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With eyes wide open to the degradation we see all around us, we know that things are rotten in the modern world. Who can deny it? And yet there are more Christians in the world today than there have ever been in the past. The Church is not dead.
Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. —G. K. Chesterton (From The Everlasting Man)
There are two types of progressives. There are those who think that things are getting progressively better and those who think that they are getting progressively worse.
“One class of popular writers are perpetually telling us that the world has always been growing better and better,” wrote Chesterton; “others, rather less popular, that it has for some time been growing steadily worse. Personally, I cannot understand anybody thinking it has ever grown steadily anything.”[*] Reality is not in the process of becoming, whether we wish to perceive it as becoming better or worse, but, on the contrary, it simply is. The laws that govern reality are unchanging and unchangeable. Original Sin is as much an integral and integrated part of the cosmos as are the laws of thermodynamics and, in consequence, it cannot be extricated or repaired by any man-made progress. We cannot progress beyond what we are, i.e. fallen beings made in the image of God, and no technological progress or ideological innovation is going to alter the fact. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The more things change, the more they remain the same.
And yet, in spite of such assertions, doesn’t the evidence of our own eyes suggest otherwise? Can’t we see that things are falling apart? Hasn’t the decay set in? Is there not something truly rotten in the modern world?
Yes indeed. The evidence speaks for itself. With eyes wide open to the degradation we see all around us, we know that things are rotten in the modern world. Who can deny it? And yet something is truly rotten in the modern world because there is something truly rotten in the heart of man; or, to put the matter in Shakespearean and therefore perennial terms, there is something rotten in the state of Denmark because there is something rotten in the state of man. That “something rotten” is what theologians call sin, the father of which is that narcissistic self-deification which theologians call pride. It is pride that rots the heart of man and it is pride that degrades man’s relationship with his neighbours.
This sorry and sordid reality plays itself out in every generation of human history. The Canaanites sacrificed their own children to bloodthirsty gods. Herod slaughtered the innocent. Caesar rendered unto himself the blood of the martyrs. And this slaughter that is ancient is the same as the slaughter that is new. From the Armenian genocide to the Rwandan genocide, we kill each other in the name of race. From the guillotines of the French Revolution to the gulags of the communist revolution, we kill each other in the name of class. And like the Canaanites we sacrifice our own children, slaughtering them to lustful gods in the name of “planned parenthood.” No, nothing changes. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
And yet one thing changes all this changelessness. Once upon a time, something happened that changed and changes everything. God Himself became one with us in the person of Jesus Christ. He was like us in all things except sin. Unafflicted by the inner-rottenness which corrupts all things, he was and is a light in the darkness. And yet the darkness comprehends him not. Indeed, it hates everything about him. It hates him for his love, which is inseparable from his cross. It despises his goodness. It denies his truth. It is blind to his beauty. It refuses his way. It spurns his life, preferring death. It crucifies him. It slaughters the Innocent One as it slaughters the innocent millions.
There is, however, one crucial difference between the slaughter of the Innocent One and the slaughter of the millions of other innocent victims of the culture of death. This crucial difference, the very crux of the matter, is the crux itself. The very cross on which the Innocent One is sacrificed becomes the veritable altar on which we are saved from death by the sacrificial victim himself. The Innocent One washes us white with his own spotless blood. But what does this mean? Clearly it doesn’t save us from suffering. It doesn’t stem the flow of innocent victims, put to death relentlessly, century by bloody century, by the forces of pride. It doesn’t save any of us from physical death. What exactly does it mean?
It means that the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows that led Christ to Golgotha, becomes the way to the Resurrection, the path to a Life which is forever beyond the power of death and darkness. Taking up our own crosses, with his help, and following him on the path of suffering, becomes the means by which we overcome the cause of suffering, which is our own sin and the sins of others. We see this in the witness of the saints and martyrs but also in the living witness of human history. As Chesterton says, “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died.” The powers of darkness had killed Christianity in the days of the early Church, slaughtering one pope after another, from St. Peter onwards, for almost three hundred years. It had put the martyrs to the sword and had fed them to the lions. In the face of such persecution, the underground Church, hidden in the catacombs, eventually rose from the dead, triumphing over the very power of the Roman Empire.
And what was true of the Early Church is true of the Church in modern times. Christianity was killed by the French Revolution, butchered by the guillotines of the Reign of Terror. It rose from the dead, the following century bringing forth a Catholic renaissance in French culture. Christianity was killed by the Russian Revolution and the seventy years of enforced atheism which followed. It rose from the dead, the past thirty years witnessing a miraculous resurrection of the Orthodox Church. It was killed by the communist revolution in China, insofar as it had ever really been alive in the seemingly Christ-forsaken East. The Church in China is now probably the fastest growing part of Christendom.
In terms of brute numbers, more Christians were persecuted and put to death by the powers of darkness in the past century than in all the previous centuries combined. And yet, also in terms of brute numbers, there are more Christians in the world today than there have ever been in the past. The Church is not dead, nor will she ever die, even though she is always apparently dying and has often been apparently killed. Echoing the words of Mark Twain, the reports of her death are greatly exaggerated. And reiterating the words of Chesterton, she has died many times and risen again; for she has a God, her heavenly spouse, who knows the way out of the grave.
This essay was first published here in March 2018.
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[*] G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, April 27, 1929
The featured image is a detail from “The Last Judgment” (1555-60) by Pieter Huys, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons