Hard lessons from our ancient forebears in the Faith

Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

“Martyrdom of St Sebastian” by Paolo Veronese (1528-88) [WikiArt.org]

Writing at the intersection of faith and politics is a dangerous business. Alexandra DeSanctis of the National Review is to be commended for the admirable acquittal she gave of herself in her recent foray into that fraught field, with her June 1 piece, “Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement Can Find Hope in the Story of Roman Christians”, in which she argued, “The [pro-life] movement has faced days grimmer than the morning that dawned last Saturday in Ireland. And, in the case of the Church, the very grimmest days fueled its future victories,” hence that, “the story of Peter and the early Roman Christians should infuse Irish Catholics and discouraged pro-lifers in the Western world with a great deal of hope.” She’s right.

Early Christians and Christians today

Things for Christians in what we call the West have been far, far worse than they are now: in other places, our brothers and sisters daily face real persecution. Even so, there is quiet and quite civilized shedding of blood underway in the West, on an appalling scale. As DeSanctis also rightly says, “[T]he blood being shed isn’t that of 21st-century pro-life people, but that of the unborn.” This speaks to the profoundly sick and twisted soul of a culture — ours — that has not put off its wicked savagery, but seen it wax ever more exquisite under the impetus of civilization.

When DeSanctis writes, “[E]arly Christian stories teach the pro-life movement that ostensibly crushing defeat could very well be the seed from which a movement derives its strength — depending on how it handles that adversity,” she is quite right, again. “Because of the courage of early Christians,” she continues, “ the brutal martyrdom of Peter furnished the entire history of Christian worship in the city of Rome, still the seat of Catholicism.” That is well said, and well worth remembering. “The pagan historian Tertullian was speaking quite literally when he wrote that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’,” DeSanctis goes on to say, again, rightly so.

There is, however, a significant difference between what those early Christians faced, and what Christians face in the present.

As Russ Saltzman pointed out last week, in another powerfully thought-provoking CWR essay on the subject of Ireland, “The Western world has defaulted to its old-time religion: paganism,” when “pagan” to him means, “The European pre-Christian habits of social thought and behavior, and the coarse encounters within a superstitiously credulous but de-spiritualized culture that marked day-to-day paganism in the ancient world.”

Saltzman wryly says he does not expect “to see temples erected to Juno and the moon goddess.” One might quibble with his expectations, and say that they are contrary to fact: in Ireland and other places of even more ancient Christian heritage, there is an eerily fascinating resurgence of a pagan cult. Though mostly practiced on a sort of diabolic lark, we have it on authority that the devil does not deal in such distinctions, and doesn’t mind: he’ll show up, anyway.

Still, the point is well made, and taken.

If the old paganism was credulous but de-spiritualized — I am not sure that’s quite right — it was nevertheless a coherent worldview already under significant stress when Christianity began to emerge as a cultural phenomenon and become a civilizational force. This time around, it is Christianity’s retreat from the cultural field, which has created the vacuum into which the so-called new paganism has rushed, not in resistance to Christianity as an emerging cultural force, but in rejection and supplantation of that force in retreat. Saltzman is dead-on right when he next adduces the famous remark of Joseph Ratzinger, made in his 1958 lecture on the subject: “[The Church] is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians.”

“Normal” and “nominal” Christians

DeSanctis also speaks to this in her essay, when she says, “The challenge to the Church, then, comes from both within and without.” Her framing of the issue, however, is somewhat problematic.

À propos of the “nominal Catholics” in our day, DeSanctis says, “[They] can be reminded by the martyrs of Christianity’s eternal value,” just as surely as, “pro-life people in Ireland should take courage from the lives of the saints.” That is certainly true. Nevertheless, what follows is insufficient. DeSanctis says, “During times of external persecution, ‘normal’ Christians were forced to decide whether their faith was worth dying for.” The problem is twofold: first, there were no “normal” Christians in pagan antiquity — at least, none of the kind we meet today, and to which she presumably refers; second, on her own premises (and Saltzman’s), there is no threat to Christianity in the West today that we may characterize as properly external to it.

To put the first point another way: being a “normal” Christian in pagan antiquity meant something very much different — it meant living under forfeit and perpetual danger of betrayal by friends and family, with the constant threat of destitution, imprisonment, and gruesome death — and people went into the thing with eyes wide-open. Even so, most of them gave up, even if they didn’t sell out (and it took the broader community of Christian faithful called the Church several centuries to work out the implications of betrayal and establish rules about how to treat the turncoats who repented). In any case, Christianity didn’t try to change the laws of ancient pagan society (didn’t try to outlaw abortion or the practice of exposing newborns) until it had transformed the moral culture.

That’s most emphatically not to say we ought to give up the fight to end legal abortion in our present day: if anyone say we ought to give that fight up for lost, my response is to say it is a fight worth losing, so long as we fight it in such a way, that we deserve to win. That is the lesson the early Christians teach us — or one of them anyway — and it is a hard one to learn.

Eric Voegelin addresses the more complex second matter in his series of Walgreen lectures, which became the book, The New Science of Politics: an introduction — itself a programmatic statement of the work Voegelin would go on to do in his monumental Order and History. There, he speaks to the point in a register sui generis, under the rubric of “gnosticism”, which for him names an intellectual and religious attitude toward the world that began in the 2nd century AD, but can trace its deepest roots as far back as the 7th century BC and the Mediterranean resistance to Persia, which led to the disintegration of order in various societies — mostly, but not exclusively Greek and Greek-speaking — at the outset of what Voegelin would eventually come to call the “age of ecumenic empire”.

Ancient and modern gnosticism

Gnosticism in the sense Voegelin intends it is polymorphous, even protean: a very difficult thing to identify and nail down: its essential characteristic is its conception of the world as a benighted place and a locus of evil, into which some malign power has cast human beings, who have become ensnared in the place and entangled with the evil of it. Humanity experiences its entanglement as incorporation (indeed the incarnation is invariably scandalous to it); the gnostic impulse acts on human being, pushing it toward the destruction of the evil world; this push in its turn drives the search for a way to escape the matter — the very stuff — that holds human being in its captivity.

In very broad strokes, Voegelin’s historical reading shows how the history that happened along the way involved the disintegration of Hellenic society organized through the polis. The rise of Rome further eroded the order of Hellenic political societies, while the earlier rise of new empires further east resulted in the weakening and eventual collapse of the various near-eastern orders expressed through cosmological myth, such as those of the Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. The resulting spiritual vacuum was one in which the old articulations of order were no longer adequate expressions of participation in the cosmos.

Christianity emerged in the middle of all this ferment, essentially transforming the order of society and permitting the articulation of a new social reality, in which new possibilities for social life sprang up and began to flower. Christianity did not, however, break the power of gnosticism. Indeed, Christianity could not have done so, since it cannot force anyone to see that the world is really good and orderly, but can only show that it is. Christianity teaches its members to prove the goodness of the world by living holy lives, during the living of which they create, maintain, and inhabit institutions designed for such creatures as they recognized themselves to be: noble, but fallen ones, who await the fulfilment of their redemption at the end of history.

Gnosticism gained strength under various social pressures and re-emerged during the Middle Ages, though its emergence was slow and often by infinitesimal degrees:

[T]he transformation is so gradual, indeed, that it would be difficult to decide whether contemporary phenomena should be classified as Christian because they are intelligibly an outgrowth of Christian heresies of the Middle Ages or whether medieval phenomena should be classified as anti-Christian because they are intelligibly the origin of modern anti-Christian-ism. (Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: an introduction, in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, vol. 5, p.190)

Voegelin goes on to say, “The best course will be to drop such questions and to recognize the essence of modernity as the growth of gnosticism.” The growth — whatever one wants to call it and however things might have gone with a different diet and better exercise regimen — is by now malignant and metastatic. We are, to use a slightly different medical metaphor, all infected to one degree or another with a spiritual pathology — no one is safe, and no one is immune — while the thing we want to save — our soul — is the very thing that carries the pathogen. It is not as bad as DeSanctis and Saltzman say it is: it is much worse.

Heroic virtue in an increasingly hostile age

The question, then, is: what to do?

Things at present seem so far advanced, that even a radical attempt to live thoroughly and without stint as though we really believe the things we profess are true, might not save our culture, or rescue the civilizational project called the West. It will, however, help to make us the kind of creatures who could be saved from themselves — which is the real point of Christianity — and might just get us a culture and a civilization, some part of which may be worth saving, even if it does not save them.

There is some comfort to be had in the fact that, appearances aside, things really have always been so, that the project we call Western Civilization has been to the brink and even over the edge a few times, and has come back. A little sanity is all we need, and — as DeSanctis rightly says, “Nothing clarifies the mind quite like the point of a sword.” The point is, that is very harsh medicine, and hardly to be wished.

In the meantime, our work is mostly muddling, even when to muddle takes heroic virtue. If we are to muddle through, we must find a way to converse with our fellows — in religion and in society — who do not share even our most basic presuppositions, and are increasingly hostile to our operative convictions (social conditions not dissimilar, generally, to those in which our brethren of the early centuries found themselves).

It is a fine and difficult thing — nigh on impossible — to converse with an interlocutor who does not share one’s moral universe, though as C.S. Lewis rightly says in Mere Christianity, “[W]hen a thing has to be attempted, one must never think about possibility.”

It is certainly true that people in thrall to the prevailing culture — characterized, as DeSanctis and Saltzman rightly say it is, by its intinction in and devotion to a weird, reactionary paganism — are wrong to see every expression of the moral tenets of the Catholic faith as an expression of “hate”.

We must have arguments to hand for them when they are ready to hear them, and we cannot let ourselves be cowed into silence for fear of offending them. There are always people ready to hear, and we are commanded to sow generously, to cast broad nets in deep waters. Nevertheless, until they are ready to hear, we can only give them to see and begin to understand the reason for our hope by other means. We must show them — after the example of another Roman martyr, Justin, who was not unacquainted with the rhetorical and forensic arts — that we are willing, God saves us, to stare down the point of a sword, to be tied up and set alight, to be devoured by lions — not only for His sake but for theirs. Our forebears in the faith teach us hard lessons, indeed.