The Magazine

Grappling with God

The faith of a famous poet.

May 15, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 33 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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Auden himself believed he had rejected the Christian faith as a young man, but gradually found himself drawn back to it, partly in reaction to the brutal political realities emerging in the late 1930s, especially the rise of Nazism and the closing of the churches in civil war Spain, both of which shocked and dismayed him, and challenged the hold of left-progressive pieties. His chronic and tortured unhappiness in love also surely influenced him, as did an impressive encounter with the Anglican writer Charles Williams, who introduced him to the work of Kierkegaard and provided him a shining example of an accomplished intellectual who was also a thoroughgoing Christian.

But the questions that ate at him went much deeper than the mere matter of role models. How did one explain the destructive recalcitrance of the human heart, including one's own? How did one find a way to live decently within the content of a world, and a life, that seemed beyond redemption?

Such questions were never far away, and one can already begin to see the beginnings of a Christian reckoning with them emerging quite consciously in "As I walked out one evening" (1937): "Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless. . . . You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart"--the term "crooked" here carrying, of course, meanings both personal and general. By 1940, the time of his famous "September 1, 1939," he had formulated his own concise distillation of the conundrum of original sin: "For 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."

There was a general intellectual excitement in those days about emerging works of serious theology, particularly Protestant theology, excitement that is hard to imagine today. Auden read widely in that literature, particularly in the works of his good friend Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and the other theological lions of the first half of the 20th century. But he was no theologian. He always seemed to feed on such works in an opportunistic spirit, having a poet's insouciance about the truth claims of systematic theology or apologetics and, indeed, for nearly all dogmatic assertions about questions of religion. Such theological reading chiefly served to replenish his fund of metaphors and similes. But in the end, he was convinced that all ratiocinations and speculations about God's nature were arrogant assumptions and empty human pretensions, merely learned ways of "taking His name in vain." Instead, he believed the worthiest Christians were those who remained perpetually humble and perpetually uneasy in their outlook, their minds stretched taut between the contrary poles of belief and skepticism.

"Our faith," he insisted, must be "well balanced by our doubt," for a Christian "is never something one is, only something one can pray to become." Christianity was a "way," a way of being in the world, not a set of intellectual propositions or a moral checklist or a map of all reality.

Such intellectual modesty helps explain the enduring appeal of his native Anglicanism, particularly in its high-church Anglo-Catholic form, precisely because it stressed "uniformity of rite" more than "uniformity of doctrine." It placed the elegant formal language of the Book of Common Prayer, and the spectacle of highly ritualized and impersonal sacramental corporate worship, at the center of things, and left private devotions and personal piety to the discretion of the individual, without much instruction or guidance or other moral busybodying from the Church itself. Light on doctrine and preachiness, heavy on smells and bells: that was the ticket for him. He had adored ritual from his youth, and even during days as a freewheeling vagabond leftist, he retained an ingrained tendency in that direction.

As his friend and collaborator Christopher Isherwood mused in 1937, "When we collaborate, I have to keep an eye on him. . . . If Auden had his way, he would turn every play into a cross between grand opera and high mass."

The needs behind that tendency went very deep. The structure and aesthetics of high Anglican worship were so agreeable to him, not for snobbish or campy-gay reasons, but precisely because they best embodied the pattern of impersonal dramatic repetition that he so desperately needed, the patterning that made it possible for the act of worship to be, for him, an act of personal re-integration.