Monday, July 19, 2010

T.S. Eliot on Religion without Humanism

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
First Things

I recently needed to track down a reference in a long out-of-print anthology called Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Modern Civilization, published back in 1930. Having got my citation, I was going to return the book when I caught sight, in the table of contents, of a contribution from T.S. Eliot called “Religion Without Humanism.”

Never having heard of the essay before, I took a look. It is only eight pages long but no less provocative for that. Without denying humanism’s need for religion, Eliot unsettled that thesis by asserting its converse too: “I stated [in an earlier essay] my belief that humanism is in the end futile without religion. . . . Having called attention to what I believe to be [that] danger, I am bound to call attention to the danger of the other extreme: the danger, a very real one, of religion without humanism.”

In contemporary terms, this counterpart thesis sounds like a jeremiad against fundamentalism or, at least, like a warning against an excessively biblical Christianity untempered by the splendors of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton. Oddly, though, given his own renowned appreciation for the poets, Eliot takes his argument, not toward an apology for Christian humanism, but toward an appreciation of the benefits for Christianity of an aggressively anti-Christian secular mind...criticism of the non-ideal Church is inevitable, but what kind of criticism?...Read it all

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