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Apr 10, 2013

Eliot and His God

Source: Tom Cono
The Waste Land (1922) may be a landmark modernist text but Eliot came later in life to, if not recant, then certainly to recast the views he expressed in it. Without religion, he warned, society would be condemned to ‘centuries of barbarism.’ And in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934), he amplifies this notion:
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, 
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, 
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD. 
Where is the Life we have lost in living? 
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? 
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries 
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
In Four Quartets (1944) he gives a wry nod to the solemnity of his early modernist vision. The river, which in The Waste Land is described variously as the ‘waters of Leman’ – suggesting, from Psalm 137, the spiritual wasteland that subsisted after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon – and as a Stygian water-course flowing throught the Unreal City, becomes symbolic in The Dry Salvages of a ‘strong brown god’ who becomes ‘almost forgotten/ By the dwellers in cities’, a god whose
...rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
Thus, for Eliot, God, an increasingly ill-acknowledged presence in modern life, nonetheless remains at its core, and the ageing Eliot is therefore forced to reinterpret the values by which one upholds society:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence – 
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The difficulty I have with much of this secularisation debate is that it rests on the assumption that everything must be debated from a theological perspective. The secular world is at fault because it has replaced spirituality with "superficial notions of evolution" behind which it hides from the progress of history. But if rational debate is conducted without the strictures of faith, why should it then be critised from the perspective of faith? Evolution isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of science.

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