imageThe Agony of Christianity
by Miguel de Unamuno.
Translated by Anthony Kerrigan; annotated by Anthony Kerrigan and Martin Nozick.
Vol. 5 in the Bollingen works of Unamuno.
Princeton University Press, 1974. $11.00.

If, a hundred or a thousand years from now, there are historians poking through the twentieth century, one of their jobs will be to weed things out, deciding which things are “typical” and therefore worth their attention, and which may be put on the pile of chaff. (Perhaps an unhappy irony here is that much of the chaff may prove to be more typical of this century than the worthy stuff; and then our skeletons will have to blush under the incredulous stare of scholars who wonder what on earth those people were telling themselves.) In any case, the historians will wish to find a few words or phrases to catch the flavor, or the hue, of this era. And one of the words they may try is “agony.”

Youcan’t find any century anywhere that wasn’t undergoing agony of some sort or other. The fifth, with Rome crumbling; the eighth, with the Saracens at the gates; the fourteenth, with plague and fire; the sixteenth, with Christendom sundered; the seventeenth, with the inductive method nosing out dogma; the eighteenth, with Reason bidding to replace faith; the nineteenth, with faith vanishing; and the twentieth—the energetic twentieth, which zestfully set about the final dismantling of the ancient hierarchies, and the exile of the gods, and the jettisoning of all traditional authority and dogma, and the supplanting of these by cruel and cynical caprices of mere appetite and the mad and individualistic pursuit of gratification, rushing along under banners proclaiming “Democracy!” and “Freedom!” and “Autonomy!” and other heady slogans.

Our historians will want words like “chaos” and “confusion” here, to be sure. But I think that they will need the word “agony”; and they will wish to revive its ancient sense of great struggle on the part of a strong man. For it is in the imaginations of strong and noble men, perhaps more than in the streets of Vanity Fair, that the real agon of an epoch is to be seen. From those imaginations, the clutter of mere vogue and the truculence of slogans have been purged; and you can see, starkly played out, just what the struggle is.

One of the items that will make these historians reach for the word “agony” as they sift through the data will be, let us hope, the work of Miguel de Unamuno. This Basque Unamuno, exiled from his beloved Spain in the 1920s, living in Paris, observer of the doubts and sorrows and contradictions of his time, experienced in his own soul those doubts and sorrows and contradictions. But he saw beyond the politics and the battles of the time—the public arena, that is, where the struggle was played out. And his message was that the doubts and sorrows and contradictions of the modern West are the death throes of that civilization and of Christianity, which are, if not synonymous, at least co-inherent.

But death throes do not mean for Unamuno that Christianity will disappear tomorrow. On the contrary, these very throes are the necessary condition of authentic life. Christ died in agony in our history; and from that time on, Christianity has known and proclaimed the agony of the struggle with death as the sine quo non of life. This agony is experienced, in Christianity and in the individual soul and in society, as the simultaneous embracing of, and resistance to, the awful contradictions that lie at the root of things. (It is hard to keep one’s syntax simple in talking about Unamuno’s work, for the very reason that you are forever trying to talk about two things that are simultaneously synonymous and antonymous: doubt and faith, life and death, resistance and embracing, affirmation and denial, virginity and fecundity, individual and collective, Jesuit and Jansenist.)

To be alive, for Unamuno, meant to be locked in struggle with death. Hence his imagery—of the Spanish Lady of Sorrows (La Dolorosa) “who agonizes in sorrow with her Son in her arms,” rather than the Italian Pietà, where the focus is as much on the dead Son as on the suffering Mother. Or again, the (celibate) Trappists of Dueñas, chanting “Mater Creatoris, ore pro nobis!” Or Abishag the Shunammite, the virgin wife of the aging King David, sent to him to warm him in his death bed—his still virgin wife! Or Père Hyacinth, priest (that is, father) in the Church, who left the Church in order to marry, “in order to have offspring, to perpetuate himself in the flesh, to assure the resurrection of his flesh.” Or the glory and the defeat of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, as it is perceived by France’s statesmen, or by France’s bereft mothers.

Unamuno struggled with all of this. He was never able to sail into the haven of the catholic faith and drop anchor, as other agonized minds have done. (Newman and Eliot are obvious cases in point here.) His biography might be entitled Unamuno Agonistes, with the subtitle “The Courage and Integrity of Doubt.” Hence it is disquieting, not to say maddening, to read Unamuno. Where is he? What, exactly, is his view? Is he a Christian believer, or is he not? Does Spain know Christ, or does she deny him? Is Christianity purely private and personal, or is it corporate? Is Christ alive or dead?

To use a word like “orthodoxy” in any sort of rejoinder to Unamuno is, of course, to play straight into his hands. “Yes. Precisely. The letter kills. Your formularies and your creeds will strangle you.” That is his case, it often seems. And yet his is a noble mind and imagination, and one which struggles with (and loves?) Christ. So the orthodox interlocutor hesitates, lest he appear as the Inquisitor. But it must be said that Unamuno’s Christianity in agony is not the entire story. It is, to be sure, the passionate drama of the doubting soul; it is, moreover, the drama of Christ on Golgotha as paradigmatic of history. But it is not quite the evangel that the patriarchs and prophets saw, and grasped by faith, nor is it that which the apostles and fathers and doctors and confessors and martyrs and virgins and widows held with joy, even in the flames. Or, put it this way: Unamuno reveals for us, far more exquisitely and forcefully than our theologians and pastors ordinarily do, the mystery of suffering, in which God Incarnate both partakes in, and blazons for us, our radical limitation, our humanness. For Unamuno is a poet (and perhaps a prophet? and a heretic? He would applaud, nay embrace, the contradiction). He is not an apostle or an evangelist. 

Thomas Howard is the author of books including Christ the Tiger (1967) and On Being Catholic (1997).