A Satanically clad drag queen reading to children at the Michelle Obama Library in Long Beach, California. This particular tweet has been taken down, but someone saved it. Below, a tweet from the Long Beach Public Library system promoting the event:
Join Michelle Obama Library for a celebration of LGBTQ History Month! All ages welcome! pic.twitter.com/T7cmGxTTRv
— LB Public Library (@LBCityLibrary) October 7, 2017
Here, the drag queen, Xochi Mochi, talks on Instagram about how much fun s/he had influencing the minds of children:
Remember, public librarians invited this lunatic to come read books to children. And parents chose to send their little ones to hear it.
Nope, nothing wrong with this culture of ours…
I have never met her in person, but I consider Rebecca Sachiko Burton a friend. She used to comment often on this blog, and we’re Facebook pals. I very rarely check Facebook, but was on there tonight when I saw that she had posted this. I was first of all shocked that something like this had happened to someone I know. More than that, I was staggered by the moral courage she showed in making it public. I asked her for permission to post it here, and she agreed. Rebecca is a Mormon, a fact that, as you will see, is relevant to her story:
I wouldn’t blame you for not reading this, and it’s honestly terrifying the breath out of me to write it.
I won’t tell you every one, and I won’t tell you in detail. Just a few big ones.
My biggest started with [a family member] when I was 7. It was serious and injurious, and began a relationship where, as my recovery literature puts it, “sex is the most important sign of love”, especially when the alternative is physical abuse. It became a lingering relationship characterized by control–either through generosity and charm, or anger and abuse, but always, always, his need to own my life. To follow me around, to shame me or mock me, to need me to be his confidante, to rage at me privately. When he told me a couple years ago that I should thank him, because he considered himself my protector, and that I was the real seducer/abuser, I had to stop talking to him or seeing him. But it’s been hard, because many people in my circle were befriended by him, and experience shows that I won’t be believed, but he will.
As a teen, when I approached a bishop about the abuse, this very nice man, who was the father of many beloved daughters, took me through the repentance process–because being forced to perform sexual acts as a seven-year-old somehow made me culpable. This very nice bishop was the unwitting source of secondary trauma.
When I was 17, my boss–a married man in his 30’s–pursued me, talking a lot about “writers like us”, giving me gifts, and reminding me that I was now obligated to him. He gave me a galley copy of Game of Thrones, and now anything by George R.R.Martin turns my stomach.
Then an older boyfriend, when I was in high school, who raped, and later hit me. Because my [family member] still blamed me for seducing him as a 7yo, I fully believed I was irredeemable. I believed I had turned a perfectly nice boyfriend into a monster; that I was capable of turning any man into a monster. That just by getting too close for too long, I would pollute anyone around me.
People who’ve been abused or assaulted tend to have poor boundaries–you can google “shark cage theory” for more info on this–and it means that if a teacher, or church neighbor, or employer was going to pick one person to touch inappropriately, to stand to close to, to give gifts to, to pursue, to abuse, it is often someone who has already been assaulted, because they’re missing crucial boundaries that other people have.
I tried to throw myself into church, where the Young Women’s lessons seemed either not to apply to me, because they seemed to have been written for some bright-eyed virgin, or they applied perfectly to me, where I learned that I was chewed gum, a licked cupcake, a rotten apple. Every new modesty lesson emphasized that I was in charge of men’s lust, and that I had already failed to keep men pure by the time I was 8 years old.
Each worthiness interview through my 20’s and 30’s started with an acknowledgement that they knew I had gotten married as a pregnant teenager, who was “unworthy”. When my baby son died, the bishop immediately brought up my questionable worthiness, and how that might affect my being able to see him again. In my annual worthiness interviews, maybe because I was marked as dirty or lesser, I was asked if I was wearing my garments enough, if I was wearing them properly, which activities I took them off for. I had to do this while sitting in a small chair on the other side of a large desk, in an office with a closed door, with a church leader with a portrait of the Savior behind him. This well-dressed man that I didn’t know, but who lived in my neighborhood, whose kids knew my kids, to whom I was obligated to somehow please with the worthiness of my body and the correctness of my underwear….the surprising thing is that the debilitating church panic attacks didn’t begin sooner. I knew, from lots of personal experience, that suits meant nothing, that being married stopped no one, and a closed door was the prelude into someone else getting to do whatever they liked.
I’m trying to think of the best way to say this, and I can’t come up with a soft way, so I’m going to give it bluntly: there are many more like me. There are many more who are watching and listening when something about abuse or assault comes up in the news and we see which men ask, “Well, what was she wearing?” Which ones say, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” or “you’re oversensitive”.
We remember which ones will use their voice to tell women to be more modest, to be more pleasing, to tell them that they are obligated to subject themselves or their children to being alone with men they don’t really know or feel safe with, because that’s what’s socially expected, or that’s what good church women do. We see which ones believe the abused, and help them; and which ones look the other way when people are made to feel small, or afraid, or helpless; or who pretend nothing happened, or who kindly victim-blame, echoing the same things the demons inside us already shout, every day.
Like a friend of mine says: This isn’t about blame. It’s about a frighteningly large group of human beings saying, “We have been hurt. We have been made afraid. Please see us. Please believe us.” The world is full of incredible men who stand against harassment and abuse. It is also full of good men who do not see that there is a battle in need of fighting. This can be seen as a call to arms, or a call to discomfort. I think the former is more productive.
And, my sisters–I see you. I believe you. I have your back. You are of infinite worth.
Also–I don’t know if this is relevant–but I went to a recovery retreat last Easter. They asked, “How many of you women here have been blamed by a church leader for a husband’s addiction or for abuse by another?” Every hand went up.
Every hand went up. My God.
Rebecca Sachiko Burton, I salute you.
If you readers want to add your own #MeToo stories to this thread, please do. Do not feel that you have to identify yourself by name. Please be aware, though, that if you have posted here before under your own name, I will be able to see who you are. Of course I would never reveal your identity, but for the sake of your own privacy, I just want you to know that this information is displayed to me as the administrator of this blog. If that troubles you, then please don’t post.
UPDATE: I slightly edited this post to make two people Rebecca accuses of abuse less identifiable. This should not be taken as me disbelieving her.
So, yeah, I was there.
And let me tell you one thing.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing:
Not that he was raping.
No, that we never heard.
But we were aware of a certain pattern of overly-aggressive behavior that was rather dreadful.
We knew about the man’s hunger; his fervor; his appetite.
There was nothing secret about this voracious rapacity; like a gluttonous ogre out of the Brothers Grimm.
All couched in vague promises of potential movie roles.
(and, it should be noted: there were many who actually succumbed to his bulky charms. Willingly. Which surely must have only impelled him to cast his fetid net even wider).
But like I said: everybody-fu*king-knew.
And to me, if Harvey’s behavior is the most reprehensible thing one can imagine, a not-so-distant second is the current flood of sanctimonious denial and condemnation that now crashes upon these shores of rectitude in gloppy tides of bullshit righteousness.
And do you know how I am sure this is true?
Because I was there.
And I saw you.
And I talked about it with you.
You, the big producers; you, the big directors; you, the big agents; you, the big financiers.
And you, the big rival studio chiefs; you, the big actors; you, the big actresses; you, the big models.
You, the big journalists; you, the big screenwriters; you, the big rock stars; you, the big restaurateurs; you, the big politicians.
I saw you.
All of you.
So, yeah, I am sorry.
Sorry and ashamed.
Because, in the end, I was complicit.
I didn’t say shit.
I didn’t do shit.
Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.
So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.
And for that, once again, I am sorry.
But you should be sorry, too.
With all these victims speaking up…
To tell their tales.
Shouldn’t those who witnessed it from the sidelines do the same?
Instead of retreating to the cowardly, canopied confines of faux-outrage?
Doesn’t being a bystander bring with it the responsibility of telling the truth, however personally disgraceful it may be?
You know who are.
You know that you knew.
And do you know how I know that you knew?
Because I was there with you.
And because everybody-fu*king-knew.
Read the whole thing. It’s powerful.
Allow me to be metaphysical for a bit. I am reading theologian David Bentley Hart’s just-published translation of The New Testament. In his First Things review, Father Paul Mankowski says:
It is a truism that those who know the Bible only through translations are cut off from a good deal of what is communicated in the original texts. It is also widely recognized that translations made over-familiar by liturgical or personal repetition tend to steer the mind of the reader down habitual paths and for that reason insulate him from what is terrible or perplexing in the text. Hart acknowledges this, but he also makes a point more rarely considered: that scholars accustomed to reading biblical documents in the original languages—especially those who believe they have “gotten a feel” for the voice of the ancient author—likewise glide over much that is ambiguous and problematic, and that it isn’t until one is forced to translate, that is, to reformulate the familiar phrases using the equipment of another language, that the difficulties announce themselves with full impact. Says Hart:
To translate a text is to be conducted into its mysteries in a way that no mere act of reading—however conscientious or frequent—makes possible. At the very least, the translator is obliged to confront the words on the page not merely as meanings to be received, but as problems to be solved; and this demands an attention to detail for which most of us never quite have the time.
The problems Hart refers to are of two sorts: places where we know what the Greek says but find English (or whatever the receptor language may be) inadequate in conveying the meanings, and places where the meaning (or text) of the Greek is itself in doubt. In addition, many readers have doctrinal or theological commitments that in effect cut them off from readings that the original texts permit, and sometimes compel.
Hart is well aware that few scholars will applaud all his decisions, and admits his preference for choosing the “unfamiliar or more baffling interpretation” because it is unsettling—and because it is sometimes more accurate. Even those of us convinced that the Holy Spirit is the author of Sacred Scripture are rarely attentive to how many purely human anticipatory choices, based on purely human prudence, are involved in deciding for each particular verse which text, which grammatical and syntactical analysis, and which translational rendering best reflect the sacred author—and thus end up on the printed page of our English Bibles. Inasmuch as one goal of Hart’s eccentric formulations is to make us rethink the validity of the accepted ones, he provides a useful service even where we judge him wrong, in pushing us back to the original texts to assess the plausibility of the rival claims. If, after considering the evidence, we decide the conventional expression remains superior to Hart’s alternative, our preference is no longer a sentimental loyalty, but a choice more alive to the ambiguities of the original.
One thing that leaps out at the reader is Hart’s decision to use the original koinē Greek word “cosmos” instead of “world.” Here’s John 3:16-19, in Hart’s translation:
For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever has not had faith has already been judged because he has not had faith in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the cosmos, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were wicked.
Try 1 John 2:15-16:
Do not love the cosmos or the things within the cosmos. If anyone love the cosmos, the love of the Father is not within him; Because all that is in the cosmos — the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of living — is not from the Father, but from the cosmos.
In his essay accompanying the translation, Hart offers his rationale for why he made certain choices. About using “cosmos” instead of “world,” he writes:
But, while there are instances in the text where the world functions as an equivalent of oikoumenē, the inhabited world of human beings, it more frequently means the whole of the created order, the heavens no less than the earth. It certainly carries this latter meaning in some crucial and occasionally unsettling ways in many verses in John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and elsewhere. It is good, for example, to be reminded that in the New Testament, and in Paul’s theology in particular, both slavery to death in sin and final liberation from death in divine glory are described as cosmic — not merely human — realities, taking in the whole of creation. Moreover, the word “world” as we use it today simply does not capture what is most essential to the ancient concept of “cosmos,” a word that most literally means “order” or “arrangement” or even “loveliness of design.” For us, the “world” is either merely the physical reality of nature and society “out there,” or it is the human sphere with all its attendant moral and historical contingencies. For the late antique cultures from which the New Testament came, the “cosmos” was quite literally a magnificently and terribly elaborate order of reality that comprehended nature (understood as a rational integrity organized by metaphysical principles), the essential principles of the natural and animal human condition (flesh and soul, for instance, with all their miseries), the spiritual world (including the hierarchies of the “divine,” the angelic, and the daemonic), the astral and planetary heavens (understood as a changeless realm at once physical and spiritual), as well s social, political, and religious structures of authority and power (including the governments of human beings, angels, celestial “daemons,” gods, terrestrial demons, and whatever other mysterious forces might be hiding behind nature’s visible forms). It is a vision of the whole of things that is utterly unlike any with which most of us are today familiar, and that simply does not correspond to any meaning of “world” intuitively obvious to us. For the author of 1 Peter or of 1 John, for instance, to tell his readers to have nothing to do with the “cosmos” is to say something far more comprehensive, imponderable, and astonishing than that they should avoid vice and materialist longings, or that they should withdraw from society. It seemed better to me to risk oddity of expression than to risk losing sight of these truths.
I can’t stop thinking about the implications in this for Christian belief. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as Hart also is, this is not exactly new information. But somehow, seeing it in familiar passages in the New Testament jarred something in me. Just seeing that word — cosmos — where I expected to see world compelled me to take more seriously the radicalism of the Christian claim. When Jesus says, in John 16:33, “In the cosmos you have suffering, but take heart — I have conquered the cosmos” — that strikes one as a far more radical concept than we are used to. Jesus is saying that he has become master of the entire created order, that by his death and resurrection he has transcended it and brought it unto subjugation. Note that he is speaking here of all things, including the natural world. Historian Robert Louis Wilken points out that the pagan philosopher Celsus, writing in the second century, well understood the profound implications of the Incarnation. Celsus said that if the Infinite became finite, it would upset the entire cosmic order. (This is a claim we hear again, 1,800 years later, from the mouth of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”)
What does it mean for Jesus to have come into this world to save “the cosmos”? Cosmos is not a synonym for “universe,” because a cosmos is a phenomenon that is diverse but fundamentally unified and ordered by the Logos (here is a good, clear explanation of what this meant to early Christians). The word “cosmos” implies not simply individual souls, everything that exists. That means that nothing that exists can be taken for granted, because God so loved the cosmos that He sent His son into the cosmos to save it. Think of it: God so loved even the rivers and the grass and the animals that He sent His son to save them too — not “save” in the sense that humans are saved, but saved in the sense of being perfected, of being redeemed, or being restored to full participation in the divine life, as God intended. The beginning of the process of cosmic redemption occurred in the Resurrection. St. Ambrose, writing in the fourth century, proclaimed a truth that is still recognized in Orthodox Christianity: “When Christ arose, the earth itself arose.” (People who mock Pope Francis’s “environmental” encyclical Laudato si ought to realize that they are mocking Christian tradition going back to the early church.) When Jesus tells his followers in John: 16:33 not to be afraid, for “I have conquered the cosmos” (Hart’s translation), he is saying that the cosmic victory has already been won, and that we are simply living out its meaning in time — a meaning that will only be fully realized at the end of Time, according to Christian eschatology.
What would it mean to be “in the cosmos, but not of it”? How can we be outside the cosmos, given that the cosmos is the entire created order? The answer is that the more we conform ourselves to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and allow ourselves to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, the greater the share we have in his victory over the cosmic. In a 2003 essay, Hart gives us the answer to the question I pose. In the piece, he says that in our post-Christian culture, we need to work much harder to observe the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I’ve boldfaced the words below that answer my question:
Moreover, we need to recognize, in the light of this history, that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism—especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers—that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture ” all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.
It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are—even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant—usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.
A paradox? Yes, absolutely. This is how we mortal creatures participate in the redemption of the cosmos: through loving it ascetically, which is to say, by loving it through the mediation of the One who is not of the cosmos, but who is rather the Creator and Conqueror of it.
Mind you, this is a decidedly Eastern view. As Louis Dupre has written, of an early split between Eastern and Western Christianity, “Whereas for Eastern theologians salvation meant deification (union with God), Westerners tended to view redemption as a healing of human nature.” Dupre says that after Rome’s fall in the West, the Latin Christian mind became very dark about human nature, and only began to recover a sense of God’s sacramental presence in Creation in the High Middle Ages.
Anyway, I want to focus on what it would mean to us everyday Christians if we started to think of what the New Testament says about the “world” as talking about the “cosmos.” That is, not as “society,” but as “all that exists.” How would that change our relationship to it? I think it would require that we live ascetically, in the sense Hart means above. It would teach us to see the created order not as something we submit to, but something that we struggle with, toward its ultimate redemption, and our own. It would make it clearer what the Benedictine monks mean when the talk about rightly ordering all things by and towards God. The first commandment — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — gets into your bones better when you think about the world as cosmos, does it not? It teaches us “to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God,” as Hart writes. This struggle towards sight is a lifelong pilgrimage. Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at in The Benedict Option is a recovery of the cosmic vision Hart articulates — the metaphysical vision that united the Church for its first millennium. G.K. Chesterton said, “Religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.” Yes.
Thoughts? I know this must be dull to non-Christian readers, but perhaps it will give you some insight into why people like me believe what we believe — and how we fall short of what we profess.
Over the weekend, the Family Research Council held its annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. It is an opportunity for conservative politicians to speak to politically engaged conservative Evangelicals. Donald Trump spoke to them — the first sitting US president ever to do so. They also heard from ex-Trump White House staffers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.
From what I’ve read of the event, it further solidified the unqualified support by the Religious Right for Donald Trump and his movement.
“This is not my war,” Bannon said in his speech. “This is our war.” Cheers from the audience.
Later, he told the audience: “The most important thing is an authentic candidate. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Judge Moore — this is who you ought to vote for.”
Fascinating. Bannon advises voting not on principles, but on “authenticity,” which is an extremely slippery concept. Don’t let the word pass without pondering it in light of philosopher Charles Taylor’s insights into what he calls the Age of Authenticity. Excerpt from an interview:
spiked review: You mention the importance of aesthetic expression, and Nietzsche even argued that we should make ourselves works of art – why has the aesthetic been so central to modern ideas of selfhood?
Taylor: You can see how there’s a very deep interweaving, coming from the Romantic period, of the ethic of authenticity on the one hand, and the elevation of the aesthetic on the other. So when people began to work out the ideal of authenticity at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century, there was also a corresponding emphasis on originality in art. This was new. If you go back far enough, when people made religious icons, they were craftsmen. They had no sense of their work being original or even that it would be good if it was original. Their products weren’t supposed to be original; they were supposed to be artefacts. And this has been totally overturned during the past two centuries. We now admire art, or music, or poetry not for its craftsmanship – the extent to which it realises a template – but for its originality. So you can see the interweaving of the aesthetic with the ethic of authenticity. The seeds were there from the very beginning.
So it’s possible, if you look at ethics in the broad sense of what the good life is about, then people can say that the good life is really about this superior self-expression, of being original, rather than about what you might call morality, which is doing the right thing by other people. Indeed, for someone like Nietzsche, morality, doing right by others, gets in the way of what he sees as the real substance of the good life, which is self-realisation, becoming an Übermensch and so on. I think you can see that that’s part of the whole turn in modern culture, which promotes the aesthetic to the highest possible position.
This speech, and its rousing acceptance by the audience, reveals the extent to which Christian conservatives are entirely creatures of liquid modernity, and the system of lies that they tell themselves they oppose. What connects the sybaritic billionaire and serial liar Donald J. Trump to the fire-breathing Alabama fundamentalist Roy Moore? It’s not principles, heaven knows; it’s “authenticity.” But authentically what? Themselves? But what does that mean? Christians are supposed to judge the authentic self by the standard of Christ-likeness. That’s not what’s happening here. “Authenticity,” in this context, seems to mean “hated by the people you hate.” It is entirely aesthetic, without ethical substance. So, the political good, in the eyes of these political Christians, is about solidifying a sense of identity, and using it for the sake of gaining political power.
How is this not nihilism?
Bannon and Gorka talked of the “war” they are waging on the GOP establishment. Reflecting on his and Bannon’s exile from the White House, Gorka said, with relish: “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens, as people unfettered by being part of the U.S. government.”
This is a gathering of Christians, mind you, and this is the kind of rhetoric they’re cheering. True, it’s a political event, so one shouldn’t expect it to have the politeness of a church meeting. But this is the vision that many politically active Christians on the Right have embraced, this wrathfulness. I’m not talking about Christians who reluctantly voted for Trump last fall as the lesser evil. I’m talking about Christians who gleefully embrace the man and what he stands for. The Evangelical Christian writer and literature professor Alan Jacobs said something important about this kind of thing in his interview with Emma Green:
Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?
Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.
I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.
So do I. Look, there’s a lot to be angry at, but this is a fatal trap. I lived through wrathfulness — righteous anger over the sex abuse crisis — destroying my Catholic faith, and very nearly destroying my faith in Jesus Christ, period. Wrathfulness can destroy a society. In Dante’s Purgatorio — the second book of the Divine Comedy — the pilgrim Dante encounters Marco the Lombard, a man who is having the tendency to wrathfulness purged from his soul. Dante comes from a world that has been torn apart from wrathfulness unleashed. City has turned on city, families have turned on families, the entire fabric of society in 14th century Tuscany has been shredded. The pilgrim Dante asks Marco for wisdom that he can take back to the world of the living to help them out of this particular dark wood.
As I once wrote about the meaning of this canto, Marco tells Dante that wrathfulness has blinded everyone to the truth. They came to believe that they had no control over their emotions, and gave their emotions liberty, as if it were fated. In fact, God gave us free will, and we not only have control over our emotions, but we also have responsibility for them. Says Marco:
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”
What Marco means is that if you want to understand why the world around you is so messed up, look into your own heart. It’s not because of outside forces beyond our control. It’s primarily because of moral choices we have made. If you want to repair the world, start by changing your own heart.
But it doesn’t stop there. From my post about this canto:
But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as baabies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.
The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.
Yesterday I blogged about this in a non-Dante post. I’m talking here about new research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team, in which they examine the collapse among US Catholic Millennials of a basic understanding of Roman Catholic teaching and institutional loyalty. Like their counterparts in other churches, these young people are Catholics in name only. You may blame them for their ignorance and unbelief, and you would be right. But that’s not the whole story. The failure of Catholic institutions — families, parishes, schools — played a big role:
The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.
Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.
It’s not only the churches, obviously. But if you ask me, there is no more important failure than in the churches and in families.
Dante seems to be telling us to discipline our own hearts and make them beacons of virtue, and many around us will find their way to the path of righteousness and concord. That’s an easy message for us Americans to grasp. What is much more difficult for us to grasp is Dante’s insistence that there is a public obligation to create a habitus, through secular and sacred institutions, in which people, especially the young, are educated toward virtue. This is a bedrock traditional conservative belief, but it goes against our disposition toward conceiving of public life in individualistic and libertarian ways. Thus the moral thinness in our public life, and, increasingly, a moral thinness in private life as well. We will get what we are — and the fault for that is not in our stars, but in our individual and collective selves.
Wrath blinds us to this. Anger is a dark cloud of unknowing, and what we who are lost in it do not know are ourselves.
Our true selves. Our authentic selves — which, as I’ve said, has a particular meaning for Christians. In their wrathfulness at the left, and their eagerness to take power to punish the left, these politically engaged Christians have bound themselves and their imaginations to a cause that makes a mockery of what they profess to believe.
Back in 2009, the late Michael Spencer prophesied what he called “the coming Evangelical collapse.” Among the reasons Evangelicalism was going to collapse, said Spencer:
1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.
The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap ofbelieving in a cause more than a faith.
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
To repeat Christian Smith’s warning: “We will get what we are.” A Christian Science Monitor story last week discussed the falling-away of younger Evangelicals from the faith, much of it driven by alienation from their churches’ political activism, and stance on LGBT issues. As readers know, I firmly embrace Christian orthodoxy on sexuality, and I do not believe churches can afford to compromise. More important, though, is the fact that conservative churches have by and large done a very poor job of teaching their young not only what the Bible expects of them on this front, but why it does. No wonder young Evangelicals (and Catholics) think Biblical orthodoxy looks “mean” and hard to reconcile with a loving god.
What’s happening to conservative Evangelicalism is a tragedy. These Values Voters summiteers really do seem to think they are going to vote in the Kingdom. They really do seem to believe that political warfare with the left is where the real battle is. Meanwhile, the inner strength and the public witness of the churches is falling apart. Those Christians that welcome this nationalistic, power-craving wrathfulness into their hearts — “Make Babylon Great Again” — have traded principle for “authenticity,” and thus have become not an answer to the crisis of our time, but a part of it. Tim Alberta, reporting on the conference for Politico:
[A]nyone expecting the evangelical right to shy away from Trump world’s hardball approach to politics hasn’t been paying attention the past 18 months. Many Christian voters embraced Trump not despite his provocative style but because of it, betting on a brash street brawler to win the culture battles they had been losing for generations. And their faith has been rewarded: From abortion policy to religious liberty to judicial appointments, Trump has delivered for social conservatives more than any other constituency, making them the unlikely cornerstone of his coalition.
With political victory, however, has come the loss of moral high ground for a faithful whose church-averse champion personifies much of what their scripture condemns. It’s a trade-off plenty of conservative Christians, reeling from eight years in which they felt ostracized and demeaned by Obama, the media and popular culture, have proven eager to accept.
Bannon and Gorka are now throwing the full weight of their populist movement behind Moore in Alabama—a candidate who connects viscerally with faith voters on the basis of his objection to the physical removal of God’s presence from American life. If he wins the Senate seat, a spiritual renaissance in America is unlikely to result. But something else will: a deepening alliance between economic nationalists and social conservatives, two distinct tribes that are growing codependent in the era of Trump. As Perkins now sees it, Republicans will win elections only by merging these factions—hence his inviting Bannon and Gorka to speak.
The president is right when he says, in the context of culture wars, that the times are changing. But it’s not just about Christians pursuing the return of a bygone, pious America. It’s about what they are willing to sacrifice to get there.
We will get what we are. For Christians today, this message is the “mene, mene, tekel upharsin” — the “writing of the wall” at Belshazzar’s feast.
UPDATE: From Jane Mayer’s profile of Mike Pence in the New Yorker:
“Trump thinks Pence is great,” Bannon told me. But, according to a longtime associate, Trump also likes to “let Pence know who’s boss.” A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”
First, the comment by the Catholic:
As a young Catholic priest of an archdiocese of a major city in the United States, what strikes me is not only how unaware most Catholics in the pews are of the decomposition of traditional Christian culture (or how long ago that decomposition began in earnest), but how even many — perhaps most? — members of the clergy are unaware.
Whether more traditional or more progressive, many seem to believe that if we adjust the dials a bit, we can turn things back to the 1950s (the former long for its institutional strength and cohesion, the latter pine for its influence in culture). Few recognize that in the 1950s we were witnessing the last gasps of a kind of cultural Christianity that had sold its inheritance for a mess of pottage — and in fact, American Catholics were not much different from their Protestant peers (see Will Herberg’s classic, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”), and took most of their bearings from the liberal tradition of modernity, rather than traditional Catholicism.
Even within the episcopacy today, many still have not grasped the nature of this cultural shift. Just as many seem quite Cartesian in their understanding of how the Faith is appropriated — just preach the right ideas, and people will change. They fail to recognize how the Faith is transmitted culturally — how the reception of practices and symbols and relationships in an embodied integral context are often more important than clear and distinct verbal communication of ideas.
Case in point, notice how few bishops seem interested in the Liturgy as a force for cultural change. In my own archdiocese, there is almost no central coordination or even concern on that point — far more effort is spent on clarifying ideas by publishing documents that no one reads, as well as furtively remonstrating in social media, posting videos with views in the mere hundreds. Meanwhile, as the numbers of Catholics in the pews declines at 3% every year, the few left take their cues from mainstream culture, and their experience of Sunday Mass remains a minimalistic affair of compromise, with little beauty or ritual: a mostly spoken denuded 60 minute sleepwalk, with hymns from the 1970s (still!), inside churches built or renovated in the 1960s. The exceptions only prove the rule.
I have found that much of this is a generational difference: most parishioners are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They’re are quite attached to this denuded version of Catholicism, moralistic and therapeutic in its preaching, cold and empty in its mystagogy. It’s a bell curve as you look for younger parishioners, but the younger they are, the more they explicitly crave substance in doctrine and mysticism in ritual. But even they often do not realize just how diseased the culture outside is, or how deep its reach is into their lives, or how radical the cultural changes must be for them to live Christian life in its integrity, or how difficult this will prove.
Despite their craving for doctrine and mysticism, many young Catholics still think that orthodoxy and orthopraxy lie in an interior commitment of the will, having a personal relationship with God, understanding and believing the truths of the Faith, trying to live the Faith in one’s life. They fail to see that Catholicism must always be a cultural experience and commitment: that one needs the support and formation and achievements of a culture, that the human person will always be a cultural animal, and that if one is not being shaped and formed by an integral and comprehensive Christian cultural experience (however big or small, in the case of a Benedict option), one is being subliminally shaped and formed by a very different culture. Most Catholics, both lay and clergy, assume that most of the culture and their participation in it is indifferent to their practice of the faith. That is what a Cartesian and voluntaristic account of the Faith looks like in practice.
As for the clergy, I find that even the orthodox priests who were formed during the JPII pontificate remain curiously unconcerned and aware of the importance of culture – for them, it’s often about orthodoxy – as in preaching the truth – and less about an experience of beauty and mysticism. The attitudes of priests formed during the JPII years versus the BXVI priests with respect to liturgy best illustrates this point. The former are content having removed the crazy abuses, and are convinced that clear and distinct preaching of the truth will cure the culture (notice their passion for didacticism). The latter are much more concerned about the liturgy as a force for cultural change and the primary way that the Faith is experienced and appropriated, particularly insofar as it is celebrated beautifully and mystically.
(I should add, I am not talking about the Extraordinary Form, and have no special preference for it. I’m talking about celebrating the Novus Ordo as beautifully as possible, about helping people actively pray it, and forming their lives around the Lord’s Day and the Liturgical Year. In short, putting James K.A. Smith’s thesis about liturgical cultural formation in practice, in a Catholic mode.)
I know these comments are more general, rather than answering some of the questions in this post in detail. But all that is to say, yes, most of us are still shoring up the imperium. There is little awareness or concern for a Benedict Option in most Catholic circles – precisely because, the circles are mostly limited to a rote practice of the Faith for one hour a week, or a dutiful maintenance of the institutional structures as they are (as they fade). There remain small numbers of Catholics who do get it, but their presence is indeed small, and they share little with most of the people who are filling the pews or running the store. I often feel that working for the Church today is like working for Blockbuster Video about ten years ago. We’re arguing about how we should display DVDs on the racks in the stores, when our very model of business is becoming suddenly obsolete.
(I hope my tone does not seem pessimistic. I am quite hopeful, and agree with what Pope Benedict has said about this change in the Church. Moreover, I think an institutionally humbled Church will be more saintly and pastorally effective, once we give up trying to adjust the dials in order to get back to the 1950s. Even now, if one has the eyes to see, there are great things happening in the Church, signs of promise and encouragement. It’s only when one is set on shoring up or recovering the 1950s imperium, that one feels so discouraged, and probably fails to notice all the signs of hope.)
Here’s the comment by the Protestant:
I serve a relatively conservative congregation in historic relation to a mainline Protestant tradition, and I’m our area’s designated “historian” on matters of polity & ecclesiology.
So while I take Rod’s point, as I look both back as well as across our congregation, what I struggle with is that it’s very hard for me to say we’ve lost theological formation (or catechesis as some put it, which no one in our tradition would spell or say) when there’s no evidence we have had it. This is a new realization for both ordained clergy and lay leaders in our very laity-centered congregation and region.
What our community (local church, state, wider tradition) has in common with much of the mainline Protestant family is less the apostasy that I know folks here like to point to, than the fact that for many of our congregations, Christianity and membership in a local church was a form of social aspiration. Trying to move up from poverty and rural isolation and little or no property to owning land, a house, and a salaried job — these were the underpinnings of what it meant to be “part of the church” a century and change ago. Cleanliness being next to godliness, and a steady income with some savings tucked away a sign of divine favor, was all part of a cultural Calvinism that included dressing nicely for going to baseball games in the 30s and flying in the 60s. It was a middle-brow appreciation for “The Lost Chord” and “The Holy City” in music and popular prints in our homes and Sunday school classrooms, Warner Sallman prints in our Bibles and a “Head of Christ” in the auditorium, “Great Books” on the shelves and newspapers piling up next to Dad’s chair, under the table with his pipe.
Congregations in the Midwest like the one I serve have a very general knowledge of the Bible, and that’s from those who come from the era where supposedly this was all being done “right,” and a dim sense of right order in worship having something to do with older traditions whose source is as mysterious as the IHS on the front of some of the altar cloths. Younger members, by which I mean anyone under 65, have trouble finding anything that’s not Genesis or the Gospels, and I’m talking about the lifers, not the newer members.
They are all confused as the dickens over contemporary music and the “outline” of songs, a long prayer, a longer sermon, and one more song; by dressing down which they’re gamely trying to live up . . . down to; by tattoos on ministerial candidates and city council members; by the fact that none of their adult children and adult grandchildren are getting married, at least not until they’ve lived together a few years, or after the second kid is born.
The social aspiration that was part of the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship and mission dinners and community outreach was not judgmental, it was meant to be inclusive in the sense of “come change your life like we have, put on a tie, quit drinking, marry your girlfriend, and come regularly to sit in worship with us.” The fact that churches which are growing in our area are led by shaven-headed, tattooed worship pastors where there’s little singing, little social interaction in terms of visiting each others’ homes, and where the language of sexual morality is used more stringently in preaching, but the lives of those attending are still pretty much as they were on entry — they’re baffled. Since I came here five years ago, they keep asking me anxiously “do we need to get a drummer?” and talk about the different concerts and Christian festivals some of their grandkids go to. We have been building Biblical literacy and a sense of where our beliefs and practices come from in Scripture & Tradition, but some of the sharper ones (in my opinion) buttonhole me to say “does anyone else out there want this? what do we do about the fact that an orderly life seems to have little appeal for younger people?”
Obviously, the goal here for me, our congregation, for Christians, needs to be truth. If what we say and share and celebrate is true, then we should hold fast to it. I don’t think the earlier generations of our movement meant to abandon truth, they were in a mid-nineteenth sort of American way trying to pare down, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, to simplify an overly complex Christendom, and I honor their intent.
But my reading of the last century in congregational and judicatory life is that our moral uplift and common community effort and our Christian-ish preaching was aimed more at the driving force of aspiration, the desire to move up from a grim and grimy life close to the land or assembly line, to something better, and Temperance and Continence were clearly means to that end, so they got intertwined. Even now, I read those accounts of the 1880s through the 1920s and my sympathies are with them.
What they forgot to do was anchor those social impulses to a more enduring faith and an everlasting truth, other than as a religious frosting added at the end of making the cake. And social advancement became our entire program, which looked not too terribly un-Christian until, in the 1960’s, it suddenly did. We thought we were stepping back into the “side” that defended Christian values, but we were actually doubling-down on a cultural “gospel” of middle class conservatism, and striding away from Christ and the Gospel.
Which, in my opinion, is how we — and not a few in my church — ended up hanging off of Trump’s coattails. Those folks are starting to have private conversations with me, after a rugged stretch where the “right thinking folk” were startled to hear their preacher say, not from the pulpit but personally, “I can’t and won’t support Trump.” The vacuity of cultural conservatism as its own thing in and of itself is getting ever more obvious.
Meanwhile, the union Democrats and socially more progressive folks in our congregation are starting to ask, about marriage and family and children and where these institutions fit into our self-understanding as Christians, “how did we get here? Is it too late to turn back?” And the social conservatives are still sure of the recipe, but not confident of the means.
In my denomination, I feel almost alone in saying, again and again, “the answer is to be found in congregations.” That’s the part of Rod’s book that I find the most resonance with. Not a wider movement or mailing list, not even a church organization of any sort, but a local congregation that has a healthy regard for the fact that there are reasons why we do things (baptism, church calendar, communion, membership, leadership roles), and that our life together face-to-face is going to be crucial as to whether or not we have anything to pass along to our great-grandchildren.
I’ve not written anything this long here before, and don’t know that I’ve even said the half of what I’m thinking, but thank you for listening. I don’t believe, based on what I hear older people say and what I read in old newsletters and minutes and letters, that we really had terribly well-formed Christian adults steering the ship a hundred or fifty-some years ago. We just got too wound up into American middle-class culture, to the point where we’re still stunned by where that culture has suddenly shifted to, and lack the tools to discern where our cultural trends end and the solid rock of Christian tradition begins. It calls for a geologist’s hammer and some judicious tapping, with the occasional sledgehammer. I think we’ll get there, but it’s not easy, and won’t get easier. And I used to blame the Boomers, but I think I’ve gotten wiser, and realized the rot or confusion or whathaveyou goes back much, much farther than that. It was just that the cracks started showing when the Boomers were in charge, and as is so often the case, they panicked and threw up their hands. But they didn’t set the course or steer the ship most of the way to where we’re now stranded.
What these two comments have in common — or at least what stands out starkest to me — is the shared sense that the church in this country doesn’t even understand what has happened and is happening to it, much less how to change course.
My priest preached a very good sermon today. In it, he told us that Orthodox Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, or what we do on Sunday. It is a way of life. These days, Christianity of all kinds must be that … or it won’t be anything tomorrow.
One of my Italian readers sends me a short piece from the daily Corriere della Sera, in which the interviewer interrogates Father Julian Carron, the head of the international Catholic movement Communion & Liberation. This week, Father Carron will publish a book-length series of interviews with Andrea Tornielli, a journalist close to Pope Francis. Excerpts, courtesy of Google Translate:
Hence profound consequences for the ongoing debate in the Christian world. In the United States, for example, he discusses Rod Dreher’s book, the author of The Benedict Option comparing liquid modernity with the Universal Flood of the Bible, and invites Christians to do as the Saint of Norcia in the 6th century , to retreat to new convents: “Build us the arches with which to survive, and with the help of God to float until we see the mainland again, and we will begin to rebuild, replicate and renew the world.”
>Carrón points to the opposite, what he calls the “Francis Care”, the therapy of Pope Bergoglio: instead of retreat, rather throwing oneself into the world. However, knowing that the only way to do this is to return to the origins of the Christian message: not to present it as a doctrine, as a set of rules and formulas, or a morality, a civil religion, a private devotion. But rather as a historical event, an event, meeting with Christ; which is communicated not for proselytizing, but “by attraction,” writes Francis in Evangelii gaudium. Just as at the dawn of Christianity, when people looked at those crazy people who believed in the equality of men who cured sick people during epidemics, who respected women and did not force them to abort or kill newborns, and began imitating them . “Christianity,” says Carrón, “ultimately communicates with envy: seeing that Christian life is fuller, more intense, more capable of embracing the other, loving the other, the desire to live so is turned on.”
The Francis Option, which the CL leader constantly points out is consistent with the founder’s magisterium, Fr Giussani, and the continuity with the papacy of Benedict XVI, is truly a firm stand for a movement that has long been told as a bastion of conservatism, militant on the front of “non negotiable values”, a piece of the Christian right, which does not coincide with some of the sharpest critics of this papacy. “I must confess that I miss the reasons for such positions,” Carrón says. “Pope Francis represents a grace for the Church in today’s world. Those who do not believe that Francis is the cure do not understand what the illness is. “
Here we go again. I feel that I have to answer this, because Father Carron is a really big deal in the Catholic Church, and I don’t want to let his claims go unaddressed.
It is perfectly clear to anyone who reads my book that I do not advocate simply running away from the world. I advocate an inward turn towards deepening contemplation, strengthening Christian practices, and thickening community, so that when we go out into the world, we will do so as authentic Christians. The Benedict Option is about recovering discipleship, and doing so with the understanding that the world, especially in the West, is going through epochal changes. If we continue to live the way we have been doing as Christians, we will continue to be assimilated, and ultimately cease to be Christian. It is happening right now, and has been happening. The statistics don’t lie.
I agree with Francis that we in the church have to bear witness to the world. What I don’t see in him is a clear sense of what distinct things Christians must bring to that encounter.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview earlier this year that Father Carron did with Crux. It gets to the heart of what I’m saying:
Of course, what worries some people is that when Jesus met Zacchaeus, the point was to get him to change his heart. Today, some worry that the pope, along with some priests and bishops, are engaging in ‘encounter’ without the same expectation of conversion from the errors they’re committing.
Conversion doesn’t depend on the act, it depends on us. When we go to meet a thief, we bring ourselves to that encounter. Jesus had no problem going to the house of Zacchaeus, without explaining all his theology or moral rules. He went because the truth was incarnate in his person. The problem is, what people are meeting when they meet us? If what they meet in you is simply a manual of things to do, they already know that and they’re still not able to do it. But if they find themselves in front of a person who offers love, they’ll start wanting to follow that person and be like them, which is what happened to Jesus.
I suspect many would grant that we can’t start with the rules, but what worries people is whether we’re ever going to get to them at all.
If a person falls in love, at a certain point that happens naturally. When you get married and are really in love, it’s just natural to want to clean the house, to put together a nice lunch, and so on. The problem now is that people aren’t meeting someone for whom it seems to make sense to invest themselves like that. An ethical code isn’t that kind of encounter.
To get concrete, lots of people inspired by Pope Francis today say the Church needs to accompany the LGBT community, for instance, or divorced and civilly remarried believers, and we do it regularly. But what critics would say is, doesn’t that have to involve at some point telling them that their behavior has to change?
I’ll respond with an example. Too often, we think the choices come down to either saying nothing or being ambiguous. I knew a group of couples, families, that involves about 18 to 20 families, and no one is married, all for different reasons, sometimes with understandable reasons. Some of our families involved in Communion and Liberation spent time with them, without saying anything about their ‘irregular’ situation. Over time, they all got married! They found themselves in front of people who were living family life in a way that just couldn’t leave them indifferent. In the end, they all got married not because someone explained the rules or Christian doctrine on marriage, but because they didn’t want to lose what they saw alive in these other families.
In Christianity, the truth has been made flesh. You only understand the full dimensions of this truth made flesh by meeting and watching a witness. The whole Christmas liturgy is about the fullness of God becoming visible. If it hadn’t become visible, we would never have understood it … that’s the great challenge.
It’s useless to ask others if they’re everything they’re supposed to be. The real question is, are we convincing witnesses to the faith? Do we still believe in the disarmed beauty of the faith? A person who’s in love will know what to do, and you fall in love through meeting someone. That’s what made the experience of Jesus a ‘Copernican revolution’ for humanity.
I agree with this, for the most part. That’s why I say in my book and in the speeches I give that the best argument for the faith today is not the arguments we make — the world cannot hear those — but the lives Christians live and the things Christians create. (This is not my idea; it comes from Pope Benedict XVI.)
The problem is that in today’s world, far too many churches and Christian individuals have lost the knowledge of what it means to be a Christian. This is why sociologist Christian Smith’s findings that the overwhelming number of US Christians believe in a pseudo-Christianity he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is so important — and so catastrophic to the present and future of the faith. Christianity is not whatever people who call themselves Christians happen to believe. That is MTD. That is emotivism. You cannot authentically disciple people who believe there is no truth beyond themselves to which they should conform. What many, many Catholics and other Christians think of the faith has been conditioned by liquid modernity: it is always changing to fit the felt needs of the time.
By ‘moralistic’ I mean oriented toward being good and nice, in ways that assert certain moral claims (for example, ‘You should never have sex with someone you don’t really care about.’) in fairly arbitrary ways without their being integrated into any larger, coherent moral tradition.
By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness, good feeling, personal comfortability, and emotional wellbeing—in contrast to, say, a focus on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others.
Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except (as qualified by the ‘therapeutic’) if one has a problem one needs God to solve, one can call on God to fix it and make one feel better. In MTD, in other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.
CS: Right. Teenagers aren’t universally inarticulate. In areas where the adult world has made a point to get their attention and educate them, where the young people can see that something really matters, like not diving drunk or getting pregnant, teenagers can be quite articulate.
But it hit us like a ton of bricks that most religious teenagers aren’t being well educated in the faith or given much practice in articulating their beliefs and why and how they matter. For more than a few teenagers, in fact, it seems like ours was the first time any adult ever asked them what they believed. Some of them said exactly that.
TJ: If you’re right about this—and I suspect that you are—it would seem that Christian parenting and Christian youth ministry have largely failed to inculcate or implant a distinctly Christian identity in our 13- to 17 year olds. Would you agree?
CS: Yes. In very many cases it seems that is so. Many parents come from a generation that has bent over backwards not to ‘shove anything down anyone’s throat.’ Consequently, their kids aren’t getting much direct theological substance to embrace, revise, or reject. If so, that’s a real disservice to kids.
My sense is that most youth ministers are knocking themselves out to do their best. Many also tell me they’re under pressure from all sides to entertain their teenagers, which isn’t a great context for sustained, solid teaching in faith. But for whatever reasons, the bottom line is that the majority of teenagers, including many evangelicals, turn out to be pretty clueless and inarticulate about their own faith perspectives.
TJ: You surmise that this ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ isn’t unique to young people, but that they’re actually just reflecting the less-than-passionate faith of their parents. Many youth workers will agree with you on this; yet you caution church youth workers not to see parents as their adversaries. Why?
CS: One of the most powerful realizations I took from our research is how formative parents are in their teenagers’ lives. They often don’t realize it, but parents are the most significant influences on their teenage children’s faith lives. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that normally the most important pastor a young person is going to have is his or her father and mother—for better or worse (often the latter).
If this were the case, youth ministers would be much more effective working with parents rather than against them. I realize not all parents want to work with the youth minister. I’ve picked up among youth ministers from many faith traditions a distinct sense of tremendous frustration with the parents of their teenagers—and I can understand why—but in the long run, an adversarial relationship with teenagers’ parents is counterproductive. It seems to me that the more youth ministry can work with parents and be set in a larger context of family and church ministry, the more effective it will be.
That was Smith (who is a Roman Catholic convert) talking about the spirituality of the coming generation of Christians in general. On the specific situation with Catholic youth, Smith calls it “grim.”
The indisputable fact is that the Catholic Church in this country — both the institution and the parents within it — has done a terrible job in passing on the faith to their children. Look at this report, based on Christian Smith’s book Young Catholic America. Excerpt:
Since [the 1960s], Catholics’ religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don’t need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it’s OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.
And they are leaving the church in huge numbers. This is a crisis, and all the happy-clappy in the world will not address it effectively. This may not be clear to Father Carron. I count a few CL members as friends, and I have found that CL members are well formed in their faith. But that’s not most people in the Church.
My question is: where are all these Catholic Christians who are going to engage the world and spark transformative encounters with non-believers going to come from? Pope Francis’s ideas would make sense if the Church, and Catholic families, were already doing a good job of forming faithful Catholic disciples. You cannot have the “Francis Option” without meaningful formation and spiritually disciplined practices in daily life. The pope often leaves the impression that this is unimportant, that this is something that only Pharisaical Catholics care about. But without real formation, the Francis Option is nothing but emotivism.
My sense is that the so-called “Francis Option” is a gateway to MTD, because it downplays the importance of intellectual and spiritual formation. So I will repeat: Yes, lay Christians must go into the world to serve and to evangelize. They are not called to the cloister. But they cannot do that effectively if they don’t have far better formation, first of all in their families, but also in the community of the church. Without that, Pope Francis is sending medics to the field hospitals with no medical training. They are as likely to put Nutella on wounds as they are real medicine.
Hollywood’s de facto governing body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to “immediately expel” Harvey Weinstein, breaking with 90 years of precedent and turning one of the biggest Oscar players in history into a hall-of-fame pariah.
The academy’s 54-member board of governors made the decision at an emergency session after investigations by The New York Times and The New Yorker that revealed sexual harassment and rape allegations against him going back decades.
In a statement, the academy said the vote was “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority.”
It added, “We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society.”
Well, we shall see if that era really is over in Hollywood. I can’t watch this annihilation of Harvey Weinstein without thinking of René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat mechanism:
Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence. When mimetic rivalries accumulate, tensions grow ever greater. But, that tension eventually reaches a paroxysm. When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’, an allusion to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.
However, Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.
The thing is, Harvey Weinstein really is guilty of monstrous transgressions. But in Girardian terms, the point is that everyone believes that he is. More:
According to Girard, the scapegoat mechanism brings about unexpected peace. But, this moment is so marvelous, that it soon acquires a religious overtone. Thus, the victim is immediately consecrated. Girard is in the French sociological tradition of Durkheim, who considered that religion essentially accomplishes the function of social integration. In Girard’s view, inasmuch as the deceased victim brings forth communal peace and restores social order and integration, she becomes sacred.
At first, while living, victims are considered to be monstrous transgressors that deserve to be punished. But, once they die, they bring peace to the community. Then, they are not monsters any longer, but rather gods. Girard highlights that, in most primitive societies, there is a deep ambivalence towards deities: they hold high virtues, but they are also capable of performing some very monstrous deeds. That is how, according to Girard, primitive gods are sanctified victims.
I don’t know how this Girardian process might work out in Weinstein’s case. I mean, I don’t know what it would look like if it worked according to Girard’s script.
What concerns me is that the Hollywood community will allow itself to believe that having “executed” Harvey Weinstein, metaphorically, it will have purged itself of its own sins of sexual exploitation and brutality. It is a deeply human instinct to believe that a sacrificial victim bears the sins of the collective. What is happening to Harvey Weinstein is just, no question, but it will be deeply unjust if Hollywood’s moral reckoning ends with Harvey Weinstein.
The next few weeks will tell us whether or not Harvey Weinstein will have been a Girardian scapegoat, or something else. I’m betting that the people of the Dream Factory, so talented at creating illusions, will work hard to find a way to make this thing end with Harvey, to isolate the infection to him. I hope I’m wrong.
