The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis
by Alan Jacobs.
Oxford University Press, 2018.
Cloth, 280 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Adam Schwartz

John Henry Newman once dubbed the Christian Church a “counter-kingdom.” As the historical embodiment of that kingdom not of this world, it wields the sword of the spirit against the lance of power, and is thus a sign of contradiction to worldly polities. In Alan Jacobs’s telling, this tension and witness became acute for Christian intellectuals during World War II as they confronted totalitarian ideologies and systems as an existential threat. By 1943, he contends, an Allied military victory seemed likely, but pregnant questions remained about the sociocultural factors that had precipitated the conflagration and how the postwar time could be redeemed. Jacobs traces how five sometimes disparate writers—W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil—descried dehumanizing trends in secular, industrial societies, especially the rise of technocracy, and attempted to combat them through a renewal of Christian humanism. Although, as Jacobs notes, these efforts failed to gain political purchase, they nonetheless established a corpus of countermodern Christian thought that was a radical counterstatement to their era’s predominant presuppositions and practices.

This quintet (along with like-minded peers such as Christopher Dawson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the oddly omitted David Jones) had a strong sense of living at a portentous historical moment, one Auden characterized as “the greatest revolutionary epoch since the Reformation.” To them, one mark of this transformative cultural upheaval was a perception of unprecedented secularization captured by Eliot’s declaration that “men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before.” Eliot (and others) ascribed this uniquely post-Christian condition, in significant measure, to the social ramifications of industrialism, particularly its inculcation of a mechanistic metaphysic—“we become mechanized in mind”—that shapes the contours of modern thought and action. As Auden lamented,

The choice of patterns is made clear
Which the machine imposes, what
Is possible and what is not,
To what conditions we must bow.

For these authors, this irreligious, mechanical mindset fostered a dehumanizing tendency to regard men as animals, integers, things, or abstract “individuals” rather than as persons. So focusing on what people are, instead of who people are, they feared, promoted a predisposition to see human nature as plastic and hence able to be molded in the image and likeness of ideologies by what Lewis labeled “conditioners,” who are driven by a “dream of power.” The Christian thinkers acknowledged that these visions were often inspired by a desire for human flourishing, for (as Auden put it) constructing “the millennial Earthly Paradise” by correcting “some trifling and easily rectifiable error” in nature or society. But they nevertheless warned that chiliastic dreams were fated to become chimerical nightmares because they ignored the intractable imperfectibility of a fallen world. As Eliot concluded, modern utopias misconceive “solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.”

The literary Christians localized these anxieties about their age in admonitions against technocracy. Lewis held that his day had seen the advent of “a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics.” To him, this pursuit of what Auden called “sheer naked power” through applied science was modernity’s form of magic: “both seek knowledge for the sake of power,” endeavoring primarily to control the natural order instead of understand it. In so privileging scientia over sapientia, the “Materialist Magician” corrupts genuine scientific inquiry into what Maritain (anticipating Pope Francis) deemed “a philosophy of domination.” He and his counterparts worried that this Baconian avatar of the will to power comprehended only the quantitative aspect of life and therefore sought to eliminate its qualitative facet, “that which makes life worth living,” in Eliot’s phrase.

Specifically, the Christian intellectuals judged technocracy to be alienated from both the natural and supernatural spheres, unconcerned with truth, and destructive of locality, community, and tradition. They thus felt they were beholding the unfolding of an “intrinsically antipersonalist” waste land in which (in Eliot’s haunting image) “the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” They grew increasingly alarmed at the apparent ubiquity of this subhumanity, detecting technocratic deep structures underlying all modern regimes. As Auden opined in 1952, “all nations, capitalist, socialist, and communist are united in their worship of mass technique and temporal power,” foreboding a future “without creativity, warmth, or hope.” Despite their distress at such pervasive soullessness, few of these critics adopted the extreme technophobia of Eric Gill (“from a Christian point of view … the idea of the Machine Age is … damned.”). Rather, they insisted that teleology should govern technology: as Weil urged, people must possess “a clear and absolutely precise conception of the particular ends to which this, that, or the other technique should be subordinated.”

These writers thought those definitive and defining aims were articulated best by Christian humanism. For them, the ethics that Lewis found technocrats indifferent to arose from a Christian anthropology that was rooted in transcendent theological claims. Secularization, then, had undercut customary canons of human dignity by challenging belief in man as imago Dei, even as a concurrent debunking of natural law augured what Lewis called “the abolition of man.” But, they argued, these anti-dogmatic principles, like liberalism and its progeny, positivism and pragmatism, offered no alternative authoritative, integrating conception of human nature and destiny, creating a generation of hollow men whose ensuing impotence before the univocal, synoptic totalitarianisms of the early twentieth century was bemoaned by Auden: “Ashamed civilians come to grief / In brotherhoods without belief.” By wartime, these literati were consequently becoming convinced that a supernaturalist telos must be recovered to contest secularist ones.

In particular, this ensemble often sought to refresh the norms of Christendom. Lewis counseled that the “medieval model” could be fruitfully “set against the present,” as its “basic assumptions” were fundamentally different from secular technocracy’s. Maritain developed this conviction further, envisioning a “new Christendom” that would restore the theocentric “integral humanism” he considered regnant in the Middle Ages in credible twentieth-century social and political structures, like democracy: “a world of free men imbued in its secular substance by a genuine and living Christianity, a world in which the inspiration of the Gospel will orient common life toward a heroic humanism.” Foreshadowing John Paul II’s notion of a civilization of love, Maritain contended that this “new age of civilization” would be grounded in commitment to “brotherly love … God’s own charity diffused into the hearts of men.” This ideal of spiritual fraternity was “a single principle of liberation, a single principle of hope, a single principle of peace” because it “comes down to us from the creative source of the world, stronger than the world.”

Maritain’s peers echoed and elaborated his call for a culture of charity. Eliot claimed that “reborn Christian consciousness” would awaken by imitating the self-sacrificial love of prophets and saints who “have lived through the mind of this dark age and got beyond it” through “ardour and selflessness and self-surrender,” even unto martyrdom, as dramatized in his The Cocktail Party. Auden asserted that in an authentically Christian society, “Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue,” while Weil maintained similarly that wartime material poverty should spur Europeans to embrace spiritual poverty as a means of cultivating solidarity with the outcast and of forestalling a “new servitude” to “money and machines” in peacetime. The authors hoped all such efforts would engender what Maritain dubbed an ethos of “blessed humility” that would inoculate their imagined “beloved community” against the will to power that had infected technocracy and that other Christian proposals seemed susceptible to, especially Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism.”

The Christian humanists therefore emphasized what Eliot styled the “pre-political” dimension of their recommendations. Recognizing that they were advocating what Maritain described as “a total recasting of our cultural and temporal structures,” they nonetheless eschewed a politically instrumentalist view of religion, lest Christianity become just another ideology, “a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city,” as Auden cautioned. In stressing that, if religion shapes and is shaped by culture, it ultimately transcends it, the writers also strove to avoid the utopianism that they thought overlooked what Maritain termed “the sense of the tragic in life” spawned by original and actual sin. He hence warned explicitly that building a new Christendom did not mean that “paradise is set for tomorrow,” due to ongoing “human weakness,” while Eliot argued that awareness of that weakness should foreclose any promise of a “Christian happy land.” By rejecting an approach of engineering solutions to the problems of life through a programmatic interpretation of their faith, these thinkers engaged in a radical subversion of the discourse of power that they felt had degraded persons and deformed their time.

Their rebellions, as Auden reflected, put them in “the Time Being to redeem / From insignificance.” Yet Auden also sensed that these attempts at redemption suffered from an insignificance of their own, as they lacked practical efficacy or influence. But, he suggested, such metrics belong more to the realm of power than of witness; it was sufficient to “keep our feeble little lamps burning in the big wind.” The winds of change stirred by secularism and industrialism did dim these lights to the nations, and Jacobs indicts his subjects for a “belated” realization of the peril technocracy posed to the Christian humanist cosmology: their rebuttal “came about too late to have any of the social effects that its authors hoped and prayed for.”

Yet the fault was less in themselves than in their stars. Post-Christian technocracy had become so deep-set by the early twentieth century that it proved impervious even to these most forceful protests. In fact, what is historically noteworthy is that a weighty Christian counterpolitics emerged at all in such a setting. Indeed, as Auden intimated, its practical failure is a kind of intellectual and moral success. The thoroughgoing otherness of the authors’ alternative that curtailed its immediate impact on an unbelieving, utilitarian age is precisely what makes it an unalloyed, abiding armory of specially Christian humanist precepts that remains a radical, orthodox counterpoint to prepotent post-Christian mores.

The presence of this counterkingdom in Western thought is thus a salutary legacy that perhaps vindicates Eliot’s sober hope enunciated in 1931: “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to build a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may preserved through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.”  

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarship is in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.