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Chantal Delsol & Christianity’s End

Pessimistic French Catholic scholar says believers destined to be 'soldiers in a lost war'
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Christopher Caldwell writes about a new book by the French Catholic scholar Chantal Delsol, who says that the West is repaganizing. Excerpts:

Ms. Delsol’s ingenious approach is to examine the civilizational change underway in light of that last one 1,600 years ago. Christians brought what she calls a “normative inversion” to pagan Rome. That is, they prized much that the Romans held in contempt and condemned much that the Romans prized, particularly in matters related to sex and family. Today the Christian overlay on Western cultural life is being removed, revealing a lot of pagan urges that it covered up.

To state Ms. Delsol’s argument crudely, what is happening today is an undoing, but it is also a redoing. We are inverting the normative inversion. We are repaganizing.

Caldwell, summarizing Delsol, says that whatever emerges from the end of Christianity as the West’s religion will not be atheism, but something else.

So if another civilization comes to replace Christianity, it will not be a mere negation, such as atheism or nihilism. It will be a rival civilization with its own logic — or at least its own style of moralizing. It may resemble the present-day iconoclasm that French commentators refer to as le woke.

Christianity produced some hard-core moralizers, but it also contained within it ambivalence, e.g., the teaching about turning the other cheek, and loving one’s neighbor. More:

Ms. Delsol worries that le woke has no such hesitation. Speech codes, elementary school consciousness-raising, corporate public service advertising — in some ways our public order is coming to resemble that of pagan Rome, where religion and morality were separated. Religion was a matter for the household. Morality was determined and imposed by society’s elites, with grim results for freedom of thought. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Whether or not a society is tolerant of rival ideas has less to do with its leaders’ idle ideological positioning and much more to do with their position in a historical cycle. When in A.D. 384 Christians succeeded in removing the pagan Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate, where it had stood for almost four centuries, the pagan statesman Symmachus understood that Rome’s tolerance would henceforth be denied to those who had built it. If we know Symmachus for one sentiment today, it is his condemnation of Christianity’s dogmatic claims to truth as an affront against common sense. “There cannot be only one path toward such a great mystery,” he said.

People find such sentiments inspiring. Regimes usually don’t. A decade later, the Christian emperor Theodosius was banning the Olympics on the grounds that there was too much nudity in them — without any objections from common sense. The conventional wisdom had come around to dogmatism. It still too often does.

Read it all. 

Next, turn to this essay by Prof. Delsol, appearing in The Hungarian Conservative, where she explains her thesis in her own words. In short, Delsol contends that we are living in this century a reversal of the fourth century, when rising Christianity overturned Roman paganism. Now we are indeed repaganizing. Delsol writes:

Christians have long believed, and many still believe, that Christianity could only be replaced by atheism, nihilism, or both. In other words, by negative forms that would sow darkness and chaos. This is a way of believing yourself to be irreplaceable. Péguy wrote in Dialogue of History and the Carnal Soul: ‘That there have been so many peoples and so many souls where Christianity has not bitten, has not reached; so many peoples and so many souls who have lived abandoned, and who are not, who were not worse off, my friend, there, exactly there, unfortunately there is the secret, the hollow of the mystery.’

To believe or make believe that if Christianity collapses, everything collapses with it, is nonsense. The Christian rule is already being replaced—neither by nothingness nor by the storm, but by well-known, more primitive and rustic forms of history. Behind collapsed Christianity come Stoic morals, paganism, and Asiatic spiritualities. Nietzsche had foreseen this evolution when he wrote: ‘European China, with a soft Buddhist-Christian belief and, in practice, an Epicurean savoir-vivre’. At the start of the twenty-first century, the most established and most promising philosophical current is a form of cosmotheism linked to the defence of nature. We can also speak of pantheism or polytheism. Our Western contemporaries no longer believe in a beyond or in a transcendence. The meaning of life must therefore be found in this life itself, and not above it, where there is nothing. The sacred is found here: in the landscapes, in the life of the earth, and in humans themselves. At the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have changed the paradigm by making a new choice in understanding the world. Under cosmotheism, man feels at home in the world, which represents the only reality and which contains both the sacred and the profane. Under monotheism, man feels a stranger in this immanent world and longs for the other world. For the monotheist, this world is only a temporary lodging. For the cosmotheist, it is a home. The postmodern mind is tired of living in a temporary lodging! It needs a home of its own, complete in its meanings. One becomes a cosmotheist again because one wants to reintegrate oneself into this world as a full citizen, and no longer as this ‘domiciled foreigner’, this Christian described by the anonymous author of the ‘Epistle to Diognetus’.

She goes on:

Reduced to the state of silent witnesses, Christians today are doomed to become soldiers in a lost war. Their fights—especially fights on societal issues, since they concern principles and virtues—lead nowhere, and moreover have no chance of success. I am not sure the approach has been a wise one. Christians who protest tirelessly and try to prevent or overturn rogue laws on abortion or assisted reproduction can only be successful by first implementing a spiritual revolution. First convert people to Christianity, to the intrinsic dignity of each embryo, and then you can abolish abortion. Otherwise it would be like trying to impose confession on non- Catholic peoples: terrorist nonsense. Belief and adherence to principles precedes the acceptance of laws.

Far from wanting to conquer the world, from now on, like the Jews, we are going to worry about living and surviving—and that will be enough.

Read it all.

As you know, the author of Live Not By Lies sees the future as very dark for Christians. I agree wholeheartedly with Prof. Delsol, who is a friend: that we Christians are faced with the primary goal of survival — not in the sense of being exterminated (though perhaps that will come), but more in the sense of being assimilated out of meaningful existence. We need to figure out how to stay alive for now, and working towards the “spiritual revolution” that is the only meaningful precursor to re-Christianization.

