Traditionalist-minded Christians are keenly aware of the spiritual/historical wrong turn the West took sometime during the Renaissance, and they quite correctly lament the de-spiritualization brought about by the abandonment of medieval hierarchy and authority. In light of this it is little wonder so many traditionalists hunger for a return to some kind of localized feudal structure held together and inspired by the unifying and stabilizing power of a strong church. And who can blame them? After all, despite its many flaws, faults, and shortcomings, medieval Europe was an inherently Christian society; that is, Christianity permeated everything and formed the foundation of all aspects of European civilization and culture, to the point that the term Christendom was not only accurate, but also made complete sense at every level of analysis. It is the loss of Christendom traditionalists lament most; and what many desire, above all else, is a return to a time of Christendom - the realignment of civilization and God. Achieve this, many traditional Christians argue, and re-spiritualization will be assured.
Though I am inclined to sympathize with visions of a revived Christendom, I believe traditional Christians who long for a return to such an arrangement are missing the bigger picture when it comes to the wrong turn and the cascading negative consequences it has unleashed. Christendom was thoroughly Christian, but this thoroughness had its limits and, to a certain extent, had already served its purpose by the time the first Renaissance blossoms flecked the medieval landscape.
Traditional Christians correctly identify the wrong turn, but the limits of the traditional Christian mindset become evident in how it defines the wrong turn. Feudal medieval Christendom was a civilization built upon the promise of salvation from sin through obedience to an external authority. For traditionalists, the wrong turn culminated in the rejection of external religious authority as the guarantor of salvation from sin. According to them, all modern sins can be traced back to that point when Western people turned away from the church, which was the guarantor of God's will and the implementer of God's plan for creation on Earth. By the same token, the sins of the modern world would be vanquished the very instant modern Western people repented their egregious material sins and willingly embraced external religious authority once again. Put simply, the only way forward would be a return to the past - to a rigid social structure stressing and enforcing the primacy of spiritual with the aim of mass salvation from sin.
Once again, I sympathize with this outlook to a certain extent. Given the choice between our modern, perverted world and Christendom, I would likely choose Christendom, but this choice immediately raises a very pertinent question: Where would that put us spiritually? Well, if my estimations are correct, it would put us right back at the point before we took the wrong turn, which means we would be facing the same dilemma our ancestors faced when they gradually but ultimately willingly chose materialism over the Divine - when they actively began turning away from the deeper promise of everlasting life in favor of the shallower promise of never-lasting life.
The problem of Christendom is a problem of freedom and authority. Traditionalists tend to idealize the stability and congruity of the past without considering the obvious limitations the past enforced on human freedom. Christendom's Christianity was mostly an enforced top-down arrangement in which being a Christian was largely a matter of default. Rigid social structures, the lack of social mobility, and limited material means to which most people had access created a civilization in which personal salvation was largely a matter of knowing your place and obeying the rules.
In this sense, Christendom was a phase of spiritual childhood, but it was a spiritual childhood marred by incessant physical and material limitations that made life difficult, grueling, and short for the vast majority of the population. As far as I can tell, Christendom offered no concept of spiritual maturity or development in this world. At the risk of sounding flippant I would argue Christendom's spiritual mission was to ensure all Christians remained good little boys and girls in this world in order to make it to the next world after physical death. Thus, as far as Christendom was concerned, spiritual adulthood was not a matter for this world, but the next. As a result, any return to Christendom would likely entail a step back into that spiritual childlike state - a veritable Never-Neverland populated by Peter Pans and other eternal kids whose sole purpose in life would amount to little more than making sure they did not end up on Santa Claus's naughty list before Christmas Day.
Concepts like spiritual childhood are largely a matter of consciousness. The Renaissance and the other subsequent movements away from Christendom reveal a shift of consciousness in the West. People were no longer content to be spiritual children. They began to sense they could do more in this world and that their lives in this world required more from them in return. This shift in consciousness is what traditionalists identify as the wrong turn, but I would argue that the wrong turn is not to be found in the consciousness shift itself, but in the choices made after the consciousness shift occurred.
The collapse of feudalism and fading of church authority marked the beginning of our spiritual adolescence. Like physical adolescence, our spiritual adolescence was marked by increasing personal autonomy, the desire to improve one's material situation, the inclination to explore the world, the eagerness to test newfound abilities, and the inspiration to reinterpret the meaning and purpose of life, both mortal and eternal. Part of this shift in consciousness entailed improving material conditions for the majority people in this world. The campaign to make the world more comfortable and livable was present throughout history, but the shift of consciousness out of spiritual childhood into spiritual adolescence provided the momentum needed to secure the complete alteration of human life. This alteration included the Industrial Revolution and all the political, social, and economic transformations that stemmed from it. Our spiritual adolescence vastly improved standards of living; Western people generally became richer and freer.
These developments suggest that the purpose of spiritual adolescence is mostly preparatory. Like physical adolescence, spiritual adolescence is an in-between phase during which the foundation for adulthood is meant to be created. In physical adolescence this includes biological strengthening and ripening (which is mostly innate and unconscious) and active preparation through education or the acquisition of certain skills that will allow for certain degrees of autonomy and success in the world. Our spiritual adolescence also contained a great deal of mostly innate and unconscious strengthening and ripening, but we have come up gravely short in terms of education and skills preparation. Material progress is perpetually condemned as the chief cause of Western Man's spiritual malaise, but I would say the fault lies not in the progress itself, but in our attitude toward the progress. That, in essence, is where the wrong turn happened.
When I look upon the massive improvement in the material living standards that occurred in the West with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, I see a force that wanted to improve physical conditions in an effort to improve spiritual conditions. I see a force that wanted to free people from material challenges, hardships, and suffering in the hope that the time and energy liberated from these developments could be invested into the higher spiritual purpose of attaining spiritual adulthood in this world. Simply put, I see a force that aspired to alleviate the pressing concerns of physical survival in order to deliver the time and focus needed to deepen our sense of spiritual survival. I see a force whose original aim was not to drive Western Man away from God, but a force that provided the material means through which Western man could move closer to God. In other words, the freeing from material concerns over the last two centuries should have led to an increased freeing for spiritually. What we have managed to achieve instead is a freeing from material concerns followed almost immediately by an imprisoning by materialism. We managed to build the ship we needed to get to our desired destination, but instead of sailing to that destination, we have decided, collectively at least, to imprison ourselves on the ship and set off on a seemingly never-ending, pointless, and destination-less pleasure cruise.
Our spiritual adolescence should have been a time of harnessing the material for the further development of the spiritual. Instead we have fallen captive to the material and have abandoned all notions of the spiritual. In this sense, we are now in a worse position than those who lived in the spiritual childhood of Christendom. Despite traditionalist arguments to the contrary, we cannot return to spiritual childhood anymore than we can return to physical childhood. Any attempt to do so would result in an absurd farce (imagine grown men and women wanting to do nothing more than recite nursery rhymes and play in sandboxes all day long). By the same token, we have lost the map that would have guided us to spiritual adulthood. As a result, we are stuck in the teenage wasteland of materialism with nowhere left to go but down.
Individually there may be hope for some, but at this stage our collective wrong turn appears irrecoverable. This phase of spiritual adolescence will not lead to spiritual adulthood at the collective level, nor will it continue on into perpetuity. This phase of collective spiritual adolescence, the wrong turn we have collectively taken will simply end.
And that will be that.
Note added: Dr. Bruce Charlton's recent post concerning the karma of materialism (Rudolf Steiner's phrase) offers some lucid insights into our current predicament. I highly recommend it.
Note added: The ending of spiritual childhood or traditional Christendom should have heralded an era that laid the groundwork for the advent of another form of Christendom founded on an era of spiritual adulthood. In this sense, Christendom should have evolved from its traditional conception into something more aligned with the shift of consciousness from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Instead, we chose to abandon the concept of Christendom altogether in favor of materialism in the spiritual adolescent phase. This makes the kind of realignment required to reimplement Christendom in the West all but impossible at this point. Materialism, which is antithetical to God, is now probably irreversible and will likely play out until it reaches its inevitable end in some form of partial or total collapse.