T. S. Eliot’s Christian Society: Still Relevant Today?

by Philip Yancey

Mr. Yancey is a free-lance writer and an editor at large of Christianity Today.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 19, 1986, p. 1031. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Modernist in poetic style, traditionalist in almost every other respect, T.S. Eliot espoused the concept of a hierarchical, unified Christian society. He believed that unless England and America recovered a form of Christian society, they would fall into the paganism that had overtaken Germany and Russia. He believed that liberalism was a corrosive force, for it provided people with no positive values. A liberal society is a negative society, for it does not work toward any end, it merely creates a vacuum.

The intellectual world of the 1920s was treated to a delicious irony. A pioneer of the modernist movement, T. S. Eliot, known for his fragmented, elusive poetry, became, in his own words, a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion." The author of The Waste Land, that obscure work of dark despair, began to accept assignments from the Anglican Church, tried his hand at Christmas verse and even wrote a series of captions for a patriotic exhibition of war photographs.

At this time, Eliot also shifted the focus of his intellectual energy from poetry to social theory. He truly believed that the very existence of Western civilization was threatened. The Waste Land had poignantly described the decay of civilization, and subsequent events only heightened Eliot’s sense of crisis. Communism arose in the East and fascism on the Continent.

The peace agreement between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 confirmed Eliot’s worst fears about the weakness of the West. "Our whole national life seemed fraudulent," he remarked after the Munich pact. What future was there for the West other than uninterrupted decay or a descent into some form of authoritarianism?

Eliot knew of only one alternative: a vigorous rediscovery of what it means to live Christianly. He believed that unless England and America recovered a form of Christian society, they would fall into the paganism that had overtaken Germany and Russia.

Eliot’s social writings called into question two of the most sacred of sacred cows of Western thought: liberalism and democracy. He believed that liberalism was a corrosive force, for it provided people with no positive values. A liberal society is a negative society, he said; it does not work toward any end, it merely creates a vacuum.

Eliot distrusted individualism in both literature and politics. The Romantic movement’s reverence for "the Inner Light" he scorned as the "most untrustworthy and deceitful guide that ever offered itself to wandering humanity." Convinced of the truth of the doctrine of original sin, Eliot looked to theology for a solution to the human dilemma; he sought a salvation not through reform or education, but through grace. Though some intellectuals might be able to order their lives around arbitrary moral principles, the great mass of society, Eliot thought, needed something more substantive. "The religious habits of the race are still very strong, in all places, at all times, and for all people. There is no humanistic habit; humanism is, I think, merely the state of mind of a few persons, in a few places, at a few times."

In a 1932 essay "Christianity and Communism" (The Listener) , Eliot argued that only the Christian scheme made a place for those values "which I maintain or perish, the belief, for instance, in holy living and holy dying, in sanctity, chastity, humility, austerity." He took his case to the British public in a series of BBC broadcast talks. Russian communism is a religion, he said, and religion can only be fought with another religion. Only the church can galvanize a united response to the chaos of civilization. In a radio talk addressed to Germany after World War II, he called Christianity the most important unifying factor in Europe and said that only against the background of Christian faith does Western thought have any significance. "I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith," he concluded.

To critique an entire civilization is one thing; to present a reasonable alternative is quite another. Eliot’s proposed cure emerged in three books: After Strange Gods (1934) , The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1943).

In these books, which show a progression from virulence to tolerance, Eliot gave some indication of why he had come to believe so strongly in tradition. monarchy and a state church. Christian tradition, for him, was a counterweight to the emptiness of liberalism and the rigidity of conservatism. G. K. Chesterton defined tradition as "democracy extended through time," and for Eliot, tradition offered the advantages of democracy -- diverse viewpoints and a protection against tyranny -- nestled in the cocoon of time. Apart from tradition, democracy could too easily degenerate into hysteria. Eliot saw this as a particular danger in industrial society, which creates "people 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" (Idea, p. 21) To guard against these moblike tendencies, Eliot lent his support to a class system.

Eliot thought the ruling class should not be determined by lineage or by economics but by common interests. Yet these elites must be attached to some class, for Eliot thought the family was the primary channel for transmitting cultural values; he doubted whether education or political institutions alone could transmit. values. In a BBC interview in 1958, Eliot concluded that "when one considers the classless society, even so far as it has adumbrated itself in the present situation of the world – its mediocrity, its reduction of human beings to the mass . . .the reduction which Plato foresaw, the reduction to a mass ready to be controlled, manipulated, by a dictator or an oligarchy: observing all those things one is emotionally disposed toward a class society."

But how could Christian values be disseminated by a Christian upper class apart from some form of oppressive rule? The most practicable idea Eliot set forth on this score was what he called the Community of Christians. He noted the peril of specialization in modern culture, which tends to isolate religious thinkers from those in philosophy, art, politics and science. The Community of Christians would bring together the most fertile minds from various fields for the express purpose of defining Christian values for society at large. It would serve as a "Church within the Church." Eliot did not insist that all members of such a community be Christian believers, only that the rulers accept the Christian faith as the system under which they were to govern.

