My new book The Age of Paradise is scheduled for release next week. Readers of my blog might like a taste of what to expect, so here is a summary of its content and the contribution it seeks to make in assessing our post-Christian culture today.
The book is the first of a four-volume history of Christendom, a subject defined as a “civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world.” At a time of renewed interest the future of Western culture, it traces that culture to the beliefs and values of the early Church. Many historians regard the Renaissance or Enlightenment as the definitive moment in the rise of the West, while others locate it in the so-called Middle Ages (I try to avoid the term) when a distinctive Roman Catholic Christianity prevailed in western Europe. I have looked instead to the ancient Christianity of the first millennium. There I find within the East especially the foundations of what the West would one day become.
At the heart of the narrative is a culture of “paradise,” an experience of the kingdom of heaven that saturated the cosmology and anthropology of traditional Christianity. This experience was manifested in the community ideal of agape love. It was articulated in a theology emphasizing “deification,” the process whereby human beings take on the very attributes of God. It was publicly observed in statecraft, where a principle of “symphony” held the government to a principle higher than sheer power. And it was expressed especially by the arts of iconography and temple architecture, which vividly proclaimed the presence of the divine on earth. I argue that one of the core values of modern Western culture—the utopian transformation of the world—is to be located first of all in the paradisiacal culture of Christendom during its first millennium.
The Age of Paradise is the first part of a series entitled The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was. It appears in the wake of successful and provocative publications by conservative Christian authors such as Rod Dreher’s best-selling The Benedict Option, R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. It addresses the same audiences as these excellent works, but pursues a direction of cultural inquiry that is largely lacking in them: the deep and often neglected history of an “other” West that is, in the end, very different than the one to which we are accustomed. That West is the Christendom that preceded modern times. The Age of Paradise is being released with the conviction that in order to address and perhaps even solve today’s “crisis of culture” it is necessary to rethink where it came from and where in the future it might go.
If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Continue reading
Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks. Continue reading
In a recently published book (hot off the press this year), a professor of history at Illinois State University claims that America’s culture wars are over. Or at least they should be. A War for the Soul of America, by Andrew Hartman, is a history of the struggle against cultural change that has occurred in America since the 1960s. That history is now over, he claims, and advocates for a secular, permissive, and pluralistic culture are the victors. Their opponents have been defeated by the statistics. Surveys indicate that the social values of the left have been normalized in American society, with the majority of even young Republicans now favoring, for example, the legalization of gay marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges (decided in June, apparently after the manuscript was sent to press) would only seem to confirm this.
In one sense, the struggle for America’s soul is presented by the author as what it obviously was: a conservative and religious backlash against the rise of movements advancing the separation of church and state, abortion rights, feminism, and gay marriage. But what is curious about the narrative is the way it presents this backlash, not as the struggle to uphold any kind of absolute standard of moral behavior and cultural good order, but as a process of social-psychological adjustment. If polls reveal that the values of the 1950s are dead, then, the author suggests, continued resistance to the new cultural order is futile.
What I find perplexing in this professor’s triumphant liberal narrative is its ultimate point of reference: the 1950s. Was that decade really the definitive moment in the history of American values?
Would it not be more effective to evaluate the history of contemporary American culture from a broader perspective? To launch that history in the 1950s ignores some twenty centuries of moral formation, minus fifty years. It also sets up the liberal narrative imposed by this author with a sure victory. And yet there is so much more to a moral society than what one finds in America in the 1950s.
In short, would it not be useful to evaluate our present culture and its problems from the perspective of the total history of Christendom, of which America represents a rather recent and incomplete picture?
This is what I hope to do in the posts ahead.
The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom. Continue reading
Political revolutions cost lives, and so can cultural ones. This is true when the agent of change is the government, and that government is totalitarian. It is even more true when the totalitarian government is wedded to an ideology such as Communism.
In recent posts I have introduced the Soviet cult of Lenin within the context of the Communist Party’s violent assault on Christians. The Communists could not avoid violence in general because it was built into the ideology they inherited from Karl Marx. I will speak elsewhere about Marx’s place in the history of Christendom, but here I want to emphasize the role of violence in Marxism’s vision of history. History could not move forward without it. And history had to move forward. In the nineteenth-century “age of progress,” absolute standards of good and evil, cultivated by centuries of Christianity’s influence, were exchanged for a relativistic morality of progress. That which brought it about was good, and that which hindered it was evil. Continue reading
One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.
There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading
Before the culture wars of contemporary American Christendom, there were the cultural revolutions of Europe’s totalitarian regimes.
When Trotsky hurled his “dustbin of history” curse upon those who declined to follow Lenin and the Bolsheviks in establishing a socialist utopia in 1917 (see my previous post), he was not only excoriating political rivals. He was suggesting that the Russian Revolution was about more than politics. It was also about culture, that is, it was about the radical transformation of beliefs and values. Continue reading