Left to Their Devices

‘The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis’
W. H. Auden, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil

In September 2016, literary critic Alan Jacobs published an essay in Harper’s lamenting the diminished standing of Christian intellectuals in the American public square. Some, he claimed, now found themselves too at home in the “liberal secular world,” often distancing themselves from ordinary believers and offering little to challenge mainstream views; others had self-sorted into Christian institutions, writing and speaking mostly to Christian audiences. Both tendencies, he believed, contributed to American culture’s mounting incomprehension of religion.

His timing was auspicious. Just two months before that year’s presidential election, we were only beginning to grasp the depths to which conservative evangelical leaders and intellectuals would descend in their alliance with Donald Trump, how rapidly and shamelessly they would abandon the values in defense of which the religious right had become a major political force. But Jacobs was already concerned at both the rise of populism based in part on “religious ressentiment” and the way liberals seemed utterly perplexed by it. “It would be valuable,” he wrote, “to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation—people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also a part of the liberal social order.”

Jacobs’s latest book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, seems inextricable from the problem he identified two years ago. He turns to an eclectic group of Anglo-American and French writers—W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil—as figures who were, amid the dark days of World War II and its immediate aftermath, able to mediate between Christian conviction and the big questions of their historical moment. These thinkers, too, lived through a clash between liberal democracy and authoritarian nationalism, and worried that the masses of ordinary citizens in Western societies had little basis on which to resist the lure of ideologies that promised victory through sheer domination. The challenge to the survival of liberal society raised the problem of the role of the Christian intellectual—of how Christian thinkers could speak in a way that their fellow citizens found at least comprehensible, and in some cases persuasive.

Around the year 1943, Jacobs argues, these “Christian humanists” realized that the Allies would win the war and turned their attention to the rebuilding that would follow. They saw the role that American technological might had played in turning the war’s tide, and the grand plans political and scientific elites were drawing up for the postwar world. They worried that the anthropological assumptions supporting these visions uncomfortably resembled those of liberal democracy’s “totalitarian” opponents that prized the scientific and technological organization of the whole over the individual. In response, they articulated a humanist counter-vision of “man” as a remedy to the “miseducation” that they believed had left ordinary citizens vulnerable to the appeal of authoritarian political ideologies. To challenge the materialist and technocratic vision of society, Jacobs writes, “They thought it was possible—and necessary—to restore Christianity to a central, if not the dominant, role in the shaping of Western societies.”

Jacobs’s reading of the Christian humanists proposes retreat into literature at precisely the moment bold thinking about power and technology are most needed.

This project, as Jacobs understands it, had two closely related dimensions: a form and a content. The form was “Christian humane learning”: engagement with the classical and European literary tradition as a way of recovering ideas that relativized the modernist, scientistic concepts that dominated the twentieth century. Maritain found inspiration in medieval Thomism, Weil in a reconfiguration of Christian spirituality as the inheritance of the classical tradition. Lewis, himself a literary scholar, used the genre of satire as a vehicle for a theological critique of secular materialism, while Auden and Eliot, in different ways, defended poetry and humanistic education as ways of being in the world that resisted the objectifying and dominating ways modern states approached knowledge.

For the Christian humanists, the form of humanist learning produced a particular kind of content: individuals whose sensibilities and vocations were cultivated in opposition to the totalizing projects of modern political regimes. Like the Catholic “anti-totalitarian” movement of the 1930s, they associated both communism and fascism with “materialism”—that is, an understanding of human beings as biological and productive entities that could be organized and managed toward utopian ends. If such designs were primarily incarnated by the “totalitarian” Nazi and Soviet regimes, the American technocracy that developed during the war—the unaccountable authority of national-security experts, engineers, and industrialists to decide the direction of national policy—shared its faith in the power of rational organization and the manipulation of average citizens by technical experts. The answer the Christian humanists gave to the question “What is man?” was skeptical of such projects: man was a spiritual entity, an inviolable person whose individual status came before any political design. Thus Christian humanism, as Jacobs presents it, was a personalist anti-totalitarianism: an emphasis on the spiritual person as a bulwark against the designs of the state.

Jacobs marvels that such Christian thinkers struck the chord they did in the 1940s, and tends to take their ability to resonate with broad audiences as a testament to their genius for triangulation. But with a wider historical lens, the fact that they gave voice to Western anxieties is hardly surprising. The narrative of civilizational progress already had come to a brutal end in the trenches of the First World War, and the decades that followed did not inspire renewed confidence. By the early 1940s, it was common for humanists to fret about technology and dismiss the modern fetishization of reason as dangerous hubris; Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) is only the most famous example. Obsession over the meaning of “man” was everywhere: many of the ex-Marxist New York Intellectuals embraced the anti-totalitarian defense of the individual, while figures like Dwight Macdonald, a former radical and contributor to the Partisan Review, wrote an article entitled “The Root is Man” (1946), which worried about the totalitarian tendencies of all institutions and urged radicals to “think in human, not class terms.” Christian intellectuals found an opening amid this tumult because European and American intellectuals were expressing, almost en masse, skepticism of the old secular assumptions about materialism, progress, technology, and the state.

They also found a hearing because their spiritual vision of man was about to become something like the official religion of the American state. Technocrats and propagandists in the American military, backed by the rhetoric of presidents Truman and Eisenhower, worked explicitly to instrumentalize religion for the war against the “atheist communism” of the Soviet Union. As the historian Jonathan Herzog writes of the Cold War “spiritual-industrial complex”: “the engineers of spiritual mobilization set out to create a citizenry immune to the atheistic, immoral, and corporeal siren song of Communist ideology.” The publisher Henry Luce used the cover of Time magazine to foreground anxieties about America’s spiritual health; his two iconic Cold War covers promoting the heroic enemies of materialism featured C. S. Lewis (1947) and Reinhold Niebuhr (1948). Jacobs presents his Christian humanists as the “unworldly” literary foils to Niebuhr’s sacralized power politics. But in Cold War America, no one saw a difference. For the American government, religion was precisely the tool with which to overcome the country’s traditional skepticism of permanent military buildup. The struggle to defend a spiritual “man” and the obsessive pursuit of technological superiority were two sides of the same coin.

At the same time he celebrates the cultural influence the Christian humanists enjoyed, Jacobs also presents them as unheeded voices in the wilderness, foreseeing the coming reign of instrumentalized science and technology with “uncanny clarity” and “moral seriousness.” He reads Auden’s “Under Which Lyre,” a poem delivered at Harvard in 1946, as a contrast between the “Apollonian” order and control of the new technocrats and the “Hermetic” dreamers and readers formed by humanist education. Jacobs glosses the poem this way: “The character of Apollonianism in our time, then, is, not to put too fine a point on it, totalitarian.” Speaking at one of the epicenters of the emerging academic collaboration in the military industrial context, Auden took humorous aim at the technical fetishism of elite academic power players working to make the military technologies developed at places like Harvard and MIT a permanent feature of American society. But there is a danger in generalizing the binary Auden used as a poetic device into a more significant philosophical separation between forms of knowledge. Many postwar humanists did exactly that, paying lip service to the idea that science could be made to serve “humane” objectives, but in reality maintaining stark divides between scientific and literary views of the world, between man and machines, between administration and freedom. The French Protestant theorist Jacques Ellul, for example, who Jacobs introduces briefly in his epilogue, saw technique as an omnipresent logic colonizing every dimension of society and thought, one that could not be truly located or challenged.

Such vague and sweeping conceptions of technology were part of the reason that the Christian humanists’ ideas could enjoy the popularity they did alongside the technocratic Cold War order. It was not that they “came a century too late,” as Jacobs puts it, but that the very nature of their critique of technocracy made it a convenient vehicle for Cold War anti-materialism without threatening the work of those actually manipulating the levers of American technological power. If man as a spiritual “person” could only be dominated by states and technology, if these tools could never be used for good, and all collective efforts were doomed to turn totalitarian, then there was no place in the Christian-humanist worldview for truly political or scientific thinking, much less for informed political action. A philosophical or literary emphasis did not inherently require this kind of anti-political retreat, but in practice often facilitated it. The binary between the spiritual humanities and the deadening, instrumental sciences would become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, implicitly granting the claims of engineers and technocrats that only their expertise was relevant to running an advanced industrial society. The flipside was that many humanists ceded all possibility of understanding—much less changing—the world they lived in; they wrung their hands and concluded, as Jacobs does, that the “reign of technocracy has become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.”

This was an all-too-popular final destination for many disenchanted European and American intellectuals who had once nourished hopes for radical transformation of society. But others resisted the current, struggling both to reject the narrow visions of postwar technocrats and to deflate their mystical vaunting of technology with a coldly realistic look at its actual functioning in the social order. They even included several of the figures Jacobs addresses, in writings and activities that he doesn’t. Simone Weil modeled a political analysis of technology in her landmark La condition ouvrière (1935), based on two years of firsthand experience in a factory. In postwar France, Catholic writers, including “worker-priests,” produced a mountain of literature on the ongoing exploitation of industrial workers, women, and immigrants. In the United States, the Catholic Worker Movement was more likely to see American militarism and colonial violence as technological threats than the Keynesian technocrats at home. Catholic intellectuals like Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier rejected the demonization of the Soviet Union, promoting dialogue with communism and common support for mobilizing against capitalism. At the first French conference on technocracy in 1948, Mounier criticized the way literary authors like John Ruskin and Georges Bernanos were used to maintain a relentless focus on the dangers of technology itself rather than the broader sweep of its evolution.

Intentionally or not, Jacobs’s reading of the Christian humanists proposes retreat into literature at precisely the moment bold thinking about power and technology are most needed. Given the shameful places active political engagement has recently taken a number of Christian intellectuals, it is easy enough to empathize with his sense that a greater distance from politics, one which created space to reflect and educate, would be a better path for today’s Christian thinkers. But that only leaves to others the difficult challenge—as urgent today as it was in the 1940s—of serious political thinking that takes technology as seriously as the technocrats do, and that recognizes that the question of technology is always, first of all, a question of political power.


The Year of Our Lord 1943
Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis

Alan Jacobs
Oxford University Press, $29.95, 280 pp.

Published in the December 14, 2018 issue: 

David Sessions is a doctoral candidate in modern European history at Boston College.

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