What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 26-27.

[Symposium Contents]

Peter J. Leithart

A millennium ago, Europe faced the dual prospect of economic and social collapse on the one hand and spiritual awakening on the other. From 970 to the mid-eleventh century, there were forty-eight years of famine. Trade and communications broke down, and travelers were threatened by bands of roving brigands. During much of the tenth century, the Church was in continual tumult, with seventeen Popes over fifty years. Simultaneously, the Cluniac movement was giving fresh impetus to monasticism, and during the 990s pagan peoples were flooding the Church: Poles, Magyars, Icelanders, Danes, and, in the East, the Kievan Rus. It was, as someone once said, the best of times and the worst of times.

So, it seems, are all times, including the years at the close of the second millennium of the Christian era. But if our day is also the best and worst of times, "best" and "worst" have been inverted. Materially, Western Europe and America enjoy unimaginable wealth, and the comparative peace of the past fifty years is, if not unprecedented, nonetheless a striking anomaly in world history. Yet the same nations whose rulers swore fealty to Christ a millennium ago are now among the most secular nations on the earth. In Christian terminology, the past several centuries have witnessed widespread apostasy.

As a result, the West is, as it was at the end of the tenth century, a mission field. Indeed, the West is the Church’s main challenge in the coming centuries. Evangelization of pagans has become something of a specialty; if Celts and Magyars and Vikings can be persuaded to beat their swords into plowshares, so can the Sawi and the Hutu. In Europe and America, however, the Church faces a mission field unlike any it has encountered before. Never has a civilization seemed so capable of successfully completing what T. S. Eliot called the experiment in forming "a civilized but non-Christian mentality." Barbarians may be ruling us, but they are damned efficient barbarians.

More importantly, the West poses a unique religious challenge. New Age faddism notwithstanding, ours is not a pagan civilization, but a civilization once Christian and, in spite of itself, still Christian in many respects. Introduced into the world as heady new wine, Christianity is a hard habit to shake, and the part of the globe once known as "Christ’s domain" has a lingering hangover. During the past three centuries, Western history has been a search for relief that will enable us to turn on the light without wincing. Thus far, the search has been fruitless, but it continues, and even intensifies, as the new millennium approaches.

One prospect is that the medicine will be found; the destruction of what remains of Christendom may actually succeed, which would mean an end to what we know as "the West." I disagree profoundly with the pop-apocalypticism recently portrayed in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and I am profoundly skeptical of the techno-apocalypticism associated with the Y2K bug. In one sense, though, I must stand with the loonies: history is not a seamless development but one full of gnarls and tangles, fits and starts, rises and falls. Catastrophes do happen, current trends don’t continue, it can happen here, and there is a God who judges. Success on the mission field of the West may come only when the West is no longer the West. Perhaps the rubble must be cleared before new building can begin. I do not say this with complacency. We simply cannot imagine the horrors that would be unleashed if the remaining constraints were removed. If this house falls, great will be the fall of it.

This is, as the apostle Paul would say, a perplexing prospect, but not a reason for despair. If the current trend of prosperity is not guaranteed to continue, neither is apostasy. Repentance on this scale cannot be manipulated and it is not a product of strategy. Renewal will come, if it comes, not from the head office, but from unexpected backwaters. Martyrs make the most successful missionaries, and air-conditioned churches with padded pews hardly nurture a spirit of martyrdom. Elsewhere, however, there are armies of martyrs-in-training. While the West has been busily trying to forget why it sent missionaries in the first place, missionary efforts have continued and in the past two centuries have met with unparalleled success. Mission fields have been transformed into fields of missionaries.

If it survives, the West will have to relearn the habits of Christian civilization from those once considered barbarians; and light will shine from what was once the deepest darkness. If good things can come from Galilee—and they can—then surely good things can come from Kenya and South Korea.

Peter J. Leithart is Fellow in Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.