Catholicism and modernity has proven to be a volatile mix. Illustrations are legion, and perhaps as tiresome as they are inescapable in the daily lives of Catholics. The two Vatican Councils present very different equations for the relationship. Today the church can be understood as a constant negotiation toward a grammar and syntax for the church and the modern world.

Theodore Ziolkowski did not write Modes of Faith to address that question, exactly, yet the book provides vivid examples of what it can mean for a modern person to negotiate the competing claims of tradition and contemporary life. Ziolkowski focuses on the arresting fact that, in the decades surrounding World War I, many leading writers experimented with new forms of belief and practice. He examines, with empathy and lucidity, more than thirty such experiments. Many involved were Catholic, lapsed or practicing (including renowned writers such as James Joyce and Ignazio Silone, and less well-known but rewarding exemplars of this theme like Roger Martin du Gard and Alfred Doeblin). They explored, in print and in practice, a number of new “modes of faith”: art for art’s sake, pilgrimage to the East, socialism, mythology, and utopian social orders. Each of these “secular surrogates” captured the imaginations, in print and in practice, of various creative geniuses who struggled with what belief might be in the modern world.

Ziolkowski locates the genesis of these explorations chiefly in individual psychology, most often stemming from a seemingly trivial childhood incident. But the book’s real focus is the very human, very religious, and very modern phenomenon of what Walker Percy would later call “the seeker”: the person who has not found God in organized religion, yet thirsts for faith while in the throes of doubt. And Ziolkowski shows us in telling detail modernity’s particular imprint on that quest: the seeker discovers gods and myths that do not emerge from established religious traditions yet involve an all-encompassing claim that we—and often they—would characterize as religious.

One example from the plethora Ziolkowski provides will suffice. In Germany, Stefan George (1868-1933) broke with what he regarded as moribund Romantic pieties to develop a “new poetry,” and with it a new idea of the role of the poet. In this George expressed his disillusion with the Roman Catholicism of his youth. While not hostile to the tradition, George was nonetheless convinced that there was no God and that, in response, a new spiritual ideal and practice was needed. His life and art was an evolving response: George first fashioned a cult of art in the 1890s; he then developed a new theory of mystical revelation through art; and, finally, he proclaimed in his poetry a “secret Germany” of the spirit. The common conviction animating his response was the belief that poetry itself is revelatory religion. Ziolkowski shows how this conviction fuelled in George contempt for what he regarded as a spiritually bankrupt social order. Despite his disaffection, many who read his sacramental poetry regarded his new system as an “aesthetic Catholicism.” Rather like Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, George is in Ziolkowski’s rendition a Roman Catholic malgré lui.

Modes of Faith thus affords vivid examples of what it can mean for a modern person to negotiate such competing claims. The rejection of inherited tradition and the unquenchable thirst for religious life combine on almost every page. In this respect Ziolkowski’s book is both antitype and complement to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Each is concerned with the fate of religious authority in modernity. But while Taylor surveys more than five hundred years, Ziolkowski focuses on fifty. Modes of Faith engages in more fine-grained analysis, and Ziolkowski eschews the broad generalizations about faith and its prospects in modernity that Taylor favors. For example, Taylor argues that, in modernity, how we think about art shifts from imitation or inheritance to creation, from a shared set of common reference points to the expression of an individual sensibility. Poetics, therefore, reflects not public meaning but private expression. Art in turn becomes a separate form of expression rather than an integral function of religion or politics. While Ziolkowski would recognize the shift Taylor describes from art as imitation to art as creation, Modes of Faith underscores in impressive detail the role of individual sensibility in contemporary art. Ziolkowski shows how that sensibility remains not separate from religion but deeply engaged with it. For Ziolkowski, the modern negotiation of various claims to meaning has complicated religiosity—but it also seems to have deepened it.

Each approach has its strengths, but in at least one respect Ziolkowski’s book is not merely antitype but antidote to secularization theorists. No one who attends carefully to his discussion could conclude that religion has been “on the wane” in modernity. The situation is more complicated. What counts as religion has broadened, and religiosity is shaped not just by religious traditions but also by deep human needs for transcendent meaning in a world that offers multiple ways to satisfy that need. The seedbed for both the glories and the dreads of that fact are beautifully limned in this trenchant, accessible, and deeply compelling work of a master scholar of religion and literature.


Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

Richard A. Rosengarten is dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Also by this author
Two Periods, One Faith

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