You might have seen that Bob Gates, the former defense secretary who now leads the Boy Scouts of America, this week told the organization that they’re going to have to accept gay Scoutmasters. You might have assumed that this was an example of a weak-kneed Republican establishment figure Growing In Office, i.e., going wobbly in the face of progressive attacks. In fact, Allahpundit points out, Gates was simply being realistic:
If you glance at the headlines, you might think this was a by now familiar I’ve-searched-my-conscience statement of moral “evolution” by a political figure. Nope. Gates isn’t trying to persuade here. He’s warning BSA officials in fairly dire terms: The courts are coming for us. We either change our policy now, “voluntarily,” and hopefully retain some modicum of control over our membership standards or we continue to resist, watch Scouting troops break away in protest or be shut down as punishment by the national organization, and have some judge somewhere ultimate decide that the BSA’s “duty to God” is incompatible with modern antidiscrimination law. Just because the Scouts won the first fight on this subject in court doesn’t mean they’ll win the rematch, especially when gay rights has all the momentum among federal judges. (It has momentum within the BSA too. Two years ago, the organization voted to allow gay Scouts, although the ban on gay Scout leaders remains.) Gates’s solution: Let each troop sponsor set its own standards. If religious sponsors like churches want to maintain the ban on gay Scout leaders, they can. If non-religious sponsors want to allow gay leaders, they can. It’s a federalist-type solution at a moment when the Supreme Court is poised to blow up federalism on gay marriage.
Below, I’ve pasted in video of Gates’s speech. You really need to watch it from the 8:45 point. His tone says it all. Allahpundit’s summary is accurate, but you would do well to listen and watch Gates say it. Note well the role that the Indiana RFRA fallout had in shaking Gates up. Allahpundit is also correct, I think, to doubt Gates’s federalist-type solution. Local chapters that want to adhere to the old standard will just find themselves sued too.
Watch Gates level with his people. This is the kind of conversation that all kinds of churches and socially conservative organizations are going to have to start having right now. (The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod leadership has just put out a very dire letter to its pastors on the topic.) The courts really are coming for you too.
But Fieldston’s program would be bolder, more radical: It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means. It would be a boundary-pushing experiment, in other words, in a place that seemed exceptionally hospitable to progressive experimentation — but also, undeniably, a privileged and racially anomalous bubble. Fieldston’s unusual identity gave it a better shot than most schools, perhaps, at making this work; and if it did work, its administrators thought, the impact might reach far beyond its cloister.
To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal ownership in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.
Apprehension moved like the flu among certain factions of the parents. In heated conversations in parking lots and on playing fields over the next few months, they shared and amplified one another’s anxieties, invoking yellow stars, blacks-only water fountains, the Japanese internment — “Brought memories of the Soviet Union right away,” wrote one father on a parents’ email thread. The word segregation came up a lot. For many of the parents at Lower, this program violated the values they’d learned back in their own elementary schools a generation ago. You just don’t sort human beings by race.
Reactionaries! Don’t they see that dividing children up into groups by race and causing them to talk about race is bound to teach them all to sing in perfect harmony? Not all the parents think so, and said so in an intense parent meeting:
A Jewish parent raised his hand, according to another parent who was there. He grew up in the South, he said, where Jews were seen not as “white” but as something categorically different. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue. To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history, he said.
“When you walk in the room, I see you as white,” one person there remembers an African-American parent interjecting. “Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembers it this way: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”
Well, the black parent had a point. But can you blame the parents who objected?:
White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice — the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes. The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race — that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration) that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close friends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.
I suspect the Jewish parent who complained would not have complained if his kid had been able to be slotted into an approved progressive victim group, and “racism” would have remained something of which white Gentile conservatives are guilty. But maybe not.
Read the whole thing, and be glad that your kid does not have to be dragged through this grievance-building fun house.
We don’t know on which precise date Dante Alighieri was born, but we do know it was sometime in either May or June, in the year 1265. That makes us due to celebrate Dante’s 750th birthday sometime in the next few weeks, if we haven’t hit it already. I’d say now is a good time to start drinking Chianti, and don’t stop until the end of June, for good measure.
Writing at the New Yorker‘s website, John Kleiner says it is impossible to convey how vital Dante is to contemporary Italians. They start early with them in the schools. Excerpts:
Either because of or despite this pedagogical program, Italians, to a surprising degree, stick with Dante. Since 2006, Benigni has been staging hepped-up variations on the traditional lectura dantis, a form that goes back all the way to the fourteenth century, to Boccaccio, who lectured on the poem in Florence’s Santo Stefano church. A typical lectura opens with a detailed gloss of a particular canto, followed by a dramatic reading of it. Benigni’s performances in Rome, Florence, Verona, and other cities have been watched live by more than a million people. Millions more have tuned into them on TV.
Similar, if stodgier, lectures are delivered all over Italy at societies set up expressly to foster appreciation of the Divine Comedy. In Rome, for example, the Casa di Dante sponsors a lectura dantis every Sunday at 11 A.M. Owing to holidays and long summer breaks, six years of Sundays are required to get through the poem, at which point the whole process starts over again. It’s not unusual for two hundred Romans to attend. Some are liceo students, perhaps there under duress, but most are middle-aged and beyond. After one recent session at the Casa di Dante, I asked the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me what everyone was doing there. “I don’t know about the others,” he said. “I always come.”
For the last nine months, I’ve been living in Rome, and the experience has helped me to appreciate another, more subversive side to Dante’s appeal. Though he may be force-fed to seventh graders, applauded in the Senate, and praised by the Holy See, Dante is, as a writer, unmistakably anti-authoritarian. He looks around and what he sees is hypocrisy, incompetence, and corruption. And so he strikes out, not just at the Popes, whom he turns upside down and stuffs in a hole, but also at Florence’s political leaders, whom he throws into a burning tomb, and his own teacher, whom he sets running naked across scorching sand.
Yes indeed. Dante was a rebel, but you might call him a subversive orthodox. He denounced the ecclesial, political, and civic order of his time and place, not because he wanted to replace them, necessarily, but because he wanted them to reform themselves, and be what they are supposed to be. He did not want to start a new church, for example, but wanted to kick the butts of the popes, the priests, the monks, and everybody else, and make them return to the foundations.
I hope How Dante Can Save Your Life is translated into Italian and published there. The book is, in effect, a love letter to Italy’s greatest son. I would love to see how the Italians react to my book — unless they hate it, in which case I will have to repair to France and lick my wounds.
By the way, I’ve just learned that an audiobook version of How Dante Can Save Your Life is now in the works, and will soon be released (you can pre-order via that link). But there’s always the good old print book, if you prefer. I received this morning a beautiful, moving note from a Southern Baptist pastor who read the Dante book, and was startled by how much spiritual insight he found in Dante. He told me the book is helping him deal with a troubling situation within his own family. Now he’s starting to read the Commedia. I’m telling you, this stuff is powerful. Deep waters.
That’s my little dog Roscoe P. Coltrane, a rescue who came to us in Dallas just for the weekend, and who has been with us for nine years. I did not care much for dogs until Roscoe showed up and made me his alpha against my will. He decided that I was going to be his master, and that was simply that. Now I’m fond of dogs in general, and crazy about Roscoe.
Roscoe’s devotion to me has been kind of a joke in our family over the years. Whenever I go away on business, his behavior changes. He becomes anxious and disoriented. Julie and the kids have noticed too that sometimes when I am a short distance from home, his behavior also changes. It’s as if he can sense my imminent arrival. I’ve watched him for years, and he’s never behaved that way with other members of the family. Obviously I couldn’t observe him awaiting me, but it’s happened so often, and been seen so often, that I believe it. We have also observed that Roscoe, who absolutely hates to be bathed, knows when that is about to happen, even when we have taken care to hide from him visual and aural cues (e.g., talking about “bath,” or fetching the dog shampoo within his sight). It’s the oddest thing. He has no regular time for his bath, which happens only once every couple of months, unless we have him groomed. But boy does he ever know what’s coming, and runs to hide to avoid it.
I was thinking about this the other day, and about a book I bought at a used bookstore a while back because I liked the title: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. It’s a book by Rupert Sheldrake, the maverick British biologist and controversialist. He’s a fascinating figure. Sheldrake has this idea called “morphic resonance” (look it up on the FAQ page of Sheldrake.org) that, in general, holds that some form of collective consciousness is an emergent property of systems, and that it involves information transferral. I’ll say no more about that here, because I don’t fully understand it, and don’t want to misstate Sheldrake’s hypothesis.
Sheldrake is widely rejected by the scientific community. In fact, his TEDx talk was taken off the TED site after scientists protested (I’ve embedded it below). His belief, as a biologist, that nature has a teleology, is heretical. That’s just one example of his heterodoxy. I was surprised and delighted, then, to see that John Horgan, a leading science writer and Sheldrake skeptic, wrote a nice piece in Scientific American about an e-mail interview he had with Sheldrake after spending time with him in person at a science festival. Excerpts:
Sheldrake is terrific company. He is smart, articulate and funny. He does a hilarious imitation of the late psychedelic scholar Terence McKenna, his friend and co-author, whom I met in 1999 and profiled here. There is an appealing reasonableness and gentleness in Sheldrake’s manner, even when he is complaining about the unfairness of his many critics.
He possesses, moreover, a deep knowledge of science, including its history and philosophy (which he studied at Harvard in the 1960s). This knowledge—along with his ability to cite detailed experimental evidence for his claims–make Sheldrake a formidable defender of his outlook. (For more on Sheldrake’s career and views, see his website, http://www.sheldrake.org.)
At one point Sheldrake, alluding to my 1996 book The End of Science, said that his science begins where mine ends. When I asked him to elaborate he said, “We both agree that science is at present limited by assumptions that restrict enquiry, and we agree that there are major unsolved problems about consciousness, cosmology and other areas of science… I am proposing testable hypotheses that could take us forward and open up new frontiers of scientific enquiry.”
From the interview itself:
Horgan: I admit that I’m still not sure what morphic resonance is. Can you give me a brief definition?
Sheldrake: Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past. The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes. In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
Horgan: Did the idea of morphic resonance come to you in an epiphany, or was it a gradual process?
Sheldrake: The idea of morphic resonance came to me when I was doing research at Cambridge on the development of plants. I was interested in the concept of morphogenetic, or form-shaping, fields, but realized they could not be inherited through genes. They had to be inherited in some other way. The idea of morphic resonance came as a sudden insight. This happened in 1973, but it was a radical idea, and I spent years thinking about it before I published it in my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981.
Horgan: What is the single most powerful piece of evidence for morphic resonance?
Sheldrake: There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance. The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades. Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster. At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off. In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect. I discuss this evidence in A New Science of Life, now in its third edition, called Morphic Resonance in the US.
Horgan: Is animal telepathy a necessary consequence of morphic resonance?
Sheldrake: Animal telepathy is a consequence of the way that animal groups are organized by what I call morphic fields. Morphic resonance is primarily to do with an influence from the past, whereas telepathy occurs in the present and depends on the bonds between members of the group. For example, when a dog is strongly bonded to its owner, this bond persists even when the owner is far away and is, I think, the basis of telepathic communication. I see telepathy as a normal, not paranormal, means of communication between members of animal groups. For example many dogs know when their owners are coming home and start waiting for them by a door or window. My experiments on the subject are described in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Dogs still know even when people set off at times randomly chosen by the experimenter, and travel in unfamiliar vehicles. One of these experiments can be seen here: http://www.sheldrake.org/videos/jaytee-a-dog-who-knew-when-his-owner-was-coming-home-the-orf-experiment
Read the whole thing. Basically, Sheldrake believes that dogmatic materialism prevents science from exploring facets of reality that cannot be explained by pure materialism. He says that quantum physics opens up promising new avenues of scientific exploration, but biology — his field — is bogged down in dogmatism and reductionism.
Here’s another good, extensive interview with Sheldrake. And below, his banned TEDx talk. I toss all this out there for your discussion. I lack the competence to evaluate Sheldrake’s claims, but I do find these topics engaging.
Michael Brendan Dougherty has a powerful piece about how changes in law, culture, and technology are exploding the concept of the natural family, in favor of the contracted family model. Excerpts:
The language of this news report is the language of the new dispensation. It assumes that what the law has to say trumps what the genes of Marotta and his daughter say. A partisan of the natural family would tell Marotta and other sperm sellers that when they go to the clinic, they are not just selling “material.” They are standing in a position of power over their posterity and selling their future child’s claims upon them.
Legally recognized sperm (and egg) “donors” take money with the expectation that the resultant children will not be “theirs.” That is, for the convenience (and profit) of adults, children are deprived not only of their parents’ care, but even the knowledge of their origins. They are deprived of knowledge about their ethnic background, family history, their grandparents — the very things that define us.
The rhetoric of traditionalists about the natural family has sharpened in recent years in debates over same-sex marriage. Traditionalists say that the entire sexual revolution is giving adults unprecedented autonomy to do “what they want,” but that it comes at the cost of children’s claims upon their parents. No-fault divorce creates incentives that deprive children of the stable homes in which they most flourish. And donor-assisted reproductive technology could be considered a kind of no-fault divorce itself. Parents simply impose a legal and social divorce on their biological child.
Naturally, the argument that natural families are in any way superior is met with suspicion by the democratic mind, and by those who are loyal to the emerging dispensation of the contractual family.
But the changes wrought by the sexual revolution that O’Toole celebrates have created new sanctioned tyrants — and children are their subjects. In the egalitarian future that he wants, parents are no longer forbidden by taboo, superstition, or law from selling their children’s claims in a flesh market desperate for orphans. Mothers are made free to abort their children in the womb. And the normalization of market-created children puts poor biological parents at risk of losing their children to richer strangers deemed more “competent” to act in the best interests of the child.
A reader sends a story from Sweden reporting that the government is planning to make taxpayer-funded IVF treatment available for single women. That’s right: the state intends to facilitate the birth of children without fathers. The state is promoting the dismantling of the natural family. And it’s not especially controversial:
However, the proposal enjoys wide support from both political blocs and is expected to be approved. All parties in parliament apart from the Sweden Democrats and the Christian Democrats support fertility treatment for singles.
Madness — but there’s a logic to it. If autonomy, especially sexual autonomy, is the summum bonum of life under liberalism, then the state that gives individuals maximum freedom to do what they want is the ideal. Children are products of adult desire, nothing more. Men are beside the point, except as sperm donors, and we cannot assert the good of children, because we cannot even say what it is.
Lucas was finishing up his chicken and pasta tonight when he remembered that he needed to put the chickens up before dark. He ran back in a second later saying that there was a baby mockingbird on the ground. He rescued it and brought it in to the table to feed. Don’t know how we’re going to handle it going forward, but the baby bird has been given worms and water, and is nestled in swaddling clothes under a heat lamp in the garage tonight.
The Church of England is to debate plans to introduce a ceremony akin to a baptism to mark the new identities of Christians who undergo gender transition.
The Rev Chris Newlands, the vicar of Lancaster Priory, has proposed a motion to the General Synod to debate the issue, after he was approached by a young transgender person seeking to be “re-baptised” in his new identity.
The motion, which was passed by Blackburn Diocese last month, calls on the House of Bishops to consider whether it should introduce a new service to mark the milestone in the life of a trans person. A spokesperson for the Archbishops’ Council confirmed that the motion had been received, but said it would not be debated imminently.
Newlands urged the church to take the lead on welcoming a group that suffered high levels of discrimination.
He said he knew a number of trans people though his work with LGBT organisations. “It’s an absolute trauma to go through this, with the surgery, as people get a lot of transphobic bullying. The church needs to take a lead and be much more proactive to make sure they are given a warm welcome.”
The motion had “captured people’s imagination”, he said, and already gathered a large amount of support. It has been passed by the parochial church council, the Deanery Synod and the Blackburn Diocese, which covers Lancashire.
There really are no boundaries, are there?
UPDATE: A reader sends in this Orlando Sentinel story about the travails of a Methodist church in Florida. The church is in trouble with the state Methodist conference for allegedly forcing out a lesbian couple who were working in its day care facility:
The women worked for Aloma Methodist Early Childhood Learning Center, which is run by Aloma UMC. They say they were fired in March after they were asked by school Director Barbara Twachtman whether they were a lesbian couple.
Aloma Methodist Pastor Jim Govatos said the women were not fired but left voluntarily. Under church policy, unmarried employees can be terminated for cohabitating or having sexual relations.
The women’s attorney said they were told they risked termination because of their relationship.
“They were given an ultimatum of stop being gay or you are fired,” said Mary Meeks.
Govatos also said the issue was not whether they were gay, but whether they were sexually intimate while unmarried — a violation of church employment policy that applied to straight as well as gay individuals.
“The [day-care] director asked them if they were involved in a sexual relationship. Each one on their own admitted that they were,” Govatos said.
Meeks said they were never asked about whether they were sexually intimate — only whether they were in a relationship.
“My clients were never asked and never discussed that they were in a sexual relationship. They were never asked that question,” Meeks said.
Govatos said unmarried straight employees are held to the same standard and have been terminated in the past for continuing to have sex outside of marriage. According to a statement released by the church, “Sexual orientation is not a determining factor in employment at Aloma UMC; but sexual behavior by both gay and straight people can be.”
So, according to the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, to dismiss sexually active gay people, even under a policy which treats sexually active unmarried heterosexuals the same way, violates church policy. Wow. When a parish is chastised by its own state church conference for a policy that expects its employees to adhere to basic Christian sexual morality, where do you go from there?
So, a Canadian Christian jeweler custom-made a pair of engagement rings for a lesbian couple, Nicole White and Pam Renouf, at their request. Later, when they found out that the jeweler personally opposes same-sex marriage, they went to pieces and demanded their money back. From the CBC’s report:
“They were great to work with. They seemed to have no issues. They knew the two of us were a same-sex couple,” White said.
“I referred some of my friends to them, just because I did get some good customer service and they had good prices.”
That was before one friend went in to purchase a ring for his girlfriend — and instead found a distressing sign.
It reads: “The sanctity of marriage is under attack. Let’s keep marriage between a man and a woman.”
The couple now believes the rings they ordered will have been tainted by having been fashioned by jeweler Esau Jardon’s hands, given what impure thoughts he holds in his mind. More:
Jardon said he won’t apologize for his beliefs.
“I feel really bad that [White] feels that we would in any way try to hurt or discriminate against her, but we will not retract from what we believe. I cannot say, ‘Well because you feel bad, I will stop believing what I believe,’” he said.
“When I walk on Church Street in Toronto, where I am right now, and I see [LGBT rainbow flags], and I see a lot of signs and a lot of things on public property, I don’t have a problem with them. I accept it. I chose to come to Canada… and we accept the whole package… I don’t discriminate against that, nor do I come and tell them to take them down. For the same reason, I ask to have the same respect in return, especially when it’s in my own business.”
But, after dealing with online bullying and threats, Jardon decided this week to refund the deposit to the couple:
“One of the reasons my family chose to move to Canada was the rights that it offered, the freedom of religion and freedom of speech, both of which at the time seemed to be very limited in Mexico,” he said.
“However, due to posting our religious beliefs, many people in Newfoundland want us to shut down business — that’s what they’ve been telling us.”
He said some threats came with names and others were anonymous.
“One of them states that ‘you better give them the money back or you will be very, very sorry,’” he said.
Let’s understand what happened here. This Christian jeweler agreed to custom-make engagement rings for a lesbian couple, knowing that they were a couple, and treated them politely. But when they found out what he really believed about same-sex marriage, even though the man gave them polite service, and agreed to sell them what they asked for, the lesbian couple balked, and demanded their money back — and the mob threatened the business if they didn’t yield. Which, of course, he did.
You understand, of course, that this is not about getting equal treatment. The lesbian couple received that. This is about demonizing a point of view, and driving those who hold it out of the public square. Just so we’re clear about that.
I bought some olive oil not long ago at a tiny grocery store owned by an Arab Muslim immigrant. If I find out that the merchant supports ISIS, am I entitled to declare my jug of olive oil tainted, and demand a refund? Is a fundamentalist Christian permitted to send her osso buco back to the kitchen if she discovers that homosexual hands cooked it? Of course not. Some delicate snowflakes are more delicate than others.
I’m sorry that Esau Jardon gave in to this intimidation, but I suppose if you are a small businessman, you have no choice once the mob turns on you. It does indicate, though, the next phase in the March of Progress. You must not only bake the cake, or arrange the flowers, or make the ring, you must hold the correct opinion when you do it.
No, not that Noah. I mean my TAC colleague Noah Millman, who registered some objections to my Benedict Option blogging. I’d like to respond.
Before I say anything else, I would like to associate myself with the following comments on the Noah thread. The author is my friend and former TAC contributor Alan Jacobs:
Noah, I raised some of the same questions you do and began to sketch out my own answer here. But I think the reason you’re frustrated, and the reason the conversation has gone the way it’s gone so far, is that many Christians are profoundly and (I would say) irrationally hostile to the very idea of seeking to form intentional ethical communities. Even to think about such a thing strikes many as a “run for the hills” mentality, so they portray the idea in the most lurid light possible. So people like Rod and me who just want to begin brainstorming what a Benedict Option might look like are besieged by critics who don’t know what it would look like either but know that they hate it. So we have to spend all our time trying to explain why we think that contemplating some possible Benedict Option is a reasonable, or at least a non-crazy, thing to do. Which means that the trying out of specific ideas keeps getting deferred.
Noah: maybe it requires retreat, maybe it doesn’t — we don’t know yet!
Depends on what you mean by “retreat,” of course. When I hear Rod saying “no retreat” it’s because people have said “If you follow the Benedict Option you won’t vote any more!” — which is just stupid.
I’m all in favor of voting, and Rod is too. But the really interesting question is, on what grounds will Christians make their electoral decisions? Will those decisions be shaped by an ideology like that of David French, who thinks that American Sniper is a beautiful portrait of a wholly admirable “Christian warrior”? Or will those decisions be shaped by ideas and convictions and practices that are not quite so dependent on contemporary right-patriotic rhetoric?
We have lots of recent documentary evidence that most Christian churches in America are (a) failing to recruit significant numbers of new members and are (b) losing too many of the members they have. The latter is the particular concern for people who are interested in some form of Benedict Option. It’s pretty clear that Christians are not being strongly formed in the faith — are not having their dispositions and habits shaped in such a way that they can readily resist what appear to be more attractive messages from non-Christian cultural forces. So (again, this is my take, maybe Rod would disagree) the question is: What do we have to do to form Christians in such a way that the Christian message appears to them as it appears to us: coherent, powerful, worth building a life around?
Maybe the mainstream American culture is so corrosively corrupt that such formation can’t be done there. But maybe not — maybe there are subtler ways to be, and to teach children to be, countercultural. That’s what we need to think and talk about. You’re complaining about a lack of specificity in a conversation that’s just beginning! — or, to put it another way, you want Rod to tell you everything that’s going to be in his book before he has even started writing the book. Give those of us who are interested in the topic time to read, think, converse, and debate. It’s not easy.
This is really 90 percent of the answer I would give to Noah. As regular readers of my blog know, I spend a lot of time answering the “but what about…” people, who are sure they know precisely what I mean by the Benedict Option, even though I repeatedly say that it’s not a “head for the hills and build a compound” kind of thing (or if it is, that’s nothing I would be interested in doing). As I have repeatedly said, I have no precise idea of what this looks like, because I am pretty sure that aside from Anabaptists and some failed utopian experiments, I don’t know that we have a clear model to follow, because I don’t think we have had to live under conditions that we are now living under — conditions that will only grow more difficult for small-o orthodox Christians.
This is why I want to write a book. I want to offer a diagnosis of what’s wrong, and how we got there. Then I want to go out to report on a variety of communities who are, however incompletely, trying to respond to these disorders in ways that strike me as basically healthy. I’m talking about visiting and talking to religious people like the Catholic agrarians around the Clear Creek Monastery in eastern Oklahoma; the Orthodox laity living around the Antiochian cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska; the Presbyterian community in Moscow, Idaho; the Bruderhof in upstate New York; the Catholic community that has grown up around St. Jerome’s parish in Hyattsville, Maryland; the New Monastic community at Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, and others, including, I hope, some Latter-Day Saints, and even a Modern Orthodox Jewish community (that is, non-Hasidic).
This is not an exhaustive list, and maybe once I get the book contract settled, my editor and I will add others to it, and take some away. My goal is to go see these communities, interview people within them, find out what has worked for them, what has not, and what advice they would give to Christians seeking to live a more communally-focused, intentionally countercultural life. I can’t give you a precise description of what the Benedict Option looks like because I don’t yet myself know. Whatever I wind up with, it’s not likely to be one single
It may be helpful to say what I want these communities to do. The diagnosis, very broadly, is that we live in a post-Christian culture, the nature of which radically undermines Christian orthodoxy and practice. The philosophical assumptions that undergird secular, liberal modernity are at bottom incompatible with orthodox Christianity. As we are seeing, orthodox, Biblical Christianity (as distinct from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) cannot endure in a society in which people believe that all truth is thought to be subjective, relative, and individualistic, and religion should be infinitely plastic, so as to better meet the felt “needs” of individuals.
Some contemporary Christians in America already live in “thick” communities where they have a robustly articulated and practiced faith life. Most of us do not. My contention is that if we do not develop these communities, then our faith, over a generation or two, will be lost. Modernity is that corrosive of the faith’s foundations. (I’m not going to explain why that is the case in this blog post; I’m just saying that this is the rationale for the Benedict Option).
What we need to do is to develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith — this, as opposed to MTD. I call it the “Benedict Option” because of the last graf of MacIntyre’s book, but I do not want to create new monasteries for laypeople. Monks and nuns are called to be monastics, not the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with intermediate structures, or modify the structures we already have — church parishes, religious schools — to be more intentional, disciplined, and “thick”. Whatever we do, it has to be livable by ordinary people.
The Rule of St. Benedict gives us some guidance here that can be modified for the rest of us. Here are some qualities the Rule says Benedictine monasteries must have:
Stability. In most cases, monks and nuns stay in the monastery in which they make their vows, until the end of their lives. Individuals who take the Benedict Option will need to make a personal commitment to sticking it out in place, as best they can. That means, for example, giving up on the idea that you should move around for a job. Staying put and serving your community, and being formed by your community, should be a priority. Similarly, the community must develop the habits and structures to make that possible for its members.
