Forthcoming from my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins. A kind of intro or overview here. I’m excited that this is coming.
Everybody is talking these days about the decline of the West, and with good reason. Some people think that Christianity should have something to say about this: that as the faith was the rock on which the West was built, so the faith should rebuild it again, or defend it against its enemies. We need a Muscular Christianity! they insist in the comment sections. Bring on the Christian knights! they shout on YouTube. But I don’t think this is how it works. When the last empire collapsed, the Christians of Europe weren’t trying to build, let alone defend, some construction called “Christendom.” They didn’t plan for the dome of St. Peter’s or the Battle of Lepanto. They were just trying to do the humblest and the only thing: to worship the true God, and to strip away everything that interfered with that worship. They took to the deserts to follow Christ and to battle the Enemy. Their work was theosis. They had crucified themselves as instructed. What emerged as a result, and what it turned into — well, that wasn’t up to them.
In a time when the temptation is always toward culture war rather than inner war, I think we could learn something from our spiritual ancestors. What we might learn is not that the external battle is never necessary; sometimes it very much is. But a battle that is uninformed by inner transformation will soon eat itself, and those around it. Why, after all, were the cave Christians so sought after? Because they were not like other people. Something had been granted to them, something had been earned, in their long retreats from the world. They had touched the hem. After years in the tombs or the caverns or the woods, their very unworldliness became, paradoxically, just what the world needed.
Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.
— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.