(Note: I wrote, but apparently did not finish, this post in March, 2013.)
We may well never know what proximate cause led Pope Benedict XVI to resign when he did, but without a doubt, such an unusual announcement had a special resonance landing shortly before Ash Wednesday (a resonance that was noted). It occasioned a flurry of commentary, of course, as well as the sort of stock-taking one does at moments of such real or apparent significance.
Pat Buchanan, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to release a great Spenglerian belch entitled “Benedict’s Farewell–and Christianity’s?”:
In Europe, Christianity is regarded less as the founding faith of the West and the wellspring of Western culture and civilization than as an antique; a religion that European Man once embraced before the coming of the Enlightenment. Many cathedrals on the continent have taken on the aspect of Greek and Roman temples—places to visit and marvel at what once was, and no longer is.
The Faith is Europe, Europe is the Faith, wrote Hilaire Belloc. And when the faith dies, the culture dies, the civilization dies, and the people die. So historians and poets alike have written.
The civilization is in decline, everyone is a feminist or an environmentalist, people don’t have enough babies, but the Islamic world is fired up with transcendent religion and wants to settle scores with the philosophically enfeebled West.
The identification of “the Faith” with “Europe” or “the West” is an old one. It sweeps up a great many enthusiasms, aesthetic preferences, philosophical positions, cultural habits, and spiritual innovations scattered over thousands of years and a vast territory and labels them all with “Europe” and “Christendom.” And inasmuch as this is simply a way of expressing preferences for this or that aspect of life, it’s fine. Hilaire Belloc was a charmingly obtuse writer whose bigotries included–I am not making this up–the insistence that nothing could be more splendidly Catholic than bullfighting. One forgets, reading these sorts of things, that Jesus of Nazareth (who bears some notional presidency of the phenomenon of “Christianity,” after all) had no evident intention for his followers to take a long position on real estate, to create a clerical order of minute variegation, to engage in a search for foundational Truths unvouchsafed by adherence to himself (and thereby to the God of Israel), to speak Latin, to subjugate the New World in his name, or to invent the flying buttress. I admire some of these things–I worship in every Cathedral I can find–but it must be conceded that if “Christianity” is essentially bound up in any of these things, its death is and always was inevitable. Paganism’s influence endured in Europe long after those temples emptied of worshipers, and the high age of Christendom’s influence will linger too; that’s not the point. Buchanan doesn’t seem to understand that calling something the “founding faith” and the “wellspring” of a civilization is another way of calling it “an antique.”
I thought of all this as we prepared for Ash Wednesday. It’s a holiday that is very important to me; I walked into an Ash Wednesday liturgy on February 28th, 2001 as a curious onlooker and left it a Christian, at least inasmuch as walking around with a head-smudge can define such a thing. As the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday invites a certain stock-taking of one’s faith life. As I preached in church that day, it’s a time for starting again in our faith by embracing the practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It’s also, for me at least, a convenient marker for the journey that everyone takes in their faith.
I left Rockefeller Chapel that night feeling ablaze, it is true. I went to church regularly starting that Lent; a year later I was on a campus ministry Habitat trip and preparing for confirmation. I was resistant to the doctrine of the Trinity, primarily on philosophical grounds. After a good deal of reading and thinking, I was able to hammer my views into a shape that would at least qualify as heretical, rather than merely heathen, and so received confirmation.
It needs hardly be said that within another year or two, I was quite precise and irritating on full Trinitarian orthodoxy, as I was on a host of things I imagined I understood: Chalcedonian Christology, the doctrine of the atonement, the mode of Christ’s presence in the sacrament, and so on. I believed, as Ross Douthat does along with the heirs of theological liberalism (who are nowadays typically on the political right), that liberal democratic egalitarianism needed philosophical “foundations” provided by Christianity. I became just as unbearable on the doctrine of justification and other Lutheran confessional points.
The funny part was that all these things, at some point, seemed to hang together in one inviolable whole. But it’s a bit of an illusion, or at least a trick of perspective. Think of a constellation: it appears to be made up of points on a plane, but in fact its constituent starts are vastly scattered. Their light happens to reach us at the same time, and we find in them a coherent image. That doesn’t mean the constellation isn’t “real,” it just means that it’s a synthesis created by the beholder.
So it is, I’ve come to think, with any expression of “Christian orthodoxy” you care to identify.