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  • Archit Pandey

The Idea of a Christian Society - TS Eliot

This review will contain lot of big quotes. Originally, even before I started to write it down, it was not my intention to include them but after going through the book many times I realised that omitting them might compromise with the entire picture. Including them, rather, will make the message stand out.

To know a brief background of TS Eliot, Wikipedia will come handy to you guys.

Although, the book talks about the idea of a Christian society, such an idea, I may say without even a single feeling of reluctance (having read the book), is pertinent for a society of any other religion.


The following book is a collection of three lectures, delivered in four parts (my review will be structured in the same fashion) that later got published, delivered by Eliot in March 1939 on the Boutwood Foundation at the invitation of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. While writing this book, the author has been influenced particularly by the works of a Neo-Thomas thinker Jacques Maritain, especially his Humanisme intégral.


In the prefatory note to his book, some lines are worth quoting which will give a glimpse of what next is to come,


“[M]en have lived by spiritual institutions (of some kind) in every society, and also by political institutions and, indubitably, by economic activities. Admittedly, they have, at different periods, tended to put, their trust mainly in one of the real cements of society, but at no time have they wholly excluded the others, because it is important to do so.”

Clearly enough, this shows that Eliot is not concerned with spiritual institutions in an exclusivist fashion but with the entire value system which underpins the direction of the religious thought. This can be examined inescapably by providing a criticism to the erstwhile political and economic systems.


I


This part tries to deal with a problem which is urgent – the doom of the Christian society. The problem is also difficult as it has been permanent since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The gravity of his concern can very well be gauged from the following lines,


“The fact that a problem will certainly take a long time to solve, and that it will demand the attention of many minds for several generations, is no justification for postponing the study. And, in times of emergency, it may prove in the long run that the problems we have postponed or ignored, rather than those we have failed to attack successfully, will return to plague us.”

What does the title of his book imply? He makes it clear, well before us,


“In using the term “Idea” of a Christian Society I do not mean primarily a concept derived from the study of any societies which we may choose to call Christian; I mean something that can only be found in an understanding of the end to which a Christian Society, to deserve the name, must be directed.”

His objective is to make clear the difference of a Christian society with the kind of society in which we are presently living, to which he gives a name – Neutral Society. He aims to draw to line between the Idea of a Christian Society and the Idea of a Neutral Society. He believes that the current society in which we are living is a society which is being eulogized by the notion of Western Democracy which operates only to cheat and stagger us. We are living in a society, as Eliot holds, where Christianity has become a matter of profession and has been completely detached from its vocational dimension. We also try to hide ourselves away from the values which was being carried on since time immemorial only to strengthen our belief in this blasphemous world. Our escapism from these perennial values is justified by terming them unpleasant only to allow ourselves to pursue even more unpleasant activities. Nowadays, the spirit of the Hindu religion is receiving the same treatment at the hands of the pseudo-vanguards of the this very religion.


Eliot further blames the political philosophers of the erstwhile period in not highlighting the possible problems which the very structure of the Christian state is facing. He takes recourse to the writings of the Christian sociologists who question the economic system in the light of Christian ethics by pointing to a deteriorating cleavage that has developed between the Christian principles and a great deal of our social practices. Such a system in the long run is unworkable and conducive to disaster. The problems which they portray and the solutions with which they come out with will make it more possible for the individual Christian to live out his Christianity. Also, what he wants to question is the belief of the modern writers that the society in which we are currently living is, as opposed to Eliot’s notion of Neutral society, is a pagan society. Pagan was the religion of those who belonged to the Ancient Greece and it was this religion which Renaissance professed to reinvigorate by attacking the orthodoxy of Christianity.


Historically speaking, there are three stages in which a Christian may find himself to be in. One, the point where Christians may be a new minority in a society of pagan traditions; two, the point at which the whole society can be called Christian; and three, the point at which practising Christians must be recognised as a minority in a society which has ceased to be Christian. The question here is whether we are really into the third stage or not. More or less, it must be clear that a society ceases to be Christian when religious practices have been abandoned, when behaviour ceases to be regulated by reference to the Christian principles, and when in effect prosperity in this world for the individual or for the group has become the sole conscious aim. We are now left with two options, both of which involve radical changes – either to form a new Christian culture or to accept this so called pagan one. Majority of the true Christians would go with the former option. This is not all. This road ahead, of forming a new Christian culture, is also paved by two class of persons. One, who speaks with difficulty as he is reluctant from being getting bashed by the people and second, who speaks in vain to get more people to listen him and believes that great changes must come. But the point is both, more or less, are equally ignorant of what actually is desirable at the moment.


The Western world for most of us is conjectured around us by two words – “Liberalism” and “Democracy”. The term “Liberalism” is kind of ambiguous but the term “Democracy” is at the height of its popularity. A popular term, as we often observe, carry not single but many meanings. Some persons affirm that “Democracy” is a self-evident term and go upto to the extent of regarding democracy as the only regime compatible with Christianity. They are generally under such an impression due to the authoritarian developments that are taking place, especially in Germany. On the other hand, defenders of the totalitarian system can make out a plausible case for maintaining that what we have is not democracy, but financial oligarchy.


Overall, liberalism is what permeates our minds and affects our attitude towards much of life. The hollowness of this very idea of liberalism is very well pointed by Eliot,


“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 onto which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanised or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.”

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 objects of attack. The things which our mundane and slender mind was not able to grasp was incessantly termed as superstition which made the spiritual crisis further grave. On whether Conservatism can offer a substitute to Liberalism, he continues to say,


“In the sense in which Liberalism is contrasted with Conservatism, both can be equally repellent: if the former can mean chaos, the latter can mean petrifaction. We are always faced both with the question “what must be destroyed?” and with the question “what must be preserved?” and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.”

The attitudes and beliefs of Liberalism are destined to disappear because out of it itself come philosophies which deny it. After the disappearance of Liberalism what else is left with us? We are left with the term “democracy”. But as we observe, Democracy is itself based on a liberal connotation of “freedom”. But we shall also, for the moment, cannot not turn our face away from the fact that even a totalitarian régime claims “freedom” and “democracy” as its underlying elements and give them its own meanings.


Now, we are facing a conundrum. Everything seems jumbled up. The only way out is to aim at a Christian society. For this we need to consider both what kind of society we have at this time, and what a Christian society would be like. We should also be quite sure of what we actually want; our future vision would be futile if we are looking for a materialistic efficiency. Eliot asserts strongly,


“The more highly industrialised the country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialised longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – of all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.”

This would be enough for us to realize the fact that liberalism, the holy child of modernity, inevitably leads to proletariat-i-zation of the entire population. Our tastes, our habits and our choices – all our degraded. These were the things which religion used to tell to us which impacted not only our private but also our public realm. There was never a dichotomous relation between our personal and public life. Both were closely intertwined. But the root cause of the problem is the liberal belief that religion was a matter of private belief and of conduct in private life. This notion would seem to have become accepted gradually, as a false inference from the subdivision of English Christianity into sects, and the happy results of universal toleration. At this juncture, the term “toleration” shall also be made to a brief scrutiny. “Toleration” as a term has its origin in the modernity which simply gives a forward thrust to the concept of secularism according to which followers of different faiths can live under a single roof only if they are tolerant. “Toleration”, in this sense, is generally taken as a positive term denoting one’s feeling and readiness to accommodate others whose basic ideas are anti-thetical or incompatible with our own’s. Although, the term is introduced with a positive note, it is bound to culminate on a negative plane. The reason being, it is simply not only impossible but also undesirable to accommodate someone whose thoughts are inharmonious to us’; till when you will take someone in your arm to whom you originally want to get his head chopped off (this does not necessarily implies killing) the moment you realize that there is a compatibility issue, therefore impossible; and allowing someone perpetually to remain beside you who holds a doctrine unfavourable to yours on a mundane level, as all ideas converge on a trans-temporal front, which is sure to encroach and dilute your doctrine, hence undesirable. To put simply, a tradition, which is truly a tradition, will never allow such ideas to flourish inside its periphery.


