By Robert Louis Wilken – Nov 1993 – First Things
My cmnt: Written 28 years ago, this essay on the Truth of Christianity is as relevant today as it was then. What we are witnessing today is the rotten fruit of the Left systematically dismantling Western culture as Professor Wilken warned us in this essay.
My cmnt: Wilken writes of “practical atheism” which he calls secularism. At that time we tended to call atheism “secular humanism”. This turned out to be too weak of a description. It doesn’t really capture the true essence of post-modernism in the 21st century.
My cmnt: A better description of atheism for today is philosophical materialism. Sometimes we also use the phrase scientific materialism or radical reductionism. Either way what we need to understand about atheism is that it excludes all nonmaterial entities. Free will, our minds, morality, religion, the uniqueness of humans, and all values (i.e., truth, beauty and goodness) are reduced to mere epiphenomena of matter in motion acted upon by physical laws and chance.
My cmnt: The Left in America (and the world) relegates all religion to subjective beliefs, not entirely dissimilar to choice of ice cream flavors. The Judeo-Christian religion, i.e. – Biblical Christianity, is decidedly not that. Ours is not primarily a theological belief system, though it certainly is that, ours is a proclamation of an historical, space-time person, Jesus Christ, who walked among us, performed real miracles, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day He rose again from the dead…
My cmnt: I have edited this piece for space and clarity.
One of the lessons read at the Easter vigil is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. It is a good story, told well and not without irony. Each year when it is read I can hardly conceal a smile as the author lists (and not just once) the titles of the king’s advisors—the satraps, prefects, governors, counselors, treasurers, justices, magistrates, and officials of the provinces—or as he takes delight (again not just once) in naming the musical instruments that called people to worship the golden statue—the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and the entire musical ensemble. This year, however, it was another section of the lesson that caught my attention. After the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar says, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego . . . . They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.” (Daniel 3:28)
It is a sign of the times that on the holiest night of the year the phrase from Daniel, “serve and worship any god except their own God,” leaped out at me. In the past I remember listening intently as Genesis 1, the account of the Passover, or the exhortations of Deuteronomy were read to the newly baptized. But this Easter the words of King Nebuchadnezzar brought to mind the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods besides me. In the waning years of the twentieth century the time has come for Christians to bear witness to the worship of the one true God.
Practical atheism, that is to say, secularism, has undermined beliefs, attitudes, and conventions that have nurtured our civilization for centuries. The changes we are witnessing are not the inevitable alterations by which older ways adapt to new circumstances. They are the result of a systematic dismembering, a “trashing” of our culture that is “intentional, not accidental,” as Myron Magnet puts it in his recent The Dream and the Nightmare. Nothing is left untouched, whether it be our most cherished institutions, or the roles that have defined one’s place in family, neighborhood, and city, or assumptions about duty, love, virtue, honor, and modesty. All are subject to the scalpel of impatient and haughty reformers; what has been received from our parents and grandparents and from their parents and grandparents must submit to our unforgiving formulas for correction.
The goal, of course, is to dismantle the common Western culture, to turn everything into a subculture. Secularism wants religious practice, especially Christian practice, banished to a private world of feelings and attitudes, while at the same time the realm of the public is to be expanded to include every aspect of one’s life. The earlier secularist appearance of tolerance toward religion is now seen to have been a sham.
Nor does secularism sustain any sense of obligation to the past. The texture of memory that is essential to a common culture cannot be sustained if the past is not lovingly transmitted to those who come after—even should some of its monuments offend us.
Christianity has proved to be more tolerant than the current revisionists. Over its long history the Christian tradition has cultivated a studied openness to the wisdom of former ages, even when such wisdom provided intellectual resources with which to challenge Christian faith. Think how the philosophes in their attacks on Christianity depended upon their legacy from antiquity. Yet for centuries, Christian institutions have nurtured the study of the classics. Christianity is an essential ingredient in our culture, says Brague, for its form “enables it to remain open to whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences with the human and divine.”
