More on T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

I argued sloppily in my last post that the bulk of canonical American literature is devoted to diagnosing a single perennial problem (viz. the loss of transcendence in American consciousness), and that Eliot effectively solves this problem in his Four Quartets. For anyone interested, I’ve written more about this subject here (with regard to the ways Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Wharton’s Age of Innocence present the world in purely immanent terms) and also here (with regard to the ways Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and James’ Beast in the Jungle present temporality in purely chronological terms). Many of the insights of these papers, I should acknowledge, I received directly from Roger Lundin.

And since I’m on this Eliot binge, here’s a blurb from Russell Kirk on the Four Quartets:

Eliot was not ignorant of the strength of convictions contrary to his own; nor did he commence with prejudices. In Four Quartets, he does not assume the prophet afflatus: instead, he opens to inspection all the doubts and difficulties of his position, with a candor seldom encountered. Over a quarter of a century, he had been searching; he had come to certain beliefs by experience of life, by reading of books, and by much exchange with other minds of his time. What Eliot offers in this last and most meditated of his long poems is a picture of the insights he had obtained.

These insights may be accepted or rejected; but it is not well to reject or to accept them from ignorance or prejudice. Here a powerful intellect and an earnest conscience regard ultimate questions. Of course one may sweep aside all such questions as irrelevant to this life of the senses. But such an unexamined life is not worth living; and besides, while an individual may survive in disregard of all such questions, any society that ignores ultimate questions must find its tenure nasty and short.

And, in closing, here’s Eliot’s own description of his intellectual journey:

The Christian thinker—and I mean the man who is trying consciously and conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminates in faith, rather than the public apologist—proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world, and especially for the world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation. To the unbeliever, this method seems disingenuous and perverse: for the unbeliever is, as a rule, not so greatly troubled to explain the world to himself, nor so greatly distressed by its disorder; nor is he generally concerned (in modern terms) to ‘preserve values.’ He does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain development of character, and what in the highest sense can be called ‘saintliness’ are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality’ of those values.

T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

Over the past couple years, I’ve gradually arrived at the probably unfair opinion that most canonical works of American literature are repetitive diagnoses of a single perennial American problem: namely, the loss of transcendence in modern consciousness. Not that I don’t appreciate the brilliant modes by which various writers (Faulkner and James, for instance) express and diagnose this loss. But after a while, I can’t help growing tired and wishing more of them would work constructively toward its remedy.

Obviously, I have primarily in mind writers of the naturalist and modernist movements; but others factor in here as well. Stephen Crane is probably the worst offender, all things considered. His “A Man Said to the Universe” encapsulates, in just five lines, almost everything that bores me about the American canon:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

I don’t even understand why Crane bothered writing stories like “The Open Boat” — this poem gets his point across sufficiently enough. He’s really not interested in working through the problem of man’s place in the cosmos, or in consulting the wisdom of other ages for possible solutions to that problem, or even in fostering a “natural” appreciation of life in the face of that problem (as, for instance, some of the more naturalistically-minded British Romantics did). Nor does he really even consider the possibility, here or in the bulk of his other work, that his naturalistic worldview might simply be incorrect, and that mankind might actually have a transcendent end toward which to strive. He simply takes naturalism as a given and devotes page after page to its pronouncement. And to an unfortunate degree, other major American authors and works (McCarthy’s The Road, for instance) do the same.

A clear exception to this trend is the literature of the South, which tends to retain a certain sense of man’s transcendent orientation that’s lost on writers like Fitzgerald and Pynchon. (African-American Southern literature, in particular, is almost wholly devoid of naturalistic prejudice.) As I mentioned above, I’ve primarily a beef with the naturalist and modernist movements. But even some Southern Christian writers, I would argue, present nature in an all-too-naturalistic way. In the celebrated religious stories of Flannery O’Connor, for instance, revelation and “grace” tend to enter characters’ lives only through rupture and violence, and readers are very rarely left with the biblical impression that creation declares the glory, beauty, and love of the Lord. (I must be missing something here, but honestly O’Connor’s stories strike me as more Barthian than Catholic.)

All that said, I’ve also gradually arrived at the opinion that T.S. Eliot’s poetry is the answer to the perennial problem(s) of American literature. His poetic career begins, in a sense, where Crane, McCarthy, and the modernists lazily finish: with the death of God and the suffocating boredom of modern life (“Portrait of a Lady,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). But unlike Crane and so many others, he almost immediately turns to tradition, history, and foreign wisdom to find a cure for these modern troubles (The Waste Land). And some two decades later, he finds precisely the cure he’s been looking for: sacramental union with the divine (Four Quartets). Such union — or, as he refers to it, a “condition of complete simplicity” — is attained only through “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action”; and, as history’s greatest saints and ascetics have all attested, it comes at the cost of “not less than everything.” In Eliot’s daunting words, our only hope lies in

Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit (“Burnt Norton,” III)

And he continues:

       In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are,
to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way
wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way
which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess
what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way
in which you are not.
And what you do not know
is the only thing you know
And what you own
is what you do not own
And where you are
is where you are not. (“East Coker,” III)

And perhaps this is the real reason Eliot’s solution has never gained footing in American literary consciousness: it costs more than American writers are willing to pay.

Why would anyone ask Jerry Coyne anything about religion?

I recently upset Jerry Coyne with some remarks I made on his blog. Long story short, I challenged his theological erudition and encouraged one of his readers to direct questions about religious belief toward those who actually study and practice it. (Coyne posted and replied to my full comment here, and followed up further, with another post, here.) At one point in my comment, I wrote the following:

In almost all cases and circumstances, belief is adopted on the basis of trust and testimony: we believe whatever the people we think trustworthy tell us about the thing about which they’re trustworthy. This is perfectly rational, so long as we choose good people to trust.

And all that said, I’d encourage you (though I’m sure Mr Coyne won’t actually send my words your way) to not trust Mr Coyne and others like him when it comes to the subject of religion. He has not spent any serious degree of time studying theology, or philosophy, or really anything relevant to your question. If you want to understand what the word “God” means, ask theologians (or monks). If you want to understand why people believe “God” exists, ask philosophers of religions, psychologists, sociologists, and historians — don’t ask a evolutionary biologist who specializes in fruit-fly research.

I grant that my tone was harsh, but I honestly thought this a fair (and relatively inoffensive) suggestion. Coyne thinks otherwise:

Frankly, I’m tired of people claiming that those of us who have read considerable theology and philosophy, or were believers in our earlier lives, aren’t qualified to say anything about religion because we’re neither priests nor monks. One thing that we do have is evidence—the evidence that supports scientific contentions—and one thing that theists have is NO EVIDENCE: no evidence supporting the existence or nature of any god. That should be the end of the discussion.

I’m continually amazed at how believers are able to be so vehement in their attacks on atheists when, after all, we’re simply pointing out this lack of evidence. The more I see of theists, the more I see them as a group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics. And so they grow angry and dismissive, and attack the credentials of anyone who dares comment on God or religion.

And then, to make matters worse for me, I was conclusively “pwned,” as several of Coyne’s readers triumphantly announced, by an anonymous “credentialed theologian” and reader of Coyne’s:

I am a credentialed theologian! At least, that is what I was told after graduating with my BA in theology from St. Gregory University, a Benedictine school in Shawnee, Oklahoma […] I can tell you that my few years at the undergraduate level was enough to divest me rather completely of the notion that theology was the study of anything solid, that there was an object to this subject. […]

My study of theology made me aware of the fact that there was no objective, empirical underpinning to the field. Nothing on which you could hang your hat. Just the promise of some hint at the divine through the contemplation of “mysteries”–or absurdities lent an air of sanctity by dint of tradition […]

We can only solve problems we experience in this world by reference to the world, not to otherworldly spirits whose existence has never been verified.

I’m not sure what this theologian’s point was (since I didn’t write a single word about the legitimacy or veracity of religious belief in my comment); nor am I sure why Coyne furiously digressed into a rant about why religion is false and has “NO EVIDENCE” to support itself (since, again, I said absolutely nothing about whether “religion” was supported at all, evidentially or otherwise). And I’m even less sure how Coyne managed to rationally or “evidentially” deduce from my comment that I’m a member of a “group of scared people, clinging to a superstition that they see slipping away: a security blanket that is being removed by atheists and skeptics.” As a couple of his readers helpfully noted, I didn’t even take a stance in my post — I only recommended that a reader ask religious questions of individuals with some degree of real religious knowledge. And for what it’s worth, my conviction that Coyne is not one such person actually has nothing to do with his lack of BAs in theology and other external “credentials” and everything to do with what I’ve seen him say regarding David Bentley Hart and classical theism.

Most other bits of Coyne’s response wobble haphazardly in similarly irrelevant directions: he points out that he didn’t personally try to answer the religious question at hand (he didn’t, but that has no bearing on my advice to the inquirer), he condescendingly notes that there are multiple factors motivating religious belief (who would ever suggest otherwise? I certainly didn’t), he exhorts me to “get out of the seminary and monastery” (I live in Los Angeles, have never attended seminary, and have never set foot in a monastery), and concludes — most forcefully of all — by pointing out that, “as any fool knows,” various theologians, rabbis, and imams will give various answers to religious questions (I will personally buy Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact if he can find me a single human [without severe mental disabilities and with a junior high diploma] who thinks otherwise).

All this to say: the entirety of the theologian’s response and the vast majority of Coyne’s response were completely irrelevant to what I actually wrote. Even so, Coyne did raise one point that pertained to my comment:

[W]hy is it only monks and theologians who are qualified to say what the word “God” means? What about what the word means to the regular believers, who make up the vast bulk of religionists? (Note the denigration of my qualifications by saying I do “fruit-fly research.”)

(For what it’s worth, I actually meant no disrespect to Coyne’s research. The study of fruit-flies is obviously helpful and worthwhile, I appreciate Coyne’s commitment to and achievements in the field. My point in mentioning it here was simply that Coyne’s specific area of study has almost literally nothing to do with theology, or philosophy, or sociology, or any other relevant discipline. It’s not even as though he studies the emergence of consciousness in rational creatures, or some other scientific subject that has some degree of substantial overlap with God-related questions. But I guess this is all beside the point.)

So why can’t “religionists” define the word “God,” instead of theologians and monks? This question would be fair if we were speaking in purely sociological or cultural terms. But we’re not. In the original post on which I commented, a reader was fairly earnestly asking what motivates so many people to believe in “God,” despite the impressive advances of modern science. My point in suggesting that Coyne’s reader ask theologians and monks what the word “God” means was simply that the vast majority of religious believers throughout history — be they Christian, Jewish, Neoplatonic, Sikh, Hindu, etc. — have understood the word “God” to have almost nothing directly to do with the inquiry or discoveries of the natural sciences. Theologians and monks spend their lives studying (and, in the latter case, devoting themselves to) these religious and philosophical traditions, and are, by and large, in no way adherent to the crass creationist, “God-of-the-gaps” form of religiosity Coyne’s reader describes.

But whatever. Coyne knows all this — or at least, he has absolutely no excuse to not know this if he has actually ever read David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. I personally suspect that he only furiously skimmed it, since his critiques of the book (at least two of which were written before even he claims to have read it in full) no less than completely misunderstand almost every single point Hart makes. But I guess there’s no point in going on here either, since all this has been said before (here, for example) by writers incomparably better than both myself and Coyne. After all, if Hart, Douthat, and Feser can’t stop Coyne from claiming that the God of classical theism is a God-of-the-gaps, what could I or anyone else possibly do to help him?

