If you haven’t yet read my TAC colleague Scott McConnell’s excellent primer on the political and cultural climate in France on the eve of its election, please do. As Scott puts it:
Think what you will about America’s contentious identity politics; compared with France, the United States remains Mayberry, TV’s symbol of small-town innocence. We may have Black Lives Matter, massive resistance to a president seeking to enforce the country’s existing immigration laws, and urban riots. But in France the riots are bigger and last far longer. It has hundreds of thousands of people possessing French citizenship but evincing no discernible national loyalty. And there are few geographic barriers between itself and the sources of inundating immigration. No one can forecast with confidence the American future—whether it be a more or less successful assimilation of large streams of new immigrants or a transformed country where ethnic division is a norm underpinning every political transaction. But whatever the fate of Western civilization—whether it be a renaissance, or, as Pat Buchanan has predicted, its death—that fate will be revealed in Paris before New York or Chicago.
Note this passage especially:
Last year Michel Gurfinkiel weighed conflicting estimates (between three and six million) of the number of French Muslims in the mid-1990s and contrasted them with present estimates. He concluded that the current figure is roughly six million, or 9 percent of the population, and that it is growing at a much faster rate than the French population as a whole. As early as 2010, fully 20 percent of French under 24 were described as Muslim. A more recent poll in the liberal French weekly L’Obs reported that more than a quarter of French youth described themselves as Muslim.
Because the government does not publish statistics about race, some curious researchers have looked at the number of newborn babies screened for markers for sickle-cell anemia, a test given if both parents are of African, North African, or Sicilian origin. The figure has risen from 25 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2015. In the Greater Paris region it has risen from 54 percent to 73 percent. One understands why Houellebecq’s right-wing professor says he wants the inevitable civil war to come “as soon as possible.”
This article from the NYT touches on the impossibility of the French police monitoring every French person on its radicalism watch list:
Jean-Charles Brisard, the chairman of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris, called the idea “absurd” and said France could not jettison civil liberties.
He added that putting everyone on the S List under surveillance was impossible, because there are more than 10,000 names and fewer than 5,000 agents. It takes 20 agents per suspect for 24-hour surveillance, he said, meaning France could perform round-the-clock surveillance of only a small fraction of those suspected of being radicalized.
“My profound conviction is that unfortunately we need to get used to living with this new threat,” Mr. Brisard said. “It’s permanent, it’s diffuse and it can erupt at any moment.”
You begin to see why ordinary French people speculate about a coming civil war within France.
In the wake of the shooting Le Pen called for foreign terror suspects to be expelled immediately and said it was a ‘ceaseless and merciless war’ against France which required ‘a presidency which acts and protects us’.
The killer of the Champs-Elysées was French-born, but Le Pen surely understands that expelling French citizens is not possible. But if France can expel those radicals without a legal right to remain in the country, it should, whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.
Even if that radical step were to happen, it would only put a dent in the problem. The C-E killer was, as I said, French-born, but he was not on the S List (the government’s terrorism watch list), even though he had served a prison term for trying to murder police officers:
The attacker, a 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi, was known to French security services. Media reported he had served nearly 15 years in prison after being convicted of three attempted murders, two against police officers, and was released on parole in 2015.
The attacker was shot dead by police in the van while trying to flee the scene on foot. A statement from the Isis propaganda agency, Amaq, said the attack was carried out by an “Islamic State fighter”.
… A house in the eastern suburb of Chelles, believed to be Cheurfi’s family home, was being searched on Friday. Le Parisien newspaper said the address matched that of the owner of the car used in the attack.
Police found a pump-action shotgun, knives and a Qur’an in the vehicle, while a handwritten note praising Isis was later recovered near the dead attacker, police sources told local media.
They said Cheurfi was arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released because of lack of evidence. He was reportedly not, however, on France’s “Fiche-S”, the list of people suspected of being a threat to national security.
The threats came at an unusual turn in Kepel’s career. He has long been a prominent figure in the French intellectual world, a scholar whose face — a distinctive, narrow-eyed mask of polished sobriety — is often seen on TV news shows. But recently he has assumed a far more combative stance. Kepel has argued that much of France’s left-leaning intelligentsia fails to understand the nature of the threat the country faces — not just from foreign terrorists but also from the Islamist provocateurs in its exurban ghettos, the banlieues. Unlike the Islam-bashing polemicists who haunt French opinion pages, Kepel brings a lifetime of scholarship to this argument. He has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xenophobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.
One of the most common critiques of Kepel is that his relentless focus on Islam casts a shadow of suspicion onto all French Muslims. As [Olivier] Roy put it to me, “If you say it’s a religious issue, then the extremists are seen as the avant-garde of the whole Muslim population.” Jean-Pierre Filiu, another prominent French scholar of the Islamic world, pointed out that several thousand Muslims marched for peace in Mantes-la-Jolie after the Abballa murders, many of them bearing pictures of the murdered couple and posters denouncing terrorism, and laid wreaths on the steps of the local Police Headquarters. There was no one there to greet them, and not much news coverage. “The jihadis want to blur the lines, but the lines should be clear,” Filiu told me. “It’s not the Salafis who are against us, and not the Muslims. It’s the jihadis.”
These are generous sentiments, and no doubt many French Muslims appreciate them. Kepel would say they seem less aimed at truth than tact, the idea that hurting Muslim feelings will poison the atmosphere further. At its extreme, this view risks its own form of condescension: Be nice to Muslims or they will turn into suicide bombers.
Kepel has argued in his recent books that the French Muslim community, once guided by the paternalist figures from the old country known as darons, is now increasingly under the sway of younger and far more confrontational Islamists. These ideologists, Kepel believes, have fostered a rupture with French values that nourishes the ISIS narrative. Yet some French intellectuals naïvely disregard or even embrace these figures in the hopes of “isolating the radicals.” In other words, Kepel turns the accusation of Filiu and Roy — that his own emphasis on Islam is unwittingly doing the work of ISIS — against them. Kepel likes to cite ISIS propaganda urging its followers in Europe to hide behind the language of victimhood, including one document shared among ISIS sympathizers titled “How to Survive in the West,” which includes the following lines: “A real war is heating up in the heart of Europe. … The leaders of disbelief repeatedly lie in the media and say that we Muslims are all terrorists, while we denied it and wanted to be peaceful citizens. But they have cornered us and forced us into becoming radicalized.”
With all this attention focused on them, many jihadis are now adapting, and have become far better at disguising their beliefs. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist who has spent many years researching Muslims in the French prison system, told me it has become almost impossible to get honest testimony out of the inmates. Many of them shave their beards, Khosrokhavar said, and adopt a mild demeanor, and sometimes they even stop praying and fasting during Ramadan, all so as to deceive the authorities and, presumably, get out of prison faster.
… Just before we left, I asked the North African [Muslim prisoner] whether he expected the recent wave of terrorist attacks in France to continue. This was just after the arrest of several terrorist cells, and two months before a machete-wielding jihadist attacked guards near the Louvre. He gave me a somber look. “This is just the beginning,” he said.
Read the whole thing. The author talks to French Muslims who actually agree with Kepel, and say that the real problem is the spread of Gulf-sponsored Salafism among French Muslims.
Poor France. Like Scott McConnell said, France is in the vanguard of issues that will eventually confront most Western nations.
Behold, a couple of reviews of The Benedict Option by reviewers who really understood the book.
First, excerpts from Thomas Ascik’s review in The Imaginative Conservative. Like me, Ascik is frustrated that many commenters who dismiss the book don’t seem to be reacting to what’s actually in the thing:
Rod Dreher, in his much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right, disagrees with this assessment, from liberal critic Emma Green (“Christianity is no longer the cultural default”), to conservative writers Fr. Dwight Longenecker (“the tsunami of anti-Christian culture”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“traditional religion in all its forms has become a counterculture in the West”), to Patrick Gilger (“Christian America is already a contradiction in terms”) and Damon Linker (“a minority in a majority secular nation”) also agree.
So, how should Christians react to the widely acknowledged reality that Christendom—that is, civilization and culture based on Christian principles and morality—is dead? Mr. Dreher says that “Christians are now in a time of decision,” and he calls on them to take concrete steps to preserve their Christian way of life in this country. Almost all the reviews of Mr. Dreher’s book concentrate on and criticize his supposedly monastic and society-denying “option” and downplay his very uncomfortable assessment of the need for that option. This review does the opposite.
Thank you, Thomas Ascik! It is interesting to see how many conservatives agree with me that we’re in some sort of civilizational crisis, but who resist the idea that we have to do anything different in response to it.
Though Mr. Dreher says that Christian politics has failed, he does not argue—contrary to what several of his critics claim—that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he proposes “anti-political politics.” By this, he means, first, that because society is post-Christian, political and social opportunities are somewhat limited. Second, since culture is part of politics, the concentration by Christians should be on opportunities to affect local culture first. Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.
In perhaps his most challenging chapter and the chapter that almost all reviewers have avoided talking about, Mr. Dreher points out that since Christianity is incarnational—that is, embodied—it has everything to do with the body, which means it has everything to do with sex. The Christian faith is lived every day by men and women—“male and female He created them”—in complementarity. Jesus took on a human body and came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls. The way we treat our bodies is our response to Jesus’ embodiment. Sexual practices are “central,” to Christian life and “the linchpin” of Christian culture, Mr. Dreher contends. The predominant reason people abandon Christianity has to do with Christian sexual morality rather than theology.
The “body,” both for individuals and for the social body, is now in advanced crisis in this country. Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism are fundamental aspects of the body and what it means—if anything—to say that we are bodily creatures. Although he asserts at one point that “future historians” may find it hard to understand “how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned,” at another point he answers the question on his own. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly based on “what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.”
Mr. Dreher is hard on pastors. He says that “far too many pastors are afraid to talk about sex” with the consequence that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth.” He cites a Southern Baptist who remembers that he never heard a sermon while growing up about sexual complementarity or “why my body is a good thing.” Mr. Dreher cites his own twenty-year experience as a Catholic and Orthodox that he has “yet to hear a sermon explaining in any depth what Christianity teaches about the human person and about the rightly ordered use of sex.” The experience of this reviewer in the Catholic Church is the same, and this reviewer wagers that it is the same for almost every reader of this essay. Without the positive evangelizing of the theological meaning and destiny of the human body, the challenging and elevated purpose of chastity, and the noble unifying of male and female in marriage, the Christian churches are left with a bunch of off-putting sexual “thou-shalt-not’s” (when they even say that).
Reviewers also ignore Chapter 3, which is all about the monks of Norcia, and why (and how) lay Christians can adapt some of their practices to strengthen our own spiritual lives outside the monastery.
Here is an excellent review written by Trappist Father Edmund Waldstein. It’s a highly personal reflection by a young Austrian priest-monk. Here’s how it begins:
One of the great sorrows that I encounter as a priest is the sorrow of parents whose children have abandoned the Faith. Their sorrow can be more bitter even than the sorrows of those parents who suffer the fata aspera of having to bury their children. To have given the gift of life, only to see that gift taken too soon, and to be able to give only the “unavailing gift” of funeral flowers, is a bitter fate indeed. But for those who have come to believe that true life is the eternal life of Christ, it is still more bitter to have brought a child to the waters of Baptism, hoping for that child to receive a share in the inheritance of infinite bliss, only to see that child trade the infinite good for the vain pomps of this world. If it were not for the hope of future repentance, this would be almost too much to bear. And yet, it is a sorrow that Christian parents have had to bear at all times. Children of believing parents have been abandoning the narrow way that leads to eternal life since the Church began. But the great falling away from the faith in Austria in the past five or six decades or so have given so many parents that sorrow. It is of course difficult to tell whether that is because hypermodern culture has actually led more children astray, or whether it has simply made straying more obvious— previous generations of worldly children were perhaps better at pretending to their parents that they were still in a state of grace. When I tell such parents that I come from a family of eight children they often ask me whether all of my brothers and sisters are still practicing Catholics. And when I answer affirmatively they invariably ask: “How did your parents do it?”
That question occurred to me again as I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book is largely about the question of how parents can so live their lives that they can communicate the joy of life in Christ to their children. How can they avoid the pressures of a secular culture that seems ever more successful at drawing souls away? Dreher’s book made me reflect on my own experience, and so this review will have a somewhat autobiographical character. Readers who find such an intrusion of the autobiographical boastful or self-absorbed need read no further; they are unlikely to like Dreher’s book either, since he too illustrates his arguments from his own experience. My intention is not to hold up my own upbringing and family as an exemplar of perfection, nor to suggest that parents must do something similar to my parents if their children are to keep the faith— there are contrary examples— but simply to give an illustration of one possible answer to the question of how parents can help their children keep the Faith.
He then has a long theological and biographical digression, one that I found absorbing. And Father Waldstein can be a bit critical of the Ben Op, though mostly he’s favorable to it. I won’t try to sum up his comments, but I strongly encourage you to read them. He concludes:
Ian Ker is right that our time is the age of the ecclesial movements with their optimistic dynamism in engaging contemporary society. But it is also a time of revival of the ideals of monasticism. Ideals of stability, and rich liturgical tradition, and uncompromising contempt for the vanity and pomps of this passing world. And Rod Dreher is right that elements of those ideals can be realized outside the monastery in the life of Christian families. “The Benedict Option” will not ensure that children keep the faith— the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace cannot be controlled by any strategy— but if my upbringing can be called “Benedict Option,” then I do think that it can be a help.
In a comment on a review of The Benedict Option, Maclin Horton, once a co-editor of the now defunct Catholic counter-cultural magazine Caelum et Terra (and the subject of a profile in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons) wrote as follows:
… this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the TV–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc. All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…
I don’t deny that the results of the attempt to achieve the balance of which Horton speaks in my own upbringing are mixed— as helpful grumblers are always reminding me. But at least this much is true: my parents have been spared the bitter sadness of seeing me and my brothers and sisters fall away from the Faith. Words fail me when I try to express how grateful I myself am for having received that gift and not (as yet) lost it: I have found in it the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.
The US Census Bureau has a new report on young adulthood in America (PDF), and how it has changed since 1975. This finding jumped out at me:
Stunning. Less than half of Americans aged 18-34 say marriage and family are part of being an adult. All the other factors have to do with achieving personal autonomy. To be an adult, then, is to be free to exercise one’s will independently of obligations to others, including spouse and children. To choose spouse and children — formerly the most distinctive marks of adulthood — is now considered ancillary to adulthood by most American adults.
This is not a culture that cares to reproduce itself. It is a culture that lives in the everlasting present. The most important thing that every generation must do is produce the next generation. Not everyone is called to marriage and family life, of course, but most people have to understand themselves as so called, or we die off. We have created a society in which people have forgotten that lesson.
This didn’t start yesterday. In his 1947 classic Family And Civilization, Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman examined the changing role of the family throughout history, going back to antiquity. He wrote, of the US in the postwar era:
Parents must now try to rear a family under a social and legal system adjusted to those couples who do not want the paraphernalia of familism — common income, expenses, children, union for perpetuity, or serious familistic obligations. In our modern Western society the forgotten person is the man or woman who honestly and sincerely wants to be a parent. This affects our whole social system; it affects all the practicalities of life, from renting a house to economic advancement under our different forms of bureaucracy. If there are children, renting a house is difficult, changing jobs is difficult, social activities are difficult. In the words of Bacon, to have children is to give “hostages to fortune,” and one is no longer a free bargaining agent.
Zimmerman says further:
When the United States has exhausted the surplus population of the French-Canadians and the Mexicans — almost the only fertile peoples of the Western world now available to us — we too will begin the grand finale of the crisis.
This was written in 1947. In the 1960s, Quebec went through the “Quiet Revolution,” which took it from having the highest birthrate in Canada to the lowest. Today, the birthrate in Quebec is once again the highest in Canada … but still well below the replacement rate.
Mexico’s fertility rate began to collapse around 1970s. Today it is slightly above the US rate, and just at replacement rate. But it is expected to decline further.
There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.
Zimmerman was a social scientist. He was not a religious man. His study found the same cause in the fall of the Greek empire and the Roman empire in the West: decay of the family system, and all that followed it. Zimmerman said that there is no such thing as cultural determinism; that we have it within our power to avoid the fates of ancient Greece and Rome. But will we? Zimmerman:
The only thing that seems certain is that we are again in one of those periods of family decay in which civilization is suffering internally from the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work. The problem has existed before. The basic nature of this illness has been diagnosed before. After some centuries, the necessary remedy has been applied. What will be done now is a matter of conjecture. We may do a better job than was done before; we may do a worse one.
