Incarnation and Mystery: On T.S. Eliot, St. Paul, and True Humanism | Bradley J. Birzer | Ignatius Insight | September 1, 2010
If we are to understand the world in which we live and in which we find ourselves, for better or for worse, we would do well to turn to that "great bard" of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot. There are few, indeed, who penetrated the mysteries of existence more deeply than he. His poem, "Four Quartets", is many things: a stunning insight into the theology of Communio; a sanctification of the pagan philosophic understanding of the four base elements of fire, earth, water, and air; and a holy expression of a means by which to escape the inevitable cycles of this world.
Perhaps most important for us, here and now, the "Four Quartets" allow us, the readers, to enter into a mystery, to see it from the inside. After all, what greater gift to the City of Man could a poet give but to present us with a vehicle by which to see into eternity itself?
We mortals, Eliot understood, remain trapped in sin and the consequences of the Fall. Do we look deeply at the moments after the exile from Eden? Do we really want to see the depths of our depravity, lingering there, unleashing either titillation or revulsion?
That the past experience revived in the meaningAnd, to what extent, Eliot asks, do we want time to define us, to shape and limit our very existences.
With such permanence as time has. . . .As pilgrims and sojourners, Eliot knew, we must recognize that God has placed us in this time and in this place, surrounded by fellow sojourners—whether or not they conscious of the journey—for a purpose. Or, more likely for many purposes, understood only by His Infinite Mind.
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.Of course, when is the world in a truly somber season? As we stand at the edge of eternity, here in the summer of 2010, we must see that we live in a "sudden fury" and in the "halcyon days." The somber days have been absent for half a millennium, and we rapidly approach the five hundredth anniversary of tumult.
Often strangely regarded as the "weakest" of the Four Quartets, the third, "The Dry Salvages" invokes the memory of water, of a tumultuous migration to North American shores, and of the virtue of hope. "The Dry Salvages" serves essentially as the adagio of the Four Quartets. It stands in much the same place as does the Third Movement of Beethoven's Ninth. Far from being weak, it prepares us, through sorrow, for glory. In far greater terms than the comparison to Beethoven's opus, it stands with Jesus on a Friday afternoon at 3:00, days before an uncertain (by man's understanding) Easter morning. It serves as the hope of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John.
Ultimately, this great bard of the twentieth century, asks us to stand at the cross, to decide if we are for or against Christ, to ally or reject John and Mary. If we choose properly, we—in nearly unimaginable agony—suffer with Christ, carrying the sins of the world, see the tears of a mother, and feel the pierce of the nails in the joints and the spear in the side. If we choose well, we become one where the horizontal branch intersects the vertical branch, where the humane and the divine meet, where time and eternity mesh, where we cry, "it is accomplished." Water gushes from us.
Yet, of course, this is only the middle of the story. Christ's death does not end anything but the reign of original sin and the Master of Lies. It opens the Gates to the City of God, but the many pilgrims continue to sojourn in this City of Man.
Where the Vertical and Horizontal Meet
If one defines the term "Christian humanism" broadly, one might be willing to side with the English scholar and man of letter, Christopher Dawson, who claimed that St. Paul the Apostle served as the first Christian humanist. Considering Paul's profound importance to the new covenant and the spread of its message one might be skeptical, understandably, of such a claim regarding the Apostle. Dawson, however, saw continuity between the classical and Christian worlds. Christianity gave essence—a soul if you will—to the classical structure (that is, the body of the western world) that had begun to collapse as early as 399 BC. By paraphrasing the Stoics at Mars Hill—"in Him we move and live and have our being"—Paul brilliantly bridged the two worlds. To put an even finer point on this, Dawson argued that Paul, through grace, sanctified the best of the classical world while at Mars Hill. As a Greek Pharisaical Jew and Roman citizen, Paul embodied the best of the past, the present, and the future. While in Athens, he set the pattern of the Church's relationship to the world for the next 1,500 or more years.
Importantly, the humanities predate Christ. That figures from antiquity such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, to name just a few, continued to wield a considerable influence upon the early Christians and upon the Church fathers is indisputable. Perhaps one sees this union of the classical and Christian most clearly in St. Augustine's magisterial City of God—which blends, seamlessly, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, St. John, and St. Paul. The eternal city promised by the Augustan poets, it turned out, could be sanctified and fulfilled only in the New Jerusalem, not in the old Rome.
Do Christianity and Humanism Need One Another?
As Eliot stated, a Christianity without humanism is a Christianity not tempered by mercy, while a humanism not sanctified by Christianity remains ignorant of the truest things, those things that transcend time and manifest themselves in this world. Or, as my very eloquent friend, thinker, and wit, Mark Allen Kalthoff of Hillsdale College puts it, "Christian Humanism—that's a redundancy, isn't it?"
Eliot was especially concerned with a humanism devoid of Christianity. In 1945, he wrote: "A perpetual cultivation of the sources of that culture, in Greece and Rome, and a continual refreshment from them, are necessary" for the survival of western civilization. "The 'republic' or (to use a stronger term) the 'fraternity' of letters does not, fortunately, demand that all men of letters should love one another—there always have been, and always will be, jealousy and intrigue amongst authors: but it does imply that we have a mutual bond, and mutual obligation to a common ideal." [Eliot, "The Man of Letters," 341-342.] Importantly, as Eliot said frequently, quoting Paul, one must "redeem the time."
