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I am frequently surprised when Christians speak as if civilization and life on this earth is going to continue in perpetuity. Are we not living and striving for another and better life—one conditioned, it’s true, by what we do here in this earthly city?
My basic outlook on life could be characterized thus: pessimistic about the world, optimistic about the universe.
The progression in the Christian year from Easter through the Ascension to Pentecost has always had a special feeling for me. As these great feasts succeed each other and spring melts into summer, I sense a great spiritual optimism and hope, an opening-up into the vastness of the future life which God has planned for mankind. Jesus rises from the dead, giving us a pledge of a glorified supernatural life; he ascends to heaven, to God the Father, assuring us of his enduring presence with humanity until the end of time. The Holy Spirit of God descends on Jesus’ followers, inspiring them as they found the church, the vehicle of salvation for all humanity. The disciples grew the church on earth while waiting for Christ’s return.
The Christian tradition indeed posits that history is a story that is leading to an ultimate goal, a goal brought about in God’s providence in the fullness of time. Traditionally, believers have lived their lives in the expectation of Christ coming again and the consummation of all things.
The early Christians thought Christ would come again to usher in the future age very soon. It did not happen that way. (Christ himself suggested as much: we would know neither the day nor the hour; God would confound our expectations.) Instead, humanity ripened for two more millennia, during which there developed an entire Christian epoch with its distinctive culture and civilization, with mingled glory, sinfulness, and grace. This has been bequeathed now to hundreds of successive generations and enriched countless souls. However, this is an earthly thing—albeit breathed to life by God’s Holy Spirit—and as such will eventually come to an end.
In light of this, I am frequently surprised when believers speak as if civilization and life on this earth is going to continue in perpetuity. Are we not living and striving for another and better life—one conditioned, it’s true, by what we do here in this earthly city?
And this life is passing away, as we speak. That is the truth that all the ideologues and future-builders of history have never been able to address. The earthly city does not last. Only the religious worldview provides an idea of where everything is leading, for the individual and for humanity at large. Without it, there is only the perpetual succession of life and death and generations progressively improving technology, government, and what have you.
The secular humanist idea of merely living on “in spirit” in future generations is, to my way of thinking, a copout. We were made, individually, for something greater than this. We are not one with the sand on the seashore and the grass and the trees, which are here today and are then assimilated into the earth. With the mysteries of faith, we are imbued with a far nobler hope and destiny.
Thus, the ultimate outcome of goodness and justice in the universe is assured. But in the meantime, there is still life to be lived here in the world. What is disturbing to the believer now is that the Christian epoch seems to be passing away, just as the pagan era passed away before it. This disturbs because it seems to suggest that the Christian order on earth is not permanent, that Christendom was not a finality but just another successive act in the history of the world destined to decay just like all the others.
This faith problem could be mitigated by remembering Christ’s promise that the church would be threatened and go through trials. It is ultimately only God who saves, not culture or civilization as such. The Christian’s faith is being sorely tested, certainly. What is certain is that we cannot depend on any earthly force or power. Man can only be helped from above.
Even so, as a thoughtful person reflects on the trajectory of history, some questions will naturally occur. If the Christian civilization is coming to an end, it will be replaced with—what? That is the burning question. The word “decadence” is evoked by many writers. They say that civilization is trapped in a cycle of repetition and sclerosis. No one can deny it. The civilization has indeed reached a dead end, suggested in the burnout of all thought and action. In eighty years, we have gone from the atrocity of the Holocaust to its (perhaps) natural result, the atrocity of self-mutilation, loss of self-identity, and the delusion that one can change one’s created nature. In so many ways we (“we” intended here in a generic and broad-brush sense) have regressed into infantilism, our language into gibberish and propaganda.
Yet the insidious aspect of decadence is that it’s often hard to put one’s finger on; it subsists in vagueness. Our present life does not seem egregiously terrible. We are surrounded by conveniences, amusements, and pleasures; we live lives of greater ease than ever before. Yet, despite all this, there is a basic emptiness in life; nothing seems to add up to anything or to lead anywhere. The decadence is felt as a pervasive mediocrity and aimlessness. The world limps along year after year, seemingly going nowhere. Our lives drag on in slavery to digital machines and technological processes. Everything has been said and done. There is no longer any norm, any center, to culture, to belief, that could join people together in communion or provide a focus for life. In other words, we lack anything resembling a coherent culture. Progress—aside from the material kind—has been shown to be a chimera.
In such a confused state of affairs, what matters? In a word, the soul; the cultivation of the soul. We must get our souls in order. “Behold, you desire truth in the inward being,” said the Psalmist. Therefore, our task in these late days is to cultivate the inner man. This process, enough to occupy a lifetime, includes both thought and action: cultivating virtue in good works and cultivating and sharing beauty. The first activity of the soul, it seems to me, is prayer; the second, reading: the gateway to humane knowledge which is the food of the soul. The cultural and artistic life, further, play an important role in the process of molding the soul for eternity. In the end, this internal refining process will certainly radiate outwards in love to others, spreading the inner joy that we have cultivated.
Through reading good books, we discover the riches, wisdom, and beauty embedded in history. We must not expect any glorious earthly future; rather, we must discover the past. Its relevance, certainly, will be toward building our souls, not to “building the future.”
For the truth is that there is not going to be any social utopia on the horizon. Nor will there be any cultural renaissance or great new artistic movement. Everything has already been. The world is very, very old, and the hour is very late. The world is in fact passing away as we speak. It has always been passing away, but now we are particularly aware that it is passing away.
“The future” is nothing but eternity, which is the destiny of all of us, and we had better start aspiring to it now. That is our work. That has always been our work, but it is particularly our work now at this late date.
Finding the inner man or woman is a difficult thing these days when we are constantly thrown back upon external and superficial things. It’s tough being prophetic, especially when there is so little profit in it. But the idea that we can find salvation in anything external is a great superstition. Rather, we must look to the soul, the heart, and the mind.
“Nothing lasts forever, thank God,” as Rod Serling reminded us sixty years ago in The Twilight Zone. And instead of consigning ourselves to living in a perpetual twilight zone—which is what the outer world now promises—let us live a rich inner life, a life that will radiate outward to catch other souls in the joy that will endure to eternity.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.