THE ACADEMYnReligion andnCritical Theorynby Stephen L. TannernIn his 1935 essay “Religion and Literature,”nT.S. Eliot argued that modernnliterature had become progressivelynsecularized. In response he proposednthat “literary criticism should be complernentednby criticism from a definitenethical and theological standpoint.”nEliot introduced his arguments with thenfamous statement, “The ‘greatness’ ofnliterature cannot be determined solelynby literary standards; though we mustnremember that whether it is literature ornnot can be determined only by literarynstandards.” The essay, and particularlynthis statement, has been admired andnfrequently quoted by those believingnthat morality and religion are relevantnconcerns in literary study. But for thosenpersuaded by the chief tenets of recentncritical theory, Eliot’s arguments arenwholly beside the point.nIn recent decades, standards andnevaluative judgments have all but disappearednfrom academic literary criticism.nA plethora of interpretive voices awaits annew work of fiction—a novel by JohnnIrving, for example—but rare is thenvoice that asks the once obvious question:nis this book worth reading? Andneven rarer is the question: is this booknedifying? The abandonment of valuenjudgments was largely prompted by thenformalism of the New Critics. It wasnimplicit in their methods, if not explicitnin their assertions. This impetus wasnaccelerated by the influential voguenenjoyed by Northrop Frye during then60’s and early 70’s, when, according tonthe editor of PMLA, the journal of thenModern Language Association, nearlynevery submission contained at least annod of acknowledgment to Frye. Evaluationnhad no place in Frye’s schemenfor a scientific criticism. “The fundamentalnact of criticism,” he said, “is andisinterested response to a work ofnliterature in which all one’s beliefs,nengagements, commitments, prejudices,nstampedings of pity and terror,nare ordered to be quiet.” Interpretationnis the critic’s task, he insisted, notnevaluation: “When a critic interprets,nhe is talking about his poet; when henevaluates, he is talking about himself,nor, at most, about himself as a representativenof his age.” Frye disparagednliterary evaluation in general. He didn’tnhave to spend much time addressing innparticular the question of moral evaluationnin criticism; that issue seemednsettled. As Lionel Trilling accuratelynnoted in 1970, “At the present dmenthe idea that literature is to be judgednby its moral effect has virtually no placenin critical theory.”nAs a teacher of courses in literaryncriticism, I have occasion to acquirenand examine critical anthologies. Thenboom in critical theory has generated anspate of such anthologies recently.nSome are hefty volumes that attemptnto include every category of the newnapproaches. But none of them includesna section with examples of moral ornreligious approaches. The nearestnthing is a heading that uses the termn”ethical.” The example for this categorynis an essay in feminist politics. WhennI queried the editors of one of thesenanthologies about their failure to includensamples of moral or religiousncriticism, they said the thought nevernoccurred to them.nBut the alleged obsolescence ofnEliot’s views is not simply the result ofnevaluative criticism and the moral approachnbecoming unfashionable. Thenrecent challenge to Eliot’s statementnabout determining the greatness ofnliterature goes much deeper. Accordingnto Eliot, moral judgment of anliterary work should come after wenhave determined that it is indeed literature.nRecent critical theory deems bothnof these steps unnecessary.nIn the first place, such theory deniesnthat literature uses language in anynnnunique or “privileged” way. Consequently,ntrying to determine what isnliterature by using literary standards isnpointless and misleading. TerrynEagleton, Marxist author of the popularntextbook Literary Theory, suggestsnthat we eliminate literature departmentsnaltogether and simply have departmentsnof discourse, since the differencenbetween forms of discourse —nwhether comic books, business reports,nadvertisements, or sonnets — is simplyna matter of ideology. In the secondnplace, much recent theory calls intonquestion the common assumption thatnlanguage is a reliable means of communicationnand asserts that we mustnabandon the illusion that the writtennword can be clearly understood. Sincenthe meaning of all “texts” (a loadednword in current criticism) is indeterminate,nEliot’s suggestion that we bring innconsiderations from an “ethical andntheological standpoint” is irrelevant. AsnRoland Barthes observed, poststructuralistntheory “liberates what maynbe called an anti-theological activity,nan activity that is truly revolutionarynsince to refuse to fix meaning is, in thenend, to refuse God and his hypostasesn— reason, science, law.”nRobert Scholes, a prominent scholarnof recent criticism, summarizes thisnaspect of the post-structuralist outlooknas follows:nOnce we knew that fiction wasnabout life and criticism wasnabout fiction — and everythingnwas simple. Now we know thatnfiction is about fiction, isncriticism in fact, or metafiction.nAnd we know that criticism isnabout the impossibility ofnanything being about life, really,nor even about fiction, or, finally,nabout anything. Criticism hasntaken the very idea ofn”aboutness” away from us. Itnhas taught us that language isntautological, if it is notnnonsense, and to the extent thatnit is about anything it is aboutnitself Mathematics is aboutnmathematics, poetry is aboutnpoetry, and criticism is aboutnthe impossibility of its ownnexistence.nFrom this perspective, the moral ornreligious attitude of a given work ofnliterature can in no case be made clear;nJULY 1990/51n