The thought occurred to me, as I read Christian scholar and critic Alan Jacobs’s new book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, in which this quotation appears, that perhaps our period is not so unlike Auden’s. That mid-20th-century moment when civilization looked into the abyss — and large portions of humanity plunged into it — seems to resonate strongly for a lot of writers and thinkers these days, and not only because of Trumpism’s neo-fascist and “Christian” nationalist tendencies.
Jacobs’s book, as he tells me in this interview, is about “intellectual resistance to a dominant social order.” And not unlike the main figures he discusses — Auden, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, and Simone Weil — some of us who are paying attention right now, as our raging political and climate crises converge in a kind of perfect social and ecological firestorm, are asking on what basis, what foundation of shared values, we can live into this deeply uncertain future, resist the forces of destruction, and someday salvage or rebuild our civilization, if such is even possible or desirable.
A distinguished professor of English at Baylor University and a leading Auden scholar, Jacobs is the editor of the Princeton critical editions of Auden’s long poems For the Time Being (1944) and The Age of Anxiety (1947), a noted C. S. Lewis biographer, and the author of numerous books and countless essays for a wide range of publications, from First Things and The Christian Century to Harper’s and the Guardian. A self-described “evangelical Anglican,” he leans decidedly leftward on many issues — and is no advocate of force-fed “spiritual benzedrine” for anyone — but he can be hard to label politically.
I should note that I’ve known Jacobs personally for nearly two decades, having worked with him occasionally as an editor. And although we may differ profoundly at times, theologically and politically, I find him an indispensable voice, attempting to bridge religious-secular and ideological divides calmly and graciously. He spoke with me by phone from his home in Waco, Texas, on August 6. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
WEN STEPHENSON: I’ve always seen you as a theologically “orthodox” Christian intellectual who is neither of “the right” nor “the left.” Is that a fair description? How do you identify or describe yourself religiously, politically?
ALAN JACOBS: It’s not easy for me to do. Really, for me it’s a set of strivings, instead of a set of realized achievements. I do often say I’m a small-“o” orthodox Christian, in the sense that I believe in the great ecumenical creeds, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed. I see those as the template of basic Christian orthodoxy over time. But also I’m an Anglican, almost my whole adult life — when I became a Christian in college, I really only spent a few years in kind of low-church evangelical congregations before I found the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition. If you’re an Anglican, you get habituated to living in the midst of difference. You come to discover that, even when people can sign on to that orthodoxy, there are still enormous differences on all sorts of issues, and you learn to live with that.
As far as left and right goes, what I strive to be is what Cardinal Bernardin called the “seamless garment” Christian — the seamless garment of life. I try to be consistently pro-life. And what that means in practice, for instance, is that my wife Teri and I do support crisis pregnancy centers, and we also are involved with the Waco Immigrants Alliance. Whoever is marginalized, whoever is despised, whoever is being left behind by society, whoever is being ignored and demeaned and treated as less than fully human, or having inferior value, then for me those are the people that Christ calls us especially to minister to. And so that’s what I strive for. Of course I don’t achieve it, but that’s what I want to be.
And what that means is, I will freely admit to being scandalized by the number of abortions that there are in America — it grieves me, it breaks my heart. But my heart is also broken by what my government is doing to immigrants right now. And my heart is broken by what now appears to be the everlasting legacy of white supremacy. It’s broken by people who, in the richest country in the history of the world, do not have health care. There’s just no excuse for that. So that’s what I try to do — to promote life wherever it is endangered, wherever it is marginalized, wherever it is demeaned. That’s the kind of Christian I want to be.
A lot of readers may remember your Harper’s essay “The Watchmen,” about the decline or disappearance of Christian public intellectuals from the mid-20th century to today, a topic that overlaps with your new book. And one of the things that got everybody’s attention in that essay was your gentle critique of Marilynne Robinson. I have to say, it reminded me of the way Christians — all sorts of religious believers, really — have a tendency to get into debates over whether or not the other is, you know, doing it wrong.
Do you think that traditionalist or orthodox Christian thinkers have a hard time accepting liberal Christians like Robinson as “serious,” or “real,” Christians? Or, as you implied, is that very much a two-way street?
It’s true, and it’s a complex point. I would say that there are many, many small-“o” orthodox Christians who’ve got no time for Marilynne Robinson, because she is a liberal Christian and does not seem to hew to the conservative party line. And then there’s another group of conservative Christians — the ones I know best — who are just so overwhelmingly grateful that there is any outstanding writer who is willing to associate herself with Christianity. And I sometimes find that, while one side is hyper-critical and unwilling to listen, the other side is just so grateful to be associated with Marilynne Robinson that they won’t criticize at all.
Yes, I’m really grateful that one of the best living American novelists is openly Christian. That’s wonderful. That’s great. But it doesn’t mean she’s right about everything. And I felt that Robinson was, in many cases, using her entry to the liberal intelligentsia — she can always be published in the NYRB or wherever else — to be very critical of her fellow Christians, and I just wished that went the other way around. I wished she would use her opening with the liberal intelligentsia to be more critical of them.
But, I’ve got to say, there’s been a bit of a change in my thinking that can be deeply identified with the 80 percent rate at which white evangelicals — or people who call themselves evangelicals — voted for Trump. When that happened, I thought, maybe Marilynne Robinson is more right about my fellow evangelicals than I was, you know? At that point, I thought maybe I should just drop my criticism of her, she may have been right after all.
That was a very distressing moment for me. I knew there would be a lot of support for Trump simply because he was the Republican candidate. I didn’t expect it to be that high. What I expected was more of a nose-holding posture — like, I don’t like this guy, I don’t approve of his personal life, I don’t approve of many things about him, but he’s the lesser of two evils. What we got instead was a great many Christians refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything evil here at all — he’s great, he’s wonderful, he speaks for us. And I will have to admit that I was taken aback, not so much by the willingness of evangelicals to vote for him, but by the enthusiasm with which they voted for him.
And then I started looking into things a little more, because I was curious about this phenomenon. And I came to realize that a lot of people who are willing to claim the name “evangelical” are actually people who don’t go to church and couldn’t sum up what evangelical belief is. They just don’t know.
And while some see that as good news, that the people who voted for Trump aren’t really evangelicals, that’s not the lesson I took from it. The lesson I took from it is: How many of us are there? We used to think there are a lot of evangelicals in America. Maybe there aren’t very many people who are sufficiently formed in the Christian faith to be able to say what it is.
So, what does “evangelical” mean?
Right now, I have no freaking idea. [Laughs.] I couldn’t begin to tell you.
What is it supposed to mean?
So, the most classic definition is one that was coined by Scottish historian David Bebbington (you can Google the term “Bebbington quadrilateral”), and it consists of these four things: evangelicals are people who believe in a conversion experience; they believe in the authority of scripture; they have a theology centered on the cross, and Jesus’s atoning work on the cross; and, as Bebbington puts it, they engage in a theologically informed activism, they get out there and preach the gospel and try to win people over. Some have suggested revisions to that, but that’s the general thing.
And what we’re looking at now is that many of the people who call themselves “evangelical” in polls are people who actually could not in any meaningful way affirm any of those four things. But that’s not encouraging to me, because what that suggests is that there are all these people who have some kind of tribal association with the word “evangelical.” And that means that evangelical churches have allowed themselves to degenerate into a kind of tribalism, rather than theologically informed, compassionate activism.
Let’s talk about your new book. Given what you’ve just said, is there a sense in which you see this book as timely in some way?
Yeah, but in a way that’s rather different from what we’ve been talking about to this point, though perhaps not unrelated.
The idea for this book, the germ of the idea, came several years ago now. I had a copy of Jacques Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads (1943), just randomly, and I happened to notice that the lectures that provided the foundation for the book were given in January and February of 1943. And because I’ve written about C. S. Lewis, I immediately thought, that’s exactly the same time when Lewis gave the lectures that became The Abolition of Man (1943). And then, because I’m also, primarily, an Auden scholar, it didn’t take me long to realize that a favorite little piece of Auden’s, a talk that he gave at Swarthmore called “Vocation and Society,” was given at exactly the same time. And what was so strange is that this was right in the middle of the war, and all three of these people were talking about education, and the formation of young minds and young characters. And I thought, what a strange thing to be talking about in the middle of a war.
And then, as I looked at the chronology of the war, I realized that all of these things were exactly coterminous with the Casablanca Conference, in which the Allies planned out their invasion of Continental Europe, and in which they made a bold pronouncement: We’re going to win this war. It’s just a matter of time. You Axis powers, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Don’t make us do it the hard way. They were going to get an immediate surrender, or else they were going to do it the hard way, the most violent way, the most destructive way possible. What struck me was just how absolute their confidence was.
And I thought, that explains it, that’s why these guys are thinking about education, because they’re thinking about rebuilding the Western democracies after the war. They see the end of the war coming, they believe that they will win, so what do we do then? How do we educate the next generation so that they don’t do what we did? That’s what got me started. Originally it was just those three figures — Maritain, Lewis, and Auden — and then, as it went on, I came to realize that Eliot was just as much a part of this as they were, and kind of interlocked with them in several ways. And in some ways the most important realization of all was that Simone Weil, in her very distinctive way, was engaging with precisely the same questions.
And what were they most concerned about?
As I started working on the project, the thing that became more and more clear to me is something that none of them ever states explicitly — although Reinhold Niebuhr, who is sort of a side figure in the book, does come close to stating it explicitly. Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.
That was what the five figures I write about wanted, in their different ways, to avert — and were not able to avert.
Now, you’re a Christian intellectual, with a foot in both the Christian and secular academic worlds. To what extent is this a book about the religious-secular divide and how the culture negotiates that?
You know, I don’t think of it that way, as being primarily about that, though I think that is obviously a take you can have.
More than anything else, I think of this book as being about intellectual resistance to a dominant social order. And, in this case, that resistance is Christian — perhaps somewhat ambivalently Christian in the case of Simone Weil. But one of the reasons this can be an interesting book even to people who don’t care about religion is that it’s a kind of case study in the challenges that are faced by people who want to provide intellectual resistance to a dominant order — and how hard that is to do, when the leading institutions of society aren’t on your side.
And I’m hoping that these readers can see that Christianity doesn’t always and everywhere mean, and religious commitment more generally doesn’t always and everywhere mean, supporting the dominant social order. It can be about resistance and refusal, and creating counter-narratives.
I want to talk about Simone Weil. Her story is devastating, and I think it’s the heart of your book. You write movingly of her choice to remain unbaptized, to be among “those outside” the Roman Catholic Church, her specific context.
She’s always standing with those outside. That’s why she’s so important to this story, because the older figures are all about restoring and renewing and rebuilding institutions, and Weil says, sorry, institutions are the “Social Beast.”
I’d love to have you tease this out for me, the way her resistance to being baptized, and to the institutional Church, is centered on her reaction against anathema sit and what she called “totalitarian spirituality” — as you say, a shocking phrase.
Absolutely. The word “totalitarian” was a very new word. It was only in the ’30s that it started taking off. So for her to use it in that context is, I think, an intentionally jarring thing.
When Simone Weil looks at various secular utopias, or attempts at creating secular utopias — from the French Revolution to National Socialism to Soviet Communism — and she asks, Where did this come from?, she says to her fellow believers, They learned it from us. That’s where they got it. They got it from us.
The Grand Inquisitor.
Yeah. For her, the decisive turning point, in the culture that she knew, happened when the Church decided to exterminate the Cathars in the early 13th century. This idea that what you do with heresy is exterminate it, rather than try to live peaceably — yes, striving to teach, striving to correct, by all means, but refusing force, refusing any kind of coercion. When the Church chose coercion, chose force, it unleashed demons, demons that came back to attack it. I don’t know whether that’s right. I don’t know how you would even assess whether it’s right or not. But it’s an incredibly powerful, prophetic claim.
I really think the book would have been so diminished if I hadn’t brought her in. She became, for me, the central figure. That’s why the climax of the book is her death. The peak of the dramatic tension has been reached, and when her voice disappears, something of absolutely vital significance has been lost.
You quote her essay “The Romanesque Renaissance,” where she says the atheistic humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to her, was an error. But, as you say, she sees it as an “understandable error” because it was a legitimate effort to break free, to be liberated intellectually and spiritually, from that “totalitarian spirituality.”
That’s right, it’s ultimately noble, if misplaced. But the reason it arose, for Weil, is that the Church had taken the path of “spiritual totalitarianism.” And so it had inadvertently created a counter to itself. It wanted to suppress, but whenever you try to suppress you always end up creating the very thing, and empowering the very thing, that you’re trying to suppress.
And so she remained “outside.” And integral to that, for her, was solidarity with the suffering, the outcasts.
With all of those who are experiencing malheur — this thing we don’t have a word for — affliction. And that’s why I think that people who see Weil as intensely individualistic are exactly wrong. Because she is rejecting institutions, but she is not rejecting solidarity. In fact, she is rejecting institutions so that she may embrace solidarity.
There seems to be, in your work, a kind of anguished desire, and argument, for the ability to mediate between — or even, if possible, reconcile — opposing sides of our polarized culture, both theologically and politically. You seem to be saying that what we need so desperately right now, in both our religious and political lives, is that sense of solidarity with those outside — that is, outside our own tribe and outside the established order.
Yeah. You see, that’s why, when I was close to being done with this book, I just set it aside for six months to write How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017), because we were right in the middle of the election campaign. I felt we were rapidly approaching a point, or had already reached a point, where we are offended by plurality.
The specifically Christian version of that is an essay I wrote called “Ecclesial Plurality.” I say, look, you don’t have to be a pluralist — that is, someone who believes that a variety of apparently irreconcilable positions can nevertheless be true — you don’t have to be a pluralist to recognize that plurality is kind of the inevitable human condition. Because we are finite, and therefore no one of us is able to appropriate the whole of truth — we might be able to nod in the direction of it, but that doesn’t mean that we can actually feel it or experience it.
In How to Think, I tell the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who was online having an argument with a Jewish guy, who she thinks is going to hell because he’s a Jew. And he ends up behaving toward her in an incredibly gracious and forbearing way, and she has to learn and accept that this guy has things to teach her about being gracious and forbearing. And once that happens, it opens the door to a lot of other things. And that’s why people don’t want to do it. If someone who is on the other side of a debate shows manifest virtues of one kind or another, there’s a tendency not to want to grant them those virtues, because if they have those virtues, then they might also be right. And we don’t want to think that they might be right.
It’s also possible that they truly have those virtues, yet nevertheless are wrong. At least by one’s own lights, they are wrong.
And yet are wrong. And there’s no doubt that every one of us has certain admirable virtues, and every one of us is surely terribly wrong about something that we feel very strongly about.
You’re an Auden scholar. The man you’ve spent so many years of your professional life studying and writing about, in such perceptive and empathetic ways, was gay, and Christian, and at one point considered himself married to Chester Kallman, the great love of his life. So has your engagement with Auden, intellectually, affected the way you view and approach issues of sexuality and marriage in the church and society?
I think there was no way for me not to read Auden and just be deeply moved by how much suffering his sexuality brought to him, at least in that social context. Maybe not his sexuality as such, but how it was received in society and what was possible and not possible to him. But he lived pretty much out. And when he started wearing a wedding ring because he felt that he and Chester were married, he didn’t worry about the fact that he couldn’t go to church and have a minister pronounce that they were married. That was just not on anybody’s radar screen, it wasn’t a thinkable thought at the moment. So the misery that came there wasn’t because of social disapproval but because of Chester’s infidelity and unwillingness to go along with that. When he realized that he was not married to Chester, and that Chester had no intention of being faithful, he wrote a letter to his friend, a German émigré named Elizabeth Mayer, in which he said, “There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear.”
I don’t know how you can read that and not be profoundly moved. Whatever you think is right and whatever you think is wrong, how can you not be moved? I wept the first time I read that.
That story is one of the most profound things, because what Auden taught me is that everyone is, in one way or another, sexually broken. And what that does — maybe this is unsurprising from a guy who wrote a book about original sin and what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy calls “the universal democracy of sinners under judgment” — it brings us to a point of, whatever I might think about gay sex and what the church says about that, I cannot look at a gay person and say, you are sexually messed up but I am not. I can never say that. I can never say that I’m in a completely different situation than you are. And so that gives me the right orientation to the question, in what sense are you different from me?
The new book has an “Interlude,” in which you point to “other pilgrims, other paths,” and one of the figures is Dorothy Day, an icon of the 20th-century Christian left. Recently, a lot of people have noted, even in the mainstream press, that we’re now seeing a resurgence of the “religious left.” Do you consider this resurgence — as seen, for example, in the movement spearheaded by the Reverend Dr. William Barber and the launch of the MLK-inspired Poor People’s Campaign — as a positive development?
This kind of activist Christian left, it seems to me, is something that’s been sorely missing, especially in the African-American community, and so to see some kind of resurgence of it is really exciting.
Here’s an interesting connection to my book. I’ve got a chapter in my book called “Demons,” about “demonic” activity. Or if you don’t want to say “demonic” activity, you can call it the activity of what St. Paul calls the “principalities and powers.” It’s interesting, Foucault is a kindred spirit — the “principalities and powers” is a kind of Foucauldian argument, right? In the sense that it is power — and what Weil would call force — disseminated through social and political structures.
There’s a Bostonian named Rev. Eugene Rivers, who wrote a piece that came out a few weeks ago, where he says that that’s the only way in which you can properly understand white supremacy — that white supremacy is a power, disseminated through society, in the way that sin is, for Paul, a power.
He’s translating the concept of systemic racism, a systemic evil, into biblical language.
Because he thinks biblical language is the only language that actually describes it. So white supremacy is a power, which means that it is more or less demonic, and needs to be attacked through prayer — not only through prayer, obviously. But an account of white supremacy that does not see it in Pauline “principalities and powers” language is a deficient explanation. And I’m thinking, that’s a leftist Christianity that I can get on board with!
The crucial piece of Barber’s movement, which he’s really bringing to the fore right now, is economic injustice, systemic poverty. You could say Barber has an intersectional analysis of those “powers” and structures you’re talking about.
That’s right, because, again, it’s not concentrated in a person or even a small set of persons. It is disseminated structurally. I think there is this kind of Foucauldian/Pauline account —
What a bizarre phrase that is.
I know! [Laughs.] But I think that’s actually what it is, as bizarre as it sounds. I think it’s a Foucauldian/Pauline account of the powers, which I think is really appropriate to, or necessary for, a fully orbed critique of the structures that we’re living in right now.
It’s intersectional in more senses than one. Because we’re not just seeing the intersection of suffering, where you have people who are black and poor, and who, let’s say, are gay or transgender — not just that kind of intersectionality — it’s also the intersections of the economic structures with the technocratic structures.
There’s a critique of capitalism in here somewhere.
Right. Right. I love Michael Warner, and he’s got this great passage where he says, you know, people think that the last pages of Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966) constitute the most completely eviscerating, corrosively skeptical account of the human order that they’ve ever seen, but that’s only because they haven’t read Jonathan Edwards.
For those on the “religious left,” it can get a little lonely. There’s a feeling of being orphaned in the mainstream culture, ignored or dismissed — or worse — by both religious conservatives and secular liberals.
Yeah. It may not sound like it, but my fundamental disposition is really a kind of English conservatism, a kind of Michael Oakeshott sort of conservatism — epistemically humble, or at least striving to be epistemically humble, aware of the limitations of my point of view, of my finitude, and really skeptical of massive structures that are meant to regulate the whole of human life. Now, the primary reason that the Oakeshottian conservative has for being suspicious of our current order is a little different from that of the progressive person, but they’re actually both suspicious of the same order, right? And that kind of self-consciously want-to-be humble, want-to-be modest conservatism can actually join with the progressive movement in striving to dismantle some of these structures. We may not be able to agree on what they should be replaced with, but we can agree that these structures are massive engines of injustice.
But ultimately, if we win, which is highly unlikely, we’re going to have some pretty tough conversations somewhere down the line.
We may have some tough conversations, but that doesn’t mean, just because they are tough, and just because they may in fact be unresolvable on some levels, that we don’t, ultimately, need each other.
As somebody once said, we’re in this together.
We haven’t even talked about climate change yet.
That’s the ultimate intersectional “power.”
Or, rather, it’s the manifestation, the consequence, of the powers we were just talking about — the systemic, structural forces.
Absolutely. It’s the inevitable, natural, impossible-to-avoid outgrowth of these structures we’ve been discussing.
Wen Stephenson is the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015). A former editor at The Atlantic and the Boston Globe Ideas section, he has written for many publications, including The Nation, The Baffler, Slate, The New York Times Book Review, AGNI, and elsewhere.