Aug 20 2009

The post-Christian society?

Category: church,religionharmonicminer @ 9:09 am

Archbishop Chaput, author of “Render Unto Ceasar,” has some observations on the post-Christian society.

Let’s imagine a society. And let’s imagine that it’s advanced in the arts and sciences. It has a complex economy. It has a strong military. It also includes many different religions, although religion tends to be a private affair or a matter of civic ceremony.

It also has big problems, like a fertility rate stuck below replacement levels. Not enough children are born to replenish the adult population or do the work to keep society going. The state offers money for people to have more babies. But little seems to work.

Promiscuity is common. So are bisexuality and homosexuality. Birth control and abortion are legal, widely practiced and justified by leading intellectuals.

Sometimes a lawmaker will offer a measure to promote marriage, arguing that the future depends on stable families. These ideas usually go nowhere.

What society am I talking about? Most of the Western world would broadly fit this description. But actually I’m not talking about us.

I just outlined the state of the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus Christ. We tend to look back on Greece and Rome as an age of extraordinary achievements. And of course, it was. But it had another side as well.

We don’t usually think of Plato and Aristotle endorsing infanticide as state policy. But they did. Hippocrates, the great medical pioneer, created an abortion kit that included sharp blades for cutting up the fetus and a hook for ripping it from the womb. Some years ago, archeologists discovered the probable remains of a Roman-era abortion and infanticide “clinic.” It was a sewer filled with the bones of more than 100 infants.

You can find all of this, and a lot more, in a little book from about 12 years ago, The Rise of Christianity by the Baylor University scholar Rodney Stark.

Why is any of this important?

People often say we’re living at a “post-Christian” moment. That’s supposed to describe the fact that Western nations have abandoned or greatly downplayed their Christian heritage in recent decades. But our “post-Christian” moment actually looks a lot like the pre-Christian moment. The signs of our times in the developed world-morally, intellectually, spiritually and even demographically-are very similar to the world at the time of the Incarnation.

The truth is, the challenges we face as European and American Catholics today are very much like those facing the first Christians. And it might help to have a little perspective on how they went about evangelizing their culture. They did such a good job that within 400 years Christianity was the world’s dominant religion and the foundation of Western civilization – and of course, the great Irish monastic tradition was one of its many fruits.

Rodney Stark, by the way, is an agnostic. He’s not a Christian believer. But he was intrigued by a couple of key questions. How did Christianity succeed? How was it able to accomplish so much so fast? As a social scientist, he focuses only on the facts he can verify. And he concludes that Christian success flowed from two things: first, Christian doctrine, and second, people being faithful to that doctrine. Stark writes that: “An essential factor in the [Christian] religion’s success was what Christians believed . . . And it was the way those doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity.”

Or we can put it another way: The Church, through the Apostles and their successors, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People believed in that Gospel. But the early Christians didn’t just agree to a set of ideas. Believing in the Gospel meant changing their whole way of thinking and living. It was a radical transformation — so radical they couldn’t go on living like the people around them anymore.

Stark says that one of the key areas in which Christians rejected the pagan culture around them was marriage and the family. From the start, to be a Christian meant believing that sexuality and marriage were sacred. From the start, to be a Christian meant turning away from abortion, infanticide, birth control, divorce, homosexual activity and marital infidelity — all those things widely practiced by their Roman neighbors.

The early Christians understood that they were members of a new worldwide family of God more important than any language or national borders. They saw the culture around them, despite all of its greatness and power, as a culture of despair, a society that was slowly killing itself. In fact, when you read early Christian literature, things like adultery and abortion are often described as “the way of death” or the “way of the [devil].”

Here’s the point I want to leave you with: If the world of pagan Rome and its Caesars could be won for Jesus Christ, we can do the same in our own day. But what it takes is the zeal and courage to live what we claim to believe.

While I’m not certain that historical sources support the claim that “from the start,” “to be a Christian meant turning away from….. birth control…,” the other items on that list are abundantly clear in the record.   I suppose I’m willing to be educated on the point, if clear references without significant counterfactuals can be presented.

The broader point of Archbishop Chaput, that ancient Roman times have a lot in common with the 21st century, is hard to debate.  His hope is very attractive that we can do much more to win the world for Christ.  Based on current trends, however, it’s becoming more and more likely that the world that is won for Christ will be the third world and Asia.

No doubt, as the center of world Christianity continues its move away from the USA and Europe, and more and more Korean and African missionaries are sent to the USA and Europe to try to win back an increasingly secularized culture (if current trends continue), some enterprising post-modern Korean or African academics will accuse their missionaries of colonial ambitions.