May 13, 2006


Grappling with God: The faith of a famous poet: Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch (Wilfred M. McClay, May 7, 2006, The Weekly Standard)

In some respects, Auden's theological orientation and reflections are emblematic of a particular historical moment, the mid-20th-century decades when the cataclysms of world war and the thwarting of the progressive faith led so many serious, secular-minded Western thinkers to reconsider the claims of the Christian intellectual tradition, even down to the forbidding doctrine of original sin.

Auden himself believed he had rejected the Christian faith as a young man, but gradually found himself drawn back to it, partly in reaction to the brutal political realities emerging in the late 1930s, especially the rise of Nazism and the closing of the churches in civil war Spain, both of which shocked and dismayed him, and challenged the hold of left-progressive pieties. His chronic and tortured unhappiness in love also surely influenced him, as did an impressive encounter with the Anglican writer Charles Williams, who introduced him to the work of Kierkegaard and provided him a shining example of an accomplished intellectual who was also a thoroughgoing Christian.

But the questions that ate at him went much deeper than the mere matter of role models. How did one explain the destructive recalcitrance of the human heart, including one's own? How did one find a way to live decently within the content of a world, and a life, that seemed beyond redemption?

Such questions were never far away, and one can already begin to see the beginnings of a Christian reckoning with them emerging quite consciously in "As I walked out one evening" (1937): "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless. . . . You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart"--the term "crooked" here carrying, of course, meanings both personal and general. By 1940, the time of his famous "September 1, 1939," he had formulated his own concise distillation of the conundrum of original sin: "For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have / Not universal love / But to be loved alone."

There was a general intellectual excitement in those days about emerging works of serious theology, particularly Protestant theology, excitement that is hard to imagine today. Auden read widely in that literature, particularly in the works of his good friend Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and the other theological lions of the first half of the 20th century. But he was no theologian. He always seemed to feed on such works in an opportunistic spirit, having a poet's insouciance about the truth claims of systematic theology or apologetics and, indeed, for nearly all dogmatic assertions about questions of religion. Such theological reading chiefly served to replenish his fund of metaphors and similes. But in the end, he was convinced that all ratiocinations and speculations about God's nature were arrogant assumptions and empty human pretensions, merely learned ways of "taking His name in vain." Instead, he believed the worthiest Christians were those who remained perpetually humble and perpetually uneasy in their outlook, their minds stretched taut between the contrary poles of belief and skepticism.

"Our faith," he insisted, must be "well balanced by our doubt," for a Christian "is never something one is, only something one can pray to become." Christianity was a "way," a way of being in the world, not a set of intellectual propositions or a moral checklist or a map of all reality.

Such intellectual modesty helps explain the enduring appeal of his native Anglicanism, particularly in its high-church Anglo-Catholic form, precisely because it stressed "uniformity of rite" more than "uniformity of doctrine."

Great art must, of course, reflect knowledge of that "error bred in the bone."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2006 7:07 PM

"About suffering they were never wrong
the old masters..."

Auden, Eliot, Yeats.

The loves of an old English major. Not to mention Blake or Arnold. :)

Posted by: jdkelly at May 13, 2006 8:31 PM

"September 1" has always struck me as maudlin, a lesser poem than Shield of Achilles:

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 13, 2006 9:42 PM

The quote was from "Musee des

The quote was from "Musee des Beaux Arts", about how the fall of Icarus was unobserved by the peasants working their jobs while the "great ones" tried to be the gods.


Posted by: jdkelly at May 13, 2006 10:14 PM

Sorry jd. Was referring to the article, not your comment.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 13, 2006 10:54 PM

It's a strange notion that has infected modern society that religious believers are free from doubt. This is total nonsense, and has contributed mightily to the falling away of many from faith.

Posted by: b at May 15, 2006 11:51 AM