Liberalism. Eliot observed was teleologically negative. It sought to liberate mankind from what it considered the shackles of antiquity, as task which, in itself, required the possession of a fine conceit of oneself: on the one hand the accumulated wisdom of the ages; on the other your own intellect. None of which is to say that there are not some things which always need reforming, but which is to say, with Eliot, that:
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 on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negative: the artificial, mechanized or brutalised control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos. (CC, 12)
Organic development often looks chaotic and in need to rationalisation, but those who call for that so often throw out the baby with the bathwater, not realising that things which have existed for a long time have tended to do so because of some inherent virtue; we should be wary of changing things unless we understand the ways in which the changes we want will be for the better – that is Eliot’s plea, or at least part of it.
It is all very well for liberalism claim, as it used to (and bits of it still do), that religion is a matter of private practice, but it becomes increasingly difficult to love a Christian life in this society. I pay my taxes (don’t remind me) and in so doing I am paying for abortion on the NHS; if I ran a small business and I refused to put a slogan supporting gay marriage onto a cake or a garment, I should find myself liable to a penalty under law; the State itself had to insert clauses into its own laws to stop the Church being forced to allow gay marriages to take place on its premises -which has not stopped Christians going to court to try to make the Church do what it secured an exemption from doing. To oppose these modish causes is to find oneself labelled a bigot and, as more than one good Catholic blogger has found, to be inundated with hate from those who say that ‘love trumps hate and have no sense of irony. The pressures to de-Christianise are many; the pressures to stick to Christian orthodoxy few.
Christian culture is not an abstract concept, it is a way of life, a society which understands implicitly certain norms, and where behaviour is regulated as much by such understandings as it is by the law; indeed the law is in many ways the final resort, to be used only when an individual deliberately violates the custom and practice of the parish – a custom and a practice build around Christian norms. Self-satisfaction and selfishness are inbuilt parts of our fallen nature, and they are not to be combatted by secular means alone – or perhaps not at all by such means. We can mandate compassion through taxation, but what we get is money to be distributed by the State and a disinterested set of taxpayers who assume their duty is discharged by the payment of taxes.
But what was it Eliot meant when he wrote about a Christian society? It is to that theme, God willing, I shall return in future posts.