Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age
Renaissance artists loved to paint the past, and, in their enthusiasm, they plundered the storehouses of both history (the Life of Moses, the Fall of the Roman Republic, the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection) and legend (the Heroes of Greek Mythology, the Tales surrounding Troy, Romulus and Remus). Their paintings and frescoes still have the power to bring to vivid life such diverse figures as Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ, Hercules and Helen of Troy, Achilles and Athena; and yet, oddly, when those figures appear, they nearly always appear clad not in the clothes of an ancient Greek or Roman or Jew, but in distinctly Renaissance garb. For many years, I dismissed this oddity as a form of artistic anachronism, until, one day, the truth struck me. The artists were not indulging in anachronism; they saw all those past ages of glory as contemporaneous with their own. They were not burdened, as we are, with Romantic over-self-consciousness.
In Believing Again, Roger Lundin, Blanchard Professor of English at Wheaton College,marshals considerable evidence to show that history was an invention of the 18th century—that before Fredrich Hegel, people “unquestionably did not think of themselves as creatures whose essence was historical” (17). Only after the French Revolution did time really “begin;”only then did people become conscious of history, change, and progress and allow themselves to be defined by it. Along with this speeding up of time came an increased inwardness, a new sense of the self as an autonomous “I” that endures while all around it changes. In contrast to this “I” (the subject), nature (the object) became more distant and mechanical—the clockwork universe that Isaac Newton birthed through his laws of universal gravitation.
As the gap between subject and object, inward and outward, consciousness and history widened, nineteenth-century writers in America and Europe turned toward the imagination as a refuge from a “disenchanted” world that no longer seemed concerned with their hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution widened the gap furtherby removing God’s direct—and perhaps even indirect—presence from the natural world. Far from being a home made for us by a loving and involved Creator, nature now seemed only an arena for survival of the fittest, a savage world as impervious to human morality as it was to human desires. In past ages, poets sought to imitate nature in their work, even to hold it up as an ideal. But the rupture between subject and object broke down such traditional mimetic theories (mimesis in Greek means “imitation”). ”If nature is a scene of bondage and a system of necessity,” the post-Darwinian poet reasoned, “why should I trouble myself with trying to mirror its reality? If values do not somehow in here in objects but only emanate from subjects should not poetry express the needs of those subjects rather than represent the limitations of those objects?” (76).
True, nineteenth-century poets, novelists, and men of letters yearned after beauty with an intensity reminiscent of Plato, Dante, and Michelangelo. However, whereas Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance thinkers sought to imitate a divine Beauty that transcended the spatiotemporal limits of nature and history, nineteenth-century thinkers cultivated an internalized and aestheticized beauty that they hoped would act “as a surrogate for a seemingly discredited system of Christian belief” (212). In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Romantic poet John Keats declared that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” but his equating of the two had little to do with Aquinas’s (or even Plato’s) celebration of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as an eternal triad. Like their exaltation of the imagination and of subjective self-consciousness, the Romantic search for beauty— seen most clearly in their privileging of the “fine” arts over the “useful” arts—masked a desire to create a human space safe from the ravages of natural, historical, and scientific forces. They, like us, inherited a fragmented world in which reason was used more often to skewer faith than to uphold it and in which truth was treated increasingly as something invented rather than found. And they, like us as well, did their best to fashion meaning out of indifference, belief out of unbelief, and freedom out of necessity.
That, in a nutshell, is the story that Lundin tells, and tells well: a story that will not only help readers to understand the nineteenth century but their own century as well. Lundin has read all the right nineteenth-century authors (Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky) and trusted to a cadre of topnotch twentieth-century guides (Mikhail Bakhtin, M. H. Abrams, George Steiner, Hans-George Gadamer, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Czeslaw Milosz, W. H. Auden). While backed up by a wealth of scholarship, Lundin’s thesis never loses its narrative drive or its ability to draw its reader into the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual angst of the 19th century. Most impressively, Lundin strikes just the right balance between historical generalizations meant to reflect the larger crisis of faith that dominated post-French Revolution Europe and post-Civil War America, and skillful close readings of poems and novels that bring to life the more personal struggles of individual writers.
Lundin is at his best, I think, in unpacking the dense poetry of Dickinson and then laying it side by side with the equally dense prose of Melville. In both writers, Lundin finds
a a similar struggle between the desire to be free of God’s judgment and the fear of being orphaned by his death. Like Melville, Dickinson found the idea of “signing off” [from the “hard dignities and sobering demands of belief”] appealing, but also like him, she dreaded the thought of being forsaken by God and robbed of divine promises (113).
