The Catholic Thing
Does Christianity exist? Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Wednesday, 10 June 2009

After President Obama’s Cairo lecture to the “Muslim World,” we may be permitted to wonder if a corresponding “Christian world” exists. If a unified “Muslim World” is the audience to whom the president spoke, it conceives its long-range task to subject all the world to Allah and his law. St. Ignatius, in one of his meditations, imagined us lined up behind the banner of Christ to go forth and conqueror the world against the legions of Satan. In the new paradigm, such military analogies become mute. No more “marching forth” is to be heard in any land. We are all brothers now. We have apologized for everything. Everything is, yes, “changed.” Peace in our time is upon us.

This Christian world came to mind while reading the remarkable interview with the great French scholar, Rémi Brague, in his new book The Legend of the Middle Ages (University of Chicago, 2009). The interview is full of amazing things about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the modern age. I want to comment on the last point raised by the interviewer: “Why do you remain Christian?” Brague is amused – at the question itself.

For Brague, the question presupposes that “Christians are a rearguard made up of people who haven’t caught on yet.” All is over for them. Only dullards do not know. In Europe, are the Christian churches “declining?” In fact, in Europe, Europeans are “declining” faster than Christians.

Brague cites a 1944 essay of Benedetto Croce, “Why We Cannot Not Call Ourselves ‘Christians.’” The answer was that all that was worthwhile in Christianity is now found in modern secularism. To deny secularism is to deny its Christian roots. But modern secularism also eliminated things intrinsic to Christianity, like, among other things, the Incarnation and some of the Ten Commandments.

Brague is not pleased with the terms “Christian heritage of Europe” or “Christian civilization.” What is the problem? Briefly, “Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’” Just imagine Peter and Paul worried about the decline of Christendom! What interested them was “Christ” Himself. What did His presence in the world mean for our own lives? “Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself.” Christianity is a cultural abstraction which, as such, merits no “belief.”

Eventually, Christianity was translated into institutions, but it took a long time. Brague uses the example of “the consent of the engaged couple” as the basis of marriage. The Church delayed a long time before arriving at this exact point. Monogamous marriage was an “innovation.” A contract between families was traditional. Brague cites the parents of St. John of the Cross as an example of this conflict between marriage as a contract and as consent.

The question is often posed: If Christianity has been around a long time, why is so little of the world Christian? Is this a failure, a decline? By what criteria? Still, Christianity may not have had time to translate its teachings into “institutions.” Then follows the last sentence in the interview: “I have the impression that instead we are all at the beginning stages of Christianity.” That is a surprising conclusion, though several “Christian civilizations” have already disappeared by war, by attrition, or by just giving up.

In Salt of the Earth, Joseph Ratzinger remarked: “Christianity, in fact, does not have such a notion that history necessarily always progresses, that, in other words, things are always getting better for mankind.” The reason for this caution is that “history” is not independent of the choices of actual human persons who must decide whether or not to live a Christian life.

In fact, Ratzinger remarked it may be time to say good-bye to traditional Catholic cultures. The Church of the future may be like the mustard seed. The Church will exist in “small, seemingly insignificant groups that, nonetheless, live an intensive struggle against evil.” That view would, no doubt, be compatible with Brague’s hesitation about past Christian civilizations.

Christianity is in danger of being assimilated into a humanism á la the “spirit” of Vatican II: “The danger of a dictatorship of opinion is growing, and anyone who doesn’t share the prevailing opinion is excluded, so that even good people no longer dare to stand by such nonconformists.” This comment applies to those who still stand by the Church on life issues over against those who have “accommodated” themselves with anti-life policies.

“Any future anti-Christian dictatorship would probably be much more subtle than anything we have known until now. It will appear to be friendly to religion, but on the condition that its own models of behavior and thinking not be called into question.” Such a passage sounds like what we hear daily in the media about a new age of peace and unity.

The question must be asked again: “Why do you remain Christian?” Because modern secularism does not include the Incarnation.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
Divine Chastisement?
written by Willie, June 11, 2009
. We have heard recently from high up that we are no longer a Christian country. Are we being told that the wave of the future is toward Islam? For sure, population replacement is in that direction, as we kill our future by anti-Christian"freedom of choice" Whatever will the radical feminists do under Sharia law.In Western civilization there is a marked reduction in moral truth and a repudiation of first principles.The idea of family has been prostituded. Is the fiber of our past now gone?
written by Steve G., June 11, 2009
Having returned from a business trip to the Middle East this morning, I would encourage my Catholic brothers and sisters not to treat Islam like an evil monolith, tempted though we might be to return to a Medieval mindset. The "Muslim world" is as diverse as Christianity. Obama's speech was received as a sign of basic respect (similar to that of when Pope John Paul II kissed a Koran). A little known fact: Mary is respected in Islam and mentioned more in the Koran than the Bible
written by Joe, June 11, 2009
One thing I dont understand is the peacful nature of the religion that speaks of killing infidels. Jesus never spoke of killing.
written by Achilles, June 12, 2009
Steve G, there are many nice guys in the KKK too, and quite a bit of diversity. Evil monolith? no, but let's not set up the picnic just yet. THe "mideval mindset" comment applied to those who see the shortcomings of the Islamic worldview is little more than an ad-homonym fallacy.
written by Adam, June 13, 2009
Briefly, “Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’” Just imagine Peter and Paul worried about the decline of Christendom! What interested them was “Christ” Himself. What did His presence in the world mean for our own lives? “Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself.” Christianity is a cultural abstraction."

Sounds like the indictment of Christianity brought by Kierkegaard... although more charitable in this case?
written by Steven, June 16, 2009
The question must be asked again: “Why do you remain Christian?”

And I answer "Because it is true."

Because modern secularism does not include the Incarnation.

Nor would it, because we know who the ruler of the present darkness is. We must lose our attachment to the assumptions of secularism and learn from our traditions. We must study the past and fill ourselves with the waters of grace that flow from the heart of our Lord into all the world.

Let us be on our way, then.

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