One could be excused for thinking that Christianity is in trouble. Church attendance, particularly in mainline Protestant churches, has declined. Since the heyday of the “Moral Majority,” Christian political influence has dropped dramatically. Recent data show that the percentage of people claiming no religious affiliation is growing rapidly.
The church’s moral authority has diminished. People are not turning to the church to ask what is right, they are turning to the courts to ask what is legal. The abortion and same-sex marriage issues emphatically illustrate the point.
Much has changed within a generation. Dwight Eisenhower was baptized into the Christian faith while he was in office. Jimmy Carter taught a Sunday School as often as he could, even when he was president. Bill Clinton was regularly photographed carrying a gigantic Bible as he left church services. Contrast these examples to President Obama who, in spite of ongoing criticism, does not feel it (even symbolically) important to attend church.
When, in the 1950s, Americans and Western Europeans distinguished themselves from their communist rivals they often did do so with a single word: the communists were “godless.” Americans, on the other hand, lived in the heart of Christendom.
The world has changed since then, and one man saw it coming. In the inaugural Pascal Lectures at the University of Waterloo, given in 1978, Malcom Muggeridge foretold the end of Christendom with prophetic insight.
He had long seen signs of it. They were everywhere. He saw it in the arts, in the works of Dali, Picasso and Beckett. “In the cycle of a great civilization,” he noted, “the artist begins as a priest and ends as a clown or buffoon.” He later added, “A dying civilization, Christendom, on a swiftly moving, ebbing tide, clutches at any novelty in art and literature, ready to accept and then almost at once reject whatever is new no matter how perverse or abnormal.”
Muggeridge also saw signs of Christendom’s end in the West’s systematic abandonment of Christian mores. He discerned even then that society was not moving from one set of moral values to another – from, for example, a Christian to a humanistic moral standard – but from a Christian moral standard to a moral vacuum, particularly in the areas of eroticism.
Humankind’s technological advancements have made it possible to move faster, grow richer, communicate more rapidly and even master many illnesses. But this has led, Muggeridge realized, to a “growing arrogance, a widening separation from the true nature of our being; in other words, an alienation from God.” “Christendom,” he said, “has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite … dismantling Christendom, depreciating and deprecating all its values.”
But the fall of Christendom does not represent the end of human history, any more than did the fall of Rome in 410 A.D. or the fall of Jerusalem nearly a millennium before that. Nor does the fall of Christendom, as Muggeridge made clear, represent the end of Christianity. Quite the contrary. “Amid the shambles of a fallen Christendom,” he said, “I feel a renewed confidence in the light of the Christian revelation with which it first began.”
Christendom may be sinking – is sinking – but Christ’s kingdom remains. While much has been lost, there is also much to gain. For example, living in Christendom made it possible for generations to suppose they were Christians when they were really only citizens. But in the fall of Christendom, only those truly committed to Christ will have any reason to bear his name.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people thought that in rejecting Christendom’s traditions they had rejected Christ. As Christendom falls, such people will find that Christ still stands and offers an attractive alternative to the kind of life the dominant culture can provide.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/25/14