The Sea of Faith

The Sea of Faith

While I was watching an old film on television this week I was reminded of Mathew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach”.  This is the lyric poem that he wrote telling of his feelings of loss and sadness following the ebbing of faith in his society. He uses the metaphor of the tide to show the retreat of religious faith, which he felt was now only an echo of its former self.  With regret he wrote :-

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear.

And naked shingles of the world.

Watching the tide retreat under moonlight he rued the passage of faith and considers his and society’s loss.

I was reminded of this poem after catchingMV5BNjU4NzQ4NzU5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM2Nzk1MDE@._V1_ the film “Lease of Life” on television. This was the penultimate film of the great Robert Donat who had returned to acting after a long sabbatical necessitated by his poor health from asthma. In this film he plays a village parson who discovers he has less than a year to live.  Donat’s ill-health is obvious when watching this film, he looks much older than his years, but this adds a poignancy to his role as a man coming to terms with his mortality. The whole cast are excellent but Adrienne Corri, whose youth and beauty are counterposed to Donat’s age and frailty, is especially so.

So why did this 1954 British film from Ealing Studios, remind me of Dover Beach ? It was the theme of the film –  death comes to us all, but before then how do we live life well ? The film takes this religious theme and explores it through a number of vignettes : a wife who has subjugated her life and wishes for her husband and daughter, a daughter who wishes to seek advancement but not at the expense of ther parents, a dying parishoner who who has a complex relationship with his wife. There is no violence, no sex, no excitement, just moral dilemmas played out on a human scale. It would probably be impossible to make this film today. Imagine the pitch to the movie moguls.

Mogul “Right give us your pitch ! What’s the payload of the film

Director ” Sure. The film has at its core a vital unifying scene that lays the whole film open”

Mogul “Great give it to me

Director ” The elderly, terminally ill parson gives a short sermon in church to a group of schoolboys reminding them that religioun is about free will and choices not about dutifully or slavishly following rules

Mogul “And ?

Director “The boys like it and we later see the paron lving in accordance with his beliefs”

Mogul “Next ! Close the door as you leave

The film reveals how issues of faith and morality were central to life. It reminds us we have to think actively about how to be a good and moral person and that it is inadequate to choose the most expedient options at every turn. With this deontologiocal message it does not sit easily in our utiltarian culture.  This film revealed just how important issues of faith, and the role of the church, were in British culture two generations ago. But this has largely gone and, like Mathew Arnold watching the tide ebb, I watched this film and thought what have we lost?

Certainly we have gained some freedoms, particularly in the realm of our sexual lives, but how valuable is it to gain this sexual freedom if we risk loosing romantic love or reducting the pleaures of love to simple mechanics of friction. What if our need for gratification robs us of the virtue of patience. There are so many changes where we cannot foresee the resultant complications and  I fear we are loosing many of the principles that perviously guided our personal and family lives. This film reminds us that these small quotidien decisions that constitute our lives are vitally important and this film does not need any pyrotechnics or CGI assistance to make its point. Like other films from Ealing Studios it looks at people humanely and reveals to us, if we wish to see it, what it is that makes humanity special.

This gentle but thought provoking film reminded me of our losses, but I fear I need to check my priviledge here. The loss of faith and the ebbing of this tide is particularly a problem for white developed-world cultures, particularly in Europe, like mine. This sadness is unlikely to be shared equally across the globe as the number of people of faith (Christians in China, Muslims in Africa and Asia) elsewhere continues to grow. There are now more people on our beleaguered planet who profess religion is important in their lives than ever before and perhaps, in this, there is hope that the tides of the sea of faith will again lap on our shores.


Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; – on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mathew Arnold