1 Beyond bourgeois realism: literature, theology, and the modernist challenge
For several reasons, the first half of the twentieth century witnesses a rapprochement between literature and theology, as well as a renewed interest in questions of metaphysics, philosophical anthropology, wisdom, and the liturgical and sacramental foundations of community. Preparing the ground for this rapprochement are theological, intellectual, and geopolitical events between 1907 and 1918 that exposed the precarity of European culture at the turn of the century. Specifically with regard to the often-vexed relation between literature and theology after 1900, a key document is the anti-modernist encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis promulgated in 1907 during the pontificate of Pius X. In no uncertain terms, it identifies modernism as a development inimical to the Catholic faith and, when within the Catholic Church itself, as a heresy. What makes it insidious is that the intellectual projects of modernism are said to masquerade as expressions of theological orthodoxy by purporting to redescribe and ‘explain’ official doctrine in ways that the encyclical considers protean, heterodox and ultimately corrosive of the faith: ‘the Modernist sustains and includes within himself a manifold personality; he is a philosopher, a believer, a theologian, an historian, a critic, an apologist, a reformer’ (Pope Pius X 1907: part 5) and, it could be added, an author. The encyclical’s main target is to ferret out and reject a logic of strict immanence and de-sacralization that is thought to have invaded and contaminated Christian culture since the early nineteenth century (cf. O’Connell 1994; Chappel 2018: 22–58). Thus, the Church’s sacramental framework is said to have been called into question by sociological, historicist, and literary writing, which (so Pius’s encyclical argues) construe the sacred and God’s transcendence as merely contingent projections of human psychology, ‘the resultant of a double impulse or need’ insofar as everything ‘is explained by inner impulses or necessities […] For the Modernists, sacraments are bare symbols or signs, though not devoid of a certain efficacy’ (Pope Pius X 1907: part 21). Likewise, the historicizing approach to scripture that emerged at the start of the nineteenth century has, a century later, resulted in the widespread view of the ‘Sacred Books’ as no more than the contingent productions of some ‘inspired’ authors: ‘the Modernists assert a general inspiration of the Sacred Books, but they admit no [supernatural] inspiration in the Catholic sense’ (1907: part 22). Pius X’s encyclical not only thus reinforces an already palpable divide between religious and secular culture but, going further, outlines and enforces, through its newly created ‘Council of Vigilance’, criteria of theological orthodoxy that few writers could hope to meet.
What Pius could not have foreseen, however, is that just a decade later a rich and diverse array of writers would once again meditate on Christianity in ways that either reject the modernists’ immanent, secular, and anti-ecclesial outlook or, at the very least, chart a new course altogether. Precipitating this development is above all the cataclysm of the First World War and the disintegration of the political, social, and moral order that follows in its wake. Undeniably, the First World War had put an abrupt end to liberal-Protestantism’s compact with bourgeois nationalism, as well as the previous century’s trust in unlimited, human-engineered socioeconomic progress. Moreover, the mechanized mass slaughter of some ten million soldiers, raised profound questions about Western society’s recent, unreserved embrace of modern technology. At the same time, a return to the organic conception of life such as it had been evolved by Goethe, Novalis, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, let alone to Romanticism’s pantheist and speculative cosmologies, no longer seemed plausible. Finally, the immense confidence fuelling the grand narratives of progress advanced by Hegel, Comte, Marx, Herbert Spencer, Jules Michelet, and the Prussian historians of the later nineteenth-century (Ranke, Treitschke, Sybel, Mommsen) had expired in the trenches of the First World War, as had the liberal-Protestant theological tradition that extends from Schleiermacher to Harnack (see Barth 2002). The collapse of the culture of optimism that had found expression in these master narratives was to register in particularly strong ways in twentieth-century literature, which after 1918 reengages with (now distinctly post-liberal) theologies and metaphysics.
Faced with such a monumental, man-made disaster of a world war that left millions dead, followed by the collapse of countless regimes, widespread hunger, a global influenza pandemic, hyperinflation and prolonged economic crises, the assumptions of modern liberal-secular culture suddenly looked threadbare and untenable. With the classical progress narratives of Hegel and Comte and the sociological and historicizing approaches of Renan, Durkheim, and Harnack having lost much of their credibility, a new generation of theologians, intellectuals, and literati find themselves confronting a desiccated world that, as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) puts it so poignantly, resembles life indefinitely suspended between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection:
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.
(Eliot 2015: 68, lines 322–330)
In the aftermath of a global cataclysm, the question arises as to what kinds of narrative can post-First World War ‘civilization’ plausibly fashion about itself? What kind of future may legitimately be hoped for? And, if history can no longer be understood as a linear and open-ended progress narrative, are human affairs once again to be viewed sub specie aeternitatis (under the form of eternity), that is, as enfolded in an eschatological framework that Christianity had begun to formulate as far back as Justin and Origen (Daley 2002)? After 1918, a dramatic shift can be observed within European culture, away from the secular axioms of modern historicism and toward reengaging with both Christianity’s normative moral commitments and its speculative metaphysical foundations. In essence, the period in question features a shift from its optimistic assumptions regarding the future course of history to one committed to exploring questions of eschatological hope beyond history (see Wolfe 2019; Ratzinger 1988). Numerous writers of the first half of the twentieth century (Péguy, Claudel, Rilke, Eliot, Mann, among others) thus appear preoccupied, in ways not seen in three centuries, with the relation between human and divine time, history and eschatology.
At the same time, another group that might be labelled ‘ambivalent modernists’ continues to broach religious and theological questions. They do so less in a metaphysical key than by seeking to navigate between the strict naturalism and immoralism of Hardy, Zola, Gide, and D. H. Lawrence and a stance of anti-modernist orthodoxy such as characterizes the work of Paul Claudel and, more guardedly, that of the later (‘post-conversion’) T. S. Eliot. Among the imaginative fictions that proved ‘too capacious, too accretive for the common-sense approach taken by modernism’ (Hobson 2016: 23) are George Moore’s retelling of the gospels in The Brook Kerith: a Syrian Story (1916); Mary Butts’ revisionist account and contestation of Christ’s supernatural origins in ‘Madonna of the Magnificat’ (1924); H. D.’s Pilate’s Wife (1929), an alternate account of Christ’s passion and the role of Veronica in it; Mary Borden’s Mary of Nazareth (1933) and its sequel, The King of the Jews (1935); and Scholem Asch’s The Nazarene (1939). Though undeniably influenced by the sceptical epistemology underlying Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus (1863), these writers reject an exclusively immanent, common sense, and historicizing approach to Christianity, not only because it pre-emptively rejects any concept of transcendence and the supernatural but also because it gratuitously constrains the artist’s imagination.
2 Catholic poetics in a secular world: navigating the Third Republic
2.1 Charles Péguy
Before the First World War, some writers, especially in France, were already responding with both alarm and creativity to their country’s aggressive de-Christianization, which began in 1879 with the removal of priests from hospital committees and charity boards, in 1880 saw lay women replacing nuns in hospitals, and in the Jules Ferry laws of 1881–1882 resulted in the prohibition of all religious instruction in schools. The program of ‘secularity’ (laïcité) was to culminate in the December 1905 bill formally separating church and state, expropriating vast amounts of the Catholic Church’s property, restricting the exercise of worship by some state employees, banishing religious symbols in public spaces, and ending all state support for religious organizations. Reflecting on these developments in his memoir ‘Our Youth’ (Notre Jeunesse, 1910), Charles Péguy (1873–1914), rejected the official rationale for these sweeping reforms, insisting that the true fight
is between the whole of the old France, pagan France (the Renaissance, the humanities, culture, ancient and modern letters […]), Christian France, traditional and revolutionary, monarchist, royalist and republican – and on the other hand, […] in opposition, the dominion of a certain form of elementary, primary thought, which became established about 1881, which is not the Republic [but] […] the parasite on the Republic and is properly speaking the domination of the intellectual party. (Péguy 2001: 20)
As for most writers, intellectuals, and theologians of the Third Republic, the decisive event was the Dreyfus affair, which to Péguy revealed the betrayal of both republican and Christian ideals at the hands of modern power politics. Yet even as Péguy’s intellectual and religious development follows the standard progression from youthful atheism and left-socialist leanings to his Catholic conversion, his mystical outlook places him at odds with the clerical and corporative aspect of French bourgeois Catholicism. Péguy’s peasant roots and his view of Catholicism – not as a confession among others, let alone as an idea, but as an autochthonous and holistic outlook on life – led him to reject the intellectualized, sociological concept of religion advanced by Comte, Renan, and Durkheim. Instead, as he insists,
Everything begins with la mystique, in mysticism, with its own mystique, and everything ends in politics. […] The whole point […] is that in each order, in each system, THE MYSTIQUE SHOULD NOT BE DEVOURED BY THE POLITIQUE TO WHICH IT GAVE BIRTH. (Péguy 2001: 17, original emphases; see also Royal 2015: 442–467)
As in this passage, so throughout Péguy’s oeuvre, the emphasis on humanity’s essentially mystical vocation is conveyed in an incantatory style that relies heavily on repetition, usually with minute variations. Rather like the agrarian work of his forbears, that is, writing for Péguy involves repetition, a rhythmic conception of work and knowing-by-working. Formally, most of Péguy’s works can be categorized as prose poems that envelop their reader in a meditative, quasi-hypnotic experience. As his son was to comment later, Péguy’s approach to writing could be defined as ‘the absence of any style, [as] the instant notation of a meditation, of thought at its birth’ (Péguy 2019: iv). Echoing Bergson, Péguy sees consciousness originate in intuitions whose scope and power utterly transcends individual awareness: ‘Our forces of knowledge are nothing compared with our vital forces and our hidden resources. Our forces of knowledge moreover are really ourselves, whereas, contrarily, our vital forces are greater than we’ (Péguy 2019: 39–40).
One of Péguy’s most influential works is The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, first published in 1897 and republished in 1910 in substantially revised and more concentrated form. The work comprises a series of dramatic dialogues between three characters, the eponymous heroine, her spiritual confidante, Mme. Hauviette, and a nun. Set in 1425 against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, the work’s protagonist is consumed by three questions: (1) Why did Jesus’ disciples abandon and deny him following his arrest? (2) Why did Jesus not save the damned in Hell? (3) Why does God permit suffering, particularly when caused by war? Péguy’s aim is to reaffirm solidarity, sacrifice, and martyrdom, supreme spiritual realities that the Catholic-socialist means to restore to the mundane bourgeois world of the Third Republic. If, as he puts it, ‘the world has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years’, France at the turn of the century has become ‘the world of those who believe in nothing, not even in atheism, who show neither devotion nor sacrifice for anything’ (Péguy 2019: 19, 31). It is ‘the world of those who have no mysticism’, defined by ‘economic strangulation’, which in turn has atrophied the timeless rhythms of a Christian life where ‘everything was a rhythm and a rite and a ceremony, […] a most saintly habit […] an inner elevation and a prayer’ (Péguy 2019: 20, 23–24). Péguy’s final works, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (1911) and Holy Innocents (1912) unfold as book-length theological meditations, in the case of The Portal on the second and most tenuous of theological virtues: ‘Hope sees what will be / In time and for eternity / In the future, so to speak, of eternity itself’ (L’Espérance voit ce qui sera. / Dans le temps et pour l’éternité. / Pour ainsi dire dans le future de l’éternité même – Péguy 1996: 11). Though his life and work were cut short by his death in combat in September 1914, Péguy would exercise considerable influence on writers such as George Bernanos, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Geoffrey Hill, such as in the latter’s 1983 tribute to Péguy, ‘brooding on conscience and embattled hope / Truth’s pedagogue, braving an entrenched class / of fools and scoundrels’ (Hill 2013: 143).
2.2 Paul Claudel
Like Péguy, Paul Claudel (1868–1955) revolts against Parisian intellectualism with its ‘infectious darkness of a university education’ (Claudel and Rivière 1984: 134) and against what he considers the nineteenth century’s engrained habit of framing all reality in naturalistic or relativizing (historicist) manner:
My great joy is to think that we help usher in the twilight of nineteenth-century science. All its abominable theories that have blighted our youth […] At last, we shall fully breathe the sacred night, blessed unknowing [bienheureuse ignorance]. What deliverance for the learned [savant] to give himself over in complete freedom to the contemplation of things without having to sustain the nightmare of an ‘explication’. (Claudel and Gide 1949: 48)
Yet, unlike Péguy, Claudel is fully committed to the Catholic Church, notwithstanding his having been deemed unsuitable for taking orders as a Benedictine. Strongly influenced by his reading of Rimbaud’s Illuminations in 1886 and transformed in that same year by his attendance of the Christmas ‘Magnificat’ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Claudel embraces in earnest the Catholic religion to which his parents had been ‘indifferent’ or positively ‘strangers’ during his youth (‘Ma Conversion’ in Claudel 1965: 1008). Though privately dismayed by the ways in which state-imposed ‘secularity’ (laïcité) reshapes French culture, Claudel successfully navigates the political and bureaucratic shallows of a career in the French foreign service, which was to include postings in China, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, Japan, the United States, and Belgium (in the last three places as French ambassador). Still, in his notebook entries and private correspondence Claudel often comments on the agony of being a Catholic in the modern, secular world: ‘to believe all alone in a despised doctrine, to dare face, without shrinking one iota from argument, the blasphemy and mockery that fills the books, the streets, and the newspapers, to resist family and friends, […] to be faithful against all’ (Claudel and Rivière 1984: 54).
With the notable exception of Dostoevsky, ‘who I studied most intensively during the crisis period of my spiritual formation, and who especially sustained and consoled me’ (Claudel and Gide 1949: 85), Claudel remains largely indifferent to prose fiction. Likewise, the dominant motifs of nineteenth-century poetry, ‘despair and revolt’, furnish for him no ‘composing theme’ because they ‘will never create harmony’. Only Baudelaire stands out in his time, ‘because he is the poet of remorse’ (Claudel 2020b: 46–47). Particularly in his earlier, lyric oeuvre, Claudel comes across as quite possibly the most unhesitatingly devout and committed Christian among twentieth-century poets: ‘The Christian is the creature of joy [l’homme de Joie], and to be such requires being universal, a creature of total expansiveness [l’homme de l’expansion totale]’ (Claudel and Rivière 1984: 146). Like Dante, ‘the greatest of poets’ (1984: 145), Claudel understands art as an extended lectio divina that grasps visible things as conduits to the invisible; alongside the liturgy and reading scripture and commentary, art is quintessentially a participation in the divine and, as such, can legitimately exist only as a form of praise: ‘What is art if not an exclamation and an acclamation, an enumeration and action of the graces, like the Canticle about the young men in the furnace’ (Claudel and Gide 1949: 52; referencing Dan 3:22–25).
A lifelong, avid reader of scripture, Claudel starting in the 1930s embarks on a comprehensive body of exegetical writing, often original though never (at least not intentionally) heterodox. His approach to scripture – ‘the only edition I know is the one by Fillion, not famous but at least orthodox’ (Claudel and Rivière 1984: 72) – is framed by extensive readings in patristic and medieval theology, anchored by constant recourse to Aquinas, whose ‘lucidité admirable’ (Claudel and Rivière 1984: 145) he often extols to friends (see Millet-Gérard 1999). From Aquinas, Claudel takes on the concept of proportionality, fittingness, or ‘a secret rapport, unknown to logic and of prodigious fecundity, between things, people, and ideas – what we call analogy’ (‘La Poésie est un Art’ in Claudel 1965: 54–55, original emphasis). It is the ontological condition on which all metaphor rests, as indeed ‘the texture of language itself, and consequently of thought, too’ (1965: 54–55). If poetry is a way in which a cosmic order manifests itself, rather than a function of Romantic self-expression, ‘poetic inspiration’ must be understood as ‘a grace – an unearned grace, or, as theologians say, gratia gratis data’ (grace freely given). It further follows that ‘praise is the greatest mover of poetry’ and ‘the creative theme par excellence. Nobody sings alone. Even the stars of heaven, we read in the sacred books, sing together’ (Claudel 2020b: 50–51).
Flanked by a sizeable number of shorter, occasional poems are Claudel’s major lyric works, most notably Five Great Odes, written between 1900 and 1907, with all five first published as a separate volume in 1910. They are followed by The Way of the Cross (1911), Cantata in Three Voices (1912), The Mass Down There (La Messe Là Bas, 1917), works that, drawing heavily on the liturgy and the ecclesial calendar, amalgamate poetry with the rhythms and sensations of the Mass. Claudel’s is an eminently liturgical poetry. Starting with the Odes, Claudel thus seeks to grasp his poetic voice as a transcendent gift, as inspired, divinely infused utterance rather than self-expression. Understood as the medium of the ‘word’ (parole) rather than its origin, the poet testifies to God’s presence by naming all his creation. ‘But when you call me I must not answer / With only myself, but with all the beings that surround me.’ The fourth Ode (‘The Muse Who is Grace’) frames this dialectic between creativity as act and as gift in a series of Strophes and Antistrophes, culminating in this rejoinder:
You may call me Muse, but my other name is Grace,
the grace who comes to the condemned man
and who tramples law and justice underfoot.
If you seek out the reason, there is none
but the love that exists between you and me.
It is not you who have chosen me, but I you
from before you were born.
(Claudel 2020a: 86–87)
Conservative – though never reactionary – in his politics, and in many respects a classical Thomist in theological matters, Claudel’s literary work is strikingly modern. Characteristic of Claudel’s style are sudden shifts in tone or, in his plays, abrupt changes in setting and action. His verse with its sprawling, irregular rhythm (known as verset Claudélien) stands unique in modern French literature. Modelled on the irregular, incantatory idiom of the Psalms and, in modern literature, echoing Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (see Royal 2015: 474), Claudel’s lines employ subtle sound-patterning within a line (nor traditional end rhyme) whose overall effect is that of a form discerned rather than imposed by the poet. Lyric form shows all things to be connected, often in entirely unexpected ways, with each thing both fit to its own intrinsic end and fitted to all others, issuing in one vast harmonious whole whose theological import is to be absorbed in the act of reading and listening rather than being scrutinized as a set of distinct propositions. Thus, in this passage from his second Ode (‘Magnificat’), Claudel traces the deeper meaning and exemplarity of his conversion (‘when God delivered me from myself’ – mon Dieu, qui m’avez délivré de moi même) as he suddenly finds himself ‘In the forest at midsummer, / around the Feast of Saint John the Baptist’ amidst ‘a smaller chorus of birdsong in Damascus’. He appears transfixed by the abundant, multi-sensory world around him,
When the water descending from the high country in tumult
is united with the sighing breath of the desert, and the tall plane trees tremble in the evening air
I stood before you a wrestler – not believing
myself feeble, but that you were the stronger.
