On the Christian Mission

A passage that has haunted me, one related to readings at the end of the liturgical year, is found in Herbert Deane’s book on Augustine. It reads: “As history draws to a close, the number of true Christians in the world will decline rather than increase. His (Augustine’s) words give no support to the hope that the world will gradually be brought to believe in Christ and that earthly society can be transformed, step by step, into the kingdom of God on earth.” Without too much exaggeration, the modern world is built on the supposition that Augustine was wrong. Man’s “mission” is to bring about the kingdom of God, on earth, by ourselves. This “mission” is the rationale of modernity.

Everywhere we look in Europe and America, Christians are abandoning their faith. Philip Jenkins tells us that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in some parts of the world. We hear reports of Christian house communities in China. But we also see the remnants of Middle Eastern Christianity being literally wiped out, not just the people, but their buildings, books, and homes. Much is done here in the West to prevent calling it a persecution of (specifically) Christians by self-identified Muslims.

Yet we read in Revelation 13: “Since you alone are holy, all nations will come and worship in your presence.” Quite obviously such a gathering of nations will not happen in this world. Indeed, novels like those by Robert Hugh Benson and Michael O’Brien presuppose that, in the end, all nations will gather against Christ, that only a tiny remnant, if that, will remain. Justice will not come about within time.

Josef Pieper put the matter this way in Tradition as Challenge: “The end of our finite history will not be simply identical with the ‘victory’ of reason, or of the good, or justice, or even of Christianity and the Church; the last epoch directly preceding the transformation of the temporal order as a whole will, on the contrary – to put it briefly – be characterized by some sort of pseudo-order embracing the whole planet and sustained by the rule of force.”

Originally, I assumed this final “rule of force” would control our free actions. But looking at our universities and media, the first order of control will rather be over language, over enforcing rules against “hate speech.” It will forbid by law and force any expression, hence any chance of coordination, counter-action, any expression of normal humanity or of specific Christian purposes. It is what Aristotle meant by a tyrant’s controlling friendships.

Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli, 1494 [Uffizi Gallery, Florence]

Men or women brought up adopted by single-sex parents will be forbidden to say that their experience was harmful. Christians will not be allowed to state what the Scripture says about sins or disorders of soul lest those practicing them be “offended.” To depict divorce or abortion as evil will be seen as a violation of “rights.” Race or class, not reason, will govern. Anyone who “feels” bad, no matter what they do to cause problems, will be able to silence any criticism of their action. The notion that we should “correct” our brother is an assumption of superiority and a violation of equality.

“People dispute the idea that they have a nature given by their bodily identity that serves as a defining element of the human being,” Robert Cardinal Sarah has written in God or Nothing:

They deny their nature and decide that it is not something that is previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. Thus duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as being ordained by God. The very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed.

In that perspective, reality does not determine truth. Will decides. The unraveling of society begins when nature is not seen to contain an intelligence that indicates to us what we are.

So I do not think that we can build a kingdom of God in this world. Nor do I think the distinctions of man and woman, or good and evil, are arbitrary, made by our own wills. Why then do I entitle these reflections “On the Christian Mission”? Many Christians, even at the highest levels, have implicitly accepted the “modern project.”

But Augustine and Pieper were right about the end times. Only the bravest, at the cost of their lives and status, will be able to speak what reality entails. The world is not going to be “converted.” What is going to happen is what is happening. The content of the Christian mission is to be found in those words that are not allowed to be spoken freely and publicly among men, words about what it is to be human, about what is right, about what is wrong.

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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