Living in a transitional age

Peter J. Leithart writes on the importance of radical hope in the face of the end of the world as we’ve known it:

Suppose we’re in a transitional age. Suppose a world is ending. We still need to ask, What world is ending?

First answer: A world controlled by the power and values of Western Europe and North America. …

The global economy provides a good measure of the change. Western production, trade, and finance still dominate the globe, but three of the top five economies are Asian. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada are still in the top ten, but have been joined by Brazil.

In particular, China is leveraging its Western-aided prosperity to carve out its own zone of economic power. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government had planned to invest 1.4 trillion dollars to create a twenty-first-century “Silk Road,” the “Belt and Road” transportation web that will link Asia to North Africa and the eastern edge of Europe – sixty-five countries and over four billion people. China hopes Western Europe will be lured east. Plus, China produces most of the world’s antibiotics and pharmaceutical components, and Chinese nationals own leading American entertainment companies, as well as real estate and many American businesses. In 2019, Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for dissenters in Hong Kong. It became an international incident and cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. A year later, Morey quit. Even in basketball, the unipolar world is no more.

The evolution of the church is a further measure of Western contraction. There are still state establishments (in England, for instance), but Western politics and culture haven’t operated by Christian norms for a long time. Christian symbols and beliefs no longer provide the fundamental framework for public life, nor for many individuals.

At the same time, a “new Christendom” is taking shape in the Global South. At the time of the Reformation, Christianity was largely confined to a shrinking Europe. Since then, it has expanded to every corner of the globe, becoming the main religion in the Americas, Australia, southern Africa, and Pacific islands.Today, the majority of Christians reside in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

North American and European Christianity still leads in many ways. Western churches are wealthier, and their influence is buttressed by the considerable geopolitical power of Europe and North America. Western schools educate theologians and leaders from the Global South. Yet, on all these fronts, the tide is turning. Africans have gained considerable clout in the Anglican Communion, often strengthening the position of beleaguered traditionalists in England and North America. Pope Francis is Argentinian, and he’s likely the first of many non-European popes. Christianity has ended its sojourn as a “Western” religion, as the world is no longer a Western playground.

Building a home library and filling it with more books than you can reasonably hope to read within the foreseeable future is one of the best ways to habituate yourself to reading, studying, and knowing the past. And knowing the past can provide crucial knowledge, a sort of situational awareness, for navigating the rest of your life in a world that is always dying and being born again. Leithart continues:

Second answer: This geopolitical shift has been accompanied by an epochal ideological shift. Many among the Western intellectual elites have adopted a post-colonial outlook, which views the West as the main source of evil in the world. No reasonable person believes Western civilization is innocent – what civilization is? Perhaps more importantly, few believe that it is admirable. …

As the modern West’s influence contracts, its post-Enlightenment values also go into retreat. Old-fashioned liberalism of the “I abhor what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” variety has died. Progressivism has become the de facto established religion of swaths of the United States and other countries, and it is a jealous religion. To evade social and professional repercussions, one quietly censors oneself. It’s fruitless to protect Western liberalism, since there is no longer a liberal West to protect.

Western ideals are losing their power to energize non-Westerners too. Beginning in the Enlightenment, Western thinkers promised to liberate the human race from the “irrationality” of superstition and religion. If we can’t eliminate irrationality entirely, at least we can keep it out of public life, so it doesn’t do so much damage. Religion arouses irrational passions; politics should be conducted by reasoned deliberation. Religion is violent; purging it from politics will yield a utopia of nonviolence. Advanced, “Westernized,” nations do the right thing and privatize religion.

It was always a ruse. That Empire of Reason is, of all empires, the most thoroughly dust-binned. Religion has never been, can never be, eliminated from public life. Western regimes, like all other regimes, have always been intertwined with religion: regulating it, supporting it, being supported by it or critiqued by it. But many believed the ruse, including sociologists who were convinced that modernization, industrialization, the expansion of technology and education, and the establishment of democratic regimes would naturally produce secular societies, where religion was a private consolation for a diminishing handful of traditionalists.

“It’s fruitless to protect Western liberalism, since there is no longer a liberal West to protect.” This is an idea that’s worth thinking about for a long time to come. Leithart again:

Over the two millennia since the birth of Christianity, many worlds have ended, just as our world may be ending now. At such times, it is the task of Christians to nourish hope within societies whose transient hopes have withered. …

The word nourishes hope; prayer nourishes hope; singing nourishes hope; baptism nourishes hope; the Lord’s Supper nourishes hope. When we open our homes to the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, we act in hope and bolster hope, as the Spirit builds our confidence in God’s promises and good gifts.

The church’s existence, activities, and ministries nourish hope because they are specific avenues of communion with God. God speaks in his word, hears our prayers and songs, claims us in baptism, feeds and feasts with us at the table, shines through us as we go out as lights in the world. God is the God of hope, not merely a God who gives hope or who is the object of hope.

How do churches nourish hope in an age when worlds are ending? By staying close to Jesus, our hope of glory. Simple as that.

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