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We’ve yet to thrash out the reason for so much angst in our time; don’t expect a verdict in our lifetimes

      Back in April 1929, a guy named Edmund Wilson wrote an essay entitled, “T.S. Eliot and the Church of England.” In this essay Wilson wrote the following: “You cannot have real Christianity with a cult of Jesus as the son of God. But since it has plainly become anachronistic to accept the prophet Jesus in this role, it seems that we must reconcile ourselves to doing without both churches and religion.” 

      Wilson basically says that the result of this reconciliation of doing “without both churches and religion” is the attempt “to retain the benefits of faith while doing away with the necessity of believing.”  

      But there’s more!

      Discontent with simply punching the Church in the nose, Wilson throws a left jab at the solar plexus, writing of Thomas Aquinas and his age: “…when it was still possible for a first-rate mind to accept the supernatural basis of religion.”  

      Pow! Take that, backward thinking!

      Wilson winds up his harangue saying, “That world [the modern world Wilson envisions] is a world with a number of religions, but not amenable to the leadership of a single church…We shall certainly not be able to lean upon the authority of… [the] Church…and we shall have to depend for our new ideals on a study of contemporary reality and the power of our own imaginations.” (The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties)

      Nearly 90 years later, that idea is basically the de facto position of many of my high school students. Thus, what Wilson served up decades ago to the literati is finally being chowed down by the little ones today.

      O, how sophisticated the palate of the modern!

      Throwing cold water on Wilson, however, is somewhat unfair. After all, hindsight is 20/20. Still, when I stand in front of a classroom of high school students at a Catholic high school, in a religion class, and I must continually deflect Wilson’s darts, I am inclined to lash out. Wilson, today, is merely the one closest at hand.

      Whence Wilson’s vitriol?   

      Though Wilson admired Eliot’s poetry, he scorned Eliot’s Christianity. Wilson believed Eliot had sold out, had abandoned the modernist cause in “an heroic effort to swallow medieval theology.” Couple that with Eliot’s keen intellect and the result is Wilson’s disdain. A potential soldier in the cause fleeing the battle, so to speak.

      Fine. So what do two men who strode the Western world of letters in the first half of the 20th century have to do with us who shuffle through the first quarter of the 21st century?

      I suggest this: Wilson and Eliot represent the two forces struggling for dominion in our world today. Those two forces being a world of tradition and authority (Eliot) and a world of solipsism (Wilson).

      Nothing new there, of course. Augustine called it The City of God vs. The City of Man. The Book of Genesis portrays it with Adam and Eve reaching for the fruit that was pleasing to the eyes.

      What is new is that Wilson’s view and cause has finally trickled down from the literati to the 15-year old who rails that the Church hates gays, is just one of many means to God and is hopelessly misogynist.

      Do all 15-year olds purport this? No. But do not doubt its influence.

      Eliot’s plea for authority and tradition is more and more falling, it seems, on deaf ears. Wilson’s view seems to be winning the day, while Eliot’s view appears to be “dissolving and dwindling.”

      Our Lord assures us that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, yet that promise presumes assault. We certainly have that!

      Eliot noted that “the proper degree of unity and of diversity cannot be determined for all peoples at all times.” The reason for so much angst in our time, I believe, is that we live in a time when we are between the world of Wilson and the world of Eliot, and we have yet to thrash it all out. I don’t expect a final verdict in my lifetime.

      “You are not here to verify,

      Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

      Or carry report. You are here to kneel

      Where prayer has been valid.” (T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding” Four Quartets)

      Deacon Mark Plaiss teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Ill. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

           

     

     

       

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