How can we explain the West’s dramatic fall from grace?
There can hardly be a serious Christian today who does not recognize a considerable fall from grace in the Western world as a whole. Even sincere Protestants, who would not (as I would) identify their own version of Christianity as a contributing cause to the decline of Christian culture in the West, surely see an immense shambles now as compared with one to two hundred years ago. A Catholic is more likely to trace the decline over the past six hundred years and more.
However it is explained, the downward spiral of the influence of the Faith on Western culture has now gone on long enough to be dispiriting—to make us wonder at the seeming inevitability of the decline, or even to see this decline as a necessary answer to Our Lord’s famous question: ”Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8).
It is, I am sure, very wrong to wax Providentially fatalistic on this point. While God’s Providence encompasses everything, we must beware of associating His active will with this long decline. Moreover, to speak in terms of the Second Coming is also highly problematic. For all we know, the last several centuries are nothing but a blip in a human story which has yet to unfold over a period of 10,000 years or more!
Still, the question arises: How do we explain this long and discouraging trend?
The History of Israel
It has been a commonplace of Christian preaching to identify the Old Testament portrayal of the fortunes of Israel with the problems facing the individual human soul. Even if we do not yet understand exactly why the wicked so often seem to prosper, we know at a deeper level how our sins divide us from God, and the horror of the results. This comes with the greater spiritual maturity of the New Covenant. Unless we are shallow advocates of the prosperity Gospel, we do not identify God’s presence with material success. Indeed, there is a kind of historical (deliberately Providentially historical) maturation in Christianity which enables us to evaluate such things on a more spiritual plane.
Among deeply committed Christians, who would now confuse riches or other forms of worldly success with holiness? And who would prefer to be rich rather than holy? It is true that many nominal Christians can be bought very cheaply. We see this with every moral shift in our desolate culture. But in an age of catastrophic Christian irrelevance, few deeply committed souls can be confused about wealth and power, even if some may still be tempted by spiritual honors to forget their own sinfulness.
Still, when it comes to the fate of entire nations and groups of nations—or even the relative decline or advancement of the Church herself—we do not as often turn to the Old Testament to answer our question about why they should fall so inexorably into long periods of spiritual decline. Yet perhaps we should, for the history of Israel has something to teach us.
In the sixteenth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel—who was much given to apocalyptic visions—we find a remarkable account of salvation history, culminating in God’s promised establishment of a new and everlasting covenant, in which Israel will experience the permanent forgiveness of her sins. I will briefly sketch this history, using God’s own words to Israel.
In the beginning, Israel was nothing; Israel was considered to be of no worth whatsoever:
Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born, your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you…but you were cast out on an open field for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. [16:1-6]
But God loved Israel and took her for His own:
And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, “Live, and grow up like a plant of the field.” And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full maidenhood; …yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yes, I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. [16:6-9]
Then God honored her and bestowed countless gifts upon her:
And I decked you with ornaments, and put bracelets on your arms…. Thus you were decked with gold and silver; and your clothing was of fine linen and silk, and embroidered cloth; you ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you. [16:10-14]
Rising only to fall
But Israel regarded her gifts as natural and inevitable:
But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made gaily decked shrines, and on them played the harlot; the like has never been, nor ever shall be. You also took your fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the harlot…. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured…. [16:15-21]
Finally God proclaims the sad truth of this whole history in a single sentence:
And in all your abominations and your harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, weltering in your blood. [16:22]
Thus did Israel grow prosperous and proud, and so fall from grace. The rest of the chapter announces the punishments the Lord will inflict on Israel as a result of this fall—but only in order that He might find Israel receptive to His mercy and love once again. At the very end of the chapter, it is telling how God foretells Israel’s final and everlasting experience of that mercy:
I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God. [16:62-63]
I live in hope that we shall be “confounded” in exactly this way, so that the remembrance of our shame will prevent us from rejecting God’s mercy yet again. Even the Church, by the end of the medieval period, had begun to take worldly prerogatives as her natural and supernatural due, and we are still slowly recovering from that self-forgetfulness. How much more so the West as a whole!
We do not know the end of our own story. But how many Divine gifts has the West learned to claim as her own, as products of her intrinsic worth? If Ezekiel has not very exactly described the history of the West (and not only the West!), then Scripture is concerned exclusively with past history—then Scripture has no prophetic power at all.
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