Has the Church Given Up on this World?
It’s leftists, not Christians, who should be accused of fatalism.
Taking aim at Evangelical Christians in a Washington Post op-ed, Dr. Gary Abernathy blamed Republicans’ general desire to reopen the economy on their faith in a heavenly afterlife. This belief evidently causes Christians to stubbornly resist the wisdom of progressives who want to continue the lockdown.
In support of this view, Abernathy quotes Jesus and His apostles encouraging believers not to fear things in this life. So instead of blaming Trump for spreading misinformation and encouraging false hope, Abernathy suggests that progressives should direct their outrage at the God of the Bible and the fools who take His Word seriously.
Abernathy claims that Scripture causes believers to adopt a kind of “Christian fundamentalism [that] is often fatalistic.” He provides no evidence for this assertion. Instead, he spends most of the essay listing off statistics that indicate how influential Evangelical Christians are in the Republican party. Like most secularists who make this argument, he just assumes the stereotype that Christians are all passive members of an unthinking herd placing their hopes in simplistic ancient fantasies.
However, history both classical and modern proves this argument perfectly false. Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, have nearly always championed social reform and fought against the moral corruption of their time. Inspired by their faith and informed by Biblical teachings, they have consistently argued against the evils of war, slavery, bigotry, and cruelty. They took collective action against tyrants and mobs—who were themselves true fatalists, believing things would never change. Christians’ were and are willing to risk their lives for a just cause because of their faith in God, not in spite of it.
This tradition continues today as Christians take to the streets to protest church shutdowns. They protest the manifest absurdity of allowing retailers, pot dispensaries, and abortion facilities to legally reopen and do business while forcing churches to remain closed or limiting their capacity to a ridiculously small number of people. Even though the freedom to exercise one’s religion is clearly articulated in the first amendment, many governors (who all happen to be progressive) will limit this freedom before any other.
The Real Fatalists
In truth, the idea of Christian fatalism is an oxymoron, and anyone who takes this view is ignoring the great commandment Christ places on His disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This commandment has moved Western civilization forward. With its emphasis on God’s love and the reality of Heaven, Christianity gave meaning and purpose to human achievement.
And yet, Abernathy somehow interprets this absolute call to noble action as a call to “aggressively pursue careers, enjoy television shows, cheer their favorite sports teams, and take pride in the achievements of family and friends.” He refuses to see Christianity as anything more than an opiate for the masses and blithely embraces the Enlightenment conceit that that humanity only made real progress when it dispensed with Christian theology and accepted secular humanism.
According to this view, great movements like the Scientific Revolution, the modern nation state, industrialism, and free-market capitalism resulted when people stopped worrying so much about Heaven. It was not from countless Christian scholars—Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Kepler, and any number of others—and institutions over the centuries laying the groundwork for these developments. All this was simply the result of a spontaneous explosion of beauty and truth—“the Miracle,” as conservative writer Jonah Goldberg puts it in his book Suicide of the West.
Contrary to the claim that faith in Heaven leads to fatalism, modern history demonstrates that it is this faith in miraculous progress that leads to fatalism. When smart people like Goldberg start referring to the Enlightenment as a miracle, this leads to the general conclusion that modern progress is a product of fate more than human agency. It was no effort of individuals before that led to the Enlightenment, it was simply fate. People just came to their senses, stopped looking backward to tradition or upward to Heaven, and looked forward, trusting in their rationality, their senses, and the perfectibility of man.
Disciples of the Enlightenment never like to explain how this fatalistic belief in progress accounts for nearly every atrocity that has happened in the modern world, from the French Revolution onward. Unrestrained by Christian morality, every revolutionary believed his cause was predestined to succeed. They explained away the coups and massacres by saying that it was fate that some would have to die today so that many might thrive tomorrow. And it continues to be the mark of every atheistic totalitarian society that the people give up their faith so that they can submit to authority, give up their freedom, and resign themselves to a miserable fate.
Whereas Christians constantly labored to prove the Gospel to free-thinking audiences, few progressive ideologues and demagogues have done the same. They assume they are right, force compliance, and silence opposition. This is certainly the case in places like China where dissidents are put in labor camps, murdered, and have their organs harvested. In a much less brutal fashion, American progressives take the same position by publicly condemning and silencing dissenters, particularly Evangelical Christians who speak with a Southern twang and vote Republican.
A Christian’s fear of God should normally help him cope with his fear of man. He can take bold actions that carry risk because he serves God first, which in turn better helps him serve his neighbor. If he lacks this hope, then he will conform his actions to popular opinion and follow the crowds. He will place his faith in the approval of his peers, not God.
Indeed, one could wish that Abernathy were a little more right: if only Christians did focus on Heaven at the cost of neglecting the world. But most Christians are unfortunately engaged with the world as much as anyone.
Perhaps some apologists might make a case for heavenly motivation by pointing out the achievements of social reformers motivated by their Christian faith. But they will also concede that their brethren really do think about Heaven too much and do too little about the worldly problems around them. To their fellow Christians, they will downplay the role of theology and spirituality while playing up activism and social justice themes. That’s why many Catholics know about St. Teresa of Calcutta’s heroic service to the poor or St. John Paul II’s immense courage in the face of the Soviet Union, but few recognize the countless hours these two saints spent in prayer and adoration.
Because they fail to acknowledge this spiritual dimension of charity, essentially endorsing the view of atheists who see it as a distraction to progress, many Christians today will often put the cart before the horse and treat religion as an outlet for charitable work, a glorified NGO. When this happens, decline ensues and people stop attending Mass and following Church teachings, which then leads to the discontinuation of the Church’s mission to help those in need. Such is the case in Europe where churches continue to close and former Christians resign themselves to cultural decadence and to dependence on government welfare programs.
Whatever one might think about the shutdowns, no one should accept Abernathy’s argument that Christianity leads to selfish behavior and fatalism during a crisis. Rather, it is abandoning Christianity that does this. With this in mind, Christians should take this time away from church and work to reinforce their spiritual lives through increased prayer and reading of Scripture. This will not only help them better prepare for Heaven, but also empower them to better serve their neighbor and take the right action when the situation demands it.