Whatever happened to the Christian intellectual? Progressive faith in a secular age

Progressive Christian thought dominated much of 20th-century public life — and we need it more than ever today

Published April 1, 2018 8:00AM (EDT)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; W.H. Auden; Dorothy Day (AP/Getty/Salon)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; W.H. Auden; Dorothy Day (AP/Getty/Salon)

In a poem called “Men Made Out of Words,” Wallace Stevens says it all:  “Life consists / Of propositions about life.” He goes on to suggest that thinking, what he calls “the human reverie,” is a solitude in which we “compose these propositions.” In the search for propositions about life, quite naturally we turn to the wisdom of the past, which in the West is often contained in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the great spiritual masters, a figure whom many (myself included) regard as a voice of truth, presenting to the world the human face of God.

My own religious journey goes back half a century or more. I was lucky, as young man, to come into contact with W.H. Auden, who helped me immensely at a critical juncture. This was in 1971, when I was living in Britain, a graduate student doing some research at Oxford. At Christ Church College (where I later became a Fellow), Auden was in residence. In effect, he had returned from decades in New York to England in order to die at home, in familiar surroundings. His old college gave him a tiny cottage in one of their gardens, and a permanent place at high table. He was revered by students and faculty alike for his delectable wit and kindness. I had met him a couple of times, and shared in this admiration. (I don’t think a week goes by to this day without my reading some of his poetry.)

One day I went up to London for a meeting, and was walking down a busy street in the afternoon when I became overwhelmed by the crowd. I felt horribly dizzy, weak-kneed, and had to sit down in a quiet doorway on a side street. I felt my heart racing, my head spinning, my palms sweating: I thought I was surely about to die.

I made my way slowly to Paddington Station and returned to Oxford by train that evening, sure that my life was over, that I had experienced a heart attack or something equally severe. I happened to run into Auden on the street. He stepped up to me with deep concern, and he said, “Dear boy, is something the matter? You look unwell.” I told him what had happened, and he said, “Ah, come back to my house. You need a good drink.”

I went back to his cottage, which was an ashtray with a few chairs, piles of books and old newspapers on the floor, and a lumpy couch where he directed me to sit. He handed me a monumentally stiff drink – vodka from the freezer in what looked like a porcelain bowl -- and listened to an account of my anxiety-producing experience that afternoon in London. After a while, he said: “I do understand, yes. But listen, dear boy. I know only two things. Two pieces of wisdom. And I will give you these, and you will go away and think about them for many years. Decades, indeed. Is that OK?”

I nodded, sipping the vodka, and felt comforted by his attentions.

He said, “The first thing is this. You must realize there is no such thing as time. It’s simply a fiction. And it does a great deal of damage, as we adjust our lives to live by this falseness, tick-tock, tick-tock, this nonsense.”

I waited for the second thing, which came after a bit.

“The second thing,” he said, “is to rest in God. This is faith, this is trust. I think the proper translation of the Greek word is rest. Rest in God.”

He asked me to repeat these two pieces of wisdom and I did. He said, “Excellent. Now drink your drink, and dwell on these matters.”

It has, indeed, taken me some 50 years to process the wisdom of that evening in Auden’s cottage, and this work has taken me deeply into the Christian faith, which was Auden’s faith, too. I have practiced it pretty much from that night forward. My religion is – in the root-sense of that term – a process of “linking back” (re-ligio), of digging into the ground of being, into the significant soil where we all come from, and to which we return.

Recently I’ve published a book called "The Way of Jesus: Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life," which follows from a short biography of Jesus I wrote a few years ago. In both of these works, I dwell on Auden’s ideas of time and faith. I’m not a theologian, just a practicing Christian and one who has studied the scriptures closely and read many of the best modern theologians in my own search for “propositions about life.” Especially now, as I move into my seventh decade, I’ve been making a serious effort to refine as best I can my understanding of what Jesus meant, his teachings and example. In doing so, I draw on any number of poets and intellectuals from the past century.

That being said, I’m painfully aware that we live in a secular age, a time when even the idea of a “Christian intellectual” sounds risible, almost a joke. In the U.S., Christianity has for many decades been a preoccupation and preserve of the right, and it’s famously anti-intellectual, formulating a version of Christ’s teachings that remains, for me, a wild distortion of what the gospels actually put forward. The literalism of their faith – they commonly regard the Bible as the unassailable and possibly inerrant Word of God – misses the point altogether, as both the Jewish and Christian scriptures are, in my view, mythic literature of a high order, full of propositions about life that must be taken seriously but not literally. As St. Paul put it succinctly (in II Corinthians 3:6): “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” 

It’s worth recalling that in the middle of the 20th century our leading thinkers and writers included Christian intellectuals like Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr and Michael Polanyi. T.S. Eliot, a massive figure on both sides of the Atlantic, wrote "The Idea of a Christian Society" in 1939, making forceful connections between faith and culture, and his final poem-sequence, "Four Quartets," has become a touchstone for me, a guide to Christian living. I look with amazement back at any number of strong progressive Christian voices of midcentury, from Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. to Cesar Chávez, Daniel Berrigan and William Sloan Coffin – just to skim a few obvious and admirable names. These remarkable Christians took the message of radical equality, peace and social justice into the world with energy and passion.

Among the Christian theologians of the last century who still matter are giants like Karl Barth (a socialist) and Paul Tillich – a personal favorite – who redefined Christian terms in ways that still challenge us with striking propositions about life. Tillich was an existentialist philosopher as well as a theologian who drew on the insights of modern psychology, always insisting that the “Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence.” In Tillich's "Systematic Theology," he said boldly: “Life remains ambiguous as long as there is life.” No easy answers for him, no easy refuge in faith as a rock that can’t be moved. Faith, for Tillich, was a leap of trust in the face of alienation, with an awareness of the radical non-being we all sense. The essence of religion for him was making a connection to one’s “ultimate concern,” the realities that transcend ordinary life, the ground of our being.

Doubt and despair were part of Tillich’s faith, and they remain the core of all progressive forms of Christianity. And the Christian intellectual today who wishes to go beyond the childlike (often thoughtless) certainties of evangelical Christianity, with its literal thinking and antipathy to textual scholarship and rigorous thought, must live with doubt and despair, embracing the contradictions of scripture and the ambiguities of faith. He or she must, in fact, relish them as beautiful aspects of their search for a realistic, satisfying and pragmatic religion, one grounded in the experience of the holy or the “numinous,” and that locates God in one’s “ultimate concern.”

I’ve lately been ransacking a handful of progressive Christian thinkers of the past decade, and – to my delight – have discovered a clutch of extraordinary figures, including Charles Taylor, an eclectic Canadian philosopher who writes from a Roman Catholic viewpoint; Rowan Williams, an Anglican scholar (as well as poet) who was recently Archbishop of Canterbury; Richard Rohr, an eloquent Franciscan priest and mystic; and Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal theologian who was among the pioneers in the practice of Centering Prayer (which draws on the insights of Eastern meditative traditions). Taken together, their work represents a bracing movement that grounds contemporary faith in the wisdom tradition of the church, putting forward propositions about life that remain complex, intellectually rich and demanding, inspired by whatever we mean by the Holy Spirit.

My reading in their work has been more than helpful, especially since I teach a course at Middlebury College called “Poetry and Spirituality,” where we confront everything from the Book of Psalms and the "Tao Te Ching" to Rumi, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot and Mary Oliver. On the first day of class, I ask my students to give a brief sense of their own religious background and affiliations. Nine out of 10 will say, sheepishly: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” They show considerable enthusiasm for the poems we study, but remain intractably secular. Anything that smacks of the “supernatural” strikes them as peculiar, if not embarrassing. They show little interest the practice of religion, per se.

But I’m convinced that without a religious practice, without resource to the suggestive propositions about life and its meaning that one finds in the scriptures, as well as in literature that seeks to frame these propositions, one leads a very thin, narrow existence, disconnected from the fiery center of consciousness that one reads about at the beginning of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.”

The Word here, in Greek, is logos: a difficult to define word that reaches back to the origins of Greek philosophy, as in Plato and Plotinus. It means something like “organizing consciousness,” which each of us finds within ourselves and, miraculously, within others. It’s how we communicate. Here is God, the organizing principle of meaning. Consciousness itself, which philosophers have called “the hard problem,” cannot be “solved.” It can only be discovered.

I left Auden’s cottage in Oxford rather puzzled that night, almost 50 years ago. And it’s taken all these decades to begin to understand a little of what I was told. But I’m beginning to see now that time is a fiction, an elaborate grid we hang over reality to explain something about our experience. It’s one of many propositions about life. But eternity is, as Eliot once wrote, “here, now, always.” Auden, I think, was calling me to this present sense of the eternal, knowing that God has no sense of time, and doesn’t ask us to watch the clock.

And there is finally this thing called faith, which involves resting in God. Jesus modeled this faith so vividly. It’s not so much faith in Jesus that we’re called upon to value, but the faith of Jesus, who when in difficulty turned his eyes to heaven, saying “Thy will be done.” This is what faith, which in Greek is pistis, means. 

The Christian intellectual in our time must, I think, find fresh propositions about life, and apply them to the old ones, in language that is challenged by a fearful awareness of what Stevens in his poem calls “the terrible incantations of defeats / And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.” Nevertheless, as human beings, we try again and again to frame our experience in ways that inspire and console us. As Stevens concludes: “The whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate.”

Auden would nod in approval. 

By Jay Parini

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015."

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