The conversion of W.H. Auden

O here and now our endless journey stops.
We never left the place where we were born.

W.H. Auden wrote these lines shortly after his return to the Anglican church in October 1940 (see previous post). Humphrey Carpenter describes Auden’s conversion as follows (p.297):

The last stage in his conversion had simply been a quiet and gradual decision to accept Christianity as a true premise. The experience had been undramatic, even rather dry.

Not that there hadn’t been a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith”, but Auden had concluded that “such leaps are made in all spheres of life”. As he put it:

When the ground crumbles under their feet, [people] have to leap even into uncertainty if they are to avoid certain destruction.

Nor was he converted to a rationalistic Christianity:

He remained fully aware that there was no rational proof of the truth of Christian doctrine; he once remarked that all attempts to argue or disprove the existence of God are “returned unopened to the sender”…

Rather, he adopted for his own St Anselm’s dictum “credo ut intelligam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”):

Faith might itself be irrational, but it was the door to a system of thought which could explain the whole of human existence; and it was for such a system that he had been searching throughout his adult life.

Auden’s faith was not entirely “orthodox” or conventional, not least in “the attitude he took to his sexuality after his conversion” (which Carpenter discusses in some detail). He had hopes of converting his companion, Chester Kallman, to Christianity, as expressed in his poem “Leap Before You Look”, which concludes:

Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

But Kallman, while sympathetic to Christianity, “did not follow Auden into the Church” (and indeed, as Carpenter goes on to describe in the next chapter, their relationship soon became rather more, well, let’s say complicated).

Over time his views continued to develop, from the “Barthian, neo-Calvinist” (though still sacramental) theology into which he was converted, to a more relaxed understanding of Christianity as “a universal dance” in which “the spirit of carnival” was needed. Auden himself described his position as “Anglo-Catholic though not too spiky”; his theological influences included Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr.

A comment he made later in life is perhaps revealing:

…if I hadn’t been a poet, I might have become an Anglican bishop – politically liberal, I hope; theologically and liturgically conservative, I know.

2 thoughts on “The conversion of W.H. Auden

  1. Auden´s description of the bishop he might have become were he not a poet fits the late Bishop Paul Moore to a T.

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