The later poetry of W.B. Yeats is fascinating for its palpable sense of loss, uncertainty and fear. The man who in his youth could invoke the glow of the Celtic Twilight would, in his maturity, reflect on his world with a bitter sense of dread and foreboding. Yeats could lament his own physical decline, but more urgent and imminent for him was the perceived dissolution of the society to which he belonged. His poem ‘The Second Coming’ has been regularly used to parse the landscape of the European twentieth and twenty first century. Political and sociological commentary will readily confess that ‘things fall apart’ and that ‘the centre cannot hold’, using Yeats’ powerful expressions as a means of interpreting the times we find ourselves in.
For me, the most chilling image in the poem is from the world of nature:
Turning and turning in the widening gyreThe falcon cannot hear the falconer
Yeats captures here the sense of a world untethered, of moral and societal moorings snapping loose, of the permanent loss of the illusion of control. The voice of human beings can no longer call their world into order, consequence has taken flight and there is little that can be done.
These words are applicable to so much of our contemporary world, but their political import is perhaps eclipsed by their personal reality in our moral lives. The 1960s paraded the falcon of free personal ethics in an unprecedented way. Morals were no longer received from above but conceived between ourselves, societal and sexual boundaries were up for grabs, and the idea of restraint sounded like a relic from a bygone era.
So far, so free, but our twenty first century context shows just how far the falcon has flown. We are living in the fallout of the sexual revolution, and the daily headlines about indiscretions are simply a symptom of this. The #MeToo movement, the wearing of funereal black to awards ceremonies, the pseudo-confessional statements on the part of those who fear a backlash for their past behaviours, and the recalibration of how Hollywood simulates sex are fascinating and depressing to observe. Voices are lifted to recall the falcon, to put carnal appetites back in their cage, to say that boundaries are just as important as freedoms, and to recategorise how sexual ethics ought to be regulated.
Those who are speaking up about sexual abuse and manipulation are to be applauded for their courage, and one can only hope that the rapacious power which allowed women in particular to be so demeaned will be called to account. From a gospel perspective, however, the knee-jerk moralism which is inevitably and consequently surfacing in society is no more encouraging or redemptive than the license which preceded it. This is the way our hearts work as humans, both at a micro and macro level: we will indulge or we will penalise with equal flagrancy, we will sooner seek to omit the symptoms of sin in our hearts and in our world, than admit to the problem of sin itself. We would sooner have our appetites regulated, than have them redeemed, we would more happily legislate for ourselves and others, than capitulate to God for deliverance. Should the twenty first century manage to mirror the moral veneer which characterised the equally licentious Victorian era, men and women will find themselves no nearer to purity nor to God. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
As a preacher this is deeply challenging, and practically important. Part of the ministry of the gospel is to allow God’s Law to convict my heart and the heart of my hearers, to show the profundity of our need before a holy God, and the necessity of Christ as Saviour to bring us to Him. For the licentious this call is obvious and evident, but for the secular legalist it is just as important. The gospel would shatter every ethical edifice that human beings can construct, it would expose the vanity of seeking to recall the falcon of respectability, when our real need is forensic righteousness from Christ. So the gospel will expose the superficial symptoms of sin which are so readily recognisable, but it will also seek out the religious and secular salves for sin which are so insidious and which seem to carry sympathy with the ethics of the gospel. The preaching of Christ will break in the door of whited sepulchres, will reject the polished surface of the cup in favour of exposing its inner stain, and will show that our need as human beings is truly radical.
So our headlines will continue to carry urgent calls to the falcon. Some will be commendable in their judicial or ethical claims, but I need to keep it ever before my eyes that a cleaner heart and a cleaner world are not what the gospel aims at – but rather their abolition and replacement by the righteousness of Christ.