“What does it mean to say we are in post-Christian times? Does it mean that there are no Christians left? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It means that we have left the historical period in which the Christian religion and its precepts were at the core of the moral imagination of the West. It doesn’t mean that Christianity has disappeared.”
In a truly post-Christian society, would so many people find an imitatio Christi thrilling and fascinating and inspiring? Would so many people be moved, on a deep level, by an image like this one? (Wouldn’t a truly post-Christian society, of the sort that certain 20th century totalitarians aspired to build, be repulsed instead by images of weakness and deformity?) And then further, in a fully secularized society, would so many people who have drifted from the practice of religion – I have many of my fellow journalists particularly in mind – care so much whether an antique religious organization and its aged, celibate leader are in touch with their experiences? Would you really have the palpable excitement at his mere presence that has coursed through most of the coverage the last two days?
A cynical religious conservative might respond that the secular media only cares, only feels the pulse of excitement, because this pontificate has given them the sense that the Catholic church might be changing to fit their pre-existing prejudices, that the Whig vision of history that substitutes for its Christian antecedent might be being vindicated in the Vatican of all places. And this is surely part of it, which is one reason among many why Christian leaders should be wary of mistaking an enthusiastic reaction for a sign of evangelistic success or incipient conversion; sometimes the enthusiasm is just a sign that the world thinks that it’s about to succeed in converting you.
But mixed in with this Whiggish, raze-the-last-bastions spirit is something else: Probably not the sudden, “Francis Effect” openness to #fullChristianity that some of the pope’s admirers see him winning, but at the very least a much stronger desire to feel in harmony with the leader of the West’s historic faith than you might expect from a society allegedly leaving that faith far behind.
Oh, I dunno. I doubt it. I wish it were so, but I just can’t see it.
Believe me, I’m quite pleased to see so much excitement among my Catholic friends — and I’ve been among them this week at Villanova — over Francis’s visit. Even pals who are not theologically inclined to be Francis fans are feeling great this week. As regular readers know, I’m much more of a Benedict XVI man, but Francis sometimes says things that challenge me in a good way.
That said, I’m not convinced that public enthusiasm for Pope Francis is a sign that we are not (yet) post-Christian. Let me explain why.
What does it mean to say we are in post-Christian times? Does it mean that there are no Christians left? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It means that we have left the historical period in which the Christian religion and its precepts were at the core of the moral imagination of the West. It doesn’t mean that Christianity has disappeared. It only means that Christianity as an ideal and a cultural force is no longer dominant.
The most recent Pew survey found that Christianity is declining sharply in America. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are taking very serious hits, but Evangelicals are holding their own. But Christians are still by far the most populous religious group in the US. What does that mean, though?