Updated: Aug 11, 2020
We are drowning in content. In our click-bait-headline world, even the seams of the 140 character tweet have been doubled. A screenshot of a Tumblr post can be considered a reputable source, and a simple ‘like’ can create a firestorm of controversy. Technological advancement our great-grandparents could barely imagine has made us the most-connected and resourceful generation yet. But despite the bevy of information available, our core problems look eerily similar to those known to Ancient Rome, or conjure up the Jacobins of the French Revolution, even in the way we treat our extended families at Thanksgiving dinner.
For the Christian, mankind’s inability to advance beyond the same sinful impulses is unsurprising. The narrator Kohelet famously wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” This sentiment is expressed colloquially when we complain that the only sure things in life are "death and taxes." We recognize the predictability of a fallen world.
Though the novel atrocities of our day contain the base sins of yesteryear, our response to these modern issues rarely confront their core. And on the off-chance they do, robust theology receives the biggest blow, as we dilute Gospel truth to assuage modern sensibilities and sell marketable paperbacks.
Points of debate such as identity and the concept of objective truth, for example, seem like fresh challenges that require fresh responses. While the Christian publishing industry is full of important and inspired thinkers, and one would be hard-pressed to find grounds for dismissal, our hunger for the latest and greatest can produce a latent bias in our reading lists: we tend to ignore the blunt old dead guys. In his classic work Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” What could we be missing by neglecting to consult the democracy of the dead?
Sure, it’s quicker and easier to search out a short blog post regarding a particular social issue than it is to devote oneself to a millennium-spanning theological study, but accessibility and convenience don’t seem to be getting us any closer to lasting conclusions. Just as there is truly “nothing new under the sun” in terms of worldliness, there are really no new prescriptions for the Christian life other than what is already available to us in the history of the church. Everything we need has been given to us in Holy Scripture and has often already been addressed by the early Church fathers—and in a deeper, more transformative way than much of what we attempt to re-articulate today. Such Christian think-pieces are certainly helpful spiritual protein bars, as are plenty of contemporary reads on Christian living. But taking a trip down church history lane can provide us with something more nourishing, like an eight ounce steak.
Augustine and Deconstruction
Written as a response to pagan claims that the decline of Rome was the fault of Christianity and its adherents, St. Augustine’s City of God is an immense philosophical treatise that goes beyond simple apologetic defense. Though many of the books in this collection consist of Augustine dismantling the logic behind pagan gods and ideologies, as well as addressing many heresies in his day that reverberate in ours, he spends a good deal of the text discussing the spoken and lived response required by Christians in the face of societal adversity. As we see Western civilization wobble and sway on the knife-edge of deconstruction, Augustine’s instruction within City of God is indispensable. It seems every month a new notable Christian leader publicly recants the faith, many of them in a similar pattern: the apostasy looks less like a private grief and more like a torchbearer’s call for a mass exodus.
Certainly there are some deconstructionists who have every intention to ‘reassemble’ their faith after dismantling occurs, but the repeated expression from notable deconstructionists states quite the opposite. Many say there are no convincing sources available, no reasonable arguments to assent to. But when we look at more than two thousand years of debate, commentary, translation, and study of Christian thought, such statements seem willfully ignorant. French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “In faith, there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” Augustine can help us distinguish between them. Consider his word of caution and correction to those who would decry orthodox Christian faith:
For why in your calamities do you complain of Christianity, unless because you desire to enjoy your luxurious license unrestrained, and to lead an abandoned and profligate life without the interruption of any uneasiness or disaster? For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety; for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus to generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies.
Throughout City of God, Augustine is just as encouraging as he is admonishing—exactly what Christians needed then and we need today. What should Christians hold to as, in the words of the Heidelberg Confession, our “only comfort in life and death”?
In Book I, Chapter 29, Augustine echoes the “unshakeable kingdom” mentioned in Hebrews 12 when he declares,
The whole family of God, Most High and Most True, has therefore a consolation of its own,—a consolation which cannot deceive, and which has in it a surer hope than the tottering and falling affairs of earth can afford. They will not refuse the discipline of this temporal life, in which they are schooled for life eternal; nor will they lament their experience of it, for the good things of earth they use as pilgrims who are not detained by them, and its ills either prove or improve them.
Bonhoeffer and Self-Care
As we climb up the branches of our spiritual family tree, we soon find that many of our predecessors spoke extensively about what the public and personal response of Christians should be in the face of even more extreme adversities than we face today. Just as Augustine addressed his fellow Christians during the fallout of Rome’s collapse, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship during one of the darkest times in recent history. A German pastor during World War II, Bonhoeffer refused to surrender to the sinister, state-influenced ideological shifts occurring within the seminary and the German Kirk at large. The last few years of his life were spent in rebellion to Nazi ideology in both word and deed, which led to his martyrdom in 1945. Bonhoeffer’s work during these years of state rebellion provides a sobering contradiction to our current me-centered spiritual modus operandi.
The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1939, clearly shows the unreserved nature of Bonhoeffer’s devotion to God and the courage wrought from such complete surrender. In a chapter entitled “Discipleship and The Cross,” he writes,
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
If Christ’s call is one of such high stakes, then this holds a twofold implication: the first, a life lived primarily in utter self-denial, and second, the discovery of true life—fundamentally unlike our worldly definitions for flourishing—in Jesus Christ. When we consider the self-care spirit of our modern age, Bonhoeffer’s insistence on self-renunciation seems insulting. Many popular preaching trends tend to be more like spiritually-infused motivational talks, feeding our sinful focus on self and what we think we deserve instead of laying down each area of our lives before Christ. Thus, Jesus becomes an add-on we try rather than a Lord we die for. When reading The Cost of Discipleship, the contrast between biblically-sound discipleship versus the secularized pep talk sermons of today is blatantly stark.
As mortification of pride and self becomes increasingly viewed as absurd, we’re bound to receive pushback from the world, the flesh, the devil. Christians must expect this treatment and hold fast to the faith. In the spirit of Matthew 10:22, Bonhoeffer explains,
The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the division which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and persevere until it comes. Only he will be blessed who remains loyal to Jesus and his word until the end.
Surely, this is as true today as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time. How do we persevere? Like Augustine, Bonhoeffer proves encouraging, rallying us further up and further in as we “press towards the mark—Phil. 3:14—keeping our eyes on Jesus:
To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.
In Jeremiah 6:16, the prophet writes, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls…”
Not only is the pursuit of ancient paths increasingly recognized as sensible wisdom by secular thinkers, it is a direction from the Lord for His people. For though our circumstances may seem unique, none of our perils are new. If our faith shakes, it is shaken by the echoes of old tremors. But we have a strong ally in the democracy of the dead as we confront the rising tide. So take up and read the Scriptures before the blogs. Inquire with the early church fathers like Augustine, who left us a rich inheritance of scholarship and practice. Read the words and biographies of martyrs such as Bonhoeffer, who exemplify unapologetic conviction of faith. Let’s equip ourselves by standing on the shoulders of those faithful who came before us. Let’s ask for the ancient paths.