The 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was preoccupied with the problem of “becoming a Christian in Christendom”: that is, the problem of following Jesus in a society where Christianity was simply the done thing, expected (at least nominally) of any respectable person. Where, in such a world, was the risk and sacrifice of living alongside the Crucified Messiah? How could authentic faith exist in a society determined to render it safe and domesticated?
In the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed a new, but related problem: that of being a Christian in a post-Christian culture, convinced it has progressed beyond Jesus and the Church. The world, in Chesterton’s words, thinks the faith has “been tried and found wanting,” when it has only “been found difficult and left untried.”
This dilemma develops logically from Kierkegaard’s problem: where the Gospel was once identified with the status quo and taken for granted, it is now identified with the past and dismissed. In response, Chesterton was at pains to show that Christian orthodoxy is not a historical relic, but an “eternal revolution” – a source of constant renewal and endless life. Our faith proposes the convergence of time and eternity; a Christian looks to what is past because it may provide an image of what is timeless.
We now live, to a degree, with both problems: the Kierkegaardian problem of a stagnant Christendom, and the Chestertonian dilemma of an “eternal revolution” appearing outdated in the eyes of the world.
Kierkegaard’s diagnosis still applies, and will apply insofar as Western culture remains residually Christian. As long as faith in Jesus appears conventional and safe, we will have the Kierkegaardian quandary of “becoming a Christian in Christendom.”
But Chesterton’s warning accords increasingly with the new cultural reality in which the Gospel is seen as obsolete. This problem emerges in a world whose central myth is that of evolutionary progress: nothing is fixed for all time; the new is always more advanced than the old, and Christianity is supposedly “old.”
Combined, the two realities pose a unique challenge. It is the challenge of a world where belief in Jesus no longer seems revolutionary, but can be regarded – approvingly or dismissively – as the symbol of a past status quo. Some want that past back; others want it gone; but all seem to agree in seeing it as “past.”
This is a surprising commonality between today’s cultural “conservatives” and “progressives.” Though they draw different conclusions from the fact, both groups tend to see Christianity as “That Old Time Religion”: not a faith pointing toward eternity, but a symbol – for good or ill – of history.
Some cultural combatants want to restore the bourgeoisie form of “Christendom” that Kierkegaard attacked. They prefer the world that conflated faith with social convention, a “churchgoing world” of cultural cohesion. “It wasn’t perfect,” they may acknowledge, “but it was better than the mess we have today!”
For others, however, Christian orthodoxy appears not so much false as outmoded. “Jesus was a great teacher, and we can still learn from him,” they may say, “but the world has moved on. Spirituality evolves, as humanity does; we know now that no set of beliefs can be definitive for all times and places.”
Both of these attitudes toward Christianity – nostalgic conservatism and dismissive progressivism – are shallow. Neither reflects an understanding of what the Messiah came to accomplish: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49)
Yet these misapprehensions correspond to the main cultural currents of our time: a move away from faith, in the name of “progress”; and an opposite insistence on holding to religion as part of a fight to preserve the past. These trends, both based on a misunderstanding of Christian orthodoxy, line up fairly well with our cultural-political Left and Right.
As a believer in Christ, naturally, I have more sympathy with one of those currents than the other: in a pinch, given only two choices – to see our faith lukewarmly respected in the name of “tradition,” or to see it washed away under the banner of “progress” – I will choose the first without much hesitation.
What disturbs me is that these should apparently be the only two choices. What is frustratingly lacking, at least on any substantial cultural scale, is a sense of how traditional Christian orthodoxy could be a force for something other than the conservation of a status quo or the restoration of some past reality.
Kierkegaard and Chesterton were quite different thinkers: an idiosyncratic Protestant and an outspoken Catholic, a solitary and a bon vivant. But both of them, in different ways, grasped this central problem: the dilemma of Christianity being viewed as “Old Time Religion” rather than the Divine Revolution.
