For Part 1 of this series, click HERE.
The great question for the emerging East, Asia and other awakening third world areas, for an emerging nation like China is, “what fate awaits them?” They are now emerging from an analogous paganism that the West emerged from centuries ago. Here is an amazing quotation from David Aikman, the Time Magazine religious editor. He is a quoting from “a scholar from one of China’s premier academic institutions, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, in 2002.”
“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”((David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.), p. 5))
There is a speeding up of history. What took hundreds of years to conquer in the Western Roman Empire in the conquest of Caesarism, appears to be earnestly underway in China at a much more rapid pace now. Mao Zedong, the Communist revolutionary dictator of China, was an odd figure. With more than Caesar-like powers, he undid Caesar and caesarism in China in only a few years. I heard more than once when I was in China that he was the Cyrus the Persian, and the Alexander the Great, of China. He swept China clean of its old ways, gods, and traditions as they did the Persian and Grecian Empires centuries before. They left enormous vacuums that were then filled by Christianity, and so did he. Mao ironically undid the possibility of his own Communist authority in his quest for modernity by sweeping everything “old” away. He undid his own Caesar’s platform. Like Cyrus of old, he was unbeknownst to himself, merely the servant of the God of the Bible (Isaiah 45:1-6).
We see the undoing of not only the authority of the gods in China, but also of the ethical. When I was in China, I sat through depressing seminars where it was explained to us how the old Chinese family is being undone, and by all that we heard, it sounds as if in the major cities, Chinese youth are now almost as sexually casual as Western youth. And as capitalism transforms old China, the power of creative destruction described by the economist Schumpeter((Joseph A. Schumpeter Capitalism, Socialism and
Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975) [orig. pub. 1942])) will in all likelihood pulverize what remains of the old traditional order.
Communism still exists in China, but only in name. It is an odd Communism that has permitted private property and extravagant capitalist ventures for thirty years now. Christianity is now being embraced with a dizzying speed, but will the cultural effects in the end be the same as in Britain and Western Europe as a whole? Does Christianity eventually overcome itself with a complete self-destructiveness? Does everything just circle around to the old versions with an ironic egoist twist? Does pantheism in the form of selfism and narcissism eventually triumph everywhere that Christianity triumphs? How ironic that the very science that Christianity midwived and made possible gave birth to Darwinism, which is just the old ancient pantheistic metaphysic dressed up in cap and gown. It is the old myth of order mysteriously emerging from chaos and finally remerging with it after eons and ages gone by. It is the old story of the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and yes the Chinese all over again, now pretending to be dressed out with facts and evidence. Is this just a giant circle in which we are enveloped?
My answer to this is “No! God forbid!” Rather, we appear to be entering a whole new phase of Christian history. Christianity far from coming to an end, is now rather becoming the world-wide religion, and is entering a new era in the west and in those areas where it appears to be exhausted. Fredrick Nietzsche said that we had entered the era of “the last man”, by which he meant the bleached out modern man who is so tame that all heroic dimensions had been excised from him. His description of “the last man” is very incisive.((Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992) p. 287-339)) But did Christ die for the “last man” as well as other types? It would be absurd to believe he did not. Modern man is both incomparably powerful, and inconsequential. A narcissist is both everything and nothing. Having achieved conquest over nature, it is now questionable of what use the conqueror is.
Seen from another standpoint, the course of Western history is the course of Christ overcoming all glory that opposes him. The only glory that is left is the glory that he himself has purchased for the church. Jesus prayed this way in John 17, “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them…And the glory which you gave me, I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…” (John 17:9,22)
The Gospel is both constructive and destructive. Part of the destructive nature of the Gospel is the apparent destruction of every form of glory that is opposed to the Gospel. The modern world cannot approach the sense of glory of any of the ancient empires, or even of the glories of the monarchial courts of Europe of only a few centuries ago. The world is incomparably richer, and more bland. Wealth does not produce majesty. Boring glass towers in the centers of our cities do not begin to compete in grandeur with any of the architectural masterpieces of previous times, even within our own civilization.
It seems also to be the case that all of the great overarching ideologies of the past have lost almost all capacity to capture allegiance. In the very recent past, Marxism and Nazi-ism seemed to be swan songs the possibilities of collective glory. All that appears to be left are the ideologies of the self. Instead of believing in some great overarching ideology or philosophy that has the power to both explain and transform everything, about the best we can do is go to counseling and learn the family dynamics that have hindered our sense of fulfillment. And psycho-therapy is itself enjoying no great prestige and its own potency is very questionable. Psychiatrists appear to find the dispensing of psycho-pharmacological drugs more effective than talk therapy.
It needs to be remembered that the “glory” that Jesus promised began with the crucifixion. In the Gospel of John particularly, when Jesus speaks of being glorified, he is speaking of his crucifixion. All through the Prophets, a time referred to as “the Day of the Lord” is spoken of. The Day of the Lord is the time of judgment when God makes all things pass through His fire of holiness. The final truth of all things is revealed and all pretensions and lies are done away with. In Jesus’ own time, the Day of the Lord is upon Israel. Israel is ripe for judgment. That judgment finally comes in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. However, Jesus himself forestalls that judgment by 40 years by allowing the judgment of God on himself at the crucifixion. In this he “saves” Israel and gives a period of time for repentance before a final judgment on the city comes. This same picture can then be spread out over the longer purview of history. Jesus died on the Cross and gives all of the world a period of repentance before the final Conflagration at the end. Jerusalem, and particularly the Temple, are models or replicas of the whole cosmos, and the Jews were called as a representative people for all other peoples up to the time of the end of the First Covenant. Hence the destruction of the Temple and of the Holy City Jerusalem as real history, are also types of the final destruction and judgment of the world at the end of time. Jesus forestalls the Day of the Lord, and brings the judgment of God back into history in a salvific way.((The above is much of the essential and broad thesis of the work of New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright))
Hence, to embrace the death and crucifixion of Jesus is to pass through the fire of judgment and to be purified. It is to bring to destruction all which opposes the holiness of God. By embracing the Cross, we become a people of The Day of Lord, and let me suggest that we become bearers of the judgment of God back into history. We become that people who carry the kindling and fire of God’s judgment wherever we go. Part of our glory is that we have ourselves borne the judgment of God, and we take the judgment of God with us wherever we are (and this seems to happen in spite of all our personal and collective failings, just as the Jews were a people of massive personal and collective failings in the Old Testament). Jesus in John 3 in his discourse with Nicodemus says that everyone who believes will become a wind, like the Holy Spirit is a wind, and like the Spirit, it will “blow where it wishes” (vs. 6-7). This is an allusion back to Daniel 7:2. “Daniel spoke, saying, ‘I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea.’” The “four winds” are the Jews being sent to the four corners of the earth. As they go, they stir up monsters and beasts in the Sea (the nations). As Christians, we now have this same vocation.((I owe insight into this parallelism to James Jordan.))
This would imply that the missionary movement of the last 200 years, innocuous as it seemed, was dynamite wherever it went. Traditional structures and understandings are both destroyed and radically modified wherever the Gospel goes. Hope and Messiah have entered history. Therefore, anti-Christ, that which pretends to give salvation like Christ, but outside of Him, also enters history, and the Great Sea is stirred. Monsters come up out of the sea as we have seen in the last century. Maoism in China for example, was a monster, but a monster that would probably not have stirred if the missionary movement had not been the wind that stirred the sea.((Leslie Newbigin points out that in both China and India, Marxism emerged as a “power” in precisely those areas where Christianity had been the most successful. Messianic desires, hope, and the breaking of pagan cyclicalism, came through the missionary movement. Salvation did not come fast enough, hence alternative, or “anti”-Christ (which is what “anti-Christ” means) became appealing. Many Marxist leaders were trained in missionary schools.))
And likewise in the West, it would seem that judgment upon judgment has come upon the world. Form after form has come and gone (in contrast to the remarkable stability of the ancient world before Christ, as exemplified by say, Egypt or China), and it would seem that every traditional structure and form is now under attack. With modern economy, we appear to have perpetual “creative destruction” as Schumpeter described capitalism.
The “attack” on the traditional family in the West (and now in China) is instructive. We often hear romantic longings for the past when the extended family was intact and functioned to everyone’s benefit. But that is not entirely true. Jesus indicated that the family could be and often was, one of the worst enemies of the Gospel. One of the most radical texts in the New Testament is the one that begins, “Unless you hate your father and your mother…you cannot follow me.” This has long roots in the Old Testament, when the Levites were rewarded with the priesthood for taking up swords against their own families after the debacle of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:25-29). Loyalty to family and to blood ties has been one of the most destructive “principalities” in history, and has been productive of untold misery. Best to weigh the real cost when moderns and post moderns long for a return to some mythical past. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous tellings of the destructiveness and hatred that have historically resulted from clan loyalties. The death of one’s own son and daughter is the price that Shakespeare reminds that families can exact.
The church has fought a long battle with this principality. Originally, clerical celibacy was imposed by Gregory the Great (near the year 1000 A.D.) in order to produce an independent clergy. The lords of manors all wanted a priest in the pocket, and to marry one’s daughter to the priest insured his clan loyalty, and compromised his independence. However much clerical celibacy may have been outworn by Luther’s time, it served a noble purpose originally.
When Saint Francis stripped naked before his wealthy merchant father, and gave back the very robe on his back and walked away, he instituted rebellion against the father’s traditional authority. Francis “hated” his father so he could serve Jesus with no hindrance. What was revolutionary in Francis’ day has now been secularized and is hackneyed. Hardly anyone in the Western world would obey their father in order to carry on family traditions and beliefs. The skewing of the family is both necessary and terrible. China appears to be following fast on our heels, even if there is still much old fashioned patriarchalism left. One wonders what 50 years will reap.
We are down to the naked ego, and it is not much. But perhaps it is where we needed to go. But, Jesus does not only attack the family and undermine it, he finally brings us to this place as well. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?’” (Matthew 16:24-26)
It is hardly as though the Church has not tackled this issue in the past, but rather, we have come to a place where perhaps the deepest implications of the issue are finally exposed. Cartesianism and the autonomous Kantian ego would have been impossible apart from humanity being lifted up and ennobled by the Incarnation. The Incarnation has rendered the human race incomparably significant and important. But western and christianized man hi-jacked the implications of the Incarnation with the declaration of autonomy. The result of western philosophical humanism is finally selfism. The self has emerged as a new Power. But now in this evolution, the deepest and most terrible implications of selfism can be overcome. There is no reason to believe that the revolutionary powers let loose by the Gospel should end now. Christ died for post-modern democratic bores described by Nietzsche as “last men” as much as he died for anybody else in history. The “last man” is not last. Jesus Christ and the renewed human race is “last”. This is a Christian statement that is as much a matter of faith as any modern pessimistic prophecy of the doom of the West and of Europe. But, if renewal for Europe, and other affluent post-modern places is not a possibility, then in the end, there is no hope for places like China and the rest of what is still termed the “third world” either. For if the conquest of old fashioned paganism, and poverty are the extent of the reach and power of the Gospel, then those triumphs will be the last for those areas as well, and we will simply relapse into post-modern selfism and final collapse everywhere.
I have heard the sentiment many times by American Christians that places like Africa, and Asia are the real “frontiers” of Christianity. But I do not believe this is true. What is being done there has been done many times by the church. The church has been overcoming paganism, tribalism and the remnants of astral empires for centuries. We know how to do that. But, the form of life that we find in a place like Cambridge, England, or Boulder, Colorado, is not something we know how to do. The real frontiers are here, in Western Europe and America.
I would also suggest that we see various dead ends being offered as possible paths of reconstruction. The appeal of both Islam, and of western cults like Mormonism, is the hope they hold out that the world can still be reconstructed on the basis of blood ties: of clan, family, and tribe. But, the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ undoes the body and blood of nature—it is the end of natural body and blood as foundation. I think much of the convulsiveness of Islam at this time is precisely the convulsiveness of nature and blood dying as ultimate connecting foundations. There is no going back, and violence and fanaticism are the panicked signs of this being recognized and feared.
The other great form of attempted renewal is modern selfism and selfist pantheism. In contrast to the reductionistic world of western scientific rationalism, it is strongly felt that all things must be re-synthesized and reconnected, and post modern people long to be positively reconnected.
In a post-Kantian world, all things can only be reconnected by means of myself in some form. If only I can adequately love myself, then I can love all things as well. But this leads to a new reductionism, a reductionism that reduces all things (including all relationships) to extensions of me. This is virtually the definition of manipulativeness, and this is the great bane that all therapies combat. But manipulativeness is inherent in all selfisms, and without another more adequate foundation, constitutes a contradiction to any real relationship. Egoisms eventually become solipsisms.
Hence, the “third world” is convulsively re-asserting blood, tribe and clan, and the “first” world is vying with selfist pantheisms. But, one is as hopeless as the other.
Power after Power has been overcome in the West. We are now at a place where all things need to be reconstructed and reconnected. But the reconnection cannot be and never can be again found in the Principalities and Powers themselves. Reconnection can only be found in Jesus Christ and the bonds of the Holy Spirit. The state, the church, the family, and even the self, are not autonomous powers. They are subject to Jesus Christ who is the King and is the one who has inaugurated His Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is here, and only it will triumph. “Repent and believe” can be retranslated, “Re-orient your thinking, feeling, and willing. His Kingdom is now His rule.” We are to re-orient all of our thinking to acknowledge this, and to live in this reality.
Whatever has been destroyed by the invasion of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus Christ into history is destroyed only to be given back. It is given back in renewed and glorified form. All things must die in order to be reborn. All things, including the family, the state, and even the self, and shall I add, the university, must bow the knee to Jesus Christ, who is the King, and the perfecter and glorifier of all of creation.
Richard Bledsoe is a Theopolis Fellow and works as a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.
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