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The Final Christian Generation?

The 4th century Roman pagans thought their religion would last forever. They were wrong (Photo Italia LLC/GettyImages)

One of this blog’s most intelligent and thoughtful readers (based on the e-mails he sends me every week) passed on this in response to my “Jeremiah Was A Bourgeois” post. I want to share it with you:

I’m like you, I’m a Jeremiah.

People criticize you for not having hope, but I think the real problem is that they have put their hope in Men. Or in the institutions of man, instead of God. Such hope is perverse and a false hope and it should be shattered. You aren’t trying to take away people’s hope in God! You’re trying to get them to place their hope in God, not America or the Republican Party or the Roman Catholic Church or Southern Baptist Convention or Calvin College or Baylor University or whatever institution it is that is being eviscerated right now by liquid modernity.
Understand, I’m not against these Christian institutions, I just don’t think we can ever rest on our laurels and think we’re done. “Well, I established a Christian college with a sound doctrinal statement, our work is finished!” “Ah, we’ve solved the Papist problem with our new Reformed Church. Should be good until the end of time.”
There can be no ‘end of history’ for Christian institutions. Christianity is analogous to the observer effect: once you take Christianity’s critique of the world and the Christian hope for the world’s salvation and then distill it from the air and fashion it into a concrete social institution or practice, it ceases to be Christian in some sense. You lose something instantly. Once the Gospel becomes partially embodied as some social institution on earth, that institution becomes just another institution subject to God’s final judgment–may they be found faithful in His sight and may God judge mercifully!
To establish a Christian institution, whether a denomination like the SBC, a Christian college, or a magazine or whatever is to bring something into the world that will one day come to an end–and I mean through decay in some sense. I don’t think God’s universal and invisible church will ever be absent, but the particular institutions playing the role–yes. We’ll move from one to another. The world is corrupting. The same forces of the fall are constantly at work. Maybe it is like radioactive decay. But still, I’d expect a greater half-life than what we saw with some of the Christian colleges failing so soon after their founding. So Christian institutions are in constant need of reform, though reasonable reform. Knowing we can never balance the equation, we shouldn’t try for reformations that attempt it–likely just shortens the half-life.
Maybe its like building castles in the sand, you have to constantly keep them going–they won’t last out of their own inertia. Or keeping a fire going. We have to be vigilant.
The problem with your critics is that they don’t understand this. They have faith in human institutions. They think “not my denomination/college/whatever”. Maybe it is a combination of things. They lack a knowledge of history to see things are constantly in flux. Just like a sand castle, the faith has to be rebuilt every generation. The battle against chaos is never over, but must constantly be re-won. SJWism might in some sense be new, but it can’t really be new. Sorry, gonna drop some Jungian archetypal thinking on you, but SJWism has to be archetypal. Liquid modernity too. I think it is unlikely that this is just a historical accident. I suspect some corrosive power deep in the human soul that has always been there, always coiled up and waiting has just now gotten its chance. This is much bigger than liberalism, SJWism, or modernity–some dark human passion is at the root. We can’t just wait for SJWism to pass as though its a strange historical accident. Rather we have to be vigilant and responsible and engage in Christian praxis that can manage this underlying human passion, restrain it. If I had to put money on it and name the passion, I’d say that whatever it was that drove the Babel-builders in Gen 11 is the source. And then they despair when the world is not a tower to heaven and seek destruction.
Your critics may lack imagination. Who in the 1950s could have imagined the behemoth GM would file for bankruptcy in 2009? No one. But when it did happen, it wasn’t catastrophic–no one beat their breasts. The world didn’t stop in awe. No comets hailed the great bankruptcy. It was just another news story from the great recession. Because by the time it happened, the world was such a different place that GM was virtually the sick man of Michigan.
Similarly, I can imagine that the institution we know as the Roman Catholic Church might collapse in the next thirty years. But when it does, the world won’t gawk, it will have already moved on. RCC will likely go out with a whimper. When it does happen, it won’t be cataclysmic. But your readers can only think about this in terms of how they envisioned the RCC when they were young. Now if that institution were to suddenly collapse, that would be shocking and cataclysmic. But look with your eyes, not your memory, and that RCC is already gone. The sick one in front of us may not recover. See the RCC for what it is right now and for where it is headed–where it is trending, not your Platonic ideal concept of it you fashioned in your youth when you imagined the world was static and unchanging.
Everything I say about RCC I could say about the SBC–which I think is definitely coming to nothing. Nonexistence by 2100, irrelevance within just 5 years. I could say about Wheaton, Calvin, Baylor, etc etc.
Prediction: China will continue to outmaneuver us in the South China sea by aggressively building islands, bases, buzzing our planes, threatening our carriers, threatening our allies, driving wedges. We won’t stand up to them. All the sudden Japan and Australia are really interested in rearming. No one does that when they trust the U.S. to keep them safe. Our allies have already lost faith in us. This ain’t just Trump, this is U.S. in general since Obama. What would have been unthinkable 20 years ago–the U.S. losing dominance over the Pacific is now very very thinkable for Japan and Australia. Of course, the people who go around saying “peace and prosperity” will never admit this is happening. No, China is not beating us in the Pacific. No they are not outmaneuvering us. No their army is not becoming better than ours. They will say this forever–until the one day where its just obvious that China dominates the Pacific. They will instantaneously shift from “China is no threat to the U.S. in Pacific–stop your fearmongering” to “The Pacific is a lost cause–why we shouldn’t contest an area China already controls”. You can’t trust people who can only see what’s in front of their faces and never anything beyond it. Its like your law of merited impossibility: China will never be powerful enough to challenge the U.S. in the Pacific, but when they do there’s no point in trying to stop them, they are too strong.
Yeah, this brings to mind Samuel D. James’s mixed review of Live Not By Lies, appearing in Christianity Today. He says I don’t have enough hope in America’s religious heritage, and in the First Amendment, which will protect us traditional Christians from soft totalitarianism. He’s a smart guy, and I think he really must believe this. That is faith misplaced, for sure. That piece, and the comments from the reader above, sent me back to thinking about historian Edward J. Watts’s The Final Pagan Generation, which I last wrote about here.
It’s a study of pagan elites in fourth century Rome, when Roman society was radically shifting away from its pagan roots to the new Christian religion. The pagans Watts writes about didn’t see it, no doubt because they had so much psychologically invested in the continuation of Roman society, and because all anybody in Rome had known since time out of mind was paganism. I wrote two years ago:

