Vaclav Havel has said that we are undergoing “the brutal destruction of a cultural landscape that has taken centuries to develop”; within this decaying global civilization “is in essence the first atheistic civilization in the history of mankind.” This use of the word “civilization” is a contradiction in terms, since the new moral and intellectual world order is the very opposite of what civilization has always meant.

Havel’s basic case is that atheism is making the long march through Western institutions, thereby profoundly changing the tone and behavior of global society. But that does not mean that Christianity is dead—or waning—as a vital force in human life. There are as many as two billion Christians worldwide. Spiritual leaders such as Pope John Paul II continue to receive the admiration and respect of believers. And there have been wondrous events that have brought joy to the hearts of the faithful, events that could not have been anticipated even 15 years ago—notably, the death of atheistic Soviet communism and the return of millions of Russians to the faith.

The people of Eastern Europe provide the most inspiring example for all believers across the globe, for they kept Christianity alive in their hearts despite 75 years of persecution under militant, atheistic communism. But in many other parts of the world—notably America and Europe—the powers of darkness have gained an unprecedented advantage over Christendom, forcing changes in intellectual life and social conditions that strike at the heart of the Christian message. The powers of unbelief have come to dominate the great universities and the engines of opinion.

At the end of the second millennium. Christians are besieged and threatened like the early Christians of Rome and elsewhere in the ancient world. We may not have to worship in catacombs; in countless ways, however. Christians are forced to live an underground existence, since the ruling elites view faith as—at best—irrelevant.

Our vulnerability lies in our technical view of life. In the West, we look for leaders who are technicians in national and international affairs, dismissing the ancient view that real leadership is to be found in the human character. For many Westerners, moral distinctions are secondary to expertise and effectiveness at handling social problems.

Time and again, we hear people say that they like a public figure’s policies, even though they disapprove of his behavior as a person — and usually, they end up supporting the person whose policies they find worthwhile. This is a far cry from the attitudes held by citizens when religion occupied a commanding place in American life. Back then, Americans understood that character was central, that what a politician espoused could not take precedence over his personal life, that the policies he favored could not be the final yardstick for judgment. These days, the worst kind of people can retain popularity simply because of their political stance. This, of course, is what happens in a totalitarian society, where moral judgments are replaced by party judgments. This makes possible atrocities on a colossal scale; they are justified as ideological necessities.

Organized religion is not immune to the twists, turns, and distorted thinking of the postmodern era. Disbelief is the new orthodoxy, cropping up even within churches. It manifests itself in the repudiation of beliefs held from the earliest days of the Church. In his passion for multiculturalism, the Rt. Rev. Michael Ingram of the Anglican Church of Canada has proclaimed his faith in a new “interfaith deity who inspires modern pluralists.” He condemns what he calls “Christian exclusiveness,” which teaches that salvation is found only through Jesus Christ.

Attitudes such as these, says George Forsyth of the Catholic Campaign for America, “led modern civilization into a moral wilderness in which the only guidelines are derived from emotional intensity.” This message is one of moral destruction.

Anyone who truly understands and appreciates the spiritual richness of Western civilization is appalled at the prospect of a materialist, technological society devoid of spiritual aims. The technoligizing of Western society leads to an impoverishment of the spirit and the loss of genuine cultural diversity. The rhythms of nature and ordered social life, the rituals of community and celebration of the spirit established over the centuries, are displaced by the demands of a technological regime. The teacher stands in danger of replacement by a computer, and correspondence, a rich mine of human interaction, has been virtually wiped out by impersonal, impermanent e-mail. Every aspect of life is being dehumanized, eliminating personal contact.

While many of us have adjusted easily to the new machines, the technology and its intellectual and spiritual ramifications have barely penetrated our consciousness. Most people see the new technology only as a tool for organizing and storing information. They don’t see the rift between the use of the new machines and our aims as human beings. Unlike the Marxist revolution of the early 20th century, the technological revolution does not deliberately set out to mold a man.

Of course, it would be utterly absurd to suggest that the mere use of computers turns people away from a Christian worldview. But over a lifetime in which every aspect of life is computerized, computers undoubtedly have the potential for changing a person’s view of existence. Instead of making people feel closer, the change is likely to produce isolation.

With the spread of the technological society, deconstructionism has become influential. Deconstructionism is the denial of permanent truth and the devaluation of language and cultural authority. President Clinton, for one, clearly viewed language as a mere social construct in which the meaning of words is indeterminate. This erosion of meaning in language has a certain relationship to the erosion of belief—the understanding of the fixity of spiritual truth.

Although belief in God is not dead, the number of communities of believers in the West is down compared to the overall population. The force of Christianity depends on communities of believers. The Church is the Body of Christ; Christianity is not a solitary affair. From the beginning. Christians have organized themselves in communities led by bishops. They do not have to be large communities. For Christians, organized worship in tiny chapels is as valid and compelling as worship in giant Gothic cathedrals.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, men and women have lived in monastic communities separated—to some degree—from the surrounding world. The monastic life is alien to much of the modern world and has suffered severe setbacks in the West in the last 40 years. Still, it persists. While it is unlikely that, in the 21st century, monasticism will reclaim the place that it held in the medieval world, it is possible that it will enjoy some degree of revival, due to the increased pressures and horrors of postmodern life. Once again, monasteries may become islands of civilization in a world where authentic faith and civilization are beleaguered.

The main theater of spiritual struggle, of course, is the Western world, where the threat of postmodern technonihilism is greatest. As the communists used to say, the front is everywhere. Education, social life, the family: All the institutions of the Western world are under an unceasing barrage from the nihilists. Whittaker Chambers, writing in Witless, said that “history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that have become indifferent to Cod, and died.” Indifference characterizes scores of millions in our time, who are obsessed with the consumer culture and its ways.

Christianity is under siege and retreating in the face of secular materialism, which advances through both moral indifference and outright hostility. In this country, once proudly Christian, recognition of God in the public schools and other public places is prohibited. Religious freedom may be better protected in Russia than in the United States. In America today, Christians—who, in the early days, would not bow to the will of the caesars and who accepted martyrdom for their faith—yield their rights with only the mildest of protests.

As Christians struggle to strengthen and expand the influence of believing communities in the face of postmodern technonihilism, they cannot permit themselves to think that everything can be accomplished on this side of eternity. The forces opposed to Christianity are stronger now than ever before.

The Most Rev. Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, reminds us that

there are times and places when we must share in our common humanity the concerns and values of the world around us. There are other times when we must flee from them, oppose them with all our strength and dare to be different.

There are parts of this world, he continues, that are “aggressively anti-Christian,” where manipulation and control extend to “false beliefs and evil morals.”

To resist those beliefs and pseudomorals, to struggle with all our moral and intellectual energy against the new anticivilization, is the great mission and task facing Christians in the new millennium.