Terry Eagleton, writing in the New Statesman, claims that post-Christian Western societies are ceaselessly searching for a God-substitute, an idol.
Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.Eagleton has hit the nail on the head.
It is important to understand that this pathetic and perilous position did not just happen. It was over three hundred years in the making--as secularism gradually replaced Christendom. This development was neither "natural" nor inevitable. It does not represent "mankind growing up" and putting away the childish superstitions of an ignorant era. To be sure, that is how the propagandists and priests of the new idolatry frame it--but falsely so.
The Christian position is diametrically opposed: modern Unbelief and orthodox Christianity pass like ships in the night. Redemptive history, which since the Ascension of our Lord embraces the entire globe, has no necessary principle which would determine or require such an apostasy in the West. To remain culturally dominant Christianity must remain sustained by the presence and power of God Himself. When the Church co-mingles God and idols in its life and worship, the blessings of God are withdrawn.
Jeroboam, the son of Nebat is a prophetic case study of what happens when God's people go syncretistic. When Jeroboam took control of the Northern Kingdom of Israel he reasoned that he needed a substitute for Jerusalem and its temple, otherwise his people would be forever going up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. So he set up a few substitute altars. In so doing, he usurped the prerogatives and authority of God Himself. Idol-worship was inevitable. He became the "one who made Israel sin". Eventually, about three hundred years later, the curses of the Covenant fell fully and finally upon Israel. It was destroyed.
The same historical pattern has been replicated in the West. God's people vainly sought to win allegiance by making the faith more reasonable and acceptable to Unbelief. They conceded that the Creation was not immanently sustained and controlled by God, but was independent of Him. As decades passed, the "second causes" evident in the Creation became final causes. God was cut down to the size of a finite creature--that is, an idol creation of men.
But the "logic" of idolatry must drive further downwards. The end game is not the ascendancy of an idol, but of man himself. That is why, in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the four great historical empires pictured in the dream (all idol worshipping) are presented as a huge statue of Man (Daniel 2). In the nineteenth century, as the defalcations of the prior centuries were finally coming to the end game, Unbelief, having cut God down to creaturely size, as it were, took the next step of despising the idol it had created. This Baal-as-god was harmful to men, keeping them in ignorance and superstition. He was a liar. The truly courageous, honest, truthful man was the Unbeliever, who looking at Nature in all its cruelty and hardship full in the face and wrestled with it as a Titan of old.
This God-as-evil being was the penultimate stage of Unbelief. One stage awaited to make the devolution of the West complete and secure the end-game.
For the real deity behind the veil was humanity itself, conceived in its collective development. . . . When progress became a purely human millennialism, reverence for progress was no longer worship of God but veneration of humanity. And precisely because antebellum believers had so often worshipped their God incarnated in man's efforts and aspirations, it was easier for postwar unbelievers simply to revere man. Francis E. Abbot extended rather than extirpated his Protestant heritage when in 1871 he called his Free Religion "organized Faith in Man." But it was a considerable extension: ultimate meaning resided in the destiny of the human race, not in anything transcending it. "My doctrine," said Ingersoll, "is this: All true religion is embraced in the word Humanity."The end game of all forms of idolatry is the ascension and worship of Man. By the end of the nineteenth century, the West had reached the nadir of apostasy. The whirlwind of the most bloody century in all recorded human history would follow. As Turner observes:
James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p.251.
Having made God more and more like man--intellectually, morally, emotionally--the shapers of religion made it feasible to abandon God, to simply believe in man.Now, of course, this did not mean that there were no longer any Believers in the West. There clearly were. But the Christian faith was no longer the unifying and defining element of the entire culture. Rather Belief was increasingly forced underground--out of the schools, the law courts, the government, the public square. We have returned to the situation facing Elijah: Belief became a remnant in society, hiding in caves. Whilst Elijah battled courageously against Baalism in Israel, Belief was so hidden that he complained to God that "I alone am left," and only God Himself knew that there remained 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to the idols. (I Kings 19: 10, 14, 18).
Ibid., p. 261.
To canvass the decline and fall of Christendom in the West, and the rise and triumph of Humanity-as-god is a cautionary tale to be sure. But more than that, it provides hope. For the curses of the Covenant, and covenant breaking is never final--and can never be final in global history. For Christ is risen; all power and authority belong to Him. He will inevitably triumph. Christendom will return eventually in the West--maybe after it has become regnant in the East and the South--several hundred years from now.
Moreover, as we have seen, the dismantling of Christendom in the West was due to infidelity and compromise on the part of the Church throughout. This is both damning, yet hopeful, for it teaches that restoration can and will come if we humble ourselves, and return again to the God of our Fathers, believing in Him as He has revealed Himself to be, not as we would have Him be when measured by us sinful, fallen creatures. In Deuteronomy, the terrible litany of the curses of the Covenant end as follows:
So it shall become when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you shall return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, the the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the people where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back.If we return to the God of our fathers, He will restore us. A second Christendom will arise in the West.
Deuteronomy 30: 1-4