Things Fall Apart. Part One.

As Europe moved into the 20th century, intellectuals on the continent felt an increasing nervousness.  While the continent was slowly de-Christianizing itself, eschatology was everywhere, and the intellectual class became focused on the likelihood that something – and no one knew quite what it was – was bound to happen.  Of course tensions finally came to a head in the horrors of World War I, but I want to focus on that anticipation that so overwhelmed Europe as the 20th century dawned.  (Those fears were well founded, were they not?)  Many in Europe became consumed by fatalism, what was termed amor fati, but encapsulated most particularly in the French term fin de siècle.  The book to read, I am told, is Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.  For my own part, the best remembrance of this sentiment is found in William Butler Yeats’ magnificent poem “The Second Coming:”  

            Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is the first stanza that I find most significant for the believer.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  Is it possible that the center is the Gospel?  Yeats himself was something of a pagan and an occultist, though a fine, fine poet, and it is unlikely that, for him, the “center” is Christ. Yet Christians who believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection know that the Christian faith is in fact the center of all things.

So therefore, if Christ is the center, what we believe and know about Him ultimately will be the determining factor in how our world is shaped.  I want to be careful not to create an if/then scenario, where we suggest that if we believe X, then God will do Y.  I tend to reject such thinking in favor of an outlook that suggests then even when we get something wrong, the Cross still gets it right.  Therefore the center is still holding, in spite of us.  Thanks be to God for his unfailing consistency and permanence! In making such a statement, I have given away the punchline.  Because when we talk about getting Christ right and getting Christ wrong, we are dealing with a series of contradictions.  Of course I should desire by God’s grace to get Jesus right, but I should be under no illusions that my approach to Christ is doing God any favors.  On the contrary, it is my awe and thanks for the Gospel and the majesty of God that should drive me towards any attempt at getting Jesus right and making Him the center of all I do.

In my next post, I shall pick up this theme again and try to develop what it means to get Christ wrong.  The next theme will be getting Christ right, and finally what are the implications of both things for the Church.

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One Response

  1. Read books before you recommend them. Actually, Schorske’s book on Vienna that you mentioned is pretty good, though it’s too heavy on some far-fetched Freudian psychoanalytic interpretations of the era.

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