Christianity haunts our culture. It appears to us as a phantom presence, pale shimmering and gossamer, which we glimpse from time to time – in places familiar, to make them strange; and in places strange, making them eerily familiar – but never showing flesh nor ever quite speaking.
It may be tempting to consider this apparition Christianity’s ghost, but I wonder whether C. S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, did not have the measure of the phenomenon in his fanciful eldila : creatures of such substance that they passed through all that presents to us as solid matter, without disturbing it in the slightest. The stuff of our world is too thin, insubstantial by comparison, too lacking in reality to be bothered by such beings.
Christians who are in the world but not of it – the saints who live and breathe and walk among us – often likewise pass through the world fearfully and fleetingly glimpsed when they are not wholly unnoticed. Only very infrequently do they show up solid, as creatures of flesh and blood, and then they cause a sensation the clear-eyed scoffers invariably write off, trivialize, or explain away.
I have heard our culture compared to a vampire, insatiably craving the vital sap of a civilization grown into robust strength of flesh and fecund blood, desirous of drinking its life-force to the lees and nearly done.
I wonder whether we do not have it backward.
Is our project thin? Is it “butter spread over too much bread,” as Bilbo says of himself under the One Ring’s baleful influence? Is it nearly a wraith?
I like civilization as much as the next guy and I am particularly fond of the civilizational project into which I was born. But civilizations come and go. “This is a cold age in which I have awaked,” says Lewis’s Merlin at one point in That Hideous Strength:
If all this west part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look further . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there–beyond Byzantium. It was rumoured also that there was knowledge in those lands–an Eastern circle and wisdom that came West from Numinor. I know not where–Babylon, Arabia, or Cathay. You said your ships had sailed all round the earth, above and beneath.”
Ransom shook his head. “You do not understand,” he said. “The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all Tellus.”
“Is it, then, the end?” asked Merlin.
Lewis published That Hideous Strength in 1945. We’re still here, still grinding on. Lewis’s passage is useful fancy, but St. Augustine’s appeal in Letter 138 is still sound advice for us here and now, where and when we face a charge not entirely dissimilar to the one with which Augustine had to wrestle in his day: In essence, a charge that Christianity is not suited to sustain the morals of a republic, and even inimical to them.
The charge against Christians in Augustine’s day came after Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome in AD 410 and caused many wealthy citizens to flee the city. The conservative Roman elite – culturally Pagan and fully retreating – then mounted a final major cultural push to restore the old gods and the old ways in an effort to restore Rome’s glory.
In AD 412, Augustine wrote to a Roman official, Marcellinus, who had come to Roman Africa on commission from the emperor. Marcellinus was a Christian, but a third interlocutor, Rufius Volusianus – also a Roman official – was a Pagan of the Old Guard at the time, and deeply involved in epistolary conversation with both Augustine and Marcellinus at what would prove to be the waning days of Roman imperial power in the West.
Augustine’s advice to Marcellinus was, at bottom, that he should encourage Christians to be the kinds of soldiers, doctors, lawyers, agents, laborers – in a word, such citizens – as Christ commands. “Then,” St. Augustine says, “let those who call Christ’s doctrine incompatible with the State’s well-being … dare to say that it is adverse to the State’s well-being; yea, rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the Republic.”
“Functional Paganism” is one of the turns-of-phrase that tries to capture the effects of our situation, also called a “New Paganism” or something like. For all the talk of the New Paganism, the fact is that no such animal exists, either, unless it be the one Chesterton described in “The Loss of the Old Paganism” or Chapter 6 of The Everlasting Man on demons and philosophers. Awfully convenient for us did such a beast exist, but it doesn’t – at least, not in any way that bears a direct and organic evolutionary relationship to the Old Paganism – and the sooner we cotton to this uncomfortable fact, the better we’ll all be.
The Old Paganism was waiting for the Gospel. The New Paganism has rejected the Gospel explicitly and specifically.
Neither Augustine’s work, nor all the efforts of all the Christians throughout Rome’s vast jurisdiction, could save the Empire. Saving the Empire was never the point. We got something beautiful and magnificent from his efforts and theirs, but everything passes. Sic transit gloria mundi .
Our own efforts in the present may not save our republic or our civilization, but I know — as I know my Savior lives — that living as Christians is the only way Christians have to get and keep a republic or a civilization worth saving.
The rest is detail.
A few years ago, I reflected in these pages about how Advent is a season that prepares us for the end of the world. Sure, the season prepares us to celebrate Christmas. All through the four weeks of Advent, however, the Church reminds us that we are awaiting the Second Coming of Our Lord, who was born quietly in a manger some twenty centuries ago and who – when He comes again — will break the world.
We call it Judgment Day, but it will be His glory that blasts creation to pieces finer than dust. His first coming was meek, unnoticed by the world that will not have the strength to withstand His coming a second time into it. These days, I wonder whether we will even notice when He comes.
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