Simple Post-Christianity

The post-Christian world, Blessed John Henry Newman would have quickly pointed out, is still the world, and the ways worldliness challenges us remain as they were when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. The fundamental things don’t change. All that changes is the context in which they operate upon us.

In one way we live in a new type of society, one that once assumed, and to some extent lived out, much of the Christian vision of reality and now doesn’t do so nearly as much. Christianity lost a great deal of its social status and some of its role as a kind of soft foundation for Western society.

The change appears in many ways, most recently in the rapid loss of the social consensus in favor of marriage as it has been understood and in the rising popularity in the major media of cheap attacks on religion, and Christianity in particular. This is not the world of my youth in a New England college town in the seventies, much less the world of my parents’ or my grandparents’ youths.

But in another way, the more important way, we live in the same society as did St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure in the height of the high Middle Ages. The world, the flesh, and the devil were as hard at work then as they are now. Christians then were tempted to live as if God had not spoken just as much as we are now, even if the ways they were tempted to do that assumed a Christian way of speaking.

But there’s still a difference, and I want to address one particular difference that affects how we present our faith. The post-Christian world is, I think, a simpler world than the one it succeeded. Having shoved God out the door, the world has eliminated all the complications that belief in God brings to our thinking and to our lives.

To get at the truth, we often have to hold two apparently contradictory truths at once. The Christian life and message depend upon this mental operation, one that the post-Christian world thinks unnecessary. Without it, we can only come to the wrong answers to all the questions that affect human happiness in this world as well as in the next.

We see this simplification most easily in the simple basic answers many people give to vexing intellectual questions. Christians and post-Christians answer the problem of evil in two different ways, for example, when we have to ask how God could be both perfect and all-powerful, given the brute fact of suffering. We have rational reasons to believe in God, and good reasons to believe that the Church tells us the truth about God’s infinite love for us, but on the other hand we have a world filled with horrors. Theologically and personally, this question of evil is not an easy question to answer.

The Christian world said, “The problem has an answer that accepts the reality of evil and the goodness of God, even if we can’t see it.” The post-Christian world shouts, “Children with leukemia!” and thinks it has solved the problem. Good people suffer, therefore God doesn’t exist, period, end of story, so sleep in on Sunday morning. The world feels no tension between the two apparently contradictory truths, no reason to hold them in tension until (if ever) one finds an answer. The answer to the problem of evil, the post-Christian world thinks, is very simple: God doesn’t exist. It’s not really a problem at all.

Its most penetrating representatives think this, anyway. The rest of our post-Christian society still believes in God, but not in the God of classic Christian belief or of the philosophers. He’s more a kind and powerful force that wishes us well but can’t do all that much about the way our lives go. You can’t blame this God for evil. He’s not the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. He’s really the Great Uncle. And so the problem of evil isn’t really a problem at all for these people either.

Yet, as Newman would add, even the post-Christian world doesn’t really give up on Christianity. We tend to think that our secular neighbors have either rejected the truth or just not seen it; and the problem is either their hardness of heart or our failure to tell them. Newman would say that when the world shoved God out the door—as many of his smartest peers were doing in his day, and quite successfully too—it left the door open a crack and that it still listens to Him, but only listens to part of what He says and gets some of what it does hear wrong.

The world has never opposed religion as such, wrote Newman. In fact, it has always “acknowledged in one sense or other the Gospel of Christ, fastened on one or other of its characteristics, and professed to embody this in its practice.” In Newman’s day, people did this mostly by arguing as Christians, though sometimes claiming to be the ones keeping alive the real or the pure Christianity. In ours they do it mostly without such an appeal and often while believing themselves to have disposed of Christianity entirely.

You find people fastened on some Christian characteristic in the most unexpected places. That most energetic (and shallowest) enemy of Christianity Ayn Rand, for example. “Even when cheating on each other,” one critic of hers wrote, the characters in her books “ooze Rand’s version of morality. Rand’s adulterous spouses don’t have a roll in the hay; they realize each other’s uppermost values, which certainly seems less dirty.”1

Even Rand, the author of a book called The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, could not have her characters merely acting out of lust or desire. She rejected the Christian idea of chastity but kept the Christian idea that the couple were to serve each other’s good. Sexual intimacy had to be directed to an end beyond mere pleasure.

