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Christianity: Neither Revolutionary nor Conservative | Peter J. Leithart – First Things

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Writing at UnHerd earlier this week, Paul Kingsnorth gives a dismal prognosis for Western civilization. Melting since the Enlightenment, the West is today an “unsettled world,” where “the notion that the West is declining, collapsing, dying or even committing suicide is reaching a crescendo.” Many propose to shore things up, but Kingsnorth regards these efforts as superficial. “The chickens of modernity, which the West created and exported, have come home to roost, and we are all increasingly covered in their guano.” Our post-human, post-natural, post-truth, post-Christian world has succumbed to the temptation of the serpent. In such a world, Kingsnorth asks, What’s to conserve? His sobering answer is: “Nothing.” We “have to dig down to the foundations” and, above all, to pray.
An extreme diagnosis? I think not. It’s hard to identify a single sector of Western society where the Christian convictions and instincts that Kingsnorth rightly identifies as the core of the West survive. Even much of the church has adjusted to cultural currents. Yet we aren’t floating in an ambiguous liminal space either. Our institutions and cultural norms are shaped by a deliberately non-Christian, often an anti-Christian, vision of reality. In 1948, T. S. Eliot had sound reasons to say the West was still Christian, on the grounds that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” We’ve long since passed that point. We’ve become something else, something monstrous.
Our historical moment exposes the limits of conservatism. How can conservatism guide us when there’s nothing left to conserve? Ours isn’t the first such moment. Western history is pocked with revolution, epochs when ancient regimes were demolished, when settled beliefs were turned upside down, when things fell apart and all that was solid melted into thin air. The Roman empire girdled the Mediterranean, but it’s gone. Western Christendom was a miraculous achievement, but it died. Byzantium was all gilded splendor, but now lies in a gilded grave. Protestant Europe gave way to the Enlightenment. Each time the world went on, differently. 
This is why Kingsnorth is right to point us beyond conservatism to Scripture. Biblical faith can meet cultural dissolution in a way no merely conservative agenda can. Israel survived Egyptian slavery, the chaos of the judges, the end of the Davidic monarchy, Babylonian exile, and Antiochus Epiphany. The church thrived during the collapse of Rome, converting the invading barbarians and preserving what fragments of antiquity she could pick from the rubble. Europe remained Christian after its Reformation break-up, and the modern missions movement took off during the heyday of Enlightenment and secularization. When worlds fall to ruins, the church is the catalyst of rebirth. Jesus’s promise has proved true: The serpent’s forces do their best, but the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church.
Pentecost is the secret of the church’s resilience; the Spirit is the energy who turns the wilderness to a fertile field and the fertile field to a forest. But “resilience” isn’t quite right, because the Spirit of Pentecost initiates upheavals. Pentecost was itself a titanic disruption of the way things were, and Acts records a series of aftershocks from the detonation of Pentecost. The Spirit who gives dreams and visions continuously propels the church across new horizons, breaking through old barriers and stirring dry bones. 
Through Philip’s preaching, the Spirit falls in Samaria, finally fulfilling the prophetic hope that Jerusalem and Samaria, Judah and Israel, would be reunited under a Davidic king. The Spirit drives Philip to the desert, where he baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch before the Spirit snatches him away to another place. When Peter preaches in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius, the Spirit falls on Gentiles too, causing not a little consternation among the conservative Jewish believers back in Jerusalem. The Spirit sends Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary expedition to the Gentiles, and the Spirit guides the Council of Jerusalem to embrace Gentiles as brothers and fellow members of Christ’s body. After Paul’s plan to revisit the churches of Asia is frustrated, the Spirit sends him a vision of a man from Macedonia calling him to cross the Dardanelles to plow a fresh mission field. 
Throughout her history, the church has followed the Spiritual trajectory set by Acts. She scrambles to keep pace with her dreamers and wild visionaries—her Constantines and Charlemagnes and Alfreds, her Gregories and Patricks and Benedicts and Francises, her Thomases and Luthers, her Wesleys and Hudson Taylors. Guided by the Spirit of Pentecost, Christianity is neither revolutionary nor conservative, but also neither anti-revolutionary nor anti-conservative. It’s something other, supple enough, alive enough, Spiritual enough to recover what can be recovered and to innovate when nothing can be recovered. By the Pentecostal Spirit, the church is, like our God, ever old, ever new.
Kingsnorth is right: We must grasp the gravity of our moment. The West isn’t sick. It’s dead, and we should heed Jesus’s exhortation to “let the dead bury their dead.” Our calling in the wasteland isn’t to conserve but to keep in step with the Spirit, hoping, boldly and joyfully, for resurrection.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Image by Larkwind on Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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