Andrew Bacevich is a thinker I admire. The essay (excerpted below) appears in August’s Commonweal, and is another in Bacevich’s line-up of penetrating critiques of our culture– and especially of our triumphalism. Like theologian Douglas John Hall (click here for a link), he calls our triumphalism for what it is: the false bravado of a (mostly unconscious) desperate, fearful society that has cut its ties to its moorings, and floats perilously in the chaotic seas of post-modernity.
Difficult to remember as we walk down aisles of sumptuously overstocked grocery shelves, is the saying (variously attributed), that any society is only three meals away from a revolution. While jarringly dramatic, the saying points to the anxiety that nips at us humans: our awareness that life is fragile; that the line between meaning and meaninglessness is thin; that chaos is always lurking at the edges of civilization. The barbarians are at the door, and they are us.
At the risk of oversimplification, I think it is fair to say that part of Bacevich’s argument– and, more fully, Douglas John Hall’s– is that Western Christian religion (with notable exceptions, to be sure) has been complicit in creating our present predicament. Institutional Christian religion has done this by accommodating, supporting, and legitimizing the political, technological, and economic powers that have gotten us to this point. To be fair, it was an honest mistake: the blessing and glory of human progress certainly seemed to coincide with God’s very own blessing and glory. What Christianity forgot (and this is more Hall than Bacevich), is the cross– and all of what being a disciple of that God means.
Commonweal is a Catholic publication, so Bacevich appropriately refers to Catholicism. With some important qualifications, we can read “Western Christianity” where he writes “Catholicism”:
Confronting the twentieth century, Catholicism stood fast. This was its mission: church as bulwark against the disorders afflicting the age. The excitement of Vatican II (I was a teenager when the council convened) derived from the sense that the church possessed a hitherto unsuspected capacity to adapt its witness. Rather than merely standing in lonely opposition, the church intended to engage—and then redeem—modernity.
Catholics in the twenty-first century find it increasingly difficult—perhaps impossible—to sustain any such expectations. The problem is not simply that the institutional church today stands dishonored and discredited, but that it has misconstrued the problem. The ramparts it persists in defending—a moral order based on received, permanent truth—have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin.
What went wrong? The great American historian Henry Adams—dead nearly a hundred years—offers a more cogent answer to that question than any we are likely to hear from Rome. Recalling his return to New York City after a lengthy stay in Europe in “The Education of Henry Adams,” the historian rendered this verdict: “The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway,” a panoply of false gods clattering in its wake. That failure had created a vacuum. The heresies that were filling that vacuum filled Adams with foreboding.
Worse, he could see no reason to consider Christianity’s demise as anything other than definitive and irreversible. Yet a century later we remain largely oblivious to its implications. We still don’t understand what hit us….