Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Twilight Sage” first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Touchstone.
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Contours of Culture
by Ken Myers
There are some books that are remarkably insightful in describing and evaluating the forces that made contemporary culture what it is today. There are other books that force us as readers to ask whether we—as well as the books in that first group—are even asking all of the right questions. T. S. Eliot’s Christianity and Culture falls into the second category.
Christianity and Culture is actually two short books in one volume. The Idea of a Christian Society is a collection of lectures given by Eliot at Cambridge in March 1939 and assembled in book form before Britain’s entry into the war with Germany. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is an essay begun by Eliot in the mid-1940s and completed in 1948.
The dates are significant. On either side of the Second World War, Eliot inhabited a country in which the phrase “Christian society” was not the embarrassment it would become in just a generation. In 1939 or 1949, one could make assumptions that could not be made in 1959 or after. As Callum Brown writes in The Death of Christian Britain, “From 1956 all indices of religiosity in Britain start to decline, and from 1963 most enter free fall.”
Eliot’s reflections were formulated on the far side of that decline, and some readers will no doubt regard them as irrelevant relics of an irretrievable past. But if Christians are to think well about questions of church and culture, they will have to ask whether the reigning paradigms of our cultural moment can possibly do justice to either the proper concerns of church or of culture.
The Preface to The Idea of a Christian Society begins with a statement of the inadequacy of reigning paradigms. Eliot voices a “suspicion that the current terms in which we discuss international affairs and political theory may only tend to conceal from us the real issues of contemporary civilisation.” He soon makes it clear that one of those real issues is whether one can sustain a society that is neutral with regard to all questions of religion. Eliot clearly doubts it: “The choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” A Christian society is not one “consisting exclusively of devout Christians,” but “a society in which the natural end of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have the eyes to see it.”
Eliot believed that modern Liberalism—the intellectual foundation of Western democracies, giving rise to the ultimately untenable “neutral society”—was defined more by what it was against than by what it was for. It was a “negative” culture. “It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite.” This teleological vacuum meant that “Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation,” a threat that Europe is only now facing due to the challenge presented by radical Islam to the dictates of absolute tolerance.
Eliot believed that the negative tendency of Liberalism was bad for politics, for the arts, for religious life, and for education. “In a negative liberal society you have no agreement as to there being any body of knowledge which any educated person should have acquired at any particular stage: the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.” By contrast, a positive culture is characterized by “a positive set of values, and the dissentients must remain marginal.”
Eliot was clearly a “crunchy conservative.” He insisted that “the natural life and the supernatural life have a conformity to one another which neither has with the mechanistic life.” He also maintained that “a wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
In the second book, Eliot notes the increase after the war in the use of the word “culture,” especially in political settings, and his poetic sensibilities were obviously offended by the absence of an agreed-upon meaning given to the word. But Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is not a pedantic lexical exercise. Eliot’s deeper task is to present his vision of “the essential conditions for the growth and for the survival of culture.”
One has to know what culture is in order to serve its flourishing—and in order to recognize cultural decadence. “The most important question that we can ask,” Eliot insists, “is whether there is any permanent standard, by which we can compare one civilisation with another, and by which we can make some guess at the improvement or decline of our own.” In 1948 Eliot believed he was in the middle of a period of decline. One doubts whether he would be more sanguine today.
Life Cycles of Culture
Almost every page of Christianity and Culture contains a penetrating observation or sobering evaluation. Eliot refers to these writings as a work of “social biology,” a study of the life cycles of that precious and fragile organism called culture. Like the best social thinkers of the twentieth century, he knew that the health of a culture depended on the vitality and proper ordering of its institutions, especially the family.
After finishing this book, readers should return to the first sentence of the first chapter: “The fact that a problem will certainly take a long time to solve, and that it will demand the attention of many minds for several generations, is no justification for postponing the study.” •
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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