Few ideas contrast as starkly to our modern myths as Tolkien’s view of history as “the long defeat.” I have been very interested in the continuing comments that struggle with the perceived pessimism of such a phrase. I have refrained from commenting at length myself, for the very reason that I wanted to do so in an article. For the nature of the long defeat that is the Christian life and the Christian experience through time goes to the very heart of the faith – and a heart that most would like to avoid.
For the long defeat through time is nothing other than the playing out of the Cross through time. It is not the failure of the Church and of Christians – though our failures certainly participate in the long defeat. Nor is it a pessimism born of the modern experience as we reflect on the tragedies of our times.
The tendency of many (particularly among contemporary Christians) to relegate the Cross to a historical moment, renders that “defeat” to the past and writes the remainder of subsequent history and the coming future under the heading of the resurrection. Christ died – but now He’s risen – having taken away any need for the Cross.
But this is utterly contrary to the preaching of Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. The Cross is more than historical moment – it is a revelatory moment as well – one that makes known the way of God and the manner of our salvation – always and everywhere.
Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
The cross to which Christ refers is improperly relegated to an individual’s experience in contemporary thought. The whole history of the Church, its path through time, has been a manifestation of the Cross. The occasional “triumphs” (as measured by the world) are very often the times of greatest unfaithfulness to the gospel. The “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” according to the fathers. We have no teaching about building on “success.”
Just as all of human history prior to Christ is seen as culminating in His death and resurrection – so all subsequent human history should be seen as a cosmic version of the same.
The vision of St. John is the triumph of the slain Lamb.
The witness of the faith points towards a coming victory. But that victory is ironic, sudden, and an intervention rather than an unfolding of an evolving kingdom. There is no Scriptural nor patristic witness contrary to this.
Tolkien understood all of this through the lens of his very classical Roman Catholicism. The same understanding permeates the thought of the Orthodox fathers as well. If there is an “evolution” or an “unfolding,” it will be of the Cross as seeming defeat.
And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Mat 24:22)
The Church is the body of Christ, and, like Him, its culmination in the world will be crucifixion. The character of a world that crucifies the whole of the Church, is the character of the darkness that has been a murderer from the beginning.
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (Joh 15:18-19)
That hatred of the light is the source and cause of human suffering. It is already present in the world, and it grows. The trajectory of that growth in the short term cannot be described. But the trajectory in the long term is nothing short of the Cross – the long defeat.
I think that some Christians are uncomfortable with a phrase like “long defeat” because the Cross has somehow lost its original meaning for them. So swallowed in the victory of Christ’s resurrection has it become, that we fail to remember its character of defeat. Our adversary understands only that our defeat means his victory. In this he is utterly mistaken and it is the resurrection that assures us and encourages us not to fear the Cross.
But the resurrection is never anything apart from the Cross. There is no Resurrected Christ who is not always the Crucified Christ. Nor will there ever be a victorious Church that is not always the defeated Church.
Those who long for a return to Christendom (in all its various forms) engage in an understandable nostalgia. But they do not engage in something promised by the gospel nor established as a theological necessity.
The promise to the Church is that the “gates of hell will not prevail.” People fail to realize that those gates are something that shut us within hell. The gates will not prevail for we will be victorious from within hell itself – even as Christ our God trampled down death by death, and not from without.
The long defeat is the path to Christ’s victory. There is no other path and no other true victory.
All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted.