Christopher Caudwell on religion as static imagination

As I see it, religion undoubtedly represents very strong emotional realities, but they only become religion by religious people’s making them static, i.e. by demanding that their formulations (angels, salvation, heaven, hell, God, etc.) represent actual existent entities with the same reality of existence as matter. It is just this static formulation which is the core of any formal religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Mohommedanism). Separate that out and what have you left? Primarily two currents. One: art, or ‘poetry’—The fluid emotional experimenting with illusory concepts drawn from reality, either felt as illusory, as in our civilised age, or felt as real, but unconsciously acknowledged as illusory by the very fluidity of treatment, as in Greek myth (not Greek religion). The other current is sociological, and is symbolical of the tremendously powerful and emotionally charged currents that hold a society together, and express, in a subtle instinctive way, the fact that though individualities, we yet have a real being in common: buds of the same tree. We are not completely divided by ‘The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.’ The power of this bond is expressed in the attitude of men to a drowning stranger, a ship in distress, in time of war, and so on. You may feel a sociological conception of religion arid and empty of content. So do I, but that is because we are children of a civilisation that necessarily sees society as linked primarily by money exchanges, I mean sees that intellectually, whatever we may sometimes feel emotionally. The first criticism of Communism is always that men would never do their best work for society, regardless of income, and this expresses perfectly how debased and empty of content our conception of social relations has become. But the Greek citizen, or the merest tribal primitive, would see nothing strange in our conception of the society as the basis of religion. To him the city or tribe is joined with religion’s bonds; and even to-day, when religions are so palpably failing, we see, in Italy and Germany, how men are bowled over by the sociological as opposed to the theological element of religion, in however questionable a guise it comes.

But why not leave it at that, you may ask, and, seeing religion’s aesthetic and sociological credentials, say ‘Pass friend, all’s well?’. Just because religion, to be religion, formulates its sociological and aesthetic beliefs in terms of science, of external reality. So that on the one hand art is held back from developing, made to accept the outworn forms of yesterday, and, on the other hand, man, mistaking social relations for divinely ordained permanences, is held back to the social groupings of yesterday. So the Greek, cramped into the City State, was torn by internecine warfare and fell victim to the barbarians he despised. So we, with our national formations, and national churches, are involved in imperialistic wars, in which ministers preach from the pulpit the divine approval of a just war. And it is no answer to say that genuinely religious people are pacifists, for we can only take religion as it appears, and to do otherwise is to mean by the adverb ‘genuinely’—‘religious in a way we approve’, which, from a historical viewpoint, taking religion as it has manifested itself, turns out to be not religious at all, but people who put social reality before theological formulations—heretics, prophets, and rebels.

SOURCE: Caudwell, Christopher. Letter to Paul [Beard] and Elizabeth [Beard]. 21 November 1935 (from London), in Scenes and Actions: Unpublished Manuscripts, selected, edited, and introduced by Jean Duparc and David Margolies (London: New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), extract: pp. 220-221.

Note: This is taken from my blog post of Tuesday, June 5, 2018.

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

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