Christian Humanism and the Radical Middle

In The Idea of a University, written in 1852 for the new Catholic University of Ireland, Saint John Henry Newman establishes the university’s relative independence from two powers in society: (1) the Church and (2) the “academies.” By the “academies” he refers to various Royal Societies and the like, institutions somewhat akin to our graduate schools and research centers, where specialists advance their mostly secular work. Newman envisioned a dialectical opening between the sacred and the secular, and that opening is where his ideal university exists. In my own work, I use the phrase “the radical middle” to describe this uniquely Christian cultural site, poised between the Church and the academies, between the sacred and the secular, and yet in dialogue with both. A Christian author who occupies the radical middle is, in my view, a Christian humanist. Such an author writes as an individual. He or she is an agent neither of the Church nor of the State, the former understood in its spiritual essence, the latter understood in its cultural influence, which extends to all levels of education and to research centers.  

A second borrowing from Newman helps to support and clarify this position. Newman was highly conscious of history. His historical consciousness pervades not only his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, but also his distinguished lectures on literature. Given that Newman was both a theologian and a man of letters, it is unsurprising that his awareness of church history suffuses his thinking on literature as a historical phenomenon. In this respect, we may speak of Newman’s sensibility: his artistic judgment, his tastes, his distastes, his angle on culture. I want to suggest that Christian humanism is characterized by Newman’s type of sensibility, which assimilates the theological, the literary, and the historical to its own creative and critical endeavors.

To diagram the workings of a Christian humanist sensibility, we can say the following: literature and history prevent theology from becoming entirely systematic, and theology prevents literature and history from wandering off into the secular desert. This is to observe that systematic theology, to the degree that it stops responding to human experience, is moribund. A Christian humanist can feel complete respect for Saint Augustine or for Saint Thomas, but will approach these great figures from a historical perspective that is not devoted entirely to theology. We need our thoroughgoing Thomists; they have much to teach us. But the Christian humanist must also contend with Homer and Plato, with Erasmus and Luther, with Shakespeare and Milton, with Kant and Nietzsche, with Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

It is a sobering fact, but the Church in its normal, everyday operations has no urgent need for philosophers and poets. It may be friendly to them, but they are not its chief concern. The secular powers, on the other hand, have declared a continual emergency, pushing politics into every corner of life and jettisoning the arts of civilization. In the Catholic Church, masses must be celebrated and sacraments must be administered. Good works must be done. In the secular classroom, university professors are widely engaged in political activism that, like all work of indoctrination, insists on its own premises and inhibits dissent. Little or no complementarity exists in this social division of labor between Church and State. The situation is not healthy.

The Alternatives

In terms of alternative approaches to education and learning, one possible solution, known to history as Erastianism, is for the Church to submit to the State. The opposite solution is represented by Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” which calls for “school-church integration.” Dreher’s “school-church integration” is incompatible with Newman’s model, which, as we have seen, distinguishes the work of the university from the work of the Church. Dreher writes: “Schools and colleges—morally, spiritually, and vocationally—will have to prepare young believers for some increasingly harsh realities.” One can appreciate Dreher’s sense of urgency while recognizing that this isn’t the kind of preparation Newman had in mind. In fact, Newman defended the western canon against the call for a purely Christian literature: “We must take things as they are, if we take them at all.” And if we prefer to promote the complex of elements known as Integralism, then literary culture is hardly to the purpose. The Integralist seeks political salvation from the Roman Catholic Church because, as Adrian Vermeule remarked in First Things, “there is no stable ground between Catholicism and atheist materialism.” And yet, since the rise of ancient Greece, unstable ground has proven hospitable to the Muses—and we may recall that “atheism” has a long literary history.

Unless we want to endorse Erastianism or Integralism, or subscribe to the Benedict Option, we must conclude that some other type of approach is needed, if Church and State are not to face off in warlike opposition. Unfortunately, in an aggressively secular environment, Newman’s idea of education has few defenders. In curricular discussions, Newman is regarded—or discarded—as an intellectual fossil. But this neglect is open to challenge. There is something phony about it, as if the vast religious life of humankind, complying with the wishes of its enemies, were already extinct and not an active force in western society.

