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Modernism and Theology: Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Czesław Miłosz by Joanna Rzepa

Reviewed by Sarah Fengler, University of Oxford

Modernism and Theology: Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Czesław Miłosz, Joanna Rzepa. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan 2021. £79.99. ISBN 9783030615291.


It is a commonplace that the relationship between modernism and theology, in the beginning of the European twentieth century, was shaped by scientific progress and secular trends. On closer examination, this view turns out to be simplistic: modernism, a complex phenomenon, is not automatically equivalent to the vanishing of religion from society, the arts, and literature. Neither do new processes of secularisation and the rise of the sciences mean religion has become obsolete. In the first half of the twentieth century, many theologians explored how modernism and Christianity could be productive for one another, and poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, T. S. Eliot, and Czesław Miłosz examined the interface between theology and modernism through poetry itself. Indeed, the problem of theological modernism engaged intellectuals from various language areas and cultural backgrounds: theologians, philosophers, and writers alike attempted to determine the relationship between modernism and theology with their own disciplinary approaches.

             With her monograph Modernism and Theology: Rainer Maria Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Czesław Miłosz, Joanna Rzepa presents a highly original comparative study into twentieth-century works on the complex relationship between Christian and literary modernisms. Based on both theological and literary responses to the theological crisis and modernist controversy, she examines not only the intertwined development of modernism and theology, and the way they both undermine and enrich one another, but also sheds new light on the work of four renowned poets from a transnational point of view. The monograph is divided into two parts: the first section, ‘Reconciling Christianity and Modernity in the Early Twentieth Century’, investigates the role theology played in the emergence and development of modernism, both as an aesthetic concept and a religious movement. It provides the historical and theological background to the second part of the book, ‘Poetry, Aesthetics, and Theology (c. 1900–1950)’. This section contains three case studies with readings of Rilke’s, Lou-Salomé’s, Eliot’s, and Miłosz’s poetry through the lens of the relationship between modernism and theology.

            The starting point of Rzepa’s examination of the relationship between theology and modernism in the early twentieth century is the observation that the concept of modernism was highly disputed, especially among theologians. The vigorous debate surrounding theological modernism is not only mirrored by its rejection by Pope Pius X, who feared negative consequences for Catholicism, but also by new challenges for scholasticism—the established way of reading the Bible at the time—which led to the rise of neo-scholasticism. Rzepa analyses how modernist theologians across Europe, like Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, and Friedrich von Hügel, called for a new evaluation of the historical context of certain Catholic doctrines and attempted to adjust Christianity to the new realities of the twentieth century. Tracing the transnational development of these demands for a new, ‘modernist’ view of Catholicism, Rzepa points out how the debate on theological modernism spilled over to different religious communities.

            Building on this theoretical foundation, Rzepa outlines the historical development of the notion of modernism as well as the significance of religion for political ideologies from World War I to World War II. She stresses the growing importance of ‘the supernatural, the metaphysical, and the religious’ (121) during and after World War I, especially as spirituality promised to offer solace to some of those affected by the war in one way or another. However, the transnational ties of theological modernists were somewhat cut during the war. The Vatican considered theological modernism one of the causes of the war, and both the Germans and the Allies accused one another of having promoted modernist developments to such an extent that it had undermined the Christian faith. Rzepa also points out that, during the interwar period, nationalist and antisemitic tendencies gained steam, and Nazi Germany framed World War II ‘as a fight for the survival of Christianity’, first and foremost against Judaism.

            Against this background, Rzepa argues, both literature and literary criticism were important arenas of early-twentieth-century theological modernism. The role of theology was increasingly addressed in contemporary fiction, for example in novels by the Austrian writer Enrica von Handel-Mazetti or the Italian writer Antonio Fogazzaro, both of whom, at least in their writing, expressed criticism against orthodox positions. Literary critics, among them Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot, engaged in contemporary debates on modernism and employed theological terms and concepts for literary criticism, often equating modernism and neo-scholasticism with romanticism and classicism respectively. At the same time, theologians attempted to use poetry to support and renew their own positions, especially as some viewed poetry as something that existed in a void, remaining untouched from modernism.

            Having outlined the theoretical and historical background of the debates surrounding modernist theology in the first half of the twentieth century, Rzepa turns to the work of four poets to analyse the relationship between modernist theology and poetry: Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, T. S. Eliot, and Czesław Miłosz. In the first of the three chapters on poetry, Rzepa focuses on Rilke and Andreas-Salomé. Both writers, she points out, abandoned Catholicism and took an interest in Russian Orthodoxy. Religious icons played a vital role in Rilke’s work, especially because they changed the individual relationship to the divine and, in Rzepa’s words, allowed ‘an individual believer to co-create its meaning’ (247). Rilke and Andreas-Salomé understood spirituality and mysticism through the lens of gender, and viewed the affectionate as female and the rational as male, a perspective that must also be seen in the historical context of psychoanalysis and emancipatory women’s movements. In their poetry, the religious is moved to the individual, situating God in ‘the inner self of the believer’ (248).

            The third poet Rzepa looks at is T. S. Eliot, who, as she points out, engages with the notion of modernism not only in his poetry, but also in his literary criticism. Rzepa demonstrates that Eliot understood modernism as embedded in theological thought. However, he found it valuable for literary criticism as well, especially as it was used in other philosophical contexts too. Interestingly, although Eliot is concerned with theological modernism in his poetry, turning to mysticism and exploring how religion can be experienced in a world increasingly influenced by modernity, he did not want his work to be labelled modernist, or even associated with it. The final case study, then, is dedicated to Czesław Miłosz, who engaged intensively with Eliot’s poetry and poetics, and viewed Eliot’s work as an attempt to restore the power of religion through poetry. Miłosz himself, Rzepa points out, explored the tension between modernism and theology, both in poetry and prose, especially with regards to the debate on the pureness of poetry and the new aesthetics tied to neo-scholasticism. What comes along in his writings is his criticism of the role of culture and literature in the veiling of the horror of fascism.

            Based on theological and philosophical works on the relationship between theology and modernism in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as on readings of the poetry and literary criticism of Rilke and Andreas-Salomé, T. S. Eliot and Miłosz, Rzepa draws two conclusions: that the emergence of the concept of modernism was indeed connected to theology, and that the theoretical debates about theological modernism provoked manifold cultural responses, ranging from ‘contemporary philosophy, cultural criticism, print culture, and literary production’ (407). The political dimension of Rilke’s, T. S. Eliot’s, and Miłosz’s poetical engagement with theological modernism is evident from different developments: for instance, Rilke’s growing interest in Russian Orthodoxy, Eliot’s concern regarding the role of Christianity after World War II, or Miłosz’s condemnation of Nazi Germany. What the three poets have in common is their belief ‘that religious imagination was shaped through language, and that that language was always already insufficient and in need of renewal’ (421). Rzepa’s monograph not only challenges the view of literary modernism as a generally secular trend, but also presents a thought-provoking and comprehensive study into the complex relationship between modernism and theology. Offering new perspectives on the links between literature and religion in the early twentieth century, it contributes greatly to the field of modernism. At the same time, Rzepa’s comparative focus leads to a better understanding of the transnational development of theological modernism. The findings of her study call for further analyses of the work of other poets in and beyond Europe, both in the first half of the twentieth century and thereafter.