Does Christianity exist?

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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