Sunday, March 31, 2013

T.S. Eliot and Belief in the Trinity

This is the seventh 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!

         According to Robert Sencourt’s T.S. Eliot: A Memoir, William Force Stead began drawing Eliot toward the work of Lancelot Andrewes around 1923.  Eliot was apparently already aware of the 16th century Anglican preacher, because wrote an article about him in The Athenaeum in 1919, praising Andrewes as “a writer of genius," while stipulating that his sermons lacked “the greatness of art” (Eliot, “Preacher”).  Stead reinforced Eliot's interest in Andrewes, just as he exerted a tremendous influence over Eliot’s gradual turn toward the Anglican Church -- culminating with Eliot's baptism by Stead in the summer of 1927. 
            Like Eliot, William Force Stead was in the early 1920s an American expatriate living in England, a poet, a refugee of a troubled marriage, a Bergsonian and a reformed atheist.  Beginning in 1913, he had studied for Holy Orders in the Church of England -- though his son notes that WFS's interest in occultism (he was a friend and poetic disciple of Yeats) insured that his beliefs “at this time would not have met the standards of orthodoxy of a High Church bishop, nor probably of an Evangelical” (Harper 37).  Stead was ordained prior to the outbreak of World War I, but he remained a relatively liberal-minded Anglican well into the 1920s.  
             As an ordained minister, Stead wrote extensively about his attempts to remedy personal feelings of doubt and despair in his 1926 “literary pilgrimage” The Shadow of Mt. Carmel, a book that served as something of an inspiration for Eliot's search and ultimately a template for Eliot's masterpiece Four Quartets.  The book reveals that Stead and Eliot had much in common.  In one chapter, for instance, Stead writes about studying auto-suggestion under the French psychologist Emile Coue -- an experience that Eliot could no doubt relate to, based on a similar experience with psychosomatic medicine, under the care of Swiss doctor Roger Vittoz.  Both men found such experiences to be a temporary source of relief.  Both yearned for something that would last.
            In The Shadow of Mt. Carmel, Stead writes, “I have a kind of faith and have known a few moments of vision; but I have yet to see how the two are related” (Stead 5).   He explained that although he had always been captivated by the wonders of the natural world, and was temperamentally drawn toward pagan / pantheistic ideas, he needed a more focused set of beliefs on which to meditate.  He sought his solace in the Church:

Real meditation requires an object and an effort.  We come nearer to penetrating beneath the surface of life if we find a focus, and I do not know where we can find a better focus than the lighted shrine.  Out of doors our ideas of God are diffused, and God himself is diffused.  Here, by various means, our idea of God becomes concentrated […] We need discipline and a guide, or a map and finger-points, along the way.  That is why the Church exists, and why the saints, with all their inspiration and originality of character, have preferred to suffer her bonds and even her imperfections. (Stead 60-61).

Eliot was inspired by his friend’s devotion, but Stead’s voice alone was not enough to convince Eliot that he would find his own truth inside the Church.
            In September 1926, Eliot drew additional inspiration from a chance meeting with an Englishman, and a devout Anglican, named Robert Sencourt.  Sencourt was at the time convalescing at Divonne-les-Bains, a commune in eastern France where Eliot’s wife Vivien was also staying.  One weekend while Eliot was visiting his wife, he and Sencourt struck up a conversation and found that they had many similar interests.  Both had profound interests in eastern religion, as well as in the writings of Dante and Lancelot Andrewes.  Writing many decades later, Sencourt remembered that he immediately recognized Eliot as a kindred spirit: “As a specialist on Dante, a promoter of Anglo-Catholic ecumenism and one who had made extensive researches into three of the most attractive Anglicans of the seventeenth century, I knew in my soul the spiritual treasury at the threshold of which Eliot had just arrived.”  He adds, “Tom told me that he had never been a practicing Anglican and that there were one or two points he would have to settle before he could become one” (Sencourt 124). 
Sencourt did not inquire further, but it seems likely that one of those “points” was the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation.  Eliot’s September 1926 article on Lancelot Andrewes, which he shared with Sencourt, notes that the 16th century bishop had written no fewer than seventeen sermons on the subject of the Incarnation, and regarded it as "an essential dogma." (Eliot: “Lancelot” 304).  Eliot apparently did not doubt the importance of this dogma to the Catholic tradition, which is understandable when one considers the poet's personal history.  In his book “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T.S. Eliot and Christianity, scholar Barry Spurr notes that “the redemptive mystery initiated by the Incarnation” is what clearly distinguishes Catholicism (and Anglo-Catholicism) from the liberal Protestantism of Eliot’s youth.  The former emphasizes the Trinity while the latter emphasizes “the Atonement (Christ’s saving work on the Cross)” (Spurr 74).  This distinction was central to many serious studies of Anglican thought in Eliot's day, including a 1926 book entitled Essays Catholic and Critical, which both Stead and Sencourt recommended to Eliot and which he was "slowly working over" in March 1927 (Valerie Eliot 428).
            The anthology, edited by George Selwyn, collected thirteen scholarly essays by members of the Anglican Communion.  Its stated purpose wa to help modern readers reconcile faith and reason.  In postwar Europe, essayist Alfred Edward Taylor argues, true faith cannot be blind faith.   At the same time, however, the truth of Christianity cannot be demonstrated “as one may demonstration a proposition in the mathematics” (Taylor 31).  Taylor proposes that Catholic faith is more analogous to art than to a science, and so must be studied and appreciated as such.  He writes:

[J]ust as the “artist’s experience” means the way in which the whole natural realm is experienced by the man who is an artist, so “religious experience” means not some isolated group of bizarre experiences but the special way in which the whole life is experienced by the “religious” man […] So the religious man, no doubt, means the man who sees the whole of reality under the light of a specific illumination, but he has to come to see all things in that light by taking certain arresting pieces or phrases of his experience as the key to the meaning of the rest (Taylor 71).

In other words, the non-believer cannot fully understand the religious man’s belief through logic alone -- because genuine belief thrives on symbol and ceremony, which are inherently abstract.  The central symbol of the Catholic faith is of course the Trinity, that symbol of “the redemptive mystery initiated by the Incarnation” that Spurr refers to. 
               Nearly half of the “essays Catholic and critical” are devoted to defining and explaining this traditional symbol.   Essayist Lionel Spencer Thornton distinguishes between the Unitarian concept of God, which he defines as a static belief that “the world is the necessary object of [previous] divine activity,” and the doctrine of the Trinity, which presents the universe as eternally active, an “unfolding expression of God’s love” (Thornton 147).  Essayist John Kenneth Mozley defends the illogical mysteries of the Incernation by asserting that divine truth must be beyond rational human understanding; to believe otherwise is to assume that God has the same limitations as the human intellect.  He concludes that the true Christian must embrace mystery, or else fail to apprehend it.  Mozley explains:

Christianity is not primarily the most satisfactory philosophy of religion, embodying in the most perfect form certain universally valid religious principles, but faith in a Person, to believe in whom is to believe in God.  If that is not true, then all that is most distinctive about Christianity falls, and even though a sentiment about Him and an attachment to him remain, Jesus will no longer be the Way, the Truth and the Life (Mozley 199).

Mozley further contends that the strength of the Catholic faith has always derived, and will always derive, from this essential belief in Jesus as Christ:

The Church at least knows what is at stake.  Her life is not centered in herself but in Him.  Her tradition, derived in the first instance from the faith of the apostolic age, is the rational account which she has given of her experience.  And believing herself to be the trustee, not only of the Christianity which deserves the name, but of vital religion and of its continuance within human life, she sees no future for her office and no security for her efforts except in the acknowledgment and adoration of Jesus Christ as Lord and God (Mozley 199).

