Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, II (philosophical & theological quietism)

Trilling wrote, “Perhaps Mr. Eliot’s long if recalcitrant discipleship to Matthew Arnold gives me some justification for quoting Arnold once again:  of criticism he said that ‘it must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent.’  It is with this sentence in mind that I urge the importance of Mr. Eliot’s book.

“In the imagination of the Left Mr. Eliot has always figured with excessive simplicity.  His story was supposed to be nothing more than this: that from the horrible realities of the Waste Land he escaped into the arms of Anglo-Catholic theology.  This account may or may not be adequate; but as we review the ten years in which Marxism flourished among the intellectuals and then decayed, we can scarcely believe that this story, if true, is the worst that could be told of a man in our time.  Whatever is censurable in it depends on the blind power of that word ‘escape’ and on our attitude to theology.  For theology I certainly do not make a stand, but when Mr. Eliot is accused of ‘faith,’ of the ‘surrender’ of his intellect to ‘authority,’ it is hard to see, when the accusers are Marxist intellectuals, how their own action was always so very different.  If we have the right to measure the personal and moral value of convictions by the disinterested intellectual effort through which they are arrived at, we might find that Mr. Eliot’s conversion was notably more honorable than that of many who impugned his decision.”

COMMENT:  I was a bit surprised to read that a belief in Marxism “decayed” after a ten year period, i.e. from 1930 to 1940.  He was writing before a Cold War in which Marxism was embraced with great enthusiasm by many Western intellectuals.  I was once interested in American Marxists who advanced the cause of labor during this period.  Perhaps he had those people in mind when he used the word “decayed.”  

Trilling’s point here is that if Eliot gave up his intellectual independence by embracing Anglo-Catholic theology, those who embraced Marxism were in no position to criticize him.  Embracing a fideist or quietist approach to religion or philosophy to the extent that counter theories are rejected a priori is an extreme not many intellectuals could manage.  Perhaps people who don’t fit Trilling’s definition of “intellectual” might manage because they wouldn’t be fully aware of counter arguments, but Eliot was aware.  He worked through the problems that concerned him (perhaps described in The Waste Land) and embraced Anglo-Catholic theology as a logical solution to them.  But did that mean he quit thinking, and embraced his theology as a fideist? 

I am much more familiar with Reformed than Anglo-Catholic theology, and there is a famous controversy that developed between two Reformed theologians that bears upon this subject.  Cornelius Van Til took the position that we could not know everything God knew.  He revealed what He wanted us to know in the Scriptures, but He didn’t tell us all that He knew.  He didn’t even tell us all that he knew about what he told is in these Scriptures.  We could never know all that God knew about anything.  Gordon Clark believed that while we couldn’t know everything that God knew, we could know everything there was to know about what God revealed in Scripture.  We could know the Scriptures as thoroughly as God knew them. 

If we couldn’t know everything there was to know about Scripture, Van Til’s critics asked, how could we believe something we couldn’t fully understand?  We understood as much as God intended us to understand, but the insoluble matters we accepted on faith, Van Til responded.  Were Van Til and T. S. Eliot fideists for accepting difficult theological matters on faith?  Or was Gordon Clark arrogant for thinking he could know everything God knew about Scripture? 

Van Til & Eliot weren’t fideists any more than modern scientists are.  Modern scientists don’t believe that they know everything about nature, but they do believe that scientists will one day know almost everything.  They believe that on faith.  While some theologies are frozen in time, most subscribe to “the progress of doctrine.”  Intellectual theologians have been wrestling with doctrine for hundreds of years.  No Christian denomination holds to the theology that the earliest Church fathers advanced.  Various interpretations were advanced and debated.  Creeds and Confessions resulted.  Doctrine progressed and is still progressing.  Van Til, if not Clark, was engaged in that “progress” himself.

Heidegger’s history bears on this subject as well.  His brilliance came to the attention of the Catholic Church, and he was offered a well-paid teaching position if he would devote himself to Thomistic philosophy.  He turned the offer down.  Not because he had a better offer.  He had no other job prospects at the time, and not because he didn’t believe in Catholic theology.  He turned it down because he didn’t want to adhere to Church oversight and restriction.  His philosophy has been seen as promoting the authoritarianism of Fascism, but can we not see in, for example his invocation of ‘tradition’ hints of Roman Catholic authoritarianism?  He didn’t advocate Roman Catholicism, but might it not be there as a kind of Freudian influence? He never claimed to be an atheist and was reconciled to the Catholic Church right before he died (according to an attending priest). 

Wittgenstein adhered more closely to Christianity.  He was converted while reading Tolstoy’s paraphrase of the Bible while fighting on the side of Germany in the First World War.  His philosophy is seen by some as a kind of Quietism.  We should use the words of philosophy for comfort, and not to erect philosophical edifices.  Quietism is often associated with Fideism.  If you hunker down with the comforting words of theology or philosophy, you won’t be angrily debating contrary positions.  You will be embracing what you find comforting and not worrying very much about anything else.  There have been Quietists and Fideists present throughout Christian history.  Should the Quietism of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Austin and Rorty be intellectually acceptable, but a Quietistic embrace of Anglo-Catholicism not be?


No comments: