By Brendan Case
This essay is part of a symposium on the thought of French political thinker Chantal Delsol in light of her latest book, La fin de la Chrétienté or The End of the Christian World.
Chantal Delsol’s provocative essay condenses a number of themes developed at greater length in her recent book, La fin de la Chrétienté. With this work, Delsol adds a pebble to an already mountainous literature on the decline of Christianity in the West. Her key thesis is that the end of Christendom (Chrétienté)—meaning the European civilization pervasively shaped by Christianity (Christianisme) and dating from the inception of an officially Christian Roman empire under Theodosius I—augurs not the advent of a secular or post-religious culture, much one of nihilism, but rather a “re-paganization” of the West.
Delsol’s approach, both in her essay and in the book, is largely descriptive, tracing the rise and fall of a frankly imperfect Christendom before the advance of a recrudescent paganism. Nonetheless, as is typical of the genre, her treatment has a strong tinge of moral disapproval; hers is a story in which things have gone, if not from good to bad, then certainly from bad to worse, and she is not shy about lampooning the vacuity and narcissism of contemporary paganism, even as she is careful to reserve a few choice barbs for the Christendom it has replaced. My brief response addresses two broad questions which I was left puzzling over after reading both Delsol’s essay and her book: first, how genuinely pagan is the West’s nascent paganism? And second, how Christian was the Christendom whose death Delsol chronicles?
The paganism Delsol identifies in the contemporary West consists in at least three distinct and distantly-related dimensions: pre-Christian Greco-Roman culture, so-called “Asiatic pantheism,” and “distorted Christian morality.” Re-paganization as a reversion to Rome is clearest in Delsol’s discussion of the “normative inversion” which is one of its chief symptoms: in the matter of a generation or two, she observes, the West has witnessed the normalization of, for instance, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and suicide, all of which had been accepted in pagan Rome but largely proscribed as early as the Theodosian period. In La fin de la Chrétienté, Delsol puts this particularly clearly: “The normative inversion that we are seeing at work here…represents almost exactly the contrary of what happened in the fourth century. It is, so to speak, the inversion of the inversion…That double inversion leads us back to pre-Christendom paganism” (my translation).
Now it is true enough that the modern West has revived a number of social norms which were characteristic of pagan Greece or Rome. But those norms were hardly the gross and scope of their moral and religious cultures. Reading Delsol on today’s “normative inversion” immediately brought to my mind C. S. Lewis’s poem, “A Cliché Came out of Its Cage,” which responds to T. S. Eliot’s own proposal, in The Idea of a Christian Society, that the West was reviving paganism. Lewis’s poem opens: “You said, ‘The world is going back to Paganism’. Oh bright / Vision!”
The promise of a renewed pagan Rome prompted quite different associations in Lewis than in Delsol or Eliot; instead of antiquity’s cruelties, it brought to Lewis’s mind “Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes, / Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses” and visions of a society whose maxims were “Shun Hubris… Reverence for the aged is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die / Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.” Lewis challenges the prophet of paganism reborn: “Are these the pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs; / You that have Vichy-water in your veins and worship the event, / Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).”
Lewis’s poem highlights an important absence in Delsol’s account of the normative inversion—it consists, without remainder, in the revival of paganism’s vices without any corresponding revival of its sterner virtues. We today are surely in no danger of being overwhelmed today by a new generation of Catos or Cincinnatuses. Indeed, the ambition to retrieve the virtues of ancient Athens, Sparta, or Rome, and so, in a more positive sense, to partly re-paganize the West, runs back through Rousseau to the humanism of Petrarch and Machiavelli. That ambition also profoundly influenced the American Founding. Our constitution, after all, is an adaptation of ancient Rome’s, while the eminent Bostonian Joseph Warren’s Romanophilism ran so deep that he delivered his 1775 oration on the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre clad in only a toga, the Massachusetts winter notwithstanding.
And so, my first question regarding the re-paganization thesis is this: if the normative inversion involved in the rebirth of paganism is a matter of loss and decline (our accepting once again the murder of children, the coarsening of sexual mores, the casual destruction of marriages, and so on), is that a function of paganism’s essential moral inferiority to the Christendom which displaced it, or rather a function of our having delighted in our ancestors’ vices and neglected their virtues?
Delsol’s treatment of the second strand of the new paganism—a “cosmotheism” rooted in “Asiatic pantheism”—raises the same question still more acutely, namely, are we in the West today truly confronting an ascendant Buddhism or Hinduism, or instead some ersatz of our own devising? “Asian religious offerings,” Delsol writes, “correspond to contemporary aspirations.” They are “monistic” she asserts, which comports well with our immanentism; they are “syncretistic,” as befits our non-judgmentalism; they seek the end of suffering above all, gratifying our therapeutic impulses.
Now, Delsol’s “cosmotheism” corresponds to no historic stream within Buddhism or Hinduism. For a start, even Buddhism, and still more the Vedanta, harbor “theistic” traditions, as is evident from reading even a few pages of, e.g., Dölpöpa Gyaltsen’s Mountain Doctrine or Madhvācharya’s Brahmasutrabhāṣya. But more broadly, Delsol’s dour prophecy that the West is succumbing to Buddhism should equally prompt Lewis’s reply: “Oh bright vision!” “Everything points to the influence of Asia on the West,” Delsol writes: but where then are the trains of saffron-robed monks who, having taken the bodhisattva vow of compassion for all sentient beings, greet even the ants in their path with a gentle courtesy? Where are the throngs of the happy faithful flocking to feed the hungry and visit the sick in observance of Vesak?
