By JOHN YOUNG
In 1908 Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson published his futuristic novel Lord of the World, set about a century ahead and depicting the coming of Antichrist and the end of the world. The book was highly praised by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and it merits consideration today — when we are at approximately the time of the story.
Benson made an attempt to predict technological advances, and in this regard his book is closer to the mark than some futurist novels. Air travel was well-established, with aircraft called volors. Apparently a volor had only one propeller, and the wings flapped up and down! Of course it is impossible to predict future changes with any degree of confidence. George Orwell published his book Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, so he had to look ahead only 35 years, and he was right about the change from pounds, shillings, and pence to decimal currency in Britain; but he gave them dollars and cents instead of pounds and pence.
Chesterton was probably wise to ignore technological advances in his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill; published in 1904, it depicts events a century later, but people are still traveling in hansom cabs and horse-drawn buses.
In this article I will concentrate on the general picture of society Robert Hugh Benson projects, and in particular on the effect of that society on one character — Mabel Brand. I’ll relate that to Western society today.
Msgr. Benson rightly saw the early 21st century, particularly in Europe and America (the United States had annexed Canada!), as a time of all-embracing secularism. The religious people who remained were nearly all Catholics, and the irreligious were materialists and Communists. Freemasonry and Marxism had been dominant factors in the triumph of secularism and the overthrowing of religion.
The great fear was that war would break out between the West and the East, a war with disastrous consequences because of the terrible weapons of destruction that science had made possible. Then came a mysterious charismatic figure who reconciled the opposing sides and brought the promise of permanent and universal peace.
Julian Felsenburgh was his name, and he was hailed as Savior of the world. He was seen as “the kind of figure that belonged rather to the age of chivalry: a pure, clean, compelling personality, like a radiant child.” He had arisen out of the flat, socialistic level of a world that had lost all ultimate meaning, and which saw Man as the ultimate reality. Now here, in Felsenburgh, was the perfect representative of divine man. So he was referred to as Incarnate God. In reality, he was Antichrist!
Nineteen-year-old Mabel Brand, married to a prominent politician, craved a world of peace and harmony, but she and her husband viewed religion as an impediment to this, and as something evil and irrational. When Julian Felsenburgh came she welcomed him as the fulfillment of her dreams of a better kind of life than the current materialistic society offered.
“I saw the Son of Man,” she said. “Oh! There is no other phrase. The Savior of the world. . . . I knew Him in my heart as soon as I saw Him.”
The One who now bore these divine titles “was no longer a monstrous figure, half God and half man, claiming both natures and possessing neither. . . . Here was one instead whom she could follow, a god indeed and a man as well — a god become human, and a man because so divine.”
But Felsenburgh didn’t remain the man of peace he at first seemed. He took brutal steps to crush faithful Catholics. He imposed compulsory worship — worship of Man, not God. The Christian festivals were replaced by festivals celebrating the new humanistic religion, with an apostate Catholic priest placed in charge of the development of a suitable secular ritual.
Catholicism was the principal enemy, for it constituted the only great threat to a universal Religion of Man. It was, according to the Antichrist, high treason against Man, for it asserted a transcendent supernatural authority — God. So it must be removed from the world.
The turning point for Mabel was the passing of a law that everyone will be questioned as to whether they believe in God, and will be put to death if they confess that they do. She was unable to accept the apparently logical consequences of the secular humanism with which she had been indoctrinated, yet was unable to refute it. She assumed it was true, yet found it revolting.
She saw only one solution, for life had become unlivable. Euthanasia was legal and was widely practiced (the Release Act had been passed in the year 1998), and she found it preferable to the Religion of Man that Felsenburgh the Antichrist offered. “It was her belief, as of the whole Humanitarian world, that just as bodily pain occasionally justified the termination of life, so also did mental pain.” Euthanasia could be “the most charitable act that could be performed.”
Comparing the current Western world with Benson’s picture, we find in both a dominant materialism hostile to Christianity. There is a difference in the way people have reacted: In Benson’s scenario most felt a deep need for the spiritual but tried to achieve it by deifying man, whereas now most people without religion seem content to live without the spiritual.
Perhaps that’s not altogether accurate, though. The occult and witchcraft have plenty of followers, and many consult their horoscopes. And we have the extreme environmentalists and their latest fad of global warming, which has become a pseudo-religion for many.
Brian Clowes makes very pertinent comments on this in his excellent article in The Wanderer of October 31, p. 7b. To quote him: “This faith has a god (Gaia, the Mother Earth, etc.), a pope (Al Gore), a priesthood with religious orders (PETA, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and others), dogmas that must not be questioned (population control and global warming), rituals (recycling and Chevy Volts), feast days (Earth Day celebrations), sacraments (sterilization and abortion), and even indulgences for ‘sins’ such as driving a big SUV (carbon offsets).”
There is this difference: In Benson’s novel Man is glorified; in the secular religion of our world he is more often viewed as a parasite: No longer seen as the image and likeness of God, he has become a menace to the pure earth of Gaia.
In both Benson’s future world and our own time Catholicism is perceived as the great enemy, the force that must be destroyed if the new religion is to prevail.
Many are like Mabel: trapped in materialism and yearning for something nobler, yet blocked from the truth by presuppositions. There is a challenge for us here: to convey the truth to them in a way they can understand.
In Mabel’s case the apostate priest Fr. Francis had outlined Catholic beliefs to her, and tried to present them fairly. But he had lost the faith, and as a result his explanations lacked life and warmth, and did not address her difficulties. So they left her cold and confused.
Another Francis has been giving advice recently about how to evangelize: Pope Francis. He has emphasized the need for a living relationship with Jesus Christ, who is Truth Incarnate, and through that relationship to convey the Christian truths that have transformed our lives. Believers need to both know and love the faith, and to know and love and sympathize with the many Mabels of today.
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(John Young is a graduate of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, and has taught philosophy in four seminaries. His book The Scope of Philosophy was published by Gracewing Publishers in England in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wanderer on theological issues since 1977.)