[Et je fut devant vous comme un lutteur quie plie,
Non qu’il se croie faible, mais parce que l’autre est plus fort.]
(Claudel 2020a: 56)
After 1914, Claudel shifts from lyric to dramatic forms. Thus, in a trilogy (The Hostage, The Hard Bread, and The Humbled Father, 1910–1920) he takes up the conflict between temporal and spiritual power, here framed in the context of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imprisonment of Pope Pius VII. His most ambitious play, The Satin Slipper (1924), running approximately nine hours in performance, unfolds its plot at multiple levels. It is, first and foremost, a story of adulterous passion resisted (and, as such, a reworking of Claudel’s earlier, autobiographical Partage à Midi ), yet also an extended moral reflection on the Spanish-Catholic conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which Claudel notably does not repudiate (see Royal 2015: 475–479).
3 Literature and theology of the interwar years
Traces of the seismic change undergone by both Protestant and Catholic intellectual culture in the wake of the First World War can be found across virtually all literary production of the interwar period, even where it is not overtly concerned with religious and theological issues. Exemplary of the quest for a new moral and spiritual orientation within a post-liberal (and incipiently post-secular) world are Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Miss Dalloway (all 1922), as well as Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924), his monumental tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers (1933–1943), and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936–1943). Some of these works, especially Rilke’s late poetry, seek to rethink entrenched antinomies between a naturalistic, immanent frame and a Christian metaphysics whose authority that frame had contested and, to a significant extent, supplanted for the past two centuries. Particularly during the 1930s and through the war years, writers like Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis fostered a lively debate that ‘involved not just theological and philosophical reflection but also literary experience. By striving to integrate literature into a specifically Christian model of education, they were […] reclaiming a tradition of Christian humanism that had its roots in the early Renaissance’ (Jacobs 2018: 36). Other writers, more distant or sceptical of religious culture and the role of theology in the modern world, such as Thomas Mann and James Joyce, nevertheless continue to draw on religious culture and theological motifs by way of tracing the elusive, sometimes mystical undercurrents in modern culture or, as in Mann’s tetralogy, to reimagine the Old Testament narrative about Joseph as a commentary on the modern individual’s ‘transcendental homelessness’ (Lukács 1974: 41) and ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (Eliot).
3.1 Literary engagement with Protestant and Reformed traditions
Still, neither the resurgence of post-liberal Protestant theology, exemplified by Karl Barth’s Letter to the Romans (Römerbrief, 1918/1922), nor Rudolf Bultmann’s attempted fusion of Protestantism with Heideggerian existentialism, nor the young Paul Tillich’s attempted reconstruction of the faith along socialist lines impact contemporary literature to nearly the same degree as does post-First World War Catholicism. To a significant extent, this disparity is the result of Protestantism’s different outlook on both the internal constitution and ultimate aims of theological inquiry, as well as its far more restrictive view of the place of art within Christianity. Having rejected the metaphysical framework of analogia – famously termed ‘the invention of the anti-Christ’ by Karl Barth – Protestant theology had long conceived of religious life and faith in aniconic terms. Like the material world on whose malleable resources all creation of form must draw, art and literature belong thereby to the realm of ‘appearance’ and, as such, always run the risk of being charged with (and dismissed as) ‘mere semblance’. Unwilling to take that risk, Protestantism typically refuses to take the risk involved in mediating between God and humankind. While embracing art as a supplement for ‘edifying’ the faithful, aesthetic form from a Protestant perspective is limited by the same ‘ontological difference’ that, according to Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich precludes Being (Sein) from ever entering into an authentic relationship with contingent, visible beings (Seiendes). As the ‘ground of Being’ (Tillich), Protestantism’s God is incommensurable with the world of appearance; and no finite form, natural or aesthetic and man-made, can legitimately mediate God. While twentieth-century literature is often set in a Protestant milieu, few literary works are constitutively shaped by a distinctly Protestant or Reformed theological outlook or by sustained critical reflection on it.
3.1.1 W. H. Auden
Somewhat of an exception to this pattern is the poetry and prose of W. H. Auden (1907–1973), especially after 1940, at which point the poet immerses himself in reading Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and the preeminent Protestant theologians of his time (Tillich, Barth, Niebuhr). Auden’s poetry after 1940 exhibits a marked concern with Christianity, albeit ever tempered by his unease with doctrinal pronouncements and the intricate argumentation of systematic theology. Informing some of Auden’s mature work (e.g. For the Time Being , The Sea and the Mirror , ‘The Sabbath’ , ‘Friday’s Child’ , and ‘Whitsunday in Kirchstetten’ ) are less specific tenets of the Anglo-Catholic faith to which he had hesitantly returned by then. Rather, it is Auden’s firm conviction that ‘religion and culture’ are grounded in ‘a belief that something is lacking which must be found, but as to what that something is […] why it is lacking’ eludes us, there being ‘as many faiths as there are searchers’ (Auden 2007: 439). Both the irresistible search for God and the utter inadequacy of human beings to that very task are recurrent motifs in Auden’s mature poetry. Already in his famous ‘September 1, 1939’ Auden offers a stark Augustinian, not to say Pascalian meditation on the ubiquity of pride and its corrosive impact on all human beings: ‘the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have / Not universal love / But to be loved alone’ (2007: 353). On the other hand, the central mystery of Christianity’s incarnate God ever lingers, insoluble and inescapable: ‘We who must die demand a miracle. / How could the Eternal do a temporal act, / the Infinite become a finite fact? / Nothing can save us that is possible: / We who must die demand a miracle’ (2007: 353).
Rarely couched in terms of formal theological argument, these paradoxes (or mysteries) repeatedly, animate Auden’s mature poetry, which tends to portray them less as a burden than as blessing: ‘we are blessed by that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf,’ and all human knowledge and understanding are but ‘feebly figurative signs, so that all our meanings are reversed and it is precisely in its negative image of Judgement that we can positively envisage Mercy’ (Auden 2007: 442). Hence, we
must put up with having learned
All proofs and disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgment Day.
(Auden 2007: 674)
The Christian’s open-ended quest for genuine faith, Auden insists, is inevitably shadowed by feelings of doubt. Not to be confused with disbelief, such doubt attests to ‘a feeling that the meaning of an experience is not self-evident’ (Auden 1973: 51). Nobody, he insists, is ever truly a Christian, and our relationship to Christianity is, or ought to be, only ever aspirational: ‘it is almost the definition of a Christian that he is somebody who knows he isn’t one, either in faith or morals’ (Auden 1970: 173). Describing himself as ‘liturgically […] Anglo Catholic, though not too spiky, I hope’, Auden considers himself an exclusively practicing Anglo-Catholic for whom all further theological inquiry and metaphysical speculation holds little or no appeal. As he writes to Ursula Niebuhr in May 1941, shortly after her husband’s death, ‘the only theological bee in my bonnet is Liturgical Reform’ (quoted in Kirsch 2005: 183, 185 [notes]). He argued that
of all the Christian Churches, not excluding the Roman Catholic, the Anglican Church has laid the most stress upon the institutional aspect of religion. Uniformity of rite has always seemed to her more important than uniformity of doctrine, and the private devotions of her members have been left to their own discretion without much instruction or encouragement from her. (Auden 1973: 71)
This, Auden clearly implies, is how it ought to be. Anglicanism’s ‘intellectual temper is summed up in a remark by one of her bishops, “Orthodoxy is reticence”’ (quoted in Kirsch 2005: xix).
3.1.2 Edwin Muir
A more sustained, if overall less impactful, engagement with Protestant Christianity informs the poetry of Edwin Muir (1887–1959). Starting with The Chorus of the Newly Dead (1924) and extending to his late collection One Foot in Eden (1956), Muir’s verse charts a gradual retreat from the severe Calvinism of his upbringing on the Celtic fringe, a world where those ‘who house together in Hell’ have been ‘cooped by ingenious theological men / Expert to track the sour and musty smell / Of sins they know too well’. In its place, Muir cultivates a stance that fuses humanistic and Christian motifs, a ‘new church […] Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, may it wait / Here for its true estate […] All’s still to do; roof, window and wall are bare. / I look, and do not doubt that He is there’ (Muir 1960: 263–264). Alongside his extensive body of poetry, Muir also produced a biography of John Knox, assisted his wife Wilhelmina Anderson in translating works by Kafka, Feuchtwanger, and Hauptmann into English, and wrote hundreds of essays and reviews on contemporary writers. Yet it is above all through his poetry, definitively edited by Peter Butter in 1991 (Muir 1991), that Muir’s gradual exodus from a strict Calvinist to a Christian-Humanist outlook can be traced.
3.1.3 R. S. Thomas
The work of R. S. Thomas (1913–2000), another poet of the Celtic fringe, offers a rich meditation on the tension between his priestly and poetic vocations and on the Anglicanization of Welsh culture, which for Thomas was closely associated with its progressive industrialization and the desecration of the country’s natural splendour (cf. Rogers 2006; Westover 2011). Like the ‘outsider’ Gerard Manley Hopkins who had pursued his studies at St. Beuno’s Seminar in the mid-1870s, the native Welshman Thomas (writing in The Times Literary Supplement; 1966: 169) registers both an affinity with and a certain dissonance between austere beauty of rural Wales and the loneliness of his priestly vocation. Having by the mid-1950s outgrown the more conventional cast of his early poetry (‘he began as a sub-Georgian imitator’ [Westover 2011: 3]), Thomas’s later verse – spare, ascetic, and formally strict – explores the precarious situation of Christian faith (regardless of denomination) and those committed to promulgating it in ‘an analytic and clinical […] age in which under the hard gloss of affluence there can be detected the murmuring of the starved heart and the uneasy spirit’ (Thomas 1966: 169). For Thomas, there remains an oblique yet insistent tension between ecclesial discipline and ‘the Book’s / Comfortable words’, on the one hand, and the stark yet palpable beauty of the Welsh countryside, on the other, as in Thomas’s 1962 poem ‘Indoors’:
It was easier to come out with you
Into the fields, where birds made no claim
On my poor knowledge and flowers grew
With no thought but to declare God.
Within I had the old problems
To cope with: turning from the Book’s
Comfortable words, I came face to face
With the proud priests and their intolerant look.
(Thomas 1962: 80)
3.1.4 Thomas Mann
Another work of literature, drawing on entirely different literary, aesthetic, and theological traditions in its portrayal of Protestant theology culture both before and after the watershed divide of the First World War, is Thomas Mann’s magisterial last novel, Doctor Faustus (1947). Here a strictly Lutheran ethos and culture turn out to exercise a persistent hold on the novel’s Nietzschean protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, even (or perhaps especially) after he professes to have left behind all religious commitments. As narrated by Leverkühn’s lifelong friend, the staunch Catholic Serenus Zeitblom, Mann’s novel offers a meditation of almost unparalleled depth and scope on the limits and perils of art and artistic vocation in an increasingly secular world where the residues of Lutheran piety are rapidly being supplanted by spurious metaphysical and mystical notions behind which readers can glimpse the outlines of the coming, totalitarian era.
3.2 Literary engagement with Catholic theology
3.2.1 C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the imagination
If a concerted wrestling with Protestant and Reformed theological traditions is only intermittently found in twentieth-century literature, Catholic and Anglo-Catholic culture of the post-First World War era and beyond exhibits strong formal and intellectual engagement with aesthetic form, as is confirmed by the large number of twentieth-century writers who identified as Anglo-Catholic or, in a number of cases, converted to Catholicism: C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Sigrid Undset, David Jones, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, J. R. R. Tolkien, Walker Percy, Denise Levertov, to name but a few. Of these C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) is arguably the most influential Christian apologist of the twentieth century writing in English. Having left behind at age fifteen the Church of Ireland into which he had been baptized, Lewis – influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, and G. K. Chesterton – converted to the Anglican faith (much to the dismay of the Catholic Tolkien) in 1931. Central to all of Lewis’s works – be they fiction, apologetics, literary analysis, or popular essays – is the question that he was to raise in his eponymous 1949 essay: ‘Is Theology Poetry?’ Answering in the negative, Lewis insists that the truth value of Christianity cannot be understood as a function of its aesthetic appeal. Indeed, it is possible, even likely, ‘that there is something in belief which is hostile to perfect imaginative enjoyment’ (Lewis 2000: 120 [originally published 1949]). Moreover, ‘a believed idea feels different from an idea that is not believed’, which Lewis takes as proof that the aesthetic appeal of any variety of belief (‘Christianity, life-Force-Worship, Marxism, Freudianism’ and the like) is not the reason for which people embrace it: ‘On the contrary, this kind of poetry is the result, not the cause, of belief. Theology is, in this sense, poetry to me because I believe it; I do not believe it because it is poetry’ (Lewis 2000: 121–122).
Far from dissuading Lewis from imaginative writing however, it is precisely drawing this distinction that allows him and Tolkien to embrace literary form, especially fable and allegory, as the most effective way of sifting fundamental concepts of Christian thought (evil, sin, forgiveness, virtue, friendship, faith, hope, charity) in a vast array of novels, lectures, books of non-fiction, and essays on literature and theology. As Guite and Wolfe argue,
For Lewis, the imagination is necessary in this world, partly to recover the meaning that God has already put in creation, but partly also because the imagination is the only means by which we can break out of this – unfinished – current world, and imagine, or desire, the world that is to be, in which our souls are raised into the realm of the forms that are yet to come. (Guite and Wolfe 2022: 167)
By contrast, the line separating critical and creative writing is more pronounced in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), whose Lord of the Rings (written between 1937–1949) was crucially shaped by the Catholicism into which he was initiated early in life, yet also by the horrors he witnessed upon arriving in the trenches at the Somme in June 1916. Quite possibly, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings may be regarded as the most comprehensive twentieth-century meditation on questions of good and evil, grace, and salvation, even as numerous polytheist and animist motifs also figure prominently, and at times even benevolently, throughout his narrative (cf. Zaleski and Zaleski 2016; Wood 2003; Rutledge 2004).
To a significant extent, Catholicism’s appeal to twentieth-century literary imagination stems from a major realignment in its outlook on modern culture that begins in the wake of First World War and continues through the Second Vatican Council. As Leonine Neo-Thomism and the Catholic Church’s anti-modernist opposition to philosophy, literature, and democratic politics begin to lose momentum during the Pontificate of Benedict XV (1914–1922), Catholicism’s view of the relationship between Christianity and modern culture becomes more nuanced and capacious (cf. Spurr 2010: 64–110; Domestico 2017: 18–40; Rzepa 2021: 137–194). Early signs of such a shift, and of a more deeply considered outlook on literature and the arts, can be found in the work of a new generation of Catholic thinkers, such as the young Jacques Maritain (Art and Scholasticism, 1st ed., 1920), Romano Guardini (Letters from Lake Como, 1922), Christopher Dawson (Progress and Religion, 1929; Enquiries into Religion and Culture, 1935), Martin d’Arcy (The Nature of Belief, 1931; Pain and Providence, 1935), Henri de Lubac (Two Doctoral Theses on Bergson, 1933), and Hans Urs von Balthasar (Apocalypse of the German Soul, 3 vols, 1937–1939). Even so, as the work of T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and Georges Bernanos (1888–1948), and a generation later that of Graham Greene (1904–1991) and Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004) shows, what draws modern writers to Catholicism (or Anglo-Catholicism in Eliot’s case) is not merely its metaphysical coherence, robust ecclesiology, and rich articulation of the sacramental life. It is also their conviction that the Catholic intellectual tradition uniquely allows the writer to gauge the modern individual’s dissociated and abject condition while also furnishing crucial resources for overcoming this very predicament.
3.2.2 T. S. Eliot
Remaining at a certain, cautious remove from Roman Catholicism’s theological and aesthetic tradition is the poetry of T. S. Eliot. Following his 1927 conversion to High-Church Anglicanism, his work explores central aspects of Christian faith, such as conversion, contrition, and humility in Ash Wednesday (1927) and the equivocal response of pagan culture, both ancient and modern, to its own ‘rebirth’ following the advent of Christ, as in this closing reflection from ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (1927):
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
(Eliot 2015: 102, lines 32–43)
Often considered the greatest religious poem of the twentieth century, Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936–1943) are deeply informed by the writings of late medieval and early modern contemplatives and mystics, with Dante, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, and Lancelot Andrewes figuring most prominently. Linked by a dense web of allusions, textual echoes, and theological motifs, Eliot’s Quartets reflect on the elusive yet insistent spirituality of specific places, each correlated with one of the four elements. With each poem organized into five distinct sections that progress from personal reminiscence to a concluding theological reflection, Eliot’s verse eschews doctrinal matters and only sparingly draws on scripture. Indeed, the Quartets not only draw on the Christian tradition but, especially in the third poem (‘The Dry Salvages’), also on Krishna’s enigmatic pronouncements ‘That the future is a faded song’ and that ‘the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back. / You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure, / That time is no healer’ (Eliot 2015: 197, III, lines 3, 6–8). Not since Books 10 and 11 of Augustine’s Confessions had anyone written so incisively about the enigmatic power of human memory and the ways that quotidian time may suddenly yield epiphanic clarity: ‘the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time, / The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight’ when, transfigured, ‘music [is] heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music’ (2015: 200, V, lines 23–28).
Even so, Eliot’s epiphanies never simply overleap the temporal order but, ‘[b]y a grace of sense’ reveal a deeper ‘pattern’ to human existence. Yet if, as Eliot writes, ‘only through time time is conquered’, this conquest is not the fruit of autonomous human experience, which ‘imposes a pattern, and falsifies’ (2015: 181, II, lines 28, 43; 187, II, line 34). Rather, what knowledge there is originates in an impersonal, recursive movement whereby ‘the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place of the first time’ (2015: 208, V, lines 27–29). For Eliot, Christian community thus pivots on attending to the way that the voices of the past resonate and, indeed, merge with those now living: ‘We die with the dying: See, they depart, and we go with them. / We are born with the dead: / See, they return, and bring us with them’ (2015: 208, V, lines 15–18). For Eliot what beckons the modern individual is not the ‘arrested now’ (nunc stans) of the mystics but the gradual disclosure of transhistorical, redemptive truth beyond history, albeit only by means of concrete, time-bound experience: ‘for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments’ (2015: 208, V, lines 15-22 – cf. Hart 2017: 41–62; Pfau 2017; Brooker 2018: 147–464; Domestico 2017: 18–64; Cooper 2008: 141–164). In so doing, Eliot subtly but unmistakeably pushes back against a surge of nationalist sentiment often seeking to instrumentalize Christianity and the established Church for manifestly political and secular ends. Both in Four Quartets and in lectures of the war years, later gathered into Notes toward the Definition of Culture (1948), Eliot insists ‘that “Christian Britain” will only become possible if his listeners [and readers] become seriously and primarily Christian – if their national identity, even in time of war, plays a secondary role’ (Jacobs 2018: 107).
