Never having heard of the essay before, I took a look. It is only eight pages long but no less provocative for that. Without denying humanism’s need for religion, Eliot unsettled that thesis by asserting its converse too: “I stated [in an earlier essay] my belief that humanism is in the end futile without religion. . . . Having called attention to what I believe to be [that] danger, I am bound to call attention to the danger of the other extreme: the danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.”
In contemporary terms, this counterpart thesis sounds like a jeremiad against fundamentalism or, at least, like a warning against an excessively biblical Christianity untempered by the splendors of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton. Oddly, though, given his own renowned appreciation for the poets, Eliot takes his argument, not toward an apology for Christian humanism, but toward an appreciation of the benefits for Christianity of an aggressively anti-Christian secular mind:
I believe that the skeptic, even the pyrrhonist, but particularly the humanist-skeptic, is a very useful ingredient in a world which is no better than it is. In saying this I do not think that I am committing myself to any theological heresy. The ideal world would be the ideal Church. But very little knowledge of human nature is needed to convince us that hierarchy is liable to corruption, and certainly to stupidity; that religious belief, when unquestioned and uncriticised, is liable to degeneration into superstition; that the human mind is much lazier than the human body. . . . If we cannot rely, and it seems that we can never rely, upon adequate criticism from within, it is better that there should be criticism from without.
This perspective is certainly odd. At first glance, it seems to give license to a perpetual culture war between believers and secularists (or the “humanist-skeptic,” in his nomenclature)and, what’s worse, a culture war with believers perpetually forced on the defensive, as if they were the ones regularly tending toward corruption, with the supposedly disinterested secularists serving as the righteous policeman, prosecutor, and judge in their ongoing campaign against religious obscurantism.
To a certain extent, this first impression gets some support from the rest of the essay; and to the extent it does, it certainly throws new light on Eliot’s later books, After Strange Gods (1934) and The Idea of a Christian Society (1940), with their frank defense of Christendom and thus their supposed advocacy of theocracy (always the bogeyman in the secular imagination).
This 1930 essay poses a painful question for Eliot scholars: Have they misunderstood Eliot’s slightly later defense of “Christendom”? Can he really have changed his view that much in so short a time? I will leave that question to Eliot scholars to thrash out. More relevant to my point is that he has another twist to the argument: Yes, criticism of the non-ideal Church is inevitable, but what kind of criticism? Here’s the twist:
I wish to make a capital distinction: criticism, infidelity and agnosticism must, to be of value, be original and not inherited. Orthodoxy must be traditional, heterodoxy must be original. The attitude of Voltaire has value, because of its place in time; the attitude of Renan has value, in its historical perspective; Anatole France I can only consider as a man who came at the most unfortunate date for his own reputationtoo late to be a great skeptic, and too soon to be a great skeptic. There must be more orthodoxy before there can be another Voltaire. And precisely I fear lest humanism should make a tradition of dissent and agnosticism, and so cut itself off from the sphere of influence in which it is most needed.
I have argued elsewhere that, on balance, Nietzsche has had a catastrophic impact on Western civilization (perhaps more from how he was read than because of what he actually said, although that defense is hard to mount given some of the things he did say). No one who reads Nietzsche, however, can doubt his astonishing originality and rhetorical force. For one thing, he is something of an equal-opportunity basher and is by no means fixated on the extirpation of Christianity as so many of the current crop of atheist public intellectuals are. For another, he is never naive about what the collapse of Christian faith will mean for Western civilization, as here:
The Beyond in art.With profound sorrow one admits to oneself that, in their highest flights, the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognize as false. . . . If belief in such heavenly truth declines in general, then that species of art can never flourish again whichlike the Divine Comedy, the paintings of Raphael, the frescoes of Michelangelo, the Gothic cathedralspresupposes not only a cosmic but a metaphysical significance in the objects of art. A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith.
Even a passing glance at what I have earlier in these pages called “pop atheism” is enough to show how pathetically mediocre are the recent apologetes for atheism. Going from Nietzsche to Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins and ending with Sam Harris is quite a declension.
I write, however, not to bury atheism but to examine Eliot’s thesis. What are we to make of his claim that believing and unbelieving mediocrities feed off of each other? Orthodoxy, of course, cannot transcend its brand of mediocrity by being new or original. For Eliot, to be orthodox is by that fact to be traditional. A novel orthodoxy is an oxymoron.
Correlatively, heterodoxy cannot transcend its own temptation to mediocrity by simply repeating shopworn and jejune clichés culled from Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. But what if mediocre theology does strive for the new (as in liberal Christianity), and what if atheism does remain stuck in nineteenth-century positivism? For Eliot, that would mean dangerdanger for civilization, yes, but above all for the Christian religion:
For there is no doubt in my mind that contemporary religious institutions are in danger from themselves; that they have with few exceptions lost the “intellectual,” except that pernicious intellectual who adopts dogma merely because doubt is out of date. Nowhere is this more obvious than in America. . . . But America is not isolated in this respect; it merely shows us under a magnifying glass what occurs everywhere. The two dangers to which religion is exposed are apparent everywhereand they are both cases for which “humanism” or “culture” might be called in: petrified ecclesiasticism, and modernism.
At this point, Eliot veers off into a too-quick identification of the Roman Catholic Church with “petrified ecclesiasticism.” (If one wants to know why Eliot remained Anglo-Catholic after his conversion to Christianity, the prejudices on display here will explain all). And his attacks on modernism all deal with long-forgotten (and mostly Anglican) theologians and clerics.
But if these attacks strike the contemporary reader as wide of the mark, or at least as no longer relevant to the current scene, one is still left with this provocative thesis: In religious debate, believers get the enemies they deserve. When salt loses its savor, only the insipid will bother to reply, or even to notice.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
"Darwin's Graveyards" by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (Books & Culture)
"Atheism and Violence" by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (First Things On the Square)
"Reason and Pop Atheism" by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (First Things On the Square)