| || ||
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
And, to what extent, Eliot asks, do we want time to define
us, to shape and limit our very existences.
Is not the experience of one life
But of many generations—not
Something that is probably quite
The backward look behind the
assurance of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the should, towards the
Now, we come to discover that the
moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to
Having hoped for the wrong things
or dreaded the wrong things
Is not in question) are likewise
("The Dry Salvages", II)
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.
Time the destroyer is time the
preserver . . . .
("The Dry Salvages", II)
The bitter apple and the bite in
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.
And the ragged rock in the restless
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal
On the halcyon day it is merely a
In navigable weather it is always a
To lay a course by: but in the
Or the sudden fury, is what it
("The Dry Salvages", II)
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
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
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:
Second, that one must
understand history in metahistorical, theological, and poetic terms as did
Virgil and St. Augustine.
Third, one must embrace a
proper anthropology, defining man by both his inherited sin and his
received grace. The person, at root, is a being endowed with rationality,
reason, and passion. He is higher than the animals, but lower than the
angels. He must, to be fully human, balance each of these tensions.
Fourth, Christians (Roman
Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant)—in alliance with
believing Jews and even virtuous pagans—must sanctify the world
through the Grace of God. For men of good will to fight amongst
themselves squanders precious time and resources, and it leaves the field
to the Enemy.
Fifth, the real struggle in
the world is not between left and right, but between Christ and
anti-Christ, between that which is humane and that which is anti-humane.
Finally, true remembrance,
preservation, and advocacy of all that is Good, True, and Beautiful, comes
from a recognition that our highest form of understanding is derived from
the reflection of the light of the Logos (cf. Jn. 1:9) in our souls through the faculty of imagination.
In this point, one must follow not just St. John, but the Blessed Virgin
Mary: "My soul doth magnify the Lord." Or, as St. Augustine put in it in
his sermon on Psalm 58: "Of itself it hath no light, nor of itself powers;
but all that is fair in a soul is virtue and wisdom; but it neither is
wise for itself, nor strong for itself, nor is itself light to itself, nor
is itself virtue to itself. There is a certain fountain and origin of
virtue, there is a certain root of wisdom, there is a certain, so to
speak, if this also is to be said, region of immutable truth; from which
if the soul withdraws it is made dark and if it draws near it is made
Quick now, here, now, always—
Thank you, Tom. Only St. John said it better.
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well
When the tongues of flame are
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
("Little Gidding", V)
[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).
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |