Book Club: Can Modernity Survive Without Christianity?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 7 2014 @ 1:59pm

A reader adds a final twist to the debate:

You started the Dish book club by asking if Christianity can survive modernity, and the discussion that ensued proves, I think, what a challenging – and open – question that remains. Ever since that first post of yours, however, I haven’t been able to shake a different question: can modernity survive without Christianity?

I’m no reactionary, and I have little patience for those who reject, wholesale, the scientific and technological advances of modern life. But glancing at the world around us can be incredibly dispiriting, from our destruction of nature to the rapaciousness of global capitalism to wars and rumors of wars. And that’s to say nothing of the lurking sense many of us have that finding meaning in contemporary life only is becoming more difficult, that there’s a soullessness at the heart of our modern way of life, a rotten center beneath the glittering surface of all our would-be achievements.

In a strange way, what I’ve just described makes me hopeful for the future of Christianity, because I can’t think of circumstances in which the message of Jesus and the core tenets of Christianity are more needed. They teach us that all our achievements have a dark side, that good and evil grow together in history, that our fallibility and fallenness touch everything we do, serving to warn us against unalloyed ambition and striving, and a facile optimism. It surely is no accident that two of the 20th century’s greatest Christian thinkers, Michael Oakeshott and Reinhold Niebuhr, thought the ancient tale of the Tower of Babel especially resonated with our times.

Even more, to borrow Oakeshott’s phrase, Christianity is the religion of non-achievement. Jesus taught us to consider the lilies of the field and take no thought for tomorrow. Could there be a more radical message for our age, an age that grows ever more frantic, ever more competitive, and in which wealth and power are ever more eagerly sought after?

Many of us are doubtful, I think, that we can continue on the path we are treading, that our unceasing more, more, more can be sustainable, or provide happiness. Jesus offers us a way of life that inverts these values, that shows us their futility. This non-instrumental approach to living is more timely than ever.

But most of all – and I know I risk sentimentality here – when reduced to its most basic idea, Christianity holds, and Jesus showed us, that God is love. Love and forgiveness and mercy are deeper than suffering and hate, they are what we are made for, our truest calling. Love is “the greatest of these,” and what Jesus told us to do when he summarized the entirety of the moral law. Man’s failure to love, of course, is a perennial sin. Yet the call to love takes on added resonance when the reach of our power and the consequences of our decisions impact ever more people. At no time in history has the question, “Who is my neighbor?” mattered more, or demanded a more expansive answer. We need to be reminded that the duties of love have no limits, that every human life is precious and fragile, and that “the least of these” particularly demand our attention and care.

Thinking about these matters, I come back again and again to this passage from Romano Guardini, a Jesuit priest, which Walker Percy chose as the epigraph to his novel The Last Gentleman:

We know that the modern world is coming to an end…At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another…The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.

I’ve always thought that modern, Western moral and political thought was more dependent on Christianity than most realize. For a long time we’ve lived in a halfway house, where we want the “values” derived from Christianity – the dignity of the individual, equality, and compassion – without faith itself. As Nietzsche derisively put it, we’ve rejected the Church but not its poison. Maybe what we’re hurtling toward is a moment when having it both ways no longer is tenable. Maybe, as Guardini claims, our dangerous world, in which love is so strikingly absent, will force us to again turn our gaze toward the wandering preacher from Nazareth, whose words we finally will have ears to hear, as if for the first time.