The Church Captive (2)
…that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting… Ephesians 4.14
“It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”
- Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind
The New Faith
In his 1951 book The Captive Mind, Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz outlined the process whereby east European thinkers and leaders yielded to the winds of Marxist doctrine, and embraced what Milosz calls “The New Faith” to replace the cherished spiritual and cultural traditions of their native lands.
He summarized the gradual process whereby philosophy replaced the Christian faith as the guiding light of culture and life: “We have come by easy stages to a lack of a common system of thought that could unite the peasant cutting his hay, the student poring over formal logic, and the mechanic working in an automobile factory…Religion has been replaced by philosophy which, however, has strayed into spheres increasingly less accessible to the layman.”
The New Faith was the belief in an all-controlling government, which, at the time, seemed like a new and flashy and manifestly powerful way of thinking about society. In the end, however, Marxism supplanted eastern Europe’s spiritual and cultural heritage with a gray, bland, beauty-less, sameness that buried their glorious past and satisfied no one.
In the process, thinkers gave up their cultural inheritance for a pot of message, dressed up in socialist green and red, and they found themselves captive to a new status quo which became a tiger by the tail. The chief characteristic of the east European intellectual – one of whose number Milosz was before escaping to the West – was “his fear of thinking for himself.” He could see the bankruptcy of the New Faith, that it had not and could not deliver on its promises, and he secretly hankered for the former way of life. But he was powerless to change, either himself or his culture. So he simply went along to get along.
The new god
East European thinkers had exchanged their long-standing belief in God for what seemed to them at the time a more attractive deity: History. Change was inevitable and good. The old was unreliable; the new was full of promise. In the New Faith, Milosz wrote, a man “weighs his chances and concludes it is unwise to align himself with the side that has been damned by the new Being which has taken the place of God in this century, i.e, History.” The New Faith called on thinkers to articulate its promise and lead the peoples of eastern Europe to the Marxist utopia. Enthralled with History and change, east European thinkers embraced the New Faith and its new deity.
They went along, willingly at first, attracted by the promise of a new beginning under a comprehensive and caring State. The new agenda bred a desire for whatever was innovative and strange – that is, different from whatever was past – and for setting aside the old agenda to further the new. Poets, artists, academics, scientists, and journalists jumped on the bandwagon.
It turned out to be a lie, of course, but by the time thinkers came to that realization, they had become too used to the new consensus and too comfortable in their privileged place in society to “take a chance on the wisdom of past ages.” They had exchanged the God of Christianity for the shape-shifting god of History, and they were captive to its whims and uncertainties.
They looked to the West for some way of escape from their captivity, only to discover that, in America, “a new civilization [had] arisen which is popular, vulgar, perhaps in some respects distasteful to more ‘refined’ people, but which assures its masses a share in the output of its machine production.” In other words, a culture of materialism and convenience.
The new motivation
East European leaders held on to the New Faith because, having jettisoned the old, this was all they had to hope in, and it was what everyone was doing. Passion for truth was replaced by passion for place. A pragmatism that brooks no opposition but insists on a one-size-fits-all understanding of History and culture became the new intellectual environment. Milosz summarized their convictions: “History, History is with us! We can see its living, explosive flame! Small and blind, indeed, are the people who, instead of comprehending the whole of the gigantic task, squander their time on worry about insignificant details!”
When the winds of Marxist doctrine filled the sails of east European leaders with the false hopes of ideology, it was not long before they and all the people of eastern Europe became captive to a lie and doomed to an unrelenting, stifling, and cancerous sameness. Within a generation, they had discovered the empty promise of the Marxist revolution, but they were too fearful to speak out. Staying alive and in a job became more important than rediscovering the old paths.
A critical moment
In 1951, Milosz asked, “Do Western Christians take the necessary advantage of their freedom? One is forced to the conclusion that they do not. Religion has become something of a vestigial custom, instances of which one finds in the folklore of various nations. Perhaps some pressure is needed if Christianity is to be reborn.”
Christian thinkers and leaders in the 1960s and 1970s identified what they regarded as a staleness in the faith, and they began to search for ways of revitalizing the ancient promises. But instead of looking to the old paths and ancient roots of the faith (Jer. 6.16), they covenanted with the materialistic, narcissistic, technological, and entertainment priorities of the “popular, vulgar” and “distasteful” culture of post-war America. History had changed around us, and we came to believe that we must get in step with the times or lose our cherished place in society.
The sad result is that we did both.
Even sadder is that we continue to embrace cultural norms and forms that are more a reflection of the world beyond the pale of faith than of the brilliant and bejeweled heritage of saints, martyrs, and reformers that stretches back nearly 2,000 years. Asked in the 1980s about why Christianity seemed so unreal, so lacking in power, even to its most ardent proponents, Francis Schaeffer explained it was because “while we say we believe one thing, we have allowed the spirit of the naturalism of the age to creep into our thinking, unrecognized.”
Have we unfurled the sails of our ecclesiastical vessels into winds of doctrine that promise much, but that cannot carry us to what Milosz referred to as the “shore of the great reversal,” where the Kingdom of God makes all things new?
Before we answer that, let’s consider some prior periods of Church history in which it is abundantly clear that a captive Church had come to a place of much needed reform.
The distressing hesitation of those who do not place absolute reliance on the word of the Lord, is illustrated by two striking metaphors. The first is taken from small ships, exposed to the fury of the billows in the open sea, holding no fixed course, guided neither by skill nor design, but hurried along by the violence of the tempest. The next is taken from straws, or other light substances, which are carried hither and thither as the wind drives them, and often in opposite directions. Such must be the changeable and unsteady character of all who do not rest on the foundation of God's eternal truth.
- John Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians 4.14
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).