It was a startling admission to hear, even though it was not truly news. In his Christmas address, Pope Francis starkly stated, “We are not in Christianity, not anymore.”
For the first time in human history, we now live in a post-Christian world. I say the “first time” because there have only been three eras in relation to the Christian faith: pre-Christian, Christian and now post-Christian.
(And please don’t confuse pre-Christian with post-Christian; they’re really quite different.)
The idea of anything being “post” means that it follows something that existed before. So to speak of it being “post-Christian” means that the world that existed before was a Christian world. In another work, Serious Times, I took time to outline the historical and cultural progression – from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment – that set the stage for this new reality in the West.
It has been a startling progression.
For example, during the medieval era – arguably the beginning of the history of Western culture as we have known it – it was a Christian world. As historian Johan Huizinga contended, the “life of medieval Christendom is permeated in all aspects by religious images. There is nothing and no action that is not put in its relationship to Christ and faith.” Or as medieval historian Norman Cantor put it, “Medieval culture was a culture of the Book, and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible.”
In the intervening years, the distant echoes of the medieval culture upon which the West was built could barely be heard. As Christian Smith notes, “Something real at the level of macrosocial change... has actually happened in history.” The most visible manifestation of this seismic shift was the French Revolution, though an outlier at the time, where a religion of man was established. A process of de-Christianization began, so much so that Alexis de Tocqueville would later write, “In France... Christianity was attacked with almost frenzied violence.”
One of the more symbolic events took place on November 10, 1793, when Notre-Dame de Paris, the great church of France, was formally declared and transformed into the Temple of Reason, with busts of Rousseau and Voltaire taking the place of the saints. During the ceremony, a hymn to “Liberty” was sung with the following words:
Descend, O Liberty, daughter of Nature:
The people have recaptured their immortal power:
Over the pompous remains of age-old imposture
Their hands raise thine altar....
Thou, holy Liberty, come dwell in this temple;
Be the goddess of the French.
But the post-Christian nature of the Western world has not been keenly felt. While the subculture resting at the top of the epicenters of society – the educational system, the media of mass communication and the upper echelons of the legal system – have been largely secularized, the late sociologist Peter Berger still argued that people were “as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.” He even famously quipped, “If India is the most religious country on our planet, and Sweden is the least religious, America is a land of Indians ruled by Swedes.”
And at the time he was right.
But times have changed. Now we are keenly feeling the post-Christian nature of our world, and not simply at the top of cultural epicenters.
We are encountering it in our neighbor.
James Emery White
Francis X. Rocca, “ Pope Francis, in Christmas Message, Says Church Must Adapt to Post-Christian West,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2019, read online.
James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
On this, see Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400, The Yale Intellectual History of the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
Christian Smith, “Introduction: Rethinking the Secularization of American Public Life,” The Secular Revolution, ed. by Christian Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955 [orig. 1856]).
As cited by Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). The hymn was composed by Chenier, with music by Gossec.
Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.