Again, he wrote in 1947; from the point of view of 2016, his question has been answered in the negative.
Zimmerman said that with the exception of the Christian churches — which he said was unpopular in his day (1947!) — there are no forces in the West fighting back against the decay of the family structure. Today, in 2016, can we say that the churches are still in the fight? I don’t think so — and if they are, they are a puny counterforce to the overwhelming atomism and self-centeredness of popular culture.
There’s something else, too. Mary Eberstadt has a theory that as goes the family, so goes religion, because the family is the strongest agent of transmission of religious belief. Indeed, sociologist Christian Smith has found that the strongest predictor of whether or not a child will still be religious in adulthood is whether or not his parents were religiously observant. If the family continues to atomize, to break apart, it stands to reason that religious belief will continue to decline.
The statistics with which I opened this post — the fact that most young adult Americans see marriage and family as incidental to adulthood — is a sign. It’s a big sign. A lot of Christians want to dismiss The Benedict Option as alarmism. Sorry, but these folks are Zimmerman’s Pollyannas. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then people had better speak up, and speak up with enough volume to overcome the din of popular culture. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then Christians had better prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for a future that Zimmerman, drawing on the post-imperial Roman example, says will be tumultuous and unpleasant:
Over a period of two centuries, this confused picture rectified itself; but Western society was not very orderly or peaceful for several centuries more.
Zimmerman — again, not a religious believer — said that historically, the morals and influence of the Christian church in the West restored society after its Roman collapse. Today, that influence is the only thing that gives us long-term hope for the future. But if the Church is going to be around in that far-off time to give hope to refugees floating atop the waves of liquid modernity, we Christians have to act now to prepare for the Dark Age upon us.
UPDATE: Corporate America, popular culture:
Well, after a dismal afternoon of sleeping, trying to keep the flu at bay, I happened upon this piece of unalloyed joy: Daniel Mendelsohn’s account of teaching The Odyssey to his octogenarian father. The old man, who has since died, was a cranky retired mathematician. His son is a scholar and teacher at Bard College. Mendelsohn père asked to join his son’s class one semester back in 2011. Here’s how it went:
It was at this point that my father raised his head and said, “Hero? I don’t think he’s a hero at all.”
He pronounced the word “hero” with slight distaste, turning the “e” into an extended aih sound: haihro. He did this with other words—“beer,” for instance. I remember him telling my brothers and me, after his father died, that he hadn’t been able to look into the open casket, because the morticians had rouged his father’s cheeks. Then he said, “When I die, I want you to burn me, and then I want you boys to go to a bar and have a round of baihrs and make a toast to me, and that’s it.”
When we’d first talked about the possibility of his sitting in on the course, he’d promised me that he wasn’t going to talk in class. Now he was talking. “I’ll tell you what I think is interesting,” he said.
Nineteen heads swivelled in his direction. I stared at him.
He sat there with his hand in the air. A curious effect of his being in the room with these young people was that now, for the first time, he suddenly looked very old to me, smaller than I remembered him being.
“O.K.,” I said. “What do you think is so interesting? Why isn’t he a hero?”
“Am I the only one,” he said, looking around at the students, as if for support, “who’s bothered by the fact that Odysseus is alone when the poem begins?”
“What do you mean, ‘alone’?” I couldn’t see where he was going with this.
“Well,” he said, “he went off twenty years earlier to fight in the Trojan War, right? And he was presumably the leader of his kingdom’s forces?”
“Yes,” I said. “In the second book of the Iliad, there’s a list of all the Greek forces that went to fight at Troy. It says that Odysseus sailed with a contingent of twelve ships.”
My father’s voice was loud with triumph. “Right! That’s hundreds of men. So my question is, what happened to the twelve ships and their crews? Why is he the only person coming home alive?”
After a moment or two, I said, “Well, some died in the war, and, if you read the proem carefully, you’ll recall that others died ‘through their own recklessness.’ As we go through the poem, we’ll actually get to the incidents during which his men perished, different groups at different times. And then you’ll tell me whether you think it was through their own recklessness.”
I looked around the room encouragingly, but my father made a face—as if he could have done better than Odysseus, could have brought the twelve ships and their crews home safely.
“So you admit that he lost all his men?”
“Yep,” I said, a little defiantly. I felt like I was eleven years old again and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.
Now my father looked around the table. “What kind of leader loses all his men? You call that a hero?”
The students laughed. Then, as if fearful that they’d overstepped some boundary, they peered down the length of the seminar table at me, as if to see how I’d react. Since I wanted to show them I was a good sport, I smiled broadly. But what I was thinking was, This is going to be a nightmare.
After the class ends, the two end up going on a ten-day Mediterranean cruise meant to retrace Odysseus’s journey. I won’t quote from any of that tale, because I don’t want to spoil one bit of it. Read the whole thing. Please, do. Trust me.
Mendelsohn fils is an acclaimed translator of the poetry of C.F. Cavafy, an Alexandrian Greek poet of the early 20th century. Here is Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s best known poem, “Ithaca” (which, as readers of the Odyssey will know, is the home to which the epic’s hero spends ten years trying to reach):
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
As I read him, the poet is saying that the journey itself is more important than the destination. That is a cliche, of course, but I think Cavafy is saying more than that. He is saying that all of life is a journey towards some kind of home — that the yearning for home is what propels us through life. Could home (“home”) be a kind of Eden, a utopia that we can never reach, but the longing for which inspires our many adventures?
There’s a difference between someone who seeks home, and someone who is merely moving around from place to place, looking for excitement and pleasure. The first is a pilgrim; the second is a tourist. A pilgrim has somewhere to get to, and that gives weight and meaning to his journey. Dante’s journey through the afterlife in the Commedia would have been meaningless had he not been going somewhere.
Come to think of it, there’s a great canto of Purgatorio, the 28th, in which the pilgrim Dante has entered into the Garden of Eden. He meets there a woman named Matelda, who tells him:
Perhaps those poets of long ago who sang
the Age of Gold, its pristine happiness,
were dreaming on Parnassus of this place.
The root of mankind’s tree was guiltless here;
here, in an endless Spring, was every fruit,
such is the nectar praised by all these poets.”
Back in 2014, I wrote of this passage on this blog:
The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared. Ovid and all the classical poets were not entirely deceived, though their moral imagination was fallen. Still, they captured in their art glimmerings of the real world beyond our own. Here in Eden, the dreams of the poets are made innocent again, and fulfilled. Dante’s mental images of the natural world and how to read it are being restored.
You’ll remember the prophetic dream Dante had in his last night sleeping on the holy mountain. Matelda appeared to him as Leah, the first wife of Jacob. She was fertile, and loved the active life. But she was not the woman Jacob most desired. That was Rachel, the contemplative (but barren) sister, who became Jacob’s second wife after seven more years of service to their father, Laban. In the Purgatorio, Matelda represents the active life of the soul. If Matelda is Leah, then who is Rachel, the contemplative life of the soul? We will soon find out.
I continued with this update:
Still reflecting on this canto this morning, and using it to make sense of some things I’ve been struggling with. It’s made me realize that I had certain expectations about coming back to my hometown, expectations in part predicated on homecoming stories celebrated by our culture — in particular, the story of the Prodigal Son. These stories did not prepare me for what actually happened. In fact, the Prodigal Son story was particularly misleading. A friend points out this morning that the Prodigal Son story is explicitly a story about the Kingdom of God, not a story about this world. It’s the way this world ought to be, not the way things (usually) are. The stories — the parables — the Jesus told are images of Paradise; we are meant to use them as icons to redeem our own imagination.
If the fallen world has corrupted our own imagination, as Matelda indicates, then isn’t it the case that the incorrupt world can at times cause us to read the world falsely, through our hopes? Matelda speaks of the longing of the poets for a Golden Age as being an ancestral memory of Eden — that is, a lost world that can never be fully regained in mortality. I’m thinking that my own nostalgic bent, and my deep and abiding longing for Home, comes from this. Reading and thinking about Canto 28, I’m thinking about how I need to recalibrate my own inner vision. The point is not to become cynical, but rather to educate one’s hope, tempering it with a sense of what is possible in this fallen world, versus what is only really achievable in heaven. To be sure, we can, through grace and by conforming our wills to Christ’s, incarnate heaven in our own hearts and lives to a certain degree; that’s what Dante’s entire pilgrimage is about.