It is because of this struggle that both writers display an “agonizing ambivalence” that makes their work seem especially modern and that allows Lundin to hold it up as contemporaneous with the poetry of such twentieth-century writers as Auden and Milosz. Unlike Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Lundin argues, Dickinson and Melville were never able to achieve a state of indifference toward religious belief, but continued, throughout their careers, to cry out to a divine Father that they did and did not want to meet and be held accountable to.
Lundin encounters a similar type of ambivalence in the novels of Dostoevsky, particularly The Brothers Karamazov. Reading Dostoevsky through the lens of Bakhtin, Lundin champions the novelist’s use of a dialogic, polyphonic approach that grants autonomy to each of his characters while refusing to allow himself as author the final word. “In a traditional model of novelistic discourse,” Lundin explains, “the power to mean belongs to the author alone, but in a polyphonic novel, multiple voices share and exercise this power” (167). In a flash of interpretive insight, Lundin builds on Bakhtin’s analysis to suggest that Dostoevsky’s polyphonic approach marks a sort of theoretical rejection of the heresy of Docetism. According to the gnostic Docetics, Christ merely appeared to be a human being; on account of their low view of the flesh, they rejected the possibility of incarnation and looked to a wholly other, radically Unitarian God who did not dirty himself in the affairs of men. “For the Docetists, the Son of God never truly enters into our embodied world, but stands as a soul apart, gazing upon our hostile environment but never sharing fully in its sorrows or its joys”(165). Dostoevsky the author, like the Incarnate Son of orthodox Christianity, does not scorn to enter into the hostile world of his novel and abide by its often harsh laws. He does not remove himself from the struggle—does not make for himself a safe, transcendent realm of beauty, imagination, and self-consciousness—but plunges in headfirst.
In forging a connection among Dostoevsky on the one hand and Dickinson and Melville on the other, Lundin demonstrates one of the great strengths of his book—and one of its great weaknesses. Although Believing Again is an excellent book that should be read by all academics who (like myself) teach the nineteenth century and/or are concerned with the growing secularism of the last two centuries, and although I consider Lundin a first-rates cholar and writer who cannot be commended highly enough for his work, I found myself reading this book in a strange state of continual agreement and disagreement. My disagreements—or, to speak more accurately, my frustrations—with the book begin with the connection he forges among the Russian and the two Americans.
If we define a Christian as one who affirms the Nicene Creed, and then boil that Creed down to its four foundational tenets (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection), it becomes apparent, at least to me, that while Dostoevsky embraced all four tenets, Dickinson and Melville did not. That is to say, whereas the former wrote and struggled from within the framework of orthodox Christianity, the latter two remained outsiders and critics of a faith that they may have found appealing on some level but which they ultimately did not desire to join (like Ivan Karamazov, they both, in their own way, gave their ticket back). Lundin simply does not acknowledge the fact that there is a major difference between thinkers who wrestle within and for the faith with those who wrestle outside and against it. Put simply, Dostoevsky wants it to be true; Dickinson and Melville, for all their fashionable angst, do not want it to be true. And that is why, despite the dialogic and polyphonic nature of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky uses his novel to offer an unambiguous critique of Friedrich Nietzsche.
I am aware that here I am asking Lundin to write a book that would no doubt garner him scorn from many of his fellow academics, but I am nevertheless going to ask it. We needa Christian academic who is as thoroughly schooled in American literature as Lundin to aska simple but vital question: why is it that there is not (as far as I can tell) a single major American author between Jonathan Edwards and Flannery O’Connor who could say truthfully that he accepts the four foundational tenets listed above? (Remember that the authors of the two most popular books of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur, are not considered by academics to be major authors, and that T. S. Eliot’s embrace of orthodoxy did not occur until he became a Tory, an Anglo-Catholic, and a British citizen.) Why was Dostoevsky able to believe, but not Dickinson or Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne? True, William Blake, John Keats, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin were as unable as Emerson and Thoreau to embrace orthodoxy, just as John Stuart Mill and T. H. Huxley were as radically skeptical as Jack London and Mark Twain, but Coleridge and Wordsworth and John Henry Newman and Robert Browning were able to mature into Christian faith and even Alfred Tennyson, though he struggled and wavered, truly wanted to believe and most likely did. I am not expecting Lundin to make “moral judgments” about the belief or unbelief of the writers he discusses, but I do expect a Christian academic to make more careful distinctions between those who struggle from within and those who criticize from without. I would have felt more comfortable, for example, if he had compared Dickinson and Melville not to the orthodox Dostoevsky but to the radically heterodox Leo Tolstoy. Actually, though I just wrote “orthodox Dostoevsky,” I should more accurately have written “Orthodox Dostoevsky.” Oddly, Lundin treats the Russian novelist as if he were some kind of Protestant in disguise, when his beliefs and struggles emanate directly from his Russian Orthodox faith. Indeed, many of the elements of Dostoevsky’s work that Lundin focuses on—most notably, his embrace of faith as “the nonrational core of belief that reason could not touch” (155)—point not to an agonistic Protestant but to a believing Orthodox. This “Protestantizing” of Dostoevsky also compromises Lundin’s treatment of the great Catholic theologian Hans Ursvon Balthasar, who is also made to seem a proponent of Protestant angst rather than a central figure in Catholic Ressourcement. I highlight this odd treatment of Dostoevsky and Balthasar, for one of the great weaknesses of Believing Again is that it seems unwilling to find answers in non-Protestant writers who experienced the same struggles with secularism and belief but who were willing to identify themselves with orthodox Christianity nevertheless. Where is the treatment of Cardinal Newman? And, since Lundin borrows so heavily from such twentieth-century authors as Milosz and Auden, why does he not look for solutions, or at least resolutions, in the Catholic O’Connor, the Anglo-Catholic Eliot, and the Orthodox Alexandr Solzhenitsyn?
