T.S. Eliot wrote that: “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again and you cannot put on a new culture readymade. You must wait for the grass to grow …”
The classic liberal secularist response to this is summed up here:
There is, of course, a double dishonesty in all of this. There is the assumption that it is not possible to retain, in a secular society, those values which we have learned as matters of good sense from a Christianity in which they were supported by revelation; it is a standard trope, unsupported by reason of modern conservatism that if we discard part we stand to lose all of our historical culture – and Eliot was too clever a man not to know that this was, and remains, mere assertion.
The burden of proof here rests, it seems to me, on the person making the assertion. Values need to be rooted in something. Christianity values the family and all human life, and if I ask whether this society does so I would query a positive answer, and more than that, I would point to the breakdown of the family in the UK and America and ask how far many of our social ills stem from that? I would also ask how far a society where the public discourse has become as crude as it has, has been coarsened by its attitude to the unborn and the elderly, where it seems that a more utilitarian attitude now prevails – one where sentimentality scarcely conceals a selfish desire that the individual’s own comfort should come first? These are important parts of our historical culture, and the fact that they are attenuating most where Faith has vanished most, may be a coincidence, but it suggests that the optimism of the critic is unfounded. In Eliot’s day this process was not very far advanced; it is now. But Eliot saw clearly that:
“a society has ceased to be Christian when religious practices have been abandoned [and when] when behaviour ceases to be regulated by reference to Christian principle, and when in effect prosperity in this world for the individual or for the group has become the sole conscious aim” (Christianity & Culture, 9–10).
The critic’s other caveat of Eliot’s position is one I think we should take more seriously:
The other dishonesty is that Eliot’s Christianity, like that of many rightwing intellectuals, is an underpinning of the status quo rather than a force for social justice or the ecstatic joy of Easter Day for believers.
If by ‘social justice’ is meant a bias to the poor and a concern for them, then it is, alas, true that too many conservative Christians react to this as though someone were suggesting that Jesus was a communist. His concern for the poor and the marginalised is not one which conservative Christians tend to stress. As for the joy of the Resurrection, again, the critic has a point. To what extent does the experience of the Resurrection inform our attitude to others and to the world? Do we express that optimism that in the end all will be well, and all manner of things will be well, or do we retreat into an entrenched conservatism which rejects the world because it cannot cope with it and prefers to see it as the enemy rather than as a target for conversion?
How, though, does, or should, our Christianity inform our cultural encounters? How do we hold on to the best that Christianity has given our culture without also insisting that there is only one way – a conservative way – of portraying this? It is to some of those questions that I hope to return during the Lenten period.