This is no small order, and we must assume not only a Pauline end but a Pauline means if we are to accomplish this scriptural admonition. There is only one way—always through the grace of the Redeemer: suffering, working, praying, fasting, and sacrificing. But, even Paul—the great saint, called by God—admitted he had not reached sanctification during his lifetime. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote: "My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-14).
And, again, in his letter to the Romans, he stated: "Let us exult in the hope of the divine splendour that is to be ours. More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope" (Rom. 5:2-5). Yet again in his letter to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ" (Col. 1: 24).
Clearly, St. Paul knew that one cannot experience the gift of true beauty without first encountering the most agonizing suffering at the deepest levels of our being.
A Liberal Education
To repeat an earlier point, there is a nearly indissoluble continuity of the Pagan West and the Christian West. And equally importantly, one can indeed trace a line of Christian humanist thought from Paul forward. From the Antigone-inspired martyrdom of Perpetua to the city of God by St. Augustine to the medieval works of St. Bede and Alcuin and to the Reformation works of Philip Melanchthon to the counterreformation works on a number of Jesuits to the writings of Sir Thomas More and St. John Fisher to the great orations of Edmund Burke to the 20th century writings of G.K. Chesterton, Paul Elmer More, Christopher Dawson, T.S. Eliot, CS Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Romano Guardini, Frank Sheed, Joseph Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Henri Du Lubac, Karol Wotija, Joseph Pearce, and Josef Ratzinger. One does not have to exaggerate at all to realize the lineage or the profundity and delicacy of such an inheritance.
While Christian humanism advances wherever Christians take seriously the liberal arts, groups of Christian humanists seem to cluster around critical moments of history: with the loss of the ancient world; with the crisis and religious strife of the 16th and 17th centuries; and with the propagation of ideologies and the rain of ideological regimes of terror in the 20th century.
Like the prophets of old, the Christian humanists of the last several generations have understood the modern and post-modern world as it was coming into being, the world in which we live. While they could not perfectly foresee all that was to come, they saw the growing insularity of the academic disciplines; the loss of the liberal understanding of the world; and the imposition of ideological wills, all tearing at the fabric—that extremely delicate and fine fabric—of Western civilization. In short, they understood that the progressive loss of our understandings of beauty and poetry could only lead to the demeaning of the human person, to the deconstruction of the human person, and his loss of his place in the order of existence. In the attempt to reorder according to the will of man, up sprang the gulags, the Holocaust camps, and the killing fields.
But a minor form of disorder, perhaps the seeds of a slowly, slowly growing cancer, was also taking root in Western civilization, in regimes considered democratic and free. For conformity and the loss of true individuality reigns supreme in all "free" societies, perpetuated by the educational establishment, regimented governmental policies, and corporations manipulating and hiding behind the walls of legal anonymity while establishing a gray and open maze of a cubical world. All three forces have worked in the name of the cause of the newest God of the whirligig of modernity and post-modernity, the god named "efficiency."
True, great man—such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and the others mentioned above—strove not for the conformity or the lessening of man, but instead they sought, through poetry, goodness, beauty, myth, and imagination, to leaven that which is unique and profound to each individual human person, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a bearer of the image of Christ.
And, hence, we see why the humanities in Christianity works so well together. A true education liberates us from the things of this world. Through the employment of the imagination properly understood, a true education lets us see that which is eternal but which also touches time. As the only truly creative, redemptive, and sanctifying force, Christianity leads us—through the grace of Christ—to all that is eternal. Christ, after all, is the Logos, the Divine Wisdom, which enlightens every man.
A true Christian Humanism, then, is nothing less than an exploration of the Incarnation in all of its depth and profundity.
Therefore, in such a spirit, I offer six tenets to guide the Christian Humanist, as we seek Christendom in this City of Man:
First, that the preservation of the virtues of the West, best understood through the stories of the exemplars of these virtues, is a sacred duty.And, thus, we end with Eliot and the stunning and piercing beauty of Little Gidding:
Quick now, here, now, always—Thank you, Tom. Only St. John said it better.
[This essay began as a paper delivered to the Hillsdale College Liberal Arts Friday Forum, sponsored by Nate Schlueter, March 3, 2010.]
Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:
Reading T.S. Eliots Four Quartets | An Interview with Dr. Thomas Howard The Quintessential--And Last--Modern Poet | Fr. George William Rutler
A New Christian Republic of Letters | Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
An Augustinian Wasteland: A Canticle for Leibowitz Fifty Years Later | Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Charles Carroll, the Catholic Founder | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
Rediscovering Christopher Dawson | An Interview with Dr. Bradley J. Birzer
An excerpt from "Christianity and the History of Culture" | Christopher Dawson | From Chapter 2 of The Formation of Christendom
The Roots of Culture | The Foreword to Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J.
G.K. Chesterton, the Poet | Denis J. Conlon
Bradley J. Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors, Center for the American Idea, Houston, and the author of American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll (ISI, 2010); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007); and J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth (2003).
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