And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
-William Blake, Jerusalem
The Ways of England…
A couple of historical monuments closely cluster around the city center of Singapore. There is an open field called the Padang and on side of the Padang is Victoria Concert Hall, next to it is the old Parliament House, beside it is the old Supreme Court along with the old City Hall, all these buildings built in the classical style. Finally next to the old City Hall is St Andrew’s Cathedral built in the early Gothic style.
Historians have noted that this cluster of landmarks was not an accident but the product of deliberate design. The Padang showcased the superiority of the British military might, the concert hall Western arts, parliament house, the supreme court and city hall, that of the superiority of British laws and political system, and finally St Andrew’s Cathedral, the superiority of the British religion.
While my parents spent some of their childhood as British subjects, but I was born as a Singapore national in the 1980s, barely twenty years after we became an independent nation in 1965. Even after our independence, the great British monuments loomed over Singapore like illustrious grandfathers of old, who had long since passed on but yet still cast long shadows upon their children. We are one such children of the British Empire.
In Between the East and West
My parents grew up in a paradoxical age, still retaining some of their traditional Chinese religious and cultural beliefs, yet rapidly adapting to the changing conditions of a uniform Western education and adoption of English as the lingua franca of Singapore. (Technically Malay is our national language, but for pragmatic and prudential reasons, English became the standard medium of communication.)
While my father had some superstitious tendencies, my mother tended to be a little more skeptical about various Chinese beliefs and customs. To be sure, she still adhered to some fragments of them out of habit, but she no longer believed in spirits, ancestral worship and spiritual possessions, etc. It was under this environment which I grew up. While my mother still believed in “God” in some vague deistic sense, I as a child I took my mother’s iconoclastic tendencies to the extreme and denied any divine agency or deities.
Yet England cast her long shadows upon our shores. In my iconoclastic zeal against all things Asian and superstitious, I cannot help but feel a profound admiration for all things Western: rationality, freedom and liberty, science and mathematics and technology, etc. But considering the cluster of British buildings at the Padang, I have always been uneasy about the one building which I cannot ignore which belonged together with the others, the Anglican Cathedral, the Christian religion.
The Culture of Science and the Christian Faith
To my teenage mind at around 17, I knew that if I would ever believe in God, I would definitely be Christian. Somehow in my naive and simple native mind, looking at the cluster of buildings around the Padang, I knew that they constituted a unity. Somehow, the same civilisation which gave us Newton, Maxwell, Quantum Mechanics, modern medicine, open discourse and cannons which crushed us during the Opium War was also the same civilisation of the cathedrals, Jesus Christ and Christendom. If Truth constituted a rational unity, then the same civilisation which sought and discovered the truth and order of the cosmos must be the same one which worshiped the orderer behind nature: Truth, the Way and the Life himself (I wrote an argument for how the order of nature constituted evidence for a divine orderer here). And furthermore, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment was purely a Western thing, no other religious civilisation has it, and what made them so special than their Christianity?
I of course didn’t consciously think of this in such a clear and consistent manner. It was more like a clouded instinct grasped at occasional moments of clarity. It is the intellectual version of Eastern natives who have lived in their huts all their lives suddenly beholding a huge cathedral built in their midst by their colonial masters. Such was the civilisational monument of the West in my mind, towering over outdated Confucian thought and dead Chinese Empires laid waste by Western cannons, science and technology.
Rationalism and the Christian Faith
I finally decided that I wanted to be part of the “whole package”, to be part of the same culture and life which gave us reason and science and started my way into the Christian faith. But even when I began to receive the Christian faith, I was always drawn to the “high church aesthetics” of Catholicism, its liturgy and rituals, etc. In a sense, I shared my parents’ conflict between two instincts, the iconoclastic rational instincts of my mother and her innate instinct for “enchanting” the world, that is, the attempt to see the world as directly immediately congruent or “in touch” with the human spirit. However, it seems that my iconoclastic rationalistic instincts would always win out, for the order of nature remained unchanging and the authority of scientific order and reason trumped out my “enchanting” instincts which seems to wax and wane in dialectical instability. One of the reasons I guess why I never became Roman for it seemed to my iconoclastic instincts that Romanism retained those elements of superstitious behaviour I associate with my parent’s Asian religion, beliefs in holy waters and inert matter alive with spiritual agencies.
