Can an entire culture “be converted”i.e., turn away from entrenched patterns of selfishness and self-indulgence and replace them with patterns of altruism?  Can an entire society begin to act in accordance with the Second Great Commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:39 KJV)?  So fundamental a change in orientation cannot be commanded by dictators, however sincerely and earnestly they may try, as the disastrous failures of Communism show.  Neither can it be organized by social engineers nor be effectively promoted by moral preaching.  The spirit that Sorokin, Buchman, King, and others like them wanted to see permeate society can come only in the wake of a massive cultural shift.  Our analysis suggests that such a shift is beginning to take place.  Such a spirit accompanied the rise of Christianity; perhaps it would accompany a renewal of Christianity—not of ecclesial power or theocratic structures but of the spirit of its Founder, as expressed in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5:3-11).

The late Roman Empire was so jaded and disillusioned that it was ripe for transformation by the new religion of Christianity.  Is our sociocultural supersystem similarly ready?  It surely is jaded and disillusioned.  Virtues, ideals, and heroism are regularly derided in the media and the arts.  It is inevitably taken for granted that anyone who espouses firm ethical principles, praises virtue, or dares to express criticism of anything that classical Judeo-Christian morality condemns will be derided as judgmental, puritanical, and in all likelihood hypocritical.

Every society needs a moral core, a shared consensus on principles and ideals in order to remain viable.  The progressive dismantling of the principles and ideals that have created Western culture has reached a point where the society will soon cease to be self-sustaining.  If that happens, either the social fabric will unravel, plunging the culture into chaos, or a complex system of controls will have to be instituted to preserve order at the expense of freedom.  Such a system could be either harshly totalitarian, like that of the former Soviet Empire, or milder and outwardly benevolent.  An example is the sort of state paternalism exhibited in Swedish socialism, which is repressive not only toward all local traditions and voluntary associations, but of the family structure and of individuality.  The only alternative to the disintegration of the social fabric is a widespread and general reawakening of the public to the kinds of truths, principles, and ideals that characterize ideational and idealistic cultures.

If we take the short-term view and look no farther back in history than the early days of our sensate culture, we will see only deterioration and disintegration and can only expect things to grow worse at an accelerating rate unless a benevolent or malevolent despot appears to establish a semblance of order and cohesiveness.  If instead we look farther and observe how sensate cultures have been renewed, especially in the shift that transformed pagan Rome into Christian Europe, we have good reason to hope for something better.  What will be required is a fundamental reorientation, a fresh appropriation of transcendent beliefs and values.  This is something that no government can require by law or impose by reeducation; it must come from above human heads and be taken into human hearts.

If it is to happen, it certainly must happen before and instead of the desperate resort to total state control and total planning that characterized the former Soviet Union and is still being attempted in Communist China.  When the unstable but still Christian and Western culture of imperial Russia collapsed under the German pounding and the internal misery and disorder of World War I, an intense effort was made to replace traditional values with a state-imposed Communist morality and to create new Socialist man.  This immense effort suddenly collapsed in 1991, and it has become clear that the abolition of the moral and altruistic base of Russian Christianity, with all its faults and inconsistencies, was not replaced by something better but by a moral vacuum.  The Russians and the other nationalities that people the vast territory of the former USSR are finding it very difficult to put something in its place, and plaintive voices asking for a return to tyranny are already being raised across that vast territory.

Unlike the Soviet Union and several of its successor states—which belong to Western culture in the broader sense—the narrower West, Western Europe and North America, has not suffered the moral and spiritual privation of decades of monolithic, materialistic dictatorship.  More remnants of the ideational and idealistic foundations of Christianity have survived in the narrower West, but the cultural fatigue and disillusionment of Western Europe and North America is profound.  Are the wealthy nations of the West in any sense ready to receive the “grace of understanding,” if it is given, and to act upon it?  That is the great question.  The answer will determine whether the spiritual twilight that we now experience is the darkness before the dawn or the dark before the deepest night.

The sense that moral renewal is needed is widespread in the West, but there is also widespread fear and apprehension about the spiritual and moral choices, decisions, and sacrifices that must be made in order to bring it about.  Awareness of the fact that the entire national welfare system must die within a few years if corrective measures are not taken is not sufficient to persuade the American public to make any sacrifices today, even if it is pointed out that the “sacrifices” do not involve reduction of benefits but simply a slowing down of increases in government largesse.  One may well wonder whether a population that is so unwilling to sacrifice any of its comforts today in order not to lose them all tomorrow is morally and spiritually capable of receiving and acting upon the grace of understanding if a gracious Deity should grant it.  Is it capable of choosing any virtue, no matter how noble and edifying, if to do so it must pay even a small price in comfort and ease?

If we conclude that the people do not have that capability, then there is little that can be done other than to attempt to make America’s slide into chaos or totalitarianism as slow and agreeable as possible.  Is there no alternative then, no hope to get off the “broad road that leads to destruction”?

There is a spot of bright light on this pessimistic landscape; indeed, it could be the glow that marks the sun shining through the clouds that are beginning to break up and scatter.  If human beings are made in the image of the divine, then man and human society cannot indefinitely be deaf to the voice of conscience and blind to the vision of virtue.  Individuals here and there have listened and looked up, and voices—for the moment voices clamantes in deserto (crying in the desert), few and scattered—are beginning to sound calls for reorientation and renewal.  Much more widespread and pervasive than the challenges to renewal is the growing sense of uneasiness with the deepening crisis of culture and of longing for answers of a spiritual and idealistic nature.  Can anything be offered, will anything be offered, to fill this longing and bring about a transformation before our “pomp of yesteryear” becomes “one with Nineveh and Tyre”?

The militant secularism and religious indifference of the last decades have made our society suspicious of and hostile to any movement and every proposal that bears the label of traditional religion, especially Christianity.  Now there are some indications—only hints for the moment, but growing—that disillusionment with the fading favors of a rotten sensate culture is causing people to abandon that suspicion and to become receptive to solutions that are identifiably Christian, not merely idealistic or spiritual in the vaguest sense of the term.  Where conditions are most desperate (for example, in the prisons and the drug culture), specifically Christian enterprises have been first tolerated, then accepted, and finally enthusiastically endorsed.  As people become more aware that our overripe sensate culture is nearing disaster, it is not unreasonable to hope that large numbers of them will be willing to listen once more to the counsel and principles that brought about the great shift from moribund paganism to early Christianity sixteen hundred years ago.

It may be objected that the Christian world itself is in a state of deterioration and decay hardly less pronounced than that of the sensate society that we decry.  Viewed superficially, that is true.  Great interdenominational and interconfessional organizations such as the National and World Councils of Churches have degenerated into ineffectual promoters of tepid moral platitudes mixed with occasional efforts to endorse revolutionary and anti-Western movements here and there.  It is hard to imagine society being galvanized or renewal ignited by the pronouncements of a Ralph Potter or Emilio Castro or the machinations of COCU [the “Church of Christ Uniting”].

That there is much confusion within the churches and defection from them cannot be doubted.  However, it should be remembered that the early church not only suffered governmental persecution but had to battle and defeat several movements that would have totally changed its character, among them Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Arianism (the latter being defeated only after the Emperor Constantine himself turned to Christianity).  Christianity did not draw on the support of the state to defeat these challenges, for the first two were repelled while the emperors were still pagan and frequently persecuted the church; Arianism actually had the support of the emperors for a time and was put down by more vigorous theology, not by government force.

Christianity did not become the state religion until several decades later under another emperor.  Many historians and sociologists, Christians and non-Christians, look on the official establishment of Christianity as having hampered rather than promoted the beneficial influence of Christianity’s altruistic moral and social teachings on society at large, for as the church gained in wealth and prestige, it lost some of its early moral vigor.  It was not the establishment of Christianity that made the sociocultural shift possible, for it was already in progress before Constantine; freeing the church from persecution accelerated the shift but did not cause it.  Official establishment increased the political power of the church but probably diminished its moral influence.  The ongoing transformation of the culture came through the teachers, preachers, and theologians, through the schools, universities, and hospitals.

It was under these circumstances that the deep conviction of the Christians—that the highest and indeed only real truth is the truth of God, who made us in his image and placed us here for a purpose—took hold and transformed society.  Establishment is not necessary; indeed, it may be harmful.  Even toleration, while preferable to persecution, is not altogether necessary.  What is necessary is the shared conviction of large numbers of people that “it is He who made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3).  What is necessary is to remember or to learn for the first time that we are not the blind products of time plus space plus chance, but we have a dignity that comes from God, a dignity that obliges us to respect and serve one another, to guard and protect human life and the earth that God has entrusted to us.  What is necessary is to remember that we have been given a creative mission here on earth and that we must stand “in the judgment” when our tasks on earth are ended.