Half a century ago, writer T.S. Eliot warned that if Christianity goes, then the whole of our culture goes. Bill Muehlenberg argues that the passage of time has merely confirmed Eliot's fears and prophetic insights.
In the busyness of fighting the many skirmishes in the culture wars, be it the stem-cell debate, the battle over marriage and family, the assault on childhood or the controversies surrounding Intelligent Design, we sometimes lose track of the larger war that we are in.
While the everyday battles must be fought, we must not forget the bigger picture. In military terms, while we must have our tactical operations in place, we must also have a strategic plan in clear view. Smaller skirmishes and battles must be seen in the light of the overall longer-term strategy.
It was the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who once reminded us that if we ignore the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Thus is it always worthwhile going back to those who have gone before, and have spoken with prophetic insight, warning of the direction in which we are heading, and keeping the bigger picture in view.
A number of thinkers and authors come to mind. But one that deserves attention can be revisited. He lived last century. So, although he is a relatively recent prophet, it is still worth while pulling his volumes off the shelves, blowing off the dust, and re-reading his incisive and perceptive remarks. I refer to T.S. Eliot.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was an American-born but British-based literary figure of great importance. A man of vast intellect and learning, he was educated at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne in Paris. As a poet, dramatist and literary critic, he is perhaps best known for his 1922 epic poem The Waste Land. His most famous play was Murder in the Cathedral (1935), about the martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket.
More important for our purposes was his conversion from agnosticism to Christianity (High Anglicanism) in 1927. He was appointed to the committee formed to produce the New English translation of the Bible in 1939. And in 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Two of his more important works of Christian social reflection were The Idea of a Christian Society (Faber and Faber, 1940) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (Faber and Faber, 1948).
The big questions
In the first volume, he addressed the big questions about where we are heading as a society. He argued that Western cultures passes through three stages: when Christians are a minority in a pagan society; when the whole of society can be called Christian; and when society ceases to be Christian and Christians again become a minority.
Europe as a whole, of course, has gone through such stages; and Eliot said we face a crossroads: "The choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one".
The stakes are high; other alternatives are not sufficient. He said:
"We are always faced both with the question 'what must be destroyed?' and with the question 'what must be preserved?' and neither Liberalism nor Conservatism, which are not philosophies and may be merely habits, is enough to guide us.
"What we are seeking is not a programme for a party but a way of life for a people ... Our choice now is not between one abstract form or another, but between a pagan, and necessarily stunted culture, and a religious, and necessarily imperfect culture."
He goes on to say that we must reject the idea that our religion can be merely a private affair, with no social, political or cultural impact. He bewails the "lamentable results of the attempt to isolate the Church from the World". And he speaks of the difficulties of living as Christians in an increasingly non-Christian, even anti-Christian culture, one in which "paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space".
Anticipating the situation in which we now find ourselves, especially with our religious tolerance legislation, he says, "I am concerned with the dangers to the tolerated minority; and in the modern world, it may turn out that the most intolerable thing for Christians is to be tolerated."
Eliot reminds us where real social and political justification lies:
"As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality.
"The term 'democracy,' as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces you dislike - it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin."
In his 1948 volume, he took some of these ideas further. He spoke about the myth that "culture can be preserved, extended and developed without religion".
He continues: "There is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture." (Eliot's emphasis).
Toward the end of this book come some of his most profound insights. They are worth quoting at length:
"The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion. Please do not, at this point, make a mistake in anticipating my meaning. This is not a religious talk, and I am not setting out to convert anybody. I am simply stating a fact.
"I am not so much concerned with the communion of Christian believers today; I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it."
He continues, with what may be the most sublime thought in the book:
"It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have - until recently - been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance.
"An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian could have reproduced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche.
"I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology.
"If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it." (Emphasis added).
He concludes: "But we can at least try to save something of those goods of which we are the common trustees: the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last 2,000 years. In a world which has seen such material devastation as ours, these spiritual possessions are in imminent peril."
There in two short volumes we have a comprehensive and articulate philosophy of the struggle we are in. In the end, it is ultimately a battle between the Judeo-Christian worldview, and the pagan alternative. T.S. Eliot could see this clearly 50 years ago. The passage of time has merely confirmed his fears and prophetic insights.
We stand today at a clearly defined crossroads. On the one hand is the Christian worldview, springing from its Hebrew roots, which provides a basis for society, for philosophy, for all of life. It is an all-encompassing way of life that has been the source of the greatest good in human history. Sure, there has been plenty of mischief accomplished in the name of Christ, but these are perversions and distortions, not expressions of the real thing.
On the other hand, there is the denial of the entire concept of Christian civilisation. It is not, as some suppose, the springboard into a newer, more enlightened future. It is instead a return to barbarism. The pagan alternative has been tried and found wanting.
Some might argue that the Christian alternative has also been tried and found wanting. But Chesterton is closer to the truth when he says, "The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult, and left untried."
Almost all of the good achieved in the Western world has come about because of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Now is not the time to abandon that tradition, but to reclaim it, and to reclaim it more forcefully than ever.
Bill Muehlenberg has degrees in philosophy and theology, and teaches at a number of theological colleges.