An Eliot Interlude

For the past two days, we have been immersed in the life and poetry of T.S. Eliot at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  I am pleased to say that I have gone from knowing next to nothing about T.S. Eliot to realizing how much I have yet to learn about this endlessly fascinating poet.  Because we have been swimming in such deep poetic and philosophic waters, I have decided to take a day off from our journey through 1 Corinthians and reflect for a moment about the experience at Heavenly Rest over these past few days.

Our guide through the life and work of T.S. Eliot was Dr. Ronald Schuhard, a native of Abilene and the Goodrich C. White Professor of English at Emory University.  Throughout his lectures, Dr. Schuhard stressed that Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927 was not as sudden as everyone imagined it to be.  Though Eliot was regarded as “the hero of the skeptics” after the publication of The Wasteland, Dr. Schuhard points out that the poet struggled with the questions of faith in much of his early work.  He also observes that Eliot could not abide the humanist narrative, that original sin was a fiction and that humanity was perfectible without the benefit of a savior.  Indeed, one of the few things Eliot seemed sure of in his early work was the depravity of human beings.  Much of Eliot’s early work, in other words, reveals a troubled and rankled spiritual intellect, one drawn ever closer to the moment when its owner surrendered his will to the Divine.

In spite of the fact that Eliot was gradually drifting toward the Christian faith, the moment of conversion was critically important.  Though his intellect had moved him incrementally closer to “the ecstasy of assent,” the moment when Eliot became a believer is of critical importance.  Dr. Schuhard referred to the “chasm” that existed between Eliot’s previous life as a skeptical and nominal Unitarian and as a believing Anglo-Catholic.  This chasm was fixed, and couldn’t be easily traversed.  The only way for Eliot to cross this chasm was to surrender his will, the “essential faculty of his selfhood” (as Dr. Schuhard put it) into the Divine.  No amount of reason or orientation of his intellect would help him to cross this chasm of conversion; Eliot knew that true belief, true faith had less to do with agreeing with the truth of Christianity, and more to do with turning over the entirety of his will to God.

We all need to remember the substance of true faith.  As many rational arguments as we may make for Christianity (and this is certainly a worthy endeavor), becoming a disciple is ultimately about orienting our will to God’s will.  Being a Christian, in other words, is about putting our trust in God.  It is appropriate that “trust,” “faith,” and “belief” are all used to translate the same Greek word (pistis) in the New Testament.  Our faith is as much about believing what God has done through Jesus Christ as it is about trusting in God’s faithfulness.  We live in a culture where we are encouraged to “look out for number one” and do our best to foresee every possible contingency.  We live in collective fear of giving up our will, the “essential faculty of our selfhood, and rightfully so.  Part of what Eliot’s conversion teaches us, however, is that faith is ultimately about letting go of our will and trusting in God.

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