If only Christian humanism can safeguard the best of paganism and of modernity in a way worthy of man, what must we learn from those that taught it?
It is often said, by both Christians and non-Christians, that we live in a “post-Christian” society. In many respects that seems a plausible assessment. In a lecture given at Cambridge University in 1939, however, T. S. Eliot offered a provocative contrary perspective. While acknowledging the weakness of Christianity in his own time, Eliot suggested that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” And he contended that “[w]e have today a culture which is mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.” (T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society, in Christianity and Culture 1, 10 (1948).)
Eliot’s contention raises a number of interesting questions, some of which I hope to consider in future posts. But a prior, pressing question might be this: why should an assessment of our society as “Christian” (or, as I would prefer, Judeo-Christian, or biblical) or “post-Christian” matter to readers of a blog like this one? It’s easy to appreciate that Christians might be concerned about whether our society has somehow left Christianity behind. But why should people whose primary interest is not in Christianity per se, but rather in liberty and law, care whether ours is a “post-Christian” society?
One answer would start by suggesting that many of our most revered legal and political institutions and commitments have their roots– or some of their roots– in Christianity. Consider in this respect the claim of another, more contemporary Christian thinker. The remarkably erudite David Bentley Hart (who, incidentally, is among those who describe our situation, gloomily, as “post-Christian”) observes that
[e]ven the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things– they would never have occurred to us– had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren. (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies 32-33 (2009).)
Hart’s claim provides much to argue about (and maybe we will argue about it). But suppose for the moment that Hart is right as a matter of historical explanation. And suppose further that we now live in a post-Christian society. Does anything of practical significance follow? Need we fear that the venerable ideas and institutions Hart mentions– “human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity”– are now in jeopardy?
Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps these commitments have by now found alternative sponsorship, so to speak: perhaps they are grounded in something other than their erstwhile Christian foundations. Or maybe they don’t need any foundation; maybe they can stand on their own. The question, I think, is far from being a trivial or “merely academic” one.