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The End of Orthodoxy in America?: Part I – Losing the Senses

The late arch-bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, said a few years before his earthly demise,

“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

While George’s successor in the Windy City, Blase Cupich, has not been arrested since George’s death in 2015, and it appears, at least for now, that incarceration is not an imminent threat to Cardinal Cupich, still, even if George’s quasi-rhetorical forth-telling has failed to come true, there is a strong and growing sense among traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals that indeed all is not well with the soul of America. More recent visionaries like Rod Dreher have written several powerful texts arguing as much, even offering alternative routes to preserving the historical deposit of classical Christian faith.

But why think this is the case? Is the current panic among the faithful warranted in light of the actual conditions? Or are we, perhaps like each passing generation of American Christians, overreacting to troubling but otherwise negligible sociological and political trends?

Unfortunately, I suspect the former is true— that we really are in serious trouble and our panic warranted.1 That is not to say that we should panic, rather that we should find ways to prepare ourselves for the coming crisis. There are three signs of the times which I think indicate this inevitable demise of any kind of publicly-practiced orthodox Christianity in America. Also, it is not just a fading into irrelevance I am talking about, but that orthodox Christians will actually be persecuted concretely, e.g. in the banning of public worship or the incarceration of priests and pastors who defy state-authorized religious and moral teachings. The three signs that point to this demise can be construed as lost (or nearly lost) battles. These are battlefields of culture where, should orthodoxy not find itself fighting boldly on each, the orthodox themselves will become, or have already become, a conquered people.2Of course, not in the eschatological sense, which is an important point to make.

These three battles are waged in the realm of the senses, the realm of the mind, and in the realm of the heart or emotions. All areas where orthodox Christianity is struggling to hold its ground and win the day. In part one of this series, I look at the lost battle of the senses. However, first I should give some definition of what I mean by “orthodox” Christianity.

What is Orthodox Christianity?

Orthodoxy can be a tricky term. It can be used as if everyone who hears it should know exactly what it means and specifically which dogmas it entails and which teachings it anathematizes. But, so often this is not the case, and orthodoxy is something that various churches, denominations, and movements wrestle over, each vying to claim it as their own.

For my purposes, however, I will posit the following necessary and sufficient conditions for a church community to be considered truly orthodox:

  1. A church is orthodox if its members can recite the propositional claims of the four ecumenical creeds with an authentic belief in the metaphysical and historical realities that ground the truth of each claim.
  2. A church is orthodox if it maintains a hermeneutical approach to the scriptures that is consistent with, albeit not identical to, interpretive approaches of the early, medieval and reformational eras; this would include an approach that presupposes the divine inspiration of at least the 66 canonical books of the Protestant Bible and the continuity, cohesiveness, and universality of its message, the Gospel.
  3. A church subsequently is orthodox if it professes salvific exclusivity; meaning that it is always and only through Jesus Christ that any individual person regardless of time, place, culture or level of development is saved to eternal life with God. 3 This can occur in a variety of ways, however. For example a 18th-century Muslim peasant women living in Central Asia could be saved having never heard the name of Jesus Christ or the Gospel message, but her salvation would occur through the General Revelation given to her by Christ and her response to that General Revelation. She would not be saved through her Muslim faith and practice, but actually in spite of it.
  4. A church is orthodox if it maintains the traditional teachings of the church on non-negotiable moral issues, e.g. human sexuality, the sanctity of all human life, the nature of marriage.
  5. Finally, an orthodox church retains an identifiable continuity of basic religious practice with the historical, ecumenical Church of Reformation Protestantism, Latin Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity, e.g. congregating together on Sundays, a recognizable ecclesial structure, the practicing of biblical sacraments, corporate prayer and worship, preaching, charitable outreach, etc.

While this is not a comprehensive list, it seems that church communities that meet all of these conditions, regardless of denominational affiliation or even ecumenical tradition, could rightly be called orthodox.4 For a more detailed, educated, and comprehensive account of ecumenical orthodox Christianity, see Thomas Oden’s excellent Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology.

First Sign: Losing the Battle of the Senses

In his excellent book The Lost History of Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins explains one way in which a religious identity is eliminated from culture: through the dismantling of the religious imagery and sound world that expresses its theological claims and social practices. Jenkins summarizes what happened to Christian art, architecture, and imagery when Christian cultures came under a dominant Islamic political rule:

Under Muslim rule, churches were tightly constrained in their ability to project their physical presence into the landscape, by the public display of icons and images or statuary, by bell ringing or public processions. It was no longer possible to use the liturgy and the spectacular external decorations of church buildings to offer believers a taste of the ultimate.

