‘Cool’ Christianity

For the Roman missionary taking the Gospel west, his 'Romanitas' was a huge asset

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Faith

The part played by Christianity has been neither ancillary nor supplementary but literally essential, for western civilization has been Christian in its very essence. Those who would understand the West cannot sift the Christianity out of it. The honest unbeliever who is a serious student of history and culture will strive to understand the nature of Christianity.

It is arguable that in the purposes of God Roman civilization was prepared for the reception of Christianity. Obviously the unbeliever will reject this hypothesis, but we who are Christians are, I think, obliged logically to accept that the world was readied to receive the incarnate Word at the most opportune time and in the right place.

Those of us who lament the melting away of Christian congregations in our modern world can only be astonished by its rapid spread in antiquity! How on earth did they manage it? Part of the answer is that outside Italy, Roman/Christian culture was seriously cool. I mean that in the teenager’s sense. If you were a Roman missionary taking the Gospel into western Europe in the early days, your Romanitas, your ‘Romanity’ as they called it, was a huge asset:  it was attractive, fashionable, enviable, sophisticated, polished and very, very couth. We can see something of the same effect much closer to our own times: in general Pacific islanders loved and admired their missionaries — and still honor their memory. They brought the Faith, the greatest treasure of all, but they also brought education, law, medicine, technology.

What a contrast with the current situation in the West, with its potentially fatal death-wish, its scorn for traditional culture and values, its hostility to the memory of missionaries, and its thoughtless elevation of almost everything else. Reminds me of W. S. Gilbert’s “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his own.” For centuries, read cultures and you have it in a nutshell.

Caring for the poor — the sense that we actually have a debt to those less fortunate than ourselves — and sorrow for sins — the idea that we should try to make amends for the evil that we’ve done, an idea that led to so many foundations and charitable institutions in Europe — all these things we owe to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Even those who have lost or never held the Faith retain the conscience. Even when faith is dead, religious modes of thought survive. Ironically, the Christian (and post-Christian) world’s respect for such virtues as generosity to the poor, modesty, and humility may hold within it the seeds of its own demise: Marxism found its most fertile ground in Europe.

Many Marxists and their followers have been men and women of genuine conviction and deep dedication to the needs of the poor, but there is no doubt that a world that had been “softened” by Christian teaching, and that by and large had lost faith in the divine and succumbed to a materialistic vision of worldly progress, was a perfect target for the never foreseen horrors of the Leninist worldview.

 

David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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