Is Ours a “Post-Christian” Society? Should It Matter (to Readers of this Blog)?

Eliot

T.S. Eliot

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.

Steven D. Smith

Steven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego and Co-Executive Director of the USD Institute for Law and Religion.

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Comments

  1. Richard S says

    Does the framework “post-Christian” imply a notion of historical time that is, itself, Christian in origin?

  2. nobody.really says

    Yes, pre-Christian Western culture would have found many of our values not so much foolish as unintelligible. But “pre-Christian” arguably just means roughly 2000 yrs ago. People living 2000 years ago would have found LOTS of contemporary stuff unintelligible for reasons that have nothing to do with the rise (and alleged fall) of Christianity.

    It’s my understanding that in small hunter/gatherer societies, loyalty to the clan is the highest virtue. There’s little cause to exhibit compassion to outsiders because 1) you rarely encounter any, and 2) you rarely experience being one. But as societies grew, norms of cooperation with and compassion toward people outside your immediate clan became relevant and mutually beneficial. Perhaps it’s not an accident that pretty much all large societies seem to have religions; religions may provide a tool for helping people transition from loyalty-to-clan to loyalty-to-some-larger-entity (State? Race? Religious sect?).

    That said, it is unclear the Christianity is unique among religions in promoting compassion toward strangers, or that it has been uniformly successful in promoting this behavior. Nor, as Smith suggests, is it clear that Western society still requires a supernatural theory to fulfill this role.

    But the contrary isn’t that clear, either. Even today, religion seems to provide a powerful social cohesive, helping people hang together during adversity rather than fracture and flee. It may be no accident that groups relying on social cohesion – labor unions, the civil rights movement and, increasingly, the military – can be suffused with religion.

    Thus, I suspect religions are often “true” in the Darwinian sense of adaptive.

    For what it’s worth, I favor wealth redistribution because I believe in the diminishing marginal returns on everything. But I struggle with justifying using the coercive power of the state to promote my preference. Yes, I believe that some amount of wealth redistribution is instrumental — necessary to discourage rioting and rebellion, and perhaps to promote productivity. Yet I would not be surprised to learn that we could achieve these ends while redistributing less money than we do now. But I don’t want to; to the contrary, I favor more redistribution. Maybe that’s just the latent Christian in me.

  3. gabe says

    Nobody:

    “But I don’t want to; to the contrary, I favor more redistribution. Maybe that’s just the latent Christian in me.”

    Wasn’t that the point of Smith’s piece? That some derivative of Christian belief / practice is what motivates many to advocate such things as redistribution, etc. – even if they are loathe to admit.

  4. says

    It may be useful to recall what type of society Christ lived in: a puppet dictatorship under military occupation. Christ’s teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, are independent of this context, and are directed more at personal virtues such as humility and charity than at what could be considered “policy.” Jesus did not agitate for political change, much to the disappointment of those assuming the Messiah was a political office from which to throw off the rule of the Romans and Herod Reid…I mean… Herod.

    It is also worth noting that Christianity’s early flourishing occurred in the setting of brutal political oppression. The early growth of the faith was not due to arms or material resources, but rather due to simple teachings about the relationship of people to each other and to a Creator. These teachings are responsible for Christianity surviving 2000 years, despite lots and lots of political, social, economic, and philosophical theories that presumed to make it obsolete. Those instances where Christianity (or for that matter, any number of religions, Shinto, Islam, shamanism, etc) assumed a separate political significance did not work out so well.

    If we were to disregard the theological aspects of Christianity and assume, for instance, that religion is a psychological phenomenon that arises from the way the human mind deals with uncertainty and socializing instincts, we can take nobody.really’s surmise about social interactions outside the clan and arrive at the same conclusion: Christianity has survived for two millennia in various societies, conditions, degrees of persecution, ridicule and corruption, because it contains at least some truth. Whether that truth is that Jesus was the Messiah, or that the meek shall inherit the earth, or that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, or that Samaritans and tax collectors are people too, etc. etc. is a matter of personal conscience. Whether Christianity survives because of Pascal’s wager or because of angels, the fact is that it not only survives, it affects the way people live their lives.

    “Christian” the noun and “Christian” the adjective are two different things. The political life of the Christian and the Christian life of the politician need never intersect. Jesus Himself was quite consistent, if not insistent: His Kingdom is not of this world.

    • nobody.really says

      “Christian” the noun and “Christian” the adjective are two different things

      Poll taker: “Ok, first question: Are you a Christian?”

      Respondent: “Well, I suppose you should really ask my neighbors….”

  5. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    I suppose this is a cavil, but Professor Smith’s opening gambit strikes a false note with me. I study the founding, and the role of Christianity in it. I read actively in both historical and theoretical literature. The only time I have ever encountered the term “post-Christian” is here, in the blog post above. So if it is in popular use, the community within which it is popular is a small one. I ran an Ngram on the term–it is true that its usage has spiked in recent years–but a sharp increase from an infinitesimally small number is still a very, very small number. As worries go, the concern that we are somehow in a world in which Christianity is not an important part of our culture and practice strikes me as minor.

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