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Swords of Honor: The Revival of Orthodox Christianity in Twentieth-Century Britain
Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief by Joseph Pearce San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000 xii + 452 pp.; $24.95
Upon learning in 1928 of T. S. Eliot's conversion to Christianity, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister:
I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God. 1
Woolf's dismissal of belief in traditional Christianity as a distressing obscenity was typical of British intellectuals' attitudes during her era. From G. B. Shaw to H. G. Wells, from Bertrand Russell to [End Page 11] Arnold Bennett, a common supposition among the day's cultural leaders was that dogmatic religion was so much shameful hidebound superstition that people must be liberated from for the sake of their own well-being and society's progress. Although such sentiments had been growing steadily among the British literati throughout the nineteenth century, a number of trends converged in the late-Victorian and Edwardian ages to accelerate this secularization of British high culture. Evolutionism had already destroyed the idea of providential design for many thinkers; and these epochs' greater attention to the dark side of Darwinism, with its stress on struggle and randomness in nature, weakened further whatever hold the notion of nature's ultimate benevolence still had on modern minds. Moreover, biblical higher criticism simultaneously posed a radical challenge to traditional understandings of Christianity and the authorities behind them, even as scholarship in comparative religions questioned customary conceptions of Christian uniqueness. Finally, certain traditional Christian teachings--particularly the Atonement and Hell--were increasingly judged immoral. Hence, as Adrian Hastings notes, by the late 1910s and 1920s, "the overturning of Christianity effectively achieved by the previous generation could be, and was, openly accepted as a fact of modern life," making this period's predominant mindset an unprecedented "confident agnosticism." In short, "Modernity simply had no place for religion in general or Christianity in particular." 2
Yet Eliot's action was not as anomalous as it may seem initially. Despite this hostile cultural atmosphere, a substantial number of prominent thinkers reared in the late-Victorian and Edwardian epochs still chose to become Christians--and Catholic Christians--as adults, especially during the century's unpropitious early decades. Even more strikingly, in view of its longstanding minority, persecuted, and oppositional status in British society, is the fact that a disproportionate number of these converts migrated to the Roman Catholic Church: those eventually so drawn included G. K. [End Page 12] Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Eric Gill, Ronald Knox, Edith Sitwell, Sigfried Sassoon, David Jones, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Maurice Baring, Frederick Copelston, Malcolm Muggeridge, and E. F. Schumacher. Add to this muster "cradle Catholics" Hilaire Belloc and Barbara Ward, "cradle convert" J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Anglo-Catholics Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and one has a roster of some of the age's most accomplished public intellectuals. Orthodox Christianity's ability to attract such a large portion of these generations' leading minds into its ranks at a time when antithetical attitudes were at their apex is thus one of the central phenomena of twentieth-century British culture.
It is one, however, that has received little collective treatment from scholars. While studies of individual writers and particular genres abound, few critics have explored this revival of orthodoxy as the formation of a common community of discourse. In 1935, Calvert Alexander called attention to this growing trend in British letters in The Catholic Literary Revival. 3 But it would be more than...