The post-Christian won’t say this, but unless he’s a thorough-growing nihilist—and very few people can manage this—he lives by some vaguely Christian belief. He doesn’t know it, because he doesn’t know how different Christianity is from the alternatives. He only sees how different his thoughts are from the religion of his fathers. They held dim views of homosexual activity; he affirms gay people in their desire to be married. They followed authority; he makes up his own mind (he thinks). They expected help from some supernatural force; he knows he’s on his own.

He doesn’t see how much he still thinks as a Christian, because he doesn’t know how different his world still is from the paganism of the world in which Christianity began. The Romans didn’t have our belief in human dignity, a belief the post-Christian probably thinks is the fruit of Enlightenment humanism overcoming Christian dogmatism a few hundred years ago, when in fact it was the fruit of Christianity overcoming paganism about seventeen hundred years ago.

The father of the Roman family had the power of life and death over his wife, his children, and his slaves. The slaves had to submit to the family’s sexual demands. Female newborns were often left to die because the family did not need another girl, girls being less useful than boys. This Christianity rejected and we enjoy the result today. No post-Christian, no matter how much he hates Christianity, wants to return to the family as it was under the Romans. He can’t even imagine such a thing, because he still thinks about the dignity of the individual as a Christian.

At first one thinks that this is better than nothing. At least the secularist is holding on to something of Christianity. But Newman saw the effect. “By neglecting the other parts of the holy doctrine,” he wrote, the world “has, in fact, distorted and corrupted even that portion of it which it has exclusively put forward, and so has contrived to explain away the whole.” It’s created an airplane with one wing or a mathematical equation with nothing to the right of the equal sign.

The modern world, G. K. Chesterton wrote one hundred years ago, when a good portion of the intelligentsia was already what we now call post-Christian, “is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Humanitarians today tend to speak of the poor as if they were only victims, not people who make moral choices. They so pity the poor that they do not want to say anything that might blame them for their suffering, and quite understandably, too. On the other side are people who see the poor as entirely responsible for their own poverty—and see themselves as entirely responsible for their own success.

Both neglect the realities of society—the sort of binding conditions that St. Paul lamented when he said that the good he wanted to do he could not do and the bad he did not want to do he did. (He was speaking of a spiritual condition, but the insight applies here.) The first, over-emphasizing pity, cannot help the poor as much as they’d like. The second, over-emphasizing responsibility, will not help them at all.

Chesterton describes the atheist editor of a popular magazine, who

attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy.

We see this destructive imbalance in the debate over abortion. Some of those arguing for abortion do so because the sexual life they think normative requires it, for if people have sex they will sometimes find themselves pregnant with children they don’t want. But others seem driven by compassion for the pregnant women for whom the pregnancy is a disaster. They feel real compassion, but their compassion isn’t balanced by an accurate understanding of the human person, in particular the human person whose life is ended in the exercise of that compassion.

We see it also in the debate over capital punishment. Some of those arguing for the practice do so because they feel a justified revulsion against hideous crimes and think society’s proper response is to execute the criminal. They feel a real sense of justice, but it is not balanced by a sense of charity for the criminal or, if they are Catholic, a sense of submission to magisterial teaching on the subject.

We see it too in the post-Christian answer to the problem of evil. The post-Christian answer eliminates the problem of God and evil, but it doesn’t eliminate the experience of evil. People still suffer, and the post-Christian answer takes away the only possible source of comfort and solace. You might say that at least people now know the truth, but the cost is despair. The Christian, who knows the answer can be found, will be offer hope even if he cannot give an answer that the suffering person finds intellectually convincing.

In this post-Christian simplification of complex truths lies a calling and an opportunity. The calling requires us to hold to the apparently contradictory truths even if we can’t reconcile them and to keep looking for the answer. If you love the Lord and his Church, you know that there is an answer to the problem of evil, even if none of the ones you’ve read satisfy you. This is harder than it sounds. The world is too much with us.

The opportunity comes to us because many people intuitively know the world is more complicated than the simple answers suggest. They may find themselves more open to the Christian answer when they see clearly post-Christianity’s simple answer. It is easy to decide that one can’t believe in God when the question is abstract, another to hold that belief when you’ve seen that the post-Christian answer does not help.

I don’t want to sound entirely negative about the post-Christian mind. It rightly expects an answer from Christianity and a better one that we tended to give when our society held some soft form of Christian belief. That’s to our good as well as the world’s.

1 Gary Weiss, Ayn Rand Nation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012), 72.