It will not survive; it will die.
Today, looking at the debris of the Church’s reputation all around, I can only but agree: The Church will not survive; it will “die” — and the sooner the better.
For now is an apt time to revisit the final chapter of G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man(1925) entitled: “The Five Deaths of the Faith.”
Chesterton explains in this chapter that Christendom has experienced a series of revolutions and in each one Christianity has died—died many times, in fact, and then risen again, for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.
Down the centuries at the end of countless wars and revolutions the same religion is to be found standing. It is not an old religion that persists, however, but, rather, a new faith that is resurgent, always attracting and converting anew the next generation in each age.
On more than one occasion, in the history of Christendom, the soul, said Chesterton, seemed to have gone out of Christianity. The world looked on expecting to witness its end, seeing the Church as wedded to whatever political or social system that was then imploding. As Chesterton states, if the Church was so wedded then it has been widowed many times, and yet, remains “a strangely immortal sort of widow.”
Chesterton was adamant: “The Faith is not a survival.” The Faith has not “survived.” Instead, miraculously, it has died and returned afresh, again and again, whilst all around other institutions perpetually perish. An example of this is found in the last century, when things really did look like the end, and then, that incredible thing happened: yet again the Faith was born, with, by the end of the 20th century, seemingly a greater following among the young than the old.
As Chesterton points out, those attacking the Faith should take care:
At least five times…with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.
To have grown up in the culture of the late 20th century is to know that then nearly everybody had come to the conclusion that religion was a thing that would slowly die out; the thought of its making a return would have been deemed as remarkable as dinosaurs returning. Marxist historians, so beloved of that era, loved to talk of the “flow of history,” but what they didn’t reckon on was that, in the words of Chesterton, “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” And to the horror of such Marxist academics there was, and still is today, something swimming against the current, as it always did, and always will.
After the most savage persecutions, from the fury of the earliest Roman oppression right through to the rage of the French Revolution, from the more recent assaults of atheistic Marxism to the ongoing clash with today’s culture of death, the Church persists. All around kingdoms rise and fall, states are born then overthrown, yet somehow the Faith continues on her way. But it is not just that, it has an even stranger and more “weird tenacity”; it has survived not only war and persecutions, but also the perils of peace. Perhaps the more extraordinary observation that Chesterton makes, and a consoling one at that, is that the Faith has not only often been “killed” but that it has also died of old age. And, still, it rises.
It has not only died often, therefore, but also – as we can see all too clearly — degenerated and decayed as well, and, thereafter — and note this — “survived,” says Chesterton, “its own weakness… even its own surrender.”
Now, that really is remarkable. Surely remarkable enough to point to something, or Someone, in charge of the real flow of history. This leaves one to conclude that it is not so much the concept of “flow” with which we disagree with Marxist historians as that flow’s eventual destination.
It would seem that sooner or later even its enemies will learn from their incessant and interminable disappointments not to look for anything so simple as its [the Church’s] death. They may continue to war with it, but it will be as they war with nature; as they war with the landscape, as they war with the skies. They will watch for it to stumble; they will watch for it to err; they will no longer watch for it to end.
Today, we watch as the Church “stumbles” once more. But be under no illusion, it is not the end.
The Church has “died” many times. Yet, in spite of all those who cloud and compromise its message, even the shepherds who turn out to be wolves, the Church will always rise again, for it is the beloved Bride of a God no grave could ever hold.