Is Christianity Over?
The Spanish original of this text was published on 23.11.2022 on https://theobjective.com/elsubjetivo/opinion/2022-11-23/estamos-ante-fin-cristiandad/
Besides their famous 246 kinds of cheese and many jokes about the Belgians, the French are also known for their love of intellectual debates. And a certainly stimulating one has been flourishing among them for the past two years.
It all began with the last book by the Parisian philosopher Chantal Delsol, The End of Christianity: Normative Inversion and the New Age, published in October 2021. The book immediately raised the same question that authors like Michel Houellebecq had already been pondering in their novels for decades. That is, what will happen to Europe when it leaves behind its Christian inspiration?
Let us unpack this. When Delsol and others speak of the end of Christianity, they do not mean the end of Christianity as a religion (christianisme), but as a civilization (Chrétienté). In fact, Christianity as a religion is not doing bad at all in the world. An estimated third of our fellow human beings believe in it. It is the religion with the largest number of adherents. And future projections do not look bad either: according to the Pew Research Center, by the year 2050, Christianity will still enjoy the number one position among religions, with more than 3 billion believers.
What is then Christianity (Chrétienté) seen as distinct from Christianity as religion (christianisme)?
The simplest way of understanding this is to consider Christianity as civilization: one where Christian ideas are hegemonic, and therefore leave an essential mark on politics, customs, morals, art, laws, institutions and traditions. A man can be (from the religious viewpoint) a Christian without living in the Christian civilization: this is the case with so many Christians professing their faith in the Middle East, the Far East, many regions of Africa... And, conversely, a civilization can be Christian even if not all, or even not the majority, of its members are Christians: it would suffice that the laws, holidays, literature, virtues, institution etc. of that civilization are inspired (mainly) by the Christian faith.
Now, according to Chantal Delsol and others, this is precisely what has ceased to be true around us. Our Christian civilization, born of a peculiar fusion of Greek thought, Roman law, Jewish morals and spirituality, daughter of Athens, of Rome, and Jerusalem, is rapidly becoming something else.
“The very foundations of Judeo-Christianity have collapsed” writes Delsol in Le Figaro. “The first one is faith in the existence of truth, which arrives to us from the Greeks”. In these times of relativism, of post-truth, where resorting to truth in a discussion is perceived as “anti-democratic”, such a diagnosis by Delsol does not seem inaccurate.
We have also lost, according to Delsol, "the idea of progress", characteristic of the Judeo-Christian mentality. Most civilizations see time as cyclical, repetitive, just as seasons come back every year again and again. This is not the case of Jews and Christians, who have a positive view of the passing of time, as something that evolves towards a better end (the arrival of the Messiah, the Parousia). But this conception of time as progress has vanished nowadays: climate and pandemic fears, ongoing destruction of the middle class, lack of an exciting future for the young, succession of economic crises... All these phenomena seem to verify our author's assessment. For many, belief in progress is nowadays only a dim remembrance from the past.
"Finally," she adds, "belief in the inherent dignity of the human being has been erased. And it has given way to a certain idea of dignity conferred from the outside, social rather than inherent, as was the case before Christianity". Human beings no longer have an absolute value of our own, but only the value given to us by the State: the laws on abortion, in Delsol's view, are significant in this regard. Your life is worth as much as a group of politicians, in a parliament, might say it is worth. Or only if your mother says it is.
The euthanasia laws are also illustrative: if you are somebody healthy and in your prime, productive, I will not aid you in committing suicide, the State tells us; so up you go and get back to work. Now, if you are a little bit sick and already somewhat older, if you represent an enormous expense to me, then don't worry! I will work things out to make you wish your own death (for example, reminding you what a heavy load you are on your family and me). And then, when you are already in the state of loneliness and helplessness, I will give you the last little nudge (the push of a syringe) to finish you off. I am so compassionate, as the State!
Abortion or euthanasia destroy the key foundations of our Christian civilization. What comes after that civilization, after Christianity, then? For Delsol, unlike Houellebecq, it is not Islam: she believes that, with time, European Muslims will be as secularized as their Christian peers already are.
According to Delsol, what comes is rather a new form of paganism (something that, by the way, Joseph Ratzinger warned about 65 years ago). For example, “Mother Nature” is gradually becoming a new goddess who demands our sacrifices (let us reduce our population, let us leave the population that remains without heating, let us impoverish ourselves to avoid damaging the environment). Our natural world has become sacred and demands us to pay the price. Human beings are no longer special. We are just another type of animal. Or maybe we are even a virus, as the former Secretary General of NATO, Javier Solana, has recently hypothesized. A virus just too destructive for our holy Mother Nature, in fact.
Another feature of our new pagan civilization, according to Delsol, is its polytheism. We should live among a plurality of myths, narratives, “stories”. Everything is allowed… except intending “your myth” to be a valid truth for all!
It is true that, in the end, one political decision or another will have to be applied: sometimes the powerful will find it necessary to impose one story over others, in which case they will resort to force without any greater problems. In the ancient pagan world, force meant, mainly, the force of arms; in today's paganism, it is often the force of votes. When the former Spanish socialist prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, said last year that "in democracy, the truth is what the citizens believe to be true", he accurately represented the triumphant epistemology of our times. This is, by the way, the reason why it is useless to call our present-day politicians "liars" (current Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has particularly noteworthy merits for it). In our world of "multiple perspectives", “multiple myths”, what we previously called “a lying political leader” is now just someone who is giving us one more of these “perspectives”, one more “myth”, one more “narrative”. And if that political leader is in power, then he is the one allowed to impose it on others.
Farewell to Christianity, hello neo-paganism: this is the diagnosis of Chantal Delsol that France has been debating for two years and, since last November (when the Italian translation was published), Italy as well. It practically undisputable that this philosopher has captured the key traits of our time.
But is she entirely right? Can we consider Chrétienté [Christian civilization] to have died? Should we prepare ourselves for a time in which christianisme [Christianity as a religion] survives in Europe just in its temples, just in some groups of catechists, just in some spiritual retreats? Should we prepare ourselves for a time in which Christianity has ceased to mark Europe the way it has been marking our continent for the last 1700 years—since Christianity started to become hegemonic under emperor Constantine? Should Christianity just be the personal matter of who you pray to? A personal matter of whether you want to wear a cross on a chain around your neck or not? Are these personal preferences all that will remain of that old Christian civilization that has left such a distinct mark on the ideas, the cognitive framework, the politics, the culture, the arts of European nations?
We must recognize that such hypothesis of the end of Christianity would overjoy many Christians. But we must recognize as well that many of us (Christians and non-Christians) want to oppose such a result. Let me explain both tenets.
Let’s start with the joyful. The end of Christianity will greatly please what we could call "bourgeois Christians": those who are happy if they are allowed to pray to God in their chapels and to send their children to their Christian schools—so that they are not taught too much of the nonsense that European governments currently impose. These Christians think that fighting cultural battles beyond the gates of their villas, in order to defend a civilization, seems too bellicose. And, why not say it, somewhat tiring. Life is much more peaceful in your garden, reading papal encyclicals, and talking about universal love. At the end of the day, as the Spanish humorist Mingote once ironically put it, “to heaven will go those who have always gone.”
That is why for these Christians the end of Christianity is good news: they no longer must get dirty with the mud from outside their well-off suburbs and their parishes, they no longer have to try to change the laws of their country and, alas, no longer risk being disliked by their non-Christian friends. If Christianity as a civilization [Chrétienté] is over, Christianity as a religion [christianisme] will turn back into being this private little thing, which feels so comforting in those lovely autumn evenings by the fireplace.
The end of Christianity will also greatly please what we could call progressive Christians: those who believe that the Church is, above all, another NGO. An NGO that must join the projects imposed on us by the new emerging civilization (neo-paganism): ecologism, feminism, immigrationism, animalism, LGBTQ-ism, wokism... in short, progressivism.
For these Christians, proposing Christianity as an alternative to the civilization that today is being forced on us is absurd: this new civilization being enforced is so good, so empathic, so compassionate! In fact, it is the old Christianity (that of Constantine and Theodosius, that of Clovis and Charles V) which embarrasses these progressive Christians a little bit: those gentlemen of the past were all so bellicose! Or rather: all those WASPs were so privileged! How good it is that at last the old Christian longing to create a distinctive civilization (with all that it implies: laws, institutions, punishments, defense, weapons...) is over. We shall finally submit to a new, post-Christian, inclusive and tolerant civilization.
It has been nearly a century since Vladimir Solovyov and Robert Hugh Benson warned us that many Christians would end up thinking this way. And another French author, Philippe Muray, has warned us more recently about the alluring attraction that these ideas would exert on our world.
Finally, besides the bourgeois and progressive churchgoers, the end of Christianity will probably please a third group of Christians: our bishops. Our bishops, those who promote religion classes that teach how to make murals for peace or ecology, but not who Isaac or Jacob were. Those who maintain Christian schools in which the importance of resilience and self-esteem is taught, but not much history of Christianity. Those who in Spain, for example, own media outlets that insist on how bad the economy is under the current (Socialist) government, but do not use those media to expand the Christian legacy. Don’t our Church prelates seem convinced that Christianity is over and, therefore, their mission is not something as lofty as sustaining a Christian civilization, but something more prosaic, as propagating the (feminist, eco-friendly, tolerant, liberal) ethics of our times? If this is so, then Delsol's idea of the end of Christianity (as a civilization) will be certainly comforting for them: it will justify their decision to concentrate on such laid-back endeavors. In fact, Pope Francis has already spoken in quite similar terms to Delsol: Christianity (as a civilization) is over for him too.
If, therefore, so many Christians rejoice at the end of Christianity; if, moreover, many anti-Christians also rejoice that such a religion, so harmful in their view, will no longer mark our culture - then the stinging question arises: is there anyone left to defend that mixture of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem that gave rise to what we are - or, at least, to what we have been until now? Can Christianity still count on supporters, or does it only have undertakers left?
Fortunately, just as there are unexpected traitors, there are also unexpected allies in this battle. For not only many Christians, but also a significant number of non-believers, are willing to maintain this marvelous creation that has been our Christian civilization [la Chrétienté]: the civilization that has reached the highest levels in science, freedom and spiritual creation all over the world. These allies in the defense of Christianity go even beyond Benedetto Croce: whereas this (agnostic) Italian philosopher asserted that we could not but call ourselves Christians, there are many people today who do not want but to call themselves Christians—at least in cultural terms. They certainly prefer a Christian civilization to one that is pagan, Islamic, woke, or communist. They believe Constantine or Charlemagne got it right. They want to preserve the Greek appreciation for truth, the Roman respect for law, the Jewish conviction of the immense value of every individual. And they know that all these things must be embodied in institutions, rules, public forces. Not in mere opiate reveries.
These are individuals who will go to mass or maybe not; these individuals will listen to the Pope's speeches or maybe not so much; these individuals will cover the expenses of their churches or maybe they will abstain to do so. But they know that what is at stake today is much more important than all that. What is at stake today is a whole civilization.
The book of Joshua tells us that when the Israelites wanted to defeat the city of Jericho, they got unexpected help from Rahab, a prostitute; a woman so important for the preservation of the people of Israel that she would later become the ancestress of King David... and of Jesus of Nazareth.
The moral of that Biblical story is clear: the ones who finally help to preserve a people or a civilization are not always the purest ones. In fact, a certain obsession with purity places you in the problematic places we have described before: behind the fences of your villa garden, among the NGOs of the good-hearted, or in episcopal palaces. Rahab was maybe not so pure, but she was certainly a brave woman who knew what to fight for.
For it is not purity, but courage, that saves a civilization.