For the sake of Coyne’s readers, though, who may not have had the fortune of reading Hart’s book, here’s what Hart has already said, and what Coyne has already read, in response to the above question about popular “religionists”:

[T]he more persistent sort of skeptic will often then assert that … it hardly matters what the philosophers and theologians may think, because the “common believer” has only a hazy notion of any of that, and “most people” think of God in a much more primitive way. On the one hand, this is an entirely irrelevant argument. It is always true, for any shared body of knowledge, conviction, and belief, that the principles and logic of the whole “system” are more fully known only to a few individuals who have gone to the trouble to study them. As a rule, for instance, most persons have only a vague, metaphorical, and largely pictorial understanding of the findings of the sciences … That would hardly make it intellectually responsible for, say, a young earth creationist to reject the evolution of species or the vast antiquity of the earth based solely on the crude, indistinct, popular misconceptions that “most people” have about such matters … An honest and honorable critic of any idea will always seek out and try to understand the strongest possible formulations of that idea, as well as the most persuasive arguments in its favor, before attempting its refutation.

On the other hand, however, I have to note that in this case the skeptic’s complaint is not really true anyway, or at least not nearly as true as he or she imagines. Certainly the average believer may have very little knowledge of the history of metaphysics or the technical language of philosophy, and might not be able to formulate propositions regarding the logic of divine transcendence with the practiced ease of some saturnine old Jesuit in some Midwestern Catholic college’s philosophy faculty … Nevertheless, if one asks that average believer certain questions about what he or she understands God to be, the answers will often be in principle perfectly concordant with the more arcane formulae of the metaphysicians: that God is Spirit, incorporeal, not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, not a product of cosmic nature, not simply some craftsman who creates by manipulating materials external to himself, not composed of parts, but rather residing in all things while remaining perfectly one, present to us in the depths of our own beings … (and so forth). As a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of the philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same.

And, as anyone who has so much as furiously skimmed Hart’s book knows, this general picture of God — however noteworthy and important the diverse particular theological claims about this “God’s” nature, actions, and character may be — is common to practically all major religious and philosophical traditions. So yes, if one asks a priest and a rabbi whether God was ever born of a virgin in human history, one will receive two different answers. And of course this is theologically and philosophically important. But it in no way invalidates my advice to the young reader; nor does it somehow lend any credibility to Coyne’s religious learnedness, since the vast majority of reasons that even “religionists” believe in God are common to all theological traditions: they have seen “God” transform human lives in inexplicable ways, they have experienced “God” in private devotion, they have recognized that there is no coherent atheistic way to explain why something exists rather than nothing, they are committed to the intuitive conviction that their moral sensibility has some objective grounding (and thus that there is always something really wrong with, say, rape regardless of whether the majority of present humans find it tolerable or not), they perceive a natural but naturalistically inexplicable need in themselves for a transcendent “God” (and thus infer “God’s” existence in much the same way that Coyne infers the efficacy of his own rationality), they recognize that only “God” can account for the fundamental intelligibility of reality and structure of intentional consciousness, they don’t much feel like dismissing the experience of almost all humans (and especially of the most interesting and brilliant humans) throughout history as purely “delusional” and “primitive” in comparison to their own … and so on and so on.

Theologians and monks are superlatively aware of these and countless other motivating reasons for religious belief. They have experienced many such reasons first-hand. Of course theology is not a precise, objectively “empirical” discipline in the vein of the natural sciences. But even a passing glance at religious history indicates that it’s also not a wholly arbitrary or haphazard discipline, and that — cultural, dogmatic, and linguistic differences notwithstanding — a legion of the same moral, experiential, spiritual, and metaphysical conclusions have been drawn by the majority of major traditions of religious thought, practice, and inquiry in civilized human history.

And, I’ll ask in closing, what possible incentive could anybody (intelligent but misinformed 13-year-old blog-readers excluded) have to ask Jerry Coyne about them? I don’t think Coyne is a dumb man; I just don’t think he’s a reliable source of religious knowledge. Why would anyone dispute this? And why is this even an offensive thing to say? I’d sincerely like to know.