The year 2020 came down like the wolf on the fold. Then came 2021. And 2022. It feels like “the end of the world as we know it.” It feels like an apocalypse. It may be one. Worlds do die.
Historians and junior high students debate the precise end of the Roman Empire and whether it should be described as a “fall,” but no one doubts the Roman Empire now lies peacefully in the graveyard of history. Remnants of medieval life persist in our world, more than we realize, but we no longer live medievally.
Worlds can disappear speedily. Less than a month after the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, France’s National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism and the mandatory tithe, shattering the foundations of medieval order and slashing the alliance between the French monarchy and the Catholic Church that began with Clovis’s baptism in the early sixth century. Within two years, the royal family fled the palace and early in 1793 Louis XVI was executed.
More recently: the world that existed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine is gone, a memory of the age of American unipolarity and what was in retrospect a shockingly fragile European peace. The change was rapid and distinct: the week after the invasion, one felt a nostalgia for a stable geopolitical order that simply didn’t exist anymore. Once it was destabilized, its former stability in retrospect looks illusory.
Periods of rapid transformation are preceded by years of slower and subtler change. Before revolution broke out, France simmered with decades of intellectual, cultural, and political ferment. Diderot’s Encyclopédie was published between 1751 and 1772, and few of the philosophes lived to see the Bastille fall. Decades before the Bolsheviks coalesced into a juggernaut, Dostoyevsky spied intense proto-Lenins among young Russian intellectuals.
Transitional periods can last for decades, even a century. One hundred and twenty years passed between the rise of a Pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph and Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan. For over a century, Israel was either oppressed by Pharaoh, living in desert tents, or fighting to capture the land of promise.
Since biblical times, plagues and wars have marked the end of an age. As recounted in the Pentateuch, when Pharaoh refused to let Israel go, Yahweh sent a severe pestilence on Egypt’s horses, donkeys, camels, herds, and flocks. After the Exodus, Yahweh repeatedly warned Israel not to be complacent; he threatened to afflict the Israelites with the plagues of Egypt if they failed to keep the covenant. Six centuries later, as Judah’s monarchy slouched toward exile, the prophet Jeremiah warned of a multiple judgment on the land – sword, famine, and pestilence. Jeremiah’s threats reinforce each other: Invading armies kill men and ruin the land, leaving it incapable of supporting the remnant that survives an invasion. Weakened by malnutrition and surrounded by looters, the people are sickened by foreign germs. No wonder sword, famine, and pestilence are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Rev. 6:1–8). When war and pestilence appear, the end is nigh.
Pandemics have played an outsized role in the fall of empires ever since. In the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death killed between twenty and fifty million, one-third to three-fifths of Europe’s population. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun lamented that this bubonic plague pandemic “swallowed up many of the good things of civilization and wiped them out in the entire inhabited world.” More than a century of devastation followed – war, famine, social decay, and disease – which readied Europe for the message of the Reformers. We know the fate of Rome “was played out by emperors and barbarians, senators and generals, soldiers and slaves,” yet it was “equally decided by bacteria and viruses, volcanoes and solar cycles,” classicist Kyle Harper suggests. Late Roman history could be called “the age of pandemic disease,” he writes, with major outbreaks in the second, third, and sixth centuries. The Antonine Plague (AD 165–80) may have killed as many as seven million. By comparison, Rome never lost more than twenty thousand men on a day of battle. For ancient Rome, “germs are far deadlier than Germans.”
What happened to the Roman Empire has happened regularly enough for geographer and historian Peter Turchin to propose a theory of “secular cycles” of global expansion and contraction. Globalization is a recurring historical phenomenon. The human race “has experienced other periods of heightened long-distance connectivity that resulted in massive long-distance movements of goods, people, ideas, genes, cultivars, and pathogens.” During the Age of Discovery, for instance, “all major population centers of the world, both in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas, were connected by trade and conquest.” As people increase their contacts across the globe, they’re more likely to pass on viruses and germs. The probability of pandemic increases, and pandemics, in turn, are often harbingers of a degenerative cycle. The expansion phase is “relatively disease-free” but “epidemics are much more likely to occur during the stagnation phases of secular cycles.” Population growth eventually crosses “the epidemiological threshold (a critical density above which a new disease is able to spread).” Pandemics and social upheavals reinforce each other. Bacteria and viruses flourish in periods of declining living standards, migration, and urbanization. Global contraction correlates with population decline, and Turchin claims that “a pandemic or a major epidemic is frequently (but not always) the primary cause of population decline, and the trigger for the crisis.”
Worlds die. Ours may be dying. But the crises of the past three years aren’t isolated. They fit into a longer and larger pattern of events that seem to be bringing a world to an end and giving birth to something quite different.
