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Though he came out of the Southern Agrarian school, Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994) is now mostly remembered as the father of the literary “New Criticism.”

Brooks studied at Vanderbilt, Tulane, and Oxford (at the latter, with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), and he spent the majority of his teaching career at Louisiana State and Yale.

In the fascinating article reprinted here, Brooks challenged the prevailing notions of liberalism and fundamentalism in Christianity, especially in the relationship of science and religion.

His critique of modernist Protestantism as found in the pages of “The Christian Century” of the 1930s is especially interesting.

Brooks would have been 29 or 30 when he published this.

— W. Winston Elliott, III


The Christianity of Modernism

The war between science and religion is over. Perhaps it was an unnecessary war—perhaps it need never have been fought. In any case, the proponents of religion have been defeated; they have been worse than defeated; they have been converted.

In saying this, I am not underestimating the present strength of fundamentalism. It is still strong. But its strength is located predominantly in rural areas and is bound up with an older generation. The intellectual leaders of Protestantism, almost to a man, are not Fundamentalists; and Fundamentalism, deprived of leaders, it is safe to predict, will not be able to survive the present intellectual climate.

One can be, and perhaps should be, thoroughly sympathetic with the Liberal Protestant in his unconscious capitulation to the enemy. As a man and as a citizen, he has coveted intercourse with other intellectuals. He has naturally found the cruder aspects of Fundamentalism repugnant. Moreover, he has become acutely conscious of the hiatus existing between the dominant interests of modern America and specifically religious interests. At his best, therefore, he has repudiated the close alliance between the Church and the status quo. I am not forgetting that many of his brother Protestants still repose in a sturdy unconsciousness of any discrepancies existing between a Christian civilization and Mr. Hoover’s enlightened American capitalism. But the number of Protestant leaders who have broken with the status quo is much larger than most people believe, and it is growing larger. And it is with this group—a group which contains not only the intellectuals but many of the most sincere spirits—that the future of American Protestantism rests.

The Liberal Protestant’s repudiation of Fundamentalism on the one hand and of the status quo on the other ought to allow us to see his religion itself in some purity, naked and unencumbered. And what one sees immediately raises the question: can Protestantism possibly survive another reformation without becoming reformed out of existence—that is reformed out of existence as a religion? This last reformation has indeed come very close to leaving the Liberal Protestant up in the air. His position has thus far been primarily negative: in theology, emphasis on accommodating religion to science; in ethics, emphasis on a radical criticism of the present-day economic system. And as between the two, morals have been much more heavily emphasized than metaphysics. Sermons and articles are full of this sort of thing: “some other set of economic ideals which will be more Christian:, “if necessary, Capitalism must be radically modified”, “is Communism consonant with Christianity?”

As the position becomes more positive, it tends toward a Christian socialism or communism, though here again it is vague. And it is the religious element that is vague—the relation of Christianity to the secular and temporal political program. If pressure is applied, one may predict that the Christian element will make room for the Communistic. The sociological aspect of Christianity seems, to Liberal Protestants, to fit rather easily into the Communistic scheme. But Christianity has historically included much more than a sociology. And if Christianity and Communism seem to square easily with each other in their concern for the oppressed and exploited, an examination of the Pronouncements of Liberal Protestantism will reveal very frail defences against non-Christian attitudes on other relationships. For present-day Protestantism is so far secularized already that it would under pressure be rather easily forced into the rest of the pattern. One may sum up as follows: in Protestantism’s emphasis on the social gospel, in its regenerated zeal and earnestness about the conditions in which men live, is it proposing to carry out a Christian program, or has it, under the influence of our contemporary scientific climate, become merely a socio-political program? The question is a serious one and it is asked seriously out of a great deal of respect for the sincerity of those religious leaders who have had to brave the disfavor of their wealthy, big-business parishioners.

An answer to this question involves, of course, a definition of religion and implies a particular position on the relation of religion to science. Perhaps it is best to indicate briefly and rapidly what the writer’s position on the matter is; for, however obvious the following propositions may be, Liberal Protestantism is not acting upon a realization of them. Clarity as well as honesty dictates a brief exposition of the point.

In the first place, science cannot prove its underlying assumptions. They must be literally assumed. And in the second place, science has nothing to say about values. Science always prefaces its prescriptions with an if: if you want this result, then take this means. Science is quite properly technician-in-chief to civilization: it defines the means to be employed for the attainment of various objectives. But it cannot be the pilot. It cannot—as science—name the objectives. That is the function of religion, if religion is to have any function at all. And religion may be roughly defined—one aspect of it at least—as that system of basic values which underlies a civilization.

Liberal Protestantism, however, in its anxiety to live amicably with science, has schooled itself upon a scientific discipline almost exclusively. The discipline is ultimately inapplicable to religion and has worked it much positive injury. That injury can perhaps be most clearly displayed by contrasting the scientific discipline with the discipline of art, a discipline to which Protestantism is historically antipathetic, and which the typical Liberal Protestant pastor lacks.

I prefer to contrast art with science rather than merely religion with science for a particular reason. The qualities which art shares with religion are just those which Liberal Protestantism through its imitation of science has lost. For the Protestant reader, a contrast between religion and science may be neither clear nor emphatic. To say that Protestantism has so far lost its conception of religion that it is difficult to make it understand what it has lost is perhaps the most cruel thing that one could say about it. But I am availing myself of the privileges of a Protestant (perhaps to the limit) in speaking out on these matters; and I am serious; and I want to be understood.

In using the term art, I am perhaps inviting misconceptions. I obviously do not mean by art empty and frivolous decoration. My criticism of Protestantism is not that it lacks a properly restful ritual or a tasteful church architecture. I am using art in the sense of a description of experience which is concrete where that of science is abstract, many-sided where that of science is necessarily one-sided, and which involves the whole personality where science only involves one part, the intellect. These are qualities which are essential to worship, and a religion without worship is an anomaly. It deserves—if only to keep the issues clear—another name. Religion is obviously more than art. A religion is anchored to certain supreme values, values which it affirms are eternal, not merely to be accepted for the moment through a “willing suspension of disbelief”. But a religion which lacks the element of art is hardly a religion at all.

The injury done by the prevailing scientific discipline reveals itself ominously in many a Liberal sermon. In the first place, science attempts an intellectual exposition. This can never be purely intellectual, of course, but complete purity is its goal. The argument is convincing in so far as the scientist can clear himself of all emotional factors, all value considerations, all that might make the conclusion arrived at personally attractive to him. The sermon cannot properly avail itself of such conditions, and yet the typical liberal sermon often forces itself into just such a structure. It amounts to a lecture. It reveals a religion truncated in the direction of science.

In the second place, science attempts to conquer new areas for truth, consolidate its gains, and then move on to the conquest of further areas. Science is not only abstract but progressive. But if the Christian affirmations are in any sense eternal (qualify the term as you will), they are not points to be abandoned in favor of new truth, new discoveries. “The Search for God” is all very well for a party of religious explorers; it hardly does for a Church which maintains that it has found Him.

If there is to be a search at all, it will have to b e a search in something of the sense in which the poet explores himself in relation to the truth, pondering over it, relating it to the various sets of conditions, but returning to it and working back to it as to a center rather than regarding it as a point on a line along which he continually advances. Here again Liberal Protestantism finds itself in a quandary. Granting acceptance of the truth, what does it have to give? For the sinner, one may assume that it does have something. To the average congregation of “converted” it often finds itself with nothing further to offer. And this is perhaps the explanation for the Liberal Protestant pastor’s offering book reviews, current events, sociology, etc.—more often than you would think—in lieu of worship.

In the third place, and of course most important, science is man-centered and “practical”. Bertrand Russell is right, ultimately, in calling science “power-knowledge”. And it is power-knowledge, of course, because it has Man as its point of reference. It puts the handle into his hands so that he can use its information. If religion is a knowing also, a set of information, it is hardly information in this sense. It cannot be put to use—not in the sense in which science can be. And religion, again like art, is not man-centered in the same sense in which science is. To illustrate from art, the artist attempts something of a rapprochement with the universe outside him. Laying aside the practical motive, he tries to bring his interests into terms with larger, more universal interests.

Liberal Protestantism, on the basis of the books and articles which its leaders produce and the sermons which they preach, is pretty thoroughly man-centered, as a matter of emphasis at least. The fatherhood of God, one feels, is no longer the correlative of the brotherhood of man. The brotherhood of man tends to become an exclusive end in itself. There is little wonder that the most positive affirmation which Liberal Protestantism can make is apt to be some form of socialism.

One may illustrate this matter from The Christian Century, again expressing all sympathy for it and a good deal of thoroughly well-deserved praise. It is the strongest and most admirable of the Liberal Protestant publications, but as the strongest, it sets forth in itself cruelly the fundamental weakness of the group it represents.

Its views on economics, politics, and related matters are honest, forthright, and full. On these topics it resembles, and compares very favorably with, The New Republic and The Nation. It refuses to be lulled into a belief that the prevailing order is Christian in any but a nominal sense, and it criticizes affairs, domestic and foreign, vigorously and fearlessly.

But the poetry which it publishes is very weak, and its reviews of literary works are weak also. The poetry (though it often wears a modern veneer) is for the most part full of easy moralization, sentimental prettification, and over-simplified propaganda. The revival of interest in the great religious poetry of England in the seventeenth century leaves the poetry of this weekly untouched—there are not even any crude imitations.

The point is not that Liberal Protestantism lacks new and up-to-date poems to quote in its Sunday morning sermons. If this were all, the matter would be a thoroughly superficial one. The fundamental point is this: religionists who can be satisfied with poor religious poetry can hardly have a very rich and complex worship. The weakness in poetry points to and helps explain a corresponding weakness in theology. I am not trying to force a choice of extremes here. I am not asking that Protestantism become Buddhistic in meditation and self-examination. Rather, I am pointing out that in so far as The Christian Century mirrors a group, that group is already far along the road to secularization. Where one’s interests lie, to paraphrase the Scriptures, there lies one’s heart also. And judged by The Christian Century, the hearts of the leaders of Liberal Protestantism lie in the realm of temporal affairs.

This is, of course, the fundamental explanation of the rise of the liturgical religions on the last decades. After discounting the cases of snobbery and the cases of those who wish to retreat from a disagreeable world into the peace of a beautiful aestheticism, the liturgical religions have something to give which advanced Protestantism would do well to cultivate if it expects to remain a religion at all.

Communism sets out to provide creature comforts, luxuries, and, more than that, leisure in which man may presumably develop his mind and aesthetic faculties. It provides them at a price of course. But in proportion as Protestantism becomes a mere humanitarianism (or by emphasis a humanitarianism) it will have less and less to disagree with in such a program, less and less to offer in addition to such a program, and even if it maintains its reservations, in a time of crisis those scruples will be entirely too flimsy to stand. To repeat what has been said earlier in this essay, the real issue comes down to this: if the Christian values are true, if they are worth adhering to, shall they determine the civilization; or shall the economic order into which we drift determine our values by allowing to us whatever values such an economic order will permit?

Obviously, the modern world of finance capitalism does not represent a Christian civilization; but is the movement to the left the only alternative? And if the Church has in the past compromised often and shamefully, does not a rapprochement with the left involve its compromises too? This last question may be given point by quoting from the conclusion of a recent article in The Christian Century entitled “Must Christians Reject Communism?” The author there outlines “the foundations of a social philosophy” on which Communism and Christianity might agree:

 The only forces which work any real change in politics or economics are the result of organizing the interests of some group and making them effective.

The change we want—a reintegration of society on a higher level—can be accomplished only by organizing the interests of a majority group.

The issue as to whether this can be done effectively rests with man—or rather with God—that curious power which only man seems to possess of consciously realizing his situation and molding it nearer to his desire.

The last sentence is particularly revealing. That curious power of molding situations to man’s desire would seem to be science not, the Christian God, though perhaps the Communist God. The author concludes by stating that the Christian in accepting Communism “need not sacrifice his Christianity, for that in its pure form has always promised that one day the lowly will be exalted and the proud and powerful brought down”.

The phrase, “in its pure form”, obviously begs the question. The pure form is arrived at by a selection which involves disregarding among other things the statement that “My kingdom is not of this world.” The old, troubled questioning, Why did God make man capable of sin and evil, returns here, not in the form of anguished complaint, but as an affirmation: now that we have the technical power, we will make sin impossible.

The article is a rather extreme but representative enough example of Protestantism secularizing itself out of existence—becoming conformed to this world. If the Christian assumptions are valid, then the Christian theologian and pastor, whatever the world may think, can hardly have a more important vocation. If, on the other hand, the Protestant Liberals are merely humanitarians in search of a creed, then they are perhaps right, but they are hardly Christian in any historical sense of the term, and intellectual honesty calls for the admission of the fact.

The tendency to the left is apparently honest and courageous. I do not propose to inveigh against it on either of these grounds. But I do not believe that it holds the hope of a Christian civilization in any strict sense of the term. It is all very well for Protestantism to become commendably zealous in rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; but in its zeal it has come very close to slighting God. And the Liberal Protestant perhaps needs to be reminded that the followers of Marx will be quite as jealous in claiming their dues as Caesar himself.

Unless Liberal Protestantism is prepared to be a religion, it is a superfluity and had better allow itself to be absorbed into one of the movements which puts the material well-being of man first, willing to implement this through collectivization, the liquidation of certain classes, and whatever else may be necessary. But perhaps enough has been said in the preceding pages to indicate that a religion may be necessary and inevitable after all; that civilizations are founded, not on ethical societies, but on religions; and that Communism itself is in this sense a religion, though one of the materialistic religions and one of the religions of Man, burdened with the infirmities of both. The promise of Communism to realize itself in practice rests, indeed, on the fact that it is a religion; that is, that it makes a claim to authority, that it can claim emotional allegiance, and that it has a world view. Christians who hope to short-cut to the promised land via Communism will find themselves badly fooled. Without its non-Christian elements, Communism would carry as little hope for fulfillment of its promises as does Liberal Christianity.

It would be a heartening sight if Liberal Protestantism could get over its sense of inferiority, could abandon its attempt to keep up with the Millikans and Jeanses and Marxes, and could attempt to realize its basic function, that of a religion. This would not necessitate a return to the crudities of Fundamentalism, unless one believes, in an age of relativities, than belief in an absolute is crude. It would not necessitate the suppression of the social gospel, though it would involve deciding what sort of social gospel is Christian and what is not. It would not demand cessation of a radical criticism of the present economic order, though it would involve relating that criticism to a positive conception of a Christian society.

I am not certain that Protestantism has such a rally as this in it. If it has, probably the greatest obstacle it will have to overcome is the all-pervading economic determinism embedded in such phrase as “You can’t turn back the clock.” For the movements which seem to me to have most hope for realizing a Christian order will probably bear this stigma. They involve on the political and economic side, the giving meaning to the sacredness of human personality and to the freedom of the will by restoring property. The proposal may sound Quixotic to the modern mind. But this is a measure of the seriousness of the problem. If Liberal Protestantism has so much acquired the modern mind, if it has become so much infected with economic determinism, that it has lost its belief in the freedom of will, then the case is hopeless indeed.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay by Cleanth Brooks originally appeared in The American Review (Volume 6).

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