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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 78 > The Christian Humanists

The Christian Humanists
Tolkien joined these authors in countering the decadence of a dark century.
Joseph Pearce | posted 4/01/2003 12:00AM

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No author works alone—even an author who creates a new world out of his own imagination. Born in 1892, J. R. R. Tolkien came of age in a dark, secular time. He responded in terms common to a group of English Christian writers—mostly Catholics and Anglo-Catholics—who upheld older, truer values against the dehumanizing trends of rationalist science and secular philosophy.

G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, and others all lit bold flames against the century's darkness. Tolkien's torch joined theirs as he turned to classical and Norse mythology and the timeless teachings of the church to forge a new "Christian myth."

Each of these "Christian humanists," including Tolkien, wrestled against the legacy of two men: Friedrich Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde.

Friedrich Nietzsche died, after twelve years of insanity, in the opening months of the new century. He was the most outspoken philosophical foe of Christianity in the late nineteenth century, and his ideas flourished in the twentieth. Convinced that Christianity was bankrupt, he proclaimed Schopenhauer's "will to power" and emphasized that only the strong ought to survive.

He maintained that Christian charity served only to perpetuate the survival of the weak and counterposed the idea of the "superman" (the Ubermensch) who would overcome human weakness and vanquish the meek. In Tolkien's mythical world, Nietzsche's shadow emerges in the "will to power" of the Enemy, most specifically in the designs of Sauron and Saruman but also in the ambitions of Boromir and Gollum.

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. The inheritor of the decadent romanticism of Byron and Baudelaire, he flouted traditional morality and was sentenced to two years in prison as a result of his scandalous homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

Nietzsche's pride found deadly "fruition" in the Nazi death-camps and in the rise of the abortion clinics. Wilde's prurience flourished in the sexual "liberation" of the 1960s and beyond. Nietzsche died impenitent and insane; Wilde was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed.

Against the influence of thinkers like these, the Christian humanists reacted.

G. K. Chesterton, the most important figure in the Christian literary revival in the early years of the century, fell under the spell of Wilde and the Decadents as a young man at London's Slade School of Art during the early 1890s. But he quickly recoiled in horror from the moral implications of their position.

Much of his early work, particularly his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, was a faith-founded attempt to clear the Wildean fog of the 1890s. Chesterton also crossed swords with the ghost of Nietzsche, refuting the neo-Nietzschean ideas of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. "Nietzsche's Superman is cold and friendless," Chesterton wrote in Heretics. "And when Nietzsche says, 'A New commandment I give to you, be hard,' he is really saying, 'A new commandment I give to you, be dead.' Sensibility is the definition of life." Chesterton's words, written more than ten years before the Bolshevik Revolution and almost thirty years before Hitler's rise to power, resonate with authenticated prophecy.

Those literary figures who have expressed a specific and profound debt to Chesterton as an influence on their conversions include C. S. Lewis, Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Alfred Noyes. Thus, without Chesterton, the world might never have seen the later Christian poetry of Noyes, the subtle satire of Knox, the masterful translation and commentary on Dante by Sayers, and the blossoming of Lewis's many talents.

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