Saturday, 25 April 2015

The idea of a Christian Society - the genius of T.S. Eliot

I nearly lost the will to live trying to read the poetry of T.S. Eliot when I was younger. Unknown to me back then, he was a member of the Church of England and wrote the ‘Idea of a Christian Society’. This little book is much more interesting to me. It’s a great book, and I’ll be blogging some startling excerpts from it in the future. As a taster, here is a shortened version of an article he wrote first, before the book., in 1937 

It is an amazing bit of thinking. Some of it could have been written today. Some of it is poignant – as the crimes of 1940s Germany are almost within sight. But it’s prophetic of the evils of our day as much as his. Eliot believed that the Church had an important part to play in influencing society for the better. He doesn’t tell us how to run the world. But he teaches Christians to think about how they can positively influence the way it is run.

Without further ado, here are the man’s words on the place of the church in English society.


T.S Eliot “Church, Community and State” February 1937, The Listener


... What is often assumed, and it is a principle that I wish to oppose, is the principle of live-and-let-live...

I do not mean that the Church exists primarily for the propagation of Christian morality: morality is a means and not an end. The Church exists for the glory of God and the sanctification of souls: Christian morality is part of the means by which these ends are to be attained...  To accept two ways of life in the same society, one for the Christian and one for the rest would be for the church to abandon its task of evangelising the world. For the more alien the non-Christian world becomes, the more difficult becomes its conversion.

The church is not merely for the elect... Nor does it allow us to be Christian in some social relations and non-Christian in others... It therefore must struggle for a condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives, and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christians...

Now, how is the Church to interfere in the World? I do not propose to take up the rest of my time by denouncing Fascism and Communism. This task has been more ably performed by others, and the conclusions may be taken for granted... [Written in 1937, how poignant is that? CG]

We need not assume that our own form of constitutional democracy is the only one suitable for a Christian people, or that it is in itself a guarantee against an anti-Christian world. Instead of merely condemning Fascism and Communism, therefore, we might do well to consider that we also live in a mass-civilisation following many wrong ambitions and wrong desires, and that if our society renounces completely its obedience to God, it will become no better, and possibly worse, than some of those abroad which are popularly execrated...

The influence of the Church can be exerted in several ways. It may oppose, or it may support, particular actions at particular times. It is acclaimed when it supports any cause that is already assured of a good deal of secular support; it is attacked, quite naturally, when it opposes anything that people think they want. Whether people say the Church ought to interfere, or whether they say it ought to mind its own business, depends mostly on whether they agree or disagree with its attitude upon the issue of the moment. A very difficult problem arises whenever there is occasion for the Church to resist any innovation – either in legislation or social practice – which is contrary to Christian principles. To those who deny, or do not fully accept, Christian doctrine, or who wish to interpret it according to their private lights, such resistance often appears oppressive. To the unreasoning mind the Church can often be made to appear to be the enemy of progress and enlightenment. The Church may not always be strong enough to resist successfully: but I do not see how it can ever accept as a permanent settlement one law for itself and another for the world...

... one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but the machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people – a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth – never in oneself... for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself...

It is not enough simply to see the evil and injustice and suffering of this world, and precipitate oneself into action. We must know, what only theology can tell us, why these things are wrong. Otherwise, we may right some wrongs at the cost of creating new ones...   

... the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.

Perhaps the dominant vice of our time, from the point of view of the Church, will be proved to be Avarice. Surely there is something wrong in our attitude towards money. The acquisitive, rather than the creative and spiritual instincts, are encouraged. The fact that money is always forthcoming for the purpose of making more money, whilst it is so difficult to obtain... for the needs of the most needy, is disturbing to those who are not economists...

We cannot be satisfied to be Christians at our devotions and merely secular reformers all the rest of the week, for there is one question that we need to ask ourselves every day and about whatever business. The Church has perpetually to answer this question: to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?


The second part of my quotes from T S Eliot on this subject is at the following link: 


  1. Interesting article. I come from a tradition that believes it is not the church's job to change the world but only to be lights to it, so the idea of any kind of activism or political involvement is foreign to me. I do like his comment that the church should not be conservative, liberal, or revolutionary. In my view, it should be Christian, true, biblical, righteous, and holy. Those things are not conservative, liberal, or revolutionary in any political sense. They are God's principles and way of life. That the church has failed to do this in most cases has brought us to the state the world is in today.

  2. Many thanks, Richard, for contributing to this discussion. Now as much as ever, it's the churches that need to wake up, before we can expect government to do so. Maybe that sort of echoes your point.