What Delsol describes as “Asiatic religion” in the West is not the Buddhism of Tibet or Thailand, but of a corporate mindfulness seminar, a menu of techniques as applicable to sharpening a CEO’s negotiating skills as to developing universal lovingkindness. But that is just to say that this corporate Buddhism is arguably as much a product of the modern West as it is of Asia, no more Tibetan than Taco Bell is Mexican. This is a point which Delsol herself comes close to making in the book, in the lovely image of religious development as a palimpsest, in which prior traditions are over-written by new ones without being fully effaced. And to be sure, I take Delsol’s point that the commodified and deracinated Eastern spirituality which has become ever-present in educated Western circles is annoying, and very likely a bad influence on those who participate in it. I would also freely grant that Christendom had much to teach the classical civilizations of Asia about the nature of God and the dignity of man. But again, we should ask ourselves whether the trends Delsol describes are the effects of Buddhism or Hinduism as such, or rather of our bowdlerization of them.
I have less to say about the third strand of Delsol’s resurgent paganism, namely its “distorted Christian morality,” except to observe that this element is definitionally not pagan. “Christianity distorted” is instead an apt description instead of a heresy, which is precisely how Delsol understands some of the most troubling developments in the contemporary West, namely the hypertrophy of the distinctively Christian “principles of solidarity and equality” which are now bent toward liberating us from the “constraints” of our own biology. There is a much stronger case for the commonplace that these developments are revivals of the ancient Gnostic heresies, with their longing to escape the body, although I think the comparison is frankly much too generous to the contemporary politics of identity.
Finally, while I am on the topic of the influence of Christian heresies in the West, I would like to draw attention to the surprising absence in Delsol’s narrative of that greatest of Christian heresies, namely Islam, which is mentioned not at all in her essay, and only once in passing in the book. This is a striking omission in a work about the decline of Christianity written by a French Catholic; Delsol is surely aware that her Church’s principal rival in France and elsewhere in Europe is not the lotus but the crescent. Perhaps the simplest way to explain the neglect is that Islam does not naturally fit into a book about the re-paganization of the West; but then again, that fact offers a clear demonstration of the explanatory limits of Delsol’s thesis.
That is enough for now on the re-paganization thesis. I would like to conclude by turning briefly to my second question: How Christian was Christendom? Delsol draws a clear-cut distinction between the two in a number of places. She notes that, while Christianity was born with the first disciples and will exist as long as there are two or three to gather in Christ’s name, Christendom as a civilization was born somewhere around the 390s AD, and has been long a-dying in our day. But clearly they have some essential relation.
For Delsol, Christendom is the product of Christians’ inevitable and necessary efforts to embody the Gospel within particular cultural and political forms. Christendom’s achievements were profound; as she emphasizes, they included unprecedented protections for children and women, protections whose virtues are now most evident by their increasing absence. Nonetheless, the link between Christianity and Christendom is fragile and subject to frequent admixture and corruption. As Delsol notes in her essay, “The principles of evangelical morality are not intended for immediate and total application: the Catholic Inquisition, the first historical totalitarianism, was a perversion of Evangelical Good claiming to immediately settle on earth.”
Unfortunately, it seems to me that at points Delsol herself was not as careful as one might hope in applying this distinction between the genuinely Christian in Christendom and adventitious accretions or even damnable corruptions. Delsol’s book and lecture version include moral and legal proscriptions on abortion, divorce, and homosexuality as among the key elements in the ongoing “normative inversion” or rather reversion to pre-Christian paganism. But she also includes the following sentence: “Pedophilia, previously considered a stopgap [un pis-aller, a least-bad option] that was tolerated to protect families and institutions, is now criminalized.”
This allegation that one symptom of the West’s de-Christianization is a growing concern over stamping out pedophilia is not an isolated comment. Delsol mentions pedophilia twelve times over the course of La fin de la Chrétienté, and apart from one paragraph criticizing efforts by progressives in the 1970s to normalize it, all of these references are along the same lines as the brief comment above. In one passage, she notes that, “If in the Church acts of pedophilia were never considered legitimate, they were always covered up, that is, excused,” as “a little mistake (un petit écart).” And later on, she writes, “The pedophilia sagas betrayed, for the first time, the abandonment of [the Church’s] traditional holism: the individual at present comes before the institution.”
Now, even assuming that a culture of covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests or others was ever part of “traditional Catholicism” in France or Boston—and my sense is that the tradition in this case is actually much shallower than Delsol seems to imply—that tradition was no consequence of the Gospel, but a heinous corruption of it. Any bishop who appealed to the “good of the church” in exhorting the parents of an abused child to silence perverted the Gospel more thoroughly than Arius or Nestorius ever did. This needs to be said as clearly and as often as possible.
Delsol’s own theory of Christendom predicts that much of what its citizens of Christendom took for granted a century or four ago was in fact not Christian at all, but merely their own predilections or even sinful ambitions clothed in the stolen garb of righteousness. The collapse of that marvelous civilization gives us Christians living in its ruins a unique opportunity for clarity about its ills as well as its goods. The owl of Minerva rises at dusk. I am grateful to Delsol for providing such a rich set of reflections on what Christendom meant, and what comes next, and I hope that my perhaps equally provocative comments will offer her and her readers further food for thought.
Brendan Case, Th.D., is the Associate Director for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He is the author, with William Glass, of Least of the Apostles: Paul and His Legacies in Earliest Christianity (Wipf & Stock, 2022), and The Accountable Animal: Justice, Justification, and Judgment (T&T Clark, 2021).
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