"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Alan Jacobs on Christian Humanism

This interview with Alan Jacobs is worth your time. In it he discusses his newest book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford UP, 2018), 280pp., which sounds fascinating, focusing as it does on several prominent Christian intellectuals of the 1940s--Lewis, Weil, Auden, Eliot, and Maritain.

Oxford tells us this about the book:
By early 1943, it had become increasingly clear that the Allies would win the Second World War. Around the same time, it also became increasingly clear to many Christian intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic that the soon-to-be-victorious nations were not culturally or morally prepared for their success. A war won by technological superiority merely laid the groundwork for a post-war society governed by technocrats. These Christian intellectuals-Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil, among others-sought both to articulate a sober and reflective critique of their own culture and to outline a plan for the moral and spiritual regeneration of their countries in the post-war world. 
In this book, Alan Jacobs explores the poems, novels, essays, reviews, and lectures of these five central figures, in which they presented, with great imaginative energy and force, pictures of the very different paths now set before the Western democracies. Working mostly separately and in ignorance of one another's ideas, the five developed a strikingly consistent argument that the only means by which democratic societies could be prepared for their world-wide economic and political dominance was through a renewal of education that was grounded in a Christian understanding of the power and limitations of human beings. The Year of Our Lord 1943 is the first book to weave together the ideas of these five intellectuals and shows why, in a time of unprecedented total war, they all thought it vital to restore Christianity to a leading role in the renewal of the Western democracies.

At different points in the 90s, reflecting changing ecclesial sensibilities as well as ecumenical friendships (that is to say, who my room-mates were), I found myself reading some of the works of all the figures Jacobs features, with early interest in Lewis and Simone Weil, and later in the others, including Maritain (after I had a Catholic room-mate who would sponsor my entry into the Church in 1997).

It was also in this period that I discovered George Grant, a rough contemporary of all the above five though perhaps less explicitly theological and more particularly concerned about Canadian realities. William Christian's biography of Grant was very good--or so I thought at the time, remembering almost none of it now more than two decades later. Grant's essay Technology and Empire was prescient, I thought at the time also.

I read Lewis when I had a hardcore evangelical for a roommate who thought Lewis was just about the only theologian who ever counted. I demurred from that judgment after reading, e.g., the Screwtape Letters and even Mere Christianity. Both are decent, even sometimes droll, works, but I think the Cappadocians and scholastics (inter alia) need not worry about being thrown out of the theological guild by this moderately interesting Ulsterman. I could never get into the Narnia books because I dislike all such books in that genre.

More recently, the Orthodox biblical scholar Edith Humphrey has returned to Lewis in her Further Up and Further In: Orthodox Conversations with C. S. Lewis on Scripture and Theology.

After my evangelical room-mate moved to Japan (where he later became Catholic), and perhaps to re-balance my Anglican sensibilities, I moved over to the Anglo-Catholic Eliot. I'm now slightly embarrassed to recall how many times I have quoted from his essay "Thoughts After Lambeth."

In addition, of course, I read The Wasteland and the Four Quartets in an undergraduate poetry class. I return to both works on a semi-regular basis. His Letters are also fascinating, as this one brief excerpt shows.

All the others on Jacobs' list are men, of course, but Weil is not only the sole woman, but the most unconventional. For me--and for others, I suspect--she is also the most haunting of figures. She raises in an acute way the question of where, and whether, there is any such thing as a limit to God's kenosis--and ours. If Christ descends even unto hell to harrow it, what does it mean to claim that extra ecclesiam there is nulla salus? How far does divine self-denial go, and how far must ours go? And what does it mean to embrace God and salvation? Weil, of course, famously remained outside the Church, but to write her off as some lost cause is a grave mistake it seems to me.

Since I read David McClellan's 1990 biography of her there has been an explosion of interest in Weil, and now biographies proliferate, including one (no surprise) by the ubiquitous Robert Coles (who has also written workman-like biographies of, inter alia, Dorothy Day and Anna Freud.) 

Auden is the one figure I've perhaps read the least of. But just last month, in giving a lecture on why reading Freud is still hugely important, I had occasion to read Auden's poem "In Memory of Sigmund Freud," written only a few months after the great man died in September 1939 in London. How very observant Auden was to say then that

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives.

How different our lives have been in this climate of opinion that has not let up in nearly 80 years (as much as it kills Freddie Crewes to admit it)!

Maritain is the only fully paid-up Catholic on the list. I've read bits and pieces of him over the years, including Art and Scholasticism and especially Liturgy and Contemplation. I tried to read the quasi-joint memoirs of his wife, We Have Been Friend Together but never finished it. Among Catholic philosopher friends, I find that reactions range wildly, from some seeing him as a reactionary crank to others thinking him one of the greatest French Catholic intellectuals of the last century and more.

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