This article first appeared in the January 4, 1957 issue of Commonweal
FEW OF US living in the present decade of the mid-century would claim we are passing through an age of all-pervading religious faith. Yet it can be said, with more assurance than many dared to assume thirty years ago, that Western culture, the culture of English-speaking peoples, is dependent upon knowing that we live within a Christian world.
During the past two centuries, since "the age of enlightenment" at least, people have sought out several substitutes for religion, the worst of these being cults of mystical salvation which after World War I took on elaborate titles such as "The Harmonious Development of Man." Other substitutes were biological science, social science, cult worship of Freud, Marx, of Communism, and of National Socialism as it was practiced in Germany and Italy. Behind (and in numerous cases after) these latter-day conversions were violent periods of disillusionment. After 1939 many substitutes for religious emotion and perception failed: the results (if one were still alive) were like the after-effects of drinking "restored" denatured alcohol.
During the present decade the age has become disillusioned with the results of disillusionment. Images of strange gods have become true monsters, and the human fall from grace has lacked tragic significance. The twentieth century's errors and mistakes are all too clearly the marks of naiveté and folly.
In our day (which is so unlike the world as it was known before 1914) to speak of religious emotions and beliefs, presupposes a dark background of economic depressions and world wars. All questions related to poetry and religion are today less academic than they seemed to be at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1900 George Santayana could approach those relationships with an air of calmness as well as a certain historical detachment: he explained with admirable clarity religious elements in the so-called Homeric Hymns, and then went on to tell how and why Platonism and Neo-Platonism became increasingly abstract ideals of goodness that lost their hold upon the imagination of the people. With this loss, both poetry and religion evaporated into the values of philosophic truths, unworldly enough perhaps, but lacking human passion and religions law. The dissolution of Paganism had taken place and the world waited on a new order of religious or divine inspiration, a sense of being that would re-establish an ancient trinity between man and men and man and God. The answers came in the books of the Old and New Testaments; the passion was reenacted in the life of Christ, and behind it the authority, the poetry of the Hebrew Godhead, its prophets and kings .... "But what overcame the world," wrote Santayana, "was what Saint Paul said he would always preach: Christ and him crucified."
In 1900 the Christian world looked back across the span of the nineteenth century, a century which as Santayana saw it had been bitterly torn by religious doubts and schisms, but the kind of horrors that have been the familiars of human experience today had scarcely arrived. It took a nineteenth-century writer of evangelical temper Rudyard Kipling—in his old age, in 1919, to express the terror, the discontent, of the thirty years that followed the writing of these lines:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth
There are only four things certain since Social
Progress began: —
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the
Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes
wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the
brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no
man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as
Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with
terror and slaughter return!
This was verse in the furious manner of what George Orwell called Kipling's "good-bad poetry"; but the angry clear-eyed British Colonial East Indian who in his manner was a nearly Hebraic prophet had his say in language that no one could misunderstand. Something like biblical fury had been translated into verse which converted the phrase "brave new world" into a memorable irony, and in which the present century has learned its discontents.