The Decline of the West and the Decline of Western Christianity

In a recent Saeculum Short, I wrote about how the future of the West politically might not be in the West but in places fighting for democracy and the foundational values of Western civilisation. Minsk and Hong Kong are major exhibits of this phenomenon and, I suggested, call forth the good in Westerners by reminding us of what we have stood and should stand for and what we could be. 

I have since recalled that similar arguments have been made regarding the Church.

Just as the future of the West politically lies elsewhere, so too does its Christian identity rely on the growth and vitality of the Church in other parts of the world.

The state of the Church in the West is complex, but it’s fair to say that it is broadly in decline, and has been for quite a while. At the same time, the numbers of those committing to being followers of Christ has grown exponentially in corners of Asia and Africa, often under intense persecution. Fascinatingly, where growth is occurring in parts of the West, it is often among diaspora communities. Take, for instance, the movement of African pentecostal churches in urban centres in the UK (a phenomenon often referred to as “reverse mission”). Of course, the West and Christianity are not one and the same thing. Indeed, Christianity is not even a western religion. And yet, Christianity has been foundational to Western identity and the West has for a long time been a key centre of the Christian faith.

In this post, I want to suggest that the loss of Christian identity in the West is partly linked to the decline of Western consciousness. The reverse, I think, is also true: the decline of the West is partly the result of the decline of a vital Christian faith, though in this post I will focus on the former.

Again, though, it must be acknowledged that the reasons for the West’s decline impacting Christianity’s decline are complicated. It’s partly true that embarrassment, apathy and even hatred for the West has partly resulted in Christianity’s decline. But this isn’t the whole truth.

Yes it is true, on the one hand, that the growing suspicion towards the West among Westerners has, as a by-product, led to a growing suspicion towards Christianity. When placed under the microscope, the Christian faith appears oppressive. Its past, even its very recent past, fails to match the standards of the day.

Of course, there’s a ring of truth to some of these arguments. The blatant ills perpetuated in the name of Christ are there for all to see. Such a view is rather blinkered, however, and ignores the huge efforts for the common good carried out by Christians across the world, including those from Western nations. As the Australian Centre for Public Christianity puts it, “the church is better and worse than you ever imagined”. We can’t ignore the bad, but neither can we overlook the good. The abolition of slavery, the invention of charity, the rise of human rights, the movement for women’s rights, all are rooted in the efforts of Christians. Christianity evidently does not poison everything.

I believe, incidentally, that this apathy towards Western particularity is a particular challenge to those on the left who are prone to see no particular benefit to the West’s existence as an ideal and so who, in turn, see no specific need for Christianity’s continuation.

But suspicion towards the West is only one part of the story of the decline of Western Christianity, even if it is an important part. For the decline of Christianity in the West is also a result of emphasising certain parts of the Western heritage at the expense of others. This is a story of decline, as well. In short, we have accepted a reduced version of our cultural heritage which is shorn of its power and vitality.

I suggested in my previous post that the building blocks of the West include such cultural and political tenets as the rule of law, self-determination, democratic elections, individual freedom, and the presence of an active Christian faith (active being the operative word, here). In fact, as Tom Holland has argued in his book Dominion, these building blocks are, in many ways, built on Christian values.

Let us imagine these elements of Western civilisation as a series of dials on an audio mixer, with the song being produced representing the overall narrative of Western societies. As we look more closely, we find that the knob for personal freedom has been ramped up to the maximum. The song we are hearing is dominated by the language of the freedom of the “I”: I am free to consume, free to feel what ever I want to feel, free to be who I want to be, free to do what I want to do (for more on our one-sided conception of freedom, see here). On the mixing deck, to continue the media metaphor, the personal freedom “channel” blares out incessantly, drowning out the other musical elements in a cacophonous din.

Now, individual freedom is, of course, a philosophy which has yielded many positive benefits. But it needs the other channels—duty, charity, the fundamental worth of the human individual, the existence of God or some transcendent reality, even—to balance it out and to bring it into line with the overarching harmony of the song. Otherwise, all we get is a single, individualistic, loud clanging cymbal.

All this to say that as Western societies, we have taken certain elements of our historical heritage into overdrive while hastily abandoning other crucial ideals, habits and practices. Economic freedom, again a good thing in itself, has been over-emphasised at the expense of restraint. If a life of ease and luxury is the chief end of man, then we will happily sacrifice everything at the altar of independence and self-sufficiency. Personal freedom (particularly personal economic freedom) is broadly held to as an entitlement across the political spectrum, though I reckon that in its extreme forms, it poses a particular temptation to those on the right, for largely historical reasons.

In summary, then, the decline of the West and the decline of Christianity in the West are intertwined. There is much to say on the impact of the decline of Christianity on the decline of the West. I have focussed in this post on the impact of the demise of the West on Christianity in the West.

I have suggested that part of the decline of Western Christianity is down to a disdain, or apathy perhaps, for the particularity of the West and thus for the particularity of the Christian faith. But part of our collective cultural malaise is also the result of taking certain aspects of Western culture, such as personal freedom, as our ultimate telos while, at the same time, allowing other foundational aspects to fall away.

How we resolve this complex conundrum would take a series of blog posts in itself. But surely part of the solution lies in addressing the two problems outlined above. That is, the way forward lies in recovering a sense of Western particularity, with a vital and active Christian faith as a crucial part of this heritage. At the same time, we must address the reduced version of the West that we have come to embrace—freedom for me, at all costs—by returning to and recovering the full-orbed nature of our cultural inheritance.

Image Credit: ALAMY.

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