Order. All communities must have a certain order. Authority can and often is abused, which is something to watch out for. Balance and moderation are key, just as St. Benedict taught in his rule. But the community itself must stand for something beyond itself, and must have ways of enforcing this order, as well as a way to modify the rule(s) as time passes and circumstances warrant. The point is that there must be a shared vision, and a mission to which the community is dedicated, and the order within the community constructed around that mission, including forming its members to serve that mission.
Discipline. Formation requires not just right teaching, but right practices. The community must be able to discipline itself, and must require its members to adopt certain practices that serve the mission of the community. Discipline and order require a certain sense of withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of maintaining a sense of what makes us distinct in our mission. This could manifest itself in many ways. Periods of asceticism — fasting, as well as feasting — are key. Liturgical practice — and yes, Protestants can have this too; see the Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith’s work on “embodied practices” — should be a big part of the community’s life. So should seeking holiness. Evangelization and good works are the fruits of this holiness.
Community. A social dimension is essential. We learn from each other, and support each other. Community draws us out of ourselves. Unless they are called to be eremetic monastics — a very, very rare calling — Christians cannot be Christians outside of a community.
Hospitality. Like the Benedictine monks, those living the Benedict Option will be open and welcoming to all comers, provided they want to share in the life of the community — which means living as the community lives. Benedict Option communities will not be cloisters; the cloistered life is a special calling for vowed religious. The hope is that these communities will produce light and hope for those weary of the world, and can be a solid rock for people seeking rest and stability.
But if that’s what Rod is aiming for, then why does he keep saying “I’m not saying retreat from the world!” Why not just say, “yes, we need to retreat from the world, and look inward, because it is so hard to do that in the buzz of modern life that the only way we’re going to remember how to do it is to make a radical break with life as we lead it.”
Instead, he says, repeatedly, that he’s not calling for any kind of retreat. And I take him at his word! Hence my puzzlement.
I can see the reason for the confusion, and I think it comes from the fact that so many people cannot imagine any kind of retreat from the world that’s not running away to the woods or the desert. If people feel called to that, I don’t want to stop them, but that is neither feasible nor advisable for the rest of us. So what do we do?
Something as simple as moving to the same neighborhood so you and your kids can more easily socialize with members of your community is a form of retreat. Homeschooling, or certain forms of religious schooling, are forms of retreat. We homeschool, and we don’t let our kids have unlimited access to media. Those are forms of retreat; there are others. I want to get to know people in other communities and find out what their countercultural forms of retreat are, how they maintain them, and what good they have done (and what harm). The point is simply that you cannot live in a go-along-to-get-along way in this culture, not the way it is now, and expect that you and your kids will hold on to your faith. There are no guarantees, certainly, but there are things you can do to better the odds. Your kids are going to be catechized one way or the other. No parents can do it alone. You need a community of solid, normal, non-crazy Christians who understand what’s at stake, and who are committed to living sacrificially and counterculturally.
I say “non-crazy Christians” because I know a lot of people who have experienced fundamentalism, or some form of abusive religious authoritarianism, react strongly against anything that smells like that. I don’t know how to keep that from happening, though that’s part of the book project: to find out what has worked, and what hasn’t, from people actually living this out. My general sense, though, is that from observing the homeschooling community, there are two kinds of homeschoolers: those who are overwhelmingly fearful of the outside world, and who homeschool only to retreat; and those who have a healthy fear, or at least strong skepticism, of the values of the world, and who homeschool because they are affirming higher goods. The former tend to be the kind of people who may not move to a compound in the woods, but who cocoon themselves tightly in an airless Christian ghetto. It’s like they want to protect themselves and their kids by building an exoskeleton. The latter, by contrast, believe in interacting with the world critically, and focus more on building up inner resilience in themselves and in their kids.
Some grammatically challenged nut commented on Noah’s site:
Rod’s a funny guy. Apparently gay marriage has sent him over the edge. I’m not the biggest LGBT sympathizer but Militarism, Mass-Consumerism and Materialism are much more insulting to my Christian ethic then two dudes loving other.
One more time: as I have repeatedly said, the Indiana fight was a signal moment for the Benedict Option because it compelled me (and many others) to realize how little devotion this country has to religious liberty when it conflicts with sexual autonomy. If there were no such thing as same-sex marriage, we would still need the Benedict Option, because the mass consumerism, materialism, moral relativism and hedonism of late modernity — and yes, even militarism — are dissolving orthodox Christianity. Same-sex marriage is a condensed symbol of the philosophical and social trends that have unseated Christianity and that are diminishing it. More practically, it is the institution that is going to form the tip of the spear that progressives, secularists, and their liberal Christian allies are going to use to push orthodox Christians to the margins of civil society, and dismantle our institutions.