But we will not fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven in this life, and we must be careful about how we allow the images and stories we admit into our imagination to frame our expectations. As I wrote the other day, on Canto XXVII, realizing earlier in my life that I had accepted a false icon of womanhood, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and turning away from it, was instrumental in the purgation of false images from my own moral imagination, and the purification of my heart. It seems to me that the purification of images is not only about casting out false images and replacing them with true ones, but also to regard the true ones rightly. With regard to the Church, and with regard to matters of family and homecoming, I have been guilty of what Flannery O’Connor warned about: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
Later, as you know, I wrote a book about how going with Dante on his pilgrimage helped me make sense of the arduous pilgrimage I was making at the time through my own troubled heart, and in my life with my father after I returned home. Reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s lovely recollection of the voyage he took with his elderly father brings all this to mind tonight. My own Ithaca did not really exist, not as I imagined, though I didn’t know that until I reached it. I learned through bitter (but redemptive) experience what that Ithaca really meant.
Much of my own writing has been driven by a desire to find my way Home. I had thought, somehow, that this was a geographical place, or an emotional place — a place of harmony and rest. When I arrived at my actual birthplace, it was not what I thought it was, not at all. And as I discovered, it never would be. But see, this was a purgation, a painful but necessary liberation from the idolization of Home. I came to perceive that both my father and I had been captive to the beautiful but false idea that we can create a permanent home for ourselves on this earth.
For him, I believe it was a bulwark against death. Though he would never have articulated it this way, I believe he thought — no, didn’t think, but rather felt in his bones — that if he built a well-ordered life for himself on this piece of Louisiana ground, that death could not touch him. This is why he made idols of Family and Place, and demanded that they be things that they could not be. He was forever finding fault with the family, and with people in this place; they never lived up to his high expectations. Then fate dealt him a terrible blow: his beloved daughter, the one who shared his vision of the world, the one who had stayed home, and done all the right things, was struck down by terminal cancer. She died, while the son who did not share his worldview, and who did all the wrong things (mostly, leaving home), not only lived, but prospered.
When I came home, he was grateful, but also frustrated by me. I would not be who he wanted me to be, and he could not think of that as anything other than a failure of love. It must be admitted, though, that I suffered from a version of the same malady. I believed — no, I felt in my bones — that something was wrong with me because I did not harmonize with Family and Place, as defined by my father. The pain of that disjuncture — between the real and the ideal, and between each other — was a fracture that could not heal.
When my father died in 2015, he passed at home, surrounded by family, with me holding one of his hands and my mother holding the other. I recently published here the epilogue to the story I told in How Dante, about how Daddy and I reached a place of peace with each other before his passing. For me, it was only possible to get there once I gave up the idea of Ithaca as a place that exists in this world. I have an earthly home, but Home is paradise, in eternity — and that is the true Ithaca. For me, this was hard-won wisdom. St. Benedict has no use for monks who flit from monastery to monastery; his rule of stability requires his monks to make their earthly homes permanently in one monastery. He does this so they will not be distracted by the empty search for an earthly paradise, but so they can be freed to make their way towards heaven.
It’s a paradox, I guess: the only way we can fully inhabit this world is by recognizing that we are only passing through here on our way to the real and only Ithaca. The deep tragedy of my family is that mistaking our own rural Louisiana Ithaca for Paradise made the fracture irreversible, and we thereby lost it all.
One more thing, about how the search for Home inspires creativity. Here’s a clip from an older post of mine, in which I discovered that the real home I was searching for was not my father’s hearth, but the orchard cabin of my great-great aunts (the sisters of my great-grandmother):
Three years ago, a visit to the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia provoked a powerful emotional response from me, related to my childhood with the old aunts and their house and orchard, for reasons I didn’t fully understand until I wrote about it on my old Beliefnet blog, and two commenters observed that for me, the old aunts’ house and orchard was a “sacred grove.” That’s exactly what it was; earlier, I had described the ruin of the sacred grove in this old Beliefnet post.
Reading “A Worn Path” as myth makes me think about the personal myth I live with, related to the old aunts. What they revealed to me was an imaginative world that became the basis for my own dreams, hopes, aspirations, and delight. I well remember walking with Loisie through her orchard, her bony, birdlike hand, roped with thick blue veins, gripping her bamboo cane as she taught me about japonicas and chestnuts and King Alfreds and all the other plants in her orchard. I didn’t love the flowers and nuts as much as I loved the words for them — loved saying the words, loved turning them over in my mind. And inside the cabin, reading their books and magazines and newspapers, I learned words like “Kissinger” and “Moscow,” words that had a magical effect on me. These weren’t words and concepts that were part of our daily life in the country, except at Lois and Hilda’s place. I wanted to know more. And they taught me so much about the world, especially France, where they had lived as young women during the Great War, and I received all this eating pecan cookies and cupcakes that Loisie made for us kids. Sometimes I helped her cook, and it was so comforting to little me, sitting in my old aunt’s lap, stirring the batter in her FireKing mixing bowl.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that in that sacred grove was born my vocation as a writer.
Every writer dreams of what he would do with the money should his book become a big success, as unlikely as that is. When I’ve thought about what I would do should The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (in which I write about Lois and Hilda and their influence on me, but also how they didn’t connect in the same way with Ruthie) become a success, I’ve imagined building a certain kind of house, and situating it in a certain kind of garden, and filling it with books and art objects and maps, and the smell of delicious things cooking. I’ve thought about this a lot. What I’m doing, I realize, is imagining that I can recreate the Sacred Grove, and live, in some sense, that myth, that dwelling in blessedness, in Arcadia. The aunts were bound by their age, infirmity, and relative poverty to that house and that orchard, but they were the quite possibly the most free people I’ve ever known. Any beauty I’ve been able to conjure as a writer comes from this personal myth. I cannot imagine how much poorer my life would be without it. I owe those old women everything.
Here’s the cabin:
And here are Aunt Hilda and Aunt Lois, holding me in the yard outside their cabin, circa 1968:
That cabin, and that entire world, has disappeared.
Bill O’Reilly has been forced out of his position as a prime-time host on Fox News, the company said on Wednesday, after the disclosure of multiple settlements involving sexual harassment allegations against him. His ouster brings an abrupt and embarrassing end to his two-decade reign as one of the most popular and influential commentators in television.
“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company, said in a statement.
Mr. O’Reilly’s departure comes two and a half weeks after an investigation by The New York Times revealed how Fox News and 21st Century Fox had repeatedly stood by Mr. O’Reilly even as sexual harassment allegations piled up against him. The Times found that the company and Mr. O’Reilly reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.
I think O’Reilly deserved this, though I’m sorry to see it. Deserved it, because sexual harassment is a big deal. The record O’Reilly has established on that front demonstrated abuse of power. It is always good to see the powerful held to account for their behavior. O’Reilly treated some women like dirt. And lest you think that it was just an older guy being a little too aggressive in an office culture run by feminazis, read this.
I am sorry to see it, because it’s sad to see O’Reilly end his extraordinary career on such a shameful note. Love him or hate him, what Bill O’Reilly accomplished at Fox over the last two decades is one of the more remarkable feats in broadcasting. Lots of cable hosts have come and gone, but O’Reilly has stayed on top. And at his best, he was brilliant at puncturing p.c. pomposity.
But he and he alone is the cause of his own ignominious defeat. No man is above the moral law.
I see that Tucker Carlson’s show will be moving to O’Reilly’s slot. Good.
I discovered the fundamentalist Christian website Pulpit & Pen a year or two ago, when they were hating on Karen Swallow Prior for failing to meet its high standards. They are an excitable lot, the P&P writers. One of them who participated in the attack on KSP later repented, and resigned from P&P, saying:
Unless you’ve been living under a social media rock the last week or so, you’ve no doubt been made aware of the conflict between Pulpit & Pen and Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. As of the time of this publishing, a resolution seems nowhere in sight and the entire ordeal has served nothing more than to fracture the body of Christ greatly. Regretfully, I had a hand in promulgating this conflict by taking part in a podcast at Pulpit & Pen without having researched the facts myself first.
To be clear, I disagree with Dr. Prior’s approach to evangelism in some areas. However, I was out of line to opine the way I did before making myself one-hundred percent clear on the facts of the situation. For that error, I publicly repent and apologize to Dr. Prior and ask her forgiveness for the uncharitable treatment she received from me personally and the ramifications that may have stemmed from my public comments.