Even now looking back, I cannot help but read my Christian walk as a conflict between the two instincts, I was baptised as a Bible-Presbyterian and steeped in the most utmost rigorous of the Calvinistic system, then I went higher church towards a form of Anglo-Catholicism to feed my instinct for “enchanting” the world, and now I’ve sort of moderated towards a more balanced and common sense plain Anglicanism.
As a high church Anglo-Catholic, I was fully immersed in the sort of postmodern philosophy and theology with the idea that beauty and aesthetics and existential meaning will redeem the world and that is how Christian salvation works along with the necessity of a personalist “enchantment” of the world. I guess I was attempting to “Westernise” my innate Asian instincts towards a superstitious sacralisation of nature into high subjectivist aesthetics. Of course, such “enchantment” of the world can only be maintained in a high church setting with fetish for aesthetics delights and esoteric culture. But fundamentally there was something unreal and rarefied about these sorts of enchantment efforts, it seemed to be a religion sustained purely by an act of will to beautify, it exists simply as a literal artifice of the human will and not objectively out there in the world. Thus, there were extreme ups and downs on my faith oscillating to the degree to which I can sustain this will to create meaning.
But thanks to the efforts of the Calvinist International, I found myself returning to the rationalism of my youth, the rationalism which lead me out of my unbelief unto the Christian faith. Against the Sturm und Drang of postmodernism, existentialism and enchantment, I found myself oddly greatly comforted by the stability and firmness of the mathematical sciences. Whenever I fall into doubts concerning the tenants of the Christian revelation and slump into the darkness of despair concerning the intelligibility of life, I always fall back onto nature and creation which testifies boldly as to the serene intelligence, intelligibility and order behind the cosmos, and I remember that indeed the Earth will spin and the planets orbit in the same precise fashion as they have for centuries, for the order of the world is not the product of the will of man “imposing” its mind upon the cosmos but by the will of the Logos, and I will then turn back to the flesh wherein this same Logos dwells.
Conclusion: Protestant Rationalism and the West
I still love the Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican choral tradition and liturgy, but I guess I view them in a much more prudential and practical light rather than existential. The human spirit is soothed and comforted by an occasional catharsis and an “immediate” harmonisation of the human spirit with our sensual experience, and works of beauty provided by grace in Christian art do provide such momentous reconciliation between the human spirit and our sensual being. If God provides us with our meat, drink and home, why should he not provide such moments of peace and harmony between our souls and our senses even if only for the moment as the music plays?
I guess I love post-Reformation Protestant art because it attempts to do equal justice to our instincts towards “enchanting” the world and to the sober iconoclastic rationalism of the Protestant Reformation which utterly forbade any idolatrous superstitious attribution of agency or spirits to the creation directly ordered by the will of the Logos and not mediated by a committee of spirits or angels. I found in Protestant iconoclasm and exorcism of a superstitiously “enchanted” world to be the most congruent to my respect for the mathematical sciences and the rational order of nature.
But the danger of the cathartic instinct is that it can very easily become a substitute for absolution, the remissions of sins based on the Truth of God’s Word. Ultimately the Christian faith is founded upon faith in the Truth who is the Word made flesh, not upon our aesthetic sensibilities or even our rationalistic instincts. The life of rational objectivity and reason, to able to stand outside of one’s instincts and sentiments, no matter how deeply felt, to analyze it from the point of view of the facts is not an easy one, and I find myself struggling to return to that life because an introspective aestheticism has become more or less the modus operandi of the way I have been living my faith.
But somehow it seemed, in the words of the Anglican Eucharist, “very meet and right” to me that man should both revere the order of nature as well as commend the deepest desires and longings of our souls to Him who made both nature and spirit and who stands above both. For ultimately, we are to worship Him who both orders both nature and the human soul, and to live in faith and hope that at the Resurrection Future both would be perfectly aligned and at last both Reason and Spirit may meet.
Therefore, I have to thank God for Western science and technology, for Western Civilisation, Rationalism and the British Empire, for having already created an entire life and society which has prepared myself for the reception of the Gospel and for the Christian life, where we can receive both the wonders and sober rationalism of the physical sciences and a non-superstitious aesthetic informed by Truth and Reason as fit sacrifices unto to God who gave both. May we be worthy of the mission and the gifts which we have received from our Colonial Masters of old who have received it from their fathers before them all the way to the Apostles.
Thank God for all the buildings at City Hall, especially St Andrew’s Cathedral.