It has been said that our world is becoming a “post-Christian” world. This means that, over the course of recent generations, there has been an observed decline in the Church’s influence over society. Christianity is no longer the dominant religion in many places where it used to be, giving way to a secularist worldview under which more and more people are seeing religious faith and morality as not only optional and outdated but even disagreeable.
The concept of morality can be difficult to
define, precisely because of the relativism inherent in post-Christian culture.
In general, in a post-Christian culture, the dominant world-view is no longer founded on Christian principles — or at least we can no longer assume that it will be. The Church no longer shapes the culture. But in a very real sense, this “post-Christian” world is actually coming full circle to resemble the pre-Christian world — the world in which Christians were persecuted because they criticized the ethics of the culture and refused to participate in its idolatrous practices, which involved the exploitation of human beings.
Therefore, the context of the Church in the world is moving increasingly toward what it was before the time of Constantine. This is true especially with regard to the place of religion in society, the values of the dominant culture, and popular conceptions of what is acceptable behavior.
The truth is that many self-proclaimed Christians are joining the paganization of the culture, not to mention the criticism of Christianity itself.
Many Christian denominations in the United States are declining, as participation in a religious community comes to be seen as one optional affiliation among many. For many people, the Church has become a club that they may or may not choose to join.
By raising awareness of the culture’s move toward post-Christianity, we are hoping that self-identifying Christians will accept the call to live according to the historical values of the Church and to promote those values in the culture — something that the Catholic Church has called the “New Evangelization.”H
Post-Christian & Pre-Christian Cultures of Violence
For the moment, one example will suffice to demonstrate how post-Christian culture is similar to pre-Christian culture.
Like the Roman world, our culture is more and more enamored of entertainment that exploits other people. Real violence is available for viewing in our homes — not just the gladiator-like, but also the reality shows and the televised murder trials, complete with gory photographs.
We watch people humiliate themselves, and, in watching, we participate in the loss of their human dignity.
In Roman society this kind of glorification of humiliation and violence contributed to people’s desensitization to suffering, pain, and death, and the same thing is happening now in our culture. Desensitization, in turn, leads to dehumanization, especially of the weak.
We are not talking about fiction, action films, or even video games, but about actual televised violence and humiliation. Watching these troublesome scenes and treating them as entertainment contributes to a lack of empathy caused by the buffer of technology. In other words, when people see traumatic things on a screen, they can dismiss the pain, and indeed the very humanity, of those who are experiencing the painful episodes that are being recorded and disseminated.
Taking a Stand
The Church of the twenty-first century will have to take a stand against the marginalization of religion and the dehumanization of those who are exploited in the name of entertainment. But in doing so, the Church will become fair game for ridicule. Just as she was once criticized for being antisocial — for rejecting some of the cultural elements the Roman people held most dear — she will once again be criticized for refusing to affirm the “rights” and the “choice” of modern secular society, and, indeed, this is already happening.
It has come to the point where even those who choose to have large families are often ridiculed and called irresponsible, as though they should naturally share a value that says more children are a burden on society and should naturally want to prevent children from being born.
It used to be that devotion to God was respected, even by those who did not practice religious faith. Admittedly, some of the erosion of respect for clergy is owing to the clergy who have abused their positions, and this reaction is understandable. Yet it is now commonplace to assume that aberrant clergy are the rule rather than the exception, to the point where it has become acceptable to take every opportunity to criticize religion and religious leaders.
The emerging religion of the current empire is a secular one, very much like the civic religion of the Roman Empire — one in which people value their freedom to indulge in whatever they please but will compromise religious freedom if they perceive that religious people might critique or curtail their personal freedom.
The point here is not to compare the United States to the Roman Empire. That has been done, with varying degrees of success. The point is to highlight the similarities between the pre-Christian world (the world before the legalization of Christianity) and the new post-Christian world, because both the pre-Christian world and the post-Christian world are anti-Christian.
The values of the pre-Christian and post-Christian worlds are different from Christian values, and that difference makes the Christian lifestyle stand out; that difference makes Christians the target of criticism by those who perceive Christian values as being a threat to their understanding of personal freedom.
To be sure, in U.S. culture, even in a post-Christian world, persecution of the Church has so far been nonviolent. Rather, it is subtler—what might be called cultural persecution. Nevertheless, the choice of loyalty to Christ versus Caesar (that is, Christ versus culture) is being confronted again, in some of the same ways it once was, and in some new ways.
Increasingly, Christians must live as cultural salmon, swimming upstream, and branded with labels such as “unenlightened,” “closed-minded,” and “rigid” — labels that are being used to marginalize the faithful. Such is the hypocrisy of ultra-tolerance. In a world where it is politically correct to preach tolerance for all, tradition seems to be exempt from that so-called tolerance. Tradition and traditional values, which are perceived to threaten the absolute freedoms of some, are simply labeled intolerant and no longer need to be tolerated.
It seems as if the only sin left is to claim that something is a sin. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets [martyrs] who were before you” (Matt. 5:11–12).
Having said all that, we do not intend to point fingers and breed more distrust. The last thing the world needs is more “us versus them” rhetoric. Christians are called to convert the world; we are to promote reconciliation, not division. The Church must model the tolerance that the world refuses to grant, even to the point of being tolerant of those who choose to be nonreligious. When secularism becomes a religion, however, as it has in our own time, the criticism that Christians are unenlightened cannot be allowed to be used to bully the religious into conformity with a secular ideology. In other words, tolerance must work both ways, and the charge of intolerance must not be used to justify intolerance.
As we move further into a post-Christian world, the solution we propose is that we follow the example of the early Christians, who had never known a world in which Christianity was aligned with the dominant culture. We are not trying to foster animosity; we are trying to promote participation in the work of God in the world. Ironically, as that work becomes more difficult in a world that refuses to follow the lead of the Church, the work will become clearer because it will stand out in contrast with the culture.
Gone are the days when it was fashionable, or even acceptable, to be a Christian. Although a majority of people in First World countries self-identify as Christian, many of these self-proclaimed Christians are joining in the Church bashing. Those who embrace the values of their faith in a world where doing so is frowned upon are the ones who will witness by their example. And people will see that they are willing to risk the comforts of conformity for the sake of something bigger — a life larger-than-life — the kingdom of God.
This article is adapted from a chapter in How Christianity Saved Civilization…and Must Do So Again. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.