            As presented by these essayists, Catholic (including Anglo-Catholic) belief in the Trinity is more dynamic, more universal, and more awe-inspiring than the “liberal Protestant” alternatives.  It is by their definition a more comprehensive Truth than anything the seeker can possibly understand in a rational way.  This “more comprehensive Truth” is an attractive answer to the needs of a particular religious sensibility -- a sensibilit that Eliot shared with his friend and fellow man of letters B.H. Streeter.   
            In his 1926 book Reality: A New Correlation of Science and Religion, Streeter writes: "God in His totality must be That which transcends human comprehension or description.... [O]nly in symbol can we name this supra-personal Personality.  And no symbol is fitting which does not suggest a mystery inscrutable - beyond logic, beyond conception, beyond imagination" (Streeter 213-214).  In 1923, Eliot had written something similar about religious authority: “If you find that you have to imagine it outside, then it is outside” (Eliot: “Function” 71).   What Eliot seems to be saying is that if you find that you need a God that exists beyond the limits of human rationality and imagination, then -- for your sake -- God does exist beyond the limits of human rationality and imagination.   This is not the same thing as saying that God always exists beyond the limits of human rationality and imagination, only that the kind of God that he personally can have genuine faith in must exist beyond the limits of human rationality and imagination.  This is not perfect logic, but as Eliot explained many years later (in the only sermon he ever gave), it was the only option that remained for him once he had pursued “skepticism to the utmost limit” (Perl 55).  He came to the same conclusion as Streeter, who argued that the Trinity is the perfect example of a symbol beyond logic, beyond conception, beyond imagination. 
            The contributors to Essays Catholic and Critical conceded that it is impossible to scientifically prove the divinity of Jesus or the existence of the Trinity.  What can be proven, they argue, is the necessity for Jesus as Christ.  On this point, the writers turn their pens toward the concept of Original Sin.  Essayists Edward John Bicknell and John Kenneth Mozley define Sin as man’s “a condition of ‘fallenness” requiring “not only enlightenment, but redemption” (Bicknell 211).   They also make an important distinction between Catholic beliefs and Anglo-Catholic beliefs -- helping Eliot to choose between Rome and Anglicanism.  The Catholics, they maintain, follow St. Augustine’s idea that man’s nature is inherently corrupt and that, apart from the grace of God, a man can only choose sin (Bicknell 214).  Anglo-Catholics, on the other hand, embrace the rhetoric of Thomas Aquinas, who argues that sin represents a “wounding of nature” rather than total corruption.  The authors, counting themselves among the latter group, emphasize the perfection of humanity in Jesus Christ:

We believe that the human life and character of Christ were based upon [essentially human] instinct, but in Him they were directed and harmonised into a perfect whole.  There is in this material of instinct and impulse nothing that is intrinsically evil.  It is all capable of right direction.  The problem is that men universally fail to control and direct it (Bicknell 218).

In their view, the (self-)sacrifice of Jesus was an act of redemption for all mankind, for all time -- available to all those who acknowledge it through the ceremony of baptism and subsequent service.  Through faith we may become truly human.  “It is a process,” the essayists conclude.  “When we are born, we are so to speak candidates for humanity” (Bicknell 219). 
            As biographer Lyndall Gordon has shown, T.S. Eliot embraced the concept of Original Sin as early as 1923 or 1924, when he wrote on the back of an envelope: “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).  As a devotee of Aristotle and Dante, we may assume that Eliot’s concept of sin -- around the time of his conversion -- was more closely related to the ideas of Thomas Aquinas than to the ideas of St. Augustine.   By March 1927, Eliot had come to emulate Dante as his literary idol.  In that same month, he wrote that Aquinas’s philosophy was the “coherent system of thought” behind Dante.  That said, it takes no great leap of imagination to understand why Eliot chose the Anglo-Catholicm religion.
            With baptism, according to Bicknell and Mozley, comes grace.  “The Church is in literal truth the home of grace.  By baptism the Christian is born again” into grace, which means “God in action, regenerating, blessing, forgiving, strengthening” (Bicknell 224).  Having reached the "limit of skepticism," Eliot was fully prepared to surrender his private judgment to the Authority of the Church.  He was willing to submit to the Church’s doctrines regarding symbols and ceremonies -- foremost of which were the Trinity and the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.  In one of the later essays in the Essays Catholic and Critical, Edward Gordon Selwyn writes with awe about the sincere seeker’s necessary arrival at this timeless moment:

The truth is that the empty tomb presents the mind with one of those issues where the decision is made at a deeper level of personality than that which is concerned simply with the weighing of historical evidence.  If a man follows the evidence so far as to envisage the empty tomb but then deserts it for pure hypothesis, it is because he is drawn aside by other than historical considerations.  It is because he has been overcome by that arrested wonder which underlies all serious agnosticism.  And the effect of the empty tomb is either to arrest wonder or expand it.  The case with us who study the evidence is the reverse of what it was with the first witnesses.  We first satisfy ourselves as to the appearance of the Lord, and find our wonder expanding as we do so, until it comes either to arrest or to yet further expansion at the empty tomb…

At the end of a long journey, defined by many attempts to reconcile faith and reason, Selwyn suggests that a man of Eliot’s sensibilities can reach only one conclusion:

Reason can estimate the evidence; but when that is done, it must make way for other functions of the mind - for constructive imagination, for wonder, and for faith (Selwyn 319).


Bicknell, Edward John & John Kenneth Mozley.  “Aspects of Man’s Condition.”  Essays Catholic & Critical. 

Eliot, T.S. “The Function of Criticism.”  Selected Essays.  New York: Harcourt, 1964.

---  “Lancelot Andrewes.”  Selected Essays.  New York: Harcourt, 1964.

---.  “The Preacher as Artist.” Athenaeum. November 28, 1919.

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

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

Harper, George Mills.  “William Force Stead’s Friendship with Yeats and Eliot.” The Massachusetts Review.  Vol. XXI, No. 1 (Spring 1980). 

Hoskyns, Sir Edwyn Clement.  “The Christ of the Synoptic Gospels.”  Essays Catholic & Critical.  Third edition.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1926.

Mozley, John Kenneth.  “The Incarnation.”  Essays Catholic & Critical. Essays Catholic & Critical.  Third edition.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1926.

Perl, Jeffrey.  Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.

Selwyn, George Gordon.  “The Resurrection.”  Essays Catholic & Critical. Essays Catholic & Critical.  Third edition.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1926.

Sencourt, Robert.  T.S. Eliot: A Memoir.   New York: Dodd, 1971.

Spurr, Barry.  “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.   Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2010.

Stead, William Force.  The Shadow of Mount Carmel: A Pilgrimage.  London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1926.

Taylor, Alfred Edward.  “The Vindication of Religion.”  Essays Catholic & Critical. Essays Catholic & Critical.  Third edition.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1926.

Thornton, Lionel Spencer.  “The Christian Conception of God.”  Essays Catholic & Critical. Essays Catholic & Critical.  Third edition.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1926.


  1. As was the case with the previous essays, Joe, you have worked hard to bring clarity to a very dense and difficult struggle...the struggle to find one's way through the geography of faith. Although Eliot is the focus, your essays allow the rest of us to re-examine how we got to where we are. As I read this particular essay, I was reminded of several things in my own life. For example, on occasion, when a student comes to me for spiritual counseling, it will be necessary for me to share some of my own beliefs...listening leads to self-disclosure. These essays are having the same effect on me. As a follower of Jesus (that phrase is more accurate than "Christian"), I realize that the Incarnation is one of the central ideas that keeps me grounded. The divine and the human become one...and that unity was lived out in a spirit of love and healing for all those around Him. However, as I aged, I came to adopt a certain description of Jesus from Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ: "My older brother and friend." I needed to make the connection more concrete, less abstract. What I want to give a brother and friend has become a central question for me. A thought on the Trinity: the Christian Celts were determined to explain the Trinity in a way that would speak to all human beings...whether they agreed with the concept or not. So, they decided on this: God above us, God beside us, God within us. At all times and in all places that formula never changes. We are forever surrounded by these three manifestations of the divine. Maybe that's enough for now. Thanks, Joe.

  2. Paul -

    I continue to be very grateful for and very humbled by your responses to these essays. As I told you, I feel like I bit off more than I could chew with this one. The Trinity is such a dense and complex topic, and I think this particular essay holds the seeds of an entire book... One that I don't have the time (or the insight) to write at the present moment. I have gained so much from researching and writing these essays, and from the dialogues that have come out of them. Your concluding remark resonates deeply with me. Maybe this is enough for now...

    Thank you, my friend.