In 1943, the tide of World War II shifted against the Axis powers, but as the Allies advanced, many began to wonder, What happens after the war? The luxury of this consideration came at great cost to the Allies and was earned through victories at Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, North Africa, and numerous other places in 1943. This was the year when leaders of the Allied powers came together to decide upon the world’s future. At Casablanca and Tehran, they declared the war would only end with the unconditional surrender of the Axis forces, the division of Germany, and the formation of the United Nations. As the war dragged on and men in power played geopolitical chess, Christian intellectuals realized the nations were not culturally or morally ready for the war’s end.
Alan Jacobs’ book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in the Age of Crisis investigates the hopes and fears of major Christian intellectuals who struggled to process the total devastation the conflict wrought. Jacobs focuses primarily on five figures—Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, W.H. Auden, and Simone Weil—with other major figures, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, making guest appearances.
Jacobs chooses these five figures because, while working separately, they all advocated for what he calls “Christian Humanism.” By humanism, Jacobs refers to the Renaissance definition: the rejection of medieval scholasticism in favor of a broad education, based on Christian and non-Christian sources, aimed at improving the individual and society as a whole. Having seen Western democracies fail to deal with the economic, political, social, and cultural turmoil that led to World War II, these five thinkers concluded that Western democracies were not ready for the postwar peace. They argued that only through the humanist understanding of human beings’ power and limitations would democratic societies be prepared for the new postwar order.
The Year of Our Lord 1943 charts the development of their thoughts and ideas through the course of the war and in opposition to both secular and Christian critics. Secular critics, such as Sidney Hook and John Dewey, attacked Christian Humanism as a form of religious utopianism. Meanwhile, it stood opposed to the other major Christian philosophy on international relations, Christian Realism, spawned in the aftermath of World War I. While there is much overlap between the two philosophies, they disagree on the humanist notion of individual and social improvement. The preeminent proponent of Christian Realism, Reinhold Niebuhr, said “the Renaissance…saw human history as a realm of infinite possibilities, but forgot that it is a realm of evil as well as good potentialities.”
However, the Christian Humanists countered these critiques by pointing out that their opponents failed to address the social, economic, and cultural alienation that led to the war. They believed modernity and industrialization’s disruption of society caused the creation of extremist ideologies. As T.S. Eliot writes:
But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas…as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.
According to Christian Humanists, the ideologies that ravaged Europe and attempted to scientifically solve the problems of modernity were the byproducts of scientific advancement.
This disruption of society unmoored the West from its heritage and bled into education where academia jettisoned the humanistic view of man and society in favor of a scientific one. Christian Humanists decried reforms in education that emphasized certain subjects for their perceived utility at the expense of classical education.
These intellectuals also worried that, because of the failure of education and disruption of society, democracies would not see the war as a moral failure but as an incorrect step toward progress. They wanted the West to return to the classical understanding of man and society and felt the only way to do so was to revive the Renaissance’s humanistic education. They did not believe they could turn back the clock but rather wanted the past to illuminate the future.
Jacobs succeeds in charting the history of these writers and the evolution of their ideas. The Year of Our Lord 1943 itself is artistically written, weaving together various quotes and writings. Jacobs must have spent a considerable amount of time reading and documenting his sources. In that sense it feels very academic, addressing all sides of the debate from first-hand sources. The combination of its artistic style and academic writing make the book very dense. Casual readers may find the book challenging as the author does not always interject to neatly explain how the ideas are connected. Unfortunately, this shortcoming will probably limit the book’s audience at a time when Christian Humanists’ ideas are all the more relevant.
The Year of Our Lord 1943 will not disappoint readers who wish to learn about World War II era theological and ideological debates about the world after the war. Considering the questions about the international order today, this work is very timely. Those who can cross its sometimes-uneasy currents may find wisdom that helps illuminate the future.