Tuesday, June 25, 2019

review of "The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis"

I was eager to read Alan Jacobs' book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, on Christian thinkers during World War II. I've enjoyed Jacobs as a writer and speaker (e.g., on Mars Hill Audio). And this is a topic of interest for me from many angles—in particular, the facets of the dominant culture of the post-war era—after the "Progressive Era", the Great Depression, and World War II.

The book turned out to be worth my time, but was not as riveting as I expected. This was not a function of Jacobs' prose or the broad topic. But I didn't get into the details he shared on all of the writers—Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot,
C.S. Lewis, and W.H. Auden—and I'm not sure that I found the overall narrative compelling. Still, for those interested in the broader topics or the particular writers, Jacobs' book is definitely worth a read.

The context is 1943, when America has entered the war in full force and Germany is on the defensive. In Jacobs' telling, the war was all but won. (Churchill saw the Allies winning just after Pearl Harbor happened [x]!) This is more optimistic than I have read elsewhere—at least prior to the success of D-Day. (For my other reviews of books in this era, here's 
Ambrose's Band of Brothers and here's the first two books in Rick Atkinson's great trilogy.) But even if one questions Jacobs' view on this, the larger point stands: key people were already thinking about why they were fighting and what they would aim to do afterwards.

Why Were We Fighting?

The question of "why we were fighting" might seem simple enough. But usually the focus was what we were fighting against—opposing the Germans and the Japanese. This presupposes an objective critique of the opponent (really easy with those villains!) and also a replacement by something better (easy, but often assumed and undefined). 

So, what were we fighting for? What way of life were we trying to preserve, improve, or inaugurate? This angle leads to less comfortable inferences. Protecting consumerism, American Civil Religion, libertine immorality, virulent racism, and so on—all prominent features of American culture. Are these worth the sacrifice? At least in the minds of these (and some secular) thinkers, the Western democracies would win the war, but were also "some considerable way along the path to losing the peace." (199)

Another troubling angle: Jacobs opens his first chapter with American sympathy for Germany, if not Nazism (5). This may surprise us, but it should not, given universal and contemporary considerations. First, people generally have little understanding of economics and current events—and perhaps moreso then, with less education and limited media options. So, an easy but sobering embrace of poor policies or bad actors is quite common.

Second, socially and politically, "progressivism" including eugenics was popular and perceived (proudly) as "scientific". In fact, Germany patterned its eugenics laws after American efforts, starting in Indiana in 1907. And discrimination against all sorts of people (including Jews, women, and the disabled) was quite acceptable in America at the time.

Third, in terms of politics and economics, there was a growing penchant for statism, increased faith in the efficacy of government, and less faith in markets and market outcomes. This is a time marked by the Great Depression and the supposed success of Keynesian economics and the New Deal. We were optimistic about the use of our military, the American Way, but ironically, also more open to world governance structures.

In that time, at least until things were obviously ugly, why wouldn't one at least sympathize with Germany (if not applaud them), after the nastiness of World War I and its aftermath?

What Role for Religion?

Given the moral failings in America and his own personal relativism, Auden went through a crisis of faith where he asked how we had the right to demand or even expect a more humanistic response. "Even granted the evil of Hitler, can we be sure that our ways are necessarily superior?...How righteous is our cause? And if it is righteous, what makes it so?" (10-12) Not "positivism or pragmatism." (16) Auden noted soberly, "We come much closer to Hitler than we may care to admit. If everything is a matter of opinion...force becomes the only way of settling differences." (17)

Auden couldn't answer the question well, without a reference to Christian faith (6). His conclusion: "Only an appeal to something eternal, absolute, and good—like the God of St. Thomas or the 'nature of human beings' described by Aristotle—would permit one to answer the Nazis." (7)

But what role had religion played in getting Europe to this point? In particular, should one blame particularly-nasty forms of nationalism on its sins of omission or commission? Churches had often been complicit—by compromising with secularism and patriotism. Christian thinkers were convinced that Europe’s troubles stemmed from a gradual erosion of focus and unity in religion. As such, they saw the primary solution as reversing these causes (28-30).

This led to "a pressing set of questions about the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order...whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinning of that order." (xvi) An emphasis on "liberal instrumentalism" had put such questions on the back burner. But is that where they belonged? "That willingness to defer ultimate questions as the price to paid for getting along with one another, had left the democratic West unable to generate the energetic commitment necessary to resist the military and moral drive of societies that had clear answers" to questions of purpose, until it was late in the game at best (33-34).

