T.S. Eliot on Society and Religion

Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St. Louis, Missouri and migrated to England at the age of 25. As did the American novelist Henry James, he became a British subject very much influenced by the European milieu of his adoption. As his biographer Peter Ackroyd points out, while a student at Harvard University studying for his Master’s Degree, Eliot took courses with two great scholars: the philosopher George Santayana, who did not recognize in Eliot a budding genius; and the humanist pioneer Irving Babbitt, who did. Babbitt reinforced Eliot’s inbred preference for the classical rather than the romantic stream of literature, a reinforcement that was abetted by Eliot’s decision to move to England, where polite reserve ruled rather than the robust and romantic extravagance of the American psyche. G.K. Chesterton, something of a romantic himself, wryly commented on Eliot’s writing style: “Indeed, when he does make an epigram (and a very good one) he is so ashamed of it that he hides it at the end of a minute footnote, for fear some critic or other should accuse him of brilliancy.” Even so, Eliot’s brilliance as poet, playwright, and essayist was fully acknowledged when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Eliot as Convert

In his earlier years Eliot abandoned the liberal Unitarian faith of his grandfather in which he had been baptized. In his college years he flirted with Buddhism, but by 1927, at the age of 39 and a well-established literary figure, he was baptized into the Church of England. Jacques Maritain, when asked why Eliot had not gone all the way into the Church of Rome, opined that Eliot seemed to have only enough spiritual energy for one conversion (apparently a limitation he shared with C.S. Lewis). The reaction of some of Eliot’s British contemporaries to his conversion ranged from mild disbelief to full-throated contempt. For example, the novelist Virginia Woolf, an atheist and later a suicide, wrote: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

There is every reason to believe that Eliot’s conversion was sincere and a source of inspiration for his later writings on religion and society. Eliot had traversed the dark night of his own soul. Whereas once he had eloquently written of the Age of Anxiety into which he was born, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” now he could write of the divine Light at the end of the tunnel, the light to be worship-fully followed; and he did so immediately with his first Christian poem, “Journey of the Magi.” In another of his best religious poems, “Ash Wednesday,” written three years after his conversion, the themes of penitence and renunciation are explored, and Eliot speaks mystically of the Word unheard.

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken, unheard;

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the world; And the light shone in the darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the center of the silent Word.

Eliot on Pascal

Eliot’s journey to faith was not unlike that of Blaise Pascal, who in his great tome Pensées struggled to connect with his own faith, his own doubts, but especially with the doubts of those who do not believe. As Eliot put it, the Word is silent and can only be heard by those with ears to hear. And as Eliot said in his essay on Pascal, “To the unbeliever, this method [apologetics] seems disingenuous and perverse; for the unbeliever is, as a rule, not so greatly troubled to explain the world to himself, nor so greatly distressed by its disorder; nor is he generally concerned (in modern terms) to ‘preserve values.’ … he would, so to speak, trim his values according to his cloth, because to him such values are of no great value.”

In so few words Eliot has summed up the whole impulse of modernity, the great reason why the “Word is unspoken, unheard” concerning religion: Indifference. He does not offer an explanation for that indifference, but one that comes to mind is the natural human tendency toward spiritual entropy (laziness) identified by psychologist M. Scott Peck in his fascinating book The Road Less Traveled. That is, humans like to take the path more traveled because it offers the least resistance; whereas the path of religion, more resisting, offers many hills to climb and many paths to clear for those who choose it.

On Pascal, Eliot reflects: “But I can think of no Christian writer, not Newman even, more to be commended than Pascal to those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being.” The “whole being” to which Eliot refers must be not only the reasons of the head required by the thinker, but also the reasons of the heart demanded by the poet, the Christian poet that Eliot had become once he had discovered that his whole being was crying out for some believable explanation of the mysteries as opposed to no explanation at all.

The Liberal Dilemma

Having been baptized and immersed in his Christian psyche for thirteen years, Eliot in 1939 wrote The Idea of a Christian Society in which he offered, with considerable foresight from today’s point of view, the idea that modern liberalism was doomed. “The attitudes and beliefs of Liberalism are destined to disappear, are already disappearing. They belong to an age of free exploitation which has passed; and our danger now is, that the term may come to signify for us only the disorder the fruits of which we inherit …. Out of Liberalism itself come philosophies which deny it.”

Had Eliot lived in our time, he would see even more clearly the collapse of liberalism; some public colleges, once famous bastions of free inquiry and dialogue, have become hellish regimes of autocratic faculty daily daring students to utter speech remotely hinting at conservative values. The present scene in academia (which I used to inhabit) is now more anarchic and explosive than ever before. But the abuse of free thought and free speech is not limited to the academy. Also rife throughout the mainstream media are recent attempts to stifle coverage of free speech that is critical of political correctness, not to mention promoting “fake news” that manipulates the public like Pavlov’s dog.

For Eliot the essential defect of modern civilization is that it is highly materialistic, while simultaneously pretending that it holds the high moral ground. It is likely that we can live in either the Christian or the pagan world, but not both. (“He who is not with me is against me.” Luke 11:23) Here Eliot indicts especially the British culture, which has been industrialized longer than any other. “The tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women – of all classes – detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.”

On the Post-Christian Era

This once Christian civilization, Eliot says, does not realize how far it has drifted into paganism over the recent centuries. The Christian accommodation to industrial materialism has been slow but constant, so much so that the Christian need not be persecuted by the pagans because he is not perceived to be an enemy so much as a minority customer to be tolerated and exploited. But this could be fatal for Christianity. “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.” After all, Eliot might have added, was it not the intolerance of the Romans and the blood of the martyrs that spurred the rise of Christianity?

Now the decline of Christianity has left the world without a guidebook to living and living well. One has only to look about at the rank hedonism pervasive throughout society to know this. Pagan morality, lacking significantly creative direction by some kind of inherent law of nature, ultimately fails. And so the search begins again, as it began in the waning days of the Roman Empire, for some kind of viable alternative or moral imperative. Thus it appears Eliot subscribes to the pendulum theory of history, that “… the only possibility of control and balance is a religious control and balance; that the only hopeful course for society which would thrive and continue its creative activity in the arts of civilization, is to become Christian. That prospect involves, at least, discipline, inconvenience and discomfort: but here as hereafter the alternative to hell is purgatory.”

For Eliot, the key to reviving a Christian civilization lies in the educational system that conveys a unifying body of knowledge and wisdom throughout the culture. Lacking such unity, there can be no consensus developed as to the merits of good literature versus literary trash. Each, the good and the bad, can vie for dominance; in a democracy one can guess which will win; the one that can sell the most books, usually to the less educated, or to those whom the political parties have a tie of allegiance. The oppressive crush of politics, wrongly used, can destroy the attempt to create a good educational system; and all the more so if the political powers that be are bent on using education to feather their own nests by training future adults how they should vote; and are bent on using the classroom as propaganda mills rather than laboratories for free and creative thought and imagination. Here, Eliot says, is the final danger: “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.”

Christianity, Natural Law and Culture

Eliot was concerned that Christianity had a vital connection with the natural world, a connection that could not be thwarted by pagan complaints that celibacy is unnatural, when in fact the more unnatural thing is to insist that families should be limited to one or two children. Indeed, the more natural thing might be that more people should be celibate and more families should have larger families. In any case, Eliot regarded the rapid consumption of natural resources as the most unnatural thing of all, for this radical consumption at the present rate would mean future generations would have to pay dearly for our destruction of natural resources. Thus the ethic of thrift preached by Christianity is superior to the wasteful pleasures demanded by the pagans. It is this recognition that will bring us back to Christ. Eliot insists, “We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope.”

In his Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (1948) Eliot begins by exploring the evolution of simple cultures into complex ones. At first all the functions of an early tribe, appearing in all their simplicity, are interwoven and almost indistinguishable. But as the tribe grows into a civilization the various functions – religion, crafts, science, politics, etc. – become more competitive with each other for dominance in and over the minds of the citizens. The evolution of a culture is by stages, which means that certain functions may dominate one era but be replaced by the dominance of other functions in the next era. Thus we see the primitive language of drums and horns appear at an earlier stage, and symphonic music at a later stage. Simple religion dominates in the early stage, and is significantly challenged by complex theologies in a later era. Noticing this change through history encourages the idea of progress, that the later stage is an improvement over the earlier one. However, progress can turn to regress given the right conditions. The present is not necessarily better than the past, and the future is not necessarily better than the present. A monarchy can turn into a democracy, but a democracy can turn into a mobocracy, and a mobocracy into a dictatorship, as the history of France showed from the Revolution through to the ascendancy of Napoleon.

Therefore it seems that all so-called progress is subject to perilous adventures. Whereas in the early phase of a civilization the different functions of a society that support each other may for a time do so, in the later phase they may cease to do so for one reason or another. The great physicist Isaac Newton could see God’s intelligent designing power just in the existence of the human thumb. But there is no doubt that, since Darwin at least, a certain generalized tension has come to exist in western society between religion and science. That tension is accompanied by yet another tension, the one between religion and the arts. In a post-Christian society, one can successfully predict the arts coming into the service of anti-religious forces. In light of recent artists’ paintings and sculptures that are virtually blasphemous against Jesus and Mary (proving the hate-filled vulgarization of the culture) Eliot anticipated in 1948 what we have more recently witnessed. Thus, he asserts, “Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas cultivated by groups in no communication with each other. The artistic sensibility is impoverished by its divorce from the religious sensibility, the religious by its separation from the artistic.” But the ramifications for the entire culture are clear: without art and religion serving each other, as they so well did in the Middle Ages, how will people know what their own values are, and how will they learn to celebrate how beautiful and precious those values are?

                                                   Spiritual Malaise

The spiritual malaise of western cultures cannot help but to produce by-products evident to anyone who is willing to see them. The post-Christian era has produced an emptiness of soul that is over-compensated for by the national rush toward physical obesity. Eliot puts it this way: “If we take culture seriously, we see that a people does not need merely enough to eat … but a proper and particular cuisine: one symptom of the decline of culture in Britain is indifference to the art of preparing food.” Not only indifference to the art of preparing food, but to the kinds of food eaten … high caloric and fat diets. Statistics prove that obesity exists among 35 percent of Americans, and the numbers are predicted to get substantially higher in decades to come. The question concerns not just how much people are eating, but what kind of foods they crave. The phenomenal growth of the fast-food industry shows that one of the Christian’s deadly sins, gluttony, has become epidemic and is greatly contributing to the physical decay of citizens along with provoking the spiritual malaise of tens of millions.

Eliot goes on to insist that religion is not just one element of a culture, but that it is an essential element. Notice that the decline of the Roman Empire was contemporary with the decline of the pagan religions. Notice too that the re-invigoration of the West only came very slowly with the arrival of Constantine and Charlemagne, both champions for Christianity as the official religion of Europe. One feature of that religion is that, through the Catholic Church, it unified Europe in a way that no other religion had. Whereas two or more moral codes could exist in other cultures (such as one for the rich and one for the poor in Hinduism) Christianity had taught that rich and poor were equally accountable to the same God. Christianity also taught that not only infallible dogmas could be preached, but that they could be defended against a robust skepticism. Anyone who doubts this should read Aquinas, who artfully replies to all the doubts one could raise against religion. But Christianity, while honoring skepticism by answering it, refuses to honor pyrrhonism (doubting the existence of truth itself). If there is any culture in which pyrrhonism has triumphed to the extent of creating a nearly universal psychological derangement, it is the present one. While watching the evening news on television, one often has to doubt either the truth of what is reported or else concede the general insanity of the world around us.

Religion and Morality

Eliot believed that a universal religion would be the religion that would unify morals everywhere. But in a culture with diverse religions competing, or religions competing with widespread atheism, such as our own, the world would have a more difficult time promoting positive moral conduct. Moral anarchy exists when no universal religion can impose its morals on the general populace, or when there is no religion at all to impose a unified morality. For example, the unified morality of North Korea (such as it is) stems from the evil genius of a dictator, and from nowhere else. But this tyrant is not a distant God who withholds judgment until the end, and therefore we expect public and private submission to the will of one man who rules with the iron fist. If that one man is lunatic (we have seen this more than once in the last century) the whole nation will become a lunatic asylum to appease him or else die by his command.

As Eliot says, “When we consider the problem of evangelizing, of the development of a Christian society, we have reason to quail.” We have considerably more reason to quail now than when Eliot wrote that sentence seventy years ago. In Eliot’s day mass shootings were almost unheard of. In recent years they have become common, one of the most recent being the mass murder of Christians inside their own church in Sutherland, Texas. Before that was the mass shooting incident in an Oregon school where the shooter asked his victims if they were Christians, and if they replied yes, they were shot in the head. Anyone who looks into the matter can see that in general the media reports mainly negative news, or no news at all, regarding significant developments in the world of religion. Both in the movies and television there is no lack of criticism and mockery of Christian leaders and teachings. Recently a candidate for appointment to a federal judgeship was interviewed by members of Congress. When asked her views on abortion, she was virtually indicted as suspect because she was Catholic. If the open warfare on Christianity has not already begun, the hints that such a war is imminent are not difficult to find.

The Alternative?

