Being Christian when civilization collapses
If it seems as if the world is falling apart that’s because, in some very real ways, it is.
The news has been relentless, for a while now, but especially these past two weeks. After multiple mass shootings, the nation is grieving. People are angry that nothing seems to change.
According to the FBI, there’s been a 50% uptick in “active shooting incidents” since last year, and that’s not counting the shooting that left 21 dead in Uvalde, Texas. “The two attacks (in Buffalo and Uvalde) are not outliers,” announced National Public Radio. “Mass shootings happen in the U.S. with depressing regularity.” According to their count, 213 so far this year.
A variety of things and people are being blamed: access to guns, social isolation, politicians, talk show hosts, authorities, harmful ideas, and more. Behind events this tragic are a number of contributing factors. At the same time, we can no longer think of mass shootings as isolated incidents. They must be understood as indications of social breakdown, along with spiking rates of addiction, overdoses, violent crime, suicide, sexual confusion, and even airplane incidents.
Last week, a friend reminded me of some insightful words from Chuck Colson. One can easily imagine Chuck Colson extending a similar analysis to today’s issues, “The problem is not gun control, poverty, talk-show hosts, or race. The problem is the breakdown of moral values in American life, and our culture simply cannot respond.”
In fact, Chuck Colson is not the only thinker to have pointed to the inevitabilities of cultural breakdown. “Great civilizations are not murdered,” wrote historian Arnold Toynbee. “They commit suicide.” In other words, civilizations do not last forever, and there are rules that determine whether or not they have a future.
At the recent Wilberforce Weekend, author and social critic Os Guinness stated that we are living in “a civilizational moment”:
“All the great civilizations reach a moment when they’re out of touch with the inspiration that made them. And there’s a critical transition moment when they either go towards renewal or down to decline.“
We are at such a moment, if not already past it. For example, a civilization cannot survive if it is not preparing for the future. The dual modern realities of debt, both individually and nationally, and demographics, especially the collapse of birth rates below replacement levels, indicate that as a people we live more for immediate gratification than a strong tomorrow.
Of course, in an ultimately meaningless world, there is no sense of tomorrow. And increasingly, studies reveal that our culture suffers from a catastrophic loss of meaning. This only makes sense for a culture already detached from ultimate categories of truth and identity, but that doesn’t make life here any easier.
At the same time, life, even at a time of cultural collapse, does not come to an end. People are born and die. They gather; they buy and sell; they create and invent. Civilizational collapse is never sudden, but almost always extends over decades and even centuries.
What can we do if a civilization is disintegrating around us?
First, we must remember that although the challenges of this cultural moment are real, they are never the whole story. The whole story is, instead, the story centered on the person and work of Christ, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the cosmos. The ending of that story is sure, despite the chaos of the moment.
Second, rather than withdraw from the challenges around us, we continue to give whatever good we can to the world. William Wilberforce, for example, not only lobbied against the slave trade but also fought to advance moral values in a corrupt nation. Our best efforts may not succeed, but that’s not why we do it. We do it out of love for God and neighbor.
Third, we must reject small compromises. Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil,” how in certain cultural moments, evil advances in mundane and seemingly harmless ways. Solomon is an example of this. The last half of 1 Kings 10 reads like a ledger of his remarkable success: extravagant wealth, imported horses and chariots from Egypt, and 700 wives (with accompanying military alliances and treaties).
However, Deuteronomy 17 records that, years before, Moses had instructed the Israelites about what their king should not do:
“He must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You shall never return that way again.” And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.“
The author of the Book of Kings knew exactly what he was doing presenting Solomon’s “success” as he did. His telling of the exploits of Solomon was in a way Israelite readers would understand.
Now, whether we’re in a time of decline or a time of amazing success like Solomon, the same response is required from God’s people. We must be faithful to what He asks us to do, to what He asks us to believe, and to how He instructs us to live.
In all of these things, we take up life in this moment as part of our calling. We are here because it is the time and in place He ordained for us. And so we move forward, keeping our eyes on the One who perfects and finishes our faith, Who will bring history to its final culmination.
John Stonestreet serves as President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s a sought-after author and speaker on areas of faith and culture, theology, worldview, education and apologetics. John is the daily voice of BreakPoint, the nationally syndicated commentary on the culture founded by the late Chuck Colson. He is also the voice of the Point, a daily one-minute feature on worldview, apologetics and cultural issues. Before coming to the Colson Center in 2010, John served in various leadership capacities with Summit Ministries and was on the biblical studies faculty at Bryan College (TN). John has co-authored four books: A Practical Guide to Culture, Restoring All Things, Same-Sex Marriage, and Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN). He and his wife, Sarah, have four children and live in Colorado Springs, CO. Connect with John at BreakPoint.org, or follow him on Twitter (@jbstonestreet).
Heather Walker Peterson, PhD, is the Senior Editor at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. A former associate professor of English, she’s written for publications such as Mere Orthodoxy, InterVarsity's The Well, and the Mudroom. She’s most inspired by her two remarkably different daughters.