The problem which is now very before us is, therefore, leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. As Eliot puts it, for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma – and he is in the majority – he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure. In a situation where false indoctrination of all forms have surfaced, it is much more than a challenge to present the real picture in front of the lost-Christians. He is very sceptical of the present situation and asserts that no scheme for a change of society can be made to appear immediately palatable, except by falsehood, until society has become so desperate that it will accept any change. But still he is hopeful, like a true thinker, and believes that the only possibility of control and balance is a religious control and balance i.e. to become a Christian. He is very well aware of the fact that such a prospect involves, at least, discipline, inconvenience and discomfort: but here as hereafter the alternative to hell is purgatory.


II


In this part, Eliot tries to confine himself over the question of the essential features of this Christian society. In what sense, as Eliot questions, can we speak of a “Christian State”? This necessarily involves the question as to what should be the relation between the Church and the State. To put it another way, with what kind of State can Church have a relation. First, we will have to dismantle a very widespread belief that the Church can survive with any particular form of secular organization. A relation between the Church and the State, the one of which we are talking of right now, implies that the State is in some sense Christian. However, in present times, we have to be more than sure of the fact that the Christian and the unbeliever do not, and cannot, behave very differently in the exercise of office. Eliot, following Benjamin Disraeli, is not disinclined to clutch that the real statesmen, in today’s sense, are inspired by nothing else than their instinct for power. But for a true statesman, what matters is how they are being confined to the temper and traditions of the people which they rule, to a Christian framework within which to realise their ambitions and advance the prosperity and prestige of their country. For that the rulers of a Christian state must receive a Christian education.


Next, he makes a very important and obligatory distinction,


“The relation of the Christian State, the Christian Community, and the Community of Christians, may be looked at in connexion with the problem of belief. Among the men of state, you would have as a minimum, conscious conformity of behaviour. In the Christian Community that they ruled, the Christian faith would be ingrained, but it requires, as a minimum, only a largely unconscious behaviour; and it is only from the much smaller number of conscious human beings, the Community of Christians, that one would expect a conscious Christian life on its highest social level.”

These three subjects complete the Idea of a Christian Society. This Idea in order to realize seeks for two pre-conditions: one, their Christianity may be almost wholly realized in behaviour; and two, their religious and social life should form for them a natural whole i.e. the unitary community should be religious-social. Religion must be primarily a matter of behaviour and habit, must be integrated with its social life, with its business and its pleasures. We should realize the fact that the traditional unit of the Christian Community in England is the parish. A parish is a small administrative district typically having its own church and a priest or pastor. This institution is certainly in decay. There are several causes for it – the division of Christianity into sects and the most potent being the urbanization (also, sub-urbanization). How far the institution of the parish has been impaired and needs rejuvenation depends largely upon our view of the necessity of accepting the causes which tend to destroy it. But the matter of concern not only in this country but in all civilised countries is that that the masses of the people have become increasingly alienated from the Christianity. As a remedy, for Eliot to put it before us, 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 conflict between what is easy for them or what their circumstances dictate and what is Christian. The problem of the Christendom has been heightened by the blooming of modern material organizations to which Eliot terms not as “organizations”, per se, but “complications”. The remedy, mentioned above, can be materialized in two ways. One, to insist that the only salvation for society is to return to a simpler mode of life, scrapping all the constructions of the modern world that we can bring ourselves to dispense with. This is an extreme statement of the neo-Ruskinian view and when one considers the large amount of determination in social structure, this policy appears Utopian. The other alternative is to accept the modern world as it is and simply try to adapt Christian social ideals to it. But this again will be polluting for the Christian doctrine. The point which Eliot tries to put before us is that while there is a considerable measure of agreement that certain things are wrong, the question of how they should be put right is extremely controversial. Any proposal is immediately countered by a dozen others which again, talking of extreme critical attitudes, is the creation of this urban modern world. The attention is always concentrated on the imperfection of the proposals rather than on the main concern which the very proposal tries to address. The end is omitted from the scene. Eliot, therefore, prudently points our attention towards those problems over which there can be little possibility of any dispute. He avers that the machinery of the modern life is merely a sanction for un-Christian aims. It is not only hostile to the conscious pursuit of the Christian life in the world by the few but also to the maintenance of any Christian society of the world. However bigoted the announcement may sound, the Christian can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organisation of society. 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. Therefore, what he terms as “the Community of Christians” refers to the practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority.


Here, Eliot also finds apposite to articulate upon the close relationship of educational theory and political theory. He laments that the educational system and the political system of any country are in complete disaccord. In a Christian society, he puts his way out, 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. It will no longer be merely a term comprehending a variety of unrelated subjects undertaken for special purposes or for none at all. Medieval education was not “dark” like the age itself, which is again a wrong notion, as many say and he decries such views,


“That culture and the cultivation of philosophy and the arts should be confined to the cloister would be a decline into a Dark Age that I shudder to contemplate; on the other hand the segregation of lay “intellectuals” into a world of their own, which very few ecclesiastics or politicians either penetrate or have any curiosity about, is not a progressive situation either. A good deal of waste seems to me to occur through pure ignorance; a great deal of ingenuity is expended on half-baked philosophies, in the absence of any common background of knowledge.”

Even in any democratic society, the future of art and thought does not appear any brighter. There is continuous depression in the standards of art and culture in such a society where it has been organized for profit. The economic system is against them; the chaos of ideals and confusion of thought in our large-scale mass education is against them; and against them also is the disappearance of any class of people who recognise public and private responsibility of patronage of the best that is made and written. He mocks,


“At a period in which each nation has less and less “culture” for its own consumption, all are making furious efforts to export their culture, to impress upon each other their achievements in arts which they are ceasing to cultivate or understand.”

Even the theologians observe the same indifference to literature and art. Our political classes are still more bankrupt as they have no reason to be ashamed of remaining in complete ignorance. As a result, sadly and painfully,


“… the more serious authors have a limited, and even provincial audience, and the more popular write for an illiterate and uncritical mob.”

In a 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. 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. Although, as it seemed to him and also to the readers, that he had deviated from the directed course, he justifies his eccentricity in a very swaying way,


“I may seem to have wandered from my course, but it seemed necessary to mention the capital responsibility of education in the condition which we find or anticipate: a state secularised, a community turned into a mob, and a clerisy disintegrated. The obvious secularist solution for muddle is to subordinate everything to political power: and in so far as this involves the subordination of the money-making interests to those of the nation as a whole, it offers some immediate, though perhaps illusory relief: a people feels at least more dignified if its hero is the statesman however unscrupulous, or the warrior however brutal, rather than the financier. But it also means the confinement of the clergy to a more and more restricted field of activity, the subduing of free intellectual speculation, and the debauching of the arts by political criteria. It is only in a society with a religious basis – which is not the same thing as an ecclesiastical despotism – that you can get the proper harmony and tension, for the individual or for the community.”

So far, we have only a society such that it can have a significant relation to a Church; a relationship which is not of hostility or even of accommodation. And this relation is so important that without discussing it we have not even shown the assembled skeleton of a Christian Society, we have only exposed the unarticulated bones.


III


After highlighting the real problems, Eliot clearly explicates that all such concerns are worthy more to Europe than to America. In Europe, it is particularly England which is mostly concerned with these issues. But Eliot nowhere asserts that this view of the Christian society applies only to England or Europe, at large. This view is applicable wherever Christians live. The reason that a society is neutral, as we see in America (or elsewhere), does not allow it to take the liberty to live the way it wants to or escape from the first principles of life. Here, the Christian principles are no less applicable. Abandoning them will invite dereliction on their part.


However, such a society can only be realised when the great majority of the population belong to one-fold. In England, this is possible only through the Church of England which can do so by reason of its tradition and its relation in the past to the socio-religious life of the people. In short, no Christendom of England can take place without it. He, then, puts forth the relation and duty of this Church vis-à-vis the Christian society in a very thoughtful way,

“The Church of a Christian society, then, should have some relation to the three elements in a Christian society that I have named. It must have a hierarchical organisation in direct and official relation to the State: in which relation it is always in danger of sinking into a mere department of State. It must have an organisation, such as the parochial system, in direct contact with the smallest units of the community and their individual members. And finally, it must have, in the persons of its more intellectual, scholarly and devout officers, its masters of ascetic theology and its men of wider interests, a relation to the Community of Christians. In matters of dogma, matters of faith and morals, it will speak as the final authority within the nation; in more mixed questions it will speak through individuals. 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. At times, the hierarchy of the Church may be under attack from the Community of Christians, or from groups within it: for any organisation is always in danger of corruption and in need of reform from within.”

