Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society

April 22, 2018

The Idea of a Christian Society
T.S. Eliot
(Harcourt Brace, 1949) [1938]
75 p.

Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about the potential futures for British society, and for Western societies more generally.

He saw British society as being on an edge between a Christian society, informed by Christian principles, and a pagan one, shaped by one or the other of fascism or communism. Interestingly, he didn’t consider his contemporary society as belonging to either of those broad alternatives, its formerly Christian character having been gradually worn away by subtle pressures, but rather characterized it as a “negative society”, which he described in this way:

“In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”

Western commitments to “liberalism” and “democracy” he took as being largely empty, the meaning of the words having degenerated into little more than self-congratulatory labels. (“If anybody ever attacked democracy, I might discover what the word meant.”) The salient point about a negative society, so described, is that it must eventually give way to something else, something with a more positive view of what it stands for.

The more positive social reality favoured by Eliot is the Christian one, by which he means a civic arena governed by Christian principles, even if many citizens are only nominally religious. This is perhaps the most surprising thing about the general thrust of his proposal, especially for those modern Christians dandled on the knee of Kierkegaard or Hauerwas, who, turning lemons to lemonade, have convinced themselves that a small Christian community of devout believers is actually preferable to a broad social consensus comprised mainly of half-hearted religious adherents. Not so, says Eliot:

“A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more “good Christians” than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity…”

His reasons for favouring this arrangement are that it is better for the lukewarm, for it is better to be unthinkingly compliant with Christian principles than with pagan ones, and it is better for the devout, for why favour conditions that make living the Christian life more difficult? His views are rooted in an appreciation for the ways in which habits and subtle social pressures can support or erode religious faith even in the most intentional and dedicated believers:

“For the great majority of the people — and I am not here thinking of social classes, but of intellectual strata — religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures; and the specifically religious emotions must be a kind of extension and sanctification of the domestic and social emotions. Even for the most highly developed and conscious individual, living in the world, a consciously Christian direction of thought and feeling can only occur at particular moments during the day and during the week, and these moments themselves recur in consequence of formed habits; to be conscious, without remission, of a Christian and a non-Christian alternative at moments of choice, imposes a very great strain. The mass of the population, in a Christian society, should not be exposed to a way of life in which there is too sharp and frequent a conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian, The compulsion to live in such a way that Christian behaviour is only possible in a restricted number of situations, is a very powerful force against Christianity; for behaviour is as potent to affect belief, as belief to affect behaviour.”

A Christian society, then, would be “not a society of saints, but of ordinary men, of men whose Christianity is communal before being individual”, one in which men “may frequently perform un-Christian acts… [but] must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.”

This sort of social consensus could only be realized, Eliot thought, in a society “where the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold”. Thus he argued for an established church, though one in which “the temporal and the spiritual would never be identified”, and in which citizens would favour their membership in the church over their membership in the nation, as reflecting a proper ordering of attachments. How this proper ordering would be established and maintained he does not say.

*

All of this, as I say, may strike a modern Christian, grown accustomed to the oft-repeated dictum that religion ought not to impinge on the social life of the nation, and convinced that sincere faith is superior to nominal lip-service to religion, as topsy-turvy, wrong-headed, or just bad form. And it is true that a close association between the state and the church has risks. But it is possible that the sad state of religion that we observe in Western European societies which have an established church might be anomalies; certainly most cultures historically have considered some cooperation between the sacred and the political authorities to be natural and beneficial. And, even on specifically Christian terms, it seems perverse to claim that fewer Christians are preferable to many, or that Christianity ought to have little influence rather than much. The ambition of the Church is to convert the whole world.

Or, putting it the other way around, wouldn’t it be odd if the secular powers-that-be woke up one morning and announced that, since some non-negligible number of citizens harboured doubts about the goals of liberalism, or acted in ways inconsistent with liberal principles, or just lacked fervency in liberal causes, that they would henceforth relinquish their power and influence and be satisfied with cultivating devout liberals who would stand as a “sign of contradiction” to whatever filled the vacuum it left behind? Obviously this is not going to happen, and with good reason. Liberalism is strong enough and confident enough in itself to give the people what it thinks they need, and — as someone has said — to give it to them good and hard. The Hauerwasian preference for small, devoted communities of Christians might be a prudent tactic in the particular historical moment in which Christianity finds itself, but it can never be the state at which the Church aims. No pun intended.

A weakness of Eliot’s proposal for a Christian society is that he gives no indication of how this society might be brought about given our current conditions and the historical trajectory we are on. Probably he has no notion of how this might happen, and this is understandable. It is also probably fair to say that he underestimated the resilience of liberalism, “negative” or not, which is, despite signs of fragility here and there, still very much with us.

The principal value of this essay, to my mind, is its stress on the important support which religious faith draws from being practiced in community and instantiated in social customs and habits, and also its impolitic insistence that Christianity cannot finally rest content with the status of a private pursuit, but ultimately aims at the salvation of souls — as many as possible — and the consequent transformation of society into its own image.

I was helped in my reflections on this essay by hearing an episode of the Christian Humanist Podcast.

**

“A party with a political philosophy is a revolutionary party.”

“Good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.”

[Understatement]
When the Christian faith is not only felt, but thought, it has practical results which may be inconvenient.

[The self-destructive telos of liberalism]
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.

[Education and the arts]
You cannot expect continuity and coherence in literature and the arts, unless you have a certain uniformity of culture, expressed in education by a settled, though not rigid agreement as to what everyone should know to some degree, and a positive distinction–however undemocratic it may sound–between the educated and the uneducated.

5 Responses to “Eliot: The Idea of a Christian Society”

  1. Troy Lamoureux Says:

    It would be interesting to known what Elliot might think of the Benedict Option or the Fill in the Blank Option. Thanks for this post.

    On Sun, Apr 22, 2018 at 8:46 PM, All Manner of Thing wrote:

    > cburrell posted: “The Idea of a Christian Society T.S. Eliot (Harcourt > Brace, 1949) [1938] 75 p. Written on the cusp of the outbreak of the Second > World War, during a time of tension and unrest, this essay — originally an > address — outlines Eliot’s ideas about th” >

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I agree. He’s envisaging a broad social consensus in favour of Christianity, something like what existed in the European past, whereas the Benedict Option is conceived as fitting for times of toil and trouble, like what exists in Europe now. Eliot was certainly not himself lukewarm or wishy-washy in politics or religion — by our standards he was an arch-conservative, and was seen as such by the liberal elites of his own time — and so my hunch is that he would have seen the Benedict Option as a sensible response to circumstances. But I don’t really know!

  3. dksgf Says:

    Supports my thesis that a “moderate Muslim” is actually a cultural Christian.

    At least in these parts.


  4. “something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify.”

    I read this book quite a number of years ago, and should read it again. The bit I just quoted has stayed with me ever since as a fundamental truth about liberalism. Though I remember it being phrased rather differently–maybe he says something similar somewhere else. Anyway, it’s true.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I thought that was an interesting way of thinking about liberalism: in terms of its dynamics, rather than its specific principles. I also liked the point about its knowing where it is starting from, but not having a clear idea of where it is going, and therefore vulnerable to ending up where it did not plan to be.


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