Cut Flower Christianity

The year was 2004. The Olympics were held in Athens, Greece where a total of 10,625 athletes from 201 countries competed in 301 sporting events. NASA successfully landed the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) on Mars. U.S. President George W. Bush beats John Kerry in the elections garnering him a second term. His political platform was built on keeping America safe. This resonated with people and citizens uncritically rallied around him in support of his policies. This public adulation even secured him a spot in Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2000 and 2004, citing him as the most influential person during those two years.

The year was filled with optimism, that is until the very same things that propelled him to hero status fell into disrepute. Fair minded people began questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war. Remember, this was premised on the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that a pre-emptive strike was justified given the eminent threat. But months of investigation on this turned out to be based on faulty information by intelligence agencies. There apparently were none. It was also the same year CBS uncovers systematic torture of Iraq prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Needless to say, it was a demoralizing chapter in our nation’s history. One easily could see the writing on the wall. Out of nowhere, America found itself challenged over claims of cultural uniqueness which followed a period of self-loathing, resigned in giving up the moral high ground. World leaders such as Putin began to see the missing links in the chainmail that once served as protection against what seemed like an unassailable set of virtues which made the United States a beacon of hope for many. They began jockeying, eager to replace the U.S. as world leader.

It is in this same year that Meic Pearse, an Oxford trained historian, writes a provocative book titled Why The Rest Hates The West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. In it Pearse frames his curiosity by citing four distinctives1 that define the West today:

      1. Western worldview is historically unique.
      2. The West has enjoyed dominance in the last two centuries; but now is in decline.
      3. Globalization is changing the West.
      4. Ongoing cultural debate characterized by what Robert Hughes as a “sterile confrontation between the two PCs—the politically correct and the patriotically correct.”2

Nick Spencer in The Evolution of the West How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values does a masterful job at explicating the first point. Spencer borrows a lot of his ideas from Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, who reminds the reader that virtually every virtue (e.g., human dignity, identity, science, law, care for the poor, and other similar first order values) that is significant in contributing to human flourishing has its origins in Christianity.efn_note]Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values [Expanded Edition], (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), Kindle, Loc. 225.[/efn_note]

Spencer agrees with Charles Taylor in A Secular Age when he wrote that the West has always been grounded in a theistic worldview, that a “non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority.”3 Spencer adds:

“The past, at least in Europe, was Christian—a statement that has no hidden implications as to whether the present will be. People thought in Christian and spoke in Christian and reasoned in Christian, even as the public square became ever more plural.”4

This is no longer the case and many tout the fact that we are now living in a post-Christianity age. How has historical amnesia become the norm today? If Spencer is correct in his thesis, Christians bear the sole responsibility for Christianity’s backsliding ways. If Taylor is right, believers have continued to lose influence since the 1500s.

I had a conversation with to Os Guinness about these issues several years back. He recounted the event where he was invited to speak before the Chinese politburo about the challenges associated with the idea of modernizing without westernizing. The Chinese, to his surprise, acknowledged the rich heritage the United States possessed and duly noted that the associative link between the rise in preeminence of the West and Christianity. What they do not understand is why the United States today, in their view, is cutting themselves from their roots. Guinness says that we are like cut flowers. The West no longer draws its nourishment from the rich soil in which Christianity was planted. Just like cut flowers, everything that is true, good and beautiful will someday wilt away.

But does this have to be our lot? Is Christianity doomed to irrelevance? The quick answer to this is no. We have the book and we know the ending. The not so quick answer to this is that first we must avoid the temptation of immediatism5, the insistence of immediate action, decision and even perfection right now. Second we must engage in civil discourse about the important things in life. Taylor suggests we start with cross-pressure subjects such as agency, ethics and aesthetics. If we are successful with even the second, coming out of it unscathed, we will have accomplished much.

Finally, we cannot move forward if the saints are not praying. Prayer is the most powerful under utilized weapon Christians posses. I had the privilege of interviewing Peter Kreeft, preeminent philosophy professor at Boston College, several years ago while he was making the rounds speaking at various universities in my area. I asked him why Christianity was losing influence in the West. I’ll never forget his answer and the way he answered it. No sooner was I done asking when he blurted his answer “prayer.” Out of respect, I paused, thinking he would say more profound things. After all, he is a luminary in the philosophy world. He did not plan to until I asked if he could expound on it. In retrospect he probably thought why this was not obvious to me. Then he reminded me that we have a direct line to the omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God of the universe and if are we not on our knees asking him for help, then nothing else will work.

  1. Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18-20.
  2. Ibid., 20
  3. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 556.
  4. Spencer, Loc. 123
  5. Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), Kindle, Loc 1671.

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