Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, III, (the Christian State)

Eliot [in his The Idea of a Christian Society] “projects a society which will exist in three aspects – what he calls the Christian State, the Christian Community, and the Community of Christians.  This more or less Platonic triad exists, as we cannot help observing, on a rather minimal Christianity.  For the heads of his Christian State Mr. Eliot demands no more than that they be educated to think in Christian categories; for the rest, the criterion of their value is to be the same to which statesmen have always submitted – not devoutness but effectiveness.  ‘This may,’ Mr. Eliot says, ‘frequently perform un-Christian acts; they must never attempt to defend their actions on un-Christian principles.’  The State, we are told, is Christian only negatively and is no more than the reflection of the Christian society which it governs.  Yet this society itself is not permeated by a very intense Christianity.  The mass of its citizens make up the Christian Community and their behavior is to be ‘largely unconscious’ – for, because ‘their capacity for thinking about the objects of faith is small, their Christianity may be almost wholly realized in behavior: both in their customary and periodic religious observances and in a traditional code of behavior toward their neighbours.’

“What is left, then, to give the positive Christian tone to the Christian Society is what Mr. Eliot calls the Community of Christians, a group reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘clerisy’ but more exclusively an elite, constituted of those clerics and laymen who consciously live the Christian life and who have notable intellectual or spiritual gifts.  It is they who, by their ‘identity of belief and aspiration, their background of a common system of education and a common culture’ will collectively form ‘the conscious mind and conscience of the nation.’  They are not to constitute a caste and so are to be loosely joined together rather than organized, and Mr. Eliot compares them in their possible wide effectiveness with the segregated in intellectuals who now write only for each other.”

COMMENT: While Eliot’s Christian-State “solution” may be naïve and impractical, his recognition of the problem is valid.  I recall a great number of discussions and debates where an act or a course of action was asserted to be good or evil, but when I questioned the basis, the set of assumptions, the standards that must or at least ought to bear upon such an assertion, the discussion lapsed into smoky vagaries.  Some of what Eliot is advancing is based upon solid ground, that is, the principles that have been developed through the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian moral tradition. 

The Marxist-Left has no such system of principles.  Consequently when they gained power in Russia they “winged it,” they made up principles as they went along.  We saw the effects of that in the U.S. known as “the party line.”  There was no univocal “principle” but merely a “line,” what happened to be believed at the present time, and could be, and frequently was, changed during Stalin’s reign and that of the leaders who followed him.  This “Left” was negatively constructed.  They attempted to set up a Leftist society based on a Marxist oriented Party Line, but it succumbed to raw human nature with its desire for power.  Nietzsche’s “will to power” provided a better description of the mature Soviet society than Marx’s Communism.

Rampant Christianity gave rise to Western Civilization as we know it.  Christian moral principles remain good and reasonable.  Lest I be accused of vagueness, consider the Ten Commandments (using the KJV) which comprise the great foundation and example of Christian morality:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  Gloss:  While belief in God cannot be mandated, those how do believe in the Christian God will have no “other Gods” and that in today’s terms would include such beliefs as Fascism and Communism.  We might observe from a practical standpoint that Liberal Democracy, which rose out of Christianity in the West has proved more effective than anything developed from those who ran after “other gods.”  Fukuyama’s “End of History” is consistent with having “no other Gods” from a pragmatic standpoint.  Fukuyama may be an atheist, I don’t know, but on this one point, he is consistent with the idea of having no other gods.  More specifically we see Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World, describing Christianity as the necessary foundation of the West.  It was during the developmental period monotheistic.  Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, this commandment has been weakened in the West.  Not only are nations prevent from mandating Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, they are prevented from mandating any religion (or God).

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  Gloss:  This two might best be considered applicable only to practicing Christians.  In a Liberal-Democratic Society, non-Christians should be permitted to create graven images if they like.

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.  Gloss:  Again, belief in God cannot be mandated in a Liberal Democratic society, but it seems to be a demonstrable fact that beliefs are handed down from father to son and one generation to the next.  And if an erroneous or impractical belief is handed down, there will probably be consequences.  I think here of the anarchism that arose in Europe prior to WWI (see Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I), and the pacifism that developed later.  Those erroneous and impractical beliefs resulted in destructive consequences to those nations who most strongly held them.  People who inherited these beliefs were of the third and the fourth generation of those who originated them.  France in 1940 was perhaps the most pathetic example of the consequences of following the erroneous beliefs of ones’ foolish ancestors. 

“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers.  Someone who speaks frivolously of the God he claims to believe in would not be seen as sincere in his belief by other believers.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  Gloss:  This applies to believers in different forms.  Some Christians follow the Jewish tradition and keep a literal day as holy.  Some Christians say the Jewish Sabbath was translated into the “Lord’s Day” by Jesus.  Some Christians invoke Hebrews Chapter Four and see the entire Christian era as “the Day of the Lord,” as we rest from our own works and trust in Christ for our salvation.

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”  Gloss:  This commandment in a Christian Society would be applicable to all, believers and unbelievers. We can see it at work in many of our social programs.  We in the West have taxed ourselves in order to provide Social Security and Medical aid to our old people. 

“Thou shalt not kill.”  Gloss:  Pacifists have used this commandment to justify their position, but a majority of theologians exegete this commandment to mean “Thou shalt not murder,” and murder is against the law throughout the West.  We cannot say it is a universal law because many societies do permit murder.  For example, consider the “honor killings” practiced by Conservative Muslims.  Judicial executions and killing in war are not considered (by a majority of theologians) to be proscribed by this commandment.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Gloss:  This commandment is applicable to believers.  No Christian church I know of condones adultery.   Some churches may excommunicate those who commit adultery, probably not for a single lapse that is repented of, but in perhaps all denominations the serial adulterer will have difficulty remaining a member in good standing.  In some churches adultery, adultery leading to divorce, remarriage after divorce considered as adultery are treated as “unforgiveable sin”; however, the only sin described as unforgiveable in the New Testament is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is usually interpreted as repudiating an act of the Holy Spirit when he is urging someone to turn to Christ and be saved. 

“Thou shalt not steal.”  Gloss:  This seems to be a universal principle, applicable to believers and non-believers alike.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Gloss:    This is often considered to mean “thou shalt not lie,” but that would be true only if it was expanded to say “thou shalt not lie in such a way that someone else is harmed.”  Going to court and lying about someone in such a way as to cause them to be convicted of something they didn’t do would be a violation of this commandment, but any lie that hurt someone else would also be a violation.  On the other hand if you said to the Gestapo in 1943 “there are no Jews hiding in my cellar,” when your cellar was chockablock full of them,” you would not be in violation of this commandment.  We have laws against slander that are consistent with this commandment.  Telling your sensitive aunt Margaret that her ugly hat looks great would not be a violation of this commandment (unless your false statement caused her to injure herself or someone else).

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbours.”  Gloss:  While this commandment has not been translated into law in any Western nation as far as I know, most of us can appreciate that it is wise advice (even for those who don’t accept it as a commandment).   “Keeping up with the Joneses is a cliché for bankrupting oneself in pursuit of neighborhood status.  Coveting someone else’s wife has led to many a divorce, not to mention ruined lives and the occasional murder.  Coveting a neighbor’s car might cause one to buy a car he really can’t afford resulting in eventually having it repossessed or perhaps resulting in personal bankruptcy.  Being content with what one can afford and what one has is an attitude to be cultivated as a wise alternative.

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