A Dying Age

Posted: February 19, 2009 by joelmartin in Uncategorized

As Americans, we’ve lived with the idea of our own permanence for so long that we can’t imagine a post-American world. I think that the entire 20th century was almost an American eschaton. Our way of life triumphed and seemed forever stable. How could we ever descend into anarchy when Leave it to Beaver re-runs are on every day?

When day to day life involves trips to the grocery store, watching TV and living in ever-expanding suburbs, you don’t see it ending. Perhaps we will have another century of more of this, but it seems to me that the end of our order is in sight. The old agrarian republic is long since dead, the Constitution is a meaningless document and we live in a centralized empire that bears only skin-deep resemblance to the Republic or the Colonies. But what does it look like when an empire really dies?

Charles Norris Cochrane provides some idea in his book “Christianity and Classical Culture.” He writes:

The period following Theodosius may be characterized in general as one of twilight government by twilight men, whose puny and distracted efforts proved utterly inadequate to forfend the approaching doom. That doom was signalized in the destruction of cities, the devastation of the countryside, and the disruption of communications. Already in 396, the first year of Arcadius and Honorius, the situation, as portrayed by a contemporary observer, was little better than hopeless.

“The mind shudders,” declares St. Jerome, “to contemplate the ruin of our time. For the last twenty years, the blood of Romans has drenched the lands between Constantinople and the Julian Alps, where innumerable and ferocious tribes spread devastation and death…The bodies of the free and noble, of matrons and virgins have become the prey of lust. Bishops are imprisoned; churches plundered; horses have been stabled at the altars of Christ; the bones of martyrs flung out of their coffins…Everywhere grief, everywhere lamentation, everywhere the shadow of death!”

Cochrane outlines how buildings fell into ruin due to no money being available to repair them. Taxes and duties became so onerous that people stopped paying them and fled into the barbarian regions. Thieves multiplied, roads became unsafe, and foreigners poured over the borders of the Empire and gave feigned allegiance to Rome while remaining citizens of their tribe. The laws were unenforceable, the armies weak. Centralized authority broke down everywhere and the Medieval Age began.

So where are we at on that kind of timeline? It is of course impossible to know the future. Our military is still in the field, our systems of communication are intact, and our imperial center is still able to enforce the law. We do appear bankrupt on every level, much of our recent architecture and building has been ephemeral rather than durable, so our cities and suburbs will fall into ruins unless continuously updated. We lack any unifying or central purpose of life, we have no clue what we are here for or what we are trying to accomplish. Our institutions are generally filled with people who hate our own history and way of life. We have experienced massive waves of illegal immigration which will forever alter what this nation thinks and how it is governed. We are not yet in total disintegration, but you can now see how it could happen.

I believe we will recover from the present economic turmoil, perhaps quickly. But the bigger picture is one of a balkanized and incoherent nation which is living on the fumes of past glory. I think Christians are being called to a new Benedict moment – a withdrawal to a new monasticism. Not monasticism of the celibate, but of the married – a Protestant monasticism if you will. Families may need to relocate to small communities where we can preserve the heritage of the past and put down roots which will endure in the coming ages. Because on the other side of the Roman collapse came Christendom, led by a Church that spanned nations and tribal boundaries. Our nation may become three nations, or ten, all spanning this continent. The old configuration may collapse of exhaustion and debt. But the Church will endure, God’s Word will stand forever and communities that love the permanent things can shape a future age.

  1. Joel, thanks for your insight and thoughts. I have some similar concerns about our Republic. My greatest fear is that we are building such a large infrastructure that we will be unable to maintain such…the money well will run dry. I also fear our increasing dependency on foreign countries in matters of debt, etc. I’m not an isolationist, but I do think that our country has the resources to be self-reliant for our way of life. We no longer have a national creed or a unifying patriotism. This new age of secularism admits all views to the table. It is a free market for ideas. I think it is a great opportunity for the Church to sit at the table and join the discussion. If not welcomed, then I am content with being a voice in the wilderness. I think we can learn many lessons from the life of Daniel on how to live out our faith in the days ahead.

  2. joelmartin says:

    Daniel is indeed a good model, or Jeremiah – any of the Jews in exile for that matter. The first 1,000 years of the Church are also full of lesson we probably need to start learning and living.
    I feel like in my lifetime the current models of church and city are going to collapse (driving, consuming, etc.). I guess I would be most surprised if our basic setup looks almost the same 50 years from now.

  3. […] End of Empires: Rome and America Joel Wilhelm has a provocative comparison of the late Roman Empire and the contemporary United States.  Surveying the landscape, he finds […]

  4. Scott Kistler says:

    Joel, thanks for these observations. I tried to work out my own thoughts (all in agreement) with your Rome-America comparison on my blog, so in my comment I wanted to focus on the solution for the church that you and Rick have discussed.

    I like the comparisons that you both made to Daniel and Jeremiah. What do you think that we can learn from that possible future that can shape the way that we relate to our culture in the present?

  5. joelmartin says:

    I am of course thinking of Jeremiah’s instructions, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

    Daniel also functioned within the pagan situation that he found himself in, rising to a place of great prominence.

    I think if we look to the early Church, we see a variety of models of living in the Empire – specifically in its dying age. In my mind, monasticism played a huge role in preserving the wisdom of the Church through the time when all collapsed. That said, I do not endorse monasticism as it is. I see a role for entire families forming more targeted communities that exist with the specific idea of enduring a time of withering in the West. This may involve agriculture and manual labor, as well as book making and binding, education and worship. That is what I think we need to be thinking about – what some call the Benedict option.

  6. joelmartin says:

    BTW Scott, I’ve written a little about what I have a vision for here:


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