The ferocity of the current assault on the legacy of Christian culture, however, has brought a new clarity of vision. The alternatives are set before us with unusual starkness: either there will be a genuine renewal of Christian culture—there is no serious alternative—or we will be enveloped by the darkness of paganism in which the worship of the true God is abandoned and forgotten. The sources of the cultural crisis, it turns out, are theological.
In his lectures on Christianity and Culture, T. S. Eliot posed the issue of the relation between Christianity and Western culture in terms that were remarkably prescient. Writing in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, Eliot said that the “choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.” Distinguishing three epochs in the history of Christianity and Western culture, he spoke of the period when Christianity was a “minority in a society of positive pagan traditions,” a second period when the society as a whole—law, education, literature, art, as well as religion—was formed by Christianity, and a third, our own period, in which the culture has become “mainly negative, but which, so far as it is positive, is still Christian.” In his view, “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become something else.” Yet, he continued, “I do not think that [a culture] can remain negative,” and it is conceivable that there will be an attempt to build a new culture on wholly different “spiritual” foundations. Eliot’s proposal is that the way to meet this challenge is to form a “new Christian culture.”
His lectures are filled with much wisdom: Above all there is his observation that touches more directly on theology: it is, he writes, a “very dangerous inversion” for Christian thinkers “to advocate Christianity, not because it is true, but because it might be beneficial.” Instead of showing that “Christianity provides a foundation for morality,” one must show “the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity.” “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.”
Dogma and truth are not the kind of words that will pass the test of political correctness, yet—or perhaps therefore—they are most useful in helping us precisely to identify the distinctively theological task that lies before us. It is time to return to first principles, to the First Commandment, and to take up anew the challenge faced by Christians many centuries ago when the Christian movement was first making its way in the Roman Empire. Christians are now called to persuade others (including many within the churches) that our first duty as human beings is to honor and venerate the one true God, and that without the worship of God, society disintegrates into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-centered interests destructive of the commonweal. To meet that challenge, Christians must learn again to speak forthrightly about who we are and what we know of God.
The Christian faith, as Eliot reminds us, is concerned not simply with values or attitudes or feelings or even “beliefs” as we use the word today, but with truth. Christian faith is grounded in what was made known in Christ and confirmed by the Spirit’s witness in the church. Consequently, Christian thinking, whether about God, about Christ, about the moral life, or about culture, must always begin with what has been made known.
A pernicious feature of Christian discourse in our day is its tentativeness, the corrosive assumption that everything we teach and practice is to be subject to correction by appeals. According to materialists who dominate our institutions of education and government a “presumption of atheism” must be the starting point of all our thinking, even about God.
One way of responding to this line of thought has been to offer arguments for the existence of God based on what is considered evidence acceptable to any reasonable person. Conventional wisdom has had it that proof of the existence of God has to be established without reference to the specifics of Christianity (or Judaism) or to the experience of the church. Atheism is to be countered by a defense of theism, not of Christian revelation. But this strategy has failed. In his book At the Origins of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley helps us to understand why.
To defend the existence of God, Christian thinkers in early modern times excluded all appeals to Christian behavior or practices, the very things that give Christianity its power and have been its most compelling testimony to the reality of God. Or, to put the matter more concretely: “What god is, and even that god is, has its primordial evidence in the person and in the event that is Jesus Christ.”
What has given Christianity its strength as a religion, as a way of life, and as an intellectual tradition is that it has always been confident of what it knows, and has insisted from the very beginning, again to cite Origen, that the “gospel has a proof which is peculiar to itself.”
