Auden and God

W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

T.S. Eliot thought of religion as “the still point in the turning world,” “the heart of light,” “the crowned knot of fire,” “the door we never opened”—something that remained inaccessible, perfect, and eternal, whether or not he or anyone else cared about it, something absolutely unlike the sordid transience of human life.

W.H. Auden thought of religion as derived from the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”—an obligation to other human beings despite all their imperfections and his own, and an obligation to the inescapable reality of this world, not a visionary, inaccessible world that might or might not exist somewhere else.

Auden’s Christianity shaped the tone and content of his poems and was for most of his life the central focus of his art and thought. It was also the aspect of his life and work that seems to have been the least understood by his readers and friends, partly because he sometimes talked about it in suspiciously frivolous terms, partly because he used Christian vocabulary in ways that, a few centuries earlier, might have attracted the Inquisitor’s attention.

His version of Christianity was more or less incomprehensible to anyone who thought religion was about formal institutions, supernatural beliefs, ancestral identities, moral prohibitions, doctrinal orthodoxies, sectarian arguments, religious emotions, spiritual aspirations, scriptural authority, or any other conventional aspect of personal or organized religion. He insisted that only adults can make a religious commitment, that the imposition of religion on children and adolescents was absurd. He had no interest in the megalomaniac sentimentality embodied in what he called the “Creeping Jesus” in Dostoyevsky’s later writings, where the Russian people’s love of Christ becomes an ecstatically satisfying excuse for military conquest.1 Auden also dismissed the popular notion of hell and damnation as “morally revolting and intellectually incredible because it is conceived of in terms of human criminal law, as a torture imposed upon the sinner against his will by an all-powerful God.”2 Some recent defenses of religion, in these pages and elsewhere, make much of an irreducible sense of mystery that religion responds to with feelings of awe. Auden thought such feelings were a distraction from religion.

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…


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