I happened to run across a review of Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch in an old New York Review of Books the other day, and while I didn’t read it word for word, I read enough to be intrigued. I knew vaguely that Auden was something of a Christian — it turns out that he thought of Christianity as an aspiration, and not something normal human beings can attain.
According to the reviewer, Edward Mendelson, Auden’s Christianity was from the beginning based on “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It was what he looked for in Christians, and in the human race. It was what he expected of himself. But as a child he’d also loved the church for its ritual. All that incense, poetry and pageantry.
I can identify with that, although our situations weren’t the same. Auden’s father was a psychologist and amateur archaeologist. He grew up in a world where the arts and literature were present. In my childhood, they were almost entirely missing: religion was the only place where meaning and beauty could be discovered, if only in an ordinary suburban Lutheran church, and not the high church of England.
Anyway, the Christian church played an important part in both our lives. No matter what beliefs I might come to hold, no matter how I would eventually think, write or create — Christian ritual and lore would provide much of the context and the language. Auden’s poetry, claims Mendelson, wasn’t overtly Christian, but the religious ideas he derived from it were nearly always at its base.
Take for example, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem all about Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558).
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The poem, Mendelson points out, also sketches the outline of the Christian story; it mentions, as if in passing, a “miraculous birth,” a “dreadful martyrdom,” and the “forsaken cry” of the dying Icarus — an echo of the victim in the gospels who “cried with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
The poem and the painting describe human indifference. If you study the painting, you see that while Icarus is its subject, he’s barely present—his legs and feet are just visible (in front of the ship on the lower right of the painting). No one hears him scream; no one sees the boy who fell from the sky.
And that commonplace failure (to love one’s neighbor) has universal significance. As Auden noted, the gospels describe the commandments to love one’s God and to love one’s neighbor as “like” each other, and for Auden the moral significance of one’s neighbor becomes clear when one thinks of him as created in the image of God.
For Auden, the moral crisis that transformed and deepened his religious convictions, was World War II, when the depth of humanity’s inability to love drove him back into the church and to more profound spiritual considerations. I won’t try to describe how he got where he got — it’s complicated and you and I should probably both read the book, dear reader. But I was excited to see that Auden reached a similar conclusion as the one I reached some time ago.
God is a God who suffers.
Auden found himself agreeing with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most important theologians of our time and a martyr to Nazi fanaticism: “It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.”
It has long seemed to me that the only way to make sense of evil and suffering in the world is to understand God as a suffering divinity, and that the crucifixion of Christ makes exactly that point. That conclusion puts both of us at odds with much of orthodox Christianity because it means that God is not all-powerful.
A problem if your definition of God is that “He” is all-powerful.