I write this as an evangelical Protestant; nevertheless, I must admit that Protestantism in the West (particularly in its mainline form, but increasingly in its evangelical form as well) has accommodated—if not caved in to—modernism in a way that Catholicism and Orthodoxy have not. Doubting, questioning authority, and “signing off” are not good in and of themselves, but only if they draw us closer to Christ. That is a truth that Catholics and Orthodox understand better than Protestants, including many Catholic intellectuals who really are Protestants in disguise. Lundin exposes in many ways the Protestant danger of worshipping progress as an end in itself, and then falls prey himself to that danger.
Let me repeat what I wrote earlier: Believing Again is an excellent book and Lundin is a first-rate scholar. But I am frustrated by the status quo timidity that prevents this book, like so many other books by Christian academics, from challenging the secular orthodoxies of the modern university. Lundin allows himself to fall into what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”: the belief that because our age has stopped believing something that the pre-Moderns believed, the abandoned belief must have been disproved somehow. As Lewis once reminded us, if we are going down the road and we realize that we have followed the wrong path, the most progressive thing to do is not to continue blithely and arrogantly on our way but to go back to the crossroad and chose, this time, the right path. Lundin accurately and helpfully identifies many of those crossroads, but he seems unwilling to go back, fix the error, and get Western thought and aesthetics back on track. To the contrary, he consistently privileges writers like Dickinson and Melville who agonize beautifully but never arrive at any kind of fixed belief over writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge who try to stem the secular tide by creating a space where beauty, imagination and truth can thrive. And he carries that privileging into our day and age, chiding his readers to abandon “nostalgic” solutions in favor of…
Well, Lundin never really offers any solutions of his own, except, I suppose, to keep agonizing like Dickinson and Melville over an abandoned faith that they do not particularly want to revive. But he is very clear about the solutions that we should not embrace—so clear that he repeats these non-solutions again and again over the course of his book. There is, writes Lundin,
a strong degree of nostalgia for re-enchantment among many Western Christians. In North American Protestantism, this nostalgia has assumed a number of particularly powerful guises. It has surfaced as an effort to resurrect the nineteenth-century argument from design; it can be heard in the aesthetic call to transfer incarnational and sacramental powers from the history of redemption to the workings of the imagination; and we encounter it in popular apologetics in the frequent use of the idea of a “God-shaped void”that every human possesses and God alone can fill.
All these efforts might be seen as instances of what Bonhoeffer calls “the attack by Christian apologetic on the adulthood of the world,” and in his June 8 letter to Bethge, he dismisses them as being “pointless, ignoble, and unchristian.” They are “pointless” because they seek to force the human race back into a state of adolescent dependence (208)
You will note that Bonhoeffer does not actually condemn Intelligent Design, incarnational aesthetics, or the argument by desire, though the force of Lundin’s rhetoric makes it seem that he does. Why Lundin chooses to reject out of hand these three modern apologetics is never made clear in Believing Again. I can only surmise that they are rejected because they issue more from the world of popular apologetics than from the heart of academia, and because the intelligentsia in America and Europe have decided, on the basis of no compelling evidence, that they are adolescent, anti-progressive, and puerile.
In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy presents us with a judge who falls ill and must prepare himself for judgment day. As he fights vainly to understand the truth about his life and his choices, he suggests to himself that perhaps he had not lived as he ought, but then rejects his own suggestion immediately, insisting instead that he had always acted properly. Alas, by so doing, Tolstoy comments, he “immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.” When I read Believing Again, I feel this same frustration. Lundin diagnoses the problem powerfully, but when it comes time to offer solutions, he summarily dismisses the very answers that our modern world so needs to hear.