T.S. Eliot in his element

Intelligible Mysteries

Theology & Modernist Literature

In The Lives of the Poets, Samuel Johnson warned against mixing theology and literature, claiming that “the ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.” Johnson’s warning—that to treat the ideas of Christian theology in literary form is necessarily to sully them—is a familiar one, though it’s advice more honored in the breach (think of Milton, Herbert, and Hopkins) than in the observance. On one side, we have sacred truth, which for the Christian means the revelation of God through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the other side, we have poetry, full of images and metaphors, figures and filigree, all of which distort the true nature of God’s divine grace. Theology is theology, and poetry is poetry.

Here are some very different words, written by the Catholic philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain. In his 1920 work Art and Scholasticism, Maritain wrote that European culture in the years after World War I needed “a conversation between philosophers and artists.” In making this claim, Maritain had in mind a very specific kind of philosopher: Catholic neo-Thomists like himself, Etienne Gilson, and Martin D’Arcy. These thinkers sought to wed traditional Catholic sacramentalism (what Maritain called the “Metaphysics of the ancients”) to a critically realist epistemology. They argued that, because the intellect and what it perceives arise from and are sustained by God, the world is an “intelligible mystery.” Maritain also had in mind a very specific kind of artist: post-Impressionist painters like Picasso and Cézanne and modernist writers like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.

The historical moment at which Maritain was writing seemed ripe for such an interdisciplinary conversation. After the horrors of World War I, Maritain wrote, “all feel the necessity of escaping from the immense intellectual disorder inherited from the nineteenth century.” Maritain believed that, just as Catholic neo-Thomists were challenging the “original sin against the light” that was philosophical idealism, so the period’s best painters, poets, and novelists were challenging the supremacy of unthinking mimesis in art. Picasso, Joyce, and others realized that “art, as such, does not consist in imitating, but in making, in composing or constructing, in accordance with the laws of the very object to be posited in being.” If only theologians and artists would speak with one another, Maritain suggested, then we might be saved from the previous generation’s reductive thinking, which in philosophy privileged epistemology over metaphysics and in art privileged mimetic convention over formal experimentation.

Maritain knew of what he spoke. He was perhaps the preeminent Catholic public intellectual of the day, writing seminal texts on metaphysics and Christian epistemology, shaping the modern Christian Democratic movement, and helping draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was also, however, a prolific and respected aesthetic thinker. In books like Art and Scholasticism, The Frontiers of Poetry (1935), and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), as well as in a series of essays on poetry and religion he wrote for Eliot’s little magazine the Criterion, Maritain attempted a synthesis of aesthetics and theology, outlining what Rowan Williams calls “a comprehensive theory of artistic labor on the basis of a very ambitious religious metaphysic.”

How exactly did Maritain go about connecting “artistic labor” to a “religious metaphysic”? Why did he believe that modern artists and modern theologians had a great deal to say to one another? In short, because they were engaged in a similar task: trying to show how the everyday, physical world, when seen properly, is shot through with claritas and consonantia; how it has a radical openness to that which simultaneously exceeds and sustains it. In Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Maritain wrote that true art is always fractured and incomplete because it can never fully contain the perfect vision that it seeks. It always possesses “that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.” Both the theologian and the poet inevitably reach a moment when words fail, when the vision so exceeds its expression that an admission of defeat becomes the best way to express that vision. On the poetic side, we might think of Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” where we hear that “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden.” On the theological side, we might think of a claim by Karl Rahner: “Every theological statement is only truly and authentically such at the point at which one willingly allows it to extend beyond his comprehension into the silent mystery of God.” In both instances, words fall short of the Word (whether that means poetic truth or divine revelation), yet this falling short is the only means by which the Word and its mysteries might be approached.

Theology can test itself against literature, literature against theology, and the two disciplines will be the richer for it.

Maritain wrote that Cézanne, like other modern artists, was “obdurately and desperately intent on that bound, buried significance of visible things”: obdurate because, in modern times, the world didn’t seem to offer up hints of divine transcendence quite as easily as it once did; desperate because this transcendence was necessary if one were to find meaning in existence. The modern theologian was likewise aware of the importance and impossibility of the theological task, and Maritain believed that this shared sense of desperate obduracy meant that each of the two disciplines could and should learn from the other. Theology can test itself against literature, literature against theology, and the two disciplines will be the richer for it.

