Losing our religion but unsure about the new modes of faith

Modes of Faith
November 2, 2007

The author is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at Princeton University. He examines some of the substitutes for lost religious faith that have appeared in 20th century literature. He divides them into five groups: the pursuit of art for art's sake; the imaginative flight to India or to the East for enlightenment; the attempt to find a political faith in socialism or communism; the creation of new mythologies; and the presentation of Utopian visions. The general argument is that there is a European literary expression of a loss of traditional religious belief and yet an apparent compulsion to believe in some sort of transcendent power. Most of these new modes of faith failed, some authors returning to Christianity, others reconciling themselves to living in a "disenchanted world". It seems, Theodore Ziolkowski suggests, that European literature testifies that a hunger for transcendence remains, but we are doomed to live in a time of spiritual famine.

The author's range of literary sources is remarkable, covering more than 30 writers in many European languages. Few will be familiar with all the authors he cites and summarises, although they are all celebrated in their own cultures. So one major strength of the book is its presentation of a wide range of literary works from a variety of European countries. The consequent disadvantage is that some of the juxtapositions may seem rather forced. Nevertheless, a comparative exercise succeeds to the extent that it does bring out general trends of thought and attitudes in an illuminating way. It is undeniable that the author does this and so says something interesting about general moods of European literature in the 20th century.

I found the conclusion of the book a little too reticent. I was not sure whether this had simply been a record of what successful writers had written about the human search for meaning in what was perceived to be a post-Christian society. Or was there a deeper thesis about the relation of literature and religion, about the failure of modern surrogates for religion and about a human need for transcendence? Ziolkowski has written other books, and he may respond that we can find an answer there. Or he may say that his task is to lay the literary data before us and leave us to make our own judgments.

What he has given us is a data bank of European literature that provides a good basis for reflection on whether there was, in the 20th century, such a general literary feeling in Europe of the loss of ancient faith, and a continuing search for transcendent meaning in various ultimately unsatisfactory forms. It is noticeable that Sartre receives no mention and Camus is mentioned in passing. The literature of existentialism expressed an effort to get rid of transcendent meaning altogether. Or was it more ambiguous than that? Was existentialism also "a god that failed"?

Were the five modes of faith that are described really modes of the same sort of thing? Or are they a selection of responses to a rapidly changing and increasingly secularised society? The question remains a real one, and it is important to stress, as indeed the author does, that this is not an exhaustive account of European literature. Nonetheless, the sources it provides and expounds are likely to be more extensive and various than most of us could tackle on our own. And perhaps the author is right to leave us to interpret the material he provides in our own ways.

Keith Ward is professor of divinity, Gresham College, London, and author of Re-Thinking Christianity (Oneworld Press, Oxford, 2007).

Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief

Author - Theodore Ziolkowski
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 296
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 9780226983639

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