Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On W.H. Auden, God, and prayer

My English degree focused on the Victorian  and post-Victorian novel, so while I read Auden casually I didn't study him closely.  From the New York Review of Books (H/T Episcopal Cafe), we learn that cranky WH Auden was actually a deeply generous man
Auden’s sense of his divided motives was inseparable from his idiosyncratic Christianity. He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation—which he knew he could never fulfill—to love his neighbor as himself, and he alluded to that commandment in a late haiku: “He has never seen God/but, once or twice, he believes/he has heard Him.” He took communion every Sunday and valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a “link between the dead and the unborn,” a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves.
I found that description quite resonant.

 A previous article about Auden explains  that he was moved by a vision to discover the need to value all others, and that he was a Christian by ideal rather than by specific doctrinal belief.
Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment. 
He made it clear that he understood perfectly well that any belief he might have in the personal God of the monotheist religions was a product of the anthropomorphic language in which human beings think.
...Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” To become a Christian, as he understood it, did not require belief in an immortal soul separable from the body (a Platonic doctrine, he called this, not a Christian one) nor in the resurrection of Christ (which he only mentioned in order to remark that he could not make himself believe in it) nor in miracles that violated the laws of physics.

And from the same source, here he is on prayer:
To pray,” Auden wrote, “is to pay attention or, shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—be it on a landscape, or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is praying.” 
yeah, I have trouble with the term "prayer" but I think I get what he's saying.

No comments: