by Onsi A. Kamel, written for Professor Margarita Mooney’s course, Christianity and the Liberal Arts, at Princeton Theological Seminary

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis is a peculiar little book.  It centers around the responses of five notable, 20th-Century intellectuals—Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, and Simone Weil—to the crises of European and American society stemming from the cultural, political, and material carnage of the second World War.  Jacobs focuses upon these intellectuals, none of whom knew the others especially well, because they responded to societal crisis by theorizing about how to fix the relationship between Christianity and society.  This focus is precisely what makes The Year of Our Lord 1943 peculiar: the “main character” of the book is not a person or a set of people, but variations on an idea.

What was this idea?  The authors Jacobs highlights all “thought it possible—and necessary—to restore Christianity to a central, if not the dominant, role in shaping Western societies.”[1]  Each author had certain distinctive ideas about why and how to go about accomplishing this task, but there is, as Jacobs demonstrates, a core thesis in common: this task had to involve concerted efforts to Christianize Western education.  In evaluating The Year of Our Lord 1943, this review will first give sustained attention to Jacobs’ thesis, and, second, turn attention to Jacobs’ unique and engaging narrative method, describing and assessing it.  Third, a discussion of a couple of chapters will give a feel for how Jacobs’ narrative method works in practice. Fourth, this discussion will be succeeded by examples of the commonalities among and differences between the relevant authors.  Finally, this review will assess whether and how this book might be useful and worthwhile to particular groups.

Thesis and Methodology

From the outset, Jacobs is clear that his interest lies not so much with the total intellectual output of the featured authors, but rather with a particular subset of their ideas.[2]  Instead, Jacobs limits himself to the “pressing set of questions” raised by World War II; these are questions “about the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order, and especially about whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinning of that order.”[3]  This concern naturally led these thinkers to ask how, given “an increasingly secularized and religiously indifferent populace,” the passing down and formation of “Christian beliefs and practices” might be possible, and especially how those who are not “professional theologians or pastors” might participate in such a project.[4]

Jacobs’ method is unique, and it is undeniably well-suited to the task of exploring a set of related ideas in the works of various thinkers who rarely engaged directly.  Essentially, Jacobs constructs a roughly chronological dialogue between them based upon similarities in their thoughts and inspirations.  Ties between concepts in their works are evidenced by linguistic similarities, similar lines of argumentation, common participation in one or more institutions, or responses to shared intellectual currents.  This means concretely, as Jacobs explains, that narration begins “with one figure, whose ideas and writings are explored,” then, “when those ideas intersect, thematically and (roughly) temporally, with those of another figure, the focus shifts.”[5]  This process continues until the reader returns to the first figure, and the process begins again. In this way, Jacobs is able to “capture by an eccentric means of narration” the “circulation” of these thinkers’ ideas “from one to another.”[6]

Jacobs’ narrative method makes for engaging reading, and it gives him great freedom as a narrator.  He selects the texts, decides which ideas to highlight, determines how to frame the ideas he does highlight, and chooses which works to put into conversation with one another. Additionally, studying ideas rather than figures, or, perhaps more accurately, figures for the sake of their common ideas, allows Jacobs to move between them fluidly.  For example, when Jacobs discusses his characters’ engagement with the concept of demons, he moves, in the span of five pages, from the works of Charles Williams to Auden, from Auden to Eliot, from Eliot to Lewis, from Lewis to Maritain, from Maritain to Weil, and from Weil back to Auden.[7]  Such rapid movement is the academic equivalent of playing basketball: Jacobs is point guard, passing an idea around the court, seeing how each player handles it, and then setting up another play.

Sometimes, the connection between authors arises out of relationships they formed with one another in their lives, whether by participating in the same institutions or assisting one another in their work.  Eliot was Auden’s poetry editor at Faber and Faber; the introduction to Weil’s final writings, published posthumously in 1952, was written by Eliot; Lewis and Eliot were both participants in an organization called “the Moot,” and so forth.[8]  These kinds of relationships between the authors, their being situated with or near one another in space and time, lend credibility to the conceptual connections Jacobs sees in their writings.  Although none was especially close to the others, they ran in similar circles and read one another’s work.  Such connections during their lives are especially important given that Jacobs’ narrative method grants him enormous power.

Because The Year of Our Lord 1943 is a comparative project, and given that the thinkers Jacobs features were so productive and nuanced, Jacobs’ narrative method makes difficult the task of sorting out whether he is fairly representing the sources he wishes to put into conversation.  Concepts developed by an intellectual are embedded within that thinker’s broader system, and they take on their full meaning and significance in relationship to other concepts within that system.  Jacobs’ methodology constructs a new context for these concepts, placing these intellectuals’ thoughts in relationship to similar themes in the thoughts of others.  The reader is forced to trust both Jacobs’ interpretation of a given concept as it exists in its original context and his connection of it to other concepts in another person’s thought.[9]   To give just one example from the book, Jacobs moves from Maritain’s views of technology to Lewis’ views of science without qualifying how these concepts might be related but not synonymous.[10]  He directly connects the concepts instead of articulating Maritain’s or Lewis’s views in relationship to, for example, a higher vision of the human person or human freedom.

Nevertheless, in this reviewer’s estimation, Jacobs accomplishes his overall task ably. He provides qualifications where necessary and highlights differences where relevant.  The technique renders the scholar the sole tour guide in an exhibit he designs without assistance. Publishers should therefore be wary of allowing this novel and fascinating new academic method of narration to be undertaken by younger, less proven scholars.

