The Idea of a Christian Society, T. S. Eliot. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 (First published in 1939).
Summary: Three lectures given in 1939 putting forth Eliot’s ideas for a Christian society in the light of rising pagan, totalitarian governments in the pre-World War 2 world.
Most often, T. S. Eliot is known for his poetry, whether the modernist poems like “The Wasteland” before his religious conversion, or “The Four Quartets” afterward. He also gave us “Old Possum’s Book of Cats,” the basis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. What is less known is that he gave these lectures articulating his ideas of what a society shaped by Christian premises might be like, and why that might be seriously considered.
The setting of the lectures that form this book is important. They were given in 1939, on the eve of World War 2. The world had already witnessed Communist revolution in Russia, and the rise of national socialism based on an Aryan vision of Germans as a super race. The concern he expresses, as Christianity became a minority opinion in Great Britain which was becoming an increasingly secular state, is that a position of neutrality could not hold. Eliot believed the possibility existed for the rise of a pagan state, nominally democratic (as was Germany) but equally totalitarian in character. He argues that of these alternatives, a Christian state, a Christian society is to be preferred to uphold a moral basis for law and justice.
Perhaps some of the most trenchant things he has to say address the economic structures of the British state, which were far from Christian, privileging a wealthy class at the expense of the flourishing of a broader society. While his proposal is short on practical details of how this would come about, he envisions both a Christian community with a broadly shared Christian vision worked out in shared social morality and a smaller Community of Christians, a group of societal leaders of character and Christian intellect. While he does not think of this in terms of a particular church in broader application but rather an inclusive Christian community, he does think that in the English context, the Church of England offers the best chance for the shared vision and social consensus he would see.
While he does not specify a particular form of government, he sees the commercialized, urbanized, and industrialized society of England as “unnatural” and calls for a kind of “conformity to nature” that anticipates more recent concerns about sustainability. He grounds this in the relationship of nature to the God of nature, severed in modern, mechanized views of the world.
I found myself alternatively fascinated by his prescience and frustrated at other points by what seemed a certain naivete’. He anticipates the structural critiques of democracies and foresees how authoritarian movements can develop in democratic states. He articulates an early form of Christian environmentalism. Yet his assumptions of consensus among Christians and his blindness to the corrupting influence power could have on high-minded Christians, are born out in what we see of the American church of the last fifty years. In Blinded By Might, Cal Thomas wrote about how political influence corrupted early pioneers of the Religious Right. I believe similar narratives might be written of the progressive wing of the church and these divisions give the lie to Eliot’s vision of a consensus of Christians.
What I think Eliot gets right is to raise the question of alternatives, and whether secularity provides a sufficiently robust framework for a just society, for limited government, and the rights of the people. When we move from an assumption of the inherent fallenness and fallibility of human nature to one of the inherent goodness, do we open the door to the attractions and hubris of authoritarian rulers?
But the question remains of how this works itself out in a pluralist society. I don’t think Hauerwas’s stance of prophetic engagement, James Davison Hunter’s faithful presence, or the Christian political activist stance of either the right or the left quite answer the question of what it means to be a Christian in society. Perhaps there is something in Eliot’s call for a Community of Christians who function not as an organization or party but as a “body of indefinite outline, composed of both clergy and laity, of the more conscious, more spiritually and intellectually developed of both.” It seems to me that there is a need for Christian leaders not beholden to political alliances who can think and pray and work and learn from each other across a variety of boundaries, both for renewal in the church and in society. Might Eliot’s vision of national Communities of Christians capture something of what this might look like?