Alan Jacobs quotes a C.S. Lewis piece from 1946, in which Lewis said that the visible de-Christianization of Britain was only an outward sign of something that had happened long before. Lewis wrote:
One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.
To this, Jacobs adds:
That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.
This put me in mind of the conversations I’ve had with more than a few pastors in my travels talking about The Benedict Option. They tell me, in one way or another, what you say is true but my congregation is blind to what’s happening all around us, and I cannot get them to see it.
A friend writes this evening (slightly edited for privacy):
You were in NYC when the Twin Towers came down, of course, but I was halfway across the country, in my office, and everyone was buzzing around and I was saying “Oh come on, it can’t be that big a deal, I’m sure the reports are hysterical” … looking back, I can see how desperately I was denying reality. Same with the people who think that the place of Christianity in the West is just fine.
At my church, the people are orthodox, evangelical in orientation, but if you told them that they needed to do anything significantly different than what they’re doing I’m sure that they’d get out. So pastors just try to keep people around, try to keep them in hearing distance of the Gospel. Every orthodox Protestant pastor I know thinks that way: How can I keep people from bailing out altogether?
I expect that this view is not limited to orthodox Protestant pastors. But I don’t know that. I want to invite the comments of all Christian pastors — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — who, whether or not they align themselves with the Benedict Option, nevertheless share my view that the situation with Christianity in the West is much more dire than most Christians believe. Do you tell your congregation the truth? If not, why not? Are you afraid people will bail out? How do you balance concern for the nominal with the needs for discipleship of those who are committed? Are you confident that you are providing the people in your congregation with the tools they will need to remain faithful in the years to come? Why or why not?
Where do you think your congregation will be in 20 years? How about the American church? What, aside from a miracle, might turn things around?
I only want to hear from those in ordained ministry. Don’t feel obliged to use your real name, of course, but unless there’s a good reason not to, please indicate the church or denomination in which you serve. Do you perceive a sense of crisis among the clergy in your denomination, or is the atmosphere one of complacency?
Open thread. Again, readers, please give the floor to priests and pastors — and, for that matter, for rabbis and imams who might be reading, and who have something to say from their own congregational experience. I am unlikely to post comments from the laity, because I want to amplify the voices of those in ministry.
UPDATE: A couple more questions, suggested by the comments received already: If you think that your church is serious, demanding, orthodox, etc., what does that consist in? What marks your church as different and better?
And, please readers: I am posting some comments from non-pastors, but I wish you wouldn’t submit them. I want to hear from those who are in the trenches as priests, pastors, and religious leaders.
Today I received the following e-mail from an American Catholic reader who happened to be in Paris last week, and came to one of the panel discussions about the Benedict Option. I publish it with his permission, with only a slight edit for the sake of privacy:
It was great to meet you last week after the round table at St. Ferdinand des Ternes. I put together some further thoughts the next morning, but I had your email incorrect. After another week’s reflections, I’ve altered my impressions a bit.
Sitting in the audience at St. Ferd, I was surprised by the nonchalance among your French co-panelists. Some of this came across as head-in-sand optimism; some undoubtedly stems from the deep-seated opposition the French have to any theme with an American origin. No matter the subject of your book, there was likely to be some response along the lines of, “of course in America they have such concerns, but here we have the historical perspective to know that this is not really a problem.”
At the same time, I suspect you are right that the thoughtful French have an unspoken fear of what’s coming for faithful Christians in the West. I lived in France during the Columbine shootings and had to do a lot of explaining of the Second Amendment and American culture. I’ve never forgotten a sincere French woman of a certain age who confided that she was as interested as she was in American culture because “what happens in the U.S. comes here.” That fear is no doubt in the hearts of thoughtful French Catholics.
I’d also be interested to know why–aside from the above-described attitude– the [Orthodox] hieromonk Siniakov scoffed at the West’s loss of biblical sexuality. I get the argument that Christians have always been misfits, so we shouldn’t mourn our loss of influence or numbers. But as I mentioned, coming-to-Christ stories like that of Laurent Landete [a co-panelist who is head of the Emmanuel Community, an international fraternity of charismatic Catholics] are going to be much more rare if society and the state become openly hostile to people of faith. And that hostility is linked inextricably to biblical sexuality.
The panelists minimized concern over “listings”–parish enrollments–noting that Christ did not send us out to make enrollments of all nations. True enough. But numbers are important. Seventeen years ago, [living in another region of France], I recall encountering a vibrant minority of orthodox Catholics like the ones you describe meeting last week. But they were such a small minority as barely to be able to fill the first few pews of our parish church. Nothing appears to have improved, numbers-wise, since 2000 even if the faith of those who do remain is just as strong. When my little family of four worshiped at St. Etienne du Mont last Sunday, we comprised one sixth of the congregants in that historic church. With “listings” like that, how much longer will l’Etat be willing to prop up l’Eglise, and what effect will the eventual loss of the formal institutions of the French Church have on the faithful who remain?
Those questions ought to make your co-panelists run around like their hair is on fire, but they don’t. This is perhaps in part because the questions are being raised by an American, but something else must be at play.
At any rate, the panel gave me loads to think about. And in all fairness to Laurent Landete, I took away a great deal from his descriptions of how to evangelize. There are lessons there for my suburban Catholic school, including how best to attract new families, and how hard (or not) to try. I’m grateful to all of you on-stage for sharing your perspectives.
Are you a reader who was at any of the Paris events? I would love to know your take on them — good, bad, or otherwise.
According to Catholic belief, today is the 100th anniversary of the final apparition of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, a Portuguese village. The Washington Post recalls what happened that day. First, the events leading up to the day:
The children were tending a flock of sheep outside the tiny village of Fatima, Portugal, when they first saw the angel. He was transparent, they said, and shining like a crystal.
Lucia Abobora, 9, and her cousins, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, 6 and 7, were stunned.
“He said, “Do not be afraid. I am the angel of peace. Pray with me,’” Abobora — later renamed Lucia de Jesus de dos Santos — recounted in her memoir, “Fatima in Lucia’s Own Words,” published in 1976.
During the rest of 1916, as World War I raged in Europe, the angel showed himself two more times to the children. But they told no one what they’d seen.
In the spring of 1917, something more extraordinary began unfolding — visions that would put three children on the path to sainthood and transform Fatima from an ordinary village to the site of a Catholic shrine venerated and visited by millions.
The Virgin Mary appeared to the children on May 13, 1917 as “a lady dressed in white, shining brighter than the sun, giving out rays of clear and intense light,” dos Santos wrote. She promised to come to the children on the 13th of each month.
The Virgin is said to have appeared each subsequent month on May 13, and spoke to the children. More:
On Sept. 13, 30,000 people were present when dos Santos said the Virgin Mary told her, “In October I will perform a miracle so that all may believe.”
On that day, Oct. 13, 1917, the crowd of believers had swelled to 70,000.
About 2 p.m., some began to see what later became known in the Catholic Church as “the Miracle of the Sun.” The rains that had plagued the day ceased, and the sun emerged from behind clouds to spin and tremble for 10 minutes.
“Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws — the sun ‘danced’ according to the typical expression of the people,” reported O Seculo, a Lisbon newspaper.
The strange phenomena included odd colors.
“Looking at the sun, I noticed that everything was becoming darkened. I looked first at the nearest objects and then extended my glance further afield as far as the horizon. I saw everything had assumed an amethyst color. Objects around me, the sky and the atmosphere, were of the same color. Everything both near and far had changed, taking on the color of old yellow damask,” said José Maria de Almeida Garrett, a science professor from Coimbra, Portugal, who was at the scene.
Onlookers from as far as 25 miles away noted the strange phenomena in the sky.
The apparitions of the Virgin — which, note well, were one of a very small number in history that have been officially approved by the Catholic Church as valid — contained apocalyptic messages. Here was one of them:
You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the Consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.
This is considered to be a prophecy a) of the end of World War I, b) the outbreak of World War II; the sign in the night sky was this one, as reported by The New York Times in 1938:
London, January 25th, 1938. The Aurora Borealis rarely seen in Southern or Western Europe spread fear in parts of Portugal and lower Austria tonight while thousands of Britons were brought running into the streets in wonderment. The ruddy glow led many to think half the city was ablaze. The Windsor Fire Department was called out thinking that Windsor Castle was afire. The lights were clearly seen in Italy, Spain, and even Gibraltar. The glow bathing snow-clad mountain tops in Austria and Switzerland was a beautiful sight but firemen turned out to chase non-existent fires. Portuguese villagers rushed in fright from their homes fearing the end of the world.”
The consecration of Russia did not take place until 1984, when Pope John Paul II did it; Sister Lucia, the last surviving Fatima visionary, confirmed that the Virgin’s request had finally been fulfilled. Less than a year later, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR. Four years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The film above, Faces Among Icons, dedicates itself to examining the rebirth of Christianity in Russia. This isn’t big news for us Orthodox Christians in the US, but very many Americans don’t know what’s happening there. What I find most remarkable about this short film (30 minutes) is that it begins with the Roman Catholic Church’s chief representative in Russia saying that Our Lady of Fatima did not say that Russia would be converted to Catholicism; she said that Russia would be converted. What we are seeing today is the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy.
I believe in the Fatima apparitions, by the way. I’ve written before about how as a Catholic, I invited the Virgin’s intercession, as Our Lady of Fatima, for the sake of my desire to get married, if that was God’s will. A year and a half later, on October 13, 1996, I met the woman who was to become my wife. Without realizing what we were doing, we booked a church in New Orleans to get married in; it was Our Lady of the Rosary parish. We discovered later that on October 13, 1917, Mary said to the shepherd children, “I am Our Lady of the Rosary.” We were given a trip to Portugal as our honeymoon gift by Protestant friends of my wife’s family, people who had no idea about Fatima (as I had not told my then-Protestant fiancée about it).
We made a pilgrimage to Fatima as part of our honeymoon to thank the Theotokos for her intercession.
Eleven years ago, on this date, our daughter Nora was born. I told Julie that baby girl was going to come on the Fatima anniversary — and indeed she did. Her middle name is Lucia, after Sister Lucia. She was baptized Orthodox, the only one in our family to be done so. I see no contradiction, only fulfillment.
Please watch this extraordinary — and extraordinarily hopeful — documentary. It was made by my friend Robert Duncan, a Rome-based Catholic filmmaker.
Here, from New Oxford Review, is an excellent, rich interview with the Polish philosopher and statesman Ryszard Legutko. I could quote lots of it here, but I want to focus on these two passages, because it brought to mind something I encountered again and again in Paris recently:
NOR:For Catholics in the West, totalitarian temptations in free societies have particularly alarming manifestations and consequences. You write, however, that “it is the people themselves who have eventually come to accept, often on a pre-intellectual level, that eliminating the institutions incompatible with liberal-democratic principles constitutes a wise and necessary step.” How is this danger different from the communist regime under which you lived? And is there an internal danger to the Catholic Church from those people, including Catholics, who view the Church as an institution incompatible with liberal-democratic principles?
Legutko: The Catholic Church, at least in my country, despite occasional accommodating gestures toward the communist regime, usually of a tactical nature, believed itself to be and was perceived by the communists as being an alien body that was structurally and philosophically in opposition to communism. There were, of course, some individual priests who either became informers or were duped by communist ideology and claimed that Christianity and communism were allies. This thinking, by the way, was quite widespread among the leftist intelligentsia in non-communist Europe. Most of the great Protestant and Catholic theologians of the 20th century were, at certain moments in their lives, close to this belief, including Karl Barth, Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and many others. The Catholic Church, however, remained largely distant from and, for a long time, hostile to communism.
At a certain moment, the official attitude of the Church softened and became less outspoken. This is not to say that the Church wanted to sanctify communism. Far from it. John Paul II’s role in abolishing communism was paramount. What the Church did, however, was to try to make itself more in tune with the modern times, and being more in tune meant accepting some aspects of Marxist and related left-wing ideologies that, incidentally, had been teaching for many years that everything must join the current of history, or perish.
This conflict between progressives who want the Church to keep pace with the march of time (whatever this might mean) and conservatives who opt for continuity with or preservation of the unchangeable core of the doctrine has been going on for a long time. The progressives have usually been victorious because a lot of people believe that, whether we want it or not, we have to adapt ourselves to the modern world, and this directive applies to every person and every institution, including the Church. The opposite directive — that the modern world should adapt itself to what we think is right — has less support today, and it’s easy to see why.