This short-sightedness creates an opening for Christian humanism. It falls to the Christian humanist to cultivate Newman’s type of sensibility, with its historical consciousness, theological spine, and educational concern for literature. This suggests, if you will pardon my insistence, that our best hope for carrying civilization into the future is the radical middle, where Christian humanism can thrive.

Serious Readers

But still, what can the Christian humanist bring to the table that Americans want? More particularly, how does one gather Church and State around a common culture? The answer lies in the power of great art to command the respect of serious people: not just in its appeal to beauty—an appeal that may be inadvertently narrow—but in art’s unflinching representation of our moral nature. And the first sign of our seriousness of purpose has to be our willingness to judge literary works on the basis of their quality, not on the basis of an author’s religious credentials. If we demand a literature written solely for Christian consumption, we will retreat into parochialism and irrelevance. Newman thought great literature essential for preparing students for life in the real world. He did not prize Catholic literature because it was Catholic. He would never have endorsed a Catholic writer for being a Catholic writer. Such endorsements—we encounter them too often—are an embarrassment and a trap. Bishops can blurb books, but few are qualified literary critics.

The period following the publication of The Idea of a University has witnessed what novelist Glenn Arbery calls “the unfolding devastations of the modern project.” Western civilization has collapsed to the point where its standard role in elite humanities departments is to provide examples of evil, of systematic oppression, of all that is wrong with the world. It exists to be unmasked and debunked by ideologues who are especially trained to subvert the ideals and achievements that civilized people once believed in. 

If our civilization is to rouse itself from sickness and reap the fruits of good health, it must do so without defensive posturing or aesthetic preening. It must permit Church and State to cooperate, without sacrificing their institutional integrity.

This vivisection of our civilization explains why the idea of tradition no longer serves to secure our literary heritage. One associates the idea of tradition with T. S. Eliot’s renowned essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot was an American citizen when he wrote that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense….” As I have documented elsewhere, Eliot’s essay developed out of his close engagement with Newman. In any case, the appeal of tradition, which acknowledges the role of religion and the integrity of the individual, has suffered from the recrudescence of a militant and shallow secularism. By the time of Eliot’s death in 1965, the last renaissance of Christian literature was in its twilight—one thinks of W. H. Auden, G. K. Chesterton, Countee Cullen, Graham Greene, Geoffrey Hill, Russell Kirk, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Dorothy Sayers, Muriel Spark, J. R. R. Tolkien, John Kennedy Toole, John Updike, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Wilbur and others of note who brought a Christian culture to life, even among the university presses, and even in the New York Times. Whether you were Virginia Woolf or Samuel Beckett, Robert Hayden or Shirley Jackson, Bernard Malamud or Raymond Chandler, this culture was good for your work, because it reinforced the appreciation of high achievement.

This inheritance is in peril, but it is not entirely lost, and some of the losses have been recent. Updike died in 2009, Hill in 2016, Wilbur in 2017. Personally, I find it hard to create a list of contemporary authors that can stack up against these greats. And yet the tradition endures, diminished but persistent, in fine writers such as Christopher Beha, Dana Gioia, Ron Hansen, Phil Klay, Alice McDermott, and Marilynne Robinson. Among the more discerning literary critics, there are M. D. Aeschliman, Anthony Domestico, and Micah Mattix. Further, some good authors are undervalued: one thinks of Arbery, Barbara Crooker, the late Brett Foster, Lawrence Joseph, and Ryan Wilson. If we cannot conjure the appearance of another renaissance, we can work to prepare the grounds for one.

I think our current situation comes down to this: the secularists and ideologues have won the culture’s commanding heights, but they have conquered at the expense of literature. Despite their panoply of prizes, they have a credibility problem. A writer like Colson Whitehead, the darling of famed literary critic Michiko Kakutani, is a political writer with a literary skill set. His individuality—and bear in mind that Newman and Eliot place emphasis on individuality—is an eerie reflection of the authoritarian Left. He is, in this respect, as far removed from the genius of Emily Dickinson as is possible. Emily Dickinson—arguably America’s greatest poet, buttressed by the Calvinism of her youth—wrote in artistic isolation. Was she a Christian humanist? I don’t think so. She doesn’t show the interest in history. On the other hand, I think that only Christian humanism can carry her into the future. She is a difficult author who rewards serious readers. She offers nothing to the didactic furies and ministers of truth now lording it over America’s future.

