A number of years ago Andrew J. Bacevich wrote an incredible analysis of the challenge of Christian witness in the 21st century. In the wake of the McCarrick scandal I want to revisit it. He starts:
Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.
Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.
What Bacevich seems to be suggesting is that Christians have generally lost the hope that living lives of virtue and witness to Christ still works, in terms of cultural renewal. Is this too broad a way to describe the situation?
What else is Bacevich pointing out, in effect? The world has not always been like it is today. Evolution and miracles are phenomenon which coexist within the same reality. Modernity has distinct animating principles and attitudes from other periods, like the late Middle Ages. The Genesis story of humankind’s fall due lusting after a sort of universal knowledge continues as rancor in our hearts, driving our desire for new forms of power. And that through it all, Jesus Christ has always been who he said that he was, and that this truth can continue to engage and redeem in every era.
Not himself conventionally religious (watching his sister suffer an excruciatingly painful death, he had concluded that God might be “a Substance, but He could not be a Person”) [historian Henry] Adams was referring to Christianity not as a belief system but as an organizing principle. Christianity as project—reference point, narrative, and source of authority—imparted to history a semblance of cohesion and purposefulness. So, at least for centuries, Europeans and Americans had believed or at least pretended to believe.
Adam’s “organizing principle” carries less weight than I would like, apparently akin more to a theory or hypothesis rather than an encounter with anything certainly true.
In any event, after a century of global war on different scales, we’re now living through a time of fractured cohesion and purpose. We barely have a clear, shared civic organizing principle any longer, let alone a shared spiritual belief system to guide our civic activity or inform our moral conscience. We’re drifting.
Christianity as a personal ethic or as a medium through which to seek individual salvation might survive, but Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs had breathed its last.
I suppose “Christendom” might be understood as nations wherein Christianity was the formula for ordering human affairs—not as outright theocracy as in parts of the Muslim world, but as a means to balance raw state power with a coherent moral order capable of holding it to account for the health of the whole people. And because so few Christians now know their history or their scripture, it’s likely impossible to expect any sort of robust belief on a wide scale. You can’t remain faithful to someone you’ve never met.
Scripture no longer provided an adequate explanation of these events—even to consider situating the Holocaust in what Christians called salvation history seemed obscene. Unwilling to own up to their own complicity in all that had gone awry … nominally Christian Americans sought refuge in ideology. …
As successor to the Machine Age, the so-called Information Age promises to empower humanity as never before and therefore to complete our liberation. Taking the form of a wireless handheld device, the dynamo of our time has truly become, as Adams wrote, “a symbol of infinity.” Rather than spewing masses of stone and steam, it offers instant access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In this Information Age, we can access coursework from Harvard or Yale or any number of great institutions for free; it’s closer than whatever’s at the nearby public library. We can also access and participate in soul-corroding hate and destructive behavior from our kitchens, bedrooms, and anywhere, all on a magnitudes unimaginable in past times; the sort of things that local zoning boards might have fought to keep out of their towns in times past can now be present in every private room and public space.
What are Christians supposed to do in response to this? How can Christians engage and redeem a world like this? A struggle takes place now in each and every heart to decide whether Christ was honest and whether virtue is true, in essence, and what sort of life and world we might work to create as a result of our conclusions. These struggles have always taken place, but it’s entirely different when there’s no community or social support for it; when we’re living as autonomous, liberated individuals rather than as members of a particular community with responsibilities and relationships with particular people.
So the frantic pursuit of self-liberation that Adams identified and warned against enters yet another cycle, with little sign of anything having been learned from past failures. If the God of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament exists, then it must be that he wills this. Yet his purposes remain inscrutable.
God’s ways have always been inscrutable. I’m consoled by John Henry Newman’s attitude of our own somewhat unknowable purpose in life as superior to Rick Warren’s notion that each of us can discover and live out our own “purpose driven life.”
I think what we’re challenged to realize is that we cannot engage and redeem if we are not ourselves converted in our heart; if we, in effect, do not love Christ.