Examples of Chapters, and the Fruit Jacobs’ Narrative Method

Each chapter in Jacobs’ books covers a distinct theme common to the featured intellectuals’ thought, and Jacobs often relates these themes to their broader social context.  The first chapter, for example, establishes the broad outline of the debates about higher education taking place in the United States.  Here Jacobs highlights the opposition of Robert Maynard Hutchins, then-president of the University of Chicago, to positivism and John Dewey’s pragmatism. Jacobs relates both philosophical movements to Jacques Maritain’s counterproposals and to the various institutes to which the book’s featured intellectuals belonged.[11]  Likewise, in the third chapter, “Learning in War Time,”[12]  Jacobs puts his protagonists in conversation with other Christian approaches to “social renewal” at the time.[13]

Each chapter in Jacobs’ book contributes to the climactic, penultimate chapter, “The Year of Our Lord 1943,” in which Jacobs engages the educational proposals of each protagonist to bring about social renewal.  In essence, each author proposes a distinctly Christian model of education as a bulwark against centralized, state-mandated, and supposedly “scientific” or technocratic models of education.[14]  Together, these authors opposed what Jacques Ellul, the French Reformed philosopher who features in the “Afterword,” called “technology,” and together they proposed a model of education which would renew society by forming individuals well.[15]  There are various differences between the authors, which Jacobs flags appropriately.  Weil, for instance, conceives of all “social orders” as belonging to “the prince of this world” (i.e. the devil), whereas Eliot believes that culture is the “incarnation of religion.”[16]  There are numerous common themes, however—remarkable given the variety of Christian options on offer.  For example, “Weil echoes Maritain and Lewis in calling for an education that trains…the affections at least as seriously as it attends to the mind,” and Eliot shares Lewis’ worry that the state will seek to reduce the “role of the family in education.”[17]

Relationship to Class and Recommendations

The relationship of the themes of this book to those of our class is fairly straightforward: both are concerned with understanding the relationship between Christianity and society, and furthermore with developing models of education which are themselves Christian or which are consonant with Christianity.  There are, of course, certain differences.  The authors featured in Jacobs’ account are less interested in Liberal Arts as a formal category and more concerned with educational models which pass down the content of the Greco-Christian tradition.  The intellectuals featured in Jacobs’ book were responding to the devastation of two World Wars, which they saw as arising out of poisonous intellectual currents; our focus has been on combatting not totalitarian ideologies per se, but rather totalitarian technologies and technocratic approaches to education more generally.  This indicates a further difference: the proposals of these authors, whether they were taken up or not, did not lead to the defeat of a technocratic or technological mentality, and secularization in Europe and America shows few signs of abating.[18]  Jacobs’ readers are not responding to the specter of a thoroughgoing and pervasive technocracy, but to its fruits.

Nevertheless, The Year of Our Lord 1943 has proved helpful to this reviewer’s thinking concerning the topics which the class has covered.  Because Jacobs’ discussion often branches out into discussions of other educational movements and proposals of the early- and mid-20th Century (including Dewey’s and Niebuhr’s), it contextualizes many of the debates we have been having.  Furthermore, because Jacobs is such an apt narrator, the reader is provided detailed accounts of each author’s proposals in accessible prose. This makes the book, or at least selections from it, very useful for a survey course.  It even provides a detailed overview of Maritain’s Education at the Crossroads, excerpts of which we were assigned.

This book would also be appropriate for interested and educated non-experts.  It is intentionally readable (the prose is decidedly conversational), brief (just 206 pages), and its formatting is unimposing (it uses endnotes rather than footnotes).  Families seeking to better understand the relevant issues in education, and especially Christian families, would do well to consult this book.  My own family would likely have benefited greatly from it while I was growing up.

Conclusion

In sum, Alan Jacobs has presented a highly readable and unique treatment of a topic of great importance.  His idiosyncratic narrative method is worthy of scholarly consideration, and it makes The Year of Our Lord 1943 genuinely enjoyable to read.  As discussed above, however, publishers must be careful not to allow unproven or young scholars to utilize it because, by design, it entrusts the author to an abnormal degree with the presentation, organization, and even selection of the primary sources.  Regardless, it works to great effect in illuminating the views of the five featured intellectuals on education and society, especially as their views related to prominent alternative philosophies of education and technology.  Those interested in 20th-Century Christian engagements with education and society would be off to a good start by beginning with Jacobs’ book.

[1] Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), xv.

[2] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, xvi.

“A reasonably full accounting” of their “ceaseless and frenetic activity would need to be a thousand pages long.”

[3] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, xvi.

[4] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, xvii.

[5] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, xviii.

[6] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, xviii.

[7] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 73-77.

[8] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 143, 155, 25, respectively.

[9] Again, this context is simply the other concepts within a single system of thought.

[10] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 131.

[11] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 14, 17, 19, 20, 23-33.

[12] Jacobs borrowed this chapter title from Lewis’ famous sermon of the same name.

[13] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 51.

[14] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 124, 131, 137-141, 143-150.

[15] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 201-206.

[16] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 150, 161; emphasis original.

[17] Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, 152, 164.

[18] That said, more general secularization theses do seem to have been disproven and/or called into serious question given the enduring and even increasing religiosity of peoples in the Global South