Since the modern world means, for many people, liberal democracy, and since liberal democracy is deemed to be the supreme political arrangement (as communism and socialism were thought to be several decades ago), it is natural that those people want the Church to adapt itself to democratic and liberal standards and practices. Despite obvious differences between communism and liberal democracy, both pose a mortal danger to the Church. In the case of liberal democracy, the risk is even greater. It implies not only that the Church should kowtow to earthly power, but that earthly power is the teacher and the Church a learner. This presupposes an even greater concession than that which the Church previously made toward Marxism. Then it was said that socialism and Christianity may converge or may have a common objective or are somehow similar in their moral message. Today, the towering position of liberal democracy makes a lot of people — including quite a number of Catholics — accept a view that the Church should subordinate itself.
NOR: You argue that “Christianity is the last great force that offers a viable alternative to the tediousness of liberal-democratic anthropology.” Can you elaborate?
Legutko: One of the main elements of my book is a reflection on the anthropological assumptions that underlie our political choices. Both democracy and liberalism have assumed a minimalist concept of human nature, devoid of any higher dimensions, metaphysical or moral. Christianity has an entirely different view of human nature, similar in many respects to what we find in antiquity. On the one hand, man is defined, like Aristotle’s political man, by his existence in a society in which he — as a person, not as an individual — can acquire moral virtues, and on the other hand, by his metaphysical status, having been created in the image of God. To put it differently, the liberal-democratic man is a flat character whose higher aspirations are considered either as personal idiosyncrasies or politically dangerous ambitions to overthrow equality. In Christianity, as in antiquity, human existence is represented vertically — it has its highs and lows and is strained between sainthood and sin. In Christianity, we hope to live up to that for which we were created, but we also fear failure. In the flat anthropology of liberal democracy, there is not much people hope for and not much they fear. Even God is reduced to a liberal-democratic dimension in that He resembles a nice, easygoing philanthropist more than the God we read about in the Bible.
In other words, the theorists of liberalism and democracy have tried to eliminate from the picture of human nature all the elements they believe to be irreconcilable with the idea of equality and which they think go beyond everything that is needed for a liberal-democratic system to function. What transcends this horizon is negligible, unnecessary, irrational, and often dangerous. This flatness of philosophy and imagination prevents those infected by it from perceiving and treating seriously those insights into human nature that were passed on to us by the ancients and Christian philosophy and theology. This drastically limited perspective translates itself into art, thereby reinforcing itself, and, consequently, into education, which, predictably, has been transformed in such a way that it almost completely cut itself off from our ancient and medieval heritage.
The point I was trying to make is that wherever Christianity survives and is strong, people are likely to broaden their perspective and go beyond what liberal democracy offers them philosophically — or at least they are given the tools to do so. As classical culture disappears from school curricula, Christianity remains, practically, the only way to go outside the closed and arid world of the liberal-democratic set of ideas.
What does this have to do with France? When I was there promoting The Benedict Option, the No. 1 question I got from audiences had to do with the menace of “community.” In France, the word does not have the neutral, or even positive, connotations that it has here. “Community” carries with it a sense of a group setting itself apart from the whole — and that is an offense against republican ideal of égalité (equality). To French audiences, the Benedict Option concept sounds anti-democratic in principle.
To be fair, I have the same challenge with American audiences: convincing them that I’m not calling on radical, head-for-the-hills withdrawal from society. The difference is that in America, we have a greater tolerance for non-conformity, for groups setting themselves apart. In general, we don’t find this threatening. For better or for worse, our is a more individualistic culture.
Here’s where Legutko comes in. In his first point above, he talks about the long conflict between the Catholic Church and liberal democracy, and how progressive elements within the church believe that the church should be subordinate to modernity. In the second passage, he talks about how the “anthropology” of liberal democracy is a flattening egalitarianism. One can interpret this as pressing out the legitimate desire for moral greatness and sanctity from society and those formed by it.
A Christianity that has surrendered to the anthropology of liberal democracy becomes Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
A Christian who does not recognize how much true Christianity conflicts with this modernist anthropology and set his mind to resisting it will eventually cease to be a Christian. Or if not himself, then his children. The power of modernity is too strong.
The point is not to reject liberal democracy as a political system. The point is to limit its philosophical reach, and especially its reach into religion. The only Christianity that will survive being steamrollered by egalitarianism is the Christianity of tradition — and a Christianity that takes unqualified primacy in the lives of its adherents.
In France, the picture of the church (here I speak of the entire Christian church, though France is overwhelmingly Catholic) is significantly different from that in the US. France secularized in a different way than we are secularizing, and is farther along the path that we are. The number of practicing Catholics there is small. I spent time around older Catholics who displayed a strong eagerness to be thought of as fully integrated into French society. The younger ones — Millennials, mostly — didn’t seem (to me) to have that compulsion. I would have had to have spent more time there to understand why, but my guess is that they either intuit or see clearly that assimilation to secular bourgeois culture will mean the death of the faith.
If I’m right about that, then they see much more clearly than most of us American Christians do. We still want to think that we can be completely part of contemporary American life, without conflict, and without compromising our faith. We have lots of rationalizations for this; I don’t need to catalog them here. In the end, it all comes down to having absorbed the ideological egalitarianism of our liberal democratic culture, which entails a fear of going against its grain, a profound anxiety about standing outside of it. Those Christians who believe that they can live untroubled as faithful Christians within liberal democracy in its highly ideological, post-Christian form, are deceiving themselves, according to Legutko. From his must-read book The Demon in Democracy:
All Christians who believe that liberal-democratic ideology is like an ordinary coat, no different from any other, that they can put on to be able to move around more easily and comfortably but inside which they will still remain the same Christians, make a mistake — and a double one to boot. The first mistake is a wrong choice of strategy. The liberal-democracy ideology uses — no matter that it does so fraudulently — the rhetoric of multiculturalism, which is supposed to give justice to the existence of different “cultures,” which, precisely because they are different, are said to contribute to the richness and diversity of society. But if this were true, then Christians should compete with others for a visible presence and for influence — after all, this is what the coexistence of different groups in a liberal democracy should amount to — and in order to be a successful competitor they should act as an energetic and full-blooded group, strongly committed to their cause, openly determined to imprint their mark on the world. The opposite strategy — obliterating the boundaries, diluting their message in liberal jargon, cajoling the idols of modernity, paying homage to today’s superstitions, self-effacing their identity — condemns Christians to a sad defeat with no dignity and no progeny.
Got that? Assimilation = death. More:
The second mistake is to ignore the fact that the liberal-democratic ideology has long since ceased to be open (if it ever was) and has entered a stage of rigid dogmatization. The more conquests it makes, the less the victors are willing to show clemency to anyone outside the winning forces. The Christians who put on humble faces and declare their readiness to seek a common ground of action for a better world stand no chance to survive, regardless of how far in their self-repudiation they go. Sooner or later they will have to sign an unconditional surrender and to join the system with no opt-out and no conscience clauses, or, in the even of a sudden declaration of non possumus [“We cannot”], they will be instantly degraded to the position of a contemptible enemy of liberal democracy. So far, nothing indicates that the regime will lose its ideological momentum.
The argument I make in The Benedict Option is basically this:
1. Modernity, which is the egalitarian and emancipatory ideology of liberal democracy, has been slowly destroying Christianity in the West. In most of Europe, Christianity is little more than a fading memory. In the United States, it is also a fading memory for many younger people, and where it is practiced, it is overwhelmingly a pseudo-Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is what you get when you replace the God of historic Christianity with the god of the Self, as liberal-democratic ideology leads one to do.
2. Most Christians in the West deceive themselves about the threat to their core convictions posed by this ideology, and do not grasp the mortal danger the faith is in. Nor do they understand the enemy. For example, many conservative Christians have a superficial understanding of the conflict, and think that their faith is only under threat from political liberals in power.
3. Liberal-democratic ideology is going to win in the short term, because the only force able to resist or moderate it — traditional Christianity — has been routed. The inability of Christians to see this — or their unwillingness to do so — only makes their predicament worse. Despite what we wish to believe, the Bible (and the Church, depending on your tradition) is not the prime source of authority for us, but only one of several competing sources of authority mediated by the sovereign Self;
4. Christians must prepare themselves morally and spiritually to be regarded as, in Legutko’s words, “contemptible enemies of liberal democracy;”
5. Small-o orthodox Christians cannot reasonably hope to turn the tsunami, but they might be able to ride out the flood. They can only do this by
a) understanding the times and positioning themselves in opposition to the flow of the culture;
b) returning to a pre-modern form of Christianity (e.g., Catholicism of traditional practice, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Reformation-era Protestantism); and
c) adopting traditional spiritual practices — ordered prayer, Scripture study, fasting, etc. — to order our days and our entire lives toward discipleship
Last week in France, I met in a café with Alain Finkielkraut, arguably the leading public intellectual in a country full of them, and talked about the future of France and of the West. He is a secular Jew (the son of Holocaust survivors), an atheist, as well as a man of deep thought. He is extremely pessimistic about the future of his nation. Here are some excerpts from an interview Der Spiegel did with him:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Finkielkraut, are you unhappy with today’s France?
Finkielkraut: I am pained to see that the French mode of European civilization is threatened. France is in the process of transforming into a post-national and multicultural society. It seems to me that this enormous transformation does not bring anything good.
SPIEGEL: Why is that? Post-national and multicultural sounds rather promising.
Finkielkraut: It is presented to us as the model for the future. But multiculturalism does not mean that cultures blend. Mistrust prevails, communitarianism is rampant — parallel societies are forming that continuously distance themselves from each other.
See, there it is: the fear of isolated communities. Who can possibly blame Finkielkraut from fearing this, given the situation with Islam and Muslims in his country? But Finkielkraut perfectly well sees that French society does not have within itself the resources — or at least the will — to defend itself and strengthen itself. Finkielkraut and I agreed that novelist Michel Houellebecq has taken accurate measure of contemporary France: that it is dying from a lack of transcendent vision, of the sort supplied by religion. Houellebecq is not a believer, and neither, again, is Finkielkraut. This is why Finkielkraut cannot see hope.
Here’s what he — like many Christian Frenchmen — cannot see too: that the survival of Christianity in France requires violating the taboo against communitarian thinking. Legutko rightly says that Christianity cannot survive the encounter with ideological liberalism, because to compromise with it in the way liberalism now demands requires surrendering the faith.
SPIEGEL: You yourself are the child of immigrants, the progeny of a persecuted family. Does your personal will to integrate explain your radical commitment to the values of the Republic?
Finkielkraut: I defend these values because I probably owe more to my schooling than do the Français de souche, the hereditary French. French traditions and history were not laid in my cradle. Anyone who does not bring along this heritage can acquire it in l’école républicaine, the French school system. It has expanded my horizons and allowed me to immerse myself in French civilization.
SPIEGEL: And made you into its apologist?
Finkielkraut: I can speak and write more openly than others precisely because I am not a hereditary Frenchman. The natives easily allow themselves to be unnerved by the prevailing discourse. I don’t have such complexes.
He’s right about the “complexes” French people have about censoring themselves, not allowing themselves to see what is in front of them, and even if they see it, to talk about it. But we Americans do the same thing. Leaving aside political correctness, we Christians censor ourselves in terms of what we allow ourselves to see and to say about our own present and future in America. Americans are optimistic by nature, but there is no reason to be optimistic about the future of Christianity in our country. There is reason to hope, certainly, but hope is not the same thing as optimism. If we are going to have real hope, then we are going to have to discard this blinding optimism.
Ryszard Legutko says that “Christianity remains, practically, the only way to go outside the closed and arid world of the liberal-democratic set of ideas.” He’s right about that, but he’s not talking about the pallid, happy-clappy, modernist form of Christianity, which thinks winsomeness is next to godliness, and which is willing to negotiate its terms of surrender to and collaboration with the world.
I mentioned in this space the other day that while in France, I met Ambroise Touvet, the co-author of a forthcoming book about the cooking done by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fidélité de Jouques. It’s a coffee table-sized book, with text, recipes, and photographs. It’s a real stunner. It was so beautiful that I wanted to buy a copy and cook from it, even though I would have had to have translated the recipes into English measurements. Alas, it wasn’t on sale yet. Now it is.
The book talks about cooking and gardening at the abbey, and how this is integrated into the religious lives of the monastic community. Ambroise sent me some shots of the book’s interior. Check these out:
If you are in France, you can order a copy via Amazon.fr, or go to your local bookstore. Here’s more information from its publisher, Larousse. I am posting on it in this space for a very selfish reason: I want Invitation à l’Abbaye translated into English and sold in the US, so I can cook from it, learn from it, and treasure it always. If you know anyone interested in acquiring US rights for the book, please contact me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and I’ll put you in touch with Ambroise.
This really and truly is a special book. The glories of France and its culture are endless.
For those readers who may not have followed the events: Matilda is a historical movie about the love affair of the future Tsar Nicholas II with the ballet dancer Matilda Kschessinka. The film covers the time span from 1890 until 1896 and does not touch Nicholas II’s rule and his death, when, along with his family, he was killed by Bolsheviks in 1918. The whole family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981 and by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Even before reaching Russian cinemas, the film about the last Tsar’s pre-marital affair has stirred heated controversies. Conservative Orthodox believers called the film “blasphemous,” because the pre-release trailer shows the Russian ruler and future saint in sex scenes and emotional turmoil over his romantic love for the ballet dancer and his raison d’etat-marriage with Princess Alexandra of Hesse.
She compares the Matilda controversy to the 2012 Pussy Riot case:
In both cases, the critics bemoan the “insult of religious feelings”. But what is so special about the feelings of Orthodox believers for their rulers? How are we to make sense of this panic over lèse-majesté (“injured majesty,” the insulting of a monarch), over the violation of the dignity of the sovereign, as a form of blasphemy?
From the perspective of Orthodox believers, the Pussy Riot controversy had a tragic political dimension. The event posed the question whether the language of political protest could have a place inside their Church. Many Orthodox believers probably felt that, in principle, it should, but few could support the kind of articulation staged by the rebellious performers. Some, like Diakon Kuraev, tried to find a way around it by arguing that the incidence had taken place in the week of Russian Carnival. The tragic dimension of the controversy and court trial following the group’s performance lay precisely in the alienation of those open-minded Orthodox believers who felt that, at the end of the day, maybe some criticism of close church-state relations was not entirely out of place. Whoever did not feel offended in his or her religious feelings, such was the message at the court trial, was not a true Orthodox believer. (Also for the convicted women and their families the consequences of the performance were tragic, however, my point here is about the Orthodox believers.)
A couple of thoughts from me, an Orthodox Christian.
First, though it apparently doesn’t matter under Russian law, as a moral issue, I see this film and Pussy Riot’s performance as substantially different. The punk band went into a church and invaded an altar to make a political statement. That is sacred space, period. Had they done this on the street, no problem. This is not the same thing as this film, morally speaking. It may be hard to convey fully to Western Christians how sacred Russian Orthodox believers hold their churches, especially their altars. Personally, I would find it inappropriate, but not blasphemous, if an anti-Putin protester held up a sign inside the cathedral. But if you watch the video, these three women acted in a manner that disrespected not Putin (who cares about that?), but the Mother of God and ultimately the sanctity of the Cathedral.
Second, it seems to me that Orthodox critics of the movie have a very weak case. It may or may not be a tasteless film, but a movie that shows a Tsar having a love affair that he actually did have can hardly be considered blasphemous, especially given that Nicholas II was given sainthood for the way he died (executed, along with his family, by the Bolsheviks). The memory of the tsar-saint does not need to be protected from filmmakers, especially if the story they tell is essentially true (that she was his mistress, which she indeed was). To repeat: Nicholas Romanov is not a saint because of the way he lived, but because of the way he died. If you read Robert Massie’s excellent history Nicholas and Alexandra, the execution scene will bring you to tears. I had not realized how bravely the Tsar and his wife and children lived in captivity, awaiting their execution.
Third, the memory of Tsar Nicholas II does not belong to Orthodox believers. He was the Tsar of all Russia. Nor does the historical truth belong only to those who wish to remember it a certain way.
I wish the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution were being marked by a different film, but that’s neither here nor there. Next year is the centennial of the Romanov family’s execution. I hope the Russian film industry tells the story of the royal family’s captivity and death at the hands of those demons. I am reading The Gulag Archipelago now, so you can imagine where my imagination is regarding the evil of Soviet communism.
How low can Donald Trump go? This low:
President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that recovery workers will not stay “forever.”
In a trio of tweets, Trump wrote” “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”
Three weeks since Maria made landfall, much of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million people, the vast majority of the island remains without power. Residents struggle to find clean water, hospitals are running short on medicine and commerce is slow with many businesses closed.
Trump on Thursday sought to shame the territory for its own plight. He tweeted, “Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” And he quoted Sharyl Attkisson, a television journalist, as saying, “Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.”
Those people — those American people — are flat on their backs. Hungry, sick, desperate — from a hurricane whose fault was not their own. Even if the financial crisis is of their own making, my God, the Puerto Ricans are living through a humanitarian catastrophe. This is indecent. I don’t care if the mayor of San Juan is a loudmouth. People there are hurting. The American president is supposed to rise above that kind of thing.
Come on, Congress, get into this! Republican members, do you have any heart, any spine? Stand up to this cruelty. We are the richest and most powerful nation in the world. It disgraces us that an American president would talk this way about the suffering.
Even if we allow for the logistical problems in delivering and distributing food and water to everyone on the island, this is an inexcusable failure that needs to be corrected immediately. If a similar number of Americans on the mainland were without food and potable water for this long, it would be treated as a major scandal and it would be the top story in the news every day. Because it is happening in a territory with no political clout, it is not being taken as seriously as it should be. While the president repeatedly congratulates himself on what a great job he imagines he has done, the federal response to the disaster in Puerto Rico has been unacceptably poor. In terms of providing the most basic necessities in the wake of a major disaster, the government is failing millions of its citizens.
Where are Donald Trump’s court Evangelicals on this? If you cannot stand up to your friend the US president when he threatens to stop sending humanitarian aid to American citizens who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and without shelter, then God help you when you come before the King of Kings.
UPDATE: Some readers think that I’m calling out all Evangelicals here. I’m not. By “court Evangelicals,” I’m talking about the small coterie of Evangelical leaders who serve as Trump’s advisers (Falwell Jr., Jeffress, et al.)
I received this e-mail from a Catholic reader this morning:
Did you see what the Pope said yesterday abut the death penalty? He said it should be abolished and was against Gospel values. He said that the deposit of faith can develop, but this would not be a deepening of understanding. This would be saying that what the Church taught previously is wrong! This directly contradicts the ordinary universal magisterium of the Catholic Church which has held that the State does have the right to use the death penalty. The Pope said this was wrong and that the Catechism should be changed. I know that the Pope can have a personal theological opinion that is wrong, but I never thought that I would see a Pope say publicly that what the Church has held definitively is wrong and that THE CATECHISM should be changed!
Rod, this is going to be big. This means that the Pope has essentially contradicted the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium. It means that this Pope is no longer the Pope.
I don’t know enough about the way Catholic theology works to be able to judge this claim. Can any of you with theological training help? Understand, I’m asking a theological question here, not a question about whether or not you believe in the death penalty. (For me, I believe that capital punishment can be licit, but I am generally opposed to its application.) The point the Catholic reader is making does not depend on one’s opinion of the death penalty, but rather on the way Pope Francis is exercising his role as a teacher.
Many non-Catholics don’t understand that the Pope is not free to say whatever he wants to, and those words become binding on Catholics. This is not being a “cafeteria Catholic,” but rather a matter of precise theological authority. The crisis in this instance — if indeed it is a crisis — is not over whether or not Francis said something that upsets conservatives who favor the death penalty. The crisis is about the Pope unilaterally overturning, or attempting to overturn, past authoritative Catholic teaching.
The trad Catholic Steve Skojec makes a theological case for why, in his view, Pope Francis is wrong about the death penalty … but that doesn’t really answer my question. What if Francis comes out tomorrow, in that garrulous way of his, and says that the concept of “just war” is no longer operative in Catholic theology, and the Catechism must be changed to reflect that fact? Would it really be a “fact” in Catholic theology? And if not, what does that tell us about Pope Francis, and his status as pope? Would he really cease to be Pope?
Again: only answer if you have a theologically informed response. I’m not going to post yellers on either side. I’m trying to learn something here, and to understand the ramifications of what the Pope said yesterday.
Brad East has a very fine piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he discusses the lack of obvious relevance of theology to contemporary American life, and posits the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart as someone we all really, really should be paying attention to. Excerpts:
Given this love of culture and the high calling of theology, the hinge of Hart’s criticism, and thus the chief object of his withering disfavor, is those selfsame “senile cultures,” that is, Western modernity and its offspring. Hart sees the progressive secularization of Western culture as a single sustained dehumanization of society — begun in the Church, ironically — and just so one long march toward the receding horizon of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:
The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. […] [A] late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessitypromotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. […] It is […] a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions — religious, cultural, social — that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices. […] The secular world — our world, our age — is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. […] Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.
The very same moral, political, and theological vision underlies Hart’s decade-long polemic against the “New Atheists” (making for an unlikely public-facing pair with Marilynne Robinson, a hyperbolic snort to her erudite eye-roll). He does not protest their lack of faith, which he deeply admires in truly formidable unbelievers like Nietzsche. He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism. Their books are, after all, “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” They are worth responding to inasmuch as their errors should be exposed and the record set straight. Hart’s experience in doing so has not been encouraging, however. In his reply to a New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik, for example, Hart’s conclusion is as harsh as it is despairing of further dialogue:
It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter […] What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends — not with a bang but a whimper.
Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.
If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.
Read the whole thing. I recommend Hart’s book The Experience Of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss as the best introduction to his thought for us non-professional theologians. I recall reading it and thinking that if an unbeliever who thought religion was foolish gave himself over to this book, he might not come out of it a believer, but he would surely emerge with his convictions shaken. And for that matter, this is also true of believers. It’s not a Christian book, per se, but a book about theism, one that, in a stroke, makes the reader realize that what he thought he knew about theism is either untrue or radically inadequate to the subject. That is to say, a non-believer may put down this book thinking, “Belief in God makes more sense than I thought,” and a believer may do so thinking, “Belief in God is so much broader and deeper than I realized.”
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Hart has a way of talking about God that makes the subject seem fresh and alluring. That might come across as trite praise, but it’s not. It is no small thing, in the 21st century, and in a post-Christian culture, to make the discussion of God urgent and illuminating both to theists and atheists alike. If you don’t know Hart’s work, do yourself a favor and give it a try. (But don’t start with his book on theology and aesthetics; it is extremely dense and profound, but inaccessible to most readers.) We may never again be the kind of culture that pays theologians much mind, but in the case of David Bentley Hart, the tragedy would be ours.
Hey, if you live in the Baton Rouge area, come out on Thursday October 12 to eat some gumbo and raise money for Sequitur Classical Academy, BR’s classical Christian school. Ticket and event info here. I am part of one of the gumbo-making teams, so come out and taste our gumbo, and tell all the other teams that their gumbo is TOTALLY INFERIOR! There are lots of teams, so you’ll get to taste lots of different gumbos; this is not a bug, but a feature.
If you can’t make the big feed, then consider giving a tax-deductible donation to Sequitur (see here). It’s not going to be as much fun as eating gumbo, drinking beer, and laughing with a bunch of Louisiana folks, but you’ll still be doing good in the world.
Well, this is something. Last night at the University of Notre Dame, the Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser of Pope Francis, explicitly denounced the Benedict Option, calling it a “Masada complex” that does not comport with the vision of Francis.
Here’s the video of the entire lecture. Start at about the 1:12 part, and watch him criticize the Ben Op:
“The so-called Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher describes the withdrawal of the Church into enclaves, would be an error, just as it would be an error to be nostalgic for bygone times by preparing harsh responses today.”
This is entirely dishonest. The most charitable spin on it is that the man has clearly not read my book. As I clearly explain in the text, I call for a “strategic withdrawal,” which is to say, withdrawing for the sake of strengthening our roots and our witness, so that when we go out into the world, as we must, we will do so as real Christians. Excerpts from The Benedict Option:
What these orthodox Christians are doing now are the seeds of what I call the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith, can survive and prosper through the flood.
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
Over and over in the book I make this distinction: that to be fully and authentically Christian in the world, we must draw sharper lines between ourselves and the world. I am no more arguing for retreating into quietist enclaves than the British high command withdrew its forces from Dunkirk beach for the sake of hiving away in merry old England and waiting the war out. I have made this point in the book, in public lectures, and on this blog, again and again. I am eager to accept criticism of my book — I certainly don’t have the answers — but critics ought to focus on what I’ve actually written than what they imagine I’ve written. But then, Father Spadaro’s understanding of American politics is so crackpot — even Commonweal, a liberal Catholic journal that fully backs Pope Francis, called his infamous essay on the subject “a mishmash of wild and erroneous claims” — that I believe it is beyond his moral and intellectual strength to be honest on matters like this.
Nevertheless, I have a few remarks to make in response.