[A]s Watts tells it, in fourth century Rome, the educational system was overwhelmingly pagan, and socialized the students into an overwhelmingly pagan hierarchy. They learned to identify with this, and simply assumed things would always be this way.  This was an educational system designed to educate kids into thinking things would be the way things were for their fathers.

I thought here about what so many Christians have said to me about Christian secondary and university education: that it’s built on the assumptions that things are always going to be the same way for Christians, despite the rapidly changing culture, and that Christian education is about socializing young Christians for leadership in that familiar social order.

Watts says it’s very important to remember that the first 50 years of the lives of the final pagan generation were quite stable in terms of government. Thus they were socialized into believing that things would always be that way. Elites did very well under the stable Constantinian system. Wealth concentrated in their hands. Personal connections became vital to entering and maintaining oneself in the elite classes. Cronyism was common.

By mid-century, when the elites of the FPG (final pagan generation) were well-established in their careers, the state’s attempt to privilege Christianity and marginalize traditional religion picked up. Constantine died in 337, and civil conflict followed. Roman leaders faced pressure from more radical Christians to step up the de-paganization, and tried to walk a balance between their demands and not upsetting the still large pagan population. In 356, Constantius stepped up the anti-pagan laws.

Interestingly, the pagan elites didn’t take all this too seriously, according to Watts. A lot of temples remained open despite Constantius’s orders that they be closed. The emperor’s policies “might have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat.”

Towards the end of his reign, Constantius’s anti-pagan laws grew even stronger, but paganism was still such a vivid and powerful presence in daily life that the pagan elites felt confident that the danger would pass when the emperor did. Watts judges that in retrospect, the elites ought to have stood up to the emperor in some way, to protect their religion. Instead, they chose to take the easier route, protecting their careers and their money-making opportunities by not antagonizing a powerful emperor. That seemed a reasonable bet.