Jenkins, 215

In other words, Islam, not unlike the aggressive voices of secularism today, developed a program of expunging visible Christianity from the landscape of the nation or region it conquered. Church cupolas were replaced with domed Mosques, iconic imagery demolished and replaced by Arabic script, and spaces of Christian worship and practice pushed to the margins of the city and outlying country side. A contemporary analogy of this might be if one were to take a stroll down “the Magnificent Mile” of Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago where churches like the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church are dominated by skyscrapers dedicated to commerce, fashion, and trend.5 See the image featured at the top of this blog. Is it any wonder that Fourth Presbyterian’s theology is also dominated by the secular forces that erected the buildings which loom over its steeple?

But, it was not only the visible imagery of Christianity that was suppressed, it was also the soundscape of Christian faith that was precluded from the everyday experience of the average citizen:

Far from dominating and sanctifying the public landscape…Christian structures and rituals were forced into varying degrees of concealment, which grew all the more discreet following waves of riot or violence. Over the centuries, for instance, Nestorians abandoned what had once been their common use of icons, and had few opportunities to use the wooden clappers they employed in place of [church] bells.

Jenkins, 215

Wooden clappers in the place of church bells? Christians today don’t even have that! And, when was the last time you heard an actual church bell ring? In the late Middle Ages is was not long before former Christian cultures where dominated by the minaret and the muezzin, sights and sounds that declared the glory of Allah and the very subservient, even if honored, status of his merely human prophet Issa. Moreover, the two religious expressions were simply not compatible in the same city, since they were fundamentally at odds theologically, “Cities could have a soundscape based on the Muslim muezzin or Christian bells, but not both. Several times a day, the call to prayer sent a straightforward message about who held political power.”6 Jenkins, 216.

In spite of the lack of church bells, the realm of music may indeed be one of the last bastions of defense for orthodox Christianity, at least during the Christmas season and to some degree the rest of the year as radio stations throughout the country air Christian pop music, some of which might even be good enough to act as a counterweight to the secular soundscape that dominants our auditory world.7 Recent Christian adaptation of formerly secular, and often grossly immoral, forms of music like Rap might even be considered indicators of pockets of cultural revival. However, whether Christian popular music can maintain the pace with its worldly rivals has yet to be seen and, in many ways, it has already been found wanting, suggesting a lack of staying power. Its traditional musical predecessors, the Hymns and Gospel, however, are quickly vanishing from our sound world. Even “Amazing Grace” only makes a rare appearance in our auditory soundscape today.8 I have a terrible voice, but I make a point to hum Amazing Grace to my two-year old son every night before bed.

While today’s subjugation of Christian sights and sounds doesn’t takes place through force as it often did in the Middle Ages, it does take place through both law and the more non-coercive elements of culture. However, it is noteworthy that not all subjugation of visible Christianity in Dar-al-Islam was through force either. Much of its subjugation was also through more gradual cultural means or through de jure pronouncements that provided the initial impression of Islamic cultural domination only to over time become de facto realities. This is why it is terribly unfortunate that so many Christians today have abandoned interest in politics and law. Thinking that laws, and the Supreme Court Justices that interpret them, don’t matter in the shaping of the hearts and minds and practices of people living under them is both naive and dangerous. This is especially poignant today after nearly a year of “guidelines” restricting the gathering of church communities. For, in the end, it is the gathering church that is the ultimate “visible sign” of Christ. A church that does not gather cannot act as the embodiment of that greater Truth to which it has been called to represent.

Either way, whether through brute physical force or the more indirect mechanisms of cultural pressure and de jure laws, the careful deconstruction of anything that might remind a population of its Christian roots was one tactic in the overall offensive against the will of those Christian communities still professing orthodox faith, “Progressively reducing the conspicuous display of signs of faith reduced the number of reasons for minority believers to maintain their stubborn dissidence, and encourage conformity.”9 Jenkins, 215.

While traditional Islam today is doubling down in places that had, for a short time, drifted secular in maintaining dominance over the sights and sounds of those lands (see Turkey as a very troubling example), Secularism is also doubling down in its domination over the sensory experiences of most Americans. Apart from gaudy, zirconium-studded jewelry, many Americans today have never experienced any real overt, genuine, and powerful images of Christian piety. Most young people have not participated annually in Corpus Christi processions, heard church bells ringing on a weekly basis, or viewed statuary or painting (of a high quality) representing the transcendent principles or historical legacy of Classical Christianity. Dissident attempts to recapture the religious imagination in the domain of film are few, far between, and often of incredibly poor quality. The last, best hope probably being the cinematization of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, itself ambiguous enough to appeal to all audiences, and Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (a film that was met with considerable cultural blow back). While Jesus films come and go, their phenomenological power and influence is weak compared to the secular imaginary that daily dominates our thought world. Jesus, Mary and Joseph simply cannot compete with Han, Luke, and Leah.

In sum, the average US citizen today will have a daily array of sensory experiences of secular culture that vastly outstrips any encounter with Christian imagery, art, or sound. The shrines of secularity are legion: Sports stadiums, movie theaters, grocery stores, gyms, restaurants and bars, Walmart and Home Depot. Not to mention the political and social propaganda that floods through our screens and into our living rooms (BLM superstars and mask fanatics included) or the alternative mythologies streamed unceasingly to us in the form of Marvel, Star Wars, and Harry Potter.10 I am no expert in pop culture and at 45 I am sure the examples given here are already dated. But, whatever the 2021 versions of each may be, it is those that dominate our visual world and shape our inner one. Further, this phenomena will be most concentrated in our cities, where not only are the senses dominated by secular messages, symbols, and stories, but where nature is absent and everything seen or heard can be readily explained as “the work of human hand” rather than that of an almighty, immaterial Creator. It is the daily interactions with this Christian-less yet utterly concrete culture that wears down the otherwise stalwart defender of orthodoxy.

With the arrival of COVID this slow yet steady process has accelerated as church leaders relinquish the right to congregate at Sunday service or the Mass in order to appease the sensibilities and appetites of those in political power. Thus, the march toward a culture void of Christian presence is inevitable. Certainly Christians may continue to move freely about their world so long as their faith is not recognizably displayed, just as Christians were able to blend into Islamic societies by taking on Arabic names and dressing in Islamic fashion. Perhaps the central Christian image of the cross will also remain widespread in the culture, albeit worn in predominantly bauble-like fashion or as a gaudy adornment on an otherwise secularized body.

However, losing the battle of the senses would still not be a sufficient condition for the loss of Christian orthodoxy. For even if our cityscapes flourished with basilicas, and Sunday mornings resounded with church bells reminding the faithful of their holy obligations, at best we might be like Europe, where much of the same is present yet a genuine and practiced orthodoxy still negligible. Even there, however, is it any wonder that laws are now emerging to limit the extent of Muslim religious expressions in European cities? Our embodied nature feeds off of what we experience sensorially around us, and some of that, much of it perhaps, transmits to the soul. Another word for “soul” in much of modern philosophy and theology is “mind,” and it is in the next post I will look at the battlefield of the mind and how Christianity has lost this battle within the domain of the academy.

  • 1
    That is not to say that we should panic, rather that we should find ways to prepare ourselves for the coming crisis.
  • 2
    Of course, not in the eschatological sense, which is an important point to make.
  • 3
    This can occur in a variety of ways, however. For example a 18th-century Muslim peasant women living in Central Asia could be saved having never heard the name of Jesus Christ or the Gospel message, but her salvation would occur through the General Revelation given to her by Christ and her response to that General Revelation. She would not be saved through her Muslim faith and practice, but actually in spite of it.
  • 4
    For a more detailed, educated, and comprehensive account of ecumenical orthodox Christianity, see Thomas Oden’s excellent Classical Christianity: A Systematic Theology.
  • 5
    See the image featured at the top of this blog.
  • 6
    Jenkins, 216.
  • 7
    Recent Christian adaptation of formerly secular, and often grossly immoral, forms of music like Rap might even be considered indicators of pockets of cultural revival.
  • 8
    I have a terrible voice, but I make a point to hum Amazing Grace to my two-year old son every night before bed.
  • 9
    Jenkins, 215.
  • 10
    I am no expert in pop culture and at 45 I am sure the examples given here are already dated. But, whatever the 2021 versions of each may be, it is those that dominate our visual world and shape our inner one.

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