Literature and Theology

Let us return to Newman, whose fertility as a man of letters is hard to over-appreciate. We have touched on how Newman’s sensibility connects his work in theology to his work in literature. There is another important connection between the two fields. It was Newman who commented, in his Idea of a University, that theology is “the secret assumption, too axiomatic to be distinctly professed, of all our writers.”

It’s curious—and here I venture a backward leap in time—that in Shakespeare’s day this assumption was no secret. The Elizabethans did not make a textbook distinction between literature and religion. The distinguished British scholar Brian Cummings has remarked, “‘Literature’ in its modern sense…is not a useful term in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.” Cummings cites Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry in support of his position. It is certainly a work where literature and theology overlap, where the conspicuous assumption is that literature and theology are joined at the hip. Christian humanism as a generic label applies to Sidney’s Apology, as it does to epics by Edmund Spenser and John Milton. These works, if we take them seriously, force us to contemplate the close relationship between literature and theology.

Newman is one of the few post-Enlightenment writers who have focused on the theological dimension of literature with the rigor of the Elizabethans. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is such another, and Coleridge was an influence on Newman. A third is Chesterton. A study could be written tracing the reaction against sterile scientism, running from Coleridge’s theory of the imagination, to Newman’s theologically-centered university as “a place of universal knowledge,” to Chesterton’s defense of common sense. All three cases are marked by a dual concern for a unified sensibility in the individual and for the integration of knowledge through culture. All three are likewise characterized by a modern grasp of the relationship between faith and reason.

Possibly the greatest theological burden shared by this trio of luminaries—I am speaking of Coleridge, Newman, and Chesterton—is the problem of free will. It is a problem we cannot afford to ignore. Our legal system asks us to believe in free will. Our scientific establishment demands that we reject it. Most authors and critics are too lazy to take the question seriously. Yet it was the central theological problem of the Reformation. Erasmus and Luther debated it in the 1520s, and Shakespeare wrote about it in Hamlet. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman expanded on Erasmus’s view: God “co-operates with us in our acting, and therefore enables us to do that which He wills us to do, and carries us on, if our will does but co-operate with His, to a certitude which rises higher than the logical force of our conclusions.” The artist, the philosopher, the citizen: all must reclaim the broader grounds—the cosmic grounds—where we can build anew while something remains to build on. We can choose to carry on like apes, oblivious to the terms of our existence. But for those who still aspire to a unified sensibility that integrates all knowledge, it takes no prophetic talent to see that the forgetting of theology is a cultural disaster, though one should not underestimate the allure of cultural disasters.

Godless or godly? Left or Right? Not long ago, a vibrant pluralism was considered highly desirable by most American intellectuals. Nowadays, what is appropriately called “cancel culture” is chilling American pluralism to its soul. But against this growing authoritarian threat, the fact that Christian humanism can flourish only in a pluralistic and voluntaristic spirit is not necessarily a weakness. I suspect that pluralists and humanists of all stripes would welcome its entry into the cultural dialogue—at the very least to help protect a vigorous, open exchange of ideas against those who would crush it.

The most important teaching method for humanists has always been teaching by doing. I tell my students: don’t write an essay about great literature—write a great essay about great literature. Newman and Eliot practiced what they preached by writing with the wellspring of tradition in their veins. They achieved, on the level of style, the individuality that no society worth preserving can do without. In this and other respects, the culture of Christian humanism is one where intellectual vitality prevails. If our civilization is to rouse itself from sickness and reap the fruits of good health, it must do so without defensive posturing or aesthetic preening. It must permit Church and State to cooperate, without sacrificing their institutional integrity. Under such conditions, which are perennially within range of wisdom and hard work, the radical middle will hold against the parochial and authoritarian tendencies that beset us.