We have a narrative of Christian history, and it is on the whole an optimistic one. It began in the Middle East and spread westwards and northwards. There were set backs, but the progress is clear. Our Faith conquered Europe and Russia, it crossed the Atlantic where it triumphed there, and during the nineteenth century it followed European Imperialism to the ends of the earth. For all the splits, for all the setbacks, it is a story of success. That may be one of the reasons so many Christians are baffled by what’s going on around us.
In Europe our Faith is undeniably in retreat, and even in the USA, the threats seem greater than they have ever been. It is not just (though it is that too) that our beliefs are no longer treated with respect and are mocked, it is that the very ethos of secular society seems antagonistic to our beliefs. I heard on the radio this morning that one of the effects of the new legislation here on same sex marriage will be that adultery will not longer be a ground for divorce in heterosexual marriages – because lawyers can’t agree what a definition of adultery for homosexuals would look like. Really, and there we were being told this would have no effect on the rest of us!
Atheists attach their own narrative to this process. They see it as the triumph of reason over religion. There are some very weak-minded Christians who think the same way and see the only hope for Christians as being to appease this mood. But this narrative is as wrong as our Western one. There is no necessary connection between religious belief and intellect either way, and the atheist jibe that Christians are not very bright is advanced only by atheists who fit that description. My co-author, Chalcedon has a doctorate, as does Geoffrey Sales, and both have occupied senior positions in education. The idea that somehow it is the advance of education which will eliminate Christianity is not true.
But if, as I did a week ago, you look outside of that Western narrative, you get a different story and one which we should heed. It is a story not unfamiliar to us now. Across whole swathes of territory where Christianity was once widespread, and even (as in Egypt, Syria and Turkey) dominant, it has either vanished or is under threat as the religion of a persecuted minority. If we look at the global history of our faith, what is happening here now has happened before in many places. We have failed the winnowing process; we have failed to consolidate our position; we have been driven to the margins; we have hung on, but only just.
One of the reasons for this is the one we least often face up to – it is ourselves. Our tendency to division, our habit of persecuting each other, and our love of our opinions are, none of them, new. Long before persecution hits us, we have hollowed ourselves out. That is why we should be worried. Are we ready for what is to come?