Auden and Bonhoeffer :: scientists and theologians

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Art is compatible with polytheism and with Christianity, but not with philosophical materialism; science is compatible with philosophical materialism and with Chritianity, but not with polythesim. No artist or scientist, however, can feel comfortable as a Christian; every artist who happens also to be a Christian wishes he could be a polytheist; every scientist in the same position what he could be a philosophical materialist. And with good reason. In a polytheist society, the artists are its theologians; in a materialist society, its theologians are the scientists. To a Christian, unfortunately, both art and science are secular activities, that is to say, small beer.
— W.H. Auden

“In a materialist society, its theologians are the scientists.” Who tells us what life means? What is the bottom line these days? The economy! The scientists who guide North America are the scientists of choice – those whose job it is to predict your buying habits, your interests, and just how to pique your pockets to shell out a few more dollars for the newest x, y, or z. American capitalism carries a pseudo-theology in its DNA – the science of its economics preaches a gospel of autonomy, proclaiming your right to choose whatever you want when you want it (i.e. what we want you to buy when we overwhelm you with cultural pressure). This gospel fights against memory, tradition, local identity, and any quirky colloquialism because these things hinder the free movement of goods, services, and “brand” identity. Furthermore, any ecological, legal, or moral restraint that threatens to limit growth is seen as a hindrance to be overcome. To say the least, I’m skeptical.

But recognizing the problem does not have to mean pulling out of the world altogether. Rather, it means a sustained (i.e. life-long) struggle to see through the smoke and mirrors and value that which is truly valuable on God’s planet.

This particular Christian happens to like beer…even small beer. And while some folks regard “the secular” as either a threat to be countered or an irrelevancy to be tolerated (until Jesus comes back), there are a few left with deep regard for art and science. These are God’s gifts to the people he created, expressions of human freedom. Through art and science (at their best) humans are enabled to serve and tend creation, love one another, and God above all – the very things we were put here for in the first place. Where Christians push away small beer in the name of God, they forget that God’s name is also Jesus – no stranger to all the art, science, and beer that Nazareth had to offer.

To go along with Auden, here is one of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes:

I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives. God will see to it that the man who finds him in his earthly happiness and thanks him for it does not lack reeminder that earthly things are transient, that it is good for him to attune his heart to what is eternal, and that sooner or later there willl be times when he can say in all sincerity, “I wish I were home.” But everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead – nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptious to want to have everything at once – matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem…

Bonhoeffer has a balance here (as well as in his life – which was considerably more structured than this quote would lead you to think), that I find admirable and exemplary…

That was a ramble – hope that some of the parts fit together for you.

W.H. Auden, “Postscript: Christianity and Art,” in The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 456. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison Enlarged ed. Edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

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