Sunday, March 24, 2013

T.S. Eliot and Christology

This is the sixth in a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)

On April 7, 1926, Richard Aldington sent a letter to his friend T.S. Eliot, which read in part:

I respect and admire the Roman Church - she alone among the Churches is august and venerable - but I distrust a system which needs support by a hundred sophisms and then must appeal to the secular arm for aid.  To you in confidence I can say that if I could join the Church I think I would, but my temperament and what little ability to think I have are both violently opposed to it.  Moreover, I don’t really like the gospels, and I don’t much like Christ.  I really think Paul was more interesting.  He appears to have been a man; I have suspected […] that Christ is an invention.  (V. Eliot: Letters III 129)

On April 9, Eliot responded by asking for an opportunity to discuss the letter, giving only a brief preliminary response: “I agree with you about Christ and I do not disagree with anything else.” (V. Eliot: Letters III 129).  We cannot know the content of Eliot and Aldington’s subsequent conversation, but this preview is tantalizing -- particularly in light of the fact that Eliot was only a few months away from a transformative trip to Rome, during which he fell on his knees in St. Peter’s Cathedral, and less than a year away from committing to baptism into the Anglican Church.
            There is evidence, in subsequent letters to other friends, that Eliot remained open-minded on the subject of divine Truth at this point in time.  Three months later, he wrote to Bruce Richmond that he was writing an essay about 17th century Anglican priest Lancelot Andrewes, through which he hoped to “clear up my mind and try to come to conclusions […] affecting my whole position” (V. Eliot: Letters III 209).  The following month, he sent a letter to John Middleton Murry (which he asked Murry to destroy after reading) suggesting that he was still undecided: “Your point of view is so much your own, and my own spiritual steps so tentative, and so obscure and doubtful even to myself, that I must await more illumination, both from you and from myself, before I can respond to what you say about religion.”  In the same letter, Eliot declares that the only thing he is certain of is that he must come to a decision autonomously, independent of “intellectual association or cooperation” (V. Eliot: Letters III 255).   It seems to me that he was particularly wary of falling under Murry’s influence. 
            Murry had begun working out his own Christology in 1924.  In an essay called “Christ or Christianity?,” he writes: “The world is now divided between those who profess Jesus as God, and those who dismiss his story as a fairy-tale; both are precluded from thinking honestly about him” (Murry “Christ” 102).  The truth, according to Murry, is that Jesus was not an actual incarnation of God, but an ideal example of human being.  Murry regarded Jesus as a hero to be emulated, rather than a divine entity to be worshipped.   His conclusion was based on the Biblical record of words spoken by Jesus on the cross -- specifically “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).  Murry interprets this outcry as proof that Jesus died knowing that “His God, the good God, the loving God, the Father Almighty, did not exist” (Murry “Christ” 102). 
Murry goes on to say, however, that because Jesus “could not conceive God save as a loving and living Father to all men,” and because Jesus was willing to die for “this amazing and transcendent faith,” he in effect “created the loving God for whom he died” (Murry “Christ” 104-105).    He elaborates: “Out of that fire of life in himself, which would face the extreme of loneliness and pain simply to lift the pain and loneliness and pain from other me, he kindled the spark of that divine something in man which cares, and will go on caring more and yet more deeply, year by year, century by century, age by age, till the pain the evil are slowly blotted out of the world” (Murry “Christ” 106).  In a sense then, Murry says that Jesus’ crucifixion offered redemption to the future of mankind.  This is not the same thing as saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection -- heralded by the Last Supper -- created a New Covenant whereby all Christians may be saved from the curse of Original Sin, which Murry apparently did not believe in.  He confirmed his belief in the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth (as most serious Biblical scholars do), but did not find anything to convince him of the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection.  Nor did he regard the resurrection as a necessary part of the redemption.    
Murry’s 1926 book Jesus: Man of Genius presents a biography of an ordinary boy, conceived by natural means, who became an extraordinary teacher.  Even today, the author insists, we can draw only two conclusions from the life story: “Either Jesus was God made man, or he was man made God.  It is easier and less exacting to believe the former: but the latter is the truth” (Murry: Jesus 223).   It was on this decisive point that Eliot pivoted away from Murry -- perhaps because Murry’s profession of beliefs seemed too similar to Eliot’s grandfather’s Unitarian beliefs.     William Greenleaf Eliot defined Jesus Christ as “the only perfect character ever delineated,” a man whose “life opens to us an acquaintance with heavenly existence” (W.G. Eliot: Lectures 83).   William Greenleaf Eliot had no great affection for Catholic dogma, so possibly he would have sympathized with Murry’s Christology. 
There is, however, a distinct difference between William Greenleaf Eliot’s focus and Murry’s.  Murry’s literary work championed exceptional individuals, heroes and “men of genius. ” W.G. Eliot’s physical works supported the common man and, above all, a sense of Christian community.   He was ultimately less interested in theological debate than in helping the people around him in a more pragmatic sense.  T.S. Eliot’s mother, Charlotte Stearns Eliot, quoted the family patriarch as follows:

We are weary of the discussions about Christian worship and creeds.  What place in the Godhead does Jesus hold?... As if he cared about that!  As if the highest terms of praise and adoration were anything but mockery and contempt, when spoken by those who refuse to give him food and shelter and kindly sympathy by refusing to give them to ‘thee his brethren’… We leave Jesus the son of man to suffer the pains of cold, and hunger, and loneliness while we are bitterly disputing how we may acceptably worship Jesus the Son of God (C. Eliot 339). 

For William Greenleaf Eliot, a Christian is more clearly defined by his actions than by his beliefs.   In his mind, good deeds are more holy than precise theology.   
Murry likewise distinguished between “the way of faith and the way of works,” but unlike William Greenleaf Eliot, he and T.S. Eliot both took the way of faith -- which Murry described as “the true way for Jesus” (Murry: Jesus 121).   Of course, they took “the way of faith” in different directions, each claiming that their way was more precise.  Eliot followed the lead of Lancelot Andrewes -- largely because he, unlike W.G. Eliot and John Middleton Murry, he had come to believe in the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin.  As evidence, biographer Lyndall Gordon quotes an inscription that T.S. Eliot scribbled on the back of an envelope in 1923 or 1924:

There are only 2 things - Puritanism and Catholicism.  You are one or the other.  You either believe in the reality of sin or you don’t - that is the important moral distinction - not whether you are good or bad (Gordon 213).

In his essay “Lancelot Andrewes,” first published in September 1926, Eliot championed the 17th century priest as a curative for “the influence of an undisciplined popular philosophy” (perhaps intending the phrase as jab at Murry), illustrating "determination to stick to essentials, awareness of the needs of the time [and] desire for clarity and precision on matters of importance" ("Lancelot" 305).  On a slightly more personal note, Eliot observed that Andrewes’ “intellect was satisfied by theology and his sensibility by prayer and liturgy”  (“Lancelot” 309).  Having come to that conclusion, Eliot now faced the great experiment.  

Would what worked for Lancelot Andrewes work for him?


Eliot, Charlotte C.  William Greenleaf Eliot: Minister, Educator, Philanthropist.  Boston: Houghton, 1904.

Eliot, T.S.  “Lancelot Andrewes.” For Lancelot Andrews: Essays on Style and Order.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1929.

Eliot, Valerie, & John Haffenden, ed. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926 - 1927.  London: Faber, 2012.

Eliot, William Greenleaf. Lectures to Young Men.  11th Edition.  Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1882.

Gordon, Lyndall.  T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life.  New York: Norton, 1998.

Murry, John Middleton.  “Christ or Christianity?” To the Unknown God: Essays Towards a Religion. London: J. Cape, 1924.

Murry, John Middleton.  Jesus: Man of Genius.   New York: Harper, 1926.


  1. I knew this moment would arrive, Joe...the moment when I said to myself: "How can I even begin to talk to Joe about this without sitting in the same room with him?" This essay explores such fundamental issues of belief and faith...I have been collecting hints, glimpses, clues for such a long time. Ideas about God I can reflect upon and write about with greater ease. Not because God is an easy subject, but because my own "Cloud of Unknowing" allows me a certain detachment. But, for me, Jesus is my older brother and friend, and therefore this becomes a more intimate exchange. Now, having said that, I would offer this: Partly because of my age, I tend to lean toward W. G. Eliot at this point in my life. I understand his "weariness" so well. So many students and faculty tend to occupy themselves with theological knots that resist any unbinding. In the meantime, the human community is almost totally ignored. A closing thought: At a conference in the middle of the 20th century, the panel was debating what percentage of Jesus was divine and human. When they got to Rudolf Bultmann, he said (much to everyone's horror): "I don't know, and I don't care. What I know is this: These stories have changed lives, are changing lives, and will continue to change lives. Isn't that really all we need to know?" I thought of it as I was reading your essay, Joe...and realized that Eliot, Murry, etc. would not have been pleased. Thanks so much again, Joe, for this important work!

  2. Paul - I continue to be extremely grateful for our dialogue (limited as it is... maybe we need to get on Skype at some point in the future?), and I'd like to think that the OLDER Eliot would have been pleased with Bultmann's response. One of the reasons that I halted my book-length study of Eliot where I did was because I had a hard time with Eliot's rhetoric in the years immediately following his conversion. I think the following years had a mellowing effect on him, because the voice of FOUR QUARTETS seems (to me, at least) much more broad-minded than the poet was in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I will keep working my way forward, and will likely be quite a bit older myself by the time I'm able to do a truly in-depth study of Eliot's worldview at the time he wrote his final masterpiece. Maybe that's as it it should be... Eliot once wrote of Dante that he was a poet one could grow with. I believe that's what distinguishes all the greatest writers and thinkers. Thank you for expanding my reading list, and for traveling along with me.