This article was published as “Spiritual Warfare” by 4Marks magazine on May 1, 2007. I am assured by the editor, Dan Flaherty, that there is no conflict with my publishing the article elsewhere. I offer it here over the next few days as an installment of continuing thoughts on the matter. – Laura
Fighting the Good Fight
Living as a countercultural people
We are at war. No, not the war that is on the evening news each day, centered in Iraq and Afghanistan; this is a war closer to home, engaging each and every person – with dire and mortal consequences.
It is a war for our immortal souls – and the battleground is our minds.
In the early years of the Christian era, Christians were a decidedly unpopular minority in the known Western world. Their presence was uncomfortable to the status quo; they worshipped a single God who, they insisted, had become man, died and rose again. They rejected the myriad of local deities, so when trouble fell on a city the Christians could be blamed for having offended the gods. In Rome, where the Emperor was deemed a god, the Christians’ refusal to pay homage in the accepted ways became a much more personal offense.
In those early days, Christians were scorned, persecuted, arrested… and condemned to death. Atrocious, horrific deaths.
Out of this hostile climate, the apostles’ writings were easily accessible as more than simple metaphor: fighting the fight, wearing the armor of Christ, engaging in spiritual warfare. The images used by St. Paul in particular provided a multi-dimensional reality easily applicable to the spiritual life; the spiritual and the physical were very much integrated.
When a person from a pagan culture became a Christian, the conversion was a complete turn-around from his former life. Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than in St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians. Corinth was such an infamous center of moral depravity that even the pagan classical world vilified the most outrageous depravities by associating those behaviors with “playing the Corinthian.”
Yet Corinthians came to Christ and were transformed (I. Cor. 6:9-11)
With the Christian conversion of the Emperor Constantine, circa 312, things began to change. Christians were no longer vilified and persecuted but were recognized as respectable members of society. The Christian influence began to spread throughout the world, above ground and in broad daylight rather than in stealth among the catacombs. The Christian worldview became the socially accepted norm throughout much of Western Civilization for the next 1800 years.
It seems that the pinnacle of a Christian world would have coincided with the Victorian era, when European colonization of Africa and Asia opened the remaining “dark continents” to the infusion of the gospel – by Catholics as well as Protestants – where it had not traveled before (or at least not in many centuries). This was an era in which all decent people were expected to be churchgoers, regardless of their denomination or sect. Laws governing morality were solidly based on the Ten Commandments, and social mores conformed to Judeo-Christian morality, at least publicly.
Of course, this Christian influence has not been without challenge or opposition. Whereas in the apostolic age embracing the Christian faith literally meant embracing a likely death sentence, when Christianity became socially legitimated, it became possible for people to profess a faith they didn’t actually hold. Moreover, throughout history dissenting voices were raised in various cultures and in various ways. Selfish hedonism existed side by side with monastic asceticism. Chaucer’s friar rode side by side with the monk and the young theology student. Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Galileo – philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment – were contemporaries of St. Francis de Sales. Yet Judeo-Christian moral and religious values had become the defining elements of civilized society.
Then, in the Victorian era, that pinnacle of Christian socialization and reform, of manners and decency, German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, set the world on its ear by declaring “God is dead.”
It didn’t matter that Nietzsche was on the brink of insanity or that he died in a lunatic asylum; the boldness, the defiance of his statement caught like wildfire. Marxism appealed to a different sort of rebellion. God began to become unpopular again, as first the intellectual elite and then the moral reformers (like Margaret Sanger) became bolder and more outspoken in their contempt for the Christian faith and its accompanying morality.
World War I left many artists and philosophers disillusioned, and their works reflect their anguish at the state of the world. The concept of a Post-Christian era was raised very quickly; Ezra Pound dated his Post-Christian calendar from October 31, 1921, the date James Joyce finished Ulysses.
It takes time for ideas to filter from the elitists to the masses, however; among many sociologists and theologians, the consensus seems to be that the decline of Christian influence on the world reached its crisis point when the Anglican Church stood as the first religious body to formally acquiesce on the issue of contraception. Until that time, all Christian peoples and churches had deplored the use of contraception as a dire opposition to the will of God. From that point, society began a rapid descent into socially accepted depravity.