to love God with all one's heart. This does *not* conflict with science. But, in philosophical terms, it is vague. For instance, the concept of God remains vague, more like a placeholder than a concept. The word 'heart' is presumably used metaphorically, although the autonomic nervous system and the mind's adaptive role in defending homeostasis from novel attack come to mind.

Yet the commandment seems to allude to something of vital importance. I can't explain why although the intuition seems connected to my Christian background and personal experiences. We need to understand more fully what it means and integrate it with the rest of our knowledge. It may then give us the *discernment* to decide in which direction objective improvement lies. Also a convincing way to communicate it to others.

Prediction of the growth of knowledge isn't possible, but I'd bet that the discovery of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) would not only alter Western Civilisation dramatically but would also teach us enough about the *human* mind (and heart) to take the project forward. It seems to be the issue of the age, where science, philosophy and technology collide.

-- Tom

Bruce Charlton said...

@Tom - While of course some things are better than they used to be, although certainly NOT child abuse - unless you set aside revelation upon revelation (and how many we don't know of?) of industrial scale organized pedeophilia tacitly permitted by the British police - I think you are mistaken to assume that our society is solving problems.

People have changed, and become less responsive and active, more docile - but that is hardly to anybody's credit! I presume it is a mixture of genetic change; mass medication with and dependence on sedative and dumb drugs such as SSRIs, antipsychotics, tranquillizers, anticonvulsants, antihypertensives, and statins; mass mass media addiction; and a kind of frozen learned helplessness.

On the other hand there is very little positive cooperation, helping, or self-organization - civil society has melted away over the past few decades.

The most obvious decline in the core of social life: the stable family with children.

wrt research, I don't think we will make many further major discoveries such as AGI - even if this is possible which I doubt - because science (behind the hype) has all but dried-up - and there are almost zero geniuses to make the discoveries.

And people will believe almost anything, even when it contracts common sense and personal experience. For example, many of our elite believe there is no psychological difference between men and women!

Most world leaders believe, or at least assert, that they can predict and (by their policies) control the planets climate and atmosphere! - despite that there is not a molecule of evidence for this claim and it is clearly untrue.

The age of science all-but ended about fifty years ago and (aside from a tiny minority - most of them little known and disregarded) we are merely witnessing the dying off of the last real major scientists.

Faculty X said...

Hmm, I think you have the hierarchy reversed due to your beliefs in Mormonism: Colin Wilson would have fully developed explorers of consciousness united.

Then they might look at Mormonism as an interesting dimension of the Astral Planes that many regular people choose to go to upon death.

Much as Yogis would.

Mormonism would be far too rigid for Wilson's self-actualizing wielders of Faculty X.

These new people would have the most power (albeit quietly). Status may still go to those who participate in society most conventionally, but this would be akin to nouveau riche contrasted with a genuine Aristocracy.

I don't think Colin Wilson missed much in fact, he had a fascinating philosophy that much like Tolkien hints at a world that is almost just right there! It's liminal, true in its own way, yet elusive, much like the paranormal, which Wilson noted in his work as signposts to a higher level of development.

As noted by him and others, the real breakthroughs are in consciousness, but the there is a Power that will not let humans develop psychically - or spiritually - at this time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - I have been reading Colin Wilson for more than 35 years, from long before I was a Christian; so I appreciate and understand fairly well what he was up to. I think CW was quite correct about the problem of human consciousness setting a limit of human life, and that this needs to be transformed; however even if all this happened, it does not tackle the problem of death. CW later came to be a firm believer in life after death. Yet even an elevated consciousness and life after death does not tackle the fundamental problem that we could not live with ourselves as-we-are for eternity, but must become divinised - and if divinised must participate in the divine work.

In sum, I don't think CW ever grasped the need for Christ (he does not see the implication of Christ being the Son of God - but treats Christ as if merely a prophet and teacher), the need for the Atonement.

It is this understanding of the human condition - the need and the need-fulfilled - which enables Christianity honestly to offer more than any other religion (no other religion even pretends to offer as much as Christianity - as Pascal clearly saw) - and within Christianity no other understanding offers as much to Man as Mormonism does.

I see this as a progressive revelation and growing understanding of the human condition - the more we know, the more wonderful it is.