Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Although The Last Puritan provides no sustained discussion of Christianity, frequent allusions—mostly disparaging—to Christian history and theology combine with observations on Platonism, Goethe, and even German idealism to give the narrative in many passages a philosophical tone. Sneers at ministers as “second-hand minds” and at breakfast as “the improved Unitarian substitute for morning prayers” illustrate the Aldens’ common attitude toward Christian worship. Irma Schlote complains that nature is a “prison,” but for Oliver, a child of the Enlightenment, the enduring aspects of nature are “a saner influence than human religion under which to lie down and sleep, because they didn’t substitute one dream for another. They were not drugs.”

The most articulate expounder of Christianity—the Roman version—is Peter’s deformed uncle, Caleb Wetherbee. He lectures Peter and Oliver on the only two hypotheses open to us, both of them wagers. The “unregenerate natural mind” can follow a “heathen” philosophy into a “universal hurly-burly of atoms or laws or energies or illusions,” but there is also the choice of supernatural faith as expressed in Catholic dogma. Despite Peter’s contemptuous dismissal of the “old wretch” and his faith, Caleb’s brief rant has an impressive ring, as does his summary of German idealism as “a play of willful arbitrary perspectives.” However, the vicar of Iffley’s vision is different: Whereas the natural man suffers from a “strangled” spirit, the spiritual man withers under the “hot rays of revelation,” leaving religion as “a local heritage, a public passion, a last human illusion for the spirit to shed.” This grim conclusion offers little comfort, but of the many offhand remarks about Christianity in The Last Puritan, it may be the one closest to Santayana’s own convictions.