Earlier in the address (1:05), Spadaro denounces those politicians and others who are exploiting “fear of chaos.” They are “exaggerating disorder” and putting forth “worrying scenarios that bear no relation to reality.”
Let me remind Father Spadaro of a few inconvenient truths that counter his Candide Catholicism.
1. Catholicism — like Christianity in general — is flat on its back in Europe. True, there are inspiring pockets of faith (I just spent some time with a few in Paris). And true, Poland is a beacon of hope in a continent grown cold from militant secularism — but for how long? Still, the overall picture for the Church in Europe is grim. In personal conversations I had in Paris recently with both believers and non-believers, I found no one who thought the future was bright for Europe.
2. All of Europe is in demographic collapse. Take Portugal, for example:
Last year he created a commission dedicated to coming up with proposals to reverse the country’s dwindling birthrate. Led by Professor Joaquim Azevedo from the Catholic University of Portugal, a recent report by the commission warned that failure to reverse the demographic crisis could leave Portugal “unsustainable in terms of economic growth, social security and the welfare state.”
“We are losing our population, as we know. These matters are crystal clear,” said Azevedo. “ It is a reality. Facts are facts and that is what is happening.”
Ad hoc political solutions at a national level are failing. Italy has tried to overcome its bleak demographic outlook with initiatives ranging from pension cuts to a baby bonus, but the statistics are not on their side.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with a political scientist who studied the issue for the EU, which is desperately trying to come up with a way to boost birthrates. He concluded that absent a religious revival, it simply was not going to happen. He said the EU officials were not happy with this. In the central Asian nation of Georgia, which is Orthodox Christian, it now appears that the birthrate among married Georgians went up in response to a campaign by Patriarch Ilia.
3. Europe is being overwhelmed by migration. Which is being encouraged by the Pope and many Catholic bishops, note well. A closely related problem: Europeans are struggling to deal with problems successfully integrating Muslims.
4. In the United States, Catholicism is declining faster than any other church. “And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.”
5. In terms of catechesis and Catholic identity, the US Catholic Church is facing a catastrophe. Here are excerpts from a Commonweal story about sociologist Christian Smith’s book concerning Catholic youth:
Here’s the bad news for Commonweal readers, and we may as well get right to it: Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.
But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.
The fact is: In this discouraging book, the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic. For those who remember Commonweal’s series on “Raising Catholic Kids” last November, the worry expressed by those dedicated, well-meaning parents seems here to be fully justified. You may hear about pockets of enthusiastically “orthodox” young adults out there somewhere, but as my old mentor in the market-research business used to say, the plural of the word “anecdote” is not “data.” Smith (a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-authors have the data, and it tells us that the majority of Catholic “emergers” are, by our historical standards, not what we are used to thinking of as practicing Catholics at all.
That “Raising Catholic Kids” series had this excruciatingly sad account from Sidney Callahan. Excerpt:
In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.
Got that? She is the only member of her family still in the Church.
Christian Smith’s broader work on the religious beliefs and identities of younger Americans — not only Catholics — reveals trends that ought to be extremely worrying to any serious Christian, not least the Roman pontiff. Check out this 2009 interview Smith gave to Christianity Today. Excerpt:
… the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.
I have done a lot of traveling in the US and abroad doing Benedict Option research and speaking. I repeatedly hear the same message, no matter where I am: young adults today who still identify as Christian know little to nothing about the Christian faith, either in terms of content or in terms of how to practice it in daily life. To the extent they have any faith at all, it usually turns out to be entirely emotional. I often return to a discussion I observed among older (conservative) Catholics and younger (conservative) Catholic academics. The older ones were still operating under the impression that the young ones had basic Catholic formation, however lacking. The younger profs told them that this is completely unrealistic, that the undergraduates they were seeing on their campus in most cases knew nothing.
So: when I hear professional church bureaucrats like Father Spadaro telling the world to relax, everything is just fine, that the concerns of Christians like me “bear no relation to reality,” it makes me furious. It’s an attempt to anesthetize the faithful. It’s a self-serving lie, and it’s a lie that is going to cost a lot of people their souls.
Spadaro said that in Francis’s vision, “the duty of Christianity in Europe is one of service.” OK, fine. I would have thought that the duty was evangelization and formation, but service is certainly part of the Christian’s duties to the world. But as I say in The Benedict Option, “we cannot give the world what we do not have.” And the one thing that many, many Catholics (and other self-identified Christians) in Europe and North America do not have is a living orthodox faith.
“This is the witness – not only with words but also with everyday life – the testimony that every Sunday should go out of our churches in order to enter throughout the whole week into our homes, our offices, our schools, our gathering places and entertainment venues, our hospitals, prisons, and homes for the elderly, into places crowded with immigrants, on the outskirts of the city. We must carry this witness every week: Christ is with us; Jesus is ascended to heaven; He is with us; Christ is alive!”
Amen to that! (Note well: a “Masada complex” Christian would not say that.) But you cannot send people out to feed the world with empty bread baskets. You cannot send soldiers into battle without training and armor. The Benedict Option is not a “Masada complex,” but rather an attempt to take on a more radical strategy of forming serious orthodox Christians — morally, intellectually, and spiritually — precisely so we can go out and give the true faith to the world. Father Spadaro lives in Italy. If he wants to see a real Benedict Option community, he should drive across the peninsula from Rome and visit the Tipi Loschi, in San Benedetto del Tronto. There is no Masada complex among those people — only robust, joyful, orthodox Catholicism. They are not supposed to exist — but they do!
The Father Spadaros of the world are content to manage decline in a spirit of appeasement. They bring to mind this quote a friend sent me from a 1986 essay by the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski:
Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity. Some versions of liberal pop-theology contribute to this work. So do some varieties of Marxism. Nobody can foresee for how long and to what extent this work of appeasement may prove successful. But the previously mentioned intellectuals’ awakening to the dangers of secularity does not seem to be a promising avenue for getting out of our present predicament, not because such reflections are false, but because we may suspect they are born of an inconsistent, manipulative spirit.
There is something alarmingly desperate in intellectuals who have no religious attachment, faith or loyalty proper and who insist on the irreplaceable educational and moral role of religion in our world and deplore its fragility, to which they themselves eminently bear witness. I do not blame them either for being irreligious or for asserting the crucial value of religious experience; I simply cannot persuade myself that their work might produce changes they believe desirable, because to spread faith, faith is needed and not an intellectual assertion of the social utility of faith. And the modern reflection on the place of the sacred in human life does not want to be manipulative in the sense of Machiavelli or of the seventeenth-century libertines who admitted that while piety was necessary for the simpletons, skeptical incredulity suited the enlightened. Therefore such an approach, however understandable, not only leaves us where we were before but is itself a product of the same modernity it tries to restrict, and it expresses modernity’s melancholic dissatisfaction with itself.
I wrote The Benedict Option for Christians who prefer to see the world as it really is, and not to reconcile themselves to our eclipse or surrender, nor to trust the feckless leadership of our religious institutions to guide us out of the dark wood in which we find ourselves. Father Spadaro and his kind are pied pipers. To have him mischaracterize and denounce my Benedict Option ideas is an honor. It is certainly clarifying.
The problem is not that Christians are not enough in the world. The problem is that the world is too much in them. Catholic leaders that wish to turn the Catholic Church into a Romanized version of Mainline Protestantism are not helping to turn the tide. And they are not the future.
UPDATE: Reader Nate J., spot on:
I find myself having difficulty discussing the breakdown of Christianity in my own part of the world with the older generations. Mostly, I don’t think they intend to be misleading or deliberately obtuse, turning a blind eye to problems they know exist; most are simply oblivious.
They don’t visit Reddit, or use Facebook or Twitter. They don’t get their information from the same places as the millennial generation and do not interact with the world the same way. It’s so hard to get it into their heads how actively hostile the world is to the Christian message.
Compounding the problem is that these older church leaders remain largely unchallenged by any new blood entering, so they retain their positions of leadership by default. It’s a nasty, self-feeding cycle whereby the blind continue to lead the blind. They imagine a time when there was a Christian consensus in the western world. For them, the world just needs to be tweaked a bit and – presto! – we’re back to the way things were. They don’t get that people enter adulthood with their brains almost hardwired in a fundamentally different way.
This is probably most evident in the modern sexual ethic, which is why stuffy, prudish, social conservatives like me tend to get “so worked up about it.” Sex, reproduction, and family formation have become radically disentangled to the point where these three fundamentally related (and interdependent) concepts can be viewed entirely discreetly. Meanwhile, the global neoliberal elite cannot understand the issue correctly either (in some ways, perhaps they are just as oblivious as the typical octogenarian church bishop or elder), thinking that problems of collapsing demographics can be solved by sprinkling a little more economic incentive over it, so steeped in their progressive worldview that they have forgotten that reproduction was never an economic decision to begin with (and, thus, relatively immune to the classic laws of supply and demand and all that).
Both the secular and Christian church leadership miss the point that cultural issues cannot be solved primarily by political means. The Benedict Option matters precisely because we need to send a new generation of leaders out into the world who understand this – who put at least as much effort into their local communities and churches as they do into their political ambitions.
UPDATE.2.: Reader Heidi:
We went to a Jesuit church away from home this past weekend for Mass. During the service a special prayer was offered for Fr. Martin, the much maligned Jesuit, who is essentially trying to change church doctrine and cloaking it in “dialog” and “understanding”. Specifically it was asked that we pray that he not suffer anymore “persecution” at the hands of the uninformed. This same church had an LGBTQ+ small group that met each week to discuss the running of the parish with a focus on inclusivity, a Lesbian Women’s group and a Gay Men’s group. Also advertised in the Sunday bulletin was a Gay Getaway trip planned for the spring. That the priest would also be going on. This is clearly a…shift. In the same direction that Protestantism flew with alacrity and we can see where that got *them*. So, this criticism of Spadaro’s is no surprise to me. What can we expect from that specific faction? They don’t seem to have a strong enough attachment to retaining the foundational teachings of the religion they are tasked with representing, but, instead, are willing to go where the wind will blow them in order to stay “relevant.” Hundreds of years of thinking about these issues be damned. Your observation that the world is too much in Christianity is exactly correct and now, as a Catholic, I’m watching the Mother Church go the way of the Episcopalians. It may be too soon to wave goodbye but I’m not certain of that…perhaps I should begin my studies of the Ausbund now.
As a college student, I’ve seen where the energy coming out of Christian groups is coming from, and it was kind of shocking to me. Korean-Americans, or students from Korea and China, in what I believe to be an Evangelical church, are the ones who actually go up to people, talk to them about faith and spirituality and are willing to put their principles out in the open. I went to one of their meetings when invited (I am Catholic, but I figured it would be nice to at least meet new people), and what I saw was actually quite similar to what the Benedict Option speaks of.
It was a community of people who talk about their faith, the theological reasons for it (I won’t bore you with the differences of opinion between this group and Catholicism, but the conversations were actually quite enlightening), and how to arm themselves when speaking to skeptics about why their faith was important to them.
I made quite a few friends in that group, but I have to say that I was ashamed in some ways, as this is something that the Catholic student group should be doing themselves. The Catholic group on campus, when I’ve gone to their meetings, talks incessantly about how we can make ourselves more acceptable to the overriding secular culture on campus, but does nothing to build a community of faith.
The idea of MTD for western youth, as you describe, really kind of runs rampant, but it is less an honest belief about the world rather than a defense against the world. Catholic students will default to say things about that in an effort to avoid scrutiny. What they are increasingly finding, however, is that it is not enough anymore. Any talk of issues of sexual ethics or salvation are scary not just to mainstream secularists but to Catholic students as well, and as we saw with those Senate hearings, its not going to get any better.
I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that the environments for Christians in North East Asia has sort of forced them to live in their own communities and build from there; western Christians might find that the day they need to do this will come quicker than they would expect.
The Catholic college students you describe remind me of some of the older Catholics I met in France: desperate to convince the unbelieving world that they’re really good people, and can be trusted and relied on.
UPDATE.3: I changed the title of this blog a bit because in truth, I don’t know if Pope Francis opposes the Benedict Option. I only know that Fr. Spadaro does, and I don’t have confidence that he actually read the book. If I were actually calling on Catholics and other Christians to hide away in compounds and turn their back to the world, then I could say yes, Pope Francis really does oppose the Ben Op. But I don’t say that. It is possible that he would agree with it, or at least some of it, if he knew what it was. Maybe not, but again, I don’t trust Father Spadaro’s judgment, and after all, it was he who opposes the Ben Op to Francis, not Francis.