How to Live in a Pagan World

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative notes something interesting today, and not for the first time:

To put it more bluntly than it probably should be, if the question is, “Can you be both a good Christian, and a good American?”, the answer is increasingly looking like no, you cannot.

I’m glad he asks this questions, and answers it the way he does.

But … le sigh. Really? I should not be so frustrated — Dreher is a social and cultural conservative (and I really owe him a great deal), and he seems on some level to be committed to the “American project” in a way that goes beyond Jeremiah’s admonition to exiled Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) I am none of those things, and think the church should take exile more seriously. That the failure to understand we truly are an exiled people, and to think we are truly at home in a world ordered by Christians, is one of the great failures of Christendom. For Dreher, I suspect there is something between lament and panic in his statement.

I’m convinced this lack of congruence between citizenship and baptismal calling is something to celebrate, and not lament. But maybe that’s just me.

Dreher quotes from a paper he delivered on “The Benedict Option,” that is, in the midst of a secular order increasingly hostile to Christian truth as it is confessed and lived out, the church should create redoubts — akin to the monasteries of late antiquity — to preserve both the knowledge and practice of Christian truth. Not to retreat from the world, but to create a place where the church can exist and even thrive in a hostile world.

Put bluntly, given the dynamics of our rapidly changing culture, I believe it will be increasingly difficult to be a good Christian and a good American. It is far more important to me to preserve the faith than to preserve liberal democracy and the American order. Ideally, there should not be a contradiction, but again, the realities of post-Christian America challenge our outdated ideals.

Oh good God, why? Why should there be no contraction? Why should faith and practice be easy? Why should it be easy to be both a good Christian and a good American? This is something I simply do not understand. And I have never understood.


The Augustana Synod’s view of America, 1960.

But then the faith that seems to be sought — the faith of American Christendom circa 1960 — has always struck me as a meaningless social faith, more committed to the success of America than it was to proclaiming and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Or far worse, it was a faith that simply could not tell the difference.

One of things I always admired about The Nation of Islam is they understood what our country’s racial politics were, in the end, all about — good citizenship. That Black Americans were de jure American citizens, but post-Civil War society was structured in such a way that blacks were simply not allowed to really be good Americans in any way, shape, or form. And that racial order was accepted as moral and correct (if sometimes a little rude and disagreeable) by just about everyone.

The Nation’s response was always, “Fine. We don’t want your citizenship. We will secede in place, and we may end up sometimes acting like good citizens, but we aren’t going to pretend like that will change anything, that if we behave better and make something of ourselves, that you will accept us. Because you won’t. It’s not in you.”

Before I go any farther with this, I’d like to focus on both Dreher’s and Michael Hanby’s arguments from creation. Yes, both appear to reflect a deep Catholic intellectual understanding of the meaning and purpose of creation, and a very specific kind of conservative catholic view, a view I tend not to share.

But I don’t like arguments from creation. In fact, I’ve become convinced that all of our theologies are far too creation centered. That beginning with the creation itself is a problem. In the quote Dreher posts, George Weigel demonstrates that he very nearly misses the entire point of Christian faith:

Second, as we press ahead on these priority issues, however, the leadership of the Church (which is not confined to those in holy orders) must also begin to prepare the people of the Church for the real possibility of a season of persecution. This means “equipping the saints” to be twenty-first-century apologists who can (pace Pope Francis) offer compassionate aid to the walking wounded of postmodern society, explain the truths about the human person that the Church believes are essential to a truly human political community, and, if necessary, hold fast to Gospel-based Christian moral convictions even if that means professional or economic distress.

Yes, and this is called redemption. Because the truths we should be proclaiming are not about the human person — honestly, who cares? — but God’s redeeming work in the world. Which changes us, fashions us, recreates us, regardless of where we start.

When we begin our story with the creation, we have to make all sorts of arguments — stupid and smart — about the nature of human beings and the purpose of human existence somehow inherent in the created order. Hanby’s piece spends far more on justifying the creation intellectually, as if the role of the church is to browbeat the world on how it should be organized and run rather than reminding the world that a redeeming God really is in its midst right now. (And I’m always shocked at just how human-centered such accounts of creation are, as if God is both first principle but also simply an afterthought — God as abstract ideal.) I’m not sure who that is supposed to convince, and I doubt it will convince much of anyone. I believe, and none of it convinces me.

And that’s the problem with Christendom. It’s nearly impossible in Christendom to speak coherently of redemption as anything other than an afterthought of creation (because in a properly ordered world, what exactly are you supposed to be redeemed from?). And this is why it’s a tremendous blessing and gift to have Christendom collapse around us. Now we can begin by telling the world what it really needs to hear, and what only we (the church!) are equipped to tell it — Jesus Christ lived, died and rose for the redemption of the world! The “truths about the human person” that Weigel thinks we ought to be telling are meaningless outside of the redemptive and reconciling work of Jesus Christ.

Mostly, at the bottom of all this, is the great fear American Christians have of being a minority, of not being in charge of society, of writing the rules, of securing social and political advantage, and of not having that easy faith of good citizenship. I don’t know quite what to tell my fellow American Christians, except that it’s nowhere near as bad a place to live as you’d think. It requires some audacious confidence and the ability to trust in God, as opposed to one’s own power. It’s terrifying at first, but it’s not hard.

If we are truly living a world re-paganized by secularism, nationalism, science, and the false god of progress (and I think we are), then we don’t start with cranky lectures about the “truth of the human person.” (Or the obscene hope we can foist those beliefs on others through law and public policy.) Because science, secularism, nationalism, and progress all have flashier, more agreeable, and a lot more clever stories. We start with the Gospel, with “Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and he rose from the dead.” Help people meet Jesus. That’s how you live in a pagan world.