Christianity is not and never was a Western religion.
It is a commonplace with historians that empires wax and wane; they have their day and pass away. Historians notice that in their earlier days, great people tend to be vigorous and enterprising, not particularly scrupulous where their own interests are concerned, ready to tread down any who stand in their way. Such people usually have a comparatively simple lifestyle and high moral standards in such areas as sex.
But changes take place. Days come for a civilization or empire when there is not much vigor or enterprise. While there may still be a readiness to tread down opposition there is the lack of the ability to do this. The simple lifestyle has long since gone and so have the simple values and the moral standards. Religions wane. There is a general declension from the high standards of earlier days.
Much of this is all too plainly evident in Western countries these days. The vigor of, say, the colonial era, has gone; and while there is certainly a good deal of enterprise in some areas of life there is also a loss of confidence and an absence of a sense of purpose. There is also a marked lack of capacity. Countries which in earlier days would have dispatched a gunboat without a second thought must now submit to injury as well as insult. Vietnam and Iran have taught us that even the greatest of modern powers may find it difficult to achieve their aims. Of course, a sufficiently unscrupulous approach may still accomplish things, as the Russian intrusion into Afghanistan indicates. But it is not easy to envisage the Western democracies as proceeding by similar means.
There is advance here as well as decline. It is good that at least in a considerable part of the world there is some recognition that there are considerations other than the size of armies. It is well that we should all be shaken out of our old complacencies and be made to reflect that there are new situations and new nations.
But there is not much that we can set over against the decline of morals. Few would dispute that moral standards are not what they were. There has certainly been improvement in the removal of some of our ancient hypocrisies, but it would not be easy to make out a case for the view that our moral standards are higher than those of our fathers. There is far too much attention to “the spirit of the age” for that and far too much of plain, old-fashioned selfishness.
Religious people share in the general change and most of us don’t like it. In many parts of the world there is a decline in church attendance and in the number of professed adherents of the Christian way. Actually, this is far from universal, for there are places where the church is growing at a great pace. I, for one, do not see how we can possibly tell whether in the overall picture the church is making progress or slipping back. But in communities like the United States and Canada, in Europe and Australia, there can be no question. The churches are sharing in a general decline. This is more marked in the case of some than of others, but none is unscathed.
Are we then facing a situation in which the culture in which Christianity flourished is on the way out—and the Christian way with it? Some think so and, scarcely daring to put the thought into words, some fear so.
But the matter is not so simple. First, Christianity is not particularly linked with Western culture and Western civilization, though it has been particularly influential in the West and it has largely shaped the ideals of the West. Western culture has not only been influenced by Christianity but has influenced it. The Christianity we know has taken the shape it has in part because it has taken its shape in Western culture. Many of us find it difficult to imagine Christianity without its Western trappings.
It is salutary to reflect that Christianity is not and never has been a Western religion. In origin it is an Asian religion. For some of its history it has had many Asian adherents and for some of its history it has had many African members, particularly during the period when it spread right along the northern part of that continent. In modern times it has adherents in almost every country of the world and had every claim to being the universal religion. Only where repressive governments forbid preaching and the making of converts is the Christian way absent, and there are few places where even this is successful.
Second, we should notice that Christianity has survived more than one major catastrophe. It was born in the time of the Roman Empire. For a time that empire in its official organs was strongly opposed to the Christian way and engaged in violent opposition in the great persecutions. In the end, Christianity became the religion of the emperor and was officially tolerated. Its early troubles were over. Its future seemed assured.
But Rome fell. The barbarians who took over were very different and had different values, even though some of them professed a form of Christianity. The civilized values of Rome perished. The dark ages began.
This certainly meant a good deal of trouble for the Christians. But it did not mean the end of the Christian way. It meant that Christians had to do some hard thinking and some upright living. But in the end the barbarians who overthrew Rome came to accept the religion of the conquered. Christianity was not bound to Rome.
This is instructive for modern Western Christians. Just as Christianity was not bound up with Rome so it is not bound up with modern Western culture. It is possible that that culture is coming to its close. Those of us who belong to it fervently hope that it is not. We see so much that is of value in it that we do not see in the alternatives. And it is our whole way of life.
But we may be on the losing end. Other cultures have passed away or have passed their peak and simply linger on as anachronistic survivals. We would be foolish to ignore the possibility that this may be the case with us. There are so many factors at work in our communities that are commonly associated with the decline of a culture.
But at least that does not give us cause to be pessimistic as Christians. The great truth of the Christian faith is that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). This is quite independent of any culture or civilization. The action of God was indeed in time, in a given place, and among a given people. But because God is in it, it is not subject to the whims of any people or group of people.
It may well be that the forms in which the Christian faith expresses itself will change radically. That does not matter. The church is very different now from what it was in the catacombs. What matters is that the purpose of God cannot be overthrown. Faith, hope, and love remain. Faith in God, hope for a better future, and love for all men.
Leon Morris is principal of Ridley College, Victoria, Australia.
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