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setting the world right

What do Christians -- or the church as a collective -- have in common with secularists working on the problems of the world today?  How is our agenda different, or the same?  What common ground does a secular social justice have with a biblical social justice?  Is better technology or political / social structures (what Eliot calls "machinery") the answer to "setting the world right"?  What solutions should the Church be expected to bring to societal problems?

Following are some excerpts from a radio broadcast talk by T. S. Eliot, given in February, 1937, which forms an Appendix to "The Idea of a Christian Society" in Christianity and Culture.  He writes,  

"I want to suggest that a task for the Church in our age is a more profound scrutiny of our society, which shall start from the question: to what depth is the foundation of our society not merely neutral but positively anti-Christian? 

"It ought not to be necessary for me to insist that the final aims of the churchman, and the aims of the secular reformer, are very different. So far as the aims of the latter are for true social justice, they ought to be comprehended in those of the former. But one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people — a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth — never in oneself. There are individual exceptions: but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad after-affects. 

"It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom. For only in humility, charity and purity — and most of all perhaps humility — can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain. 

"It is not enough simply to see the evil and injustice and suffering of this world, and precipitate oneself into action. We must know, what only theology can tell us, why these things are wrong. Otherwise, we may right some wrongs at the cost of creating new ones. If this is a world in which I, and the majority of my fellow-beings, live in that perpetual distraction from God which exposes us to the one great peril, that of final and complete alienation from God after death, there is some wrong that I must try to help to put right. If there is any profound immorality to which we are all committed as a condition of living in society at all, that is a matter of the gravest concern to the Church. I am neither a sociologist nor an economist, and in any case it would be inappropriate, in this context, to produce any formula for setting the world right. It is much more the business of the Church to say what is wrong, that is, what is inconsistent with Christian doctrine, than to propose particular schemes of improvement. What is right enters the realm of the expedient and is contingent upon place and time, the degree of culture, the temperament of a people. 

"But the Church can say what is always and everywhere wrong. And without this firm assurance of first principles which it is the business of the Church to repeat in and out of season, the World will constantly confuse the right with the expedient. In a society based on the use of slave labor men tried to prove from the Bible that slavery was something ordained by God. For most people, the actual constitution of Society, or that which their more generous passions wish to bring about, is right, and Christianity must be adapted to it. But the Church cannot be, in any political sense, either conservative, or liberal, or revolutionary. Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things. 

"Any machinery, however beautiful to look at and however wonderful a product of brains and skill, can be used for bad purposes as well as good: and this is as true of social machinery as of constructions of steel. I think that, more important than the invention of a new machine, is the creation of a temper of mind in people such that they can learn to use a new machine rightly. More important still at the moment would be the diffusion of knowledge of what is wrong — morally wrong — and of why it is wrong. We are all dissatisfied with the way in which the world is conducted: some believe that it is a misconduct in which we all have some complicity; some believe that if we trust ourselves entirely to politics, sociology or economics we shall only shuffle from one makeshift to another. And here is the perpetual message of the Church: to affirm, to teach and to apply, true theology. We cannot be satisfied to be Christians at our devotions and merely secular reformers all the rest of the week, for there is one question that we need to ask ourselves every day and about whatever business. The Church has perpetually to answer this question: to what purpose were we born? What is the end of Man?" 

~ T. S. Eliot, 1937 


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