The Idea of a Christian Society

On your responsibilty

From foregoing essays, it is clear that I leave a lacuna in my theological thinking with regard to other people, and what we can call ‘society’. Given that I place all of my interest in the single individual, then I come to the conclusion that other people don’t matter in the least. And, by extension, that history and what other people have done doesn’t matter, either. But this is contrary to other beliefs of mine, and therefore, it is necessary to think more deeply about society and other people. That is, to think about other people and their salvation and their eternal happiness.

My intention of laying out the theory of God’s relationship to society as a whole, and society’s situation in relation to God, is derisory, given that I write such short essays here. So I am content to allow that this essay is trivial. If it is purely a notepad to myself, rather than a sensible contribution, then so be it.

Because I had not had time to think deeply about an entire society’s turn to God, I have had help in thinking this problem through. I first read TS Eliot’s essay, ‘The Idea of Christian Society’, about fifteen years ago, and do not remember anything striking about it, except that the poet had laid out what to me seemed a kind of utopian vision, involving a caste of people which he likens to but differentiates from Coleridge’s ‘clerisy’, as set out in his (Coleridge’s) ‘Church and State’. This elite group is composed of committed and important Christians in a society, those who would ideally direct its daily affairs and its general behaviour.

I did not finish reading the essay back then. Recently, I began wondering where the book had gone from my shelves, and finding it had been lost, bought a second-hand copy (it is no longer in print). Written immediately after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from the 1938 talks in Munich, Eliot’s essay is concerned with expressing regret about English society when faced with Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The question was asked, by some, at that time: what would England be struggling and fighting for, if it were to fight against Germany and Russia in the event of war?

I understand that George Orwell asked the same question at the same time in his essay series ‘The Lion and Unicorn’. Orwell recognised the shameful capitulation to Hitler by Chamberlain to be the action of a man representing financial and ailing imperial interests, and nothing else. Eliot sees the same thing, broadly.

‘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.’ (The Idea of a Christian Society, Faber and Faber, 1939, p.64)

Now, eighty years later, I think we can ask exactly the same question, in the same terms, with the same painful sense of our society’s emptiness. Except that, where, during the War, it had been possible to refer to our Christianity (in contrast to the open secularity or paganism of the Communists and Fascists), today for a range of reasons, we should not be able to do that. But I am not interested in showing how much or how little of Christianity there is in this country. That would be a mere account of historical changes, and would not have any urgency, or anything instructive. The changes between Eliot’s 1938 and our 2020 are not so great, and where they are, it is only in the worsening of things which were already apparent.

How to rebuild a country

English society, and today, American society, cannot claim that it is a specifically ‘democratic’ or ‘free’ society. All societies, including the Nazi and Soviet, or any present day society, can or will claim that it is free and democratic. Rather, ours is characterised by being ‘Liberal’. But liberalism is a purely negative doctrine: everyone may do as they please… A purely negative doctrine will continue to undo a society until there is nothing left, if it is the only principle which a society can follow.

Which leaves us asking again, what do we stand for? Eliot proposes as his ‘idea’ (in the Aristotelian sense) the following simple scheme, on which he meditates very loosely. That a Christian society should be composed of three major parts: the State, composed of civil servants and statesmen; the Christian society composed of all people in the society; and the Community of Christians: a small sub-group, composed of the elite and theologically trained.

For the majority of people, the ‘Christian society’, it is enough that Christian morality, holidays, rituals, and the like are given legal and state encouragement, so that they can exist and behave in a Christian way by default. Christian belief should not be forced onto them, but if they simply take part in social life, then they will not endanger their eternal happiness. Social life will be lived at a parochial level, in local communities, like parishes. Currently, people in England constitute a mob, with no local roots or loyalties, a disrespect for religion, erasure of the past, and suggestibility to any kind of techologically broadcast political propaganda.

The state, again, need not be composed of fervent Christians, and statesmen should not be vetted on that basis; however, the statesman, will act and think - as he has always done - along with the broad flow of his society – and hence he will act for the benefit of Christians.

Finally, the ‘Community of Christians’ will constitute the thinking and actively engaged Christians which will include many teachers, artists, thinkers, and people of influence in society – probably not excluding leading business and industrial figures. This group will also tolerate radicals and atheists as an exception, but it should be educated and focus its attention ultimately and for the most part on the eternal life, and in repentance and action with the Holy Spirit. Eliot sees the Church of England as the vague basis on which to build this ideal society. In the present day, as a bare minimum, Christians who might ideally belong to the Community of Christians should engage in pointing out how society is not Christian (particularly how finance or avarice is our chief value), and, in advising on education – where the aim of education should be to produce people with a disposition to act and live in a way directed toward the eternal life, where God and his relationship to us in the world is the ultimate end of our being alive at all.

So much for a summary. For my purposes, and following Eliot as a master in this area (and I tell myself that the Church Fathers and those who were there at the creation of the Church should be my greater masters), I have noticed and wish to remark only on a single point. This point relates to the way in which I have, in my thinking and more recently in my conversion to Christianity, simply given up on the rest of society. I have made precise indications about how a Christian should carry out his devotions, in his individual situation, and run his own race, so as to win the prize; but society as a whole has, for me, hardly any value these days. But this cannot be right, and I do not feel it in my heart. Saying that ‘society can go and hang itself’ is contrary to my innermost predisposition, and, Eliot has given reasons for think that it is actually wrong to hold this view. But my original position on this matter, that it can go hang, was formed on a philosophical basis; and philosophy and thinking are free to change when new lights are turned on.

Taking on responsibility for the sin of society

Given that I have expressed with some fervour the individual’s absolute dependence on God, at moments of prayer and in ethical principles of thought and behaviour, it is not actually such a leap to thereafter extend this responsibility for oneself, to make it into responsibility for other people, or for society in general. According to Eliot, or what I take to be his presupposition, a Christian or a follower of Christ should not merely seek the salvation of his own soul, but the souls of everyone else, too. We have accepted the individual relationship to God on philosophical principles; and it may be that other people remain obscure and merely imagined. Nevertheless, they must and society must be treated as if it were capable of the same intensity of belief and depended just as much as we do, on God.

I should point out the passage which alerted me to this simple and very decisive principle. When discussing pacifism, Eliot explains why he does not agree that war is wrong in all circumstances.

‘The notion of communal responsibility, of the responsibility of every individual for the sins of the society to which he belongs, is one that needs to be more firmly apprehended; and if I share the guilt of my society in time of ‘peace’, I do not see how I can absolve myself from it in time of war, by abstaining from the common action.’ (p. 74, as a note to page 24).

It is Christian to take responsibility for the sin of the society in which one lives; Christ himself atoned for all of us with his voluntary crucifixion. It is therefore proper to engage with society. This is in turn based on the principle that the Christian is obliged to, where possible, evangelise others. And that, therefore, where society is not acting according to our understanding of Christ’s message, and with the grace of the Holy Spirit, then it is ‘our’ fault. But, good or bad, the society to which we belong is our responsibility. This is a strange argument to bring when appealing to others to reject pacifism; and I admit I have had to re-read it in order to understand. I have further points to make on the rights and wrongs of armed conflict, but that is not my focus.

Let it be accepted that what I have outlined here is the following:

1. That the individual has his purely isolated relationship to God where human being finds fulfilment.

2. That this single relationship can go on in this way in a purely Christian manner, but that it is not complete, because the individual Christian is also responsible for the society in which he lives.

3. That society around him should be open to his criticism, and he should criticise his society where it acts in a way contrary to the theology as we have received it, and where it produces children and adults who are incapable of repentance or of seeing any reason for conversion to Christianity.

4. The individual Christian should attempt to bring about a society so constructed that it consists of a majority of educated people whose education was aimed at preparing them for a relationship with God and the eternal life, emphasising in particular the need for conversion and the sinful state of human beings.

5. Because, any enterprise or any conflict, and any society will not prosper without the approval, or the grace of, God.

Design Jason Powell, 2020.