Greetings from Colorado Springs. I had a great time last night talking about Dante to a big group of folks at an event sponsored by the Anselm Society, a very cool organization based in Holy Trinity Anglican Church and dedicated to the Christian imagination. Throughout the day on Friday, I met and talked with people connected to the Anselm Society, and involved in local churches. I was surprised and gratified to discover that people here have already been talking about the Benedict Option, and want to know more about it. (There’s a Saturday afternoon Ben Op meeting set for downtown COS; I think it’s sold out, but in case not, more info is here).
Everybody I’ve talked to so far in COS is Evangelical. Interestingly, I’ve had far more interest in the Benedict Option from Evangelicals than from Catholics. Anyway, what I’m hearing is serious concern from these Evangelicals that their churches are failing the younger generation by
- not grounding them seriously enough in the Bible
- making worship all about entertainment, thereby cultivating in them the idea that church is all about avoiding boredom
- failing at discipleship
At a group discussion around a long table in a pub earlier last evening, I confessed to the others (all Evangelicals) that I don’t know the Evangelical world well, but I had always admired Evangelicals from a distance for doing a good job teaching the Bible. At that, lots of heads around the table shook, saying, No. Several people said that young Evangelicals today know very little about the Bible. An academic theologian at the table visiting from out of town said that in her profession (though not, as I mistakenly reported earlier, at her seminary), they’re starting to see students show up for M.Divs who have no religious faith at all. They are searching for God, and hoping to find him in graduate school.
I asked her if she had seen the NYT story about secular people entering divinity school. She had, and said it was on target. Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
Two factors are driving this surge. First, the proportion of nones in the United States has grown to about a third of all millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center. Second, divinity school offers even atheists and spiritual seekers a language of moral discourse and training in congregational leadership. The traits appeal to nones who aspire to careers in activism, social work, chaplaincy or community organizing rather than taking to a pulpit.
“Nones are not entirely opposed to religious traditions, though they don’t attach to a specific one,” said Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, who has seen the trend while visiting campuses. “No small part of them are attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And they recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition. So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.”
Within higher education, divinity programs often stand apart from the cult of relativism in the liberal arts and the utilitarian emphasis in professional schools focusing on business and law, for example.
“If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government,” said the Rev. Dudley C. Rose, the associate dean for ministry studies at Harvard. “And philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.”
When I first read that piece, my first response was to think of it as silly. People wanting to get the fruits of religious belief without actually believing? Not going to work, friend. But after listening to the group yesterday, I rethought my response. I still believe it’s not going to work, and it’s silly to go to divinity school if you don’t believe in a divinity, but the conversation about the mess Evangelical young people have to deal with made me more sympathetic to the students in the NYT story.
Why? One of the folks at the table said, “The young are searching for ritual, for something more stable and deep than what we’ve given them.” Thinking about that point later, in light of the Times piece, I wondered how many young Evangelicals might be drifting away from the church because they think that there’s nothing to Christianity but a pep rally. I was reminded of my colleague Gracie Olmstead’s article two years ago in TAC in which she interviewed several of her fellow Millennials about why they had left Evangelicalism for a more liturgical church, one rooted more deeply in Christian tradition. Excerpt:
Nelson believes a sacramental hunger lies at the heart of what many millennials feel. “We are highly wired to be experiential,” he says. In the midst of our consumer culture, young people “ache for sacramentality.”
“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” Cone says. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”
The millennial generation is seeking a holistic, honest, yet mysterious truth that their current churches cannot provide. Where they search will have large implications for the future of Christianity. Protestant churches that want to preserve their youth membership may have to develop a greater openness toward the treasures of the past. One thing seems certain: this “sacramental yearning” will not go away.
Hey, Evangelical readers, do you feel that way? One person I met today, a cradle Evangelical who now worships in an Anglican church (but one in the Evangelical tradition), told me that he was furious at Evangelicalism for years because he felt cheated by his childhood.
“I felt like the adults were supposed to teach me Christianity, this ancient faith that inspired so much in Western civilization, but they gave me only about five percent of what Christianity is about — and it wasn’t the best five percent,” he said.
Colorado Springs has a huge Evangelical population, and some pretty serious megachurches. A couple of people told me today that there’s fear among some megachurch leaders that the megachurch moment has passed, and congregations may drift away in search of something else.
But what else? In conversation later in the evening after the Dante talk, an Evangelical man told me that the standard Evangelical model of understanding religion was not holding the young anymore.
“Did you notice in your Dante talk ,” said the man, “when you said that the moment of accepting Jesus wasn’t the end of the journey, but only the beginning, that somebody in the audience said, ‘Preach it’? You find among Evangelicals these days frustration with the way we have typically approached the Christian life. For a lot of us, church is about going to a place to get information that you can go out and spread to other people, who will accept that information and make a mental decision based on it. It’s all about what happens in your head. People are finding that’s just not enough.”
In particular, I sensed a real loss of confidence in the concept of “children’s church.” That’s something I keep hearing from Evangelicals elsewhere too. The feeling seems to be that kids ought to be in church with the entire body of Christ, and besides, children’s church teaches them to think that church is something done to keep them entertained.
I had a couple of different conversations about suffering, and about how the church, like American culture, doesn’t know how to talk about suffering except as something to be avoided. The people I talked to seemed to want something much deeper and serious from the church on how to suffer as Christians.
Another man, a pastor, told me that he loves historian Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, and has his copy all dog-eared and marked up. “Yes!” I told him. I read that book earlier this year, and it quickly became one of my favorites. I added that it was such a revelation to me to read that book and to realize that the early church Christianity I discovered in Wilken’s marvelous history was the same thing we got every week at our tiny Russian Orthodox mission in Starhill.
Back in the hotel room, trying to think through all I had learned today from the new friends I’d made, I found myself suddenly feeling very, very grateful to God for what he had given me in Orthodoxy, and especially in our mission parish. We are small, we are poor, and we are struggling, but a lot of these things dissatisfied Evangelicals long for, we have. If you’ve read the Dante book of mine, you have an idea about what a strong, faithful priest Father Matthew Harrington is. On my recent trip to DC and Charlottesville, I ended up spending more of my Ben Op talks citing different Orthodox practices to illustrate the way practices deepen faith and build community bonds. Some of the things people I meet tell me they want and hope for in the Ben Op, we pretty much have in our parish as a normal part of the Orthodox Christian life. Who knows? The Benedict Option might turn out to be a lot more Orthodox than I have thought. I have been careful about prescribing more liturgical practices when talking to Evangelical audiences, because I don’t know how they feel about that. All these conversations with Evangelicals yesterday made me wonder if I should re-think that. They might be a lot more open than I give them credit for.
Please go back and read this entry I did about sociologist Paul Connerton and his book How Societies Remember. Re-reading it just now in light of what I’m hearing from Evangelical folks in COS is enlightening. Connerton, writing from a secular academic perspective, tells us that the societies that are most able to remember, collectively, their stories in an age of mass forgetting are those who embody them in sacred ritual, in particular rituals that involve the body. If that’s the case, I wonder if this hunger among Millennials for a ritual that embodies meaning is an instinctive reaction against the constant de-ritualization of daily life in modernity. Are they searching for a sense of meaning that cannot be accessed by a book or a sermon?
I’m really looking forward to the meeting this afternoon, and learning from the church leaders who will gather and share their views, their hopes, and their concerns. When I tell you that the Benedict Option is something we’re going to have to work out together, I mean it. You’d better believe I will be listening this afternoon, and taking notes for the book. I’ll update this post later, after the meeting, and tell you what I found out. With any luck, I’ll be updating it from Agia Sophia Coffee Shop, an Orthodox-run coffee shop and bookstore in Colorado Springs. The ancient faith, with its ancient rituals and living conversation with the Fathers of the Church and the early Christian tradition, is not only here in COS, but it has a coffee shop and bookstore too!
UPDATE.2: “Schmendrick,” who identifies himself/herself, as a None who is in divinity school, but who doesn’t believe in Christianity or Christian metaphysics, says:
If you want to re-sanctify the culture, the biggest hurdle is squaring the idea that the human spirit is fundamentally not of this world with the history of the past two hundred years, which rather decisively show that the human spirit is actually fantastically good at relating to and mastering this world.
To which I say:
UPDATE.3: The Benedictine prior Father Peter Funk has some very wise words about the pitfalls of people from non-liturgical traditions moving into them unawares. You can’t just walk into a tradition and mimic its rituals and think you’ve got it. He writes in the comment thread:
Rod, I’ve been meaning to mention this to you for a while: I humbly recommend that you read some of the work of Mary Douglas as you think about what is required of a Benedict Option community. The mention of Evangelicals and Olmstead’s article reminded me of this. Much as there is a hunger more a greater ‘liturgical’ even ‘mystical’ experience of faith and worship, there is a danger that it is all so much woo if there is no clear, underpinning social organization to the group making use of ritual symbol. Millman brought this up in his critique several months ago, but my concern is deeper, that for symbols to communicate, they must be reinforced by real disciplines and–most importantly–certain types of social structures. To me, this is the biggest hurdle to clear in founding genuine BenOp communities.
This became an urgent matter because we have had several men enter our monastery who are converts from various points on the Evangelical spectrum. I watched as they wanted badly to make sense of the very dense liturgy that one finds in a traditional monastery, but until they were able to connect the symbolic language to specific behaviors and clear lines of authority (and clear articulation of the common good), they found themselves frustrated. Douglas’s *Natural Symbols* is the text we use the most to address this problem, but she has many books that are helpful in this regard, including very challenging commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers.
One of the factors that led her to specific ideas in Natural Symbols was the widespread abandonment of ritual by her fellow Catholics in the late 60’s. She recognized that her fellow academics poured scorn on ritual, and she noted that this is not because they were more advanced intellectually than others, but because of the social structure of academic life and its pressures (another theme of your recent posts). So she set out to vindicate ritual and symbol, and from her training in anthropology, she was able to demonstrate how certain social arrangements (such as, I believe, American democracy) render inhabits deaf and blind toward symbols.
In a Catholic monastery, we say that we believe in the Mystery of the Incarnation. This implies that Christ is incarnate in the men with whom we live, and therefore regulate the ways in which brothers relate to one another. As the Prior, I am understood to hold the place of Christ (properly speaking) in the community. This means that brothers don’t refer to me as “Pete,” or sit in my place at table, in choir, or in chapter. Brothers act out, in their own bodies, symbols of the Incarnation. Thus we all genuflect when we enter the church, recognizing Christ’s Real Presence in the tabernacle. We bow to one another to acknowledge Christ in each brother. We discipline our bodies in accord with the social demands that communicate a system of belief.
But what if we happen to enter the monastery as part of an unlucky group that is “less sensitive” or even “deaf or blind,” to symbolic expressions like places of honor, genuflections, pectoral crosses, bows….even habits, tonsures, icons, candles, holy water, etc? I could go on and on. The point is that monastic life as suchis as life that is based upon a belief system that is strongly tied to an intricately detailed set of symbolic observances. What if we enter such a life lacking the faculty to see and interpret the symbols?
… In my experience, young men entering a traditional monastic life such as our is reputed to be are looking for the structure that ritual and discipline provide. But I have also observed that for many of these same men, the real meaning of these rituals can be easily misunderstood. I will attempt to explain what I think is actually going on in a later post. Here, since I must wrap up, let me just point out that an effort to put her ideas into effect in our monastery has had surprising consequences (good ones, so far). And Professor Douglas’s concerns turn out to have a lot in common with the diagnoses of Alasdair MacIntyre, Rene Girard, Fr. Henri de Lubac, George Steiner, Pope Benedict XVI, and others writing from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Those who are interested in the so-called “Benedict Option” would do well to pay close attention to Mary Douglas, if they really wish to avoid becoming sectarian pariahs. More than that, Douglas helps to explain why MacIntyre and de Lubac seem to be often misunderstood even by their own strongest supporters. Changing my belief requires me to change my social experience and to change the way I use and experience my body. Without social structure and asceticism (the disciplining of the body), philosophical and theological ideas will, in our world, tend to float free and remain largely inconsequential beyond the tempest-in-teapot-blog-combox skirmishes. I hope to show why this is the case in the coming weeks.
UPDATE.4: Just returned from a fantastic breakfast discussion with four Christian women — one a Catholic revert, one an Orthodox convert, two Anglicans who worship in an Evangelical tradition — who are highly engaged in the Christian public life here in COS (well, the Orthodox was visiting from Fort Collins). To be engaged in Christian life in COS means to be immersed in some way with Evangelicalism. I wish I had been taking notes; they were so full of rich insights and questions about the Ben Op. I’ll blog on it here, from memory. Please feel free to contest anything I write below (or anywhere on this thread); I’m simply reporting what I learned in the conversation.
The main thing I took away from the conversation is that there is a massive hunger among Millennial Evangelicals for the kind of things the Ben Op calls for: depth, liturgy/ritual, community, a more profound sense of prayer, and stability (that is in part a sense that this is not all going to go away when the next big thing comes along).
Some of the women said that they see among the Millennial men a craving for fatherhood. I repeated a funny line that a female friend of mine, an ex-Evangelical, said to me once: that she generally cannot stand young Evangelical men, because they come across as so simpering and “nice”. There was agreement around the table. One woman said that Evangelical culture trains men to be middle-class “nice”. This, said another woman, is why that Wild At Heart stuff was so popular years ago. The problem, I said, is that you don’t combat that by embracing an artificial Christian He-Man sense. They agreed, and one woman said that she can see by observing her husband that there is a natural drive in men to go and do things. It occurred to me that this a drive that at its best gets channeled into good works (soup kitchens, service work, etc.), but in church gets frustrated because the experience of worship is so cerebral, is so tied to making sure you are thinking the right thoughts.
One of the things that I find so compelling about Orthodox Christianity, I told the women, is that it’s so masculine. What I mean by that is that it doesn’t seem feminized and soft, and therapeutic in the “let’s make this comfortable for you” sense. Orthodoxy is demanding. It demands that you struggle with yourself. It demands that you do things like fast regularly, which is hard, but which involves integrating your spirituality with physicality. It demands that you pray in such a way (I’m thinking about the Jesus Prayer and the prayer rope) that gets you out of your head (though maybe that is not a specifically masculine thing).
The Orthodox woman at the table said, “I’ve heard people say that Orthodoxy is the Marine Corps of Christianity.” Yes, I said, I can see that. Orthodoxy is not trying to help you be you. It tells you, Life in Christ is joyful, but it is a struggle. It is nothing less than the Cross. If you want theosis, if you want to lose yourself and find yourself in Christ, here is the path that Christians have been following since virtually the beginning. To me, as a man, this really was liberating after hearing years of greeting-card Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic sermons challenging me to do little more than be nice to others, as my Best Friend Jesus wants me to do.
One woman, who serves as a spiritual director, said that beyond the fatherhood issue, she sees a deep hunger for spiritual mothers and fathers. I asked her what she meant by that. What is the difference between a spiritual mother and father, versus a spiritual life coach? I wish I had written down her precise answer, because it was very good. As I recall, no doubt incompletely, she said it had to do with a more organic relationship, with the idea that mothers and fathers are invested in the spiritual growth of their children. Young Christians need to understand that the Church is not simply a place to go to get good advice on how to live, but is rather more like a family, where people relate to each other in that way. The older members of the community take a fatherly, motherly role in the lives of the younger ones. Put that way, the experience of church is not transactional (= I go to church to get something out of it in exchange for my presence), but communal.
We talked about how difficult it is to find stability in a culture like America’s, where we think of everything instrumentally — that is, in terms of how we can use it. As Paul Connerton writes in How Societies Fail, this is what it means to live in modernity — and capitalism is a core expression of modernity. It depends for its success on creating desires, and in training us to see things that we have used up as objects, or practices, to be discarded in favor of the new thing. Fr. Peter Funk, in talking about Mary Douglas’s book, writes:
Before Vatican II, the Church in general was governed by massive amounts of rule-bound behaviors that were intended to communicate a certain theology. Strong social disciplines regulated what bishops, priests, religious, and laity could and could not do. When the reforms of the Council began to take hold, huge percentages of Western Catholics quickly gave up all kinds of symbolic behaviors and social disciplines without any apparent grief (for others, obviously, these changes were devastating; Mary Douglas is very sensitive to their suffering, and in some ways this book is an anthropologist’s effort to help redress the wrongs that were just unfolding in 1970 when Natural Symbols was published). This suggests that there were large portions of the Catholic Church for whom, in 1960, the symbols and disciplines already were more or less meaningless, that their importance had been forgotten, despite the fact that everyone continued to engage in them.
This is a serious problem, the experience of ritual as empty. What’s interesting is that instead of thinking of ways to reinvigorate the Tradition, the Catholic reformers of the 1960s and 1970s, like good moderns, cast aside many of the rituals and traditions as useless, and tried to supplant them with new ones that were more “relevant”. It did not work. The thing we Christians today have to understand is that the basic idea that we have the right to change traditional ritual and practices because they don’t “work” for us is deadly poison.
This is not to say that ritual and practice can never change, but rather that we should be very, very careful about doing so. It is never sufficient to say it doesn’t work for us anymore, therefore we should quit doing it. How do you know that the problem is you? It could be that you aren’t working for it. If this tradition has been around for so long, maybe the people before you who kept it know something that you do not. You are not the End of History; the tradition was not made to please you.
In Orthodoxy, for example, nobody is going to listen to you if you start complaining that this or that part of traditional worship “doesn’t work” for you. They will tell you to stick with it, to give yourself over to it, to allow it to shape you instead of expecting it to conform to your own expectations. According to my priest, one-third of Orthodox converts fall away. I can easily imagine American converts coming to it, finding out that a tradition so symbolically dense is not easy to understand all at once, and giving up. If you stick with it, though, and submit to it, you will find over time that the practices and rituals do what they are supposed to do: form you in ways you couldn’t have imagined before. They de-center you.
The Catholic revert at the table said that she struggled for a long time with certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but finally understood that her problem was that she was trying to judge the entire tradition by the standards and felt needs of a 21st century Millennial American woman. “I finally realized that I needed to submit to something greater than myself,” she said, explaining that there are still things she wrestles with in Catholicism, but that submission was the right thing to do.
“I was looking for the perfect church, and it just doesn’t exist,” she said, adding that the problem, as she saw it, was that she was not judging her own religious life in light of tradition, but presumed to put tradition under her personal judgment.
We talked about the problem of Authority, which, to my mind, is the most difficult one for the Benedict Option to grapple with. One of the women at the table had grown up fundamentalist Baptist, and was scarred by it. She said that the community was very rigorous and intolerant, and highly literalistic. Questions were not allowed. One of the results of this — and this, she said, is something she sees in working with disaffected Evangelical young people in COS — is that people get this false dualism in their heads. That is, they think that if the Bible is not literally true, then everything must be up for grabs. That is not how historic Christianity has interpreted the Bible, of course, but within fundamentalism, this is not accepted or understood. So you have young people leaving Christianity without ever having had a genuine understanding of the breadth and depth of Christian tradition.
She also said that one of the things that drove her from that faith was the way it was all in your head. It was all about holding the correct belief. They learned lots of Scripture, for which she’s grateful, but he said that it ended up being a matter of worshiping the Bible, and a literal interpretation of it.
She continued that this kind of Christianity leaves young people vulnerable to the broader culture. Even the “it’s just me and Jesus and my Bible and my cup of coffee” form of Evangelicalism does this, because it trains people to look at the Bible as a divine rule book. “When it comes to something like homosexuality,” she said, “they see a culture that celebrates it uncritically, and the only thing they see in the church that opposes it is a few verses from the Bible.”
The gist of what she was saying is that Bibliolatry is a weak stance against the force of post-Christian culture.
“I see what you’re saying,” I said. “The argument you would hear from Catholics and Orthodox against homosexual practice goes much deeper than those Bible verses, even though those verses are important. It has to do with a Christian anthropology derived from Scripture, and philosophizing in a Christian sense. You can’t proof-text your way to that.”
This led to a discussion about the absence of a historical sense of the Church among Evangelicals (and they might have said younger Catholics too, and probably many cradle Orthodox). One of the women said that it’s very, very common among Evangelicals to operate from this sense that Christian history jumps from Acts to the Reformation. They ignore 1,500 years of Christian history. Thus, their own sense of what it means to be a Christian is entirely conditioned by modernity, a historical and cultural period that was defined as a cutting-off from the past, a denial that the past has a hold on us at all — this, because only by doing so can the freedom of the individual be realized. This is not what the Reformers intended, but it’s what happened, especially after the Enlightenment.
Along these lines, the secular philosopher Matthew B. Crawford says:
According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention. My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. … Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual.
Modern freedom is a kind of slavery — certainly for Christians. If you subscribe to this definition of freedom, you cannot help but be swayed by every new church trend that comes down the block. Millennials have to be given credit for one thing: they sense the ephemerality of contemporary Christianity that is geared towards “preference-satisfying behavior.” It cannot stand up to the hurricane of post-Christian culture.
It must be said too that an ahistorical Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) — that is, a Catholicism/Orthodoxy that has in its treasury all this historical experience and wisdom, but that never makes use of it by introducing the Tradition into the life of parishes here and now — is no better than trendy megachurch spirituality. In my 13 years worshiping as a Catholic in America, it was very rare that you got the sense that Christianity existed before the lifetimes of everybody now living. I mean, there was no manifest connection in the sermons or anything else with the lives of the saints, with the early church, with the experiences and teachings of medieval Christians, and so forth. You lived in the Everlasting Now. When my new Evangelical Anglican friend last night said that he was angry for a long time at his upbringing for denying him almost any awareness of and access to the Great Tradition of Christianity, you could say the same thing for contemporary American Catholicism. (I can’t say about Orthodoxy; there are so few of us, and my limited experience has been the opposite — though I have heard from Greek Orthodox Americans who fell away that this was their own experience). So, though Catholics and Orthodox have more tools for the Ben Op than Evangelicals do, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the way most of us live today is sufficient to hold on. We need those roots, and renewal within them.
In the end, the overall impression I left the table with this morning was that Millennials, whether they meant to do this or not, have come to the end of the road with modern Christianity, and are facing the fact that there’s nothing much keeping them attached to it, as opposed to drifting into the Nones category. And this will happen, in mass numbers, over the next decade or two as pressure from the mainstream, post-Christian culture builds. You cannot fight something powerful with nothing much.
But what is the answer?
This is what the Benedict Option project is about. I will close for now, and walk down the street to the big meeting. Check back on this blog later on, maybe even tonight, and I’ll blog what I will have learned this afternoon. One thing I didn’t bring up here, but that did come up in our conversation this morning: the need to recover a sacramental understanding of the world.
UPDATE.5: This will be the last update on this super-long post. As it turns out, I don’t have a lot to add. The meeting was really great, with lots of questions and lots of excitement — but it turned out to have me talking so much that I didn’t get the chance to take many notes. The best question I got was from a teacher in a classical school, who said that in her experience in the classroom, there’s a big difference between knowing what to think and knowing how to think. She wanted to know what implications that might have for the Benedict Option.
What a great observation, and question! I had not conceived of it that way, but the teacher had a really important insight. So much Christianity in our culture — even conservative, small-o orthodox Christianity — is a quest to discover what to think. What should we think about the poor? What should we think about same-sex marriage? What should we think about ecumenism? And so forth. These are good questions.
But as the teacher’s question revealed, we Christians so rarely set out to discover how to think in an authentically Christian way. We look to the Bible, or to the Catechism, or to popular pastors or teachers for clear, unambiguous answers. Often those answers are not readily available to us. We may be given a clear teaching or principle, but learning how to apply it in our particular situation is not at all clear.
Both fundamentalism and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism relieve us of the burden to think through a problem, because they provide easy answers. It is more important, though, that we learn how to think Christianly — that is, with a mind and conscience formed by deep and continuous encounter with God through prayer, sacrament, fasting, and holy tradition. This is not something you can get from reading books alone, or from reading whatever the most popular current Christian books are. This is something that comes from formation in community, including the communion of saints (= the men and women recognized as heroes of the Christian tradition, and learning from the example of how they lived and struggled with things).
My own temptation for all of my life as a Christian has been to go to a book or books to look for answers. This is not a bad thing, necessarily, but it is not a sufficient thing. As I’ve learned walking the Orthodox way for the past nine years, it is a weakness to think that one can always find the truth by acquiring more information. Some things can only be learned through experience. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised a young poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Along those lines, if we have lived the tradition in our daily lives, not just in what we think, but in our practices, we will be able to live our way into Christian answers to hard questions. And if we train ourselves and our children how to think as authentic Christians, we, and they, will be far better off as we face the tumultuous challenges ahead of us than if we, in our impatience, settle on the what-to-think solution.
This is not an easy thing to accept in a culture that demands clear answers right this very second. But it’s the truth, I believe. I am going to have to explore this teacher’s insight a lot more in the book (which my agent will begin shopping around to publishers next week, I think).
So, I’m leaving Colorado Springs tomorrow, so very, very grateful for having come here and met so many engaged Christians asking themselves the same questions I’m asking myself about how we can live faithfully in a post-Christian culture. Listening to them, and talking with them, is my own way of “living the questions,” and I really do believe that in this way, we will live out the answers. Thank you, Colorado Springs people. Let’s stay in touch.