Now, this is odd.
There are literary works that really define the cultural or religious tone of an age, to the point that few historians would think of discussing that era without invoking them. Just try looking for a work on the 19th-century crisis of faith and doubt without somebody bringing in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” usually repeatedly (that “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and so on). Today, plenty of scholars and theorists are writing obsessively about themes of secularization, religious decline and the Nones, but for whatever reason, they virtually never cite the most important English poem on the topic, Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” (1955). The title, of course, includes a dual meaning: It is about going to church, but also the church going, or vanishing. Like all great poems, it repays frequent rereading. The points it makes about religious decline are shrewd and really deserve notice in all our discussions on those secularizing themes.
For copyright reasons, I won’t quote the whole thing here, but you can find the full text easily online at lots of sites.
Through that whole secularization literature runs a paradox. There are any number of reasons that should be driving modern Westerners away from faith, but they are not working as they should. Yes, people detach from formal institutions, but they still cling tenaciously to some Christian identity, some body of practice. In both Catholic and Orthodox Europe, for instance, pilgrimages are more popular than they have ever been. Scratch a self-described “None,” and commonly you will find someone who also reports praying and attending places of worship, even if he or she refuses to be identified with any particular church. To use the classic phrase of sociologist Grace Davie, this is believing without belonging.
With those questions in mind, let us turn to “Church Going.” The poem describes a simple situation. A passing cyclist, presumably an agnostic like Larkin himself, steps into a deserted church. Finding nothing of special aesthetic interest, he leaves fairly rapidly but is still puzzled at why even he bothered to stop. What exactly is the remaining pull of a place that is notionally holy? And if, as seems obvious, religion is in such sharp decline, what will be the ultimate fate of such places when they fall into disuse and ruin? Might they be objects of superstitious terror, unlucky places? Or will they be special and magical, thin spaces, where women come by night to have their children touch a special stone, or else seek herbs to cure disease? Perhaps if you go there on the right night, you will see the dead walking.
Superstition might endure a while, but ultimately, even that will fade. So what happens when disbelief has gone, along with faith itself? Who, in fact, will be the last person to have any sense of what the place really was? A “ruin-bibber,” perhaps, or some antiquarian who actually knows what rood-lofts are?
However grim the speculations, Larkin returns to his basic dilemma of why he so enjoys and appreciates these places, which are the venues for rituals and prayers in which he does not believe. And it is in this last stanza where the poem makes its strongest and most memorable statement. Yes, churches and creeds may fade, but holy places remain, and they powerfully focus our desires and hopes, our need for rootedness and continuity:
A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognized and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
Looking back at 60 years removed, we can say several things about the poem. Yes, mainstream churches have indeed suffered a collapse in loyalties in Europe, and especially in Britain itself. Bodies like the Church of England are struggling to find solutions for thousands of unneeded buildings. Having said that, there are any number of new and rising churches across the continent — many immigrant, others native. Not, of course, that Larkin was trying to write any kind of social science, but that does provide a needed perspective.
I think, though, that the point in the last stanza demands our attention. Even when people abandon churches and religious institutions, those basic needs and hungers remain, and surprisingly often, they try to satisfy them in explicitly religious ways. That is why it is not ridiculous still to count as Christian the millions of Europeans who label themselves in that way, but whose actual participation in religious activities is close to nil. They still seek and need the “serious,” and where else to find it but in places linked to the dead, and to bygone traditions?
When assessing the appeal of religion, in any era, never ever forget that need for connection to the “serious” past. That connection might be a sacred place, but it might be to something more generic — to bodies of practice and ritual, to culture and especially music. Here too we can find the serious, the significant, the rooted.
As modern-day scholars so often report, to their chagrin, being a “None” certainly does not mean having no faith. It just means claiming a faith that fits poorly into older, formal categories. And that much never can be obsolete.
This is one instance where sociologists of religion might learn abundantly from a poet.
Philip Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and is the author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade, and The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels, New York: Basic Books, 2015.