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Detail from a painting by William H. Johnson showing a church and apartment building side by side.

Can Society Be Christian?

Reviving T. S. Eliot’s Vision

Nathaniel Peters

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  • Karen

    I was thinking that yesterday. I want to live without fear of persecution for my Christian faiths, I want to be in a place where the law does not twist what the bible says or simply say it is not applicable. Sadly this may not exist outside of the era, and will only exist when Christ returns? in the meantime, I should do my best, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to love, to forgive, but to always strive to advance His Kingdom. Yours in Christ, and only to His Name will I bow my knee. Bless you

  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thanks for reading. Now it's your turn: Was T. S. Eliot crazy to think society could be Christian? Please share your thoughts.

In a pluralistic world that views traditional faith with suspicion, what would a Christian society look like? What should Christians hope for their countries? R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, asks this question in his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. He borrows his title from T. S. Eliot’s “The Idea of a Christian Society,” an essay based on a series of lectures Eliot delivered in 1939, six months before Britain and Germany went to war. Eliot’s writing is marked by the shadow of hostility and unrest. It’s a feeling we have come to know in our own time: the uncertainty of imminent, unknown change. Eliot’s essay is loftier and more formal, while Reno’s book is grittier and more connected to the present struggles Christians face. They are worth reading together as we try to understand where we are and what we should do as Christians in post-Christian societies.

The books Resurrecting the idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno and The Idea of a Christian Society by T. S. Eliot.

In the 1930s, many Americans and Britons called their societies Christian, largely to distinguish themselves from the barbarities of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For Eliot, that was not enough. He argues that the “idea” of a society is the end toward which it is ordered and the deep structure of its thought and culture. A Christian society, then, 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.”

However, that no longer described the Britain in which Eliot lived. Despite talk of the nation as a Christian society, Eliot thought that his nation was in “a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a period in which one political philosophy has lost its cogency for behavior, though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed.” Britain was stuck between a positive culture, Christianity, and a negative one, rebellion against Christianity. More and more people were turning away from the Christian faith, but they lacked something of real substance with which to replace it. Eliot saw this lukewarm middle ground as closer to paganism than full-blooded Christian faith. He predicted that British society would continue in these doldrums and proceed into a gradual decline unless it took either a positive secular shape or a positive Christian one.

If Britain did not rebuild its Christian foundation, and if secular liberalism continued its rise, Eliot predicted that standards for art and culture would suffer. He also thought that the common bonds of society would begin to fray. “The Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less tenable,” he wrote. “The reason why members of different communions have been able to rub along together is that in the greater part of the ordinary business of life they have shared the same assumptions about behavior.”

This is part of Eliot’s argument that Christians should not simply claim the freedom to worship as they please and suffer no harm to their faith. Rather, they should strive for a society whose instincts and goals are Christian: “The Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization of society.” This does not entail the criminalization of other religions or the persecution of nonbelievers. Rather, it means that Christians should strive to have a society in which the things we hold in common – despite our pluralism – are Christian things. Christians will flourish much more in a pluralistic society that forbids wife-beating and widow-burning because of the dignity of the human person – a concept derived from Christianity but not exclusive to it – than in one that allows these acts on religious grounds.

Seventy-seven years later, on both sides of the Atlantic, we can see just how many of Eliot’s prophecies have come to pass. Secular liberalism has not only continued to erode the Christian cultural foundation of our societies, but has begun to replace it with its own. The Christian assumptions that once united the various elements in our pluralistic societies have broken down, leaving us less civil toward one another. We are more free to do what we want, but less sure that what we want will actually make us happy or good. We speak of our society not as pagan but as post-Christian – a continued rebellion against one deep structure rather than an adherence to a robust replacement. As the disease has progressed, its symptoms have become more extreme.

But what about Eliot’s diagnosis? To begin with, Eliot was clear that his thoughts would require modification for application outside of Britain. He assumed a relatively uniform society with an established church, not the pluralism of the globalized West. Nonetheless, he identifies three elements that remain necessary for Christians anywhere to form their society.

The secular reformer conceives of the evils of the world as something outside himself. The Christian, by contrast, must see them within.

The first of these is education. Eliot saw education as essential to the foundation of a society: “A nation’s system of education is much more important than 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.” The purpose of education, then, is not to impart information for the sake of a career or citizenship, but to form a moral foundation for one’s life.

This holistic formation should be the goal of Christian education, too, in homes and Christian schools. Christian education is not simply a project to make men and women pious Christians, but to “train people to be able to think in Christian categories.” Beauty is not just the gratification of contemporary tastes, but a reflection of the order and symmetry God inscribed in the world. Riches are not God’s blessing to you for your personal use; you hold them in trust for the benefit of others in your church and community. Thinking in Christian categories instead of simply giving worldly ones the veneer of faith leads to authentically Christian lives – and thereby, ever so slowly, to authentically Christian societies.

Second, Eliot says that a society that would be Christian needs a “community of Christians.” This is not an organization or a particular caste but “a body of indefinite outline; composed of both clergy and laity, of the more conscious, more spiritually and intellectually developed of both. It will be their identity of belief and aspiration, their background of a common system of education and a common culture, which will enable them to influence and be influenced by each other, and collectively to form the conscious mind and the conscience of the nation.” In other words, the Christian renewal of society will need a critical mass of those who think and live according to authentically Christian principles and categories. These Christians need to talk to each other, to inquire into the truth, to bring their families together over dinner. They need to determine and cling to what they hold in common as Christians, despite the real differences they have. They must commit to living and thinking according to Christ’s “more excellent way.”

Third, this will automatically entail humility and conversion of self before conversion of society. Eliot’s lectures were provoked by a letter he read in the Times (London) from J. H. Oldham, the Scottish missionary who was part of the same roundtable of Christian thinkers. In the letter, Oldham writes: “To focus our attention on evil in others is a way of escape from the painful struggle of eradicating it from our own hearts and lives and an evasion of our real responsibilities.” Eliot saw this as one of the great differences between secular and Christian reformers. The secular reformer conceives of the evils of the world as something outside himself. The Christian, by contrast, must see them within. He himself must be converted along with the rest of the world and is deprived of the exhilaration of only seeing an external enemy. To forget this is to fall into a pride that would poison our efforts.

In his book, Reno does not emphasize education or our own pursuit of the virtues to the same degree. When he does talk about education, it is in the context of America’s post-Christian elite destroying the moral fabric our society needs: “The most pressing social justice issue today is the moral exploitation of the poor and vulnerable by the well-off and powerful, an exploitation masked by the rhetoric of liberation.” The deregulation of our morality has had far greater social effects than the deregulation of our markets. The task of renewing society lies with ordinary believers who can provide that missing moral regulation. They should dare to disapprove. Reno therefore calls for “judgmentalism,” by which he means “the courage to speak forthrightly about right and wrong.”

At the heart of that moralism must lie a Christian understanding of freedom. As Eliot noted, Christians must use Christian principles to structure their thought and action. Christians must understand freedom not as the ability to do whatever we want and to define ourselves however we will, but as the flourishing that comes from obeying the law of God. It is in serving God that we are freed from the captivity of our own desires. It is in dying to ourselves that we find life.

This kind of freedom is not sought alone. It is found in, and strengthens, the community we need in order to have rich, meaningful lives. That kind of social solidarity should come through subsidiarity, Reno argues, the idea that social action should take place at the appropriate level of society. The state should not seek to replace churches, clubs, businesses, and families in their important social roles. Subsidiarity promotes human dignity, he argues, “because it encourages a thick local culture that encourages our free, responsible participation.” And the institutions most important and in greatest need of strengthening are churches and families.

Even though American society may be more unabashedly secular than Eliot’s Britain was, Reno sees post-Christian America as dissatisfied with its mores. Rich or poor, we all want decency and dignity, and to give ourselves in love to our spouse, our loved ones, and God. The time is ripe to propose the truths of our faith again. Twenty-five percent of Americans attend church weekly, a number that has remained the same for decades. This is the committed core from which Reno thinks we can begin our rebuilding efforts, the community of Christians that can leaven our society. The numbers may be smaller in Europe, but the hunger for renewal is no less real.

Perhaps most importantly, Eliot reminds us that we cannot build Christian societies by sacrificing Christian principles to elect unchristian politicians. Nor can we pursue a Christian society without remembering that we ourselves need to be reformed. Rather, “only in humility, charity, and purity – and most of all perhaps humility – can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.”

colorful painting of a church William H. Johnson, Church on Lenox Avenue. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Contributed By Nathaniel Peters Nathaniel Peters

Nathaniel Peters recently completed a PhD in theology from Boston College. His articles have been published in journals such as America, Plough, First Things, and Commonweal.

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