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.
Essentially, I take Kingsnorth’s essay to be an exercise in saying that the chief task before the church today is to discern the ways in which the world is shaping us and push back against that as radically as necessary in order to remain close to God. What I particularly appreciate about Kingsnorth’s essay is that he recognizes the ways in which culture war itself is a form of the world shaping us in its image.
When we are propelled forward by a restless, angry energy that implies that our only hope is the acquisition of political power, we are no less captive to the spirit of the age than those who have become confused about the purpose of sex or the status of the unborn. The words of Christ which condemn worry and fear couldn’t be clearer, and yet those two traits are the animating force behind so much Christian media at present. What Kingsnorth powerfully reminds us of in his essay is that the moral horizons of Christianity are broader than the confined anti-visions of the present age. And if we wish to be of use to our neighbors the first step is refusing to participate in the spiritual crisis of the day ourselves.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).