He also questions and bridges the divide between the religious and secular aspects of one’s life. He writes,


“And I am convinced that you cannot have a national Christian society, a religious-social community, a society with a political philosophy founded upon the Christian faith, if it is constituted as a mere congeries of private and independent sects. The national faith must have an official recognition by the State, as well as an accepted status in the community and a basis of conviction in the heart of the individual.”

He also explains as to why widening the gulf between our religious and secular life amounts to heresy,


“Heresy is often defined as an insistence upon one half of the truth; it can also be an attempt to simplify the truth, by reducing it to the limits of our ordinary understanding, instead of enlarging our reason to the apprehension of truth. Monotheism or tritheism is easier to grasp than trinitarianism. We have observed the lamentable results of the attempt to isolate the Church from the World; there are also instances of the failure of the attempt to integrate the World in the Church; we must also be on guard against the attempt to integrate the Church in the World. … By alienating the mass of the people from orthodox Christianity, by leading them to identify the Church with the actual hierarchy and to suspect it of being an instrument of oligarchy or class, it leaves men’s minds exposed to varieties of irresponsible and irreflective enthusiasm followed by a second crop of paganism.”

He also points to the danger wherein the National Church may get converted into a nationalistic Church. He warns that a nationalistic Church will lead to the suppression of the very form of Christianity. Don’t you think that the Hindu religion, nowadays, is facing the same threat? This nationalistic Christianity can be countered only by the strength of the Christian tradition which he has been talking about. This tradition is supranational in nature as truth is one and theology has no frontiers. In this sense, the idea of a Christian society is nothing but the existence of one Church which shall aim at comprehending the whole nation. Then only can we consider associating the sacred with the public. He says,


“… our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonised … 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.”

IV


After all this, we may wonder that can there be any particular form of government which can be allied with the Christian society. Eliot’s view is very clear on this,


“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.”

He also makes, at this juncture, some eye-opening remarks,


“Those who consider that a discussion of the nature of a Christian society should conclude by supporting a particular form of political organisation, should ask themselves whether they really believe our form of government to be more important than our Christianity; and those who are convinced that the present form of government of Britain is the one most suitable for any Christian people, should ask themselves whether they are confusing a Christian society with a society in which individual Christianity is tolerated.”

What we generally do is that we associate Christianity with a democratic form of a government. This we do not because democracy is compatible with or beneficial for a Christian society, which it really isn’t, but for the sake to get ourselves aligned with the foreign competition. The reason why we cry our hearts out vociferously for democracy is only to show that we really are on track with respect to the acknowledged foreign standards. We never, even for a moment, come out of this camouflage and think impartially that the form of government which we are currently having is really of any use for us (the Christian society) or not. The Christianity has been expressed worldwide in this way only, Eliot holds. The religious fervour has been a fervour for democracy. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian society, or for that matter any religious society, with other societies. He, although, laments on his position since there is overwhelming pressure of mediocracy, sluggish and indomitable as a glacier, which is always there to weaken our efforts to purify the society. For this reason, he clearly mentions that a wholly Christian society might be a society for the most part on a low level. Still, he is hopeful that continuous efforts must be made and the people holding the Christian faith would give them something else which they lack: a respect for the religious life, for the life of prayer and contemplation, and for those who attempt to practice it.


We may now say, Eliot continues, that religion implies a life in conformity with the nature. The natural and the supernatural life have a conformity to each other. On the other, 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. A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and that the consequence is an inevitable doom. He puts forward,


“We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.”

Our academic disciplines too are bound to these principles. 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. He writes, apparently in vain but which actually appeals to our conscience,


“If you will not have God you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

Finally, and if you’ve read till here exhaustively, he concludes that what matters for us is not the everyday contingent mundane questions but the civilizational questions which are actually going shape the direction of the present and the upcoming generations. Our energy should be channelized in disentangling these eternal civilizational issues. He ends,


“Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have had to say.”

Soon, England was to be at war, the possibility of which was always present to Eliot’s mind.


And yes, no RIPs for a suicide.