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Your Downfall is Rooted in Your Triumph

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (now THERE’S a title!) reviews The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, the new book by theologians John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, in The New Statesman.

I want to like Milbank, and his critique of modernity, but I have found the man to be far to awful a writer to deal with seriously. Williams wanted to like him too, and has some good things to say about the book, though he is also critical of portions of the book.

I’ve not read it — I cannot afford books right now, and I’m nowhere near a serious university or seminary library to indulge myself — so I don’t know.

But Williams has this observation of Milbank’s and Pabst’s critique of where the West, where Christendom, “went wrong”…

Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.

I’m not going to deal with the accuracy of either William’s characterization of Milbank and Pabst, or Milbank’s and Pabst’s assertion made in the book, save to say that the idea a civilization’s downfall can be found in its greatest strengths and traced from it peak is a very biblical notion.

1 Kings 10 outlines King Solomon’s wealth — 666 talents of gold come to him in one year, not including all that came “from the explorers and from the business of the merchants, and from all the kings of the west and Thousands of chariots and soldiers, silver as common as gold, and giant ivory throne.

23 Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. 24 And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. 25 Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. (1 Kings 10:23-25 ESV)

He fills his palace with 700 wives and princesses, and 300 concubines. All of this — women, court, army — is costly. Israelites and Canaanites alike are conscripted to build, and taxed for it all.

Now, ostensibly, God promises to rip the kingdom from Solomon’s hands because he has allowed and encouraged and even likely participated in the idolatrous worship of some (many?) of his non-Israelite wives/mistresses/concubines. (1 Kings 11:9-13) For the sake of David, God will allow Solomon to reign over a wealthy, powerful, united kingdom.

The price to be paid for Solomon’s unfaithfulness will only come after. Solomon will not pay it himself.

It comes in the form of Jereboam, the son of one of the king’s female servants (a mistress?), who rebels against the king. When Solomon dies, Israel comes to his son Reheboam and asks for relief from the taxes, from the forced labor, from the cost for this kingdom, this court, and this large standing army.

Reheboam refuses, and in his arrogance, promises more taxes and tribute and conscription.

So Jereboam leads the rebels, who disown and denounce the monarchy and the state. “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse! To your tents, O’ Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” shouted the rebels, who go their own way, found their own state, and build their own temples.

Solomon’s empire was strong, powerful, wealthy — and that strength, that power, that wealth, was its own undoing. In this, I believe we see something about ourselves as both human beings and as the people of God. We are undone by our power, which sets into motion things we cannot control, cannot fix, cannot repair, and cannot even fully comprehend. I see the story of the church in this light. American Christendom is being undone by the very power, wealth, privilege, and influence it still yearns and aches for. Indeed, Western Christendom itself is being undone by its centuries of power.

Because power undoes itself.

And, to the extent the history of Israel tells us something about what it means to be human — the condition of humanity writ small — then this is true of peoples and nations and empires. An act of faithfulness, particularly on the part of the ruler, can arrest the decline and collapse for a time, but it cannot stop the coming judgment, which was set into motion long before and rooted in the very things that made the society or state powerful and important to begin with.

It also means that sadly, those who pay the price, bear the consequences of sin, are not those who sinned. Solomon died the ruler of a powerful, wealthy state, though he’d also been promised his son would not rule that state. The Babylonians, the ultimate consequence for the sins Solomon set into motion, would not show up and defeat Judah for several centuries. Jereboam would erect golden calves in Bethel and Dan, and proclaim them Israel’s gods, but it would be some time before the Assyrians arrived and destroyed the northern kingdom.

So I am willing to accept Milbank’s and Pabst’s characterization of the West’s decline — the very moment those things arose which made Western Christendom and the secularism arising from it the power that could conquer and organize the world are also the moment the decline begins, because those very things which made the West the supreme global power are also those same things which will bring about its demise.

It’s true. It’s human. And it is inescapable and inevitable.

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