Review: The Year of Our Lord 1943

The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Summary: Drawing upon the work of five Christian intellectuals who were contemporaries, explores the common case they made for a Christian humanistic influence in education in the post-war world.

By 1943, it was becoming apparent that the Allies would eventually win the war. For the five Christian intellectuals in this book, the crisis had shifted from resistance to authoritarian regimes, living in the shadow of death, and how one persevered in intellectual work in war-time, to what ideas would shape the post-war world. The five intellectuals featured in this book, along with a cameo by Jacques Ellul in the Afterword, were known to one another but tended to operate in separate circles. They were: Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, and Simone Weil.

The basic thread of this book was the common advocacy Alan Jacobs sees among these authors for a kind of Christian humanism that would shape education over and against the rising pragmatism and technocracy that prevailed in wartime. Jacob’s method is to follow these thinkers more or less chronologically, leading off with a particular thinker, and then turning to what others were saying, sometimes in response, but often independently.

Negatively, Maritain, Lewis and Weil particularly warned against technocracy. Maritain characterized it as demonic, and Lewis created the memorable N.I.C.E. in That Hideous Strength. Without the moral framework of Christian humanism, you had the “flat-chested” men of The Abolition of Man. Weil called for a society that began with the notion of obligations rather than rights. Eliot and Auden, the older and younger, contributed to a Christian poetics, a vision of vocation, and a vision of Christian culture.

These were formidable thinkers yet one wonders why in the end technocracy and pragmatism prevailed. Jacobs describes a wider circle that several of these participated in called Oldham’s Moot. A more extensive study of this group would be fascinating. Most of those involved were Christian and were concerned with rebuilding the Christian underpinnings of European culture. They met regularly, debated various schemes, but eventually lost energy, especially after the death of German sociologist Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian Jew who was both odd man out and set the intellectual tone.

They illustrate a challenge that faced the five principals of this book as well–translating these ideas into the warp and woof of society–its political, educational, industrial, and civic institutions. Perhaps that is always beyond the capacity of such thinkers, except that they need to capture the attention and imagination of those working in these other realms who have some influence and the creativity to translate these ideas into policy and practice. One wonders if it was a lack of people outside their circles who shared their vision and worked entrepreneurially to foster it that consigned the vision of these thinkers to their books and publications.

Many think we are at another time of crisis, one that calls us first to prayer, and then to the communal work of thinking and refining and implementing anew. Jacobs shows us what these five were able to accomplish and educates a new generation to their work. Who will be the thinkers who engage in the retrieval and refinement of their work for our time? Who will be the actors who combine thought and action in creative ways? And will it be enough to check our slide into decadence and disorder in the year of our Lord 2022? These are the questions posed to me in this work.