At his famous Harvard Commencement address in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West.” Thirty-five years later, one could add: “and an increase in pessimism and despair.”
Defeatism and disillusionment have become fashionable in certain circles, considered high acts of sophistication. Books announcing the ruination and end of America flood the marketplace and are praised for their black humor. Hopelessness has become chic.
One expects such views from nihilists, not believing Christians. Yet an increasing number have been tempted by this cult of doom.
The “Christian” version of worldly despair usually arises in two ways. The first withdraws from the world—and thus from public witness of the faith altogether—not in quest of personal sanctification, but to escape a culture it fears and rejects. The result is a spiritually arid isolation, which is far different from the joyful work of contemplative priests and nuns, who value the world, as God’s creation, and believe that quiet, redemptive prayer is the best way to improve it.
The second is to remain part of the public conversation, but only with sardonic observations: merrily pointing out the perpetual follies of the world, and branding as naďve any Christian foolish enough to believe they might actually change it. This harsher version of Christian pessimism practically welcomes bad news, as further confirmation for its bleak view.
There is a word to describe Christians who adopt this mentality: in the language of the street, it’s called “a quitter.” If you describe them as such, they may protest, “No, no, we’re not quitting. We’re simply Christian realists who believe in Original Sin, and reject the facile idea of modern ‘progress.’” But that is exactly where they go wrong. There is a huge difference between Christian realism—which recognizes the limitations of human beings and their societies, while still working to elevate them—and worldly despair, which is the antithesis of Christian faith.
One of the ironies of the new Christian pessimism is how much it serves the interests of secular progressives. Nothing pleases the latter more than to hear an active Christian suddenly announce they have given up—that, whereas they once believed in the power of religion to revive cultures, they no longer do. Having once been so blind, they’ve now matured and “retired” from the culture wars, ceding all ground to their opponents. Besides, hasn’t the battle to defend the unborn already been lost, and the effort to preserve traditional marriage headed for defeat? Aren’t the young becoming more and more detached from their Christian heritage?
If they advance this narrative—preferably in elegiac tones—they’ll receive wonderful notices, and be hailed by secularists in the press. The latter will offer their public sympathy, while privately exulting, “Excellent—another Christian demoralized and conquered. Now, let’s move on to the next!”
Although the new Christian pessimism sees itself as bold and prophetic, it’s actually as hollow as a shell. Intimidated by secularism, it follows the path of least resistance: what better way to relieve oneself of the stress of fighting for Christianity then to issue pre-emptive concession speeches and wave the white flag of cultural surrender? And never mind if inconvenient facts pop up from time to time, revealing evidence of a resilient Christian populace—that can always be explained away as a mere blip on our sinking cultural titanic.
The other striking aspect about the new Christian pessimists is how little faith they appear to have in the power of prayer and the promises of Christ. All throughout the Gospel, Christ exhorts us to have faith in Him, and trust we will be secure. He tells us not to worry, that every hair on our head is counted. He declares that if we have enough faith, we can move mountains. But you’d never know that listening to today’s counselors of despair. All they need do is read one survey or one article about the weakening of the Judeo-Christian vision, and they immediately become despondent. They act as if a Pew Research poll is more powerful than the Holy Spirit.
The new pessimism goes hand in hand with—though is not to be conflated with—some recent Christian thinking on cultural issues, even among believers of doubtless good will. Recently, the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher mentioned his “despair on the gay marriage question,” while two paragraphs later, assured readers: “If I thought there was nothing to be done but surrender, I wouldn’t even bring this stuff up. My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run.” Which is it? Despair isn’t consistent with resistance, much less victory in the long run. Thomas Peters, at CatholicVote.org, published a wonderfully clarifying post, responding to all this confusion: “We Only Lose Marriage if We Spend all Our Time Saying We Will Lose Marriage.”
Although Christian pessimism has recently spiked, the phenomenon is not new. The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson noted that such an attitude is a perennial temptation, and urged believers to guard against it. “There are some Christians,” he wrote, “who feel a certain satisfaction—a kind of Schadenfreude—at the sudden collapse of the liberal idealism of the nineteenth century and the loss of hope in the future of modern civilization. Christianity, they say, is a religion of crisis, a judgment which regards even the highest achievements of human culture as vitiated by man’s fallen nature and doomed to destruction.”
But even as Christians must acknowledge the full reality of human sin, continued Dawson, Christianity itself should never be identified with the rejection of history or the wholesale condemnation of culture:
On the contrary there is no religion, and perhaps no philosophy, which is so deeply concerned with man as part of a community or which attaches a higher significance to history. For Christianity is essentially the religion of the Incarnation, of the divine intervention in history. . . . Hence, while Christianity rejects the modern optimistic illusion of an automatic process of material progress…it does not deny the existence of progress in a deeper sense. On the contrary it teaches that throughout the ages the life of humanity is being leavened and permeated by a transcendent principle, and every culture or human way of life is capable of being influenced and remolded by this divine influence. Thus Christianity has always been a culturally creative force.
Yes, and one of the reasons it has is because its most committed believers, while refusing to conform to the world’s ways, have just as strongly refused to run away from evangelizing it—and this, even when faced with persecution or death, and when the odds seemed overwhelmingly against them.
Christianity is not for quitters. It is a religion of fortitude and hope, and never would have become the religion it has had it been guided by naysayers who capitulated every time the going got rough. No situation could have been more dire than the one which faced the early Christians, yet they persevered, and eventually “baptized” a radically secularized culture, and transformed the world. Today’s Christians should be equally courageous. We should never relent, and never despair, but do everything we can to heal and uplift our present world, with the light of the Gospel, even as we know our eternal happiness rests only in the next.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
Same-Sex Marriage and Post-Christianity by Rod Dreher, The American Conservative, May 8, 2012.
We Only Lose Marriage if We Spend All Our Time Saying We Will Lose Marriage by Thomas Peters, CatholicVote.org
The Historical Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life by Christopher Dawson (1960)