Allen Tate, an admired Southern poet (friend of Robert Penn Warren and teacher of Robert Lowell), published an essay in 1930 diagnosing the complexities of Southern and, by extension, American religion. It appears in a work by defenders of the agrarian way of life, titled I’ll Take My Stand, a book with some high points of wisdom which are neglected, now, as a result of its significant/egregious low points of racism and Southern revanchism. Tate finds American religion to be pragmatic in a bad way, focused on an abstract ability to work rather than a view of the whole human. You can probably already see where this is going, but Tate’s depth and nuance are not to be missed:
For abstraction is the death of religion no less than the death of anything else. Religion, when it directs its attention to the horse cropping the blue-grass on the lawn, is concerned with the whole horse, and not with (1) that part of him which he has in common with other horses… and not with (2) that power of the horse which he shares with horsepower in general, of pushing or pulling another object. Religion pretends to place before us the horse as he is.
A bit of context: Tate writes in 1930 against the perceived excesses of an industrial, progress-obsessive way of life he sees breaking in upon the traditionally agrarian American South. Flannery O’Connor called the collection in which Tate’s essay appears “a very interesting document”, but “futile of course like ‘woodman, spare that tree.’” That is, Tate’s argument cannot hope to really effect a different state of affairs. We’re stuck, he believes, with a new religion of the working horse: identifying ourselves with what we may produce and what power such production gives us was for him a danger, for us a reality.
The modern mind sees only half of the horse – that half which may become a dynamo, or an automobile, or any other horsepowered machine. If this mind had much respect for the full-dimensioned, grass-eating horse, it would never have invented the engine which represents only half of him. The religious mind, on the other hand, has this respect; it wants the whole horse, and it will be satisfied with nothing less.
I should say a religious mind that requires more than a half-religion. A religion of the half-horse is preeminently a religion of how things work, and this is the American religion. By leaving half of the horse out of account, it can easily show that abstract horsepower, ideally, everywhere, infallibly, under other abstract and half conditions, works. Now the half of the animal that this religion leaves out won’t work at all; it isn’t workable; it is a vast body of concrete qualities consistently conflicting with the workable half; today the horse saddled admirably, but yesterday he ran away – he would not work…
We know that the cult of infallible working is a religion because it sets up an irrational value; it is irrational to believe in omnipotent human rationality. Nothing infallibly works, and the new half-religionists are simply worshiping a principle, and with true half-religious fanaticism they neglect what they do not want to see – which is the breakdown of the principle in numerous instances of practice. It is a bad religion, for that very reason it can predict only success.
The religion, then, of the whole horse predicts both success and failure. It says that the horse will work within limits, but it is folly to tempt the horse providence too far. It takes account of the failures – that is, it is realistic, for it calls upon the traditional experience of evil which is the common lot of the race. It is thus a mature religion, and it is not likely to suffer disillusion and collapse. Here it is very unlike the half-religion of work which has a short memory of failure… [The half-religion of work] has applied its formula for life-action with astonishing success up to now; but the end is yet to come. Tiresias is yet to come.
Probably Mr. T.S. Eliot meant to show this when he brought Tiresias into his poem “The Waste Land”; for the seer presents the bankruptcy of the modern formula as it is acted out in that most terrible scene in modern poetry – the brutally indifferent seduction of the typist by the “small house-agent’s clerk.” The seduction “works”; it works perfectly, too well; but the very working testifies to its failure. It can only be repeated mechanically over and over again.
(Image by Neil Packer)
For those unfamiliar, Tiresias was an prophetic figure in Greece, whom Eliot describes as having “foretold” and “foresuffered” all. With dark irony, the prophet’s revelation is something heartbreakingly mundane, not a “bang” but a “whimper” – Tiresias’s voice:
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man, carbuncular, arrives,
A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare…
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and excited, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
Tate rightly calls it “that most terrible scene in modern poetry”. The half of the horse that “works”, in this case, is the body, though the mind is hardly aware, even her regret and relief are half-formed. Sometimes Christian or other conservative writers suggest that casual sex is a result of pernicious culture. Eliot knows better: it is boredom, ennui. She puts a record on the gramophone: she cannot feel the horror, but will move on to the next thing. The record, too “works” to distract her, move her onward to the next phase.
What’s the upshot of all this? One could call it the malaise of pragmatism; when one is only focused on works, horse-power, one’s capacity as a doer, then doing is all one will be left with. The other half of the horse provides its ends, its happiness, its aesthetic capacity and its purpose. With only doing, “the very working testifies to its failure. It can only be repeated mechanically over and over again.”
Tate’s primary purposes were two: first, to critique the industrial North’s materialistic fetishization of progress with no end in sight, its choice of possibility over actuality, a possibility never actualized in truth, though superficially, always actualizing. And second, it was to suggest that the old South – which the book’s (I’ll Take My Stand) other contributors less-than-critically extolled – perhaps lacked religious vitality, lacked ability to cope with failure and evil, itself. (Think of Faulkner’s Compsons shutting their children out of grandmother’s funeral; they cannot admit of change and death.)
To hold onto the Southern agrarian critique would be beating a long-dead horse; to hold on to the industrial critique would be mostly futile, as O’Connor noted, not to mention outside our scope. But is there a Christian critique buried within?
An obvious failure of many essays in this work is the authors’ frequent implication that self-justifying obsession with progress was something handed down by the industrial North (some might’ve seen it as endemic to Protestantism, a la Weber). But some form of the obsession must lie in every human heart: Europe, so often appealed to in the (1930) work as a counter-example, looks mostly as progress-oriented as America now, and those who aren’t (Italy, Spain, e.g.) might wish they were. And Christianity itself has shown both errors Tate condemns: (1) focus on commonality, characteristic of gnostic and neoplatonist strains, escaping particularity and the material world, contemplatively transcending it, and (2) focusing on only the part of the horse that “works”.
This could go various ways. Someone unenamored of Calvinism could make Weber’s suggestion that predestination consigned God to the “up there” and opened up a space for human striving. A critic of Lutheranism could say that two kingdoms did the same thing, or a critic of modern-day Lutheranism could argue that Kant infected our reading of Luther with the result that “effects”, i.e. gratitude resulting from God’s atonement rather than ontological unity with Christ, became paramount, making it err toward pragmatism.
The critic of Catholicism could argue that its occasional (mostly modern) pitfall of dividing works and faith in the economy of salvation did the same. Others would attribute pragmatism to secularization in general – a simplistic thesis, but not manifestly false. It may go as far back as the critical historian of ideas wants to take it: before “Bible-slicer” Jefferson (Colbert), Plato suggested dispensing with the myths which had little instructional or formational value.
Whatever the case, when the sphere of human working is too sharply divided from a transcendent purpose, we’re left with process. In contemporary Christianity, process takes the form largely of self-improvement; millions would undoubtedly say that the main, or a main, purpose of Christianity is being a better person. Sanctification as a doctrine is what there seems left to do; Tom Wright gives a beautiful summary of the (troublesome to me) way of thinking, telling the story of a man named James:
What am I here for? He put it like this, as we talked. This is how it stacked up: God loves me; yes… And obviously all this comes with the great promise that one day I’ll be with God forever. I know I’ll die one day, but Jesus has guaranteed that everybody who trusts him will live in heaven. That’s great too. But what am I here for now? What happens after you believe?
Conversion put the whole horse in front of James’s eyes, but he wanted to go back to the part that work, the functional element of faith. Do I plow, do I race, do I read the Bible? Wright answers poor James:
Character – the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits – will generated the sort of behavior that rules pointed toward but which a rule-keeping mentality can never achieve.
Purpose: to pretend that we’re not just trying to keep the rules, so as to become the type of person who actually keeps them. A bit harsh, but still.
Another popular author, James K.A. Smith, at times errs toward the same contradiction: to achieve positive formation, we orient ourselves toward something beyond it. The “beyond” is merely provisional, a tool (implicitly) for reaching a state of human affairs, another way to make the horse work, to squeeze all the spiritual and ministerial merit we can out of these feeble wills. And everything – everything – looks like a prelude. As high school is a prelude to college, which itself is a prelude to a good job, which itself is a prelude to a better job, a prelude to a happy life – with fulfillment continually deferred; in the same way, we leave contemplation of the Cross, spend years becoming better people – for what? A vision of God, perhaps, after we’ve spent decades naval-gazing and progress-measuring? Things surely cannot be so dispensational.
Yet we cannot think differently than process-pursuit. Every age has its own set of problems; in ours, rest is anathema. One cannot rest in the first stage, but must immediately go on to the next. With so much working and progress, how do we rediscover the whole horse? Tate again: the religion of the whole horse “takes account of the failures – that is, it is realistic, for it calls upon the traditional experience of evil which is the common lot of the race. It is thus a mature religion, and it is not likely to suffer disillusion and collapse.”
Repentance, the biblical mechanism for formation, is in Greek metanoia, “afterthought”. The religion of half-horses does not pause for the afterthought, but moves on to the next big thing: “I’ve been struggling with X, but….”. The “but”, inevitably an affirmation of progress or the potential for it, takes hold: I’ll finally start going to the gym in the New Year, finally start praying tomorrow. The next habit or paradigm acts as balm, pushing the afterthought further and further away – a gramophone so the young woman’s half-regret never reaches maturity: “now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.” It is a religion of the future.
Christ accomplished very little, according to the wisdom of the world: healings outpaced by disease and disorder, teachings overmatched by stubbornness and misunderstanding. He could not bring the pragmatic Pharisees to despair in themselves, could not bring even Peter understand that the half-horse must die: get thee behind me, Satan.
We will be forced, by things in life, to take account of failure: there is no way around it. A pessimist might say that the reason our Christianity is no better – for all the availability of pop theology books (and blogs!) – is that the good they do is canceled out by their deferral of the afterthought. To-do list Christianity often acts, paradoxically, as an anesthetic: it loses the whole horse because we do not like to take account of failure.
Returning to regional politics, in another essay of I’ll Take My Stand, Donald Davidson wonders why, despite the old South’s cultural heritage, aesthetic orientation, and ample leisure time (for some), it didn’t produce more great artists. He answers that it might have, given time. This is a deferral, a poor speculation to justify a (still valuable) theory. The South, however, did produce marvelous art – after its defeat. One of these brilliant and dark artists, Flannery O’Connor, explains why: “we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of the country.” She, along with Faulkner and Percy and Warren and others, finally saw the whole horse.
Where are our limitations, and where has the progressing, results-driven half of us failed? Perhaps the whole horse is not recovered by the next habit or virtue, but instead in defeat, with the time, space, humility and urgency for a proper afterthought.