(I should place appropriate stress on the second part of the title to this post: Auden is a figure who is of interest to me for personal and professional reasons (but for personal reasons first). Thus I am primarily concerning myself with his prose, in particular two essays he wrote on Kierkegaard and one on his own conversion experience. I am more than happy to be corrected on any of the claims I make, should they be wrong. Caveat lector.)
Armchair Freudian psychoanalyzing is not my thing, so I'm hesitant to use it. The English poet and essayist W.H. Auden was not so hesitant, especially in his treatment of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and so I will use it, in part, back on him. Auden, for those who don't know, was raised Anglo-Catholic/High Church Anglican. Once his teenage years arrived, he fell away, as often happens in youth (and Auden considers himself no exception in this way); sometime in his adulthood--the late 1930s or so--he comes back to his faith, in particular citing Kierkegaard's influence. But as is often the case, intellectual patrimony leads to something other than filial devotion--how sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful child. Thus Auden:
Much as I owe to Kierkegaard... I cannot let this occasion pass without commenting upon what seems to be his great limitation, a limitation that characterizes Protestantism generally. A planetary visitor might read through the whole of his voluminous works without discovering that human beings are not ghosts but have bodies of flesh and blood.
A damning criticism, if true--and certainly one frequently leveled at Protestant thought, especially in its Reformed varieties (Kierkegaard, being Danish, was a Lutheran). However, one can't quite read this passage, along with Auden's other praise of Kierkegaard (as, among other things, a genius whose gift is to speak to the highly intellectual), without coming to the conclusion that Auden has confused the status of the Protestant intellectual with Protestantism more generally. For someone like Kierkegaard, with such notable powers of mind, the physical must often seem to be of little moment (neglect, as I will for the moment, the question of whether Auden's criticism is true); but surely it is the case for everyone so possessed of intellect. One could argue, with some plausibility, that the same may be said of Augustine--so much love for the mind and the spirit that the physical is denigrated.
In an essay I do not have with me at the moment (alas), but is recorded in Forewards and Afterwards, Auden takes up the subject of religious education, again using it as a moment to criticize Kierkegaard. On Auden's account, Kierkegaard wants a hyper-rationalist Christianity taught to children; Auden would prefer one that stressed the elements of Christianity that children could understand--God's love, the moral virtues of the Ten Commandments, the excellence of Christ's teaching and example. Kierkegaard wants children to do something of which they are not capable.
(Here one must interject, because Auden's criticism is flatly wrong. Kierkegaard takes up the question of children's education in both Practice in Christianity and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. In the former, he notes that the one thing children cannot possibly be brought to understand is Christ's sacrifice on the cross; as Auden notes, children have precious little conception of sin--and K would agree. In the latter, K. uses this as a basis to question pedo-baptism: if children cannot understand the one doctrine that separates Christianity from pagan religion or any other form of religiousness, why attempt to force them into Christian community all the same? An honest observer would notice that pedo-baptism and adult baptism differ so much as to appear to be different in genus, not just species.)
Auden, on his religious upbringing:
My parents were Anglo-Catholics, so that my first religious memories are of exciting magical rites... rather than of listening to sermons. For this I am very grateful, as it implanted in me what I believe to be a correct notion of worship, namely, that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling or thinking.
All of which sounds well and good until one realizes Auden's own re-conversion was, first and foremost, a matter of individual feeling and thinking, and only secondarily brought back into the context of a community.
Now, if Auden is correct, and the austerity of Kierkegaard's religion can be accounted for in the alienation he was raised in, and came to feel quite acutely because he had the intellect he did, what accounts for Auden's turn in the opposite direction? It seems to me to be nothing more than the discomfort of his intellectual stature alongside his politics and Anglo-Catholic background. As someone with, so far as I can tell, standard moderate-left politics with a hint of socialism, the idea that he may be far removed from the average man in understanding and ability sat uncomfortably. Thus he comes to a religion that, when he wants to move to the head, moves to the body instead. He speaks lovingly of the Catholic affection for the body:
And it is with this body, with faith or without it, that all good works are done. All Catholic doctrines, such as the unity of the Two Natures, the special veneration due to the Theotokos, the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass, and Catholic practice, such as the liturgical use of the sensible--vestments, lights, incense--and the emphasis upon auricular confession, stress the physical reality of the flesh into which the Word was made.
Never mind that he denies to Protestants those theologies of the body which they would accept--e.g. the unity of the Two Natures. Never mind, also, that Auden wants his argument to go so far and then stop. Recognition of the body is good--we need it. Ritual sacrifice--bulls and blood-- and the practice of mystery cults--especially the ecstatic orgy-- both point back to the reality of the body (and the orgy even points to the unity of the spiritual and the physical); presumably Auden doesn't want to go that far, but one should ask why not (the answer, so far as I can tell, would have to be: because Christianity doesn't glorify the bodily altogether: some things are turned inward or made into symbols for a deeper reality. To which I would say: that is exactly the point of the Reformation.)
Notice instead who is never mentioned in these essays: the average Protestant churchgoer. Pity the Presbyterian or--heaven forfend--Evangelical who is so benighted as to not even realize that they're missing something essential. I (Auden) exercise my knowledge to bring me to the truth, and then make a loud point of how I relinquish that knowledge in the face of something greater--I, for all my intellectual gifts, humbly become one of the crowd, part of the community. What I sense is some anxiety about what it means to be an intellectual and a believer: the intellectual, already alienated from the rest of man, is poised to alienate himself yet more if he declares something distinctive about himself as a believer. But neither can he give up what it means to be an intellectual: and so will write on his faith and what it requires at great length, and excoriate those intellectuals who would take a different path.
Now, I should moderate my criticism: Auden's faith appears to be sincere, and one has no reason to doubt anything he says about its existence or what moves him particularly. But, it also seems to me, neither should we uncritically accept everything he says about it: he is not in a position to see everything. Surely community is a great good: but surely non-Anglican Protestant churches have it too. I can support everything he says about what Anglicanism is, but it appears to me that he engaged at no length with anything (Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer excepted) too far outside his Anglo-Catholic tradition. So one ought to take what he says, but only up to a point.