Constantius was succeeded by Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor so called because though he had been raised a Christian, reverted to his ancestral faith, and tried to re-impose paganism on the empire. He failed. The culture, though still dominantly pagan, was moving quickly. More:

What’s interesting about this is that even though daily religious realities for most Romans were not very different than they had ever been, this hid from most people the massive changes that were actually taking place. This seems contemporary to me. Liberals may well see Trump as a Julian the Apostate figure, trying to roll back the progressive Sexual Revolution. And there are certainly conservatives who regard Trump that way, and love that about him. But the cultural changes that have overtaken America, and that are continuing to do so, are fundamental, and aren’t going to be undone by government policy.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians see daily life going on locally much as it always did, with the exception, maybe, that their churches don’t attract as many people. Nothing radical is happening in most places. Maybe they think that a sympathetic president in Washington is going to turn things around for the faith. The situation strikes me as rather like that of the pagan believers in Rome in the 360s.

By the 390s, the strength of paganism had waned so much that Christian bishops began exercising political power to convince Roman officials to actively suppress paganism. Watts writes that when it came to appealing to Roman authorities to protect pagan institutions and practices from the Christians, “the final pagan generation sometimes seemed as influential as the president of Polaroid in the age of the smartphone.”

And yet, writes Watts, the final pagan generation, up to the end, still believed that it was going to last forever for them. Theirs was a failure of imagination. When I hear conservative Christians today talk about the “Constantine Option” — by which they mean making sure that Christians have allies in political power — I recognize that they have a point, but I urge them to consider also the fate of Julian the Apostate. He was every bit the Roman emperor that his ancestor Constantine the Great had been. But it didn’t matter. He was able to suppress Christianity to some degree, but the new religion was too well established to turn back by imperial decree. Political action alone will not stymie an idea whose time has come.

Among the things I said Christians of this “final Christian generation” should do:

  1. Stop thinking that it’s always going to be this way, and that anything short of radical action is sufficient. The mindset of older Christians may actually be a hindrance, because they don’t understand how radically different the world today is.
  2. Do not mistake the presence of Christian churches and symbols in public life for the true condition of Christianity in the hearts and minds of people. Remember, the pagan temples and statues of the gods remained long after paganism was a dead letter.

I also talked about how (drawing on Watts) some of the most creative Christian fourth-century elites withdrew from the world and became monastics. They became a counterculture, in distinction to bishops and secular priests, who were formed by and served the imperial system. “These were the first elites of the fourth century who immunized themselves against the rewards that imperial officials could offer and the punishments that they could inflict,” said Watts. This is not a criticism of bishops and priests, but rather shows that the strengths the monks developed by living outside the system — taking a Benedict Option, so to speak — later proved socially and culturally decisive in the times to come.

Read the whole thing. It’s from 2018, but it is even more relevant today — especially given how many Christians put their faith in Donald Trump to restore the America they knew and loved. The future is not pre-ordained by any means, but if we Christians are going to pass the faith on over the coming generations within this post-Christian culture, we absolutely must learn from history. Our complacency, and our trust in the durability of traditions and institutions, is going to seal our fate. And so will our devotion to optimism, versus  hope based in a realistic assessment of where we stand in this culture today.

Note also the excellent comment I appended to that 2018 piece, by a reader who posts as “Beowulf.” He’s the same reader who sent me the e-mail with which I began this post.

UPDATE: Beowulf adds:

Prediction: folks will not understand the China bit and think I’m tying Christianity to American hegemony. I really mean that as an illustration of how people are blind to see what’s happening and are in denial. I do hope we stand up to China, but I do so qua American not necessarily qua Christian–though they might be entangled when it comes to China.

But watch America in the Pacific. I think it is a good test of people’s abilities to accurately describe what is happening before their eyes. Also, I don’t want to see Catholics lose their church–I am so glad they are out there. I want to see RCC reformed. I just don’t see it happening and we should be prepared for a collapse.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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