3.2.3 Georges Bernanos
Centred on characters who have embraced a life of religious vocation, and invariably struggle with that choice, Georges Bernanos’ novels chart the tension between the timeless and time, the transcendent Triune God and a disaffected saeculum specifically from within the inner circles of Catholic culture: the priesthood (cf. Balthasar 1996). A central figure in many of his novels is the priest struggling to preserve his faith or who has effectively lost it. Exemplary of the latter position is the worldly figure of Father Cénabre in Bernanos’ The Impostor (1927) and its sequel, Joy (1929). A successful author of theological treatises, a public intellectual of some renown, and a ‘specialist in moral analysis [who] could not bear to look squarely at himself’, Cénabre has come to view Christianity in strictly historical and sociological terms, much like the real life figure of Ernest Renan (1823–1892) with whom the novel expressly associates him. He has grown accustomed to ‘writing about sanctity as if there were no such thing as charity’ (Bernanos 1999: 21–22). ‘No one is abandoned unless he has committed the essential sacrilege of denying not the justice but the love of God’ (1999: 82, original emphases).
The priest’s struggles with worldly temptation, his intermittent despair, and his slowly evolving grasp of his true vocational purpose figure prominently in Bernanos’ most acclaimed work, Diary of a Country Priest (1936). Less than the material comforts and sensual appeal of worldly life what besieges the young and sickly curé (priest) in the provincial town of Ambricourt in Northern France is the ambient world’s monumental indifference to life lived in conformity with religious truth: ‘I wonder if many have ever before experienced this contagion, this leprosy of boredom: an aborted despair, a shameful form of despair in some way like the fermentation of Christianity in decay’ (Bernanos 2002: 3). Beyond indifference, there is open contempt and, indeed, ‘hatred of the priest’ and a life of religious vocation, which Bernanos considers ‘one of man’s profoundest instincts, as well as one of the least known […] our age has raised it to an almost prodigious degree of refinement and excellence’ (Bernanos 2017: v). It has wormed its way into the upper echelons of the church, which ‘profess[es] the rule of hope […] only by force of habit, without believing what they say’ (Bernanos 2002: 3). In sharp contrast with the fin-de-siècle decadence found in Huysmans and Rodenbach, or the existentialist despair that succeeds it, Bernanos’ priest begins to grasp the full scope of his vocation, its theological foundations, and the spiritual destitution of his parishioners in proportion to his progressively greater suffering from terminal cancer:
I have lost neither Faith, Hope nor Charity […] But in this life, what use to mortal man are eternal goods? What counts is the longing to possess them. […] Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses’, we merely cease to shape our lives by it. (Bernanos 2002: 111, 122 – see Balthasar 1996)
In the end, the curé embraces a view that recalls the hyper-Augustinianism of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), especially his meditation on illness (Sur le bon usage des maladies, 1654) while also chiming with the late writings of Simone Weil (1909–1943): ‘True pain coming out of a man belongs primarily to God, it seems to me’ (Bernanos 2002: 82–83). Here the spiritual life is understood as constitutively, not incidentally, one of ‘affliction’ (malheur): ‘More and more firmly am I convinced that what we call sadness, anguish, despair, as though to persuade ourselves that these are only states of the Spirit, are the Spirit itself’ (Bernanos 2002: 199; see also Weil 1999: 80–84). Yet in the end, it is through physical suffering and acceptance of his imminent death, rather than despite it, that Bernanos’ country priest grasps the truth of the faith he had mostly failed to convey to his parishioners: ‘Dear God, I give You all, willingly. But I don’t know how to give. […] The best is to remain quiet’ (Bernanos 2002: 279–280). Like Eliot’s repeated references to the ‘stillness’ of contemplation, Bernanos, Weil, and Graham Greene all view religious vocation and the spiritual life as Purgatory, herein echoing Pascal and St. John of the Cross.
3.2.4 Graham Greene
The crisis of the Church, the vocational martyrdom of modern priesthood, and the paradox of religious commitment, both indispensable for meaningful existence and seemingly impossible to achieve, all feature prominently in the four so-called Catholic ‘novels’ of Graham Greene (1904–1991): Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). Often set in remote, troubled, and punishing regions (Mexico, Sierra Leone, London’s underworld) where ‘human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself’ (Greene 2004b: 26), Greene’s novels feature characters manifestly faltering and acutely, almost obsessively, aware of their terminally postlapsarian condition and the irretrievability of innocence: ‘you had to go back a long way […] before you got to innocence; innocence was a slobbering mouth, a toothless gum pulling at the teats; perhaps not even that’, and they wax deeply uncertain about possible paths towards goodness and redemption: ‘Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust’ (Greene 2004a: 154, 248). As in Bernanos’ works, Greene’s protagonists cling to Christianity less for its metaphysical certitude and dogmatic clarity than because its liturgical order and sacramental language allows them to grasp the full extent of their moral disorientation and reflect on their objectively sinful state (Bosco 2005: 31–70; Schwartz 2005: 110–201).
Intent on having her confession taken before getting married, the underage female protagonist of Brighton Rock, Rose finds that ‘the theological term lay oddly and pedantically on her tongue’ (Greene 2004a: 183). For the same reason, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter avoids receiving communion as doing so would require him to have his confession taken first. Yet, under the suspicious gaze of his wife, he receives the sacrament after all, ‘aware of the papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue’ (Greene 2004b: 209). As he grasps the weight of his sin (adultery), Scobie experiences ‘the words of the Mass […] like an indictment’ (2004b: 209). The unsettling efficacy of sin as a catalyst of spiritual knowledge is already hinted at in Greene’s choice of an epigraph for The Heart of the Matter, taken from Charles Péguy: ‘The sinner is at the very heart of Christianity. […] No one is as competent as the sinner in matters of Christianity. No one except the saint’ (2004b). In the novels of Bernanos and Greene, as in the poetry of Czesław Miłosz, moral self-recognition tends to be both triggered and, at least potentially, assuaged by the objective and timeless authority of the sacraments. The ‘broken rosary’ in Scobie’s drawer, ‘which should have been mended a long while ago’, serves as an objective correlative for his ‘odd premonitory sense of guilt’ (2004b: 9–10, 169). It also reflects his deep longing for peace, for release from Augustinian, disordered and distended time even more than for redemption: ‘Peace seemed to [Scobie] the most beautiful word in the language: My peace I give you, my peace I leave with you […] Merely to be a human being one had to drink the cup’ (2004b: 50). ‘How often, [Scobie] thought, ‘lack of faith helps one to see more clearly than faith’ (2004b: 9–10, 169, 50, 112). It is precisely a lack of rather than indifference to faith, that appears etched into the consciousness of Greene’s protagonists.
Set in 1930s Mexico, where the post-revolutionary state wages open and unremitting war against the church, Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1938) dramatizes priesthood itself as a state of extreme affliction. Marginalized, mocked, and now hunted down by the militantly secular, provincial government of Tabasco, the novel’s nameless, fugitive ‘whisky priest’ experiences his vocation in much the same way as the Christian martyrs of first- and second-century Rome. Celebrating Mass one last time in a remote village where he has found temporary refuge, he is suddenly becalmed:
it was so peaceful he was all the more aware of his own sin as he prepared to take the Elements – ‘Let not the participation of thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, though unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgement and condemnation’. A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him. Sometimes at night he dreamed of it. Domine, non sum dignus […]. (Greene 1991: 178)
Affliction here gives rise to a knowledge unattainable by any other means, much as had been the case in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called ‘Dark Sonnets’: ‘My lament / Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! Away. […] I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse’ (Hopkins 1986: 166, lines 6–14). Likewise, Greene’s deeply flawed priest in The Power and the Glory gradually realizes that his vocation is truly accomplished only at the cost of his life; or, as Eliot puts it in the last of his Four Quartets, that the Christian life is aimed at ‘a condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)’ (Eliot 2015: 208, lines 253–254). As in later works by Eliot, a long-time admirer of Pascal, there is strain of Jansenism running through Bernanos and Greene. Against the backdrop of faltering colonial society in West Africa, the punishing heat and ubiquitous violence of 1930’s Mexico, and the squalor of criminal life in Brighton, the struggle against affliction appears to be the one constant in human existence; and at the very least Catholicism furnishes a language for bearing articulate witness to the inherent nobility of that struggle.
4 ‘Above ashes / On a bitter, bitter earth’: literature and theology after 1945
Even as post-Second World War European societies both in the West and the Soviet-Bloc East continue to evolve along secular lines, with heavy emphasis on material security, a number of eminent writers still draw on images, themes, and figures borrowed from religious culture and scripture. And yet, given how post-Second World War history is dominated by the Cold War and, following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, by a resurgent ethnic nationalism (in the Balkans, Hungary, Poland), as well as continuing sectarian conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland and the Basque region, it cannot surprise that a key issue for theologically informed and engaged writers should be ideologically motivated violence and the question of evil. Theological concerns thus continue to figure prominently in post-Second World War literature, such as Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947), Hilda Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey (1952), Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and The Fall (1956), Muriel Sparks’ The Comforters (1957) and Memento Mori (1959), Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (1958), Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings (1958), and Rolf Hochhut’s The Deputy (1963). Concurrently, a strand of post-war literature, while probing the political upheaval and human cost of fascism and the Second World War in ostensibly secular language, often takes recourse to central motifs of Christian moral teaching, such as moral responsibility, betrayal, guilt, confession, contrition, atonement, and hope for redemption. Examples here would be Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist (1951), Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1956) and The Physicists (1962), Giorgia Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), or Siegfried Lenz’s The German Lesson (1968).
4.1 Czesław Miłosz
Perhaps no twentieth-century writer better exemplifies the complex relationship between literature and theology than Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004). Born in Šeteniai, Lithuania, then a province of imperial Russia, Miłosz for the first five decades of his life had a front-row seat at Europe’s unfolding drama of regimes toppling, nations being founded and then violently destroyed, cities burning, and political terror ravaging the bodies and souls of countless friends in the Soviet Bloc. Defecting from his position as a diplomat in Poland’s Communist government (stationed in Paris), Miłosz eventually emigrates to the United States and teaches Slavic literatures at Berkeley (see Franaszek 2017) and, having returned to post-Communist Poland, dies in Krakow in 2004. Reflecting on his rigorous Catholic education, Miłosz characterized it as ‘a constant process of rapprochement and withdrawal. This process of fluctuation began with my altercations with my catechist, Chomski, in middle school. Polish Catholicism was so totally Polish that I was repelled’ (Miłosz 2006: 125–126). Still, despite his misgivings about 1930’s nationalism’s misappropriation of Catholicism (see Rzepa 2021) and the rigid catechesis imposed by his middle school teacher (see ‘To Fr. Chomsky, many years later’), religious motifs and theological perplexities posed by Catholicism inform much of Miłosz’s poetry, starting with a Blake-inspired grouping of poems ‘The World’ and a trilogy of short lyrics on the theological virtues (‘Faith’, ‘Hope’, ‘Love’) in his wartime collection Rescue (Ocalenie, 1943) and continuing through his last published gathering of poems, Second Space (2004).
Three strands of religious thought vie for dominance throughout Miłosz’s oeuvre. First, there is ‘a Manichaean tendency’ that Miłosz diagnoses within himself, that is, the ever pressing ‘question of evil’ compounded by what he considers his ‘extreme sensitivity to suffering’ and resulting, at times, in an ‘accusation directed against the Creator’ (Miłosz 2006: 109). Particularly the earlier poetry, until about 1960, exhibits such Manichaean traits and shows Miłosz struggling to reconcile Christian hope with the reality of an omnipresent evil that is only occasionally punctured by moments of startling beauty (‘Esse’, ‘An Appeal’). Second, and overshadowing Miłosz’s entire career, is a hyper-Augustinian, self-lacerating sense of affliction, inadequacy, and guilt – feelings that, however acute, are in turn subjected to constant second-guessing. As he writes to Thomas Merton in May 1961,
In my poetry, in my readings […] I am preoccupied with religious problems and I strive hard. Sometimes I think I would be an agnostic if not for my weakness. Certainly, I have a tendency to a delectatio morosa, but I know a lot about myself. What is repentance? There are nights when I am oppressed by a feeling of guilt because two or three lines of mine which seem to me artistically bad: my wounded self-love. Other nights, a remembrance of all my deeds which prove that I am inferior by nature to the vast majority of human beings: is it repentance? Or just a wounded ambition? […] I realize that nothing is more important than to find a common language with those who ‘search in despair’, through poetry, prose, any means. Being one of them: the blind leading the lame. Yes, what is needed is a new attempt of a Pascal. (Miłosz and Merton 1997: 117–119)
Time and again, Miłosz meditates on the poet’s paradoxical situation in a fallen world in which poetic utterance appears but a ‘scream’ (perhaps echoing Rilke’s First Duino Elegy) that is morally necessary yet futile: ‘And what about my poetry? I wanted to scream, but at the same time I knew that a scream is futile. While feeling guilty that I was not screaming’ (Miłosz 1994: 99). Yet by the same token, Miłosz recognizes that ‘all my intellectual impulses are religious and in that sense my poetry is religious’ (1994: 21). In his Norton Lectures at Harvard, Miłosz openly wonders whether poetry can be written at all except from a theologically informed perspective:
Is non-eschatological poetry possible? That would be a poetry indifferent to the existence of the Past-Future axis and to the ‘last things’ – Salvation and Damnation, Judgment, the Kingdom of God, the Goal of History – in other words, to everything that connects the time assigned to one human life with the time of all humanity. (Miłosz 1983: 37)
At the same time, theology itself needs to be saved from its hermetic tendencies, which Miłosz believes have gravely diminished its reach and resonance in the twentieth century:
The situation in theology is very peculiar. Over a period of centuries, theology developed a special language, and today this language somehow doesn’t penetrate minds outside the theological guild. This is precisely the argument of that priest: that poetry should be for a theologian a source of inspiration and new language. (Miłosz 2006: 175)
In this, theology mirrors a similar predicament of modern poetry which, having ‘entered into territory where questions about the meaning of life find no answer’ has incorporated that unintelligibility into itself, either as symbolism’s esoteric ideal of ‘pure poetry’ or high-modernism’s perplexed insistence on a total ‘absence of meaning’ (‘Against Incomprehensible Poetry’ in Miłosz 2001b: 374). As is the case for the handful of writers whom Miłosz repeatedly identifies as having had the most influence on him (Pascal, Blake, Dostoevsky, Eliot, Weil), poetry is a legitimate pursuit only insofar as it seeks to restore clarity to a world whose fallen nature is a direct consequence of its continuous abuse of the word: ‘What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people? / A connivance with official lies. / A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment’ (Miłosz 2001a: 77, lines 14–17). Time and again, Miłosz ponders the disfigurement of language under conditions of totalitarianism, as in these bitterly ironic lines from ‘Child of Europe’ (1953) inspired by Luca Signorelli’s ‘Preaching of the Antichrist’ (1504) in Orvieto (Franaszek 2017: 276).
Let your words speak not through their meanings,
But through them against whom they are used.
Fashion your weapon from ambiguous words.
Consign clear words to lexical limbo.
The laughter born of the love of truth
Is now the laughter of the enemies of the people.
(Miłosz 2001a: 85–87, lines 60–63 and 85–86)
Miłosz’s formal response to this dilemma is a deceptively straightforward poetic style, plain, compact, at times brutally direct and, particularly in his early and middle period, often laced with grim irony (e.g. ‘Child of Europe’, ‘Incantation’). Overarching Miłosz’s oeuvre is the attempted repristination of the word as a bearer of truth, an undertaking that demands constant vigilance against ideologically motivated distortions and Orwellian ‘newspeak’, as well as resisting the modernist temptation of an obscurantist or esoteric style. Even before Miłosz begins to translate several books of the Bible into Polish in the 1970s, he turns to scripture as the embodiment of the condition to which all poetic speech ought to aspire, as in these opening lines from ‘Readings’ (1969):
You asked me what is the good of reading the Gospels in Greek.
I answer that it is proper that we move our finger
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone,
And that, slowly pronouncing each syllable,
We discover the true dignity of speech.
Compelled to be attentive we shall think of that epoch
No more distant than yesterday, though the heads of caesars
On coins are different today. Yet it is still the same eon.
Fear and desire are the same, oil and wine
And bread mean the same.
(Miłosz 2001a: 262, lines 1–10)
Echoing Aquinas’ contention that splendour or radiance is the true criterion of beauty (claritas est de ratione pulchritudinis), Miłosz sees human flourishing inextricably entwined with achieving claritas in word and thought. Not only does it undergird much of Miłosz’s poetry, especially when taking up theological matters (e.g. ‘Readings’, ‘Paradise’, ‘On Prayer’, ‘Realism’, ‘Treatise on Morality’, ‘Second Space’, ‘Father Severinus’) but it pervades his lifelong quest for responsible poetic ‘form’, which for Miłosz consists in
a constant struggle against chaos and nothingness. Had I had wisdom I wouldn’t need to constantly create form in order to combat chaos and nothingness. […] We are in the power of forces which escape our words and our records. […] As far as form is concerned everything in human life is form or giving form; we enter into a relationship with the world primarily through language composed of words, or signs, or lines, or colours, or shapes; we do not enter the world through a direct relationship. Our human nature consists of everything being mediated. (Miłosz 2006: 79)
Yet this quest for clear, articulate, and luminous form, Miłosz concedes, is itself born of a spiritual crisis whose insidious logic the poet must first illuminate. A recurrent theological motif in his poetry, ‘despair’ (acedia) often seizes Miłosz, such as in the poem entitled ‘Temptation’, which recalls how ‘Under a starry sky I was taking a walk, / On a ridge overlooking neon cities, / With my companion, the spirit of desolation, / Who was running around and sermonizing, / Saying that I was not necessary’ (Miłosz 2001a: 342, lines 1–5). Such lines explain the strong appeal to Miłosz of the work of Simone Weil (e.g. ‘The Importance of Simone Weil’ in Miłosz 2001b) and, even more so, Pascal. He writes that the latter
personifies a man in crisis. So for a man in crisis as I am, Pascal is a spiritual brother in a way. Pascal said that ‘to believe and to doubt, and to gain this belief is for man what running is for a horse’. Every hour, I believe this one-hundred times. And in this way, belief can be nimble. (Miłosz 2006: 179)
It is this quest for leading both poetry and theology out of their hermetic and often obscurantist situation which defines the third and final strand of his Catholicism, namely, his gradual return after 1970 to a Thomist realism. A programmatic expression of it can be found at the start of his ‘Treatise on Theology’ in Second Space:
Why theology? Because the first must be first.
And first is a notion of truth. It is poetry, precisely,
With its behavior of a bird thrashing against the transparency
Of a windowpane that testifies to the fact
That we don’t know how to live in a phantasmagoria.
Let reality return to our speech.
That is, meaning. Impossible without an absolute point of reference.
(Miłosz 2004: 47, lines 6–12)
Arguably the most prominent among Miłosz’s poetic heirs is Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021), even as his lyric oeuvre shows theological motifs and scriptural references to be far less frequent and greatly attenuated, with his Mysticism for Beginners (1997) being a notable exception.
4.2 Seamus Heaney
Like Miłosz a generation before him, Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) received a rigorous Catholic education. To the young student on a scholarship at St. Culumb’s College, this meant
living the liturgical year in a very intense way: a Latin Mass every morning; aware, from the missal, of the feast day and the order of the feast; going to confession and communion; alert to the economy of indulgences; offering up little penitential operations for the release of the suffering souls in purgatory; adjudicating the moment when sexual fantasy passed from being a ‘temptation’ to being the deliberate ‘entertainment of impure thoughts’ and concluding every year with an ‘annual religious knowledge exam’. (Heaney quoted in O’Driscoll 2008: 38)
Yet the firmly Thomist theological grammar that was to provide the young student with orientation in the world did not survive its collision with the civil rights movement in 1960s Northern Ireland and the brutal sectarian conflict of The Troubles that were to follow (cf. Quinlan 2021; Duffy 2020). While Heaney’s earlier collections Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975) mostly draw their imagery from archaeological details and Celtic myths of a pre-Christian Ireland, later volumes once again focus on the tension between Catholicism’s moral teachings and the Church’s problematic involvement in The Troubles that had defined Irish history for the past three centuries. Starting in the 1980s, however, poems such as Sweeney Astray (1983) stage the conflict ‘between unregenerate pagan man and the stern and constraining demands of Christianity’ (Duffy 2020: 173). The twelve poems comprising Station Island (1984) find Heaney ‘doing the stations’ – the annual forty-eight-hour pilgrimage and fasting on Lough Dergh Island.
To his own surprise, the speaker who is there to take ‘the last look’ at a faith he had gradually lost finds himself drawn into ‘an examination of conscience’ that bears considerable resemblance to Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially Purgatory (Heaney quoted in O’Driscoll 2008: 234). Among the various figures from Ireland’s violent history that abruptly intrude on Heaney the pilgrim with their apparitional and often accusatory presence is Father Murphy, the stern headmaster at Heaney’s primary school in Anahorish. Another is Terry Keenan, from Heaney’s home parish, who fades into view ‘glossy as a blackbird […] his polished shoes / unexpectedly secular beneath a pleated, lace-hemmed alb of linen cloth’ (Heaney 1984: 69). Like Bernanos’ priests, he appears defeated by the disparity between the clarity of his faith and the empirical realities of his missionary work in Brazil’s interior: ‘I lasted / only a couple of years. Bare-breasted / women and rat-ribbed men. Everything wasted. / I rotted like a pear. I sweated masses […].’ As his virtual presence grows in the consciousness of Heaney on his pilgrimage, fragments of liturgical language (‘In hoc signo […]’ [In this sign]) ironically cause him to ‘break off from the renunciation’ and recall the young Terry Keenan ‘on a bicycle, / a clerical student home for the summer / doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbours. / Drinking tea and praising home-made bread’. While acknowledging that as a young postulant he had indeed been ‘unaware / that what I thought was chosen was convention’, Keenan’s ghostly presence also enjoins the poet to examine his own motives for returning to this bedrock of Irish Catholicism: ‘what are you doing, going through these motions. / Unless … […] / Unless you are here taking the last look’ (Heaney 1984: 69–71). As Heaney notes, even as ‘intellectually speaking, the loss of faith occurred offstage […] the potency of those words remained for me, they retain an undying tremor and draw’ (2008: 234). Two later collections, Seeing Things (1991) and The Spirit Level (1996) further probe the fluid boundaries between the visible and the invisible, with Heaney still striking an irritable, at times defiant note vis-à-vis the Catholic faith, as in ‘Weighing in’ (1996). Against accepting ‘the intolerable in others’ and ‘against our better judgment’ ‘embracing ‘passive suffering’, the speaker counsels that, faced with aggression and pain, we ought ‘to refuse the other cheek’. Even so, if Jesus’ precept (Matt 5:39) left the soldiers who mocked and abused him ‘neither shamed nor edified’, an ineffable change was wrought: ‘something was made manifest – the power / Of power not exercised, of hope inferred / By the powerless forever’. Heaney’s poem leaves it open whether human failure ultimately lies with ‘the obedient one’ or with the speaker’s closing, defiant exhortation: ‘Still, for Jesus’ sake, / Do me a favour, would you, just this once? / Prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone’. Such lines aptly capture the later Heaney’s attempt to negotiate between ‘the lyric darkness of Philip Larkin; the sceptically assertive Catholicism of Czesław Miłosz; the eclectic mythological borrowings […] of Yeats; and the nagging non serviam of Joyce’ (Quinlan 2021: 218).
4.3 Geoffrey Hill
A deeply ambivalent Anglican, Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016) at times echoes Miłosz’s dark view of nature while also sharing the latter’s life-long fascination with Blake, as in Hill’s ‘Holy Thursday’ (from For the Unfallen ), where ‘Child and nurse walk hand in glove / As unaware of Time’s betrayal, / Weaving their innocence with guile’ (Hill 2013: 6). With its thick layers of allusion and its terse, often hermetic diction, Hill’s poetry not only recalls Eliot but, going further back, also the alternately obscure and pugnacious style of his (and Blake’s) seventeenth-century dissenting forebears, such as the Ranters, Levelers, Diggers, Fifth-Monarchy Men. Throughout his career, Hill probes theological questions, as in ‘Funeral Music’ (no. 4) in King Log (1968) meditating on the relation between mind and soul: ‘Let mind be more precious than soul; it will not / Endure’ (Hill 2013: 50) or in two poems in Canaan (1996) whose titles (‘Whether the Virtues are Emotions’ and ‘Whether Moral Virtue Comes by Habituation’) allude to Aquinas’ treatise on habits and the virtues (Summa Theologiae I–II, 49–70). Yet on balance, Hill remains doubtful whether surrender or expurgation of the self (‘self / expression – you could argue the first to go – immolated / selfhood the last’) ensures virtuous conduct. Echoing seventeenth-century critiques of the virtues as ‘splendid vices’ (see Herdt 2008: 173–280), Hill resists scholasticism’s ‘ethereal conjecture / taking on / humankind’s heaviness of purchase / the moral nebulae / common as lichen / the entire corpus of ruinous sagesse’ (Hill 2013: 177).
At once inescapable and all but impossible, testing the scope and depth of the Christian faith is, for Hill, the essential warrant for all poetic utterance and a task vis-à-vis which human speech and religious practice are destined to fall short. Indeed, ‘the castaway of drowned remorse’ who in all his ‘nakedness [has been] consigned by proxy to the judas-kiss / of our devotion’, Christ asks of human beings a level of witness at which aesthetic, ecclesial, and theological practices have consistently failed for two millennia (Hill 2013: 121, 134). Thus, patterns of worship risk being no more than ‘an enclave of perpetual vows / broken in time,’ just as ‘theology makes good bedside reading’ for those ‘who are lost [and] covet scholastic proof’ (2013: 130, 131). Yet another sonnet in Tenebrae (1978), perhaps Hill’s most sustained engagement with theology, foregrounds the Augustinian motif of God being at once wholly unfathomable and wholly interior to the self:
Crucified Lord, however much I burn
to be enamoured of your paradise,
knowing what ceases and what will not cease,
frightened of hell, not knowing where to turn,
I fall between harsh grace and hurtful scorn.
You are the crucified who crucifies,
self-withdrawn even from your own device,
your trim-plugged body, wreath of rakish thorn.
What grips me then, or what does my soul grasp?
If I grasp nothing what is there to break?
You are beyond me, innermost true light.
uttermost exile for no exile’s sake,
king of our earth not caring to unclasp
its void embrace, the semblance of your quiet.
(Hill 2013: 123; emphasis added)
Some of Hill’s most probing and wary explorations of the Christian faith can be found in his long meditative poem, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), and also in Canaan (1996). To probe the recesses of Christian stance in the modern world means for Hill to cultivate the stance of the outsider, not just vis-à-vis the saeculum but often the Church, too. Identifying with its eponymous hero, Charles Péguy, Hill’s 1983 poem lauds the defiance of the fallen protagonist’s ‘radical soul’ and ‘skirmisher with grace’: ‘This world is different, belongs to them – / the lords of limit and of contumely. / It matters little whether you go tamely / or with rage and defiance to your doom’ (Hill 2013: 144, 146–147).
Still, for all his ambivalence regarding Anglo-Protestantism, whose ‘strange church smelled a bit “high”, of censers and polish’ (Hill 2013: 91), the ‘resentful communicant’ Hill stands squarely in a tradition for which poetry is conceivable only in relation to scripture (allusions to which abound throughout Hill’s work) and theological reflection (see Hart 2017: 63–123). Crucially, Hill insists that the struggle with faith is not something to be merely ‘represented’ in poetry. Rather, it must be lived, by both author and reader, as an embodied experience. Hill thus envisions ‘a modern literature of penitence […] which is at times, and not inappropriately, a penance in itself’ and which ought to be approached ‘as a medium through which we convey our awareness, or indeed our conviction, of an inveterate human condition of guilt or anxiety’ (Hill 2008: 7–9). Echoing Simone Weil, whose work had influenced Hill’s oeuvre as much as that of Iris Murdoch a generation earlier, he aims to move beyond a merely ‘generalized awareness of sin’ such as had defined Eliot’s and Auden’s ‘disciplines of conscience’ (Hill 2008: 9–10, 12). Recalling Karl Barth’s understanding of sin as ‘the specific gravity of human nature as such’, he considers it poetry’s principal task of poetry to incorporate this ‘heaviness’ in order to ‘do its atoning work’ in the very ‘density of language’ itself (Hill 2008: 17).
I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of ‘solidarity with the poor and oppressed’. (Hill 2008: 405)
Like Eliot, with whose long shadow he continues to wrestle in many of his essays, Hill regards his theological forbears (Tyndale, Hooker, Laud, Bramhall, Taylor, Coleridge) and his literary ancestry (especially Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Blake, Hopkins, and Péguy) not just as distant models but as ever-present interlocutors. Sustained dialogue with the dead (‘husks of what was rich seed’ [Hill 2013: 7]) allows for substantive differences of value and spiritual orientation to be worked out, and thus to push back against relativism, indifference, and what Hill calls ‘the feral openness of our time’ (Hill 2008: 310). For Hill, too, the only legitimate aim of poetic language is to open access to truth, where ‘words clawed my mind as though they had smelt / Revelation’s flesh’ (Hill 2013: 62), all the while conceding the central theological understanding that our grasp of truth remains forever partial and fleeting, something that Hill insists ought to be reflected in the ‘density’ of the poet’s medium. Among those who succeeded in turning that constraint into something verging on claritas is George Herbert. As Hill remarks in a 1991 Times Literary Supplement essay, ‘No other English poet can convince us, as Herbert can, that the “otherness” of figurative language is, even as we meet it, instantly turned upon itself “in a sense most true”’ (Hill 2008: 358). A few years later, the point is restated in more general and authoritative terms when, with evident approval, Hill remarks how Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘sometime pupil of Walter Pater, leans away from the aesthetic equation, takes the weight of the more awkward stresses of the world which, in justice, contains aesthetics as a good but is not to be either ruled or saved by them’ (Hill 2008: 406).
5 Concluding reflections: theology and literature in an era of permanent crisis
Since the turn of the millennium, both the extent and nature of literature’s involvement in theological issues has undergone a seismic shift. Following the end of the Cold War, European literature and, to an extent, also Europe’s theological traditions have had to confront new and unsettling socio-political and ethical challenges that at times open up apocalyptic prospects. These include the rise of post-humanist thinking fuelled by dramatic innovations in the neurosciences, molecular and cell biology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. Second, since about 2000 the growing presence and power of autocratic politics, strengthened by new technologies of digital surveillance, have fundamentally conspired against Christianity’s core idea of a political community based on charity and compassion. Finally, since the turn of the millennium, humanity has been confronted with incontrovertible evidence of pervasive and accelerating global climate change that by now is widely understood to account for the growing number of recent ecological disasters and worse to come in the near future. Outside Europe, environmental writers such as Wendell Berry in his pastoral and elegiac poetry and agrarian non-fiction, and more recently theologians such as Markus Vogt and Norman Wirzba (2022), have insisted that the ecological crisis must not be construed as a merely technical challenge but, instead, as requiring a renewal of Christian ethics (see Ecological Ethics) and a coordination of post-secular voices both literary and critical. They argue that modern political and theological thought and practice must reengage with the Christian idea of creation, namely the scriptural and theological traditions that for some eighteen-hundred years had conceived creation not as a resource to be consumed but as a gift to be cared for and passed on, lovingly and intact, to future generations. It is above all a growing fear that the post-industrial, digital world of today may make good on what C. S. Lewis had forecast as The Abolition of Man that has prompted recent prose fiction to reengage with theological concepts and religious language in new and urgent ways (cf. Tate 2008: 1–21).
A case in point are the novels and short stories of Sara Maitland (b. 1950), Ancestral Truths (1993), Angel and Me (1997), Hagiographies (1998), which offer a distinctly new outlook on God and sainthood. While angels and saints figure prominently in Maitland’s writing, their status is dramatically altered in that traditional attributes of charity, obedience, humility, and charity are supplanted by an emphasis on sexual expression and the materiality of human existence. As Nancy Workman (2005) has argued, Maitland breaks with established notions of the spiritual life as the result of a sudden conversion and renunciation of one’s former life by redescribing the lives of seemingly sinful individuals in ways that allow them to be perceived as manifesting virtue and even holiness. The overall effect of Maitland’s approach is to bridge the hiatus between earthly existence and God, ‘a paternal figure of accountability’ (Workman 2005: 355) by affirming both beauty and terror in a seemingly inchoate world.
Perhaps most striking about this reengagement of literature and theology is how some prominent works of the past twenty-five years have once again embraced allegorical forms, albeit in far more subdued ways than what readers of Langland’s Piers Plowman or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress might understand by that term. Still, contemporary prose fiction often presents itself as an extended parable of generic protagonists forced to confront and meditate on personal affliction, ruin, and redemption in a world unhinged by political terror, inter-ethnic violence, and environmental disaster. Perhaps the most prominent works in this regard are two novel trilogies, by Hilary Mantel and J. M. Coetzee. With its sharply etched historical portraits and imaginative dialogic action, Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012), and The Mirror and the Light (2020) retraces the violent, shifting, and often intractable religious and political conflict during the reign of Henry VIII and the improbable rise of the commoner Thomas Cromwell to a position of political and ecclesial influence second only to the monarch. Though the South African J. M. Coetzee falls outside this entry’s focus on European literature, his work deserves brief mention, not least because of its use of formal techniques that resist any regional and national identification. Thus, in his Jesus trilogy (2013–2019), Coetzee uses deliberately simple language to unfold its enigmatic parable of a fictious land where the story’s mostly nameless inhabitants now live as quasi-metaphysical refugees in an ominous afterlife, a world marked by compulsory welfare and stunted expressive resources. They arrive seemingly cleansed of all past attachments, memories, and indeed their language. The trilogy’s protagonist David (Hebrew: ‘beloved’) obliquely recalls the historical Jesus (whose name only appears in the title), yet also the Man of La Mancha (Cervantes’s Don Quixote being David’s favourite book), as he rebels against the coercive and homogenizing order of a world all but ‘unsouled’ by the forces of globalization.
As in Coetzee’s trilogy, contemporary fiction’s investment in theological questions tends to be subdued, even furtive, and it almost always parts ways with what N. T. Wright has called ‘the stained-glass Christ-figure of much Christian imagination’ (Wright 2000: x). Even so, in its biblical concision, the language, plot structure, and character types permeating recent fiction often evoke Old Testament books such as Job, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Other works would include J. M. Coetzee’s earlier meditation about violence and forgiveness, Disgrace (1999), Michel Houllebecq’s Submission (2015), a canny portrait of present-day France surrendering its stale secularity and acquiescing in a political take-over by Islamic fundamentalists, and Eugene Volodazkin’s Laurus (2016). The latter follows its mid-fifteenth-century protagonist Arseny who, responsible for getting a young woman pregnant and then causing her and her child’s death by failing to seek timely assistance from a midwife, embarks on a penitential journey as a healer and holy fool through afflicted and disordered lands on his way to Jerusalem. Arguably, it is this pervasive sense of a world utterly out of joint and of social and moral frameworks on the verge of collapse that accounts for contemporary fiction’s resurgent engagement with theological questions, particularly those of creation and redemption. In more peripheral ways, these issues also inform Amitav Gosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), as well as a slate of art films exploring the ever-threatening crisis of faith and the institutional role of Christian churches in an era of sectarian violence, ecological collapse, and faltering social compacts. Among the more notable films in this genre would be Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (2010), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014), or Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017). It remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, literature shaped by a renewed sense of seriousness and responsibility will, in the decades to come, continue to avail itself of the dramatic and exegetical possibilities cultivated by Christian theology over the course of two millennia.