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May 28, 2020

Is Western Culture *Worse* Than Sodom or Nineveh?

It’s becoming increasingly popular in these days of seemingly triumphant secularism for Christians to speak of the “sad decline” of Western culture. I resonate with this idea a good bit, and not least because there’s plenty of reason within the Western tradition itself to see temporal matters often going downhill – sometimes drastically. Nevertheless, when I read the individual’s concluding thought, which was that we need to “dust off” our Old Testaments and become re-familar with “remnant theology,” a light went off in my head – a light I would not have expected to go off in my (pessimistic) head.

As a Humanities teacher, the Old Testament tends to be much in my thoughts, for Scripture is one of the three pillars of the West (the other two being Greece and Rome). To be sure, the Old Testament witness of God’s people is dreary, and can easily underwrite a Christian notion of cultural pessimism. As a general rule, I don’t think it’s healthy for Christians to get so wrapped up in the goods of temporal life that we start thinking and acting, even perhaps unconsciously, in line with the maxim, “Things are getting better all the time.” Because, unless one confines oneself to a very narrow subset of criteria, say, ones chiefly focused on how our gizmos keep advancing at warp speed and making our material lives ever cheaper to maintain than our spiritual lives, NO, they really and truly AREN’T.

Still, not even the Old Testament is entirely pessimistic. After all, God is the God who told Abraham that He would spare the horrifically wicked city of Sodom if only ten righteous people were found in it, and He’s the God who spared the horrifically wicked city of Nineveh, because there were 120,000 people within it who could not tell the difference between their right hand and their left – plus the livestock. There’s room even in the Old Testament for some real hope that things might get better.

After all, “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray and  seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). If God would have done it for a people as evil as Israel and Judah, He surely may yet do it for us.

So what about the common Christian practice – which I myself have been known to do more than a little bit! – of sitting around lamenting the loss of Christendom, and well, even the loss of just basic “Western culture” in our time? Woe is us, for we are sadly declining and there is no health in our bones! Surely God cannot put up with our manifold sins and wickednesses for much longer, but must hasten us into the trash-heap of history! What can we poor, besieged Christians do but pray for strength to avoid falling along with everything else?!

If the problem with an ever-cheerful cultural optimism is that it presumes on God’s providence, assuming that the entrance into the world of the Gospel necessitates an ever-upward path of temporal and material benefits, the problem with an ever-despairing cultural pessimism is that God isn’t obligated to underwrite a despairing, prophetic-rock-throwing, Gospel-thundering remnant and destroy the rest every time things in the world get really bad. As Augustine pointed out so long ago in the City of God, nobody knows the secrets of providence. God raises up kings and God deposes kings (Dan. 2:21), and all without consulting us or even remotely caring about our limited, and usually quite foolish, perspectives on the ephemeral events of our terribly momentary little lives.

Moreover, from the standpoint of what we can, as humans, actually know, we are explicitly told in Deuteronomy 29:29 that the only things that belong to us are the things that have been revealed – the secret things belong to God. Last time I checked, there is nowhere in Scripture that says Western culture will fall in the 21st century, leaving only a pathetic little remnant of faithful people to say “See, I told you so! At least we kept preaching the Gospel and doing apologetics while the house burned down around us!”

And at any rate, as Peter Leithart has sagely pointed out in his commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, the Old Testament teaching of the remnant does not typically refer to a small band of believers who survive a judgment of God because they stayed firm to the end. Rather, it refers to a mixed remnant, a remnant of believers and unbelievers, who, by God’s providential selection alone, survive a judgment of God.

So yes, let’s dust off those Old Testaments and, while taking care not to fly into the Cloud Cuckoo Land of over-realized eschatological triumph, at the same time realize that we are not the ones who have declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and it is not our will for our culture that will be done. Perhaps we ought all to more seriously consider the words of Jonah 4:2, which, despite being uttered by a prophet who was angry that his gloom-and-doom expectations had not come to pass, “Ah Lord…You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” This God who saved Nineveh is, someone else subsequently pointed out to me, the very same God who knew that ultimately Nineveh would apostatize again and would have to be destroyed. Thus, indeed, we have reason to hope, even in the midst of what really does, to all our senses, appear to be little more than a long, drawn out, sad decline.