Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ross Douthat: "Is there a future for Christianity"?

Ross Douthat has a superb essay titled "Is there a future for Christianity? The shape of things to come."


The story of Christianity has always featured unexpected resurrections. Eras of corruption give way to eras of reform; sinners and cynics cede the floor to a rush of idealists and saints; political and intellectual challenges emerge and then are gradually surmounted. 
There is no single form of Christian civilization, in the same sense that there is no stereotypical Christian life; across two millennia, the faith has found ways to make itself at home in the Roman court and the medieval monastery, the Renaissance city and the American suburb alike. 
In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton describes what he calls the "five deaths of the faith" - the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. 
It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa was conquered by the armies of Islam. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the anciens regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned away during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. 
But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, "the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs." But each time, "it was the dog that died."

Douthat suggests that the future of Christianity lies more in the sanctity of its adherents than in the seminars of its theologians or the political prescriptions of its lobbyists:

[A] renewed Christianity should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. In every crisis in the Christian past, it has been saints and artists - from Saint Francis down to John Wesley, Dante to Dostoevsky - who resurrected the faith from one of its many deaths. The example of a single extraordinary woman, Mother Teresa, did more for Christian witness in the twentieth century than every theology department and political action committee put together. 
The critic Alan Jacobs points out that remains of highbrow Christian culture in the United States is sustained, to a remarkable extent, by literary works rather than by institutions - by Wise Blood and Walker Percy, Auden's verse and The Chronicles of Narnia, Thomas Merton's memoirs and "The Four Quartets." As Joseph Ratzinger put it, shortly before becoming Benedict XVI: 
"The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb."...
The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians and demagogues. It depends on public examples of holiness, and public demonstrations of what the imitation of Christ can mean for a fallen world. We are waiting, not for another political saviour or television personality but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn. 
Only sanctity can justify Christianity's existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.

There is much more in Douthat's essay. Please read the whole thing.

I agree with much of what he says. But I found three things oddly missing,

First, Douthat scolds liberals and conservatives alike, but bizarrely he makes only brief tangential mention of the central moral issue that divides our nation: abortion. Abortion is not merely one more political squabble among others on the Christian balance scale. There is no "Christian" perspective supportive of abortion, and liberals who align themselves with a Democratic Party whose platform endorses killing children in the womb are engaging in extraordinarily grave sin.

There is no issue parallel to abortion among conservatives. No Tea Party doctrine, even in the most liberal interpretation, deviates from Christian morality like abortion does.

Taxation policy and federal deficits are prudential judgements. Abortion is mortal sin.

Second, Douthat makes no reference to the manifest active hostility of the Democratic Party to Christianity. The contraception mandate is an organized (and rather clever) effort to force Christians from the public square, and the drive to establish gay "marriage" seems a prelude to assaulting Christians who by conscience cannot participate in nor condone gay nuptials with hate crime and discrimination prosecutions.

Republicans have consistently supported public participation and constitutional rights of Christians. The Democrats at their recent national convention booed God. The Christian position is not midway between the parties, for goodness sake.

Why would Douthat, in an otherwise thoughtful essay on morality and Christian politics, omit abortion and the active Democrat hostility to Christianity? I guess he needs to keep his job at the New York Times.

Third, Douthat makes no mention of the fact that sanctity is not really a code of ethics or the mere imitation of poverty or charity or chastity.

Sanctity is a personal encounter-- a relationship-- with Jesus Christ. It is in this relationship, which we call faith but by which we mean much more than passive trust, that we and our brothers and sisters are saved. In my view, it is the relationship with Christ that manifests itself to others as sanctity. I see it in our Christian ancestors-- St. Francis and Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and Solzhenitsyn and John Paul II.

And I see it, with real clarity, in Pope Francis, who is calling each of us again to sanctity-- to know Christ personally, and to allow Him to work through us.

It is Christ-in-us, which is actual sanctity, that is the past, present, and future of Christianity. 


  1. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.--Matthew 16:18

    Two thousand years later, they haven't yet. I do however think that we're entering a very dark time for Christians and Christianity. Not that we will perish, but simply that we will face even more intense persecution than we do now, and probably shrink as a result. We're facing an army of KW's and Troy's.


  2. Christianity is doomed simply because the evidence supporting its main claims is lacking. This embarrassing fact is becoming harder and harder to hide for those most susceptible to brainwashing: young people.

    1. Why are those most susceptible to brainwashing moving your way? Wouldn't that suggest a different conclusion?

      I don't know what evidence you want to see. Try having a personal relationship with God. Have you ever?


    2. @troy:

      "Christianity is doomed"

      Pretty funny, coming from a leftie European whose red idols collapsed two decades ago and whose secular civilization is collapsing now under a Muslim onslaught.

      Christianity is the most vibrant idea alive today. It is growing exponentially.

      They've been saying for 2000 years that Christianity was going to the dogs. As Chesterton said, it was always the dog that died.

    3. Troy,
      Brainwashing? Hello?
      Have you turned on your television lately? I have. I certainly do not see a conditioning program to turn children into good Christians. What I do see is a decades long march towards hedonism, nihilism, and sheepish subservience to a technocratic elite. I see elaborate mythologies about giant monster's sex lives and assertions about the origins of things we cannot even properly observe. I see UFO cults, atheist doctrine, globalist ambitions, and a great deal of BASHING of the religions.
      Silly question really, isn't it? I mean, you have OBVIOUSLY been watching FAR too much TV.

  3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMay 26, 2013 at 9:25 AM

    I disagree with Douthat on a fundamental level. He says: The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians and demagogues. It depends on public examples of holiness, and public demonstrations of what the imitation of Christ can mean for a fallen world.

    First, there is no "American religion" to have a future. The Church is universal. The late Fr John Neuhaus made a distinction between Catholic Americans and American Catholics (the same distinction holds true for any other denomination, by the way) that is a much more accurate assessment.

    And, as Fr Neuhaus observed, American Catholics are a significant problem within the Catholic Church in the Americas. Americans, raised up in a democratic culture of nearly endless choice and rampant consumerism, tend to want to apply the same principles to the timeless, eternal, and canonical revelation of human and divine relationships that comprise orthodox Christian doctrine. To the extent they succeed, the Church will shrink (as Troi noted, by the way). As, in fact, the mainline Protestant churches have done and are doing.

    But what will save Christianity will not be a gaggle of aspiring saints as Douthat proposes. No, that is a pathetic and doomed hope that will always be dashed on the rocks of "not saintly enough" or "too few". Success never comes from measuring the inputs. No, it will be the outputs: the culture that ensues from a culture alienated from Christianity. The contours of that culture are already becoming visible as it congeals from the noxious miasma of radical materialism and the ascendance of an Epicurean worldview.

    In Western, post-Christian culture, children have been indoctrinated in the principles of radical materialism and Epicurean amorality. It's a done deal. And it was no contest: a doctrine of purposeless sexual stimulation, untrammeled gluttony (food, drugs, consumer goods, etc.), and the sanctification of envy will always trump a doctrine of abstinence, restraint, and humility among children and neotenized adults.

    And it will be the culture that results from Troi's "victory" that will turn the tide. Because the Truth always echoes down the millenia from Genesis. "[Y]ou will not die" and "[Y]ou will be like gods" inevitably becomes a culture of death and a government-managed ranch where the "masses" are cultivated, managed, and treated as "investments" (see E. Emanuel's Complete Lives Syatem or the UK's NICE) to provide sustenance and amusement for the elite.

    Then, and only then, will the trend change. And the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

    1. Adm:

      I think you are right.

      But the tragedy is that the decimation of the culture is decimation of actual people. Countless lives are being ruined and countless souls lost as we slide into filth.

      Sanctity does matter, and does have influence. St Francis, St Thomas and St Ignatius transformed Europe, and brought incredible new life and genius to the universal Church.

      There is a place for sanctity as individual acts against the tide, to inspire a few to escape it.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMay 26, 2013 at 1:40 PM

      There are never enough saints. But, IMO, until the decimation of the culture completely poisons the social well, sanctity can't compete with moral devolution. The intervals between the behavior and the reward are just too long.

      It's like alcoholism: sobriety never looks good until the alcoholic has hit the bottom of the gutter.

  4. Interesting article/post, Dr Egnor. Much truth in it.
    Saints and sanctity are indeed important. As is the personal connection with Christ.
    I tend to agree with adm on the substance of his comments on indoctrination. I don't think such efforts will prevail, but as JQ notes I think a period of tribulation is at hand.
    But there is also Luke 22:36 to consider. We Christians need to be passive, but rather are commanded to take an active role.
    "Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one."

  5. Why all this hand-wringing? You know it’s going to end in Armageddon; it’s right there in your book.


    1. @KW:

      Armageddon is indeed in our future.

      You atheists don't subscribe to such nonsense. You're too busy fretting over eugenic collapse/overpopulation bomb/DDT destruction of the earth/global cooling/nuclear winter/global warming/climate change/climate instability to concern yourselves with silly Christian apocalypses.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyMay 26, 2013 at 5:38 PM

      Don't forget the impending mass extinction caused by Wal-Mart bags.

  6. Abortion is a great example of what Douthat is talking about. It is a monstrous crime against humanity, but American Christians have forgotten that our duty is any more profound than punching a badly, sneering at our neighbors, and patting ourselves on the back for being on the right side of the political divide.

    So instead of offering our time and treasure to support young, scared, unwed mothers, we look down our noses at them, call them drains on the system, and pressure our congressmen to pass laws to prevent them from sinning. That is not the fulfillment of our Christian duty; it's a political distraction from the personal self-sacrificial, humble service we are called to by the Lamb of God.

    That is why Christianity is floundering in the West; because we followers of Christ consider it a tribal affiliation - something to be proud of, something that makes us better than the sinners around us - rather than the call to humble self-sacrifice that it is.


    1. Should read "punching a ballot"

    2. JH:

      We Christians have an obligation to act both in the political arena and in the personal arena.

      We are called to love sinners and to condemn sin.

      Lobbying against abortion and helping unwed mothers are both Christian duties.

      Sneering and looking down our noses is sinful. So is materially collaborating with politicians and a political party that champions and abets the murder of unborn children.

      It would seem to me that materially collaborating and abetting are more serious sins than sneering, but perhaps you can clarify.