Monday, January 7, 2013

A Pained Glimpse at Post-Christianity

On Wednesday, I wrote a blog post about how the Harry Potter series is both a great work of humane letters and the ideal pre-evangelization for our modern, post-Christian world. I have been debating whether my next move should be to pontificate on the value of good literature, to lay out a defense against the "Potter is rank devilry" crowd, or to celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien's twelfthity-first birthday by comparing and contrasting his world with J.K. Rowling's. But I may be more useful in first saying a few words about what a post-Christian world looks like.  

Tacky as it may be, I'm just going to go ahead and quote myself to give some context. Wednesday I wrote:
If there is a knock on J.K. Rowling's fictitious world, it's not that it's a non-Christian world, it's that it's a post-Christian world. [...] It's a world where people still take Christmas and Easter holidays, and name Godfathers for their kids, but there is absolutely no Christian content behind these. But guess what? That's where you live too. Nearly every acre of the world you inhabit is either non-Christian or post-Christian.
So which world do we inhabit: non-Chrsitian, anti-Christian, or post-Christian? I doubt most people reading this live in the non-Christian world. In America we've got a San Francisco, a St. Augustine, and a Corpus Christi. Everybody gets Christmas off, and we at least debate whether we should say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas". India and Islam have left almost no mark on our collective cultural consciousness other than with yoga and some tasty dishes. Europe may currently be more of a melting pot that the U.S. in regards to this, but it also has a much deeper Christian cultural substrata. We are not sans Christianity.

I would not say that I live in an anti-Christian world either. Ministers and pundits may disagree with me, but hey, we're not exactly living in the French or Russian Revolutions. In fact, the movie-of-the-moment is Les Misérables, which, while it does include one of the minor aftershocks of la Révolution française, also contains more talk of God and salvation than any blockbuster since The Passion of the Christ. And perhaps its success is the best example that contemporary Western society is not anti-Christian, but post-Christian. It would not surprise me if hundreds of people worldwide who attended no service on December 25 have tweeted or blogged or Facebook posted the final line of the movie: "To love another person is to see the face of God." This is post-Christianity; it is a rich backdrop that one can always dig into and uncover cool things out of, but it makes no demands on you and contains no assumptions of belief.  

I'll take a post-Christian world over a non-Chrsitian or anti-Christian world any day. I may even take it over a thoroughly settled and peaceful confessional Christian world (it gives you something clear to strive for). If it can keep some sense of its humanity, the post-Christian world can be a rich new mission field. But that doesn't mean it isn't painful to see or needing of great diligence to heal. I close with what I consider the single best depiction of the post-Christian world, and it is already 60 years old. When I wrote my previous post, this was always there in my mind as the exemplar of post-Christianity, both painful and motivating. It is an excerpt from Bishop (later Cardinal) John J. Wright's 1953 introduction to the collected writings of French Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard called The Church Today. I am amazed that the quote exists nowhere on the internet. I have changed the punctuation slightly for easier reading. I should note that 1) a maquis was a member of the underground Résistance française, and that 2) I believe Wright means "pathetic" here in the original sense of "arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness".

One of the most pathetic stories to come out of the French chapter of the history of World War II was a story which a Colonel of the French Army told me personally. It concerns a young man, a partisan of the resistance movement, who was killed by a bullet which ricocheted in the Rue du Bac.

The fatal bullet felled the maquis—described as being in his late teens—in the gutter not far from the convent where St. Catherine Labouré saw with her eyes of flesh the Blessed Mother of God. Within a square mile of the spot there are world-famed churches, shrines, and other hallowed places which pilgrims journey from afar to visit. Within sight of each end of the street are monumental evidences of the Christain faith that has been preached in Paris these seventeen centuries and more.

And yet, when two Catholic sisters drew the dying body of this boy into a doorway which might shelter his last moments, they were sickened at heart by the answer the young lad gave to an earnest effort to prepare him for an eternity that was then but seconds away, so far as he was concerned. 

"Do you love God with all your heart?" one of the religious asked the gasping partisan. Aimez-vous le Bon Dieu?

The answer came in accents of pain, embarrassment, and confusion. Comment dirai-je que je L'aime? Je ne Le connais pas de tout, ce Bon Dieu dont tu paroles! 
"How shall I say that I love Him? I don't even know who He is, this God of Whom you talk!"

Where was he dying, the mortally wounded young soldier? Not in Borneo, nor in the Arctic, nor at the furthermost ends of the earth beyond the reach of priests or the influence of the Gospel. Not in a "mission" country in the usual sense of that too restrictive term. Not in one of the lands which the Propagation of the Faith magazines describe as "pagan" and for which they ask our apostolic alms and prayers.

Not at all. He was dying in the Archdiocese of Paris, la ville lumière, capital city of Christian France, rival of Rome itself among the centers of Western Christendom (as the centuries since the thirteenth certainly have understood Christendom). He was dying within the shadow of a chapel to which the devout flock by thousands. He was prostrate in a street along which saints have walked, a street in which many of us have seen great preachers come and go and pilgrims gather for prayer.

Whence did he come, this lad who could not bring himself to declare his love for God because he did not know enough about Him to call upon Him in the hour of death? Was he from the French colonial empire? Had he been born and brought up in the remote wildernesses of the Senegalese? Again, not at all. He was from Paris, where the very stations of the underground railroad, the Metro, more often than not bear the names of Catholic saints, so that the stops called out in his ears as he went to and from his school or work were a veritable litany of the saints and catalogue of the Christian dogmas. His home was Paris, a city in which it would be impossible to walk a half mile and not see in one direction or another the towers of a cathedral, the domes of a basilica, or the spires of a great church. In all probability, he himself bore the names of two or more saints; it is even likely, too likely, that if he swore in his moments of youthful anger or violence, he invoked the titles of Catholic devotion and blasphemed with the phrases of Catholic faith.

But when he lay dying, with two Catholic sisters striving to comfort his body and elicit the Act of Charity by which he might save his soul, he cried out in empty—perhaps even bitter—agnosticism, his ignorance concerning God. "How shall I say that I love Him? I don't even know who He is, this God of Whom you talk!"

As a priest and a Christian, of course this is hard to read.  And if this was the 1940s, what is it like now? But this is our world. I do not judge it. A culture bears no culpability; it cannot help be what it is. But I have culpability if I do nothing to heal it. To help heal a culture, we need to be willing to use any number of tools to reach out to its members. That's why we need Tolkien and Rowling, Hugo and Homer and Dante. Dostoyevsky wrote that "beauty will save the world", and that's because beauty can open up the eyes of anyone, including a boy who has never heard of God. 

1 comment:

  1. Right on Padre'. I mean Write on.

    That is right on the money,
    The people of our country may be still a little.