We have not become post-Christian because we have had bad politics; nor can Christianity be restored by rearranging our political structures and ideas. Take a look at this long review essay by the theologian David Bentley Hart, writing in Commonweal about a new book by German atheist philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Hart contends that secularization was inevitable. Excerpt:

Resistance to this destiny has always proved fruitless, precisely because it has tended to proceed from within the rationality of the old Christendom. In Catholic culture, for example, since at least the time of the Council of Trent, the struggle against the reality of the old order’s intrinsic fragility has been constant and utterly futile. It has been like an attempt to save a house already swallowed by the sea by adding new locks to its doors. Despite the countless cultural and social riches created by the unstable accommodation between the Gospel and empire—and even though many of those riches could yet perhaps be recovered within a new Christian synthesis—still the Christendom of the past was a fruitful catastrophe and its inevitable terminus was always secularism. And in the fullness of time, this secularism had to become a fully self-conscious metaphysical nihilism.

Liberalism, Hart goes on, has also failed. So what should Christians do?

Certainly, what they should not do is indulge in sickly nostalgias and resentments, or soothe their distempers with infantile restorationist fantasies. History’s immanent critique has exposed too many of the old illusions for what they were, and there can be no innocent return to structures of power whose hypocrisies have been so clearly revealed. There are any number of reasons, for instance, for dismissing the current vogue of right-wing Catholic “integralism”: its imbecile flights of fancy regarding an imperial papacy; its essentially early-modern model of ecclesial absolutism; its devotion to a picture of Christian social and political order that could not be any less “integralist” or any more “extrinsicist” and authoritarian in its mechanisms; the disturbingly palpable element of sadomasochistic reverie in its endorsement of various extreme forms of coercion, subjugation, violence, and exclusion; the total absence of the actual ethos of Christ from its aims; its eerie similarity to a convention of Star Trek enthusiasts gravely discussing strategies for really establishing a United Federation of Planets. But the greatest reason for holding the whole movement in contempt is that it is nothing more than a resentful effort to reenact the very history of failure whose consequences it wants to correct. Secularity was not imposed upon the Christian world by some adventitious hostile force. It simply is the old Christendom in its terminal phase.

One more passage:

The configurations of the old Christian order are irrecoverable now, and in many ways that is for the best. But the possibilities of another, perhaps radically different Christian social vision remain to be explored and cultivated. Chastened by all that has been learned from the failures of the past, disencumbered of both nostalgia and resentment, eager to gather up all the most useful and beautiful and ennobling fragments of the ruined edifice of the old Christendom so as to integrate them into better patterns, Christians might yet be able to imagine an altogether different social and cultural synthesis. Christian thought can always return to the apocalyptic novum of the event of the Gospel in its first beginning and, drawing renewed vigor from that inexhaustible source, imagine new expressions of the love it is supposed to proclaim to the world, and new ways beyond the impasses of the present.

The ultimate result, if Christians can free themselves from the myth of a lost golden age, may be something wilder and stranger than we can at present conceive, at once more primitive and more sophisticated, more anarchic in some ways and more orderly in others. Whether such a thing is possible or not, however, it is necessary to grasp that where we now find ourselves is not a fixed destiny. It becomes one only if we are unwilling to distinguish the opulent but often decadent grandeur of Christendom from the true Christian glory of which it fell so far short. The predicaments of the present are every bit as formidable as Sloterdijk’s diagnosis suggests, and our need for a global sphere of solidarity that can truly shelter the life of the whole is every bit as urgent as he claims. But it is also true that we are not actually fated to live “after God,” or to seek our shelter only in the aftermath of God’s departure. In fact, of all the futures we might imagine, that might prove to be the most impossible of all.

Read it all.

DBH and I are never going to be each other’s dates to the cotillion, but I think he’s right here. I have no hope for any kind of political solution to our severe civilizational crisis, though I do believe that politics are crucial to protecting the institutions and individuals through which and whom renaissance can come. The faith continues to decline rapidly in the West, and I still believe the most reasonable hope for Christians, long term, is developing and embracing thick communal ways of life that can withstand both active persecution and the passive disintegration of our nihilist-hedonist age. This might not work — but what else is there? Look around you: there are many admirable Christians here and there, but Christianity as a movement is flaccid, demoralized, and in most places peripheral to the future of our civilization. What do people outside of our churches see when they regard us? Look at this:

And look at this:


I know I cherry-picked a few recent things from Twitter, and that this isn’t quite fair. I know that there’s a lot of good stuff happening in particular congregations, in all denominations. But can any Christian actually say that Christianity in the West is strong, healthy, and confident? Can any of us honestly claim that Christianity matters to the fate of our civilization? The truth is, our future is likely to be determined not by Christians, but by a clash between the anti-Christian woke, who have technology and institutional power on their side, and the militant post-Christian Right, who, like the Nazis, will have no interest at all in Christianity, except as something whose leaders and institutions can be exploited on the path to power.

I hope I’m wrong about this. If we are doomed to be soldiers in a lost war, as Prof. Delsol believes, then let us not surrender, but rather become evangelical guerrillas and monkish subversives living under occupation. Our primary task is to keep the faith alive so that our descendants can revive it, if conditions allow. The truth of Christ doesn’t cease to be true because it is unpopular, but a Roman pagan in the year 390 faced far more challenges living out his faith, and raising his children to be faithful, than a Roman pagan did in the year 290. So it is with us Christians today. The challenge ahead requires hope, but also sobriety and realism. It is more important to recognize the decline that is actually upon us, and to figure out how to live out the faith with wisdom and courage under these radically uncertain conditions, than to lose one’s head in Very Online political fantasies that pretend to be martial, but in the absence of any plan to evangelize and convert unbelievers, are really marshmallow cope.