Theological Decadence: The Anti-Epiphany

James Tissot, Christ Reproving the Pharisees

The Gospel of Epiphany Day is simultaneously thrilling and infuriating. We read about the Magi who come mysteriously from the East, seeking the newborn King of the Jews. We read about the response of Herod, and his veiled hostility to the Magi. These are the polar opposites of the story. Yet, what in my mind is the most confounding is the response of the Chief Priests and Scribes, the ‘theological consultants’ to Herod. These men knew, with GPS accuracy, the birthplace of the Messiah through the prophecy of Micah, (Micah 5:2) as taking place in Bethlehem of Judah. Now, amidst the manifestation of a star above the obscure village, and the appearance of these learned and affluent men in the court of Herod, what puzzles me is the complete inertia of these religious authorities. The Magi, who were probably Gentile Zoroastrians, would have had no specific conception of a Jewish Messiah, but nevertheless had an analogous conception of a Saoshyant, an eschatological figure who would appear to purify the world of unrighteousness. These Magi went out on a limb to travel from Persia in search of this Messiah. The Jewish authorities, on the other hand, who had the benefit of prophecy, did very little with it.

Almost 30 years have passed since Saint Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, in which the Pope specifically called for a “New Evangelization” which was meant especially to bring back to Christ the ‘post-Christian’ nations once at the heart of Old Christendom. Yet we have arguably had little success in this venture. The decline of Christianity in Western and Central Europe, as well as in the Americas, continues apace.

At the same time, we have witnessed an explosion of initiatives and programs in the Western World in an attempt to re-evangelize the culture: we see FOCUS Missionaries in our college campuses, the street evangelization of groups like Communion and Liberation, and also the multiplication of think tanks dedicated to Christian thought and bringing that into the Public Sphere. These have done great work in bringing the Gospel to men and women in diverse places. This doesn’t even count the good work done by freelancing men and women who author blogs and books, and do talks and podcasts, attempting to spread the Good News. Chief among these in the anglophone world must be Bishop Robert Barron, whose Word on Fire apostolate has excellent outreach to unbelievers. Then we also have of course the decades long work of EWTN, which reaches several countries worldwide.

Despite all these great initiates, Christianity has continued to collapse in its traditional heartlands, while it continues to grow in the Global East and South. To what can we attribute this success?

I would argue our failure comes from two sources: our institutional inertia, and the problem of Theological Decadence, which is what I want to focus on today: an abundance of information regarding the Gospel, but very little going out on a personal level to encounter people. We neglect some of those obvious means by which this may be done, both in the home and outside of it.

The problem of what I call “Theological Decadence” I think may be a new one in Western Societies, where we have very “information rich” lay leaders in particular, but an alarming lack of true evangelists. These people may be very well educated and know the faith, but they are unable to reach the people who need the message most. The problem with the Information Age is that it tends to the solipsistic and tribal: algorithms automatically help steer us toward what we already think and want, because it is deemed profitable to do so. Algorithms do not help us to find what is true, good and beautiful, they simply amplify what we already think to be as such. “Google” is like the principle of synderesis gone digital and viral.

Let’s take the concept of “Theology on Tap” as an example. It sounds great at first, getting young(ish) people out at the pub to talk about God and Theology. But invariably, the same people attend these meetings time after time. We become more like the Scribes of the Epiphany Gospel than the Magi. We may know the truth, but we aren’t actively seeking out the people out there who need it most.

The corrective of what I call Theological Decadence is a rediscovery of the evangelistic value of friendship. By that I don’t mean ‘being preachy’ or getting to know people simply to share Christ with them. However, I think a question every true believer should ask at the end of the year is, “have I brought any souls to Christ?” “Is there anyone in my immediate circle who does not know or love Jesus?” Invariably, this means going through the sometimes uncomfortable process of getting to know people, and sharing their thoughts and concerns. And yes, it even involves a certain degree of tolerance regarding their own actions and opinions.

I applaud efforts to try to evangelize the secular world via cultural efforts. We should encourage artists, writers and musicians, and a whole host of other people gifted in these and other areas. However, one of the problems with the majority of these outreaches is that they are heavy on theological idiom, and low on personal connection: how do we get secular people to appreciate things like sacred music or art when the quality of what they regularly ingest is so poor and devoid of transcendence? I think we expect most people to somehow awaken to these things on their own, but I think above all we have to fight the problem of apatheism, which is probably the most dangerous piece of the modern secular landscape. People just don’t care about anything anymore. I think they have ceased caring because they have ceased being cared for. They have forgotten the wonder and goodness of knowing they are loved and in relationship with others.

I wonder in some ways whether the Magi came, impelled by the pull of the love of the Incarnate Christ Child, rather than compelled by the power of prophecy, and the dancing of the stars? Nowadays, I think we can point to Christ via so many compelling things, like argumentation or the evidential power of truth and beauty, but, to borrow from Saint Augustine, one cannot have persuasio without suasio; one cannot have persuasion, without suasion, which ultimately comes from the word “sweet” or “sweetness”. There is something divinely sweet about the love of Christ which is far more powerful, and it requires our personal, engaged witness to individual men and women. Theological Decadence sets in when we treat the Gospel and Theological Truth more as stored treasure than as perishable victuals: we forget that they are meant to be shared and received, or else not only does knowing theological truth become a potential source of danger, it may even be a cause of our damnation.