Rod Dreher

E-mail Rod

Farewell, His Beatrice

Brendan Haug and Andrea Dawn Miller

It has become a commonplace observation in these parts that this blog has created an unusual community. I get up every morning and start writing it, and you get up every morning and start commenting on it. It is a strange place, a place filled with people who don’t really understand each other, and some of whom don’t want to understand each other. But here we are, day by day, talking, writing, thinking.

For me, this is hard work, but it really is a labor of love. The other day I received an e-mail from a reader that humbled me and made me grateful for the opportunity I have every day to be here in this place, messy as it usually is (it is like me in that way). The sender was a young professor at the University of Michigan classicist named Brendan Haug. Last week, his fiancee, Andrea  – that’s them above — died of colon cancer. He titled his e-mail “The Little Way of Andrea Dawn Miller,” not knowing that the day she died would have been Ruthie Leming’s 46th birthday. Brendan said that he used that title because Andrea’s cancer journey, which lasted only one brief year, revealed to him the beauty and power of love in community. He wrote:

As a widely-traveled academic who has lived all over the US and beyond, I am convinced of the inestimable value of education and travel, particularly for its ability to break down the walls of prejudice and hate that divide people from one another.  My experiences in Egypt and Jordan have shown me the beauty of Muslim culture and I will never forget the hospitality and kindness of all those I met in my travels throughout those countries.  The willingness of even the poorest to share their tiny homes and half of what little food and drink they had with a Christian stranger taught me that love and generosity are human and not solely Christian virtues.  As someone who comes from a small, close-knit community, I am also familiar with the often aggressive close-mindedness of small towns, their readiness to condemn outsiders and spurn those who leave to pursue a life away from their home soil.

But when terminal hardship strikes, only the rootedness of community can provide the care and support that are required to ease our transition from this life to the next.

Andrea lived all her life in southeastern Michigan and the outpouring of love and affection I witnessed throughout her illness and especially in her last few days was a beautiful example of the sort of communal strength that you describe so eloquently in your work.  Her family and friends, a veritable legion built up over 32 years of life and love, were a source of great strength and comfort during her struggle.  The love and support that they showed to my darling Andrea was so pure, so intense that I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again.  Just as she bore her illness with grace and without complaint or self-pity, so too did they bear the burden of supporting her and me.  No words can ever adequately express my gratitude and my admiration.

I know what he means. I wrote The Little Way of Ruthie Leming largely to express my regard for the love the community Ruthie loved and served showed to her and to my family during her long goodbye. But really, there are no words. I was deeply, deeply touched by Brendan telling me that this blog and my books — Little Way, and How Dante Can Save Your Life — gave him light and comfort in the dark wood of his beloved’s terminal illness.

He mentioned that he would be eulogizing Andrea at her funeral on Wednesday (that is, today). If you think it would honor her memory, I said, I would be pleased to publish your remarks on my blog. This afternoon, Brendan sent me the words he spoke today to tell his true love goodbye. Here they are:

Andrea Dawn Miller

8 March 1983-15 May 2015

First I want to thank all of you for being here.  Many of you I have come to know well over the last year and a half, some of you I have only recently met, others I do not yet know.  I only wish we could have come together under different circumstances.  I won’t say “better” circumstances or “more joyful” circumstances because, although we are grieving, what could be better or more joyful than the celebration of a life that, however brief, was the very embodiment of joy?

Now, as many of you already know, I’m a wandering academic.  Although I have found a permanent home in Ann Arbor, I’ve bounced around this country and beyond since graduating from high school, never staying long enough to forge meaningful connections to any one place.  But as a conservative by temperament and a scholar by training I have long known of the value of community and of the strength that people derive from rootedness, that is, from the deep and abiding connections to the places in which they were born and raised and from which they never stray very far.

Still, my appreciation for the value of community had always been abstract rather than experiential.  Only now, after all we have been through, do I truly understand.  Over the last year, I watched you come together to care for one of your own and I was continually awestruck and humbled by your strength and solidarity, by the unbreakable ties of love and fellowship that bind you to this beautiful place and to one another.  There is no way I can ever adequately express my gratitude to all of you for opening your homes and hearts to me and for allowing me into your world.  It was both my pleasure and my honor to love and to care for Andrea, your daughter, your sister, your aunt, your niece, your cousin, your coworker, and your friend.  Some of you have already told me that I have no choice in the matter now: I’m one of you.  Well, believe me when I say that nothing could make me happier.

As for Andrea, you have already heard much about her from the people who have known her since she was new to this world; there is little I can add to their words that would not be repetitive.  Perhaps the best I can do in this regard is reiterate what others have already said about Andrea’s strength.  I spent more time with her than anyone else during her illness and I can swear to you with God as my witness that she refused to be a victim; she refused to be beaten and to wallow in self-pity.  During her last long hospital stay, she told me that she was no longer afraid of death.  She feared only the effects that her passing would have on all of us (and, let us not forget, on our kitties Val and Morti).  That, simply put, was Andrea.  Yes, she was human.  Yes, she was flawed.  But her spirit was indomitable and her love for us was boundless.

And so I would like to spend the rest of my time today talking about love.  After all, love is the reason we are all here: our love for Andrea and our love for one another has brought us together to celebrate the life of someone whose heart was filled to bursting with love for her friends and family.  Even those of you who have come here on my behalf and who didn’t know Andrea well can surely sense the love in this room, radiating from every single person here.

Still, I want to sound a note of caution as we prepare to navigate the difficult road ahead.  Because it is so powerful, love has the potential lead us astray into a dark wood of sin and error.  As a Catholic, I believe that sin is real and that the greatest of sins are born not out of simple, everyday wickedness but out of love, or rather out of love that has been perverted.

For example, we are all of us called to love God above all things; indeed, there is no greater commandment.  But what if our love of God leads us into the self-righteous denigration of those who do not believe or who believe differently?  In this case, love has led us into sin for we have made our own faith into an idol and in worshiping it, we love not God but ourselves.

Our love for this country, too, is a beautiful and noble love, but it is all too easily warped into the worship of its power.  Imagining ourselves as gods, knowing good from evil, we rejoice in our foolish wars of choice, which destroy the lives of thousands: blood sacrifices to the false gods of universal freedom and democracy.

So too can the love of nature similarly lead us into the sin of pride and self-adulation, if it tempts us to look down in judgment upon those whose behavior falls short of our own personal standards of environmental virtue.

All of this is to say that although our capacity to love is God’s greatest gift to us, it is also his most dangerous, for, in our very human weakness, it can lead us away from virtue.  And so, in the days and months ahead, we must not allow our love for Andrea to lead us from the right path.  Of course, this task will be all the more difficult because her death seems so unfair.  “Why her?” we ask in anger.  “She never did anything to deserve this.  She did everything right!  Why didn’t she have more time?”  And so, convinced of the righteousness of a grief born from the union of love and anger, we risk allowing it to burrow into our souls and metastasize: a spiritual cancer that will one day soon consume us from within and leave us emptied of joy.  Embittered and spiteful, we will then find ourselves mired in a perpetual despair, unable to escape our self-made prison.

Or perhaps you are stronger than all of that.  Perhaps I’m am worried only about myself.  As a dear friend of mine in attendance today can attest, it is my nature to wrap myself in the comforting warmth of self-pity when I suffer an unjust loss.  Some years ago, at a time when I should have been a better roommate and a better friend to him, I chose instead to retreat both physically and spiritually into a despair from which I stubbornly refused to emerge.

But I don’t sense the same weakness in many of you.  In perusing Andrea’s Facebook profile over the last few days, yes, I have seen pain, yes I’ve seen anger, and yes, I’ve seen the seeds of despair.  But through it all I have also seen joy: the joy at having been able to share your life with her, no matter how briefly.  And so I urge you today to keep to this path, to continue to let your love and your grief guide you not toward the sin of sullen despair but toward grace and healing.  No amount of sorrow, no amount of anger at the injustice of the world will bring her back to us: to follow this road leads us only to spiritual desolation and living death.  Instead, let us all continue to be grateful for the time we had with her, let us be thankful that she is no longer in pain, and let us look to one another for help when we begin to falter.  And falter we will.  But just as Andrea’s spirit was unbreakable, so too is this community.  I know that I can count on each and every one of you to catch me when I fall and I hope you know that you can count on me as well.  This, then, is the best way to honor her memory: to let our love for her and for one another strengthen our bonds.  Individually we are weak and fragile; united and supported by love we are unbreakable.

And so I’ll close simply by saying we love you, Andrea, and we cannot thank you enough for bringing us together today.  I know you can hear us so please try not to worry: we are well, we will soon be better, and we will all be with you again someday.

Brendan said that Dante’s lessons guided him in writing this heartbreakingly beautiful goodbye, and that he brought How Dante Can Save Your Life to the funeral. Andrea’s parents gave him a bottle of fine bourbon, which he photographed next to the book:

Funeral

 

We carry each other. I am about to leave for evening prayer at our parish, and I will be praying for Brendan, for Andrea, and for all those who loved her. You do too, please, if only because you too are part of our little online fellowship, and your words matter, even if they are heard only by God. It’s all part of weaving, with words passed between and among strangers who are somehow friends, the sacramental tapestry.

O grace abounding and allowing me to dare

to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,

so deep my vision was consumed in It!

 

I saw how it contains within its depths

all things bound in a single book by love

of which creation is the scattered leaves…

– Dante, Paradiso XXXIII: 82-87 (Musa)

brendanandrea

Posted in . Tagged , , , , . 27 comments

‘Just a Hardened, Cynical Rejection’

A fascinating set of remarks from someone posting as Celia, in the “Evangelical Advantage” thread:

I left the Catholic church but recently rejoined it in part because of what I saw happening in the wider culture regarding religious liberty and freedoms being threatened. Indiana really knocked me off base. Also, when culture wars hit home personally, you feel it. A pivotal day occurred last March during a staff meeting, when we were discussing some brochures we meant to release. A new staff member, a committed gender theorist, expressed concern about using a portrait of a male subject to illustrate the self-same male subject. Her objection was based solely on the fact that the illustration would depict a man, even though a man was the subject of brochure.

At that moment my lifelong assumption of a culture of shared Logos was shattered. I wish I had said something obvious, but I was mute -– it felt as if we were suddenly all thrust into a bizarre alternate reality where even one’s identity as a male or female was subject to erasure by a ham-fisted cultural elite.

I thought about this incident for days. I was shocked to the core that a well-educated person of some importance in academia could say something that, at least on the face of it, appeared not only nonsensical, but deeply threatening to human dignity and freedom.

Thus, one either succumbs to the madness, or returns to church to take a stand.

It was hard to take a stand last night at a showing of “Far from the Madding Crowd.” I was in a theater in a university district. It was “Ladies Night,” half price for two or more women, and the theater was crowded with young women. I was with my own little group of ladies. During the film, groups of women laughed uproariously whenever one of Hardy’s men attempted to woo the lead lady. A humble 19th-century proposal of marriage elicited great guffaws from the leering spectators. Hilarity ensued when a man attempted to outline what he could offer the heroine in the way of protection and stability.

As a woman this shocked me to the core – I realized that any man who was not gay, misogynistic, or possibly misanthropic would come under the approbation of a new generation of female vipers. In a touching and ironic real-life finale, a strange man chivalrously waited for me to arrive at theater door and held it open for me as I exited that den of fools.

I am trying to give a sense of what life is like in an environment where there is virtually no religious feeling and no historical sense of gender complementarity, which is one of the core teachings of the orthodox faith. The church, when it’s not being directly attacked by the media, is being indirectly attacked by a culture that could never seek to understand religious grandeur, majesty, history, or meaning.

Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism contain a vast profusion of ideas over a span of two thousand years – ideas of God, Heaven and Hell, the purpose of life, art, beauty, social good, and human exceptionalism, excellence, and nobility.

Orthodox Christianity is a vast room filled to overflowing with a profusion of inexhaustible gifts. Protestantism appeals more, perhaps, to the need of Americans for a simplified approach, a streamlined emphasis on the Gospel as opposed to history, art, and the whole mysterious drama of the saints depicted within the walls of cathedrals.

In that theater audience last night, there was little mystery, sacredness, or beauty – just a hardened cynical rejection of something as plain and human as a 19th-century romance. Orthodoxy needs to stress its deep historicity and its astounding profusion of saints, sinners, theologians, epochs — if only to counter the coarse inability of a younger generation to appreciate civility, imaginative capacity, and Christian virtues of love and charity.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , . 50 comments

Jindal’s Religious Liberty Cynicism

You all know where I stand on religious liberty and gay rights. I agree with my governor, Bobby Jindal, that this is a serious issue. But I find him impossible to take seriously on the issue. Here’s what he’s done today:

Hours after a committee in the Louisiana Legislature effectively voted down a bill that would explicitly protect people and businesses that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage, Gov.Bobby Jindal issued an executive order on Tuesday to accomplish much of what the bill had set out to do.

“We don’t support discrimination in Louisiana and we do support religious liberty,” the governor said in a statement. “These two values can be upheld at the same time.”

Critics, including liberals and even some conservatives, as well influential business leaders, were sharply critical of the governor’s position, dismissing it as an attempt to court conservatives nationally in advance of his likely presidential run.

“It’s a cynical attempt to deflect from the failures of what should be the top legislative priority, what we’re dealing with every day, which is a broken state budget,” State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, a Democrat, said in a speech on the floor Tuesday afternoon. She noted that Mr. Jindal has been appearing in an ad in Iowa in which he discusses his views on religious liberty. The governor announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a 2016 presidential run earlier in the week.

I think she’s right. This has nothing to do with protecting religious liberty in Louisiana, and everything to do with trying to defibrillate Jindal’s moribund presidential prospects by getting a rise out of Evangelical primary voters.

Here’s why this is complicated. Is it the case that business interests cowed Republicans, who control the state legislature, from voting for this? Sure, absolutely. I’d say it’s not only possible, it’s likely. But here’s the thing: social conservatives, which includes most of the state legislature, are operating from a very weak position on this issue.

The legislature is trying to figure out how to deal with a near-catastrophic hole in the state budget, one that has become much worse over the years because of Gov. Jindal’s refusal to deal straightforwardly with it. Instead, Jindal relied on short-term gimmicks that allowed him to stay on Grover Norquist’s good side, and therefore keep his dream of being the GOP presidential nominee alive.

Ours is a very conservative state, and people don’t want gay marriage here, at least not at the present moment. I am certain that religious liberty is a concern, or would be if you asked voters. But the GOP-led legislature kicking that particular ball down the road is prudent at the present moment, for two reasons:

1) All legislation of this sort should be put on hold pending the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling next month. That will clarify matters.

2) The state’s fiscal problems are so overwhelming, and so consequential to the everyday lives of Louisianians, that we can’t afford to do anything right now to take the focus off of sorting the budget out and improving the economy. Gay marriage vs. religious liberty is not a fight we need in Louisiana, especially when there haven’t been any real challenges to it.

Why, exactly, should the Louisiana legislature, swamped by the budget disaster, invite a sh*tstorm right now for the sake of boosting Bobby Jindal’s flailing presidential primary prospects? Jindal didn’t issue that executive order (which, by the way, isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans) for the sake of the people of Louisiana. He did it for the sake of Republican primary voters in Iowa. So what else is new?

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , . 34 comments

Fundamentalism vs. the Benedict Option

Lots of Benedict Option stuff to write about today! I promise to answer Noah Millman’s post later, but I’ve got a lot of plates spinning in the air right now. Here’s an easy one to post, though. It’s some very helpful advice from a friend who is an Anglican pastor, who is broadly sympathetic to the Benedict Option project, but who says my inexperience with fundamentalism blinds me in key ways to how it is being perceived, and will be perceived. The pastor said that what I’m talking about is not fundamentalism, but it’s easy for people to think that it is:

It strikes me that fundamentalism is, in many ways, parasitic on the dominant culture, but what you’re seeking and envisioning is something that might be transformative of cultures–I don’t mean changing America really, I mean communities which are able to create a culture where life –and a culture of life– can thrive (whether or not that changes things outside of a particular community). I think of that example you used of the fundamentalist you met who only had Thomas Kinkade art, as opposed to a community that is capable of producing real beauty and real art, not just “safe” art on one hand  or shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking art on the other.

The other example I was thinking of is alternative Christian kids programming. I didn’t grow up with this because my family wasn’t super steeped in any kind of Christian sub-culture but I know kids who were only allowed to watch Psalty the Psalmbook, which is kind of like Barney for Christian kids I think. It’s basically kids entertainment with a Christian twist. I don’t have any problem with Psalty (I’ve literally never watched it so I have no strong feelings about it either way) but I was thinking about the difference between something like that and the story you told me about your kids keeping vigil before Easter (or wanting to…did they all actually do it?) [Yes, they did -- RD]. The former (my kids only watch Psalty) is this thin, individualistic reaction against bad messages in our culture, the latter is this thick, ancient, beautiful, communal, meaningful ancient practice that your children can get swept up in and that will teach them, profoundly, about truth and life and goodness. The former teaches kids to be different sorts of consumers, the latter teaches kids to be worshippers.

The Benedict Option is formed, I think, in your imagination by your own participation in ancient, layered, community practices of worship and counter-formation, but many of the people who are hearing about the Benedict option do not even have an imagination for that–they’ve never seen it–so it can sound like a thin sort of retreat and fear-based wagon circling. Part of your task will simply be to help their imaginations along, to help us to think of what an alternative community might look like and how it must be different than the sort of “Moral Majority” (except in community) or other reactionary movements in our recent past. The Benedictines were were not a parasitic or reactionary sub-culture but a true alternative, a people who were seeking together to learn to suffer well and serve others and pray and work and live well.

I think of Richard Rohr’s quote from Falling Upward: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better….I learned this from my father St. Francis, who did not concentrate on attacking evil or others, but just spent his life falling, and falling many times into the good, the true, and the beautiful. It was the only way he knew how to fall into God.”

Anyway, I’m not sure if this is helpful to you or not. I know you have thought about all of this way, way more than I have. But I thought I’d share these additional thoughts just in case they are at all helpful. I think you have to keep in mind the guy who has never thought sacramentally, who has never imagined children keeping vigil or the beauty of a Maundy Thursday service or the thick layers of grief and hope in a Christian funeral liturgy, and who only hears “Flee!” Unfortunately, the church has often done a poor job of displaying a really earthy, gritty, palpable alternative vision of the good. And that’s what is needed.

This is so good, and so helpful. I am at a real disadvantage trying to advocate for the Benedict Option because I don’t have a precise idea of what it looks like. As I’ve said, I have partial ideas, based on various actual communities in the world. But I’m not going to be able to say, “Do what they’re doing” until I actually go see them and talk to the people in them.  Mostly, I think this is going to be a new thing for most Christians, but something we’re going to have to experiment with out of necessity.

The impulse comes from these facts:

1. Our culture is post-Christian, trending anti-Christian. This is in the nature of secularism, and in the nature of liberalism — “liberalism” being not specifically the philosophy of the Democratic Party, but the philosophical assumptions arising out of the Enlightenment. Christians in America have been coasting on pre-Enlightenment capital for a long time. Those days are over.

2. Barring some kind of unforeseen catastrophe, secularism and liberalism are not going away any time soon. We have to figure out how to live with it, and in it.

3. But the evidence is that trying to harmonize Christianity with secular modernity does not Christianize secular modernity, but de-Christianizes Christianity. If the churches continue on this path, we are headed toward oblivion. Business as usual is managing decline into oblivion.

4. What, then? How can we hold on to what is distinctly Christian in an increasingly alien and even hostile culture, and not only hold on to it, but thrive? Fundamentalist, head-for-the-hills withdrawal is a non-starter, but so is what we’re now doing. How can we come up with a compelling, attractive alternative way of living out the faith in families and in communities? If secularism really is leading to the de-Christianization of the West, what do we who wish to resist what Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism” do about it?

I don’t have the answers. I don’t think anybody does — and I think this accounts for much of the fear and even loathing of this inquiry. But I think I know where the answers can be found, and this is what my planned book is going to be about. As I foresee it, the Benedict Option book will be an in-depth analysis of the problem, an examination of actual communities living a countercultural faith, followed by an analysis of what we can all learn from them. My intention is not to end discussion by saying, “Here is the formula,” but to define the problem and set a framework for creative, imaginative, yet practical discussion in the church about how to meet this challenge unprecedented in American history.

The Anglican pastor’s e-mail helps me to understand why I have had so much trouble convincing many people that I’m not talking about a fundamentalist running-away from something bad. They can’t conceive of strategic withdrawal in any other terms, because they don’t have any experience of what that might look like, and can’t imagine it. I have lots of work to do. I need your help on this. Collaboration and crowdsourcing with you all through this blog has helped me with my last two books, and it will be a tremendous help with this one.

UPDATE: This e-mail from a Millennial reader, slightly edited to protect his anonymity, is exactly what I mean by “a tremendous help”. I know nothing about the world of which he speaks, but I want to understand:

I have to agree with your Anglican friend. I come from a evangelical/pentecostal background myself,  and now that I’m in my early 20s, and starting to question my faith (I’m no longer comfortable with my parents church, and have been flirting with Eastern Orthodox and Anglican paths), I’m noticing more and more how very badly we’re put together as evangelicals. Even here in [my very red state], it would seem many who belong to certain denominations do so out of tradition, as a civil religion, and those who belong to non-denominational groups are at best familiar with the Bible as taught to us in Sunday School. Christianity is so ingrained into the culture as a cultural hallmark rather than a way of life, than anything else looks ‘Fundi’, and that’s met with a cold reaction.

I tried recently to talk to two of my friends about your idea of the Benedict Option, and the reception was like I had tried to offer them a baby on a silver platter. Both had back histories with [a culty, scandal-plagued, now-defunct Fundamentalist ministry], and thought it would end up just the same.

It’s incredibly difficult to explain why we need the BO, because there’s no point of reference for us. I can’t speak for all Evangelicals, but knowledge of our church history practically is blank aside from the book of Acts, the Reformation, and the 20th century. St, Augustine, St. Francis, and Martin Luther mean nothing to my peers (meaning those in my age bracket). To be honest, I’m not even sure if we know what real Christianity looks like either. Everyone of my friends who take their faith seriously, is looking to leave their church home for better pastures—-if only we can find them. So many Churches are bland, blind, and unchallenging, and very few seem at all concerned with where the body of Christ might end up in the coming years. While no one can be judged on the faith, by outward appearances, I’d say that very few Christians I see actually live out their faith. The idea of daily prayer, Scripture reading, and reflection is at odds with what we actually do (myself included).

While I don’t think it was in the intentions of the Reformation, I’m starting to wonder if abandoning (or at least making it optional, which of course means it won’t get done) the older ideas of prayer books, ropes/beads, and daily application of Christian living was setting us up for the state we’re in now. Certainly we’ve held on to the Bible and the basics better than those in the Mainline, but if we don’t grow out of our ‘Baby Christian’ stage and mature as a believer what good will it do when the troubles come?Perhaps we might need a third Great Awakening, and perhaps this Benedict Option might be a candidate.

 

 

Posted in . Tagged , . 46 comments

Iraq & the Liberal Memory Hole

stocklight / Shutterstock.com

Crackerjack column by Damon Linker today, laying into liberals and Democrats who tell themselves that the Iraq War all came about because the Bush administration lied about it, tricking poor liberals into going along with their evil plot. Linker:

But talk of lying insinuates far worse than this. It insinuates that senior members of the Bush administration, including the president himself, knew for a fact that Hussein wasn’t a threat and that he didn’t possess WMD — and then deliberately set out to make it look like the opposite was true in order to get the country to pursue a war that they knew to be unjustified.

That is itself a lie.

How do I know? Because I was a sentient observer of American politics in the late 1990s and early years of the 2000s. I read or listened in real time to most of the statements quoted in this useful Larry Elder column from 2006. Bill Clinton in 1998 and 2003; Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in February 1998; Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger in 1998; Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 1998; General Wesley Clark in 2002; Sen. John Rockefeller in 2002; French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 — all of them, and many more, expressed the overwhelming consensus of the Washington elite of both parties that Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD and that this made him a serious threat both to our allies in the region and the United States itself.

After the September 11 attacks, some members of the Washington elite concluded that this threat was now unacceptable — that Hussein had to be taken out by force of arms. I disagreed with them, despite working at the time for a conservative magazine that strongly endorsed the invasion. Did I do so because I thought the Bush administration was lying? No, not for a second. Very little of what I was hearing and reading at the time sounded different than what I’d been hearing and reading for years. Like just about every Democrat and Republican in Washington, I assumed Hussein maintained a covert WMD program and probably possessed stockpiles of such weapons.

Linker points out that he opposed the Iraq War at the time not because he thought that even if it was true about Saddam’s WMDs — and he believed it was — starting a war over them was idiotic. The problem, Linker insists, was not the lying of the Bush administration, but that the Washington consensus was wrong. 

He says:

What a relief it must be to exonerate oneself from complicity in a catastrophic mistake by portraying oneself as an innocent victim of a diabolical plot.

Read the whole thing.

I once warned some friends of mine not to make a particular investment, because it seemed pretty clear that it was a scam. They rebuked me, saying that my pessimism was unwarranted, and the person encouraging them to make that investment was good and decent and honest. I pleaded with them to consider the evidence, but they were bound and determined to invest. It just felt right, and shame on me for doubting the integrity of the friend inviting them to invest.

Well, they lost a bundle to this crook, and ended up wailing, “How were we to have known? We trusted a scam artist!” They still talk about how they are the real victims of the scam. What a relief it was to them to construe themselves as the innocent victims of a diabolical plot. They were deceived, and they wanted to be deceived.

Linker says the Democrats’ effective denial of their own fault in the Iraq disaster is even more maddening than the Republicans’ doubling down on the policies and worldview that landed us in Iraq. I think that the entire thing is incredibly discouraging, because it shows that our leadership class — and we, the people who vote for them — are unwilling to learn hard lessons from this catastrophe. Truth and wisdom doesn’t matter to these people, only the pursuit of power.

Posted in , , , . Tagged , , , , , , . 79 comments

The Evangelical Advantage

Leah Libresco has been digging deep into the Pew data sets, and has discovered that when Americans change religions, Evangelical Christianity is the religion most of them embrace. Excerpts:

If conversions went on as they do today and all other factors were held steady, America would wind up with the religious demographics of the stable distribution.

Unaffiliateds would wind up modestly gaining ground (from 23 percent at present to 29 percent).1 And Christian denominations would drop a little (from 69 percent at present to 62 percent at equilibrium).2

But there would be substantial redistribution among Christian groups, with evangelical Protestants gaining (26 percent at present to 32 percent) and Catholics losing more than half their current share of the population (21 percent to 8 percent).

Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They’re better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.

Leah, a recent convert to Catholicism, also looked at the role fertility has on increasing (or not) the size of each religious tribe. She found that the Nones — those without a religion, or without religious affiliation — are effectively infertile, having children at below the replacement rate. The news is bad for Orthodox Christians either way: my tribe isn’t having enough babies or converting enough people to replace ourselves, and are therefore declining overall. We are already a tiny minority, and because we are neither effectively evangelizing nor having children beyond the replacement rate, we are on track to extinction. Mormons and Muslims, as it turns out, do vastly better relying on fertility to increase their numbers, rather than conversions.

But the worst news is for Leah’s own tribe:

In either model, Catholics wind up as one of the biggest losers even though their odds of retaining the children born into their faith are in the middle of the pack. They’re not a strong enough attractor of people leaving other faiths to replenish the people they lose, and so their share diminishes to the single digits.

Understand what she’s saying here. If current trends continue — and Leah cautions that this model is not predictive, but rather is meant to cast light on which churches and faiths are better today at retaining and attracting new members — Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country. The big gainers are the Nones and Evangelicals. If the current trajectory continues, America is on track to be significantly less Christian country, though it will still be able to claim a Christian majority, and the kind of Christian most Americans will be — by a long shot — will be either Evangelical or Mormon (who, as non-Trinitarians, are not seen as technically Christian by other Christian churches, but who are plainly within the Christian tradition).

The fact is, Evangelicals are doing an incomparably better job than other Christian traditions at evangelizing and making converts, and Mormons (and Muslims) are doing an incomparably better job at having babies.

These numbers startled me. I had no idea that the Catholic collapse was so dramatic, probably because the headspace I live in daily, online, is so strongly Catholic. Catholicism is on track to become such a minority religion in America that absent some dramatic shake-up, its numbers will in the future look like those of historically black Protestants today. Now, one in five Americans is Catholic; on current projections, only about one in ten will be in the future. (I can’t tell what the timeline is here; how far into the future does the analysis run?). Of course anything might happen to change this trajectory, which is why Leah says that you should look at the data not as a sign of what’s going to happen, but rather of what’s happening now.

So, questions to the room:

1. What are Catholics doing wrong?

2. What are Evangelicals doing right? 

I have no experience with Evangelicalism, so I’ll defer to the judgment of you readers. My sense is that whatever flaws both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals may identify within that tradition, Evangelicals are much more successful than other Christian churches at making the encounter with God real to its people. And a lot of that has to do with their vigorous engagement with the Bible.

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it. Some intellectual Catholics of an orthodox orientation, conceding the flaws in worship, liturgical and otherwise, stand firm on the intellectual arguments for Catholicism. Despite its problems, they will say, the Roman church remains the church that Christ founded, and unlike all other churches (except the Orthodox, who are negligible in an Americn context) it has the Real Presence of the Eucharist at its center. I spoke to a frustrated but faithful Catholic recently who said that despite all the problems at the local level, he keeps going to mass because he believes that is the only place to truly experience Jesus in the Eucharist.

As an ex-Catholic turned Orthodox, I obviously don’t agree with that analysis, but it does make sense. The problem with it is that it does not make sense to most dissatisfied Catholics, as the dramatic Pew numbers show. It is the kind of thing it takes a mighty intellectual effort to hold on to, an effort that includes a significant amount of self-education in the doctrines of the Catholic faith. It’s not happening at the popular level. In her great little 2010 book Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland contends that Joseph Ratzinger was a prophet fighting against the sacrament factory. Excerpt:

For the second half of the twentieth century (especially since 1968) and the beginning of the twenty-first he has represented Catholic theology in the face of a militant secularism and various crises internally created within the Catholic Church. With respect to the latter, Philip Blosser offered the following indictment of post-Conciliar Catholic culture:

For more than two generations now, we [Catholics] have been robbed of the fullness of Catholicism, which is our birthright. With a few thankful exceptions, our collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, our knowledge of tradition is pathetic, our hymns are embarrassing, our religious art is ugly, our churches look like UN meditation chapels, our ethics are slipshod, and our aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they almost look ridiculous. … For over two generations our faith formation has been shaped by a media culture that has portrayed our Church as a dinosaur that is either an impediment to social progress or simply irrelevant. 

Amidst this general condition of cultural poverty, Ratzinger never pursued a strategy of accommodation to the culture of modernity, as was the preferred option of so many of his generation, but he did set about … to recapture the essential spirit of Christianity. … The development of a Christian personalism, in Ratzinger’s case, one heavily indebted to St. Augustine and Guardini, has been one of the positive post-Conciliar developments helping to counterbalance Blosser’s long list of humiliating failures.

Rowland goes on:

The rise of Catholic Inc. — the model of the Church as a modern corporation — has in recent times fostered this “tragedy of a starved imagination” [the phrase is the Catholic poet Paul Claudel's]. The pneumatological dimension of the Church is constantly suppressed by people with narrow imaginations focused on figures, annual reports and mission statements. Against this contemporary sociological development Ratzinger constantly reiterates the importance of the prophetic Pauline charism and the personalist nature of Catholic welfare and community service. Ratzinger’s use of the phrase “our bureaucratized faith” and his many warnings against this tendency of the Church to ape the managerial processes of the corporate world represent an acute sociological observation about the source of pastoral problems in the contemporary Church.

Rowland quotes a French Catholic theologian saying that at the root of the most serious crises the Catholic Church has faced in the modern era have to do with “the theological significance of experience.” She says that Ratzinger, in contrast to “neo-Thomists in the pre-Conciliar mode” and liberation theologians, has a robust Augustinian theology of beauty, from which he was able to judge the postconciliar aesthetic leveling of the Catholic experience. Also, she says, Ratzinger was able to perceive something his co-generationalists within the Catholic Church could not: that the question is not, “How can Christianity plausibly co-exist with secularism?”, but rather “What is the place of Christianity within a pluralistic culture in which people may choose any number of religious options, or no option at all?”

My sense is that Rowland’s take on Benedict’s worldview tells us a lot of why Catholicism is failing in America (and highlights the tragedy of the brevity of the great man’s papacy). The leadership class of the Catholic Church — bishops, theologians, and so forth — “gave themselves up to modernity just as the real avant-garde was beginning to critique it. They came out of their bunkers with their hands in the air as the enemy was departing for a new battlefield. The Catholic elite of this generation was left to look effete and irrelevant.” In an effort to be relevant to modernity, they surrendered the Catholic distinctives that stood in contradiction to the currents of modernity. Thus while Catholic theology remains intact, the transmission of that theology in the lived experience of the parish — both in worship and in catechetics — has badly broken down. Paradoxically, in many parishes, a worshiper in this most sacramentally-oriented of the major American Christian churches may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.

If you want a vivid, tangible sense of beauty, reverence, and sacramentalism within the ancient Christian tradition, Orthodoxy gives you that far better than the Roman church (though as I’ve said, we are tiny, and we do a poor job of making converts). If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people. I say “evidently” based solely on the numbers; I have little direct experience of Evangelicalism. The problem for Catholicism in America seems to be that the bureaucracy effectively embraced the Mainline Protestant ethos, casting aside Catholic distinctives, in a time in which Mainline Protestants were going into decline and losing market share to Evangelicals, with their more robust and engaged way of worshiping, and living out the Gospel. Leah Libresco’s data crunch seems to me to be another testimony to that theologian’s framing of all the big modern (= 18th century to the present) problems in Catholicism as one of the theological significance of experience.

In his First Things column today, George Weigel tears into the German Catholic bishops for their pastoral failures. He writes:

 Now comes this report for the synod, which suggests that, on matters of marriage, the family, the morality of human love, and the things that make for genuine happiness, German Catholic thinking is virtually indistinguishable from that of non-believers.

Yes, but if you poll American Catholics (not bishops alone), you’ll find that this is pretty much true for them too.

I have to say also that Catholic and Orthodox intellectuals — I am guilty of this — have a strong tendency toward self-satisfaction, resting in the beauty and the intellectual depth of our respective ancient traditions, but notably lacking in missionary zeal. This is not generally a problem for Evangelicals.

I eagerly await your comments, but I’m not going to publish comments that are crude tu quoque remarks. There is no Christian church in America that has the solution, though on evidence, the Evangelicals are doing far, far better than the rest of us. We non-Evangelical Christians should learn from them. So, let me repeat the questions I want us to talk about here:

1. What are Catholics doing wrong?

2. What are Evangelicals doing right? 

If you come from a non-Christian religious tradition, or a Christian tradition that is neither Catholic nor Evangelical, please feel free to comment on your tradition’s strengths and weaknesses in light of Leah’s analysis of Pew’s data. In my case, it’s pretty simple: Orthodoxy is so exotic in the American context that it’s hard for it to evangelize relative to other Christian churches, and it doesn’t do much evangelization anyway. The best form of Orthodox evangelism is to get someone to come to church. The experience of Orthodox worship can be overwhelming, in a good way. There’s just nothing else like it in American Christianity. Not even close. You really do have to come and see for yourself. But it’s hard to get people to do that, and I don’t think we try nearly as hard as we should.

Posted in . Tagged , , , , , , , , , . 162 comments

Heart of Darkness

A squeamish conversation with Anthony Beevor, the British historian of World War II, who talks about the facts of war that don’t make it into history books. Excerpts:

If there’s one thing that sets Beevor apart from other historians – beyond his gifts as a storyteller – it’s that he is not afraid to look at the most uncomfortable, even frightening subjects, but does so in a way that doesn’t threaten the reader. There’s rarely a judgmental note to his writing. It’s like having Virgil there to lead you through the underworld: he doesn’t leave you stranded amid the horror, but leads you back out again, a wiser person for having undergone the journey.

He has a knack for choosing controversial subjects at the right moment – when they are raw enough to touch a nerve, but not so raw as to be too painful to acknowledge. His latest is an account of the battle of the Ardennes in 1944. The book, which comes out this month, is a natural progression from his earlier history of D-Day. There is the same political tension between the British and American commanders; there is the same desperation in the fighting of ordinary soldiers on both sides; but at the heart of it lies another dark subject: the indiscriminate killing of prisoners. This, Beevor says, is “unmentionable”, one of the last taboos of the war. “I still haven’t read any American historian on the subject of the shooting of prisoners. And until recently I don’t think many British historians have written about the British killing of prisoners. That was something the Germans did, but we prefer not to talk about our boys doing it.”

Beevor speaks of fighting between Americans and Germans in a thickly forested part of the Ardennes:

Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.

“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.

The things the Germans did, the things we did, beggar belief. One last excerpt:

As we talk, it is clear that Beevor struggles with these issues. Outside academia, there are few people who are prepared to look unflinchingly at the less flattering parts of our behaviour – and certainly no one with Beevor’s large readership has. What’s more, it is one thing to state that such events happened – an admission that many historians have shied away from – but quite another to know how to react to them. The whole subject runs counter to our most cherished communal myths about British and American heroism and gallantry.
Beevor knows instinctively that he must tread carefully, neither condoning the revenge nor reaching for outright condemnation.

“I think what one should try to do is to leave the moral judgments up to the reader. There’s no use in being judgmental. Far from it; we can only speculate as to how we would react in the circumstances ourselves,” he says.

Read the whole thing.

For me, the most intellectually and morally difficult task is facing the horror of what Our Side (e.g., our ancestors, our country, our church) did in a given situation, without surrendering to the despair of nihilism. I was watching Selma with the kids the other night, and telling them, to their very great shock, that such things happened right here in our town too. When I wrote a while back about the reign of racist terror that white supremacists — my own ancestors, broadly speaking — presided over in the South, I compared it to the rule of ISIS. 

That angered lots of readers, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe the lawless terror, including killings, for the sake of ideology. It doesn’t look like that to whites today, because that world disappeared so quickly, and it’s hard for us to imagine what it would have been like to have lived knowing that white power could and would kill you for getting out of line, and there was nothing you could do about it, because these people controlled the legal system. We Americans look at the atrocities that ISIS perpetrates, and are rightly horrified by them, especially by the revelry in sadism and gore that those Islamist berserkers embrace.

We did it too. As I wrote in that ISIS post:

See the photo that illustrates this blog post? It shows the charred remains of Jesse Washington, a black man lynched by a mob in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He had confessed under police interrogation to murdering a white woman. From the Wikipedia account of his lynching:

Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with furious locals. He entered a guilty plea and was quickly sentenced to death. After his sentence was pronounced, he was dragged out of the court by observers and lynched in front of Waco’s city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch the attack. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the event, and many children attended during their lunch hour. Members of the mob castrated Washington, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered and raised over the fire for about two hours. After the fire was extinguished, his charred torso was dragged through the town and parts of his body were sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the event unfolded, providing rare imagery of a lynching in progress. The pictures were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.

That was not the Middle Ages. That was 99 years ago, in Texas. The killers were not berserker jihadis. They were the people of Waco, Texas, including the leadership of the city.

It is a recurrent theme in human history that we tell ourselves lies to hide our own complicity in evil from ourselves, and to absolve ourselves of guilt. One of my favorite films, but a difficult one to watch, is Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity,  a lengthy 1969 documentary about collaborationists in Nazi-occupied France. It’s a spellbinding work, because it shows how ordinary people, people we might otherwise think of as good, do horrible things and justify them. Not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been put to that test, just as not one of us knows how we would have acted had we been under fire in the Ardennes, and faced with taking as prisoners German soldiers who had committed war crimes.

We tell ourselves after the fact that the Cause, whatever it is, or was, absolves us, but it doesn’t, not really. War is at best a necessary evil. But an evil all the same.

And not only war. I feel certain that every Catholic bishop who facilitated child sexual abuse did so not because he wanted to see children abused, but because he thought that covering up these atrocities was necessary for the Cause. If it had not been for the courageous Boston Judge Constance Sweeney opening up the evidence in the Geoghan trial to the public, it would have been easy for those inclined to deny the truth to continue in their delusion. The people within our government’s national security apparatus who have signed off on torture, and who have approved massive spying on American citizens, no doubt aren’t doing it because they choose evil, but because they believe the good requires it.

“History will absolve me.”

It is our way as humans to see the world from the point of view of Exceptionalism: we as, [fill in the blank with race, religion, nationality, sexuality, political ideology, etc.], are not guilty, because we mean well, or were forced into behaving that way, or because Good People Like Us Can’t Possibly Be Guilty, Unlike Those Not Like Us.

“Mistakes were made.” 

I want to believe that I would not have shot surrendering German prisoners, or would not have gone to that barbaric public lynching. But I cannot say with confidence what I would or would not have done. Unless you were there, neither can you.

Posted in . Tagged , , , , , . 61 comments

Yes, We Lost the Culture War

Brought to you by Disney. Yes, Disney. Tells you all you need to know about where America is today — and where we are going.

If you are not a Benedict Option kind of Christian, your children and grandchildren probably won’t be any kind of Christian at all. This kind of thing — this relentless propaganda mocking the faith and what it stands for — is why. You may not be interested in being a radicalized Christian, but simply to stand firm for what you believe today will require you to be a radical in this increasingly anti-Christian culture.

UPDATE: Readers, it’s not that I expect this show to be a big hit. It’s the idea that a mainstream network would offer something so crass, vulgar, and hateful of religion as a comedy. This thing will likely fail, but that mentality will keep coming back, because it’s what lives in the imaginations of the people who run the image factory.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 114 comments

Benedict Option Reading List

photo-5

Above, a photo I just took of the books from my library that I have set aside for reading to inform me in the book I plan to write about the Benedict Option. I don’t believe this is an exhaustive list — I need to read Morris Berman, for example — but it is where I stand right now. A survey of these titles should make it clear that this is a theological and cultural project, not primarily a political one.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I have Hauerwas on order.

Posted in . Tagged . 76 comments

The Benedict Option & Antipolitical Politics

photo-3

My friend Damon Linker writes today about our little project:

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.

He talks about how the standard base for Religious Right political activism over the past generation was a view that they stood for a “moral majority,” and if only they defeated the liberal elites controlling institutions of law and government, they would restore health to the body politic. It didn’t work. Despite the hope the George W. Bush presidency gave to many religious conservatives (both Evangelical and Catholic), they were dashed by reality. More Linker:

The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.

But nothing compares to the gloom that’s set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

That’s where the Benedict Option comes in.

He talks about the politics of all this, pointing out that this inward turn toward “community building” within Christianity does not require, and will almost certainly not occasion, Amish-style political quietism, and will not be like the Fundamentalist withdrawal from public life of the early 20th century. He’s right about that, in my view, for reasons I have explained earlier on this blog, and will no doubt explain again. The headline for the essay overstates the case, though, saying that religious conservatives are considering “all-out withdrawal from politics.” No, that’s not true.

Here, in Linker’s words, is the radicalism of this present moment:

Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

We have entered uncharted territory.

Read the whole thing.

This offers me the opportunity to clarify something. The legalization of same-sex marriage, and the clear and irresolvable conflict it poses to religious liberty in our liberal order, has sharpened the vision of some religious conservatives. It has made clear how far the secularizing culture has moved away from its general Christian framework, and reveals how when it comes to a question of religious liberty versus gay rights, the elites in this culture — even Republican ones — will always side with gay rights. And increasingly, so will the public. The shock of Indiana to people like me was what it revealed about the state of the religious sense, and Christian conviction, in this country — not just within the Republican Party.

The point here is to make crystal clear that the Benedict Option is not a reactionary response to same-sex marriage. As I have said, if same-sex marriage were not an issue, and if the Republicans were running all branches of government, the Benedict Option would still be necessary for small-o orthodox Christians, because the logic and progression of secular modernity has hollowed out the Christian faith from within. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as sociologist Christian Smith has written, is the de facto faith of most American teenagers — and, let us be honest, of most Americans. It is a counterfeit form of Christianity, the form of the faith that secular modernity produces. It is our form of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned as “cheap grace … the deadly enemy of the church.”

Though it has political implications, the Benedict Option is not primarily a political project. It is primarily a theological and cultural project. It requires not a withdrawal from political life, but a strong recalibration on the part of Christians of what is possible through politics in a liberal order, and what is necessary to do for the sake of the preservation, over time, of authentic Christianity in a post-Christian and increasingly anti-Christian culture.

In fact, it is an example of what Vaclav Havel once dubbed “antipolitical politics.” The writer Robert Inchausti, in his great book Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, has a good take on this:

Modern novelists may have diagnosed our current spiritual situation with clarity and power, but their visions must be transformed into practice if we really want to test their value as criticisms of life. The Christian social activists examined in this section [e.g., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry] bring visionary standards to bear on the social realities of their times. Each of them advocate what Vaclav Havel calls “antipolitical politics,” politics not as an art of manipulation or rule over others, but as a way of achieving meaningful lives together, politics as “practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.” Their collective work constitutes the beginning of a unified front against the “political politics” of both left- and right-wing ideologues, carrying forward Chesterton’s notions of decentralization and “distributism” into the twenty-first century. At first glance, this road not taken may seem a bit anachronistic and nostalgic, but for those for whom the Beatitudes still remain the last word in social ethics, it deserves a hard and close second look.

According to these religious theorist-practitioners, the primary threat to human autonomy no longer comes from “nature” or from “tyrants” but from economic, political, and social systems of our own making that have become increasingly powerful, increasingly self-perpetuating, and increasingly out of control. The men and women who operate these systems benefit by them and defend them with their lives but don’t really understand the impact they have on other individuals or cultures. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to do much about it given the complexities of the systems they serve and the enormity of the problems they face.

The response, these thinkers broadly indicate, is moving toward a smaller, more local economy. That is a political vision, but not one that fits into standard American ideology. As elite law professor “Prof. Kingsfield” said to me in our must-read interview, the legal revolution in gay and transgender rights is going to have dramatic impact on Christians, including at the economic level. This is not theory; this is happening now, and will expand greatly after the expected SCOTUS decision constitutionalizing same-sex marriage. As Kingsfield said, we are now at the point at which it is legitimate to ask if sexual autonomy is more important than the First Amendment.

In a 1984 essay, the Czech dissident Havel — who was not a religious man — wrote:

I am convinced that what is called ‘dissent’ in the Soviet bloc is a specific modern experience, the experience of life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that ‘dissent’ has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest of mankind.

One such fundamental experience, that which I called ‘anti-political politics’, is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long term and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience and subconsciousness and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the ‘innocent’ power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakeable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honouring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.

Yes, ‘anti-political politics’ is possible. Politics ‘from below’. Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the ‘rule of everydayness’ we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.

When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity. Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power—the phenomenon of human conscience?

This is the general orientation I have in mind when thinking about the Benedict Option: not a fearful fundamentalist withdrawal from culture, but a new and concentrated inwardness so that we can strengthen our communal lives and our outward witness and service to the broader culture. The urgency of this project, and the radicalism of the present moment, is captured by the Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby, in his First Things essay about the civic Christianity project. Excerpt:

[T]here can be little doubt that we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago. What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that manwomanmother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency. This is astonishing by any measure; that it has occurred in half the time span proposed by Jonas makes it more astonishing still.

Such are the logical consequences of the sexual revolution, but to grasp more fully the meaning of its triumph, we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.

In other words: this is not a Christian nation anymore, meaning a nation that is guided by fundamental Christian ideas of what it means to be human, and what it means to be just. What Hanby calls the “civic project of American Christianity” is the attempt to harmonize Christianity with the liberal political and social order. It has always been in tension, but now that tension has reached the breaking point, says Hanby:

This [philosophical] rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms or of the free, self-­defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.

Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.

He says — rightly, in my opinion — that we cannot pursue an all-out withdrawal from politics, as so many people (including The Week‘s headline writer) wrongly think we advocate, but we do have to radically rethink our place within this order. More Hanby:

Yet something greater than liberal freedom is at stake. There seems to be a prevailing sense that this moment is something of a kairos for American Christianity, a moment of deep change in the public significance of Christianity and a moment of decision in the life of the Church. When George Weigel concedes his naivete over the possibility of a “Catholic moment” in America and concludes that the West no longer understands freedom, or when Robert George solemnly declares to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast the end of “comfortable” Christianity, then you know that the times they are a-changin’. Perhaps this kairos is a chance for some sort of synthesis rather than a showdown, for an opportunity to rediscover those dimensions of Christian existence that comfortable Christianity has caused us to neglect, and an opportunity not simply to confront but also to serve our country in a new and deeper way.

This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.

A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason,the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.

This quest requires an internal renewal of theology and philosophy—not merely as academic disciplines, but as ways of life—and they need to be brought to bear on the governing assumptions, the unarticulated ontology of our culture. In other words, we will need a much more penetrating ontological engagement with the first principles of liberal and secular order than has heretofore characterized American Christian thought. We will need a deeper assessment of how liberal principles shape both the objects of our thought and the very form of our thinking. Only thus can we really hope to come to grips with the true depths of our predicament and help our liberal culture understand the truth about itself and the profound implications of its present course toward an impoverished absolutism now poised to seize control of the most primitive junction between nature and culture—the family itself.

Read the whole thing. 

A friend who is sympathetic to the Benedict Option tells me that it’s significant that Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, chose to respond to Nazi occupation by making theater with his friends. Curious as to the connection, I went back to George Weigel’s authoritative biography of the Pope, and read this:

This new form of drama was an artistic experiment but [Wojtyla's theatrical comrade Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk] also saw that it could be “a protest against the extermination of the Polish nation’s culture on its own soil, a form of underground resistance movement against the Nazi Occupation.” As the Pope later recalled, what came to be known as the Rhapsodic Theater “was born in that room,” let by Karol Wojtyla to the refugee Kotlarczyks.

… The Christian subtext to the Rhapsodic Theater, which reflected the New Testament image of the world created through the Word, the Logos who was with God and who was God (see John 1.1-3), also found expression in Kotlarczyk’s understanding of theater as ritual. In the world according to Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, one did not simply to to the theater to be entertained. Rather, Kotlarczyk deliberately crafted the dramatic method of the Rhapsodists to evoke sentiments of transcendence and patriotism in a quasi-liturgical atmosphere.

The word of truth, publicly, indeed almost liturgically, proclaimed was the antidote the Rhapsodic Theater sought to apply to the violent lies of the Occupation. The tools for fighting evil included speaking truth to power. That was what Kotlarczyk and his Rhapsodic Theater believed, and lived. That believe and that experience made an indelible impression of Karol Wojtyla, who would not forget when, on a different kind of state, he would confront another totalitarian power in the future.

Sone have suggested that, confronted by the horror of Nazi-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla retreated into a religious quietism. In the light of evidence, it is clear that the had a decision to make. Some young Poles chose armed resistance or clandestine sabotage. The evidence makes clear that Karol Wojtyla deliberately chose the power of resistance through culture… [Emphasis mine -- RD].

The Benedict Option is absolutely not a retreat into religious quietism. Broadly speaking, it is a form of resistance through culture. It is not retreat from what is false, but an embrace — a joyful one — of what is true. And given the chaotic nature of the time, the church’s attention must be more focused on telling and living out our own story, which we are forgetting. Dorothy Day, for example, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was anything but a religious quietist, but she had to go deep into Catholic thought, worship, and life to stay clear-eyed and stout-hearted.

It is a sign of how impoverished our thinking is that we can only conceive of resistance in terms of engagement in conventional politics. We can only begin to see things as they really are by giving up the impossible project of synthesizing Christianity with what the liberal, post-Christian order has become.

Is this “deeply pessimistic,” as Damon says? From a liberal (= conventional Republican and Democratic) point of view, yes. But I think of it as deeply optimistic, because it proclaims light and hope amid the darkness.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . 54 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →