Christian Humanism: A Path Not Taken

Alan Jacobs’ title—The Year of Our Lord 1943—is deliberately old-fashioned and evocative. It is Christian, of course—the phrase articulates history along a Christological axis—but of a rather formal sort, found, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer. It also names a year in that history, one that bears its meaning on its face: we are well into World War II. We are thus called back to a time when Christianity was more formal and (perhaps consequently?) had more social purchase. It was also a time of reckoning, both for Christians and for the countries and civilization to which they belonged. What did the war mean? What did it reveal? In the event of victory for the Allies, what should things look like afterwards?

Of course, many Christians posed these questions. Jacobs focuses on a relatively small and eclectic group among them: Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Simone Weil. Even today they are well known. Fifty pages into the book, he indicates his principle of selection: “The primary task of this book is to explore this model of Christian humane learning as a force for social renewal.” In other words, he chose Christian thinkers with an interest in what Christianity, humanely presented, could do to improve Western societies. Even if the war had not intervened, they would have advocated significant social reform; the war made it imperative.

Motivating Questions

We thus get an inkling of Jacobs’ own motivation for studying these earlier Christian thinkers and writers. He himself is a Christian, an Anglican, a professor of English literature at Baylor University, and a cultural critic of broad range. In studying them, he engages thoughtful models of his own life and practice. Jacobs intimates that “How did they do it?” can be a prelude to, “How can I?” Of course, there are broader ways of posing the question, why study them? What is Christian humanism, after all? What place does it have in the life and mission of the Church? What is, or ought to be, the role of Christianity in a free society? What specific contributions can Christian humanism make to human freedom? These are perennial questions for thoughtful Christians.

These general questions, however, were specified by the war and by the particular questions it posed to believers. Some were quite probing and disconcerting: Were the democracies worth fighting for? Would they fully deserve victory, if it came? As a group, these thinkers had serious reservations about the moral, intellectual, and spiritual condition of the leading democracies.

Hitler was demonically evil, of that they were sure. He needed to be defeated. But his wickedness did not ipso facto justify the democracies as currently constituted. In general, the regnant democratic views of reason and of human freedom were fundamentally defective. Consequently, the ideal and practice of education was disastrously misguided. Here was where culture fed into politics.

Poorly educated masses and elites in the fascist countries had succumbed to wicked demagogues; poorly educated democratic citizenries would be liable to the same. Does the fact-value distinction at the heart of the scientific method allow one to rationally affirm Hitler’s evil? Could it yield anything but arbitrary freedom? Could pragmatism justify its faith in the benign outcomes of free discussion and its touching hope in human progress? Can it provide a principled basis for defending the human person, the moral lodestar of modern democracy? Is human liberty only, or even primarily, about the exercise and expansion of rights? These thinkers answered these pointed questions in the negative.

The Christian critics, however, also lit candles and torches. For reasons given above, their constructive thoughts bore primarily upon education and, more broadly, on the contributions that Christian humanism could make to the necessary reorientation of democratic culture.

While they belonged to a genus, as individuals they embodied many differences, personal as well as intellectual. The gay Auden stands out for his sexuality, Weil for her extreme asceticism. For both, the body was a theme of intense personal and theoretical interest. Intellectually, the philosopher Maritain wanted a contemporarily relevant Thomism, while the poet Eliot combined classicism with modernism. The polymath Lewis trafficked in fiction, apologetics, criticism, and popular addresses. Some appealed primarily to the intellect, others more to the imagination. But even here, Lewis’ allegorical tales intended to reenchant the modern imagination were not Eliot’s modernist poetics.

A Complex Vocation

A first lesson to be drawn therefore is what one could call “Christian pluralism.” The Christian God, we’re told, delights in human variety and leaves man “in the hands of his own counsel” in many areas. These thinkers therefore pursued their different muses and put their talents at the service of their Lord, their fellow man, country, and civilization. There is a second lesson to be found here as well: respect for conscience. These days, however, one needs to add: “informed conscience,” perhaps even “trembling conscience.” These men and women were acutely aware that they were under their Lord’s judgment. Public judgments about war and peace, social order and disorder, the formation and deformation of the human person, were not to be lightly rendered. And talents were given to be exercised and to bear fruit. We will be “required to give an account of ourselves” is found twice in the New Testament.

The Christian God thus bestows gifts and freedom and conscience upon his favored creature and Christianity calls its adherents to employ them in tandem for His glory and the salvation of men. Moreover, since Christians belong to two cities, they owe duties to both. And finally, since Western civilization is a civilization deeply bound up with Christianity, having absorbed paganism and spawned modernity, its fate is of concern as well. Something of a first sketch or indication of Christian humanism emerges: It is the thoughtful Christian’s response to his manifold duties and complex vocation.

It needs to be further specified, however. Christian humanism follows, and is a response to, humanism tout court. In other words, it is a decidedly modern phenomenon, a response of modern Christians to modernity itself. The rise of fascism, the outbreak of total war, the dangers to and decadence of the democracies—all these were parts of the modern phenomenon. These talented and thoughtful Christians tried to rise to the level of the challenges they posed. To do so, they draw from deep wells, while adapting them to the times.

Hence, Weil’s great essay on “force,” that is, on Homer’s Iliad, which showed the permanently illuminating power of the founding Western epic and its contemporary relevance. Hence too her caveat to her contemporaries not to become the enemy in combatting him. Achilles always needed the lesson that grieving Priam taught about our common mortal lot.

Hence, Eliot’s extolling of Virgil as the definition of “classic” and of Dante’s Comedy as the defining European poem; hence his study of “modernism” as modernity’s latest poetic revelation and as a form that contemporary Christian belief could employ to constructive ends. This would be yet another example of turning the gold and silver of Egypt into objects pleasing to the Lord.

Hence, too, the spirited Maritain’s diatribe against the founders of modernity (Luther, Descartes, Rousseau) in The Three Reformers, but also his coinage, “integral humanism,” to indicate the antidote to modern errors. Hence his efforts at reconnecting Thomism, modern science, and modern democracy on the basis of an updated ideal of wisdom and Christian personalism. Hence, too, his Education at the Crossroads, a critique of “the American system of education.” Man must be considered whole and free and his education, designed for the whole free person. The spiritual nature and destiny of the person must be front and center, even, or especially, in an industrial and technical age.

And, hence Lewis’ 1943 classic, The Abolition of Man, itself a critique of contemporary pedagogy, this time in England. The title indicates the stakes involved in getting education right. If there is a single phrase that sums up the apprehensions of these Christian humanists, this is it. One pedagogical path led to “men without chests,” the other followed “the Tao,” the common moral wisdom of mankind. Grace then would have a dialogue partner that was open to its message of forgiveness and elevation.

What Happened?

In an Afterword, Jacobs adds another dramatis persona to his cast of characters, the Protestant philosopher, sociologist, and lay theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). Ellul’s most famous work is entitled The Technological Society. Jacobs turns to him in order to answer the natural question raised by the study, what happened? What happened to our Christian humanists? What happened to their proposals for educational reform? The short answer is that their proposals fell on deaf ears, as their diagnoses turned into realized fears. Accordingly, they turned to other pursuits.

Many of them, however, foresaw their defeat, or at least named the enemy: technological rationality, with its attendant dimming of the intellect and dazzling of the will with the prospect of power and earthly paradise. Jacobs recounts a telling vignette of an encounter between the technocratic Harvard University president, James Conant, and W.H. Auden. Auden later wrote: I saw him as the enemy and I’m sure he saw me likewise. As always, clashing anthropologies and social philosophies were implicated in educational debates. The Christian humanists saw this clearly.

They also saw that modernity could assume various forms: pagan nationalist, Christian humanistic, or deracinated techno-progressive. Their proposal was that only Christian humanism could safeguard the best of paganism and of modernity in a way worthy of man. With our politics polarized between populism and progressivism and our education oscillating between STEM mania and Social Justice indoctrination, we might consider this proposal anew.