One of the temperamental advantages to be gained from a belief in divine providence is serenity in the face of history’s ambiguities. This may be one of the more subdued and unheroic expressions of faith, but for Christians trying to make moral sense of the story of Christendomfrom its once quite unpredictable rise to its now quite indubitable collapseit is an absolutely indispensable one. For, if indeed God became incarnate within history in order to reconcile time to eternity, then it only stands to reason that the event of Christ should be one that never ceases to unfold in time, with discernible consequences and in substantial forms. And yet the actual historical record of Christian society hardly encourages confidence: marvelous cultural and ethical achievements, of course, but almost all of them inseparably associated with innumerable institutional betrayals of the Gospel.
Hence the need for a generously indeterminate trust in the mysterious workings of God’s will sub contrario. Otherwise the believer is apt to become trapped at one pole in a tedious dialectic of indignant rejection and credulous celebration, indulging either in sanctimonious denunciations of “Constantinianism” or in triumphalist apostrophes to the spiritual greatness of “Christian” culture, in either case reducing the very concept of grace to an empty cipher. A little prudent providentialism, however, relieves one of the anxious urge to pronounce some absolute verdict on Christian history as a whole, or to pretend to understand how the Holy Spirit might or might not reweave the tangles of human sin into unexpected occasions of charity or truth. It allows one simply to accept the inscrutable complexities of a world that, if it has been redeemed, nevertheless still groans in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, and so of a world in which all good is inextricably bound up with moral failure.
On the other hand, however, the hiddenness of God’s counsels ought not to become a license to complacency. Living as they now do in the long aftermath of Christendom’s political, social, and cultural collapse, able to gaze out across its twilit ruins from a certain critical and disenchanted distance, modern Christians are peculiarly well situated to consider anew what the true relation between Christianity and the native forms of human society is. At least, they possess an unprecedented perspective from which to pose the question. As witnesses to the ultimate failure of Christendom’s attempted accommodation between a living cultural consciousness of Christ and the concrete structures of human political and social power, they can at least ask whether the end of the old Christian order should be understood as something on the order of an immense historical accident or instead as something much more like an ineluctable destiny.
After all, there is no genuinely faithful proclamation of the Gospel that does not involve a very real and irreducible element of sheer contrariness towards the most respectable of human institutions. When the peasant Christ tells the aristocrat Pilate of his kingdom not of this world, or when Paul warns Christians against any commerce with the works of the god of this cosmos, or when Christ commands his followers to forgive those who wrong them in excess of all natural justice, or likens the wealthy citizen at heaven’s gate to a camel attempting to slip through a needle’s eyeas well as at countless other junctures in the New Testamentthe Gospel is announced as something essentially subversive of the accustomed orders of human power, preeminence, law, social prudence, religion, and government.
A radically new story is being told, one meant to reorient and, to a very great degree, invert the stories that human beings have told about themselves from time immemorial. And this creates a certain irresoluble tension in any attempt to make sense of the Christian past, because it has been only within the stable institutional and cultural configurations of an all-too-human history that the Gospel’s more subversive story has been audibly proclaimed over two millennia, and has continued to produce material and intellectual consequences.