The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.
Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)
He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.
As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.
I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”
That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.
I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”
We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.
So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.
If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.
All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.
We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.
Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.
And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.
Sunday before the Elevation of the Cross, September 11, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“Nothing will ever be the same.” So went the refrain again and again and again on September 11, 2001, and for weeks and now years following. I also clearly remember Dan Rather just saying over and over again, “There are no words.” Some people called it “the day the world changed.” Almost everyone seems to agree that the 9/11 attacks were a watershed moment in history.
Certainly, there is now a whole industry dedicated to supporting that claim. Books, movies, TV and radio specials, an almost endless array of columns, articles, analysis, conspiracy theories—all these things shout out in a cacophonous symphony playing one melody: “Nothing will ever be the same.” And the rhythm underneath it all is the drums of war. Our armed forces have been sent by our leaders into at least sixteen different countries since those attacks, with varying results.
No matter what one’s views are about foreign policy, military interventionism, Islamic Jihadism, the “War on Terror,” the effect on personal liberties of the Patriot Act, etc., as Orthodox Christians we have a unique perspective on what the meaning of events like the 9/11 attacks really is.
For one thing, a major part of what gave 9/11 such a cultural impact was its sheer scale, that nearly 3000 people died in those attacks, and another 6000 were injured. Those deaths and injuries were indeed terrible, and many stories of genuine heroism emerged in the aftermath.
The impact of 9/11 is also great because it is the first large-scale attack on mainland American soil in living memory. There was a strong sense of vulnerability that resulted from hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and also downing in the fields of the western part of our state. How could such a thing happen here? I thought we were safe. This doesn’t happen to America.
As Orthodox Christians we have an ecclesial memory of numerous instances when many thousands of Christians died for their faith—the nearly 2600 beheaded with St. Andrew the Commander, the 9000 killed with St. Ia of Persia (whose feast is today), the more than 11,000 killed with St. Meletius the Commander, the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia (burned for their faith), and let us not forget the untold millions killed in the 20th century in Communist Eastern Europe. We are a Church defined by martyrdom. We know what it means for there to be a holocaust, a great sacrifice of people for some evil cause.
At the same time, we Orthodox Christians have a strong tradition of facing death squarely in the eye, of not feeling safe and secure and comfortable. Death can take any of us at any time, whether in the sudden immolation or crush of a flaming ruin in the heart of Manhattan or through the decay of cancer or an accident on the highway. Truly, none of us has the guarantee of a long, comfortable life. And whenever that death does take place, our funeral service is honest and straightforward about it, not glossing things over with nothing but praise for the deceased, but a serious and honest confrontation with the horror of death and what its spiritual meaning is.
With all of that in mind, can we say that “nothing will ever be the same”? Did 9/11 fundamentally alter the course of all history?
It is certainly true that 9/11 altered the course of many people’s lives, and not just the ones that have made a career out of the 9/11 industry. Thousands died, and many thousands more will mourn for years to come. But is it true that nothing will ever be the same?
We can alter our foreign policy. We can take different approaches to relations with Muslims and the nations which are their homes. We can choose a different use for our military. We can approach civil liberties differently. As a democratic, representative republic, those things are not unalterable. They do not have to remain the same. But, in a deeper sense, will nothing ever be the same?
I think that such a claim is fundamentally myopic. For one thing, there are many nations on earth where thousands of people have died and continue to die. Such attacks may be a surprise on American soil, but for some places in the world, they have been a way of life for decades. And we know that history is replete with too many great massacres to name. So while we should never impugn the memory of those who were sacrificed on 9/11, we must also take a larger view of our history, of the world in general, and more critically, a larger view of human history.
You see, there has indeed been a moment when nothing would ever be the same. It is not the union of the Greek city-states by Alexander the Great. It is not the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana that stretched from the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the East to Great Britain in the West. It is not the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is not the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is not World War I or World War II. All of those major turning points in human history can and probably will be turned again. Even our American empire will someday contract and then fall.
The moment when human history irrevocably turned, when nothing truly will ever be the same again, was that moment that we are about to celebrate this week in the Church. It is the moment of the death of God.
If you want to know what it is that sets us apart as Orthodox Christians from the rest of the world, this is it: God became man, and God died. One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh. And because God is immortal, when He died as a mortal man, He broke the power of death. And then He passed on the power to conquer death to His Apostles, who have passed it on to us.
Orthodox Christianity is about coming face to face with death, grappling with death, and wrestling it to the ground. It is not about accommodation to this world. Those who prefer to be accommodated to this world will always be utterly devastated by moments like 9/11, because they cut so sharply into the comfortable complacency of a consumerist culture. For them, it is true that nothing will ever be the same. But those who will not surrender, those who will not be defeated by death or by the world that death holds in its thrall, those who have put on Christ and struggle to put on Christ every day—they cannot be destroyed.
Be sure of this: We are indeed engaged in a war. But it is not a war against grasping politicians, tyrannical dictators, or fundamentalist terrorists. As Orthodox Christians, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12). We are engaged with much deeper and darker spiritual forces than even the nineteen Jihadists of 9/11 who set it in their minds to slaughter our countrymen were trying to conjure up.
Because we do indeed live on this earth and in time, we as part of an earthly nation must face the real threats that come our way. But as a heavenly nation, the royal priesthood of the Church, our greatest attention must be on those great spiritual threats, the threats of complacency, of secularism, of accommodation to this world. If we do not remain vigilant, if we do not constantly train ourselves to embrace Christ’s death on the Cross and therefore conquer death with Him, then we will be conquered by death, as evil takes deeper root in our hearts.
If anything, 9/11 was a great wake-up call to America that our comfort and complacency can be shaken by people who have strong wills. I don’t care if it takes 9/11 or something else, but we ourselves are being called upon to wake up, not so much to the temporal threats of those who can destroy bodies, but rather to the destruction that can be wreaked upon our souls.
Is your soul in ruins? Can you look at your spiritual life and say that it is not just “pretty good” (which is not a spiritual life at all!) but truly alive? Today, on this tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us remember the suffering and the dead. But let us also remember the path to Life, which is by joining ourselves to the Cross of Christ and thus to His conquest over death.
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.