In his 1935 essay “Religion and Literature,” T.S. Eliot argued that modern literature had become progressively secularized. In response he proposed that “literary criticism should be complemented by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint.” Eliot introduced his arguments with the famous statement, “The ‘greatness’ of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards; though we must remember that whether it is literature or not can be determined only by literary standards.” The essay, and particularly this statement, has been admired and frequently quoted by those believing that morality and religion are relevant concerns in literary study. But for those persuaded by the chief tenets of recent critical theory, Eliot’s arguments are wholly beside the point.

In recent decades, standards and evaluative judgments have all but disappeared from academic literary criticism. A plethora of interpretive voices awaits a new work of fiction—a novel by John Irving, for example—but rare is the voice that asks the once obvious question: is this book worth reading? And even rarer is the question: is this book edifying? The abandonment of value judgments was largely prompted by the formalism of the New Critics. It was implicit in their methods, if not explicit in their assertions. This impetus was accelerated by the influential vogue enjoyed by Northrop Frye during the 60’s and early 70’s, when, according to the editor of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association, nearly every submission contained at least a nod of acknowledgment to Frye. Evaluation had no place in Frye’s scheme for a scientific criticism. “The fundamental act of criticism,” he said, “is a disinterested response to a work of literature in which all one’s beliefs, engagements, commitments, prejudices, stampedings of pity and terror, are ordered to be quiet.” Interpretation is the critic’s task, he insisted, not evaluation: “When a critic interprets, he is talking about his poet; when he evaluates, he is talking about himself, or, at most, about himself as a representative of his age.” Frye disparaged literary evaluation in general. He didn’t have to spend much time addressing in particular the question of moral evaluation in criticism; that issue seemed settled. As Lionel Trilling accurately noted in 1970, “At the present time the idea that literature is to be judged by its moral effect has virtually no place in critical theory.”

As a teacher of courses in literary criticism, I have occasion to acquire and examine critical anthologies. The boom in critical theory has generated a spate of such anthologies recently. Some are hefty volumes that attempt to include every category of the new approaches. But none of them includes a section with examples of moral or religious approaches. The nearest thing is a heading that uses the term “ethical.” The example for this category is an essay in feminist politics. When I queried the editors of one of these anthologies about their failure to include samples of moral or religious criticism, they said the thought never occurred to them.

But the alleged obsolescence of Eliot’s views is not simply the result of evaluative criticism and the moral approach becoming unfashionable. The recent challenge to Eliot’s statement about determining the greatness of literature goes much deeper. According to Eliot, moral judgment of a literary work should come after we have determined that it is indeed literature. Recent critical theory deems both of these steps unnecessary.

In the first place, such theory denies that literature uses language in any unique or “privileged” way. Consequently, trying to determine what is literature by using literary standards is pointless and misleading. Terry Eagleton, Marxist author of the popular textbook Literary Theory, suggests that we eliminate literature departments altogether and simply have departments of discourse, since the difference between forms of discourse—whether comic books, business reports, advertisements, or sonnets—is simply a matter of ideology. In the second place, much recent theory calls into question the common assumption that language is a reliable means of communication and asserts that we must abandon the illusion that the written word can be clearly understood. Since the meaning of all “texts” (a loaded word in current criticism) is indeterminate, Eliot’s suggestion that we bring in considerations from an “ethical and theological standpoint” is irrelevant. As Roland Barthes observed, poststructuralist theory “liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.”

Robert Scholes, a prominent scholar of recent criticism, summarizes this aspect of the post-structuralist outlook as follows:

Once we knew that fiction was about life and criticism was about fiction—and everything was simple. Now we know that fiction is about fiction, is criticism in fact, or metafiction. And we know that criticism is about the impossibility of anything being about life, really, or even about fiction, or, finally, about anything. Criticism has taken the very idea of “aboutness” away from us. It has taught us that language is tautological, if it is not nonsense, and to the extent that it is about anything it is about itself Mathematics is about mathematics, poetry is about poetry, and criticism is about the impossibility of its own existence.

From this perspective, the moral or religious attitude of a given work of literature can in no case be made clear; consequently, there are no grounds for an ethical or theological evaluation.

Eliot, in “Religion and Literature,” traces the gradual secularization of literature during the last few centuries, using the novel as his example. He delineates three chief phases. In the first, novelists took the Christian faith for granted and therefore didn’t feature it in their fiction. Fielding, Dickens, and Thackeray belong to this phase. In the second, novelists doubted, worried about, or contested the faith. To this phase belong George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy. The third phase, in which Eliot considered himself to be living, is the phase of “those who have never heard the Christian Faith spoken of as anything but an anachronism.” In light of current critical theory, we could add a fourth phase, one that Eliot could not foresee. In this phase, the antitheological activity Barthes spoke of has undermined confidence in the possibility of communicating unambiguous assertions about even the simplest of practical matters, to say nothing of religious faith and values.

Where does all this leave those who respond sympathetically to Eliot’s conception of the inextricable relation between religion and literature? The answer, it seems to me, is that those committed to a moral or religious approach to literary criticism must shift their defenses. Eliot’s emplacement, however well fortified, is far from the current battlefront. I use this war imagery advisedly, because the literary scene, particularly within academia, is presently a battleground, with traditional humanism in disarray if not full retreat.

I would like to draw attention to four recent publications that confront the challenges of contemporary theory in a spirit of counterattack but at the same time in a spirit of reasoned negotiation. They provide useful ideas and arguments in defense of the relevance of literature to moral and religious life. While not necessarily addressing the same issues Eliot does, these books assert positions that at least restore the ground for his arguments.

Wayne Booth’s purpose in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (University of California Press) is twofold. First, he wishes “to restore the full intellectual legitimacy of our common-sense inclination to talk about stories in ethical terms, treating the characters in them and their makers as more like people than labyrinths, enigmas, or textual puzzles to be deciphered.” Second, he wishes to “relocate” ethical criticism, shifting it from flat judgments about presumably stable works to “fluid conversations about the qualities of the company we keep—and the company that we ourselves provide.” This central metaphor of books as friends reveals Booth’s preference for human practice and experience over abstract theory as a basis for literary discussion. Tactful and inclined to qualification almost to a fault, he attempts to steer a middle way between theorists who view literary works as texts or systems of signs referring to no “reality” other than themselves or other texts, and narrowly ardent defenders of a vital connection between literary experience and the lives of readers. Booth has explored his subject long and tenaciously, and his extensive journey of reading is mapped by the abundant titles in his “Bibliography of Ethical Criticism.”

Peter Shaw’s The War Against the Intellect: Episodes in the Decline of Discourse (University of Iowa Press) is a collection of essays supporting the thesis that starting in the 60’s a change emerged in the rules of intellectual discourse whereby the marshaling of logic and evidence lost its prestige, while right feeling and good intentions linked with political activism took its place. This war against the intellect, as he calls it, has produced a decline of discourse—”a slackening in the process of critical evaluation.” His essays trace such developments as the acceptance of intellectual intimidation and the turn of subjectivism in discourse from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s. In addition to delineating this decline in reasoned evaluation, Shaw wishes to challenge scholars and intellectuals to reaffirm the standards of logic, evidence, and rational persuasion in critical discourse. Particularly valuable are the sections exposing the excesses of deconstruction and feminist criticism and the general decline of standards.

Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading: Thinking About Literature in an Ideological Age (Simon and Schuster) perceptively questions some of the fundamentally misleading dogmas of the new critical theorists and argues for a return to responsive reading of literature itself Alter persuasively insists that “the language of literature is distinct from the use of language elsewhere in its resources and in its possibilities of expression.” This position, of course, restores a basis for the first of Eliot’s steps of evaluation: identifying a work of literature according to literary standards. Alter also argues “that literature is not just a self-referential closed circuit but is connected in meaningful and revelatory ways with the world of experience outside the text.” This perspective allows for Eliot’s second stage of evaluation: the relevance of ethical and theological considerations. Like Booth, Alter is suspicious of the way recent theory pitches its discourse at one or two removes of abstraction from the emotional and imaginative life of the text under discussion. Also like Booth, he affirms a pluralism that acknowledges multiple readings but refuses to enter “the bog of indeterminacy.” Like Shaw, he insists that “there must be some grounds for discriminating between plausible interpretations and preposterous ones.”

The fourth publication I recommend, the one that treats most specifically the relation between religion and critical theory, is the 1989 volume of Literature and Belief. Guest edited by Bruce L. Edwards, vice president of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, this collection of essays confronts the challenges of recent theory by addressing the question, “Can there be a Christian theory of literature?” Opinion is diverse, but most of the articles attempt to accommodate some aspect of contemporary theory to a Christian perspective. The editor wisely concludes that “a single, cohesive Christian theory of literature is probably less important (and less attainable) than the continuing effort to respond responsibly and intelligibly to the challenge of contemporary epistemology to the foundations of Christian faith and practice.” He is correct; that’s where the battle should be engaged in this fourth and most drastic phase of secularization.

He also notes that Christian critics have been slow to generate counter-theories. That’s all to the good if theory means—as it too often does nowadays—abstraction, jargon, and opaque style. Theory of the same nature as that being combated is not what is needed. That is engaging the enemy on his own terms, and those terms themselves are the principal issue in dispute. Perhaps the best appeal from theoretical arguments—that meaning is indeterminate, that the author is dead, that we are confined to the prison of language and “aboutness” is an illusion, that the reader alone creates meaning, that literature is merely ideological power play—is not an appeal to counter-theories, but an appeal to actual human practice and experience as it has unfolded over centuries. All of Zeno’s theory, after all, fails to prevent the arrow from reaching the target.