Contraction of the West
Suppose we’re in a transitional age. Suppose a world is ending. We still need to ask, What world is ending?
First answer: A world controlled by the power and values of Western Europe and North America. In the fifteenth century, Western Europe embarked on a half-millennium of global adventuring, migration, settlement, and colonization. Then, in the mid-twentieth century, it stopped. Europe’s former empires decolonized themselves in the 1960s; Europe wouldn’t think of recolonizing. Debates about “American empire” testify to the shift. No one doubted Britain had an empire; many question whether America’s global hegemony amounts to “imperialism.”
The global economy provides a good measure of the change. Western production, trade, and finance still dominate the globe, but three of the top five economies are Asian. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada are still in the top ten, but have been joined by Brazil.
Worlds die. Ours may be dying. But the crises of the past three years aren’t isolated.
In particular, China is leveraging its Western-aided prosperity to carve out its own zone of economic power. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government had planned to invest 1.4 trillion dollars to create a twenty-first-century “Silk Road,” the “Belt and Road” transportation web that will link Asia to North Africa and the eastern edge of Europe – sixty-five countries and over four billion people. China hopes Western Europe will be lured east. Plus, China produces most of the world’s antibiotics and pharmaceutical components, and Chinese nationals own leading American entertainment companies, as well as real estate and many American businesses. In 2019, Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for dissenters in Hong Kong. It became an international incident and cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. A year later, Morey quit. Even in basketball, the unipolar world is no more.
The evolution of the church is a further measure of Western contraction. There are still state establishments (in England, for instance), but Western politics and culture haven’t operated by Christian norms for a long time. Christian symbols and beliefs no longer provide the fundamental framework for public life, nor for many individuals.
At the same time, a “new Christendom” is taking shape in the Global South. At the time of the Reformation, Christianity was largely confined to a shrinking Europe. Since then, it has expanded to every corner of the globe, becoming the main religion in the Americas, Australia, southern Africa, and Pacific islands.Today, the majority of Christians reside in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
North American and European Christianity still leads in many ways. Western churches are wealthier, and their influence is buttressed by the considerable geopolitical power of Europe and North America. Western schools educate theologians and leaders from the Global South. Yet, on all these fronts, the tide is turning. Africans have gained considerable clout in the Anglican Communion, often strengthening the position of beleaguered traditionalists in England and North America. Pope Francis is Argentinian, and he’s likely the first of many non-European popes. Christianity has ended its sojourn as a “Western” religion, as the world is no longer a Western playground.
Second answer: This geopolitical shift has been accompanied by an epochal ideological shift. Many among the Western intellectual elites have adopted a post-colonial outlook, which views the West as the main source of evil in the world. No reasonable person believes Western civilization is innocent – what civilization is? Perhaps more importantly, few believe that it is admirable. Western thinkers have formulated appallingly racist theories and leaders have committed sickening atrocities; as just one of many examples, Adam Hochschild’s 1999 study of colonial Africa, King Leopold’s Ghost, is a particularly haunting narrative of exploitation in the Belgian Congo. But admitting those evils is different from saying the whole civilization is unjust and racist to its roots, that what is distinctive in it is tainted entirely. No civilization can flourish when its elites begin to assign it to history’s overfull dustbin. Societies that have no confidence in their shared principles cannot survive for long.
Hope takes risks; it risks disappointment. Hope is too frightening. Acedia evades the pain of hope by hoping for nothing.
As the modern West’s influence contracts, its post-Enlightenment values also go into retreat. Old-fashioned liberalism of the “I abhor what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” variety has died. Progressivism has become the de facto established religion of swaths of the United States and other countries, and it is a jealous religion. To evade social and professional repercussions, one quietly censors oneself. It’s fruitless to protect Western liberalism, since there is no longer a liberal West to protect.
Western ideals are losing their power to energize non-Westerners too. Beginning in the Enlightenment, Western thinkers promised to liberate the human race from the “irrationality” of superstition and religion. If we can’t eliminate irrationality entirely, at least we can keep it out of public life, so it doesn’t do so much damage. Religion arouses irrational passions; politics should be conducted by reasoned deliberation. Religion is violent; purging it from politics will yield a utopia of nonviolence. Advanced, “Westernized,” nations do the right thing and privatize religion.
It was always a ruse. That Empire of Reason is, of all empires, the most thoroughly dust-binned. Religion has never been, can never be, eliminated from public life. Western regimes, like all other regimes, have always been intertwined with religion: regulating it, supporting it, being supported by it or critiqued by it. But many believed the ruse, including sociologists who were convinced that modernization, industrialization, the expansion of technology and education, and the establishment of democratic regimes would naturally produce secular societies, where religion was a private consolation for a diminishing handful of traditionalists.
Events torpedoed the secularist dream. One of the big stories of the past half century is the re-emergence of political religion. Secular politics received a massive, albeit often unnoticed, refutation in the disintegration of the Soviet bloc during 1989–91. A world order seemed to vanish overnight. Maps were hastily redrawn to include the Muslim-dominated “stans” of Central Asia and the newly independent Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia.
Western leaders saw it as a triumph of Western democracy, and expected Eastern Europe to become democratic and capitalist, and, above all, to stay secular. They were wrong. As the English political philosopher John Gray saw at the time, the Soviet bloc fell to movements driven by religious fervor and nationalist passions. Poland had begun to wobble during Pope John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland. His masses drew millions. Christian processions passed through the streets of Polish cities. The final blow to the Soviet empire didn’t come from the West but from a revived Russian nationalism. That nationalism, again on the march, is supported by a thoroughly public brand of Orthodox Christianity.
What followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc was not a Westernization of Eastern Europe. Gray writes: “In the wake of Soviet communism, we find, not Homo Sovieticus or any other rationalist abstraction, but men and women whose identities are constituted by particular attachments and histories – Balts, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Russians, and so on.” The year 1989 began a return to “history’s most classical terrain of ethnic and religious conflicts, irredentist claims and secret diplomacies.”
We live in an age of political re-enchantment, awakened from the Kantian dream of European perpetual peace, the rationalist project of secularization on as many continents as possible. As the Russian army continues its attacks, we are reminded that not all re-enchantment is good. As all that we took to be solid melts, we feel as if we’re trying to walk on water. As the world rocks and roils under our feet, anxiety can drive out hope.
Anxiety isn’t new. In the West, the cultural mood has been shading to black for some time. Hope has been in retreat: perhaps ironically, in the relative stability and prosperity that existed before the pandemic and the war, we were already an anxious bunch, as evinced by our taste for dystopian films and novels.
This perpetual anxiety’s other side is what medieval thinkers called “acedia.” As Paul J. Griffiths writes, acedia
is the mark of those sufficiently habituated to looking at nothing that when they look at something – and most especially at the Lord, the supreme object of delight – they can only sigh, shake their heads, and close their eyes. … Long looking at nothing saps the energy and dulls the perceptions so that when sinners are faced by something they lack the energy to respond to it with the joy that all somethings – good and beautiful just because they are something – require of the gaze that sees them for what they are.
Hope takes risks; it risks disappointment. Hope is too frightening. Acedia evades the pain of hope by hoping for nothing. Acedia is the dreary, blank-eyed “whatever” that follows the collapse of our ancestors’ dreams of liberation and progress. It’s the postmodern mood rising from the smoking ruins of the modern eschatologies that have organized Western life for several centuries.
Of course, there are still buoyant believers about, like Steven Pinker, who cheerily celebrates our ever-improving species. The number of people in extreme poverty has been falling for decades, the majority of the planet is free of war, child and maternal mortality are down, illiteracy is down. Progress will continue indefinitely, Pinker thinks, so long as we stick to our Enlightenment guns and follow the science. This line of thinking is taken to the extreme by the technophile transhumanists, who dangle the promise of liberation from all human limits, including, perhaps, the limits of death.
Behind this apparently hopeful project is a thinly disguised despair. Techno-utopianism’s hope is contemptuous of human beings as they actually are. Its future belongs not to humans, but to burnished, glossy super-humans.
By and large, we’ve lost confidence in our myths. Even our Promethean hubris is a cloak for our Sisyphean despair. Our feet find no solid place to stand. We reach out for something firm to hang on to, but our hands grasp at the air. “We come to an end without hope” (Job 7:6).
Designed for Despair
The despair is predictable. Since the Enlightenment, the West has devoted itself to erecting a world that can flourish without God. As Paul said of the Gentiles, we’re “without God” and for that reason “without hope in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Modern Western civilization has entered a cul-de-sac, the dead end of our own achievements. To a certain degree, what we hoped for has come to pass. We are living in the dreamed-of, hoped-for future. It is not good enough. It has made our lives, in many ways, less human.
Think, for instance, of our addiction to acceleration. Our communications are instantaneous, our travel more rapid than at any other time in history. Social change accelerates, as each generation develops its own culture. Yet despite timesaving devices, we feel we have less time than ever. We eat faster, sleep less. Our conversations are short, as are our attention spans. We lack the leisure that allows us to be human.
Many of our political practices run on a different clock from technology, and this desynchronization dislocates social life. Western states, for instance, insist on a participatory form of government. But democracy takes time. Frenetically trying to keep up with our technologized pace, we do not take time to listen to one another. We don’t have enough time to get to the bottom of our disagreements, much less to resolve them.
This is, if anything, even more true of the process of diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy is often a matter of a deliberate slowing down: we stop, we listen, we halt a rush to war. We allow time for procedures and discussions, held in secret, to avert a cascade of half-considered escalatory decisions. Slowness and professionalization are the essence of diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy is the antithesis of Twitter-based populist foreign policy dictated by the mob.
Technological acceleration clashes with modernity’s promise of freedom. This acceleration is closely linked to addiction, and it is a paradox. On the one hand, we have far more freedom of choice than past civilizations; on the other, we have less freedom to opt out of that very technology. We are economically and in many cases personally addicted to the ease of technology, to its dopamine hits. We are less skilled, and thereby less free. We are trapped, and we know it.
We need hope to live virtuously, to act with courage and patience; we need hope to act at all. To survive, people must find another root of hope.
The imperatives of the Enlightenment project require constant improvement, and refuse us the resources of the past. We must question tradition. Nothing is accepted on authority, because authority comes from outside, not from within. We long to be free from dependence on and submission to another.
Yet despite its apparent optimism, this bid for autonomy relentlessly kills hope. As the Jesuit psychologist William Lynch observed, hope is necessarily mutual. Hope correlates to help. I breathe, and implicitly hope the world will respond to keep me alive. I work, hoping to achieve something. I love, hoping for a lover to return my love. Being well means being hopeful: “The well hope for a response from the world.” Help comes from outside: from God, others, the world. Our need for outside help “is deeply inscribed in every part of us and is identical with our human nature.” The pursuit of autonomy, the denial of dependency, cruelly reinforces the despair of those not able to fake it well, those who can’t disguise their fundamental neediness. The idol of autonomy suggests that their neediness, their inability to do it all themselves and to reinvent themselves, renders them subhuman. It suggests that the helpless can’t be members of the human race until they’ve learned to help themselves.
Modernity’s very success attenuates hope. We are trapped in an arid present: it is unfashionable to believe that we have something of value to pass on to our descendants; it’s equally unfashionable to believe our ancestors have anything of worth to give us. As Alastair Roberts remarks, “With the improvement of our life conditions and the saturation of our horizons with earthly pleasures and diversions, Christian hope gets squeezed out and our relationship to death changes.” Because of our extreme mobility, our world isn’t hospitable to the development of immaterial social and spiritual goods, or even to physical ones that are expected to last beyond our time. As a result, “people are unlikely to make sacrifices that depend upon future generations for their payoff.”
Perhaps most fundamentally, our Godless world is a story-less world. “Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller,” writes Robert Jenson. It cannot be sustained. “If there is no God,” Jenson concludes, “there is no narratable world.” And without a narratable world, without the apocalypse as its triumphant and awe-inspiring denouement, there can be no hope.
Once Christian hope, hope in a kingdom and an age to come, infused the Western world. Cathedrals stretched to heaven, embodying in stone the hope for a helper from beyond this world. Painters depicted Jesus rising from the dead, or enthroned in glory at the Last Judgment, pointing viewers toward the final things. Preachers preached the scriptures given, in Paul’s phrase, “that we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). When the West turned its back on God, it continued to run, for a time, on the fumes of this hope: an apocalypse of technology, of perpetual peace, was always just around the corner. But because this hope trusted in idols, it withered.
What happens when the taproot of hope withers? We need hope to live virtuously, to act with courage and patience; we need hope to act at all. To survive, people must find another root of hope. They must locate the sources of what Jonathan Lear calls “radical hope,” a hope “directed toward a future good that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.”
Over the two millennia since the birth of Christianity, many worlds have ended, just as our world may be ending now. At such times, it is the task of Christians to nourish hope within societies whose transient hopes have withered. Churches must become communities that cultivate radical hope.
How do we go about this? There’s no trick, nor is there any special “ministry of hope.” The church is a community of hope, and all of the church’s ministries and activities express and nourish hope. The word nourishes hope; prayer nourishes hope; singing nourishes hope; baptism nourishes hope; the Lord’s Supper nourishes hope. When we open our homes to the homeless, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, we act in hope and bolster hope, as the Spirit builds our confidence in God’s promises and good gifts.
The church’s existence, activities, and ministries nourish hope because they are specific avenues of communion with God. God speaks in his word, hears our prayers and songs, claims us in baptism, feeds and feasts with us at the table, shines through us as we go out as lights in the world. God is the God of hope, not merely a God who gives hope or who is the object of hope.
How do churches nourish hope in an age when worlds are ending? By staying close to Jesus, our hope of glory. Simple as that.
This piece is an excerpt from Peter J. Leithart’s book God of Hope, forthcoming from Athanasius Press.