The book that highlights the dangerous potential of secularist ideology

Robert Hugh Benson, author of Lord of the World

Robert Moynihan’s Letter 108 for New Year’s Eve bears his somewhat apocalyptic hallmark. At the end of the year this is not out of place. Recording the two most momentous events of 2013 in the Church’s calendar, Benedict XVI’s departure from Rome in a (symbolic) white helicopter and Pope Francis’s surprise arrival, he suggests that “a return is needed, to ourselves. We need to embark on an internal pilgrimage, to that often far-off place within ourselves, that place of reflection and meditation we refer to as the conscience, where we may weigh and measure and take stock, as the year ends.”

Moynihan recalls that Pope Francis referred to Robert Hugh Benson’s own apocalyptic fable, Lord of the World, during a homily of November 18 and that Benedict XVI also frequently cited it. Why? I think it is because if you are the Holy Father, you are given a particular grace to read the signs of the times you live in and sometimes to draw stark supernatural conclusions. Benson’s book, by a gifted writer and priestly convert (published in 1907), provides a dramatic and imaginative backdrop to more recent papal meditations.

Moynihan also provides a link to Fr Robert Barron’s blog about Benson’s famous book. Barron writes that it is the story “of the cataclysmic struggle between a radically secularist society and the one credible alternative to it, namely the Catholic Church.” Some people bridle at this claim, yet it is significant that innumerable converts cite it as the single most important reason for their conversion to the Church.

Barron points out that it is impressive that Benson “saw as clearly as he did the dangerous potential of the secularist ideology. By this I mean the view that this world, perfected and rendered convenient by technology, would ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart.” Benson’s bleak vision shows the “anti-Christ” – a charismatic personage called Julian Felsenburgh – winning all his battles against the Church with deadly efficiency, except for the final confrontation which takes place, not surprisingly, at Megiddo, “sometimes called Armageddon.”

Benson ends his book with the prince of this world preparing for his conclusive struggle against a small, lonely figure in a white cassock and skull cap, whose sole weapon is “an iron box and within that box a silver cup and within that cup – something.” It reminds us, in case we need reminding, that we can achieve nothing without the grace of God and that nothing is impossible to God. Indeed, the You Version Bible app says the most popular Biblical verse online last year was from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Barron ends his blog with a question: “There are many fights, political, cultural, ethnic etc. What Robert Hugh Benson saw with extraordinary clarity is that these are all relatively superficial struggles. The final – and finally interesting – battle is metaphysical and religious… Do we live in an enchanted universe or not? Everything hinges on the way that question is answered.”

This strikes me as a brilliantly brief summary of what distinguishes us Christians from “the world”. Next time I get bogged down in an arid debate about the superstitious quaintness of religious belief versus the knock-down scientific certainties of Richard Dawkins I will simply say, “I believe we live in an enchanted universe. Shall I explain further?”