Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Idea of a Christian Society (part 2) T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot wrote a short book about what a Christian society could be in Britain. It is amazing. In places it is almost as if it could have been written today. It speaks for itself, so I am just quoting a few passages of interest, and I will make only the briefest of comments. T.S. Eliot published this in 1939 before it was known that Britain would be at war with Germany. 76 years have passed since Eliot wrote these words.

Without further ado...

T.S Eliot “The Idea of a Christian Society” 1939 Faber and Faber Ltd.
Eliot here says something I believe so true. If people knew a few decades back what they know now, the brakes would have been applied to a lot of social changes that have undermined the value of Christian ethics to society:

"I believe that the choice before us now is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one. Both involve radical changes; but I believe that the majority of us, if we could be faced immediately with all the changes which will only be accomplished in several generations, would prefer Christianity." [emphasis added] pg 13

Eliot couldn’t see much hope in liberalism and democracy:

"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... Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos."  Pg 15-16

"In religion, Liberalism may be characterised as a progressive discarding of elements in historical Christianity which appear superfluous or obsolete, confounded with practices and abuses which are legitimate targets of attack. But as its movement is controlled rather by its origin than by any goal, it loses force after a series of rejections, and with nothing to destroy is left with nothing to uphold and with nowhere to go."  Pg 16

"... a nationalism which is overtly antagonistic to Christianity is a less dangerous menace for us than a nationalism which professes a Christianity from which all Christian content has been evacuated." Pg 79

"... democracy, [is] a term which, for the present generation, still has a Liberal connotation of ‘freedom’. But totalitarianism can retain the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ and give them its own meaning..." pg 19

Eliot said something that calls to my mind the way that there has been a revolution by stealth in my lifetime in the way that anti-Christian philosophies have become part of society and influenced all the main political parties for the worse. We are now dominated by a metropolitan liberal elite imposing a skewed political correctness on everyone else:

"If a revolutionary party attains its true end, its political philosophy will, by a process of growth, become that of a whole culture; if it attains its more facile end, its political philosophy will be that of a dominant class or group, in a society in which the majority will be passive, and the minority oppressed."  Pg 27

Eliot wanted his readers to think about how British society could have a Christian future:

"Assuming that our present society is neutral rather than non-Christian, I am concerned with enquiring what it might be like if it took the Christian direction." Pg 69

"... we need to consider both what kind of a society we have at this time, and what a Christian society would be like. We should also be quite sure of what we want: if your real ideals are those of materialistic efficiency, then the sooner you know your own mind, and face the consequences, the better."  Pg 21

Eliot saw the danger that secularism could take over society:

"... a liberalised or negative condition of society must either proceed into a gradual decline of which we see no end, or (whether as a result of catastrophe or not) reform itself into a positive shape which is likely to be effectively secular."  Pg 25

"... a thoroughgoing secularism would be objectionable, in its consequences, even to those who attach no positive importance to the survival of Christianity for its own sake."  Pg 25

Eliot saw that, in a secularised society, Christians would find themselves barred from keeping up Christian behaviour in one place or another, and that the same forces would make society less and less Christian:

"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."  Pg30

"However bigoted the announcement may sound, the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organisation of society – which is not the same thing as a society consisting exclusively of devout Christians. It would be a society in which the natural end of man – virtue and well-being in community – is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end – beatitude – for those who have the eyes to see it. I do not wish, however, to abandon my previous point, that a Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour."  Pg 34

Eliot saw that the education system would have an important part to play in a Christian society:

"In a Christian Society, education must be religious, not in the sense that it will be administered by ecclesiastics, still less in the sense that it will exercise pressure, or attempt to instruct everyone in theology, but in the sense that its aims will be directed by a Christian philosophy of life."  Pg 37

"A nation’s system of education is much more important that its system of government; only a proper system of education can unify the active and the contemplative life, action and speculation, politics and the arts."  Pg 41

Eliot believed that the Church of England had an important role in making Britain a more Christian society, and that other denominations should act towards unity with it, so that the Church could more effectively keep the government under critique:

".. such a society can only be realised when the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold... if the desirability of unity be admitted, if the idea of a Christian society be grasped and accepted, then it can only be realised, in England, through the Church of England... At times, it can and should be in conflict with the State, in rebuking derelictions in policy, or in defending itself against encroachments of the temporal power, or in shielding the community against tyranny and asserting its neglected rights, or in contesting heretical opinion or immoral legislation and administration."  Pg 46-48

Eliot wrote about the idea of disestablishment to separate the Church of England from the State. He sets out some of the problems of having an ‘established’ church but then says:

"That abuses and defects of another kind might make their appearance in a disestablished church, is a possibility which has not perhaps received another attention... we must pause to reflect that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be re-established, and that the very acts of disestablishment separates it more definitely and irrevocably from the life of the nation than if it had never been established. The effect on the mind of the people of the visible and dramatic withdrawal of the Church from the affairs of the nation, of the deliberate recognition of two standards and ways of life, of the Church’s abandonment of all who those who are not by their wholehearted profession within the fold – this is incalculable; the risks are so great that such an act can be nothing but a desperate measure. It appears to assume something which I am not yet ready to take for granted: that the division between Christians and non-Christians in this country is already, or is determined to become, so clear that it can be reduced to statistics. But if one believes, as I do, that the great majority of people are neither one thing nor the other, but are living in a no man’s land, then the situation looks very different; and disestablishment instead of being the recognition of a condition at which we have arrived, would be the creation of a condition the results of which we cannot foresee."  Pg 48-49

Eliot didn’t see the Church of England as above all other churches:

"... no-one to-day can defend the idea of a National Church, without balancing it with the idea of the Universal Church, and without keeping in mind that truth is one and that theology has no frontiers.... the idea of a Christian society implies, for me, the existence of one Church which shall aim at comprehending the whole nation. Unless it has this aim, we relapse into... a simplified monistic solution of statism or racism which the National Church can only combat if it recognises its position as a part of the Universal Church."  Pg 53-54

"... the allegiance of the individual to his own Church is secondary to his allegiance to the Universal Church... There would always remain a dual allegiance, to the State and to the Church, to one’s countrymen and to one’s fellow Christians everywhere, and the latter would always have the primacy. There would always be a tension; and this tension is essential to the idea of a Christian society, and is a distinguishing mark between a Christian and a pagan society." Pg 54-55

Eliot came back to his point that democracy is not enough in itself to give a society a Christian future:

"To identify any particular form of government with Christianity is a dangerous error: for it confounds the permanent with the transitory, the absolute with the contingent... We have no assurance that a democratic regime might not be as inimical to Christianity in practice, as another might be in theory..." Pg 57

Eliot said this about morality in a Christian society:

"To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very different inversion; and we may reflect , that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality – the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society." Pg 59

"One of the causes of the totalitarian State is an effort of the State to supply a function which the Church has ceased to serve; to enter into a relation to the community which the Church has failed to maintain; which leads to the recognition as full citizens only of those who are prepared to accept it in this relation." Pg 68

"[By] Fascist doctrine. I mean only such doctrine as asserts the absolute authority of the state, or the infallibility of a ruler." Pg 70

Eliot said this about how money dictates how the country was being run:

"We are being made aware that the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly. [He gives the example of soil erosion] ... a wrong attitude to nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God..." pg 61-62   

"Britain will presumably continue to be governed by the same mercantile and financial class which, with a continual change of personnel, has been increasingly important since the fifteenth century." pg 78

Eliot saw the importance of religion if a Christian society was to happen:

"We need to know how to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to rediscover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope." Pg 62

"As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organisation which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term ‘democracy’, as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike – it can be easily transformed by them. If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin." Pg 63

"... what I am primarily concerned with throughout is not the responsibility of the Church towards the individual but towards the community. The relation of the Church with the State may be one of checks and balances, but the background and justification of this relation is the Church’s relation to Society." Pg 68

What Eliot wrote is 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 their philosophy for how they can positively influence the way it is run.


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

No comments:

Post a Comment