Go back to the top of this post and read Alan Jacobs’s remarks. His question is also my question: What do we have to do to form Christians in such a way that the Christian message appears to them as it appears to us: coherent, powerful, worth building a life around?
I believe that the answer — the answers — are going to look rather different than conventional Christian life and practice are today, because most Christians in America have not absorbed the lesson that insofar as they are faithful to Jesus Christ, they are living as resident aliens in America. Eleven years ago, the great church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote an essay for First Things in which he voiced an opinion that sounds very familiar to a Benedict Option way of thinking. Excerpts:
Of course, one might retort that in the United States (unlike in Europe) the churches are flourishing and the number of Christians is growing. Yes, there are many Christians in the U.S., but can we still claim to be a Christian society? If one uses any measure other than individual adherence (what people say if asked) or even church attendance, it is undeniable that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue. Which leads to a question: Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
This is going to be very hard, and it may not succeed. But what is the alternative? Here’s an example. Look at this essay by Abigail Rine, about how the students she teaches in a gender theory course at an Evangelical college have no idea what Christian marriage is:
When I first began teaching this course, my students were certainly curious about questions of gender, sexuality, feminism—the various “hot button” issues of our cultural moment—but they were nonetheless devout, and demonstrated, more or less, a Christian orientation to these topics. It wasn’t hard to find readings that challenged students’ shared values and assumptions, considering the secular bent of contemporary gender studies.
In just five years, however, this has changed. Students now arrive in my class thoroughly versed in the language and categories of identity politics; they are reticent to disagree with anything for fear of seeming intolerant—except, of course, what they perceive to be intolerant. Like, for example, “What is Marriage?” [N.B., a natural law case for traditional marriage -- RD]
My students hated it, as I suspected they would. They also seemed unable to fully understand the argument. As I tried to explain the reasoning behind the conjugal view of marriage and its attitude toward sex, I received dubious stares in response. I realized, as I listened to the discussion, that the idea of “redefining” marriage was nonsensical to them, because they had never encountered the philosophy behind the conjugal view of marriage. To them, the Christian argument against same-sex marriage is an appeal to the authority of a few disparate Bible verses, and therefore compelling only to those with a literalist hermeneutic. What the article names as a “revisionist” idea of marriage—marriage as an emotional, romantic, sexual bond between two people—does not seem “new” to my students at all, because this is the view of marriage they were raised with, albeit with a scriptural, heterosexual gloss.
While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.
As I consider my own upbringing and the various “sex talks” I encountered in evangelical church settings over the past twenty years, I realize that the view of marital sex presented there was primarily revisionist. While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!
There was little attempt to cultivate an attitude toward sexuality that celebrates its full telos: the bonding of the couple and the incarnation of new life.
This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.
We orthodox Christians are going to have to figure this out. I ask skeptics to keep putting the hard questions to us, but don’t expect complete answers yet. My intention is to start a serious conversation, leading to action; it is not to provide a go-and-do blueprint. And make sure that you’re asking questions in good faith, not just as a form of whistling past the graveyard.
One of the authors of a recent study that claimed that short conversations with gay people could change minds on same-sex marriage has retracted it.
Columbia University political science professor Donald Green’s retraction this week of a popular article published in the December issue of the academic journal Science follows revelations that his co-author allegedly faked data for the study, “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support of gay marriage.”
The study received widespread coverage from The New York Times, Vox, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others when it was released in December.
By Wednesday afternoon, news organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, The Huffington Post and NPR had issued editors’ notes regarding their initial coverage of the study.
I am confident, indeed shot through with metaphysical certitude, that the news media will give as much attention to this outright fraud as it did to debunking the mere political incorrectness of the findings of the Regnerus study (for which Regnerus was vindicated, by the way), a social science study whose results served to undermine the Cause.
A graduate student friend in medicine told me not long ago that she had decided to take her medical career in a different direction after an internship at a highly prestigious research institution. She said she observed the widespread practice of graduate students fudging data to get desired results — this, with the full knowledge, consent, and even encouragement of their supervisors. It wasn’t major fraud, she said, but it was fraud, and it was done as part of a general ethos of tweaking scientific results to get the outcome needed to guarantee grant money. Nothing political there, but she said the whole experience disillusioned her about the supposed disinterestedness of science. The method, she said, is supposed to be disinterested, and it is, but science is still carried out by scientists, who are human beings, not robots. She didn’t want to be the sort of scientist who got sucked into the maelstrom of ego and competition for grants, fearing that she would start to fudge data because everybody else was doing it.
In related news: