Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Resist junk food journalism. Support journalism that nourishes the mind and soul by contributing to our year-end campaign today.

In her brilliant meditation on the past and future of Christianity (La fin de la Chrétienté, 2021), Chantal Delsol, the French philosopher, argues that Christian civilization has been brought to an end over the last two centuries by the religion of modernity. A devout Catholic, Delsol doesn’t mean that the Christian religion itself has or ever will come to an end, but that the civilization it built as a support system for Christian belief over the last sixteen centuries, since the conversion of Constantine, has finally been dismantled by its enemies. Christians today are effectively living in partibus infidelium—in formerly Christian lands where infidels now press toward a future world we Christians can’t share. It only remains to consider how to conduct ourselves in defeat: Shall we be silent witnesses in a hostile world, retreat to the catacombs, become “God’s secret agents”?

To readers of First Things, Delsol’s vision might be discounted as the view from France, where the battle between Christianity and laïcité has been raging since the French Revolution. To us historians it looks like the noted French tendency to see the history of the West (if not the world) as essentially French history writ large. Surely it is too soon to throw in the towel? Even in Europe, Hungary and Poland and perhaps Austria and Italy are reinvigorating civilizational norms supportive of Christian belief. In this country, the Dobbs decision shows that not all our most powerful institutions are aligned with post-Christian morality. The woke oligarchy may one day succeed in driving Christianity from our public square, but if so, today is not that day.

Christianity has been pronounced dead before. During the siege of Constantinople (A.D. 674–678), some were crying that the last days of Christian Rome had come, and that the armies of the Prophet would soon wipe out Christendom, as they had already destroyed Sasanian Persia and its ancient religion. In the thirteenth century, as Machiavelli observed, trust in the Catholic Church, mired as it then was in corruption and infested with heretics, only survived thanks to the holiness of Sts. Francis and Dominic. Prognosticators foresaw the collapse of Christian Europe after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but two centuries later, following the Battle of Vienna in 1683, it was the Turks who were driven out of Europe. The French Revolution tried to de-Christianize France, but that campaign lasted less than a dozen years. The ideas of reformatio and renovatio were inventions of the early Church Fathers and have transformed the Church and the world throughout history. Christianity surely has stores of resilience that have not yet been fully expended. Nor can they ever be, for they are ultimately God’s to withhold and dispense. 

Delsol says that “the fate of a current condemned by history is to become more and more extremist, to lose its most competent defenders, and finally, by a sort of disastrous process, to end up resembling the description of its adversaries.” As the civilization forged by Christianity totters, the quality of those called upon to defend it deteriorates. Really? There is much wisdom and insight in Delsol’s book, and much to agree with. But in the matter of Christianity’s inevitable loss of influence in the public sphere, I think she is too pessimistic. One reason I reject that conclusion is the very quality of Christianity’s present defenders. This quality is nowhere better displayed than in the pages of First Things

Nevertheless, it is true that too many of us have to live in partibus infidelium. We send our children to be taught by infidels, we live in cities and work in businesses governed by them; even the churches where we worship are not free of their influence. The need to retain an authentic Judeo-Christian way of thinking has never been greater. First Things is an instrument for defending and restoring Christian civilization. Send a subscription to a young person who has to live among the enemies of the old religion. You may be helping to save a soul. You may be rebuilding the walls of the civitas Dei.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University, a Gorwood Visiting Fellow at the James Madison Program of Princeton University, and author of the forthcoming Political Meritocracy in Renaissance Italy: The Virtuous Republic of Francesco Patrizi of Siena.

Resist junk food journalism. Support journalism that nourishes the mind and soul by contributing to our year-end campaign today

Original image by Dirk D., uploaded by Mark Cartwright, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles