20 March 2018

Slipping into a well-travelled wake

I confess to feeling a bit inadequate and stupid at the moment.

From my days as an Anglican socialist, the influence on me from men such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Richard Tawney has been considerable, if on a certain level unacknowledged. Unto This Last was one of the books I recommended some while back. I have long been a fan of Morris’s artwork and the architecture associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. And the Christian Platonism of men like Tawney (and women like Astell) has had a deeper influence on my thinking than I would have thought possible several years ago.

I had no idea, of course, that Ruskin had been drawn to the æsthetics of the Byzantine and Arab world in The Stones of Venice, long before I had ever set foot inside an Orthodox church or experienced Arabic hospitality. I tripped over those things on my own; and practically had to be beaten over the head with them. I had no idea that Morris had been militating against the war policies of Britain in Crimea and the Balkans and admiring Tsarist Russia’s liberation of the serfs, a century and a half before I halfwittedly stumbled over the legacies of Yugoslavia and Russia and began falling in love with both. And although it’s true I’d been a Sinophile for a very long time, I had no idea that Tawney had not only composed a study about China, but had used the same to champion the ideas of Jimmy Yen 晏陽初. Ninety years later, I would be blundering my way through Baotou and fumbling after similar ideas in a more haphazard way.

The English Fabians and guild socialists of yesteryear were engaging the civilised East – both Near and Far – in a meaningful, active and coherent way, just as Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 approvingly noted they were. And if this late-coming dawning realisation of mine weren’t enough cause for a certain degree of intellectual embarrassment, here’s another: I simply found myself unknowingly slipping into their wake, ever since taking a Chinese class in my freshman year of college. Even my increased anti-war activism and turn toward Orthodoxy can be seen in this light.

I’m not recounting all this to pat myself on the back. I’m not trying to reassemble all the fragments or reinvent the idea of Anglo-Orthodoxy on a personal level. Although that would be a fun project, it would also run far too great a risk of being self-indulgent – a chance to show how clever and erudite I am, at the expense of a deep personal truth. The connexions there already existed. I merely fell into them like a dumb beast into a net. Indeed, if anything, this should be another occasion for metanoia – which, indeed, this whole season ought to have been. Is this entire blogging project a kind of æsthetic indulgence? At bottom, is my religion just an outward affectation, like my uses of British spelling and deliberately-antiquated ligatures? Am I really just another smug Episcopalian konvert attracted by bells and smells, content to keep going his ways without fully examining himself in his heart of hearts?

I hope not. But I can’t rule that possibility out.

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