A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ: on the misconstrual of the mode of existence of religion

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a classic vision of a post-apocalyptic world in which the lacunary remains of our dead culture’s knowledge have been piously hoarded and conserved by monks who have no idea what it means. Even a shopping list is treated as endowed with mystic meaning. The relations of church,state and science are explored in a way that relativises each of them in turn in a mythic frame of the eternal recurrence of hope and destruction presided over by buzzards and sharks,symbols of predation and violence – the powers of this world. Wisdom and power vie for the proper use of knowledge, but even wisdom seems to be contained in imperfect, naive and credulous institutions. Book 3 seems to come down on the side of the Church and Tradition as superior to humanistic positivist modernism. But this would be to forget that the Church has been shown to be ignorant, superstitious, and rife with its own petty power struggles in Book 1.

I read this book many years ago and was deeply impressed by it, perhaps because of my Catholic upbringing and education. I had forgotten many details, as the style is rich and and ambitious. I found it just as gripping today, although my feelings were ambivalent, as I could not fully “agree” with the direction the plot took in the second half. Andrew Gibson has a very interesting review here, and Luke Burrage has devoted two podcasts to it. Both remark on the mixed feelings that the book provokes. The cynical vision of religion at the beginning gives way to a seeming celebration of the same obscurantist attitude as a mode of resistance to the dangers of secularism conjoined with scientism.

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