Insisting that the gospel has a “proof peculiar to itself” did not mean that Christian thinking ignored the claims of reason, dismissing questions that arose from history or experience or logic. In discussions with Greeks, Christian thinkers presented the new faith not only by reference to the Scriptures but also by appeal to classical literature and general conceptions, “common ideas” that they shared with other educated men and women. Critics tried to brand the Christians as mere “fideists,” but the charge rang hollow. From the beginning, Christians heeded the claims of reason, and it did not take long for their adversaries to learn that they were able to match them argument for argument. Pagan thinkers had no franchise on rationality. The existence of a serious dialogue between Christians and Greek and Roman philosophers, conducted at the highest intellectual level for over three centuries (the mid-second century to the mid-fifth), is evidence that Christian thinkers did not supplant reason by faith and authority. The assertion that the gospel had a “proof peculiar to itself” was not a confession of unreasoning faith but an argument that commended itself to thoughtful men and women.
At issue in the argument about reason was the question of its starting point. Origen argued that with the coming of Christ reason had to attend to something new in human experience. Christian thinkers argued that the knowledge of God rested on “divine action” and on “God’s appearance” among human beings in the person of Christ. Even when speaking to the outsider, they insisted that it was more reasonable to begin with the history of Jesus (and of Israel) than with abstract reasoning. Reason could no longer be exercised independently of what had taken place in history and what had come to be because of that history: the new reality of the church, a people devoted to the worship of the one true God.
How this conviction worked itself out in Christian thinking can be seen in the work of one writer after another, in Athanasius’ response to the Arians, or Augustine’s efforts to disentangle himself from the sophistries of the Manichees. But for our purposes here, Origen is the most illuminating because he stands at the beginning of the Christian intellectual tradition. He was the first truly deep thinker to give a firm epistemological foundation to the claim that Christians had come to know the true God in the person of Christ.
For Origen, as well as for Augustine and other critics of the religion of the philosophers, this is the central point. Because their knowledge of God was limited to what they could know by the activity of the mind, they never came to a genuine knowledge of God. They kept falling back into idolatry. Had Plato known the true God, writes Origen, he “would not have reverenced anything else and called it God and worshipped it, either abandoning the true God or combining with the majesty of God things which ought not to be associated with Him.”
The philosophers would not acknowledge that by “becoming flesh” the divine Logos made it possible for human beings to know God more fully than they could by means of human reasoning alone. “We affirm,” writes Origen, “that human nature is not sufficient in any way to seek for God and to find Him in his pure nature, unless it is helped by the God who is the object of the search.” The knowledge of God is unlike other forms of knowledge. For it begins with God, not with human reasoning, and how we conceive of God is dependent on the nature of the reality that is presented to us—in the language of the Bible, that which is seen. The Church Fathers relied heavily on the Gospel of John in their “epistemology,” and especially on John’s conjunction between “seeing” and “knowing.” One of the most frequently cited texts is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
One sign of the impoverishment of Christian speech in our day is that the term “faith” has been emptied of its cognitive dimension. As the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar recognized, the logic of Christian discourse has collapsed at this point. “Nothing expresses more unequivocally the profound failure of [theologies that separate the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history] than their deeply anguished, joyless, and cheerless tone: torn between knowing and believing, they are no longer able to see anything, nor can they be convincing in any visible way.” He cites the now-classic essay of the French Jesuit Pierre Rousselot, “The Eyes of Faith,” published in 1910. The word “eyes,” says von Balthasar, “indicates that there is something there for faith to see and, indeed, that Christian faith essentially consists in an ability to see what God chooses to show and which cannot be seen without faith.”
The key point here is that faith is not a form of interpretation, one perspective among others, but a seeing of what there is to see, and hence a form of knowing. Recall the opening words of the First Epistle of John: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life”this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us . . . .” First John states the primal truth that Christian faith rests on witness to what has happened in history, hence the honored place of the martyrs (witnesses) in Christian memory. Yet the witness to what was “seen” is never a testimony simply of what has happened in the past. In his Commentary on 1 John, St. Augustine noted a curious feature of its opening words. John does not simply say that he is bearing witness to what he has seen and touched; he says that he is also bearing witness to the “Word of Life.” It does not escape Augustine that the phrase “Word of Life” does not refer to the body of Christ which could be seen and handled. “The life itself has been manifested in flesh—that what can be seen by the heart alone might be seen also by the eyes for the healing of hearts. Only by the heart is the Word seen; flesh is seen by the bodily eyes. We had the means of seeing the flesh, but not of seeing the Word: the Word was made flesh which we could see, that the heart, by which we should see the Word, might be healed.”
The testimony that the church bears from one generation to another is at once a seeing of what was seen and a seeing of what cannot be seen. It is a seeing of what was seen in that the testimony is about something that happened in space and time, something that could be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands, and which is part of events that preceded and followed; it is also a seeing of what cannot be seen, in John’s terms, a “knowing,” in that God who cannot be seen is revealed in the events. The testimony that 1 John brings is not simply a witness to an historical event, as one might, for example, tell others about a parade that passed in front of one’s house. For that which one “saw” was the “Word of Life,” not simply the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth.
Faith is not something that is added to knowing: it is a constitutive part of the act of knowing God. Origen grasped this point with characteristic profundity. In his commentary on John 2:22—“After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed in the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”—Origen cites the words spoken to Thomas in chapter 20: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Then he asks: how could it be that those who have not seen and have believed are more blessed than those who have seen and believed? If that is the case, those who come after the apostles will be more blessed than the apostles. Origen’s answer is that in this life faith is imperfect; only at the time of the Resurrection will it be complete. But faith will still be necessary. Without faith there is no knowledge of God. Hence it is possible to say of faith what Paul says of knowledge, “now we believe in part.” When the “perfection of faith comes,” that which is partial will disappear, “for faith complemented by vision is far superior to faith through a mirror.”
Faith’s certainty comes from participating in the reality that is believed”that is, through fellowship with God. “By faith,” writes Augustine, “we see and we know. For if faith does not yet see, why are we called illuminati ?” It is not possible to know God from a distance, to be a spectator. Commenting on John 8:19—“You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also”—Origen explains how the term “know” is used in John and in the Bible as a whole. “One should take note,” he says, “that the Scripture says that those who are united to something or participate in something are said to know that to which they are united or in which they participate. Before such union and fellowship, even if they understand the reasons given for something, they do not know it.” As illustration he mentions the union between Adam and Eve which the Bible described as “Adam knew his wife Eve,” and in 1 Corinthians 6:16–17, the union with a prostitute. This shows, he says, that “knowing” means “being joined to” or “united with.” The knowledge of God, then, is experiential. No doubt this is one reason why the knowledge of God is always conjoined with the love of God in early Christian literature. Love implies familiarity, intimacy, union.
In terms such as these early Christian thinkers defended the worship of the one God. The boldness of the intellectuals as well as the courage of the martyrs (in some cases, e.g., Justin Martyr or Origen, they were the same persons) rested on the certainty that comes from “seeing.” In a sermon on Acts 1, John Chrysostom said, referring to the phrase “witness of the Resurrection,” that the apostles, who were witness of the Resurrection, did not say, “Angels said this to me, but we have seen it.” That is the inescapable foundation of Christian belief in God.
Matthew Arnold once said: “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are.” That puts things succinctly”and backwards. Early Christian thinkers insisted that the Greeks did not see things as they are. They only saw what lay on the surface. Like the pathetic creatures in Plato’s cave, they saw only shadows and images. For this reason, it was the Greeks who had to be corrected, not the Christians. And on this basis Christian thinkers mounted an offensive against the pretensions of their culture. By ignoring the true God, their contemporaries not only did not know whom to worship or how, they failed to see that everything else in society—morality, art, literature, politics—was skewed. Hence, the early Christians were unwilling to bend the knee when they heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble. Their task, however, unlike that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, was intellectual. They not only made confession, they set out to persuade others that they could love God more ardently and cleave to God more fervently if they sought God alone without the succor of rites that do not purify the soul. In doing so, they laid the foundations for a new kind of society, one in which serving God faithfully was the highest duty.
Of course, it was easy for Christians to criticize pagan religion, with its many gods, its veneration of objects of wood and stone and gold, its divining and use of auguries and portent, and most of all, its practice of animal sacrifice. Even pagan thinkers were critical of the practices that defined religious devotion in the cities. Before the rise of Christianity, there was a well-established tradition of criticism of religion in the ancient world. Philosophical religion, however, was another matter entirely, for many things the philosophers taught were compatible with Christian theology. Augustine, it will be remembered, was helped in his move to the Catholic faith by reading the libri Platonici, which meant of course the books of the neo-Platonists, Porphyry and Plotinus. Yet Christian thinkers, including Augustine, were no less critical of the theological ideas of the philosophers than they were of the religious practices of their fellow citizens.
Although the philosophers had an intuition of the true God, in the view of Christian thinkers, they did not know how to serve God. In a mordant passage in the City of God, Augustine, chiding Porphyry for proclaiming his devotion to the God of the Hebrews while venerating lesser gods, cites the words from Exodus: “Anyone who sacrifices to other gods instead of to the Lord alone will be extirpated.” Augustine’s argument is that worship is to be offered only to God, for “God himself is the source of our bliss, . . . the goal of our striving.”
It has sometimes been argued that in the City of God, his apology contra paganos, Augustine made place for a neutral secular space that could accommodate paganism and promote a “coherence of wills” about things relevant to this mortal life. Here there could be a joining of hands of the city of God and the earthly city for the cultivation of the arts of civilization. But for Augustine, a neutral secular space could only be a society without God, subject to the libido dominandi, the lust for power. He was convinced that even in this fallen world there could be no genuine peace or justice unless a society were to honor the one supreme God. There can, he writes, be no association of men united by a common sense of right where there is no true justice, and there can be no justice where God is not honored. “When a man does not serve God, what amount of justice are we to suppose exists in his being?” Where a people has no regard for God, there can be no social bond, no common life, and no virtue. “Although the virtues are reckoned by some people to be genuine and honorable when they are related only to themselves and are sought for no other end, even then they are puffed up and proud, and so are to be accounted vices rather than virtues.”
In the City of God, Augustine is an apologist neither for a secular public space nor for theism. His great book is a defense of the worship of the one true God, the God who was acknowledged in ancient Israel, revealed in Christ, and venerated in the church. Like other early Christian apologists, he realized that it was not enough to make vague appeals to transcendent reality, to the god of philosophers, to a deity that takes no particular form in human life. The god of theism has no life independent of the practice of religion, of those who know God in prayer and devotion, who belong to a community of memory, and are bound together in common service. Only people schooled in the religious life, people like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, can tell the difference between serving the one God faithfully and bowing down to idols. For Augustine defense of the worship of the true God inevitably required a defense of the church, the City of God as it exists in time.
Eliot’s Christianity and Culture admonishes us to take up the challenge of conceiving anew a Christian society. By a Christian society, he did not mean one that was composed solely of Christians, but one in which human life is ordered to ends that are befitting the true God. “It would be a society in which the natural end of man—virtue and well-being in community—is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end—beatitude—for those who have the eyes to see it.” Only God can give ultimate purpose to our lives and direction to our society. The First Commandment is not just a text to be memorized in catechism class; it is the theological basis for a just and humane society.
I am reminded of a story I heard years ago in Germany when Walter Ulbricht, the German Communist leader, was head of the DDR. It was said that Ulbricht once had a conversation with Karl Barth about the new society that was being built in East Germany. Ulbricht boasted to Barth that the Communists would be teaching the Ten Commandments in the schools and that the precepts of the decalogue would provide the moral foundation for the new society. Barth listened politely and then said: “I have only one question, Herr Minister. Will you also be teaching the First Commandment?”
Robert L. Wilken, a regular contributor to First Things, is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia