Bearing witness to the one true God in a secular age…

Remembering the Christian Past

The secular assault on the Christianity is, in essence, a project of banishing Christian practice to the private lives of believers.  You can keep your Christianity if you reduce it to ideas, feelings, and experiences.

But the ferocity of the “current assault on the legacy of Christian culture” should bring “a new clarity of vision” for Christians in our secular age.  This argument is made by retired professor of Christian history Robert Louis Wilken.  In “No Other Gods,” Dr. Wilken looks to history and to commentators such as T. S. Eliot for insights that can guide those of us who would resist the spirit of the age by bearing witness to “the one true God.”

Practical atheism, that is to say, secularism, has undermined beliefs, attitudes, and conventions that have nurtured our civilization for centuries. The changes we are witnessing are not the inevitable alterations by which older ways adapt to new circumstances. They are the result of a systematic dismembering, a “trashing” of our culture that is “intentional, not accidental,” as Myron Magnet puts it in his recent The Dream and the Nightmare. Nothing is left untouched, whether it be our most cherished institutions, or the roles that have defined one’s place in family, neighborhood, and city, or assumptions about duty, love, virtue, honor, and modesty. All are subject to the scalpel of impatient and haughty reformers; what has been received from our parents and grandparents and from their parents and grandparents must submit to our unforgiving formulas for correction.

The goal, of course, is to dismantle the common Western culture, to turn everything into a subculture. Secularism wants religious practice, especially Christian practice, banished to a private world of feelings and attitudes, while at the same time the realm of the public is to be expanded to include every aspect of one’s life. The earlier secularist appearance of tolerance toward religion is now seen to have been a sham.

Nor does secularism sustain any sense of obligation to the past. The texture of memory that is essential to a common culture cannot be sustained if the past is not lovingly transmitted to those who come after” even should some of its monuments offend us.

Christianity has proved to be more tolerant than the current revisionists. As the French philosopher Remi Brague observed in [First Things] (“Christ, Culture & the New Europe,” August/September 1992), Christian culture “resisted the temptation to absorb in itself what it had inherited from either the Greeks or the Jews” to suck in the content and to throw away the empty husk.” Over its long history the Christian tradition has cultivated a studied openness to the wisdom of former ages, even when such wisdom provided intellectual resources with which to challenge Christian faith. Think how the philosophes in their attacks on Christianity depended upon their legacy from antiquity. Yet for centuries, Christian institutions have nurtured the study of the classics. Christianity is an essential ingredient in our culture, says Brague, for its form “enables it to remain open to whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences with the human and divine.”

The ferocity of the current assault on the legacy of Christian culture, however, has brought a new clarity of vision. The alternatives are set before us with unusual starkness: either there will be a genuine renewal of Christian culture” there is no serious alternative” or we will be enveloped by the darkness of paganism in which the worship of the true God is abandoned and forgotten. The sources of the cultural crisis, it turns out, are theological.

In his lectures on Christianity and Culture, T. S. Eliot posed the issue of the relation between Christianity and Western culture in terms that were remarkably prescient. Writing in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, Eliot said that the “choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” Distinguishing three epochs in the history of Christianity and Western culture, he spoke of the period when Christianity was a “minority in a society of positive pagan traditions,” a second period when the society as a whole” law, education, literature, art, as well as religion” was formed by Christianity, and a third, our own period, in which the culture has become “mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.” In his view, “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become something else.” Yet, he continued, “I do not think that [a culture] can remain negative,” and it is conceivable that there will be an attempt to build a new culture on wholly different “spiritual” foundations. Eliot’s proposal is that the way to meet this challenge is to form a “new Christian culture.”

His lectures are filled with much wisdom: for example, that “Christianity is communal before being individual,” and that there can be no Christian society where there is no respect for the religious life. “I cannot,” he says, “conceive a Christian society without religious orders, even purely contemplative orders, even enclosed orders.” If we are to speak of a Christian society, we “must treat Christianity with a great deal more intellectual respect than is our wont . . . .” And we must be concerned to make clear “its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” Above all there is his observation that touches more directly on theology: it is, he writes, a “very dangerous inversion” for Christian thinkers “to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.” Instead of showing that “Christianity provides a foundation for morality,” one must show “the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity.” “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.”

Dogma and truth are not the kind of words that will pass the test of political correctness, yet” or perhaps therefore” they are most useful in helping us precisely to identify the distinctively theological task that lies before us. It is time to return to first principles, to the First Commandment, and to take up anew the challenge faced by Christians many centuries ago when the Christian movement was first making its way in the Roman Empire. Christians are now called to persuade others (including many within the churches) that our first duty as human beings is to honor and venerate the one true God, and that without the worship of God, society disintegrates into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-centered interests destructive of the commonweal. To meet that challenge, Christians must learn again to speak forthrightly about who we are and what we know of God.

The Christian faith, as Eliot reminds us, is concerned not simply with values or attitudes or feelings or even “beliefs” as we use the word today, but with truth. Christianity is based not simply on experience, tradition, inherited wisdom, and reason, but on God’s self-disclosure in history. To be sure, Christian truth has been handed on through a learned tradition in which it has been formulated, criticized, analyzed, refined, and tested by experience. Thus it has been the bearer of wisdom about what is good in human life, about sexuality, about being young and growing old, about work and money, children and family, duty and sacrifice, about friendship and love, art, literature, and music. But, as Origen of Alexandria said in the third century in his response to charges brought against Christianity by its critics, the Christian religion has its origin in “God’s manifestation not in human sagacity,” in the appearance of the divine Logos in human form. Christian faith is grounded in what was made known in Christ and confirmed by the Spirit’s witness in the church. Consequently, Christian thinking, whether about God, about Christ, about the moral life, or about culture, must always begin with what has been made known.

A pernicious feature of Christian discourse in our day is its tentativeness, the corrosive assumption that everything we teach and practice is to be subject to correction by appeals to putative evidence, whether from science, history, or the religious experience of others. Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga call this the evidentialist fallacy, the claim that it is not rational for a person to be a Christian unless he “holds his religious convictions on the basis of other beliefs of his which give to those convictions adequate evidential support.” In this view, one’s religious beliefs are to be held “probable” until evidence is deployed from elsewhere to support and legitimate them. The “presumption of atheism” must be the starting point of all our thinking, even about God.

One way of responding to this line of thought has been to offer arguments for the existence of God based on what is considered evidence acceptable to any reasonable person. Conventional wisdom has had it that proof of the existence of God has to be established without reference to the specifics of Christianity (or Judaism) or to the experience of the church. Atheism is to be countered by a defense of theism, not of Christian revelation. But this strategy has failed. In his book At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley helps us to understand why. To defend the existence of God, Christian thinkers in early modern times excluded all appeals to Christian behavior or practices, the very things that give Christianity its power and have been its most compelling testimony to the reality of God. Arguments against atheism inevitably took the form of arguments from nature or design, i.e., philosophical arguments without reference to Christ, to the sacraments, to the practice of prayer, to the church. Buckley’s book is an account of how this came to be, but within its historical description is to be found an argument that the “god defined in religion cannot be affirmed or supported adequately . . . without the unique reality that is religion.” Or, to put the matter more concretely: “What god is, and even that god is, has its primordial evidence in the person and in the event that is Jesus Christ.”

What has given Christianity its strength as a religion, as a way of life, and as an intellectual tradition is that it has always been confident of what it knows …


Dr. Wilken’s “No Other Gods” was published in First Things and is available online.  It is one of eight essays collected in Remembering the Christian Past.

Robert Louis Wilken is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he was William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the History of Christianity. His writing includes over a dozen books, including Christians as the Romans Saw Them, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God and Remembering the Christian Past.


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