Another essay from that period in Eliot’s career as a social and literary critic when he was staking out the parameters of his conservative views, Religion and Literature was originally from a lecture organized by the Reverend V. A. Demant and published in the volume Faith That Illuminates. Subsequently, in 1936, Eliot himself collected the essay in his Essays Ancient and Modern, a somewhat revised version of his own earlier collection, For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, from 1928.
Eliot’s apparent aim for the essay is not to prove who is and who is not failing to meet the bar that he sets for dealing with spiritual matters or matters of belief in literature, so much as to establish which “explicit ethical and theological standards” can be properly brought to bear in the realm of contemporary literature. He makes this case because he feels that literary criticism requires “a definite ethical and theological standpoint.” His further, and more urgent, point is that in our own time, there is no agreement on what that standpoint should be, making it all that much more imperative that individuals scrutinize their reading accordingly, particularly since the “greatness” of literature “cannot be determined solely by literary standards.”
In the immediate context of his remarks, Eliot specifically identifies these individuals as Christians, given the further fact that, in his view, he was as much fighting a holding action for asserting the Christian basis to European culture as attempting to resolve this particular critical conundrum. Eliot is correct in pointing out the obvious: “[M]oral judgements of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation, whether it lives according to that code or not.” The point is indisputable: Whatever its source, however it may categorize itself or be categorized, a moral code directs our judgments of human behavior, including behavior that is manifested or explicated in works of literature.
The operating principle that he establishes as he commences his actual process of analysis is that his concern will be not religious literature, “but with the application of our religion to the criticism of any literature.” He does not get down to doing that, however, until he establishes the three senses in which one might refer to religious literature in the first place. One is in the same way as “we speak of ‘historical literarture’ or of ‘scientific literature,’ ” and that would constitute works that are well written and delightful to read, but whose primary claim to any reader’s attention is their significance in regard to the field of endeavor or study or interest that is being addressed. Another sense is as what is called “devotional poetry.” This often suggests the limitation, however, that that sort poetry is minor poetry. At the very least, Christian poetry in English, Eliot believes, “has been limited . . . almost exclusively to minor poetry.” The third sense in which one might refer to “religious literature” is in regard to works that advance some specific religious viewpoint. These kinds of works do not interest Eliot in his present critical effort because he wants, he says, a “literature which should be unconsciously, rather than deliberately and defiantly, Christian.”
Now Eliot is ready to get down to critical issues raised by the dual topics of religion and literature. The primary one is that “we fail to realize how completely, and yet how irrationally, we separate our literary from our religious judgements.” Using the 19th-century English novel for his case in point, he divides the development of this separation between religion and literature into three phases. In the first, faith was omitted entirely from “the picture of life” that these novels portrayed. In the second, faith was “doubted, worried about, or contested.” It is the third phase, the one “in which we are living,” that causes Eliot the most concern. From this concern of his, only the Irish novelist James Joyce is excepted, and it is that by now “the Christian Faith [is not] spoken of as anything but an anachronism.”
The absence of the notion of a viable and living religion from contemporary literature is a serious problem because, in Eliot’s view, “what we read does not concern merely something called our literary taste, but . . . affects directly, though only amongst many other influences, the whole of what we are.” Omitting religion from literature as anything other than as an anachronism clearly also omits it, for the contemporary reader who has no way of knowing any better, from that very “whole of what we are.”
The entire matter of literature’s more unconscious and unintended effects upon a reader’s total sensibilities, including the continuing formation of his or her moral and theological standards, is at the heart of Eliot’s message. “The relation of what I have been saying to the subject announced should now be a little more apparent,” he is now finally able to declare. He continues: “Though we may read literature merely for pleasure, of ‘entertainment’ or of ‘aesthetic enjoyment,’ this reading never affects simply a sort of special sense: it affects us as entire human beings; it affects our moral and religious existence.”
Eliot does not blame or condemn the individual writer and his or her values and beliefs either, such as they are. “[W]hat a writer does to people is not necessarily what he intends to do.” Indeed, Eliot can confess, quite honestly, one must imagine, that “I am not even sure that I have not had some pernicious influence myself.” So, then, it is not so important to describe and define the relationship between religion and literature as to admit, and accept, that there always is one. While it is “our business, as readers of literature, to know what we like,” for Christian readers, it is “our business . . . to know what we ought to like.”
Modern literature, Eliot concludes, is neither amoral nor immoral, although the implication is that it would be more suitable if it were because then those attitudes would be out in the open. Rather, the problem is that it either “repudiates, or is wholly ignorant of, our most fundamental and important beliefs,” thereby “encourag[ing] its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts.” That sort of a hedonistic approach toward human existence, without any reference to the soul or eternity, is well within the realm of possible reasons given for living at any time, but Eliot’s cavil is with the apparently acceptable reality that, in our time, such a view is so prevalent a one as to seem to the typically unwary consumer of contemporary literature to be the only reasonable view.
For the decade or more preceding “Religion and Literature,” Eliot’s prose writing had been forking off in two separate but complementary directions. In the one case, he was investigating the constituents of what he regarded as effective poetry and dramatic verse in essays on such subjects as Elizabethan drama and dramatists and English metaphysical poetry, as well as on major literary figures such as William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. On the other hand, and in a parallel vein, he was engaging in a quasi-literary debate dealing with the limits of secular humanism as an evolving, atheistic intellectual posture and contemporary ameliorative for social ills. These two areas of inquiry and critical opinion often merged in the matter of the spiritual or religious nature of human experience as an aspect of literary endeavor.
Thus, Eliot was often raising and addressing questions related to the effective communication of thought and of feeling, the connections between poetry and belief and between poetry and philosophy, and the proper intellectual and historical foundations for assessing and maintaining moral and spiritual order and action. In “Religion and Literature,” Eliot is less contentious and more analytical with regard to the topic at hand, but he is still a Christian apologist.
As Eliot sees it, there is only one solution to the culture and society’s increasing secularization of matters formerly left to religion, and it is a practical and practicable solution: Those with a view toward obtaining a religious view of life from contemporary works of literature must work “tirelessly [to] criticize it according to our own principles, and not merely according to the principles admitted by the writers and by the critics who discuss it in the public press.” There is always present in the culture a relation between religion and literature because they are two critical components of any human culture of any time. In our own time, Eliot believes, that necessary relation must be safeguarded, even if only for themselves, by individuals who care not what the moment may bring, but what eternity may.