NB: I’m writing this only for my fellow Christians.
In this blog post, my buddy Rod Dreher says something that he says, in one way or another, in many blog posts:
What Christians who live in parts of the US where the faith hasn’t declined as steeply as it has in New England don’t understand is that the virus is coming for us too. There is no effective quarantine. Of course it’s frightening to face all this, but the failure to face it and figure out what we in the churches can and must do to deal with the crisis is going to result in the total collapse of the faith within our own families and communities. Waiting for a miracle is not a plan.
I’m not going to rehash here the facts about the state of the church and the Christian faith in the US. You’ve heard them all from me here before, and anyway, they’re in my book. If you go to a church that has a lot of people in it, and everybody is engaged with their faith, well, that’s great! But look beyond the walls of your congregation. Look beyond the bounds of your Christian community. Things are not okay. Things are not remotely okay. There are no relatively minor adjustments we can make that will enable the churches to manage this without radical change.
Got that? Okay, so: I’m going to ask you to imagine that Rod is absolutely correct about all this.
Have you done that? Okay, now do this: Imagine that Rod is not correct, that for the foreseeable future Christianity in America is going to stumble along in much the same way that it has been stumbling for all these many decades now.
Now let me ask you to think a third thought: How would God’s call upon your life differ depending on whether Rod’s reading of the signs of the times is correct?
I’m going to argue that it shouldn’t be different at all, in any respect whatsoever. For the Christian, genuine faithfulness always makes the same demand: the whole of your life. As Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He does not say, “When Christ calls a man in Nazi Germany, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, in a society that is comfortably Christian, this call may be harder to hear than in a society where Christian faith and practice are under assault — this is indeed the foundational insight of Kierkegaard’s work, from beginning to end. Jesus wants the people who hear his teachings to “read the signs of the times,” but what he means by that is: Understand that your Lord is among you — which is something that it’s difficult for all of us truly to apprehend.
Further, I want to suggest that “reading the signs of the times” in a more familiar sense of those words has always been the chief bane of the Church. Christians have often looked about them and seen a world that seemed fundamentally hospitable to the Gospel, a world in which Christians can be at home, and that interpretation of their environment has led them to neglect the formation of their children and the strengthening of the bonds of community in their local church, leading to “the total collapse of the faith within our own families and communities.” We would do better to ignore the so-called signs of the times in order to focus on what Jesus demands of every Christian everywhere, without exception. Evil days may well come; but “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
In the third book of The Lord of the Rings — otherwise known as the first part of The Two Towers — when the Riders of Rohan meet Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas, Eomer is confused. “It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” And Aragorn’s answer is: “As he ever has judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”
There is great wisdom here, I think. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis says in his sermon on “Learning in Wartime,” in which he reminds his hearers that in one important sense war doesn’t change anything: in time of perfect peace we have not one more breath of life guaranteed to us than the one we currently take in. I think Karl Barth had something similar in mind when, in his glorious commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that there has only ever been one crisis (Krisis) — one uniquely decisive moment — in history, and that came when the Second Person of the Trinity became human for our sake.
What I’m about to say may sound frivolous, but I assure you it isn’t. I link all this in my mind with a passage from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which, as some of you may know, I believe to be the greatest book of the twentieth century. I need to preface the passage I am about to quote with this bit of information: At several points in the book West states her belief that, by nature, men are lunatics and women are idiots. That is, men are changeable like the moon, waxing and waning, running this way and that full tilt; whereas women are idiotes, private persons, caught up wholly in their own small world, dwelling within its narrow dimensions.
With that in mind, here’s a passage from near the end of the book, depicting a moment in which West is listening to her husband having an intense political argument with a Yugoslavian.
Just then my eye was caught by two large, loosely formed spheres in neutral colours, one blackish grey, the other brownish black. These were the behinds of two peasant women who were employed by the municipalities to weed the flower-beds at the corners of the square. They were being idiots, private persons in the same sense as the nurse in my London nursing-home, who was unable to imagine why the assassination of King Alexander should perturb anybody but his personal friends. They were paid to pull up weeds, and they wanted the money, so they continued to pull them up, even when the students raised a shout and brought some gendarmes down on them not fifteen yards away. As I looked at those devoted behinds, bobbing up and down over their exemplary task, and the smug face of the automatic rebel, I thanked God for the idiocy of women, which must in many parts of the world have been the sole defender of life against the lunacy of men.
I read this passage and I think: Lord, make me an idiot, an idiot for Thy Kingdom. Keep me focused on the weeds I need to pull, the garden I am charged with tending. Let the lunatics run and shout as they will, but keep me at work on my humble daily “exemplary task.” In the name of Jesus I ask this. Amen.