Sandcastle builders and sailors - revisiting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and the "Sea of Faith"


Luke 12:54-57

Matthew Arnold - "Dover Beach" (written c. 1851, published 1867).

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-blanched 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 furled.
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.

From Peter Thompson's Introduction to "Atheism in Christianity" by Ernst Bloch

These are time when competing Caliphates - both religious and secular - dominate the intellectual and political realms. We are passing through one such era at present, and evidence of this is manifold. The rise of popular and radical Islam on the one hand and the rediscovery of Christian evangelism on the other; the flight into New Age spirituality or New Atheist rationalism; the slow beating pulse of the Church of England, quickened by debates on sexuality and gender; against a background of unbelief, the re-emergence of faith in China, either in the form of traditional Confucianism, Taoism or Buddhism, or the New Christians and the Falun Gong, The list is endless and points to new levels of contradiction and tension in the ideological make-up of the world today. What all of these things show, however, is that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and the globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain.

If the current economic crisis and the profligate years which preceded it and gave rise to it have shown us anything, iit is that the relationship between the social relations of production and the way we understand those relations remain as strained and as inseparable as ever. In the forum of religious belief, therefore, theists and atheists battle it out, each convinced they're on the back foot, each fighting against what they see as a combined tide of muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, threatening to overwhelm us with theocracies, technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism, value-free liberality and fundamentalist regimes and movements. We seem trapped in a dualistic but essentially static way of thinking about the relationship between religion and science. As Derrida and Vattimo put it, 'We are constantly trying to think the interconnectedness, albeit otherwise, of knowledge and faith, technoscience *and* religious belief, calculation *and* the sacrosanct. In the process, however, we have not ceased to encounter the alliance, holy or not, of the calculable and the incalculable "  


An enduring childhood holiday memory is of my parents, my sister and I arriving at Mundesley beach in Norfolk along with our grandparents. The tide is going out and the golden sand of the beach is slowly being revealed. On its soft, welcoming surface, slowly warming in the sun, hours of fun await us: the playing of French cricket, the building of sandcastles, the playing with model boats and water pistols, the flying of kites, the reading of books, the telling of stories, the eating of Shipham’s fish-paste sandwiches, fruit-cake and cockles, the drinking of tea and, in accordance with a modern cliché born of children’s literature, imbibing lashings of ginger beer. To this day, though one or two things have equalled it, nothing since has ever surpassed the pleasure of those many summer hours spent on Mundesley beach.

But, as we all know, the outgoing tide eventually turns and begins its inexorably return up the shore. By degrees one is forced back up the beach and, as Jimi Hendrix poignantly sung, “castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.” The sun goes down, it gets chilly and out come our cardigans and jackets. It is inevitable that the ending of such a wonderful day and disappearance of that the wide, sandy expanse which gave us such pleasure was often experienced as a great sadness. There was nothing to do, of course, except to pack everything away, get back in the car and slowly wend our way back to my grandparents bungalow in North Walsham. After a warm shower and tea my sister and I went off to our beds where I curled up with one of the many Beano Annuals that my grandparents kept in the chest of drawers at the end of the bed. Suitably and healthily tired-out, a sense of contentment would slowly return and, like the murmuring of the River Lethe’s, a remembrance of the sea’s song brought on a deep, deep sleep.

I realised that as a child toting a bucket and spade the outgoing tide had been something to be delighted about and the incoming tide was deeply to be regretted. Later, living on the Essex coast and as a budding young sailor and Sea Cadet, this feeling was completely reversed. The incoming tide meant I would soon be able to sail the beautiful and exciting creeks of the Walton Backwaters (the setting for Arthur Ransome's "Secret Water"). The outgoing tide, on other hand, always sent us swiftly homeward to the safety of Kirby Quay or Walton Marina for we were always a little fearful of getting stuck out all night on some muddy saltmarsh until the next tide came in. (The following Youtube video shows a boat following the creeks inland to Kirby Quay. Ah, a truly wonderful memory for me and, I hope a delight for you.)

Together, these experiences taught me about the relative value of tides. I learnt that as the physical reality of the world pushed back at me in different ways it helped show up very different possibilities and this elicited from me different ways of being in the world.

Now when Arnold penned his highly evocative and, for many of us, highly influential, poem "Dover Beach" I do not for one moment believe that he wasn’t himself aware of this and, even if it was not in the forefront of his mind as he wrote this poem, he must have known that using the image of a withdrawing tide would, inevitably, invite readers to imagine it returning. But, to continue using my images it is clear that when Arnold wrote his poem about faith he was writing with the mind-set of a “sailor.” His boat was "faith" and he wote his poem at the ebb tide, just as it is about to turn. Arnold was, of course, living in a time which was beginning to see traditional, cherished religious beliefs and practices loosening their firm hold upon us. Old, comforting certainties were disappearing and he could see that the opportunities to sail on the sea of faith were also going to disappear by degrees. The publication in 1859 of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” eight years after Arnold had written the poem (c. 1851) marks, perhaps, the moment when wider British culture first knowingly heard “the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back”.

We know that in Victorian Britain there was much regret and anguish at the sea of faith’s withdrawal but, as I have suggested via my own story, with the loss of sailing opportunities there opened up for our culture the possibility of discovering the many delights of the wide open beach and the building of sandcastles. A whole new, exciting and liberating way of being in the world became possible for us, a way of being that has decisively shaped all of us here without exception.

The words "sea of faith" were, of course, most famously used in 1984 as the title of the six-part BBC documentary television series presented by Don Cupitt, the then Dean of Emmanuel College (available on Youtube - here's a link to one section of it. You can find the other sections from here). The programme dealt with the history of Christianity in the modern world and it focussed particularly on how it had responded to the challenges of the natural sciences, atheism and secularisation in general. It was incredibly influential and even led to the foundation of the "Sea of Faith Network" whose current strapline reads "Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation...". Our church has it's own modest place in the history of this movement as our minister emeritus, Frank Walker, is a friend of Don Cupitt's and early supporter of the network. In our common room Frank has has over the years hosted many, many meetings of the network.

As Cupitt’s documentary revealed, once our culture began to get over the initial sadness of the tide of faith's withdrawal, it began to find much of value on the beach that was exposed. Upon it some truly wonderful sandcastles were built - sandcastles so spectacular that rather too many of us were seduced into thinking that they were now a permanent feature of both the natural universe and the human world. Chief among them were those above whose portals we had written: "Atheism", "Scientism" and "Secularism."

But then came an utterly horrific, iconic moment - 9/11. It did not, itself, mark the moment the tide of the sea of faith turned but, as with the publication of the Origin of Species, it was the moment when most of us realised that the tide most certainly had turned and, whether we liked it or not, that we were going to have to deal with its return.

As Peter Thompson puts it, in this moment of our history:

". . . theists and atheists battle it out, each convinced they're on the back foot, each fighting against what they see as a combined tide of muddle-headedness, dogmatism and irrationality, threatening to overwhelm us with theocracies, technocracies, sterile democracies, faithless scientism, value-free liberality and fundamentalist regimes and movements."

It's not at all a pleasant struggle to behold and, speaking for myself as a minister of religion committed to a certain kind of Enlightenment inspired private religion, it's often a frightening situation in which to to find oneself.

In my own, personal attempts to work through this I’ve often remembered an ancient story from British history about Cnut the Great, or King Canute (c. 985 or 995–1035). The twelfth-century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, tells us the Cnut once placed his throne on the shoreline and from it commanded the tide to halt so as not to wet his feet and robes. However: "continuing to rise as usual the tide dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'"

Though this story has often been misread as displaying Cnut's hubris the account really displays his wisdom because, by doing this, he was able to show those around him that tides come in and go out regardless of our desires.

As I have already noted, in the matter of the "sea of faith", my life has been shaped decisively by the sea of faith’s withdrawal and our secular culture's recent beach life. I prize highly the open landscape upon which I have freely explored, wholly without formal religious constraints. So, naturally, like the little boy I once was, seeing the sea of faith coming back in makes me feel sad and regretful and, I admit, not a little afraid - I do not yet know what it is going to be like for our culture to have a sea of faith back in. But I think of King Cnut and I think back, too, to my teenage years and my discovery of the delights of sailing. I have in my heart a memory of how I learnt, in time, to conquer some of my fears about an incoming tide and how I found a way to delight in the world's watery ways. Looking at faith coming so strongly back into play in our society I know that, in my own way, I'm going to have to let some cherished sandcastles be washed away and that I’m going to have to learn how to sail once again. To believe it might be otherwise is to fail to heed Cnut’s lesson.

I wish to conclude these personal reflections with a simple point about what I think is the role of a church like this as the sea of faith seems slowly to be returning to our public spaces. Our openness to change means that we, together, can work at becoming a type of amphibian graced with the wisdom of King Cnut, becoming creatures equally at home on the beach of secularism and the sea of faith and able to recognise and celebrate the profound gifts and possibilities offered by them both.

Jesus once asked those around him: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" We might usefully rephrase this to pose a question to ourselves and our wider culture: “You know how to interpret the rising and falling of the tides, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?"

As a church which has consistently valued both faith and reason we can, I believe, play a limited but vital role in helping our own age to interpret the present time with its incoming tide of faith and to judge what might be a right response to this. We can do that by being ourselves a Cnut-like reminder that, as human beings, the sea of faith will forever be coming in and going out just as the beach of secularism will forever be being revealed and obscured. In a community such as ours we can help people learn how to live fruitfully and joyously in both domains, as skilled at building sandcastles on the open beach as they are at sailing on the sea of faith.


Dean Reynolds said…
I wonder how a church like this one can inhabit that space having so much invested in the beach life so to speak? Are we as a congregation ready to embark on a journey of discovery that will lead us into a new place and are we prepared for that journey? perhaps it is a boat we need and not a wagon. still I feel there are signs of hope but I think we need to get back out of our comfort zone and maybe stop crying over a list sandcastle or two.
Dear Dean,

Thanks for the comment. A few things spring to mind as worth placing on the table.

Yes, a church such as this one does have a lot invested in secular "beach life" but it was an investment made precisely because of what it learnt whilst sailing on the sea of faith (particularly during the Radical Reformation and the Enlightenment which followed).

The point is that we have many religious (sea of faith) resources it's just that we haven't been paying attention to them recently, let alone actually using them.

In my opinion the way to access these older religious resources and to be able to use them appropriately in the here and now is via post-modern thought. We need to develop a post-modern reading of our foundational texts and practices. Now I don't want to claim too much for it (it's not complete) but, at present, I'm re-reading the Racovian Catechism with my "Heideggerian" and "Wittgensteinin" hats on. A strange sight indeed!

I have found that this process of reconnecting in this fashion with our radical religious tradition (its sea of faith life) has helped me immensely - not least of all in allowing me to accept once apparently very important sandcastles will fall (are falling) in the sea whilst also allowing me to keep in play the "events" that were the building of them.

The trick is to see (and feel) that the "event" of our whole liberal Christian tradition is made up of both sea- and beach-living.

Once seen and felt - then it has to be lived. I guess (hope) that's what were trying to do here in the Memorial Church.
Will P said…
Another very interesting mix of personal reflection with such varied reference material. Lot of food for thought. Thanks.
Yewtree said…
To bring in another seaside metaphor: I was watching a documentary about Isaac Newton (entitled "Last of the magicians") and it had this famous quote:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855) by Sir David Brewster (Volume II. Ch. 27).

Wikiquote points out this related quote from Milton (another proto-Unitarian): "As children gath'ring pebbles on the shore", John Milton, Paradise Regained, Book iv. Line 330.

I think the most fruitful exploration is done in the intertidal zones between the sea and the beach.

Thank you so much for posting the video of Secret Water - a place I have often visited in my imagination, but never in real life. I found myself looking for Mastodon footprints in the mud.