Stunde Null and the Response of the Church

In his afterword, Jacobs uses Jacques Ellul's work and two key German phrases: Nachkriegzeit (the night after the war) and Stunde Null (zero hour) to revisit the relevant questions. "What does faithful presence look like at the moment the clocks are all reset?" (197)

Some Christians would choose an insular approach to building up the church. Some turned to politics—reaching for powerful mechanisms of social gospel and political change. For Ellul, neither pietistic aloofness nor political assimilation was valid (198). "There is certainly nothing wrong with the United Nations, and prefabricated housing can be very useful indeed. But the world does not need Christians to say so...the first and most vital task of Christians in time of war was prayer." (199)

In contrast to Jacobs' five thinkers, a more-political approach was then enunciated most forcefully by Reinhold Niebuhr as "Christian realism". I'll leave this discussion to interested readers (52-56). But in a word, his view emphasized the value of political pragmatism. Neibuhr was worried about the temptations and other costs of this approach—in light of original sin, etc. And he didn't imagine politics in utopian terms, along the lines of post-millennial statists at the turn of the 20th century. But ultimately, he saw a low priority on politics as unrealistic and impractical. 

Again, this debate occurred in a time of high faith in government activism. So Neibuhr's optimism is more understandable in the post-war era. Now, such a position is far more difficult to hold on pragmatic grounds. Jacobs addresses the concerns from an historical angle: the evidence from Augustine and Constantine (79-81) and even a sympathetic reading of Herod at the time of Jesus (83-85). And for Christians in particular, Jacobs observes that we "often fail to keep technique under such judgment and submission". (200)

Of course, these are not simply questions for the West after World War II. In our time, with the explicit impact of Christianity fading, changing social norms, and less access to power in political realms, what is the best way for the Church to move forward-- from doubling down on old strategies to a renewed emphasis on discipleship with Jesus and various expressions of "the Benedict Option"? 
In his review of Jacobs' book in Harpers, Christopher Beha asks today’s Democrats—or really, those who define themselves largely as opponents of Trump or the GOP—what they will do if they “win the peace”? The answer for them—and for most in the GOP in opposition to Democrats—is not particularly clear.

Beha’s observation is a wonderful example of Jacobs' thesis. What do you do when you gain power and win the peace? Beha and Jacobs come to similar conclusions about the most effective engagement with the culture—not through politics, media, and the battles at the intersection, but in daily lives and community that have purpose and actually move the needle one life at a time.

A few miscellaneous things:
-As for post-war society, "There would be much remaking and reshaping to do: who would do it, and what principles would govern them?" (x) And how did we get there? Answers varied, but at least in part, "the world had gone astray because its people had been poorly educated". (xiv) Easily duped, they were "in the helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements". (xv)
-Of particular interest to these academics, in a time of apocalyptic war: why should we bother with academics and learning? One of Lewis' answers to this is famous: "war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it." (57-58) If a time of war is different in severity but not type, we should continue to pursue education and learning. 
-Jacobs recounts an old socialist joke-- that the best thing about being a socialist was that it required you to "attend cocktail parties with the rich and powerful" (31). This reminded me of Tom Wolfe's short little howler of a classic, Radical Chic and the Mau-mauing of the Flak Catchers.
-Jacob quotes Bonhoeffer-- something I'll use for a future book on Noah and Abraham: "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come..." (35)
-Of course, Jacobs wrestles with vague term "humanism" and seeks to reclaim and redeem the concept (41). (Other important words face similar struggles-- e.g., liberal, Christian). He notes that it has been used to praise and to damn (37)-- and that it has been used in many ways. I'll leave his discussion to interested parties (42-50), but will note that his sense of "Christian humanism" is grounded in the imago dei of Genesis 1:26.
-Jacobs notes how earlier wars had shaped these thinkers and their work-- with a particular but far from exclusive focus on Lewis and his many references to spiritual warfare (59-62, 75-76, 103). Such thought experiments and efforts at empathy are important and revelatory. Consider in our own time, the impact of events such as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, 9/11, and so on.
-Jacobs shares some good thoughts on history, humility, and valuing but not idolizing the past (95-96). He starts with Lewis: "We cannot be better except by the influence upon us of what is better than we are...the future is empty and is filled by our imagination...it is just as imperfect as we are." And then Jacobs' summary: "Therefore we must turn to the past, not because it is necessarily better than our own world, but because it is different." Again, Lewis: there is no "magic about the past". They were no smarter and made as many mistakes (maybe more), but they were different mistakes. "The books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."
-Jacobs mentions a number of books, but I saw two that I've ordered and would like to check out: Cochrane's Christianity and Classic Culture (looks useful on LM in 50's and 80's) and Gilbert's Redeeming Culture


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