Christianity, Culture, and the Problem of Establishment - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Christianity, Culture, and the Problem of Establishment

Christianity and Culture by T. S. Eliot (San Diego: Harcourt,
Brace, 1948). (CC)

T. S. Eliot indisputably was, and remains, in the first rank of
poets of any era and any culture.1 Eliot is almost as well
known among literate persons as a critic and literary theorist. His
journal, The Criterion, despite its short lifespan, remains the
standard of high modernism. Continuing interest in Eliot is
shown in the recent re-issue of Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age.
But Eliot’s stature as a critic has suffered due to the same
elements that make his poetry so highly admired—its call to
intellectual rigor and demand for active, learned engagement with
the Western tradition and with traditions and civilizations outside
the West. Thus Eliot’s thought has been dismissed as “arrogant””
and “”elitist”” even as the products of that thought have been
accepted as essential elements of our literature.2Least regarded
in the mainstream of English-speaking letters are Eliot’s writings
on culture. Championed by a few religious and traditional conservative
thinkers,3 these writings also are mentioned in connection
with charges of Eliot’s anti-Semitism,4 or more often, simply

But Eliot’s writings on culture are important precisely because
they grow so directly from his literary criticism and because
they so clearly are of a piece with his conception of the purpose
and role of literature itself. In Eliot’s view, literature, in addition
to its provision of entertainment and personal enrichment, has as
its proper end the maintenance and enrichment of culture. In
particular, Eliot’s Christianity and Culture is a substantial contribution
to our understanding of the nature of culture, the nature
of the relationship between culture and religion, and the role of
what often are termed cultural pursuits—including literature, the
visual arts, architecture, and the like—in making life worth living.

Essays in Definition

Christianity and Culture is a collection, composed of two lengthy
essays (“”The Idea of a Christian Society”” and “”Notes Towards the
Definition of Culture””) and several appended broadcast talks.
The title of the second essay, “”Notes Towards the Definition of
Culture,”” is most indicative. For this volume is neither an
exhaustive, systematic treatment of any one topic, nor an attempt
to formulate any program of action to fundamentally restructure
society. While Eliot’s subject matter of culture and society may
differ somewhat in type, and certainly in scope, from that of
standard literary criticism, he approaches it as befits a literary
critic. He seeks to further a conversation he sees as ongoing,
attempting to clarify our terms and understandings to make that
conversation more fruitful and enlightening.

As Eliot puts it in the introduction to “”The Idea of a Christian
Society,”” “”My point of departure has been the 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 civilization”” (CC, 3). Thus Eliot seeks not to
conclude the debate but to improve it by helping define its terms.
And such definition of terms is, at its root, a literary endeavor.
“”While the practice of poetry need not in itself confer wisdom or
accumulate knowledge, it ought at least to train the mind in one
habit of universal value: that of analyzing the meaning of words””
(CC, 5).

Thus Eliot plays the somewhat disengaged role of critic even
at a time when disengagement may be taken as disloyalty. Writing
during the years leading up to World War II, with Britain facing
open war with Nazi Germany and clear hostility from Stalin’s
communist regime, Eliot refuses to enter into Britons’ facile
though comforting claims that they are a Christian society, facing
the onslaught of pagan societies and so charged with defending
Western civilization. Britain is in fact more a neutral than a
Christian society, according to Eliot. But Eliot, though himself a
convert to (Anglican) Christianity, does not seek to respond by
engaging in a project of conversion. “”I am not at this moment
concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into
existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it
appear desirable.”” Rather than seeking in his criticism to win
converts to Christianity, Eliot is “”very much concerned with
making clear”” a Christian society’s “”difference from the kind of
society in which we are now living.”” That is, far from a purely
evangelical purpose, Eliot’s is intellectual. He seeks to increase
our awareness of the kind of society in which we live, and the kind
of life we ourselves are living. And “”to understand the society in
which he lives, must be to the interest of every conscious thinking
person”” (CC, 6).

Eliot clearly is engaged in an intellectual pursuit, explaining
and defining key terms in our public discourse. But this puts him
no less, and perhaps more, at odds with contemporary standards
of intellectual life than if he were merely seeking converts. His
central point in this essay is that Britain’s (and by extension
America’s) society is neutral, rather than Christian, precisely
because the formal profession of Christianity is tolerated, while
the structures and aims appropriate to a Christian society are not
even considered. While “”a society has ceased to be Christian when
religious practices have been abandoned,”” it also has ceased to be
Christian “”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””
(CC, 9–10).

This is not to say that ours has become a pagan society. In
saying that ours is a neutral society, Eliot also is pointing out that
it remains Christian, though only in vestigial form. Liberalism,
the ideology dominant in the West, has emptied out (some might
say “”secularized””) our society, dissolving many of its religiously
grounded structures and aims. Liberalism has done much to
neutralize Christianity, but claims the labels “”benign”” and “”tolerant””
because it has put nothing in Christianity’s place. As Eliot
puts it,

Liberalism. . . tends to release energy rather than accumulate it,
to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much
defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than
towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real
to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present
a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image
formed in imagination. 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,

Liberalism is fundamentally negative in its teleology. Its
inherent purpose is to liberate individuals from constraints of
tradition, social structure, and cultural context. It can have good
effects (some structures are, indeed, oppressive) but if not
checked it will corrode the social framework, producing anarchy
and brutal responses to that anarchy. Here, obviously, Eliot is
referring to the rise of totalitarianism, perhaps most obviously in
response to the anarchy of post–World War I German society. He
also points to the discomfiting fact that Western democracies
share significant affinities with totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian
regimes simply have advanced more fully (and ironically, more
efficiently) on the road to paganism, a destination toward which
our society continues to move.5

Clearly there is a prescriptive element to Eliot’s argument.
Few people of sense and goodwill would choose either the
totalitarianism or the cultural death naturally succeeding to a
neutral society that is not brought back to its religious roots. But
Eliot’s explanatory goal is to point out the nature of our choices
as a vestigial Christian society. He seeks to eliminate the inconsistency
(whether adopted from ignorance or the intention to
deceive) of those whose real values “”are of materialistic efficiency””
yet who claim also to value Christianity (CC, 16). “”The
Liberal notion that religion was a matter of private belief and of
conduct in private life, and that there is no reason why Christians
should not be able to accommodate themselves to any world
which treats them good-naturedly, is becoming less and less
tenable”” (CC, 17). This view is an unsurprising outgrowth of
liberalism’s genuine good fruits, peace and toleration.

But the liberal secular viewpoint has become increasingly
untenable due to the difficulty of leading a Christian life in a non-
Christian society.

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 from
that of the accommodation between an 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: institutions the operation of
which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for
the Christian who is not conscious of his 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. (CC, 17–18; emphasis in original)

If the final sentence of this quotation does not make Eliot’s
point sufficiently clear, one might consider recent court decisions
upholding the right of governments to force Catholic charitable
groups to offer contraceptive coverage in their health plans, or
those requiring landlords to rent to tenants whose marital status
their religious norms cause them to find offensive. And this is
Eliot’s central point: a Christian society is not a society that
merely tolerates Christianity. Nor is it one with any specific set of
political or economic structures. It is a society that promotes a
particular way of life—a Christian way of life.

In this context we may understand Eliot’s sketch of the “”idea””
of a Christian society as one methodologically as well as substantively
opposed to the kinds of prescriptive tracts we have come to
expect from political philosophers. Liberal ideological constructs
had become the norm in political philosophy at least by the late
eighteenth century—that is, long before Eliot and long before
contemporary works like John Rawls’s influential, and rather
typical A Theory of Justice. In his tract Rawls posits an ideal of
“”justice as fairness”” (which he only late in life admitted was rooted
in his own liberal-democratic prejudices), and then he constructs
a society he believes will produce it. Eliot’s idea does not partake
of such utopian idealism, so common in liberal political philosophy.
Rather, he begins with the understanding that we mean
something when we call a society Christian, something more than
that it is simply tolerant of Christian religious beliefs. Political
philosophy properly understood, understood as Eliot understands
it, “”is not merely even the conscious formulation of the
ideal aims of a people, but the substratum of collective temperament,
ways of behaviour and unconscious values which provides
the material for the formulation. What we are seeking is not a
programme for a party, but a way of life for a people.”” Eliot thus
explicitly rejects the liberal conceit that we must choose “”between
one abstract form and another”” (CC, 14). Instead we must choose
what kind of life we shall live; what habits and preconceptions we
will evince in our daily conduct.

It is the nature and quality of our “”way of life”” that is central
for Eliot. Culture, religion, political philosophy, and art all are
facets of the way of life. They help define, support, and limit one
another in ways that can enrich or impoverish our modes of
conduct. But we can not do without any of them. Appropriately
for a poet, Eliot sums up the situation in the phrase “”good prose
cannot be written by a people without convictions”” (CC, 15). Such
convictions are at root religious, according to Eliot, even as they
suffuse political philosophy and artistic pursuits. And, because
they inhabit all aspects of our lives, from the most exalted to the
most mundane, their loss leaves us in dire straits.

Without Christianity we might, of course, merely sink into an
apathetic decline: without faith, and therefore without faith in
ourselves; without a philosophy of life, either Christian or pagan;
and without art. Or we might get a “”totalitarian democracy,””
different but having much in common with other pagan societies,
because we shall have changed step by step in order to keep pace
with them: a state of affairs in which we shall have regimentation
and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual
soul; the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of
efficiency; uniformity of opinion through propaganda, and art
only encouraged when it flatters the official doctrines of the time.
(CC, 18)

Such warnings may seem dated or even quaint in our “”postcommunist””
era. But today’s supposedly libertarian culture is
made up of structures entirely consistent with the totalitarian
democracy of which Eliot warned. The model of proper behavior
in our society has become that of the moral slacker, who seeks to
“”get on”” in Eliot’s phrase or, perhaps more accurately in this era
of “”hooking up,”” get it on. Our ideal cultural aim is to enjoy the
fruits of material success without going to the trouble of working
for them. And the descent of leisure into the mere satisfaction of
appetites has brought with it no fewer social constraints than the
older, more productive form of materialism. One who seeks to
uphold or even argue for more elevated standards soon finds that
one can indeed be punished for going against the prejudice of the
day. In our increasingly euthanistic age, in which calculations of
pleasure and pain determine “”quality of life”” and can determine
the right to life itself, the ruling, permeating value goes by the
name toleration, but amounts to an ideology of physical selfsatisfaction
and cultural disengagement entirely fitting a dying,
neutral culture.

Eliot continues:

To those who can imagine, and are therefore repelled by, such
a prospect, one can assert that the only possibility of control and
balance is a religious control and balance; that the only hopeful
course for a 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.
(CC, 18–9)

Christian Society

What, then, is a Christian society? To begin with it is culturally
Christian. That is, it is by nature aimed toward a Christian life in
all its aspects. This does not mean that it necessarily entails a
confessional state. But it means that the assumptions and framework
of beliefs and practices making up public, social, and even
private life are suffused with Christian symbols.

In Eliot’s understanding, there are three elements of a Christian
society. A Christian society must have a particular kind of
state, one providing a Christian framework or rationale for
political conduct. It must have a Christian community—a large
number of practicing Christians “”whose attention is occupied
mostly by their direct relation to the soil, or the sea, or the
machine, and to a small number of persons, pleasures and duties””
(CC, 23). And it must have a Community of Christians, understood
as a small number of highly conscious, intellectually engaged
Christian persons comprising what today might be called
the religious and educational elites.


Despite, or perhaps because of, his deep engagement in the
life of the mind, Eliot sees all these elements of a Christian society
as engaged less in conscious, self-directed, and self-willed Christian
thought and more in the following of traditions and habits
suffused with Christianity. For example, the Christian state is
neither limited in its membership to professing Christians, nor
directed by any one church or group of churches. But neither is
a Christian state the realm of Great Men reshaping society in
accordance with their own reading of the will of God or themselves.
A state within a Christian society is one in which those who
govern, whatever their particular religious beliefs and personal
preferences, are confined “”by the temper and traditions of the
people which they rule, to a Christian framework within which to
realize their ambitions and advance the prosperity and prestige of
their country. They may frequently perform un-Christian acts;
they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian
principles”” (CC, 23). Thus would Eliot undo the greatest damage
done by Machiavelli, that of making raison d’etat acceptable, even
of making ruthlessness “”cool.”” While bad things will be done in any
age, a society that would foster a Christian way of life must cabin
them within Christian assumptions about the common good and
the proper means to attain it.

Such cabining would not be the result of propaganda or of a
formal institution of censors, but rather of education. Most
politicians, like most people in any walk of life, do not hold to a
specific, self-chosen, and well-articulated philosophy; they are
the products of their education. So it is important that that
education form them properly to conform to the needs of society.

The purpose of a Christian education would not be merely to
make men and women pious Christians: a system that aimed too
rigidly at this end alone would become only obscurantist. A
Christian education would primarily train people to be able to
think in Christian categories, though it could not compel belief
and would not impose the necessity for insincere profession of
belief (CC, 22).

Not theological indoctrination but intellectual formation
would be the goal. Educational institutions would not parrot
religious dogma. They would seek to instill an understanding of
Christian categories such as teleology, human dignity, and the
common good. In a society thus formed,

what the rulers believed, would be less important than the
beliefs to which they would be obliged to conform. And a
skeptical or indifferent statesman, working within a Christian
frame, might be more effective than a devout Christian statesman
obliged to conform to a secular frame. For he would be required
to design his policy for the government of a Christian Society.
(CC, 22–23)

That to which the statesman must conform is not merely a
Christian dogma or ideology but a way of life consistent with
Christian principles and goals. It is, again, more a matter of
habits and assumptions than of well-articulated prescriptions.
Thus it should come as no surprise that members of the
Christian community, the vast majority of members of a Christian
society who neither rule nor spend large amounts of time in
religious or other refined contemplation, have their Christianity
“”almost wholly realized in behaviour: both in their customary
and periodic religious observances, and in a traditional code of
behaviour towards their neighbours”” (CC, 23). A Christian
society must provide such people with the means by which to
achieve integrated social and religious lives, some means of
attaining a real (though imperfect) Christian way of life in daily
activities without such undue sacrifice as to forestall the very

The capitalist ideology and materialist structures of Eliot’s
era (let alone ours) were not conducive to Christian conduct in
everyday life. The desire and need to make money in a society
almost wholly devoted to that pursuit (or today, to the pursuit of
pleasures formerly, and to a significant degree still, reliant on the
possession or claim upon significant amounts of money) make
personal conduct that is virtuous in the Christian sense difficult.
One obvious response would be to return to a more idyllic,
pastoral society in which small, face-to-face communities could
be re-established on the basis of Christian norms. This Eliot
rejects as impossible, as he rejects the invitation to specify
concrete reforms to current social structures that might make
them less hostile toward Christian conduct. Rather, Eliot seeks to
reaffirm his teleological point:

However bigoted the announcement may sound, the Christian
can be satisfied with nothing less than a Christian organization
of society—which is not the same thing as a society consisting
exclusively of devout Christians. It would be 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. (CC, 27)

One can see here the manner of thought Eliot brings to bear
on the problem of cultural decay. It is a manner, or method,
deeply rooted in the natural law tradition, stretching from Aristotle
through Aquinas and continuing among a remnant to this day, but
rejected by modern thinkers, with their emphasis on distinguishing
fact from value, ends from means, and desires from claims of
proper ends. One also can see why Eliot believes that his particular
skill as an analyst of the meaning of words is called for under
current circumstances.

Most contemporary thinkers are incapable even of understanding
the nature of the dilemma our society faces. And they will
remain incapable of understanding that dilemma so long as they
refuse to consider the possibility that in important ways we live
our lives in common with our fellows; that there is such a thing as
a real society; that we are joined in a set of social groups that has
its own purpose, transcending even as it includes the purposes of
each of us, and each of the lesser groups within it. So long as we
continue to think in liberal categories, of rights and wants and
relations among atomistic individuals, we will be incapable of
recognizing the need for reforms to our inhumane social, political,
and economic structures. We will be incapable of seeing any
proper end for society, and so remain in cultural chaos until or
unless a comprehensive, religious vision of some (perhaps pagan
and quite brutal) kind is imposed upon us.

The rethinking for which Eliot calls would seem the provenance
of intellectuals—ironically, of course, those least likely to
be willing to engage in such a project. Yet that irony does not
escape Eliot, who after all is fully cognizant of the need to reform
the habits and frameworks within which intellectuals operate as
well as those affecting other members of society. Even those who
“”think”” for a living are more followers than makers of tradition,
more engaged in working out the intimations of pre-existing
modes of thought and conduct than with replacing them with
something of their own making.

In a Christian society the most culturally important intellectual
work will be done by Eliot’s “”community of Christians.”” This
community will be made up of “”consciously and thoughtfully
practicing Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual
superiority”” (CC, 28). They will play a vital role: “”to form the
conscious mind and the conscience of the nation”” (CC, 34). But
this powerful role will not fall to them singly, or even as a group
of individuals, acting on those around and presumably beneath
them. Rather, the community of Christians will affect society
through its role in forming, protecting, and enriching the framework
of education. Indeed, it is only their “”identity of belief and
aspiration, their background of a common system of education
and a common culture, which will enable them to influence and be
influenced by each other, and collectively”” to influence society
(CC, 34). This community will not be rooted solely in either
educational or religious institutions. It will be cognizant of the
limits of merely rational constructs. And, if it is to accomplish its
inherent purpose, it must form and re-form itself constantly
through engagement with other communities and with the wider
culture so that a common mind of the nation can be maintained,
a common understanding of the purpose of society as well as the
groups and individuals within it.

What Eliot seeks more than anything else is coherence. It is
a particular contemporary conceit that such coherence is impossible
in any free society. Yet it is the modern philosopher who
writes the blueprints for the good society explicitly rejected by
Eliot. Rather than some supposed vision of perfection to be
imposed on the people, Eliot seeks in this essay to urge his readers
toward recognition of the need for a fundamental re-thinking of
our cultural assumptions; or at any rate an attempt to formulate
such assumptions.

Unless we can find a pattern into which all problems of life can
have their place, we are only likely to go on complicating chaos.
So long, for instance, as we consider finance, industry, trade,
agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from
time to time as best they may, so long as we consider “”education””
as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost,
without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual,
we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. (CC, 50)

So long as we refuse to integrate our lives so as to pursue the good
in common with our fellows, ours will be a neutral culture,
descending from common goals to a disjointed life of individual
pursuits punctuated by occasional “”casual”” but conflict-ridden
hook-ups, be they economic, cultural, or merely physical. Prose
will die, and so will our culture and our souls.

To the quick and simple organization of society for ends which,
being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly
success, there is only one alternative. 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 that 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. (CC, 50)

Defining Culture

The second major essay in Christianity and Culture seeks to
define culture or, more modestly, to move us toward a greater
understanding of what culture is. It constitutes merely “”notes
towards”” a definition because culture is too broad and allencompassing
a reality to grasp in its fullness. Again, there clearly
is a prescriptive purpose to Eliot’s descriptive project; he is
convinced that culture is important, and that those who come to
understand what it is will share this view, and will come to
understand better both why it is important and how it can be
maintained and enriched in a materialistic age.

Such convincing will not be easy on a wide scale because,
properly understood, culture is deeply and irrevocably intertwined
with religion. “”No culture has appeared or developed
except together with a religion: according to the point of view of
the observer the culture will appear to be the product of the
religion, or the religion the product of the culture”” (CC, 87).
Again, the process of secularization, though not explicitly mentioned
by Eliot, lies at the heart of contemporary resistance to
recognizing culture’s deep interconnection with religion. Eliot
points out that culture can be understood in three aspects—
individual, group, and society. People today tend to think that one
can be cultured, cultivating higher tastes and artistic or intellectual
pursuits, as an individual. Whether self-consciously members
of an intellectual or artistic elite or merely “”consumers”” of
culture, people in Anglo-American society view themselves as
rightfully partaking of a veritable intellectual and aesthetic buffet
offered up in a marketplace of experience that includes historical
emanations, various group efforts, and (perhaps especially) the
products of various geniuses from all over the expanse of time and
place. One must simply pick and choose so as to create the
aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and sensual life one wishes to

The elimination of any framework of cultural understanding
is, on the liberal view, a positive good. It means the elimination of
various potentially confining filters that might get in the way of the
production or consumption of various individually chosen baskets
of cultural goods. Unfortunately, the result of this orientation
is a culture in decline, perhaps unto death. Eliot recognizes the
confusion at the root of this vision in its individualism, its failure to
take account of the fact that “”the culture of the individual is
dependent upon the culture of the group or class, and . . . the culture
of the group or class is dependent upon the culture of the whole
society to which that group or class belongs”” (CC, 93).

Liberalism’s individualistic reading of culture “”liberates”” the
individual as a cultural being from the group and from the society
that, whether we like it or not, makes up the framework of his or
her cultural life. Thus to disassociate the individual from the
societal culture is to dis-integrate or corrode the culture in all its
aspects. Moreover, such false liberation makes people lose sight
of the very fact that culture (like society) has an inherent purpose
or teleology, and so prevents them from even considering the
proper ends of their own cultural endeavors.

Disintegration is an inherent and ever-present danger that
grows as cultures become more complex and variegated. “”The
Dyak who spends the better part of a season in shaping, carving
and painting his barque of the peculiar design required for the
annual ritual of head-hunting, is exercising several cultural activities
at once—of art and religion, as well as of amphibious warfare””
(CC, 96). But religion, politics, science, and art, as they become
increasingly refined and distinct in their practice and status, come
into conflict. Friction among the various modes of culture can be
creative; it can lead to increased consciousness of self, society,
and social conduct. It also leads to the formation of various
cultural levels corresponding to the formation of various cultural
groups or classes (CC, 97). But such friction also can lead to the
isolation of various cultural modes one from another, and thence
to the disintegration of culture itself as art and religion, for
example, lose their capacity to enrich (and check) one another.6
Thus it is critical, particularly in times of ever-increasing disintegration,
to recur to the inherent nature and purpose of culture
taken as a social whole.

Encompassing everything from high art to “”cookery”” to
Derby Day, culture may be described “”simply as that which makes
life worth living. And it is what justifies other peoples and other
generations in saying, when they contemplate the remains and the
influence of an extinct civilization, that it was worth while for that
civilization to have existed”” (CC, 100). Despite our artistic
conceits, of which Eliot was accused of having more than his
share, it is not correct to identify culture simply with great feats
of aesthetic value. Rather, the very fabric of symbols and ceremonies
that make up our daily life is what makes it worth living, and
what, to a discerning observer, makes it worthwhile for our
civilization to exist.

Symbols and ceremonies are by nature religious. They are
ritualized manifestations and evocations of the values of a people.
When one recognizes this cultural fact, one can enter into Eliot’s
understanding of culture and religion as, when “”taken in the right
context, different aspects of the same thing”” (CC, 102). That thing
is a people’s way of life. Such an understanding makes clear the
mistake of liberal secularization, which rests on the claim that it
is possible to retain culture even as one eviscerates religion in its
public mode. It also, Eliot points out, makes clear the mistaken
nature of the opposite view, according to which one may retain
one’s religion while casting off or ignoring artistic, philosophical
and other “”non-religious”” adumbrations of the social framework.
Culture and religion are so intrinsically intertwined that neither
can survive for long without the other.

Because culture and religion constitute a people’s way of life,
it is inaccurate to think of either as “”belonging”” to any one group
or class. Human nature and society being fundamentally relational,
it is not possible for an individual or even a group to simply
make or remake a culture. At best the result of such an effort will
be a shallow, faux culture practiced by a few, increasingly alienated
from their own society. The result, of course, will be further
disintegration of culture and society. One certainly can hope to
enrich one’s culture. And one has a duty to try to maintain it. But
even this must be done as the member of a group that coheres
through time; in Eliot’s terms it must be taken up as a member of
a trans-generational class.


The family, according to Eliot, is “”the primary channel of
transmission of culture.”” This is true because “”no man wholly
escapes from the kind, or wholly surpasses the degree, of culture
which he acquired from his early environment.”” Of course, the
family is not the only transmitter of culture, “”in a society of any
complexity it is supplemented and continued by other conduits of
tradition”” (CC, 115). Here Eliot sketches a view of apprenticeship,
much akin to that of British philosopher Michael Oakeshott,
as essential to the continuation of any vital way of life:

The apprentice (ideally, at least) did not merely serve his master,
and did not merely learn from him as one would learn at a
technical school—he became assimilated into a way of life which
went with that particular trade or craft; and perhaps the lost secret
of the craft is this, that not merely a skill but an entire way of life
was transmitted. (CC, 115–16)

Despite the important, though clearly waning, role of apprenticeship,
as well as the vestigial role of universities as transmitters
of culture, the family remains, for Eliot, central to cultural
transmission. But the family must not be considered in the highly
atomistic form it takes today, of a “”nuclear”” core likely to explode
at any moment into its component parts, with the children often
left on their own to imbibe what culture they can from television,
the Internet, and other aspects of mass culture. Rather, Eliot sees
the family as a trans-generational reality binding its members to
one another and to a way of life.

Eliot does not shy away from the clearly aristocratic implications
of this argument, as well as the implication that “”lower”” classes
also will inherit privileges and substantive disabilities along with
their own particular level of culture. “”There must be groups of
families persisting, from generation to generation, each in the same
way of life”” (CC, 122). Without such class influence, Eliot asserts,
culture simply will not be transmitted; eventually it will die.

An American in particular may be excused for being uncomfortable
with Eliot’s very comfort with inherited class gradations,
as well as with the attendant gradations of status, privilege, and
life opportunities. But it is perhaps useful to note first, that Eliot
does not proclaim any class system wholly good or just; he merely
deems one necessary for the maintenance of culture. Second, it
may be useful to keep in mind the myriad injustices and degradations
of our current “”meritocracy.”” Our current, self-denying
class system condemns people to poverty, obscurity, and even
humiliation on the basis not of social class but of monetary wealth.
At the same time we deny the “”losers”” in the economic race the
natural solace and support of local culture and community. We
bus them hours away to work, learn, and sometimes even live
within the cash nexus, berating them for any attempt to resist the
dissolving of “”inefficient”” local solidarity.

And this money-based status persists through the generations.
For example, despite our society’s claims to educational
egalitarianism (or at least adherence to merit-based criteria)
those who must attend (or make the mistake of attending) a
“”lesser”” college will carry that burden throughout their careers.
Further, the rash of corporate scandals during the 1990s attests
to the arrogance of today’s holders of financial power. It perhaps
is worth noting as well that some of the less able children of the
rich might do less harm to society if they could count on inherited
social status, rather than depending on their parents to secure
them unearned economic status through manipulation of various
corporate structures.

America in particular has done away with the injustices of
aristocracy, but it is far from having done away with injustices in
its social, economic, or any other sphere making up its way of life.
Moreover, as Eliot points out in an extensive critique of the
Marxist philosopher Karl Mannheim, it is spurious to assert that
elites can take the place of classes. Such groups, because they are
based in “”talent,”” or at any rate skills of particular kinds, lack the
social cohesion and common education necessary to invest them
in, and give them the collective means by which to enrich, the
culture of a whole people. Elites tend to corrode rather than
strengthen the framework of a society.

It would be a misunderstanding of Eliot’s argument to see the
role of class in purely top-down terms. While it is the case for Eliot
that the upper classes have a more conscious understanding of the
culture, theirs is not the only important understanding thereof.
The very necessity of class comes about with the variegation of
norms and habits among various groups in society. Moreover, a
healthy society will consist of a variety of groups competing and
cooperating with one another so as to enrich the culture.
This combination of variety and unity necessary for a culture
also is manifested in the need, according to Eliot, for regional
loyalties and variations. Eliot quotes Alfred North Whitehead:

A diversification among human communities is essential for the
provision of the incentive and material for the Odyssey of the
human spirit. Other nations of different habits are not enemies;
they are godsends. Men require of their neighbours something
sufficiently akin to be understood, something sufficiently different
to provoke attention, and something great enough to command
admiration. (CC, 123)

A culture requires unity. Its people must truly share a way of
life, with common traditions of thought, ceremony, art, science,
and the like. In particular its people must share a common
understanding of their common, religious end in pursuing lives of
virtue in this life and beatitude in the next. But the groups making
up a culture also must diverge in important ways. A flourishing
society requires what Eliot calls an “”ecology of cultures”” (CC,
131). This ecology has an international element, but also encompasses
the need for local, regional, cultural differentiation. Addressing
the British case in particular, Eliot notes the essential
role played by Welsh and Scottish culture within British society.
Possessed of their own languages, these cultures have produced
some of the greatest literature written in English. This is so
because of the creative friction between regional ways of life coexisting
within a more comprehensive common culture. Region,
then, takes on a role akin to that of class in Eliot’s schema. Rooted
in family ties, as well as other geographical and personal connections
themselves rooted in family ties, regional attachments
transmit culture, providing for stability, a patrimony of tradition
to enrich, and the means and motivation to engage other regional
cultures as well as the dominant culture. In Eliot’s phrasing, “”a
national culture, if it is to flourish, should be a constellation of
cultures, the constituents of which, benefiting each other, benefit
the whole”” (CC, 132).

Robert Nisbet has written of the need for a plurality of social
authorities if liberty is to flourish in any meaningful sense.7
Harold Berman has argued that the rise of respect for the
individual person and his or her rights is intimately bound up with
the existence of a multiplicity of jurisdictions—ecclesiastical,
royal, baronial, merchant, and so on—which provided competition
and friction among authorities.8 Eliot too recognizes the
need for competition and even conflict among the various elements
of society.

The modernist view of politics, dominant in Eliot’s time and
still powerful today, tended toward the belief that “”society, like a
machine, should be as well oiled as possible, provided with ball
bearings of the best steel. [People of such views] think of friction
as waste of energy”” (CC, 132). The truth is far different. Classes
functioning in too much harmony will petrify into culturally
enervating castes, just as a classless society will be culturally
flaccid. Like classes, regional cultures energize and enrich the
national culture by their competitive engagement. And “”these are
only two of an indefinite number of conflicts and jealousies which
should be profitable to society. Indeed, the more the better: so
that everyone should be an ally of everyone else in some respects,
and an opponent in several others, and no one conflict, envy or
fear will dominate”” (CC, 132).

Culture, then, is a series of inter-nested spheres. Towns,
cities, regions, nations, and even trans-national regions (such as
Europe) all have cultures of varying levels and complexities.
Classes, professions, and other groups also all have cultures. And
it is as much the conflicts among such cultures as their drive to
cooperate that enriches the overall culture, fostering stability
through a set of cultural checks and balances even as they foster
competition and engagement.

Religion and the Question of Establishment

The one significant aspect of culture remaining in Eliot’s call for
diversity and competition is religion. Here too Eliot seems to call
for a multiplicity of authorities. In a chapter titled “”Unity and
Diversity: Sect and Cult,”” he points in particular to the cultural
problems of more complex and universalistic, and therefore
culturally “”higher”” religions. Such religions (including Christianity)
are more difficult for most people to accept, particularly on
the intellectual level. They also involve more complex and varied
forms of knowledge and ritual, leading to a separate ecclesiastical
class. The result is that, while religion and culture remain “”aspects
of one unity”” they also are “”two different and contrasted things””
which may even come into conflict (CC, 142–43).

It is not surprising, then, that Eliot applies his call for
diversity to the religious sphere. He raises concerns that a
Catholic nation without any tendency toward Protestantism will
suffer petrifaction, with state and church becoming too closely
identified, and thus no longer serving as checks each on the
authority of the other. Further, Eliot argues, in such a “”well oiled””
culture, even barbarous local practices will gain an aura of
sanctification. Cultural torpor is only one possibility, however.
The other is chaos, as all divisions within the society take on
religious overtones and deepen into serious conflicts even as they
spread and fracture society still further (CC, 146).

Yet commonality of religion is necessary for maintenance of
any common culture. What, then, is the best religious ordering
for the sake of culture? Here Eliot praises his adopted Great
Britain and its adopted Anglican Church. England, Eliot argues,
suffers less from organized atheism or any form of actual unbelief
than do other vestigially Christian cultures. England’s variety of
sects, along with the great diversity of belief and practice sanctioned
within the Anglican church, has produced a variety of subcultures
such that England’s national culture has continued to be
enriched, rather than splintering or losing its vitality on religious
grounds (CC, 147). The splitting off of England from Catholic
Europe through its Anglican revolution, Eliot tells us, created a
particular sub-culture within Christendom. That sub-culture is
dominant in one area, though on the periphery of the whole (CC,
148). It plays a role in Europe, which has its own trans-national
culture, even as it has a role in the North Atlantic region and,
through its former colonies, beyond.

Thus Eliot appears to be praising the dissension of dissent,
the multiplying of sects within a Christian framework, as culturally
enriching. This seems all the more true in light of Eliot’s
warnings against attempts to reunify Christianity. Differences
among English sects actually have been attenuated, Eliot asserts,
due to changes in class structure, the decline of rural life, and the
decreasing importance of Christianity’s place in education (CC,
154). Exacerbating this disturbing loss of relevance are movements
to reunify sects. Such attempts require, according to Eliot,
culturally debilitating methods. Those seeking Christian reunification
look to the formation of simpler, more abstract doctrines
they believe will capture the loyalty of all concerned. This way lies

The refinement or crudity of theological and philosophical
thinking is itself, of course, one of the measures of the state of our
culture; and the tendency in some quarters to reduce theology to
such principles as a child can understand or a Socinian accept, is
itself indicative of cultural debility. But there is a further danger,
from our point of view, in schemes of reunion which attempt to
remove the difficulties, and protect the self-assertiveness, of
everybody. In an age like our own, when it has become a point of
politeness to dissimulate social distinctions, and to pretend that
the highest degree of “”culture”” ought to be made accessible to
everybody—in an age of cultural leveling, it will be denied that the
several Christian fragments to be re-united represent any cultural
differences. There is certain to be a strong pressure toward a
reunion on terms of complete cultural equality. Too much account
may even be taken of the relative numbers of the membership of
the uniting bodies: for a main culture will remain a main culture,
and a sub-culture will remain a sub-culture, even if the latter
attracts more adherents than the former (CC, 154–55).

A society’s main religious culture is the one most in touch with
the higher elements of the culture in general. To reduce all
religious sub-cultures to a common level, let alone to raise one
particular sub-culture to a higher level, is to flatten one’s culture,
tying it too closely to less-developed and less-conscious modes of
thought and behavior. One might consider here the situation in
the United States, in which the various Protestant sects most
divorced from high art have come to dominate the religious scene.
The result has been a notable stripping away of artistic achievement
and even interest from much of American culture and
religion. Even many Catholic dioceses in the United States have
become openly hostile to aesthetic standards and the need for
beauty in their own liturgy.

Diversity means cultural strength even in religion. Eliot
asserts that

Christendom should be one: the form of organization and the
locus of powers in that unity are questions upon which we cannot
pronounce. But within that unity there should be an endless
conflict between ideas—for it is only by the struggle against
constantly appearing false ideas that the truth is enlarged and
clarified, and in the conflict with heresy that orthodoxy is
developed to meet the needs of the times; an endless effort also
on the part of each region to shape its Christianity to suit itself,
an effort which should neither be wholly suppressed nor left
wholly unchecked. The local temperament must express its
particularity in its form of Christianity, and so must the social
stratus, so that the culture proper to each area and each class may
flourish; but there must also be a force holding these areas and
these classes together. (CC, 157)

Clearly Eliot is providing here a justification and apology for
the Anglican communion of national churches. He is describing in
glowing terms the Anglican emphasis on cooperating but distinct
national churches, as well as the cultivated tolerance of significant
variation of belief and practice within the Anglican church itself.

It seems appropriate at this point to examine more closely
Eliot’s views on Anglicanism so that we may assess their implications
for religious culture and church-state relations. The state,
we should recall, for Eliot is one of the fundamental elements of
a Christian society. And a state is good or bad on account of its
relationship with Christianity. “”What I mean by the Christian
State is not any particular political form, but whatever State is
suitable to a Christian Society, whatever State a particular Christian
Society develops for itself”” (CC, 9). Thus, in Eliot’s argument,
a state is good for a Christian society, fruitful for a culture that is
Christian, to the extent that it has been shaped by Christian
cultures. One of the charges often made against nations perceived
as dominated by the Catholic Church (one echoed by Eliot, as we
have seen) is that they are “”too Catholic.”” All of the society,
including its politics as well as other aspects of its culture, is seen
as being dominated by a particular vision of the sacred. One might
argue over historical examples on this point. But the necessary
subject here is Eliot’s charge that some (Catholic) churches
exercise an unhealthy influence over the state. If this is true9 it
points us toward the possibility of another mistaken extreme: that
of state domination of the church, even if the domination is
“”friendly”” or “”good natured.”” Such seems, on Eliot’s own reading,
to have been the case with Anglicanism. And this raises important
issues regarding religious establishment.

In 1947 a committee of which Eliot was a member published
a document on “”Catholicity”” in which it was noted that

political expediency played a large part in the shaping of [the
Church of England’s] course, and in the determination of certain
of its characteristics. One of these, summed up in the phrase of
Queen Elizabeth about “”not opening windows into men’s souls,””
was the desire of the State to content itself with external
conformity, without going on to demand theological consent.10

This was precisely the problem Eliot pointed to in the
England of his day, of a “”neutral”” state concerned only with its
own end of civil peace. It was a problem characteristic of
Anglicanism, and arguably inherent in “”strong”” religious establishment.

In England, it may be argued, the state holds sway over the
church, and has done so for centuries. And the results have been
problematic to say the least. One example, important for John
Cardinal Newman’s analysis of Anglicanism in the midnineteenth
century, was the so-called Gorham Judgment. In this
case the British government’s Privy Council ordered the bishop
of Exeter to install Gorham, who did not believe in baptismal
regeneration, as a priest. The Anglican hierarchy urged their
clergy and flocks to abide by the state’s decision, which was based
on the notion that, on matters regarding which there was no
unanimity within the established church, clergymen could hold
their own opinions. The goal, then, was peaceful disagreement,
and the goal was shared or at least acceded to by the church

The same could be said about the secular court judgment, also
in Newman’s time, forbidding the censuring of Anglican clerics
who denied the inspired character of the Bible.12 Apparently there
was no core belief essential to membership, and leadership, in the
English church, at least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century,
and arguably back to the Tudors. Even beliefs stated in the Thirty-
Nine Articles, such as recognition of the sacrament of baptism
and the sufficiency of scripture for salvation, were negotiable.
Only the primacy of the state, encapsulated in the oath of loyalty
to the monarch as head of both church and state, was not.

Now, according to the document on catholicity, “”It would be
utterly wrong to ascribe our Anglican unity to the connection with
the State: the fact of the Anglican Communion belies this.”” But
the document itself alludes to the Establishment’s role in the
“”holding together of diverse elements within a single body.”” And
that role included governmental definitions of the Anglican
Church’s jurisdiction and authority.13

As to diversity, the document notes the “”very diverse points
of view”” included in the Church of England, looking to traditions
as diverse as the continental Reformers, the Catholic Fathers,
and the Renaissance. The document claims this diversity to be a
strength, allowing the Anglican Church to call on both the Bible
and a variety of traditions.14 But the central point remains that the
choice of traditions was with the state, a choice to which the
Anglican hierarchy must submit. Moreover, we need not look to
more recent, extreme positions of various groups within the
Anglican communion—positions intentionally undermining, for
example, the unique status of the trans-generational family Eliot
deems so crucial for culture—to see the religious and cultural
disarray into which such diversity may lead. During Eliot’s own
time the Book of Common Prayer, with the Thirty-Nine Articles
as the practical basis of that faith, had been recast, reworked, and
in large part rejected by the hierarchy.

Thus Eliot praises the diversity within a state-run religion.
But one might be excused for arguing that the state-run nature of
the religion breeds diversity, rather than holding it in check,
precisely because the state cares about religion only to the extent
that religion can help further (or interfere with) political ends.
The state demands loyalty to itself. If one’s religion reinforces
such loyalty, so much the better. But it cannot be allowed to
undermine or even distract from that loyalty.

The separation of church from state authority was critical to
the formation of Western civilization, culture, and constitutional
government. What Harold Berman has accurately called the
Papal Revolution in the eleventh century, in which the pope
secured the right to appoint bishops, rather than acceding to
royal control over these appointments, opened the way for the
development and application of canon law, the balancing of
political with religious authority, and the flowering of the higher
law tradition. That tradition relies on the separation of church
from state, and in particular on the separation of religious from
political authority. It began, after all, with Moses’ reception of the
Ten Commandments from God, by which the Israelites became a
people apart, ruled not by earthly gods who created law, but by
human governors subject to God’s law.15

None of this is to say that any kind of Catholic establishment
is necessary for culture, or that Eliot is wrong in his assertion that
variety is necessary in religious culture. Even the Catholic
(“”Universal””) Church contains within itself a variety of liturgical
traditions.16 Rather it is to emphasize Eliot’s own point, that
diversity and unity must be held in constant tension, and to point
up the problem of religious establishment in maintaining that
tension. As to Anglicanism, Eliot did not argue explicitly that its
official status was a positive good. Instead he noted that

a church once disestablished cannot easily be re-established,
and the very act of disestablishment separates it more definitely
and irrevocably from the life of the nation than if it had never
been established. The effect on the mind of the people of the
visible and dramatic withdrawal of the church from the affairs of
the nation—the church’s abandonment of all those who are not
by their wholehearted profession within the fold—this is incalculable;
the risks are so great that such an act can be nothing but
a desperate measure. (CC, 39)


One can understand this fear of being left without oar or
anchor in troubled waters. But state-run churches provide neither
oar nor anchor. Eliot is strongest as a cultural critic when
explaining the “”ecology of cultures.”” He illuminates the issues and
meanings of cultures best when describing the myriad cultures
that make up a society and the necessarily conflicted (as well as
cooperative) nature of their relations. For Eliot, even education—
the fundamental element of cultural transmission—is a
combination of cultural forces. The education system only imparts
a small portion of the knowledge and norms necessary for
participation in society. Family, church, class, and various
gional and other groups shape each and every one of us. And the
polyglot character of this education is its strength. Even at the
“”macro”” level diversity of influence is necessary for cultural
flourishing. It would seem, then, that a culture’s religions should
maintain their power and authority separate from the state so that
they may exert their appropriate influence on society, even as they
exercise their appropriate influence over their own internal
cultural framework.

In a talk broadcast to Germany soon after World War II and
included in Christianity and Culture, Eliot referred to the
variety of influences on English culture, and English literature
in particular, as a central strength, and reason for its high
achievements. This led to observations on the commonalities of
Europe as a trans-national Christian culture that ought to
include important loyalties as well as frictions and competitions.
Varying regional differences, produced by varying local circumstances
regarding class, profession, and the like, along with
cultural crosscurrents and a variety of cross-cultural competitions
and influences, have enriched all the cultures of Europe.
But central to this fecund cultural ecology has been a common
religion. It is

the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe
what it is. . . . 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 culture could have produced a Voltaire or a
Nietzsche. (CC, 200)

Because religion and culture are aspects of the same thing,
our way of life, it is not possible to have one without the other.
What is more, even those opposed to a given religious or cultural
practice or institution must engage it from within its cultural

Ignorance is common regarding the origins of the framework
of institutions, beliefs, and practices within which we live. But
those structures, including Roman law, “”private and public morality,””
and “”common standards of literature,”” as well as much else
(CC, 200), are deeply rooted in Christianity, as developed and
variegated over time. In this context it is useful to note Paul
Griffiths’s devastating critique of those who claim to be operating
within the natural law tradition yet reduce our way of life to logical
derivations of supposedly self-evident “”basic goods.”” Griffiths
points out that “”self-evident”” rational principles rely on proper
catechesis in order for reasoned discussion to take place. That is,
we cannot understand one another’s primary assumptions (even
about the nature of rationality) unless we have been educated
within the same broad tradition, be it Buddhist, Hindu, or
Christian.17 Griffiths’s appeal is in fact an appeal to history, to the
manner in which truths are arrived at, built upon, and taught
through time, with practices building upon themselves as a form
of cultural knowledge.

To the extent that we continue to flatten out our cultural
assumptions, whether or not we do so in pursuit of policy goals
also favored by our religion, we destroy what is left of our culture.
We sap modes of thought and action that actually make up who we
are and what our culture is. And it will take far longer to build a
new culture than it did to destroy the old one.

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 on

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