'The Retreating Roar': that is how Matthew Arnold, in his poem 'Dover Beach', described what he saw as the decline of Christianity in this country. In four essays this week, journalist Madeleine Bunting dissects the impact of that decline.
Hers is a more sanguine view than Arnold's. His lament for the loss of religious belief has proved misplaced, she argues; instead, uncertainty and doubt 'can be rich ground for joy, love and light'. However, the poem remains important, having come to symbolise the dramatic loss of faith over the last century.
Each essay looks at one of the ideas which dominated Western culture for 2000 years - salvation, redemption, sin, sacrifice - and are now part of 'the retreating roar', and she asks: what happens to them? Do they disappear, or migrate and translate into new forms? 'The loss of God has been a defining feature of Western democracy, so how does one take stock and reckon with this extraordinary phenomenon in all its ramifications from the most personal issues of meaning and purpose, to the collapse of institutions?'
In other words: what has been lost, what has been gained, and what has taken on a new life?