It has become a commonplace among Christians to draw an analogy between our day and the first century. As the early Christians were a despised and marginal sect, so it seems that we today are moving towards an internal cultural exile. Yet I wonder if the situation is a little more complicated than that. It is not simply that Christianity is being moved to the margins and is starting to look weird, if not sinister, to the mainstream. The wider world in which this is happening is also undergoing significant and fascinating changes. There is an analogy here not just to the first century CE but also, I believe, to the first century BCE.
When I visited the Vatican Museum in 2009, it was not the Sistine Chapel or the various masterpieces of the Renaissance that I most wished to see. It was the bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero, which is kept in the statuary section. Since my teenage years, when I had to read his speeches against Catiline and Verres, Cicero had been a hero: Learned, well-read, a philosopher, an orator, a lawyer (well, nobody’s perfect), and a politician, he was the very epitome of the truly engaged thinker, the intellectual man of action. And he was the preeminent dissenting voice as Rome dramatically changed from a republic to an empire, a change in which Cicero himself was eventually a casualty.
That change from republic to empire was traumatic and transformed Rome (and thereby the West) forever. And it is arguable that a similar thing is happening today. Our republic, and the philosophies and social realities upon which it was built and by which it has been sustained, are giving way to an empire, an empire of desire. Whether one agrees (as I have come to do) with the arguments of thinkers like Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby, who see the origins of our current situation in the very origins and ambitions of the American experiment, or whether one sees our current society as a disastrous malfunction of the same, there is surely consensus on the fact that things are changing in fundamental and permanent ways. Liberalism is in trouble, as is the republic built upon it. The empire of desire, of which both expressive individualism and populism are symptoms, looks set to triumph. A chaotic and unsustainable triumph, no doubt, but a triumph nonetheless.
Ciceronian times require Ciceronian voices: Thoughtful, learned, literate, historically and philosophically astute, cultured in the true sense of the word, and engaged in the public square. To address the present we surely need to avoid the clichéd pieties of political correctness that serve only to bolster special interests. But we must also resist the simplistic populist rhetoric of reaction. We have to address the present by drawing on the history and culture of our past. And we must do so in a public way that calls out those who abuse their power while giving good arguments to those who wish to work for a deeper, greater good than the myopic vision offered by the regnant gospel of immediate gratification.
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Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.