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  • Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Beliefs
  • Richard H. Armstrong (bio)
Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Beliefs. By Theodore Ziolkowski. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 296 pp. Cloth $35.00.

This elegant book seeks to reinvigorate the scholarship on secularization by examining different twentieth-century reactions to the crisis of faith in the light of what the author feels is a similar crisis in our own times. Ziolkowski, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature, is certainly well armed to make this argument, having published widely before on matters of faith (Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus [1972]) and myth (The Mirror of Justice [2006]; The Sin of Knowledge [2000]; Hesitant Heroes [2004]). This considerable reflection clearly emboldened the author to write a readable yet wide-ranging book without the hefty overreferencing and overcomplication to which a younger and less confident scholar might fall prey. The result is an agreeable tapestry of literary analysis that ranges over European literature with Olympian ease and yet Faustian determination.

Ziolkowski's main quarry is the beliefs and activities that served as replacements for the religious faith eroded by nineteenth-century culture, an erosion he briskly outlines in the first part, "The Decline of Faith" (chaps. 1-3). This decline had multiple causes, such as the Higher Criticism of the Bible, Darwinism, and the growth of scientific knowledge, but Ziolkowski is more interested in the figurations and contemporary descriptions of this conflict than in writing an intellectual history of mentalities. Thus he deploys in chapter 3 three novels—Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903), Roger Martin du Gard's Jean Barois (1913), and Hermann Hesse's Demian (1919)—to illustrate how a crisis of faith on the part of a son of devout parents plays out as a search for surrogate faith. The popularity of these novels plus their roots in autobiographical detail give the works a convenient evidentiary status, and the trajectories of their plots point [End Page 114] toward the "theologies of the profane" that occupy part two, "New Modes of Faith."

The author's main chronological frame, then, is the first third of the twentieth century, and the various reactive modes he explores are art for art's sake, the "flight to India," socialism, myth, utopian vision, and finally the renewal of spirituality through (re)conversion. Freely admitting the list is not exhaustive (science being perhaps its greatest omission), he defends the selection as nonetheless representative in that these modes attracted some of the finest minds of the twentieth century, who wrote "sensitively, articulately, and vividly" (xi) on the matter, and his attention to biographical detail constantly underpins his brisk literary analyses. Clearly not a work of social psychology, the book seeks rather to examine closely the ramified reactions of extraordinary individuals to the lost language of religious faith in the modern world.

It is much to Ziolkowski's credit as a comparatist that he respects diversity and difference throughout—indeed, the many separate trajectories he traces here underscore the modern sense of alienation, of being on one's own in finding a home in the interpreted world. The lack of a common destination on such a journey is part of the overall thrust of Ziolkowski's argument. For example, chapter 4 on the "religion of art" juxtaposes the pious and secretive aestheticism of Stefan George, the critical acumen and formal obsessions of Paul Valéry, and the Daedalean escapism of James Joyce. With Plutarchan concinnity, Ziolkowski makes his comparisons fairly and to the point, as when he observes of George and Valéry:

Yet for all the differences, equally pronounced similarities link the two great poets. Both were devout Catholics in their youth who lost their faith for nonarticulated reasons. Both were contemptuous critics of their respective societies and cultures. While George emphasized the rituals of religion in an effort to shape his poetry and life, Valéry sought order in nature and pure intellect to offset the disorder of the world. Ultimately, however, both turned to their belief in an absolute poetry to replace the lost faith of their youth.


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