On the one hand, the world does not seem to want the revolution Christ has brought. The world wants change and progress on its own terms: quantitative and visible, linear and comprehensible, popular and utilitarian. Thus, it will discredit the Kingdom of God by any means necessary – including the modern tactic of casting Jesus and the Church as antiquated. Chesterton’s insight, in this regard, is quite correct.
Yet on the other hand, one may wonder whether many Christians actually want the “eternal revolution” that Jesus brings: the revolution that reveals the Kingdom of God and accomplishes the spiritual remaking of man, not only at the end of time but here and now.
Was Kierkegaard not correct to diagnose a cancer of mediocrity among us? Can we read the Acts of the Apostles and not feel pricked in our consciences? Could our religion even become, in the worst case, a way of keeping God at arm’s length, to remain at a safe distance from “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29)?
These are questions for our individual and collective consciences. We are accountable to the One who has said: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
It is wrong to identify Christian faith as “revolutionary” in a worldly sense, as if it were only a means for attaining certain temporal goals. Yet it is equally wrong to act as though our faith were primarily a counter-revolutionary or conservative force.
Christianity is principally a revolution from within: a renewal and reshaping of man’s inner life – and consequently, his entire way of living – through communion with the Incarnate God. It is the spiritual melting-down and re-forging of humanity, in the furnace of Christ’s Paschal Mystery.
And this inner revolution, when it occurs, cannot remain purely private. It is to become manifest: through self-sacrificing love, all-encompassing solidarity, and a re-sacralized relationship to the whole creation.
If our faith is not transformative, then it is nothing: it would be only an assemblage of precepts and observances, combined with a set of obscure, inaccessibly abstract doctrines.
Unfortunately, that is exactly how Christianity appears to many outsiders – and perhaps even some frustrated adherents! – in our time. And one cannot place all of the blame for that perception upon them. If our lives show no sign of Christ’s transforming power, then we are witnesses against the truth rather than for it.
In his challenge to the Church, Kierkegaard was fundamentally correct: a complacent, self-satisfied “Christendom” may be in a worse spiritual state than an unevangelized society. If we claim that God’s Messianic Kingdom is present among us, the world expects to see something more than just another religious institution going through the motions from week to week. The sins of believers are a scandal to the outside world; but our respectable mediocrity is at least as scandalous, if not moreso.
It is likewise scandalous, that Christians should regarded in the public square as if they were primarily the partisans of convention and the “Old Time Religion.” There are things in our civilizational heritage that should be conserved; but our faith is not a defensive, rear-guard action against modernity. Chesterton, who resented being called a “conservative,” was right in this regard: Christians should care about the “permanent things” – virtue, beauty, truth – not because they are old, but because they are always new.
Monasticism, the vocation I am pursuing, is a good example of this. Tradition regulates the monk’s life: he prays the services as they have been prayed for centuries; he adheres to customs dating back a millennium or more. Yet the overarching goal is an ongoing inner renewal. Tradition is not an immersion in the past, but the gateway to that absolute Reality which is eternal and timeless – the reality of God.
Tradition is needed, both in the Church and in society at large; but it is not an end in itself. Paradoxically, we need tradition for the sake of constant renewal. Tradition is meant to wake us up, to change us, to unite us with the Lord who “makes all things new.” It is a leaven and not simply a preservative.
Christ is the reconciler of all things that should be harmonious, yet have fallen into discordance. In him, and his holy Church, man’s instincts toward both tradition and revolution – instincts in constant tension with each other, in the ordinary human world – are reconciled to one another, and both are fulfilled. Stability and creativity become compatible and interdependent.
A Christian revolution – a social and cultural manifestation of the Eternal Kingdom – cannot take place without the historic Christian tradition. But that tradition, reciprocally, cannot be practiced in truth without at least the implicit desire for such a revolution: the revolution of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, the revolution that frees us definitively from the prison of ourselves and our sins.
The world does not want such a revolution; and that is to be expected. But if the Church does not want God’s revolution, then we have a much more serious problem on our hands – a crisis that can only be overcome through bold acts of faith and love.