History can teach us much about the decline of cultures:
The value of history is that we will hopefully learn from it. But as we become more and more dumbed down in the West – not just about history, but about pretty much everything else – we are left floundering in uncertainty, ignorance and despair. History matters, and Christians of all people should be students of it.
Indeed, Christianity is a historical religion. While some other world religions basically just offer moral maxims and spiritual pep talks, Christianity, like Judaism, is firmly grounded in history. History is the story of God’s mighty acts, and to know God aright we must know something about history.
Here I wish to speak of one historical happening and draw some lessons from it. Most folks would have heard about this event, even though most likely could not provide details of it, nor see the sheer importance of it. I refer to the sack of Rome. Various barbarian hordes such as the Goths had been encroaching on the Roman Empire’s borders for some time, and the city of Rome was finally sacked by the Visigoth King Alaric in 410.
While it took a few more decades to see the Empire finally finished, this event really was the beginning of the end. And it is vital to see the magnitude of this event. Although long a pagan empire, the early Christian church had found its steady rule, security and stability (the Roman peace – “Pax Romana”) to be in many ways a real blessing.
Chaos and anarchy make most things in life – including the preaching of the gospel – much more difficult, and so a stable social order helped to facilitate the spread of the faith – even more so when Constantine had issued the Edict of Milan in 313, and Theodosius had decreed in 380 that Nicene Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire.
So a period of calm had preceded the barbarian storm. But when Rome fell, it had a huge impact on so many, including the great Christian thinker, Augustine. The Bishop of Hippo thought long and hard about what all this meant in the purposes of God, and the result of his reflections was De Civitate Dei (The City of God), which appeared in 426.
My edition of the book is nearly 900 pages in length, so it is a substantial volume indeed. As I wrote elsewhere:
He asked why Rome had fallen, and wondered if Christianity would fall as well. Thus he spoke of the City of Man which was fallen and temporary, and the City of God which is the perfect eternal kingdom. As church historian Bruce Shelley wrote, “It gave a spiritual interpretation to the woes the world was suffering. The present might be bad, but better things are to come. The golden age – the Kingdom of God – is in the future, not in the fading splendours of a worldly kingdom that could only crumble and fall.”
Part of the answer to those grieving over fallen earthly cities is to realise, with Abraham, that we ‘look forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:10). Here we have no abiding city. Here we have no secure home. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/10/20/22775/
In the light of what seems to be the clear decline and fall of the West that we are now experiencing, let me draw upon a few other commentators here. I just recently wrote about Malcolm Muggeridge and his take on Western decline: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/19/muggeridge-on-the-decline-of-civilisations/
Let me quote from his 1978 volume, A Third Testament. In it he has a chapter on Augustine, and he says this:
In Augustine’s eyes Rome stood at the very pinnacle of history. He saw it as the secular state carried to the highest degree of perfection, providing the only tolerable framework of life for mankind. Its disappearance from the human scene, if so unthinkable a catastrophe were to happen, would leave behind not other, alternative civilizations, but a vacuum, a darkness.
Augustine’s own North Africa partook of this glory. The city of Carthage was a little Rome. The abundant harvests, the flourishing cities and ports, the entertainments and spectacles, all signified participation in the Roman Empire, which to Augustine was the whole world….
Like many in my generation, I felt that the cities of Western civilization had been morally bombed before the actual bombs began to fall. But Augustine loved and revered Rome. He saw it not just as the symbol of a great empire but as civilization itself – everything that he had admired and after which he had aspired when he was growing up and as a student in the great metropolis. Rome was art, literature, all the things he wanted to achieve….
Augustine’s first duty was to hearten his flock and prevent the panic and demoralization which the flood of refugees already beginning to arrive in North Africa from Rome might well have brought about.
In 1996 James Montgomery Boice released Foundations of God’s City: Christians in a Crumbling Culture (previously entitled Two Cities, Two Loves). He explains why he wrote the book: “The City of God was the first serious attempt to develop a Christian philosophy of history and was probably the Middle Ages’ single most influential volume. The work I am presenting here is my attempt to bring the themes of Augustine’s City of God up to date.”
And echoing Muggeridge, he says this about the fall of Rome:
The city had been besieged by barbarians before. Part of the empire has already been overrun by foreign armies. But the sack of Rome was politically and psychologically devastating in a way those other events had not been. Rome had been master of the world. The empire had stood for a thousand years and was the very essence of civilization, at least to all who lived in the west. But suddenly it was gone, swept away by the advancing armies of these wild Germanic tribes. When Rome fell to Alaric, the citizens of the empire could hardly assimilate the scope of this unmitigated tragedy and quite naturally searched about for someone or something to blame….
The Christians were shocked by Rome’s fall too. Saint Jerome, the great Latin father of the church and translator of the Vulgate, wrung his hands, crying, “What is to become of the Church now that Rome has fallen?” It was a natural question, since Rome had embraced Christianity under the influence of the emperor Constantine almost one hundred years before and had been the church’s benefactor, friend and protector for most of the succeeding decades.
I discuss all this because many of us see parallels today with what happened back then. I, Muggeridge, Boice and so many others care deeply about what we see happening today in the West. A once great civilisation seems to be on its last legs. Sure, as Christians we know that all civilisations come and go – none are permanent.
But for so long, to speak of the West was to speak of Christendom. They were in many ways one and the same. All the great social goods of the West (freedom, democracy, the rule of law, respect for the individual, and so on) were largely the legacy and result of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The West really was – for all its faults – so very good for so very long. To see it now self-destruct is a cause of grief. The other major options – godless communism as in North Korea or Communist China, or the political ideology of Islam – certainly are not welcome alternatives.
I have often quoted from two important voices about all this, and I will do so again here. First, T. S. Eliot spoke of what is really involved in the death of a culture. It is no small thing. As he said in his 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture:
If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.
And Francis Schaeffer spoke about the attitude believers should have when they see our culture being destroyed from within and without. As he said in his 1969 volume Death in the City:
Do not take this lightly! It is a horrible thing for a man like myself to look back and see my country and my culture go down the drain in my own lifetime. It is a horrible thing that forty years ago you could move across this country and almost everyone, even non-Christians, would have known what the gospel was. A horrible thing that thirty to forty years ago our culture was built on the Christian consensus and now we are in an absolute minority.
Even if the current death of the West is in fact God’s judgment on it, we should still grieve. In the same way Jeremiah could pronounce God’s judgment on Israel, yet he still grieved over it, lamented it, and shed tears over it. That should be our response as well.
This piece is really just an introduction to other pieces that will need to be written. How should we then live, as Schaeffer asked, as we see all around us the decay and death of the West? What is the way forward if the Lord should tarry? How should we think about the rise and fall of civilisations?
Yes, many of these questions I have already addressed. As but one example, while the West is dying in large measure because of its rejection of its Christian past, the developing world is seeing Christianity growing by leaps and bounds. So while the West may soon come to an end, that does not mean Christianity has come to an end. See more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/08/25/europe-god-is-not-finished-yet/
As mentioned, it is only by having a solid understanding of the past that we can clearly see the present and anticipate the future. History is of real value, and Christians should know something about it. So stay tuned as I discuss more fully some of these major themes in the days ahead.