Although Christians cannot be above the fray because we are part of it—called and commanded to love our neighbours, and even our enemies—we are nonetheless beyond the fray in the sense that we are called to something beyond it…
“My own view is that Christianity is all about progress,” wrote ‘Eric’ in a comment on my essay “The Risen Christ and Fallen Civilization,” “and on that note disagree with the idea that any improvement is impossible.”
Although Eric was disagreeing with me, I’d like to begin by agreeing with him. Christianity is, indeed, all about progress, if we mean the progress of the human soul towards the heaven to which it is called. We are all meant to make progress in the spiritual life, growing in virtue, by the grace of God, so that we can fulfill our vocation as Christians to be with Christ in His Everlasting Kingdom. And, of course, in agreeing with Eric that Christianity is all about progress, at least in the sense of the progress of the soul towards heaven, I must insist that he has misread my meaning if he is suggesting that I think “any improvement is impossible.” On the contrary, improvement is not only possible but necessary.
We need to understand, however, that improvement is only possible in a limited sense; in the sense that our own human limitations set a limit on the extent and nature of the progress we are able to make. We are made in the image of God, which means that we are called to become more Christ-like, which is the goal of all true progress, but we are also fallen creatures, prone to sin and laboring under the burden of the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others. Since this is the inescapable tension that we find in every human heart, it is also, therefore, the inescapable tension at the heart of all human society.
We deny this tension at our peril. As soon as we reject the reality of Original Sin, we begin to believe that man is immaculate in his nature, spotless at birth, and that it is only his environment that corrupts him. If this is the case, we can make people perfect by making their environment perfect. Furthermore, if the “constructs” of human civilization, such as religion and the traditional family, are considered to be the cause of human corruption, we only need to destroy religion and the traditional family in order to rid human society of corruption. This was the philosophical error which animated Rousseau’s “noble savage” as it is the philosophical error which animates modern “progressives.”
The problem, of course, as history has shown, is that the “noble savage,” once unleashed, becomes a Frankenstein monster whose ignoble savagery knows no bounds. Rousseau’s philosophy, along with the scientistic “progressivism” of the Enlightenment, was a major influence on the French Revolution, which, with its Great Terror, was the dress rehearsal for the communism which followed in its wake.
“The difference between real progress (Christianity) and the fake progress of the left wing,” writes Eric, “is [that] the former commands us to improve the world by improving ourselves first, while the latter claims to ‘save the world’ while neglecting the self entirely.” This is only half-true which, like all half-truths, is as dangerous as an outright lie. It is true that Christians believe that we have to improve ourselves first, which is only possible with God’s grace, before we can improve the world around us, but it is hardly true to say that secular ‘progressives’ neglect the self entirely. On the contrary, the secularists deify the self, making each individual the god of his own self-constructed microcosmos, enshrining the spirit of selfishness, to which they rightly affix the label of “pride.”
The difference between the humility which animates the selflessness of Christians and the pride which animates the selfishness of secularists is that the former sacrifice themselves for others whereas the latter sacrifice others to themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of abortion, in which babies are quite literally sacrificed so that their parents can avoid the self-sacrifice necessary in raising the child.
Commenting on my original article, Eric wrote that “this is a form of conservatism I am starting to seriously dislike, this relentless pessimism and hand wringing, along with a somewhat arrogant attitude of being ‘above the fray’…. [It’s] a type of conservatism that is pessimistic and that seems to wallow in that pessimism. That, to me, is the opposite of Christianity, which is optimistic in nature and whose goal is to make life on earth better and better.”
At this point, I am almost baffled with sheer bemusement at Eric’s reading of my article. Looking out the window, as I write, I see five deer, grazing in the undergrowth; a phoebe is perched beneath me; the roosters are crowing; mama hen is pecking at the ground, surrounded by her four chicks. Soon, as I sip a large espresso in the kitchen, I will see indigo buntings at the birdfeeder, along with cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, and squirrels and chipmunks. In a world thus charged with the grandeur of God, as Hopkins would say, only an idiot would be a “hand-wringing pessimist.”
Although Christians, unlike the chicks and chickadees, cannot be above the fray because we are part of it—called and commanded to love our neighbours, and even our enemies—we are nonetheless beyond the fray in the sense that we are called to something beyond it. We are called to the peace which this world will never provide, regardless of how much “progress” is made. There will never be a heaven on earth and only a fool believes otherwise. Does this make me a pessimist? Am I wringing my hands and wallowing in my pessimism? I would confess that I might become a pessimist were I to believe, as Eric does, that Christianity “is optimistic in nature and whose goal is to make life on earth better and better.” Where, one wonders, does Eric read in Scripture that Christ came to make life on earth better and better? Where are we told that this is his goal? I seem to recall words about the world hating Christians because they have hated Christ first, and that they will persecute us because they have persecuted Him. “If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” Is Christ a hand-wringing pessimist, wallowing in his pessimism, or does he call us to something beyond the world and beyond anything the world has to offer? Does the world hate what he has to offer because the world offers something different which is anathema to him?
The irony is that the world would indeed be a better place if more of us practiced what Christianity preaches. It would be a better place if more of us valued virtue and vilified vice; it would be a better place if more of us acted responsibly instead of demanding our rights. And yet most people prefer the easier path, shunning the way of the cross, and the self-sacrifice it demands. As Chesterton reminds us, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
This perennial worldliness can only be a cause of pessimism if we are putting our trust in the world and not in the one who made the world. Christ has conquered the world as he has conquered death. The victory is already won. We only need to wait until the end of the world, which for each of us is the end of our lives in the world. It is only then that the real life begins. And it only begins if we have made progress in this life. If we grow in virtue, loving the Lord our God and our neighbours, we will be making the world a better place, even as we are making progress towards that really better place that God has prepared for those who follow him. This is the ultimate win-win situation. In becoming better people, we make the world a better place. This is the only real progress, for each of us as individuals and for the communities of which we are a part.
And yet the real progress in this world, which can only come through the practice of Christianity, is only the preamble for that greater progress that begins after this world passes away, which, to remind ourselves once again, is sooner than we think for each of us, coming as it does with our own respective deaths. As C.S. Lewis tells us at the climax of the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, death is “only the beginning of the real story”: “All their life in this world and all their adventures…had only been the cover and the title page: now, at last, they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
This progress towards the “happy ever after” of the beatific vision might be called many things. It is certainly progressive in the best sense, but it is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, pessimistic. It is this joyful expectation of Paradise that keeps the Christian bringing his hands together in prayer and not wringing them in desperation. For this, as in all things, we should give thanks to the Lord our God, the bringer of all good things.
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