Eliot knew very well that what a religion preaches and what its adherents practice are two very different things. But the essence of religion is the ideal that it preaches, not the failure of its adherents to reach the ideal practice of the religion. Thus, Christians may well be attacked for their behavior, while at the same time it should be possible praise them for what they believe. Christians (many of them anyway) still believe in the devil as one very logical explanation for many of the world’s evils, and they know that the devil’s plan to pull them down competes rather strongly with God’s plan to pull them up. What is fairly certain is that those who neither believe nor practice according to any creed have no explanation whatever for many of the world’s evils. Such evils must be accounted for as some blind evolutionary force winding its way through the history of the human race much as the life force blindly followed its nose several billions of years from the protean amoeba all the way up to the human condition. Lacking any more viable explanation than the devil, the identity of the enemy of humankind remains anonymous, and therefore beyond combat and retaliation. As the pothead’s bland reasoning offers, “Man, just go with the flow!” Such calm indifference to evil just might be the greatest of evils. Resignation to a meaningless existence, Eliot remarks, is the final alternative to a religion that “protects the mass of humanity from boredom and despair.”

Christianity, Eliot maintains, has been the bulwark for family life. And so, by implication, it is no surprise that Christianity will oppose the abortion of those yet to be born, or the euthanasia of those too old to fend for themselves. Christianity has also, in the main, opposed adultery as a wound to the family, and it has opposed divorce as a wound from which the family cannot recover. Likewise Christianity, through the family, has devoted itself to indoctrinating the young with the wisdom required not only for survival, but for a successful and happy life; a life in which crime and prison are the least likely fate of those who remain true to the teachings of Christ. Eliot rightly detects what has happened to the family in recent times. “What is held up for admiration is not devotion to a family, but personal affection between members of it…. But when I speak of the family, I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety toward the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote. Unless this reverence for the past and the future is cultivated in the home, it can never be more than a verbal convention in the community.”

Evangelizing Civilization

For Eliot, evangelizing is the key to the survival not only of Christianity, but of the civilization Christianity has shaped through the centuries. “The Church is not merely for the elect – in other words, those whose temperament brings them to that belief and that behavior. Nor does it allow us to be Christian in some social relations and non-Christian in others. It wants everybody, and it wants each individual as a whole. It therefore must struggle for a condition of society which will give the maximum of opportunity for us to lead wholly Christian lives, and the maximum of opportunity for others to become Christians.” Recent popes have agreed with Eliot about the desperate need for universal evangelizing. Yet it has been offered that evangelizing needs to begin inside the Catholic Church which has been splintering itself into opposing liberal and orthodox camps, much as modern Protestantism has done. Catholicism must return to the orthodox unity it once possessed if it is to unite the world by its example. Various attempts to accommodate the non-Christian world can only result in the end with accommodating various devils.

The accommodation has already begun. The new paganism is virtually triumphant. According to Eliot, “The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem than that of the accommodation between and established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: intituitions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of this dilemma – and he is in the majority – he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.”

Is there no way out of this dilemma? Eliot offers a definite and do-able one by hearkening back to the early Christian Fathers who had to survive and toil to make Christianity prosper in a dominantly pagan world. “We need to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of re-ascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it can be overcome by religious hope.” We may infer from Eliot’s remarks that budding young theologians worth their salt could intelligently survey the writings of the early Fathers and extract from them the necessary policies and procedures that will put orthodox Christianity back on its feet. In other words, if by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit it (orthodoxy) could be established once against all odds, there is every reason to believe that it can and will return to its place in the sun.

For those who blithely think the loss of Christianity will be no great loss to the world, Eliot has some profound cautionary advice. “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 pass through many centuries of barbarism. 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.” Anyone who believes that a whole new mythology must be created to supplant the story of Christ’s mission, and a new morality must be found to replace his, will have to reckon with the State imposition of such a mythology and morality. We may suspect, based on our observations and experience, how well a State imposed super-mythology and morality is likely to work. For anyone who as yet has no such suspicion, a brief visit to Animal Farm by George Orwell may supply them with one.

Complementing Eliot’s insights, here is offered a reflection by his contemporary, Robert Frost, from his poem titled “The Black Cottage.”

For, dear me, why abandon a belief

Merely because it ceases to be true?

Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt

It will turn true again, for so it goes.

Most of the change we think we see in life

Is due to truths being in and out of favor.

As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish

I could be a monarch of a desert land

I could devote and dedicate forever

To the truths we keep coming back and back to.

 

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essay for students of Catholic apologetics