Where Lewis & Eliot Agree

In his early Christian days, C. S. Lewis disagreed rather strongly with the poetry of T. S. Eliot. He was particularly unimpressed and dismayed by Eliot’s The Waste Land. Over time, however, a mutual respect developed when they labored together on the Revised Psalter of the Church of England.

I’ve recently been reading an interesting book of excerpts from various writers that Lewis admired, or at least respected. The book is titled From the Library of C. S. Lewis: Selections from Writers Who Influenced His Spiritual Journey. The compilers, James Stuart Bell and Anthony Dawson, have drawn from a wide range of Christians from every denominational background, showing once more how Lewis was devoted to the the idea of mere Christianity.

Today I came across an excerpt from Eliot in that book that I’m quite sure would have earned Lewis’s appreciation.

The title chosen for this excerpt is “The Idea of a Christian Society.” I find it eminently applicable to our current situation. In it, Eliot is expressing his concerns over the wrong message being given for why Christian faith is important. “Worst of all,” he says, “is to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.” Lewis critiqued that viewpoint in similar words in his essay on Christian apologetics.

Eliot then offered a mini-history lesson when he writes of what he calls “a wave of revivalism” that erupted in Britain in the late 1930s. He notes that it could be found in all political parties and all religious denominations. Yet it was not true Christian revivalism, in his opinion. “The Christianity expressed has been vague, the religious fervor has been a fervor for democracy.” In other words, it was grounded in politics as a response to the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany. He then continues,

It may engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress towards the paganism which we say we abhor. To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion; and we may reflect, that a good deal of the attention of totalitarian states has been devoted, with a steadiness of purpose not always found in democracies, to providing their national life with a foundation of morality—the wrong kind perhaps, but a good deal more of it. It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

It is not my aim to be purely political here, but I see a trend toward the same error right now in American politics. Many are appropriating the Christian identity publicly, but do so more as a foundation for their political goals. My concern is when people “use” the Christian label to bolster what is more important to them. Whenever nationalism or any other ism takes priority and Christianity comes along only as a support for that perceived higher priority, we are reversing the proper order.

So why did I take the time to write this today? It arises from my sincere desire that we be Christians in truth, not merely superficially. That we live for Christ, and that we not merely use Him as a prop for something else. God will judge our hearts. I pray we pass that judgment.