Eliot participated in several groups that attempted to be a Community of Christians, and in them he learned the limitations of such a plan. His own groups could rarely agree on practical programs, or even whether it was desirable for them to discuss practical programs. Commonality of Christian commitment did not guarantee any kind of consensus agreement on ethical issues. (To appreciate the problem, imagine a Community of Christians today embracing Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin discussing homosexual rights and abortion policies.)

As the years passed, Eliot grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of reaching a Christian consensus in the West, resigning himself to the prospect of "centuries of barbarism."

Eliot’s writings on social and economic issues clearly point to underlying spiritual issues. For example, he traced many economic problems back to the moral problem of avarice. Our economic system, he wrote, encourages acquisitive rather than spiritual instincts. He questioned, too, the ethics of the most common investment procedures.

The real issue, he concluded, "is between the secularists and the antisecularists, between those who believe only in values realizable in time and on earth, and those who believe also in values realized only out of time. . . . The danger, for those who start from the temporal end, is Utopianism; settle the problem of distribution -- of wheat, coffee, aspirin or wireless sets -- and all the problems of evil will disappear. The danger, for those who start from the spiritual end, is Indifferentism; neglect the affairs of the world and save as many souls out of the wreckage as possible."

Oddly, however, Eliot paid little attention to previous attempts to create a Christian society -- in the Netherlands, for examole. or in Cromwell’s England, Calvin’s Geneva or even the South Africa of Eliot’s day. Each of these examples reveals some of the inherent dangers that Eliot tended to minimize in light of what he saw as the more immediate threat of paganism.

Ultimately, Eliot’s vision of a Christian society foundered on the issue of pluralism. In After Strange Gods he hinted darkly at the kind of oppression his society might lead to: "What is still more important [than homogeneity of culture] is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of freethinking Jews undesirable." What would happen to such undesirable Jews, or other free-thinkers? Censorship? Repression? Exile?

Similarly, his ideal version of secular education, though it allows for a "proportion" of persons professing other faiths, and for some disbelievers, recommends that these people conform to public Christian values, presumably as determined by the Community of Christians. Eliot himself had tolerance for divergent views (he lobbied strongly on behalf of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example) , but would all members of the Christian elite demonstrate such tolerance? History gives little reason for optimism.

Eliot was particularly elusive in discussing the interaction between church and state, the normal contact point between Christian ideals and society. He himself admitted that his observations on this point had limited value outside of England. Eliot believed a state of tension would, and probably should, always exist between church and state, and that individual Christians would feel a dual allegiance. "A higher religion imposes a conflict, a division, torment and struggle within the individual . . . we escape from this strain by attempting to revert to an identity of religion and culture which prevailed at a more primitive stage; as when we indulge in alcohol as an anodyne, we consciously seek unconsciousness" (Notes, p. 68) Typically, Eliot did not attempt to lessen the strain; rather, he saw the church as the "salt of the earth," affecting society at its deepest levels. To accomplish its goal, the church needs a hierarchy: one level to maintain official relations with the state, and another structure in direct contact with the smallest units of the community and also with its think-tank, the Community of Christians.

Few contemporary critics of Eliot’s ideas have disputed his diagnosis of society’s ills, as eloquently presented in his poems and more tendentiously in his essays. But they have doubted the relevancy of his proposed cure. Could the church really enliven society and provide the moral capital to combat its ills? Some have also wondered whether a secular, neutral society might provide better soil for growth in Christian life and values than a uniformly Christian one. Perhaps Christianity works better, and in its purest form, as a minority religion.

Other critics have doubted whether the church has much potential as a carrier of moral values. Is the church any less riddled with hypocrisy, avarice and power-drunkenness than society at large? And didn’t Eliot admit as much in such early poems as "The Hippopotamus" and "Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service"? Has the institutional church changed?

Nevertheless, Eliot’s reflections on society have continuing relevance. Many of the issues he raised are being debated, in different terms, in the United States today. Is the Moral Majority a version of Eliot’s Community of Christians? Should that alleged majority be able to impose its Christian-derived values on a pluralistic society? If not, from where will an alternative set of values emerge? Can we ever expect a set of values to emerge apart from religion? What form should the delicate interplay of church and state take in America? Eliot’s answers to these questions may not be persuasive, but he does show the perennial significance of such questions in a liberal society.

In "Thoughts after Lambeth" Eliot wrote, "The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide."

Eliot surely did his part to redeem the time and help preserve the faith. He did this mainly through his poetry, which so brilliantly displays the moral incoherence of our time, and recounts his own pilgrimage of faith. Eliot’s fervent attempts to reshape the actual structure of civilization came to nought, leaving us with many of the same problems he encountered -- and few commanding answers.