In fact, Maritain’s hoped-for conversation between literature and Christian theology did occur in the modernist period. In the 1930s and 1940s, poets read theologians (and often wrote about them in essays and reviews), and theologians read poets (and reflected upon them in their own writing). Marianne Moore recommended the work of the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth to Elizabeth Bishop and urged Ezra Pound to read Reinhold Niebuhr; David Jones cited Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism as a formative influence and looked to Mysterium Fidei, Maurice de la Taille’s 1921 work of sacramental theology, to help structure his epic poem The Anathemata; and W. H. Auden wrote poems responding to Reinhold Niebuhr’s theological irony and Paul Tillich’s concept of kairos. It’s telling that when T. S. Eliot, one of literary modernism’s savviest marketers, was trying to drum up interest in the Criterion in 1927, he decided to start a controversy over, of all things, the theology of Thomas Aquinas. But that was the kind of world in which modernist poetry was written: a world where debates over Thomism could grace the pages of a literary review, and where such debates were thought to be an enticement to potential readers. Surprising as it may seem, an important strand of modern British poetry understood itself in and through the theological questions of the time.

For a long time, critics tended to treat modernism as primarily secular in nature. This has begun to change in recent years, with scholars emphasizing how Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others were haunted by Christianity’s cultural traces despite their own lack of belief. Still, these critics tend to argue that, when modernists talk about a religious or theological concept, they are really talking about something else. When Eliot talks about God, for instance, he is really talking about the social and intellectual order that belief in God might provide. When Woolf discusses the soul, she really just means the self. In this conception, the modernist scholar becomes a decoder, telling us what religion was really about for the modernists.

But what if we take a radically different tack? What if we assume that, when Eliot talks about a theological term like the Incarnation, he really is talking about the Incarnation. What if, for Eliot, the Incarnation is not a concept to be decoded but one to be explored on its own theological grounds? Why not consider the possibility that, in writing poetry about the Incarnation, Eliot is taking a serious theological idea seriously? For Eliot, Christian theology entailed certain ideas about politics and aesthetics, but that did not mean that theology was ultimately reducible to politics or aesthetics. Rather, by reading theology as theology, Eliot believed, we wrestle with God’s ultimately unknowable nature—and, in doing so, we necessarily begin to think about how this divine mystery influences art, physical embodiment, and other aspects of human life. Indeed, part of what Eliot and other modern poets so admired about Christian theology was its comprehensiveness, the way it shed light on human creativity and practice more generally.

Eliot and poets like Jones and Auden were attempting a delicate balancing act: to reclaim ideas—more specifically, theological ideas—as an object of literary representation

In 1918, Eliot famously claimed that Henry James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Eliot wasn’t saying that James didn’t have any ideas: in the same paragraph, he goes on to claim that James “is the most intelligent man of his generation.” Rather, he was arguing that James would never be so clumsy as to express these ideas directly or to let them “run wild and pasture on the emotions.” In James’s novels, ideas arose from, and seemed embodied by, form itself. By the 1930s, though, Eliot and poets like Jones and Auden were attempting a delicate balancing act: to reclaim ideas—more specifically, theological ideas—as an object of literary representation, while refusing to scrap the formal innovations of modernism. They wanted both Jamesian fineness and theological substance; they wanted a literature of ideas that was also modernist. We might call the work that resulted from such a desire “theological modernism.”

In order to better understand how Eliot and his peers found contemporary theology such a rich source for poetic exploration, it will be helpful to look at Eliot’s description of an earlier religious thinker, the seventeenth-century Anglican priest Lancelot Andrewes:

Reading Andrewes on [the Nativity] is like listening to a great Hellenist expounding a text of the Posterior Analytics.... To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing—when a word half-understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation—Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal.

     It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess.

Here, Eliot identifies what Andrewes does so well by contrasting it with what most modern, non-theological thinkers do so poorly. Where they are “vague” and “undisciplined,” having “a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing,” Andrewes is precise and rigorous, squeezing each word and term for all the meaning it might yield. This rigor produces, in Andrewes’s listeners and in Eliot himself, an “ecstasy of assent.” You only get the juice after the squeezing; you only get the ecstasy in and through the disciplined examination. Religious thinking is not incidental but essential to religious feeling.

How does this investment in the joys of theological inquiry make itself felt in the actual poetry of theological modernism? As an example, we might consider Auden’s “Kairos and Logos,” a 1941 poem that consists of four sestinas and borrows its title from Paul Tillich’s 1936 The Interpretation of History—the book in which Tillich first introduced the terms kairos and logos into modern theology. The concept of kairos, as Lewis Hyde writes, “comes from the art of weaving and refers to the brief instant when the weaver may shoot her shuttle through the rising and falling warp threads.” It’s the time of potentiality, “a penetrable opening in the weaving of cloth, the weaving of time, the weaving of fate.” In theological terms, kairos refers to holy time, to those opportune moments when the temporal opens up to the divine. Or, as Tillich puts it, “the moment that is creation and fate...the moment of time approaching us as fate and decision.”

In Auden’s “Kairos and Logos,” the time is opportune, at least in the first sestina, because it is so ungodly and flat. We are in the time of the Roman Empire, where “Caesar [rules] with his pleasures, dreading death,” where time is not yet fulfilled or full of meaning and significance; where instead we simply hear “boom…the rhetoric of time.” Because of these conditions, the age is ripe for a different kind of order—an order where the unsuccessful are embraced rather than condemned, where death is not feared, where time is redeemed. The time is ripe, in other words, for the Incarnation, for the logos making itself present in history.

Auden describes this divine act with the Protestant language of predestination and condescension: “predestined love / Fell like a daring meteor into time, / The condescension of eternal order.” Love falls not toward but into time—a “daring” and unexpected act. At this particular kairotic moment, love decides to dwell within time, and, because it has done so, “in little clumps about the world, / The just, the faithful and the uncondemned / Broke out spontaneously all over time.” The faithful, those lovers of and within time, never “condemned the world / Or hated time, but sang until their death.” Because Christ (logos) enters the world at the opportune moment (kairos), time is no longer mere rhetoric but holy song.

How does this investment in the joys of theological inquiry make itself felt in the actual poetry of theological modernism?

Each of the following three sestinas varies wildly in style and imagery, but a thematic thread unites them all: each takes as its subject the nature of kairos and the relation between time and eternity. The second sestina—a lovely dream vision of unicorns and rose gardens—ends with the Word “still nurs[ing]” the world. The third, in a modern and ironic tone, describes a poet who “saw himself there with an exile’s eyes, / Missing his Father.” The fourth, a dizzying burst of language that describes the “order of the macrocosmic spaces” and the “subatomic gulfs [that] confront our lives,” concludes with a “reproach” that is also a “blessing” and that opens up the possibility of salvation. The poem, in short, grows out of a theological text (Tillich’s The Interpretation of History), and it takes as its guiding theme a set of fundamental theological questions: When is time most open to its rupture and fulfillment by eternity, and how might this rupture and fulfillment best be described in language? This is the world of theological modernism, where theological speculation generates and sustains poetic creation.

Once we begin to look for the links between poetry and theology in the modernist period, we can see them everywhere. Eliot’s Criterion, for instance, often seemed as theological as it was literary: the works of Barth, Maritain, and Niebuhr were reviewed regularly and with great sophistication, and contributors included prominent neo-Thomist theologians and philosophers like Maritain and Etienne Gilson. David Jones thanked Maurice de la Taille in the acknowledgements of The Anathemata and concluded his most direct analysis of the relationship between aesthetics and theology, the 1955 essay “Art and Sacrament,” with a quotation from Mysterium Fidei. Auden counted Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr among his closest friends in the United States and helped spread Kierkegaard’s newly translated theological texts to a broader audience through his poetry and his essays for the New Republic and the Nation.

To be sure, these poets read different theologians—de la Taille’s focus on the sacraments is a sharp break from Niebuhr’s focus on history and original sin—and they read these different theologians in quite different ways. Jones, for example, thought sacramental theology offered a beautiful model for how poets might collapse past and future into a supercharged, millennial present, while Auden saw Niebuhr’s work as offering a more persuasive account of the inbetweenness of human history. But Jones and Auden agreed that theology spoke to many of their own formal and thematic concerns. Theology was, as Eliot put it, “the one most exciting and adventurous subject left for a jaded mind.” Belief with content—specific claims about things like the Incarnation and the Eucharist—helped shape interwar poetic thought. For a brief and surprising moment, Christian theology provoked and sustained poetic exploration.


This essay is adapted from the introduction to Anthony Domestico’​s book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Published in the November 10, 2017 issue: 
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