He later added:
In the time that has passed since publishing this public apology, as I have grown in my sanctification and reflected on my actions as part of the Pulpit & Pen blog, it has become apparent that I must more clearly and vociferously renounce any association with or subtle endorsement of Pulpit & Pen. I can no longer in good Christian conscience recommend including that ministry to fellow believers. While many of the issues P&P raises are valid, many others are not; and even more attack the brethren unnecessarily and often in unfounded ways. I pray that our Savior may open the eyes of those contributing to come to repentance as He so graciously did for me.
If you take from these statements the idea that P&P writers shoot their mouths off maliciously without knowing what they’re talking about, you’d be correct. Today, the website turns its Eye of Sauron on Orthodox Christianity, which it describes as a “cult.” Jeff Maples of the site went to Hank Hanegraaf’s new Greek Orthodox parish looking for abomination. Lo and behold, he found a-plenty. Excerpts:
Saturday, April 15, known as Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition, I along with a couple of friends went to visit St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC–the church that Hanegraaff was recently chrismated in. The service began at 11:30 pm, and was still going strong showing no signs of slowing down when we decided to leave at around 2:00 am. While we hoped to have the opportunity to confront Hanegraaff in person, being that we all had to get up early the next morning to worship the living God on Easter morning, we decided to call it a night early.
These knotheads didn’t even realize that they were at the Paschal liturgy. What lovely Christian men, though, to have gone to the holiest church service of the year with the intention of getting up in the face of a new convert. The report is actually pretty funny, if you see it in a certain light, because it reveals profound ignorance. I would not expect a fundamentalist Christian to agree with Orthodox theology and worship, but this is beyond absurd:
1.) I have sat through many Catholic masses. I was married in a Catholic church, and I can definitely say I’ve “been there done that.” But I’ve never sat through anything so long and tedious as the Greek Orthodox mass. Perhaps being a special Saturday night “resurrection service,” this wasn’t the norm, but it was excruciatingly long. 2 1/2 hours in and no sign of slowing down.
2.) The cliche, “bells and smells” is actually a true reality. The burning of incense and ringing of bells was a noxious combination. It reminded me of being in a college dorm smoking weed and blowing the smoke through toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer sheets.
3.) The liturgy was vain and repetitious. Literally, the same ritualistic prayers and chanting were sung over and over. Every prayer included an invocation of Mary and the Saints.
4.) While there was actually quite a bit of Scripture reading, there was absolutely no teaching. In fact, the vast majority of Scripture reading was sung in the eerie Byzantine chant. You’d really have to pay attention and try to listen really hard to even understand what they were reading or reciting.
5.) The facility was adorned, literally, wall to wall, floor to ceiling in graven images of the saints. The images were painted in such a way that the expressions on their faces were devoid of any emotion. They looked like lifeless figures just floating around in space.
6.) The enthusiasm of the clergy and participants in the service was extremely low. Those participating in the rituals walked around with lifeless expressions on their faces. The entire ritual was empty and dead.
7.) There is obviously little to no pursuit of holiness in this church. Several times during the service, the ushers and deacons could be seen stepping out to take smoke breaks. Many of the women and even some of the younger girls were dressed less than modestly.
8.) Repeatedly, the chanting and liturgy included a summons to God to perform certain acts. It was clear that they believe that God works through and is dependent upon these rituals to activate the work of the Holy Spirit.
9.) The Greek and Eastern Orthodox church is clearly a lifeless church. There was absolutely no gospel in this service. A lost person could not walk into this church and walk out a changed man. It was literally a Pagan practice. Like a seance. Pure witchcraft was going on in this place. In this religion, salvation doesn’t come through Christ’s imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement on the cross, it comes through these dead rituals that they believe ontologically changes them into divine beings. It was truly one of the most wicked experiences I’ve ever seen.
Pure witchcraft! More:
This is what Hank Hanegraaff has apostatized to. He knows the Bible, he has taught it his entire life. He now rejects it. The bible clearly teaches against the wickedness and error found within the manmade traditions and doctrines of demons in the Orthodox church. It would have been easy for one to let their guard down and become entranced by the production. While in the West it is likely less common for practitioners of the religion to take it that seriously, it’s easy to see how those who do take it seriously could achieve an altered state of mind which would in effect by a spiritual experience for those truly seeking it. After my experience at this church, not only do I fully stand by what I have written, but it is even more clear now that this religion is not of God and should be avoided.
A Catholic reader who sent the link to me writes:
I am reminded of the community in the early stages of Babette’s Feast, trying so, so hard to hate the glories they were tasting.
True. Again, I would not expect a fundamentalist to cotton to Orthodox worship, but this poor knothead did not even understand what he was observing. If you’re going to criticize a thing, you should at least trouble yourself to understand what it is you’re criticizing. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which Jeff Maples observed, is a highly complex liturgy of ancient origin, having been perfected at the Hagia Sophia in the late fifth century. You can read the text of the liturgy here, but it is impossible to attend a single liturgy and understand everything that is going on unless someone is there to explain it to you. This liturgy has been the standard worship service for Orthodox churches the world over for 1,500 years. Orthodoxy is the second-largest Christian body in the world, behind Roman Catholicism. Yet a young American fundamentalist attends a single Orthodox service, and confidently declares that Orthodox Christianity is a cult, and its worship service is “witchcraft”.
Let me say it again for the sake of clarity: I have no particular problem with Christians who examine what the Orthodox Church teaches, and who conclude that it is wrong. But this Jeff Maples piece sounds like it was written by the equivalent of a rusticated banjo picker who wanders into a performance of Aïda and storms out fuming that that ain’t real music.
Being old doesn’t make a thing correct, but it’s worth considering that Orthodox Christians were worshiping God using that liturgy when Jeff Maples’s and my ancestors in northern Europe were still worshiping trees.
There’s some really interesting stuff in Eric Mader’s review of The Benedict Option. Mader explains that he has always been on the Christian left. But the advance of same-sex marriage changed things:
How did this revolutionary victory, once realized, affect the culture? Myself I noticed a very tangible shift in the terrain during Obama’s second term. I now attribute it to awareness among liberals and leftists that, with “marriage equality”, the old regime had finally been routed. This meant a new kind of relationship to those like myself who were, on some matters, still part of that old regime. If previously the left could consider me one of them, a somewhat eccentric religious guy whose “heart was in the right place”, suddenly there was a new coldness. In the past it had always been “Well, Eric, you subscribe to a religious interpretation, I don’t”–but our conversation, whatever the subject, would go on. Now any time the discussion, whether face to face or online, got near any part of my Christianity, their point seemed to be that the conversation would not go on. I’d get the equivalent of a scowl, as if even mentioning the Christian tradition was repugnant: all such thinking needed to be finally and utterly pushed out of sight.
I’d always had gay friends, written on gay writers, supported gays and lesbians in their struggles against the anathema conservatives placed on them. I’d always found the bourgeois Christian stigma on sexual sin over the top; it was often cruel and un-Christian–seeming to imply as it did that sexual sin was in a special category that made it worse, even qualitatively different, than sins like pride or greed. I never thought this way myself. But any nuances in my thought made no difference in the new climate. When it became clear to liberal acquaintances that I didn’t agree to their fickle redefinition of marriage, they jumped straight to ostracism. It was not any more that I “disagreed” with them (as I always had on abortion)–no, I had to be made to disappear. Those who held to the old view of marriage were to have no place in our Brave New World. They could be given no place even to speak.
Why such weight put on this particular issue? I’d disagreed with my fellows on the left before, and my right to such disagreement had been recognized. Why now was it suddenly necessary to censor me?
I now see it as related to something Dreher and others have been onto for years. The logic of Enlightenment, the way this logic has been pushed and combined with the Sexual Revolution, has in fact made sexual self-definition the very center of a new cosmology, even a new religion of sorts.
The insults I was getting from my fellow leftists were not far from what these “progressives” dished out to Ms. Stutzman. Which made me realize: Were they actually my fellow leftists in any meaningful sense? Could I in any way work together with people who obviously wanted me in a prison camp?
To interpret such visceral hatred, I now think it useful to focus on the revolution part of Sexual Revolution. We might look at previous political revolutions to get some idea of where we’re at as orthodox Christians. American historian Crane Brinton, in his The Anatomy of Revolution, was one of the first to analyze the stages a revolution goes through.
Revolutions are typically won by a coalition of political actors working together. Once victory is clear, there is often a brief “honeymoon period” where it seems to the victorious classes that anything is possible. For obvious reasons, this euphoria wears off quickly. Because it’s not long before those who backed the revolution realize that life goes on much as before: Utopia has not been established on earth. A growing malaise combines with the fact that the revolutionary leaders are used to living in battle mode, and thus comes the predictable next step. Moderates among the leadership are accused of not being radical enough in their policies–“We must not give in to these backsliders!”–a purge takes place, and the radicals take over. The ambient ardor left over from the initial revolution is then refocused on two new tasks: 1) ensuring ideological purity; 2) mopping up what remains of the defeated classes, who are depicted as all that stands in the way of Utopia’s final arrival. Thus begins the Terror. During this immediately post-revolutionary period, wholly new planks are often introduced into the ruling committee’s platform, typically of a more extremist nature than what was originally demanded in the revolution.
If we view the Sexual Revolution through this lens of past political revolution, it’s pretty clear where we are at present. The revolution has been won, sexual Utopia still hasn’t arrived (because, duh, it never can arrive) and the only thing that might keep our successful revolutionaries busy for the next decade is mopping up what remains of those who refused to drink the Rainbow Kool-Aid when it was first served–i.e. us orthodox religious people. Religious conservatives must be mopped up because, according to the logic, it is our mere existence that prevents Utopia’s final arrival.
This is in fact just how it is playing out in America, in our media and in our courts. Note especially the new plank that was quickly added to the revolutionary platform: the trans movement. There’s really no surprise in the meteoric rise of this raging trans craze. All the revolutionary zeal left over after the victory on marriage–something had to be done with it, no? To keep momentum going, the woke among the liberal intelligentsia had to quick set about destroying the very idea of sexual difference. “Yes, let’s invent thirty new genders and demand citizens use new pronouns. Those who don’t will face fines. Let’s put biological males in teen girls’ locker rooms. See how the rubes like that!”
It’s all both supremely perverse and, and, given where we’re at, depressingly predictable.
Liberals often accuse Christians of being obsessed with sex, but really there’s nothing like the obsessive focus on sex we see in this new mainstreamed liberalism. The reason for it, again, is the need to make the desiring individual the very center of the Sacred. To balk at a man who demands you refer to him as they or ze rather than he is now a kind of sacrilege. And they want punishment for those who don’t conform. (Cf. the struggles of Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.)
Far too many have seen in Dreher’s project a call to “run for the hills”, to “retreat” from public life; a call to “let the public arena go to hell on its own” while hiding out in the catacombs, as it were. Many of these critics, to read them, seem not to have read the same book I just finished. Their reaction to Dreher’s project might have been understandable before the book was out, but now that the book is on the shelves, I think they might need to take a more careful look at the actual arguments, the double-directedness of the project. On this, Dreher quotes with approval one of the Norcian Benedictines, who speaks of the need to have “borders” behind which we live to nurture our faith, but also the need to “push outwards, infinitely.” This double focus has always been implicit in Dreher’s writing on the Benedict Option, so it’s odd how often it’s missed. Some critics, I suspect, are mainly afraid to face up to what’s happening in America.
Given our decisive rout in the culture wars, you’d think we Christians would step back a bit and ask ourselves if we weren’t doing a few things wrong.
Read the whole thing. It’s one of the better reviews I’ve seen — and Mader’s challenge at the end to think about how the language we use construes our imaginations.
Well, hello. You didn’t hear from me on Monday because I was busy gallivanting around New Orleans with J.D. Vance, Ken Bickford, and others. J.D. really, really wanted to eat at Toups Meatery, but it was closed on Monday. We ended up at Lüke, where they didn’t have the charcuterie board (either it wasn’t on the lunch menu, or they took it off the menu, period, since I was last there), but we did eat the chicken liver and rabbit pate, which was crazy good. I spent the day fighting off the flu, which has all three of my kids down with fever. We had a good turnout for the event at UNO, and a delicious dinner afterward at Ralph’s On The Park. J.D. is as nice as you expect that he would be, and New Orleans is … New Orleans. I don’t get down there often enough.
On Tuesday, I slept most of the day, fighting what at this point appears to be a losing battle against the flu. Who the heck gets the flu in April?! My kids do, and I’m thisclose to joining them. So, I apologize for the light posting. Let’s hope for a better day today.
I did see that the great Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has written an endorsement, of sorts, of The Benedict Option, which he calls “the most talked-about religious book of 2017.” He concludes by saying:
So do we need the Benedict Option now? Yes, I would say. But we should also be deft enough in reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.
This remark reminds me of this passage from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis:
[I]t is true to say that what St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered; but in the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns like grain was scattered over the world as seed. The servants of God who had been a besieged garrison became a marching army; the ways of the world were filled as with thunder with the trampling of their feet and far ahead of that ever swelling host went a man singing; as simply he had sung that morning in the winter woods, where he walked alone.
Similarly, this passage from The Benedict Option, in which Marco Sermarini, standing in his olive grove, reflected:
“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”
The point, obviously, is that we are in a period of storing-up. As I keep saying, We cannot give what we do not have. Robert Wilken, the historian of the early church, says:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
My sense is that a failure — willful or otherwise — on the part of conservative Christians to comprehend the depths of the current crisis has a lot to do with their knee-jerk rejection of The Benedict Option, especially if they haven’t read it. It sounds like it even affected Alasdair MacIntyre, if this account is correct. Excerpt:
MacIntyre heartily criticized this movement during the Q&A after his lecture on “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” on March 27. The central point, MacIntyre emphasized, was that St. Benedict “inadvertently created a new set” of ways of life, when all he intended to do was found a monastic order. The monastery symbiotically supported the “education and liturgy” of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries “build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.”
Hence, despite the youthful St. Benedict’s flee from Rome to become a hermit, his mature work was “not a withdrawal from society into isolation,” but rather a “creation of a new set of social institutions which evolved.” The new St. Benedict whom we await must offer a “new kind of engagement with the social order now, not any kind of withdrawal from it.”
The Benedict Option, as people who have actually read it know, makes it clear that St. Benedict’s historic work had sociological effects secondary to his seeking the face of God as a monk. St. Benedict did not go to the forest to Make Rome Great Again; he only went out there to pray and to seek God, and to figure out how to serve Him under the post-imperial conditions in which he found himself. This is how it will have to be with us too.
As I’ve said over and over — but apparently cannot say often enough — we in the laity are not called to total withdrawal from the world, but only withdrawal sufficient to make possible Wilken’s “rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.” As Bishop Barron writes in his piece, the danger we face is that we seek to be so “relevant” to the culture outside the church that we lose what makes us distinct. If the church (by which I mean the people of God, broadly) is to produce the kind of men and women who will be able to go out into the world and convert it, and work for its redemption under God, then it will have to do what Prof. Wilken says it must do.
So, when George Weigel writes, critically:
Yet proponents of the Benedict Option would do well to rethink several things. To begin with, this so-called “Ben-Op,” at least as imagined by some, misreads the history of the second half of the first millennium. Yes, the monasteries along the Atlantic littoral helped preserve the civilizational patrimony of the West when public order in Western Europe broke down and the Norsemen wrought havoc along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. But Monte Cassino, the great motherhouse of St. Benedict’s reforming spiritual movement, was never completely cut off from the life around it, and over the centuries it helped educate thinkers of the civilization-forming caliber of Thomas Aquinas.
… he’s revealing that he hasn’t actually read the book, because in the book, I write about the kind of life that lay Christians are called to lead now requires strategic withdrawal for the sake of culturing ourselves in Christianity, so when we go out into the world — where most of us are called to live — we can represent Christ authentically in a world where the pressures to abandon the faith are very strong. As Prof. Wilken says, this culture is no longer neutral about Christianity; it is positively opposed to it. A Christian who lives as if these are normal times is going to get steamrolled.
The Catholic blogger Dr. Jared Staudt does a real service in this piece of his titled, “Stop Misunderstanding The Benedict Option”. Excerpt:
I’ve heard so many people characterize the Benedict Option as: “We can’t just retreat, give up, or bury our heads in the sand.” Many people have equated the Benedict Option with disengagement and withdraw.
Here is the real basis of the Benedict Option:
- Given the profound crisis of culture (which has affected the Church as well), we cannot look to mainstream institutions for our future.
- Rather, we need to form intentional communities that more fully embody our Christian faith and in which we are willing to face the consequences of going against the stream.
- It is from such institutions that real cultural change will occur.
Thus, the Benedict Option is all about being active and engaging the problems of society. It recognizes, however, that solutions will begin locally, in the relationships that we can influence. Rebuilding will begin there. Do we really think that our political, educational, and economic institutions will provide a secure future for the practice of our Christian faith?
Dr. Staudt goes on to explain why the particular model given to us by St. Benedict is well-suited to our time and place. He concludes:
I recommend actually reading Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, before forming opinions about it. The strength of the book comes from its description of the Benedictine ideal, primarily through the lens of the monks of Norcia, and from providing other concrete examples such as the Tipi Loschi lay community, also of Italy. The book certainly has its limits. It is a reflection, which should begin a conversation, and—even more that—a process of discernment. We all need to find our own particular way to respond to the crisis of our time. St. Benedict certainly provides an important, and we might even say crucial, witness on how to build a Christian culture, centered on what Pope Benedict described as quaerere Deum, the search for God.
Not everyone may be called to follow the [Benedict] Option, but at least don’t misunderstand it.
Read the whole thing. It’s a concise summary of the main thrust of the book. For Catholics who think everything is going pretty well with the next generation of the Catholic Church, allow the (Catholic) sociologist Christian Smith to disabuse you of that notion. Except for Mormons, and to some extent Evangelicals (but far fewer than you might imagine), no church in the broad Christian tradition is doing a good job of forming its youth into disciples.
At the J.D. Vance event the other night, someone said to me that he had read The Benedict Option twice, and though he doesn’t want to accept its conclusions (“I’m an optimist by temperament,” he said), he can’t find where my diagnosis is wrong. I’ve been thinking about that since I was in New Orleans. It is certainly true that some critics of the book dissent from it in good faith, but of course many do not. I am convinced that they refuse to see what’s in the book because if I’m right, then they will have to change their lives in ways that they don’t want to. Understand me clearly: I concede that I might be wrong! But if I am wrong, then show me where I am wrong; don’t satisfy yourself with endless griping about the book you think I have written, or by creating straw men that are easy to knock down.
UPDATE: Another good, explanatory piece by the Protestant scholar Scot McKnight. One thing he says, though:
When I heard of this book and when I opened it I expected to read about Ave Maria University in Ave Maria FL, a community Kris and I wandered around one day. Not a word. Nor does it seem to me Dreher sees Ave Maria as what he’s on about. From my reading he imagines Christians remaining where they are but forming tighter fellowship with other like-minded Christians in their community. Unlike the Essenes of Qumran they are like the Pharisees of Galilee. (I know many see the word “Pharisee” and think “negative.” Forgive me, but I don’t. The Pharisees remained where they were and lived in their community according to their own rule of life, the Torah interpreted.)
I would have liked to have written about Ave Maria, and a number of other communities, but I simply didn’t have the time. I had hoped to have a couple of years to work on the book, but that’s not how the deadline worked. Rest assured that I am aware that there are plenty of communities I could have written about.
About the Pharisees, I appreciate McKnight’s point. The main problem with the Pharisees (from the perspective of the Gospels) is that they observed the outward form of the Law, but were inwardly corrupt. This is a problem that all of us, Christians and otherwise, can easily develop. The answer for Christians is not to say that we are to have no rule of life, but rather to make sure that our rule of life does not become an idol, but rather serves as a means of deepening our transformative relationship to Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Church is necessary to draw us to Christ, but if it becomes a destination (as opposed to a way), it turns into an idol.
A reader writes:
Tuesday I was having lunch with someone who is a pretty popular blogger. We got to talking about the Benedict Option. He told me two or three problems he had with it. I asked him if he’d read it. He said no he was relying on reviews. I said I thought as much. I said I had read it and what he was criticizing was not what you said. I suggested he read the book. I liked the book.
I find this endlessly frustrating. Why are so many people so eager to see things that are NOT in the book? Why are so many people quick to attribute to me things that I clearly do not believe, and that I explicitly contradict in the book? It’s bizarre.
Here’s a pretty clear summary of the Ben Op’s cultural critique from the popular Evangelical writer Scot McKnight. I smiled at this reference to Jamie Smith’s slimy “review” in the Washington Post:
Facts and interpretations are alarmist according to the eyes of the beholder. I read Smith’s review twice before I read Dreher’s book and Dreher’s book is not recognizable to me in Smith’s review. Hence, I want to give Dreher’s book a fair description.
And McKnight does just that — which doesn’t, of course, prevent some commenters on that post from saying that they haven’t read the book, but it seems to them that … and off they go accusing me of advocating things I do not advocate.
The National Review piece by Rachel Lu is a great example of this — better than most, because it is pretty clearly not written from a malicious point of view. Rather, it’s the view of a very smart person and a good writer who seems to have worked exceptionally hard to miss the point. Excerpt:
Worldly withdrawal is a hard row to hoe, which is why we probably needn’t worry too much that droves of Americans will suddenly decide to “go Benedict.” There will never be so very many who want to give up modern comforts and securities to become turnip farmers, and it’s not necessarily bad to have a few. Traditionalist experimentation can yield benefits for society, just as other forms of innovation can be beneficial. Tiny, traditionalist communities may succeed in uncovering or preserving certain salutary truths that have been lost to the culture at large. In any case, a free society should be able to make room for a few such endeavors.
Right, because if there’s one thing that The Benedict Option preaches, it’s that everybody should all rusticate themselves and become turnip farmers for Jesus. Good grief. For the record, here is one of many passages from the actual book in which I refute this lazy caricature — in this case, by quoting someone living out a Benedict Option:
“Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society,” he says. “We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.”
Another Lu passage:
The Benedict Option was controversial in large part because religious conservatives are already very attracted to quietist modes of thought. Quietism, a posture of spiritual detachment, has appeared in various forms throughout Christian history and culture. It gains force when a culture is in decline or elites become overtly hostile to Christianity. Withdrawal holds appeal, not only because the world is hard but also because Christians believe themselves to be the inheritors of a rich tradition that promises something better. To Christian faithful, life is first and foremost a quest for eternal redemption. If the mainstream culture seems uncongenial to that journey, there will always be some who judge it best to give up the fight for the world and to focus instead on forging a less perilous path for themselves and their loved ones.
So the Benedict Option is quietist? That’s not what the actual book says. From The Benedict Option:
The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit? Donald Trump tore up the political rule book in every way. Faithful conservative Christians cannot rely unreflectively on habits learned over the past thirty years of political engagement. The times require much more wisdom and subtlety for those believers entering the political fray.
Above all, though, they require attention to the local church and community, which doesn’t flourish or fail based primarily on what happens in Washington. And the times require an acute appreciation of the fragility of what can be accomplished through partisan politics. Republicans won’t always rule Washington, after all, and the Republicans who are ruling it now may be more adversarial to the work of the church than many gullible Christians think.
Many Christians are so discouraged by the political situation that they have resolved to disengage from partisan politics or at least to care less about it than they once did. This need not mean a retreat into quietism. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Later in that chapter, I hold up the late Czech dissident Vaclav Benda, who was a Catholic, as as an example of Christian engagement in a post (or anti) Christian environment:
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
How anybody can read these passages (to say nothing of the rest of the book) and conclude that I am advocating Christian quietism is beyond my ability to comprehend. There’s more:
Personality cults come and go, but the Jewish carpenter has held strong for nearly two millennia, today claiming almost 40 times as many living followers as voted for Trump in the last election. The lamb may look vulnerable, but he’s proven to be very resilient.
The book is explicitly about Christianity in the West, not global Christianity. To fail to see that and to acknowledge it in one’s critique is a fundamental failure as a reader. More:
Quietist-type thinking trains us to look on our culture with an eye only for the things we cannot change. Dreher traces our current malaise back to philosophical errors deep within the modern psyche, although at the same time he also blames Christians for their own downfall, contending that they were too willing to sell their birthright for short-term political victories. Our current struggles, it seems, were somewhat inevitable; nevertheless, in Dreher’s view, we should blame ourselves and don sackcloth.
At this point I wonder: what on earth is wrong with this reviewer? The Benedict Option is filled with practical examples of all kinds of Christians doing things to counter the spirit of the age. Rachel Lu is having an argument with a book that does not exist except in her imagination — and she is far from the only reviewer doing so. The reader who sent me the Lu piece adds:
I’m assuming she read it. I’m also assuming she is young, and sees the political sphere as a worthwhile arena for her efforts. But for some reason they just don’t get it. Not sure how else you can say it.
It’s like she was a liturgical traditionalist and thought Gregorian chant was the cat’s meow, and decided to start a traveling mission to bring it to parishes across America, but showed up at the first place and everyone realized she had no musical training. Could not sing. Could not play. Could not read music. Could not conduct. Sorry Rachel, you need to know how to do Gregorian chant to infuse the culture with Gregorian chant.
Or if she saw a great need for a soup kitchen and gathered up 100 volunteers, who showed up to discover no food, no money, no plates, no kitchen. Sorry. You aren’t prepared to embark on the mission you propose.
And that to me is the central critique. Of the BenOp.
Maybe I’m drunk. Or everyone else is. But this constant misreading seems to me like a pretty bad sign.
You say, hey, the music at this church needs work. Nobody can sing. Nobody can play. The organ is broke. Luckily we have a strong tradition. Let’s get some people trained up. Let’s raise some money and fix the organ. It’s important.
Response: Dreher hates music! He says stop singing. He says everything is wrong. Alarmism! Music is important! It’s a crucial ministry! What about St. Cecilia!? Let’s resist his urge to turn away from music and keep playing!
Dreher: But I love music. I’m saying you aren’t doing real music because the organ is broke and if it weren’t nobody could play it anyway, and…
Response: Music hater!
Look, don’t misunderstand: I hope everyone will like the book, but I am certainly aware that folks will have principled objections to parts of it, or all of it. That’s fine. That’s normal. What frustrates me are these people who seriously mischaracterize the book and its claims and contentions. I had a brief exchange on Twitter over the weekend with a self-styled Christian educator who dismissed the book entirely. When I asked him if he had read it, he did not respond, only redoubled his criticism.
If you have decided that The Benedict Option is all wrong, but you have not read the book, only read reviews of it, then you may be making a big mistake. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind. If you want a short, accurate description of its basic claim, read this Scot McKnight blog entry. McKnight seems to be writing a series of blog posts describing the book (here’s part 2), and I assume he will make his own judgment of it. I will be eager to read what he has to say. Though he is so far only really summarizing it, the accuracy with which he states the book’s argument and claims is hopeful. Even if he doesn’t agree, ultimately, I’m grateful for the clarity McKnight brings to the discussion.
As Maggie Gallagher said in the comments here, she has big problems with the book, but she says I ask all the right questions. I appreciate that. If others have better answers to those questions, then I surely want to hear them. My future as a Christian and the future of my descendants depends on it.
(Hey, readers, I’m about to head for the airport to pick up J.D. Vance, and then go on into New Orleans for the event tonight. I won’t be able to approve comments for most of today. Please be patient.)
I recently read Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, the new book by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a terrible book if you read it in terms of prescription. That is, if the world Harari expects to come into existence actually does, it will be a nightmare (though he considers it a dreamland). But if you read it for an insight into where certain defining trends in our culture are taking us, then it’s an excellent resource.
Here is Harari’s basic thesis. Science and technology have solved many of the problems that preoccupied mankind since the dawn of his existence. More people today die from obesity than from starvation. If we haven’t universalized the solutions yet, then we must keep at it. The point is, we have largely mastered nature. Now, modern people seek happiness, indeed have come to think of it as a right. In the future, people will use biotechnology and other forms of technology to create happiness for themselves. They will become like gods, “attaining divinity.” This is a very good thing; it means we can go beyond humanity, and “acquire for us divine powers of creating and destruction, and upgrade Homo sapiens into Homo Deus. Another great social project of the 21st century is to biologically re-engineer Homo sapiens so that it can enjoy everlasting pleasure.
It’s no surprised that Harari’s favorite book is Brave New World. He said about it:
When you read 1984 by George Orwell you know it’s a dystopia, you know it’s a horrible world. The only question is how do we prevent it from happening? So in this sense it’s not very sophisticated. It’s quite straight forward. When you read Brave New World you don’t know if it’s a utopia or a dystopia. You have the sense that something is terribly wrong in this world but you can’t put your finger on what it is because everybody is happy and satisfied all the time. The amazing thing is that when he wrote it in the 1930s everybody read it as a dystopia. When you read it today, more and more people actually think that it’s a utopia. Looking at our present trajectory we are on the way to Brave New World.
Everybody read it as a dystopia because they understood living in a state of constant pleasure, controlled by the state, was to give up your liberty. For people back then, there were some things more important than pleasure. To be fair to Harari, though, he’s right that we are headed to Brave New World. When people would rather surrender liberty than suffer pain, or even discomfort, we are well on our way to servitude. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — a Christianity without the cross — is the religion that prepares people for slavery. Real religion has done a poor job standing against “the capitalist juggernaut [that says] happiness is pleasure. Period.”
Harari advocates for eugenics. He doesn’t use the word, but that’s precisely what he’s calling for: humans gaining control of the genome to manipulate it for the sake of creating a higher species. Harari says that it doesn’t matter whether we should be doing this. We’re going to be doing this, because it is in our nature to do so. And it will start with scientists saying that they are undertaking this or that genetic engineering initiative for the sake of healing.
Harari is a thorough materialist, of the sort who says that if we haven’t measured it or isolated it in a laboratory, it cannot be said to exist. “If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul,” he writes. Oh really? He believes that the proper object of worship for humans is themselves. Whatever we choose to make of our own genetic nature, whatever post-human, or trans-human, future we choose for ourselves is good by the fact that we have chosen it. As a result of the changes in science and technology, “our world of meaning might collapse within decades.”
Again, I remind you that to Harari, this is a very good thing. He eagerly anticipates the future mankind will build for itself, bound by nothing but its own will and imagination. This caveat is half-hearted:
[I]t is far from clear that we should be aiming at immortality, bliss and divinity. Adopting these particular projects might be a big mistake. History is full of big mistakes. Given our past record and our current values, we are likely to reach out for bliss, divinity, and immortality — even if it kills us.
To be fair, I completely agree with that last line. I believe quite strongly that we should not be aiming at these things, but I believe that given human nature, and given “our current values,” that there is a certain inevitability to this.
Though he doesn’t use the phrase “liquid modernity” — Zygmunt Bauman’s term for our own time, a time in which the rate of change is so rapid that no customs, forms, or institutions have time to solidify — Harari writes about it here:
Centuries ago human knowledge increased slowly, so politics and economics changed at a leisurely pace too. Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better. But the very opposite is happening. Our newfound knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future. In 1016 it was relatively easy to predict how Europe would look in 1050. Sure, dynasties might fall, unknown raiders might invade, and natural disasters might strike; yet it was clear that in 1050 Europe would still be ruled by kings and priests, that it would be an agricultural society, that most of its inhabitants would be peasants, and that it would continue to suffer greatly from famines, plagues, and wars. In contrast, in 2016 we have no idea how Europe will look in 2050. We cannot say what kind of political system it will have, how its job market will be structured, or even what kind of bodies its inhabitants will possess.
He’s right about this. Christian readers, this is why I’m so insistent on the Benedict Option as the only viable strategy for the church going forward. The changes upon us now, and the changes coming, are going to wash away churches that are not capable of riding out the flood.
Harari makes a good and important point in his discussion of “intersubjective truth”. He says that most people think there are only two kinds of truth: objective and subjective. But there is a third kind: intersubjective. An intersubjective truth is a truth that is only true when it is shared by a network of subjects. Let me clarify this.
An objective truth is one that can be demonstrated scientifically or logically.
A subjective truth is a truth that can only be apprehended personally. It doesn’t mean that it is objectively untrue, but only that its truth can only be known by taking it into one’s own life and living as if it were true. For example, I believe that God’s existence is a fact, whether or not others do. But God’s existence cannot be demonstrated scientifically. It is in His nature, and in ours, that the truth of His existence is something that can only be experienced in the subject’s experience.
An intersubjective truth is a subjective truth that depends on a group (of any size) of subjects believing it for it to have the force of truth. Money — the belief that little green-tinted pieces of paper with numbers printed on them have value — is a good example of intersubjective truth. If large numbers of people quit believing this, the fact that a wad of $20 bills will buy you a nice dinner will cease to be true.
So, think of it this way:
Objective truth: Bill and Janet live together.
Subjective truth: Bill and Janet love each other.
Intersubjective truth: Bill and Janet’s union is consecrated in marriage, a social institution that we all agree carries with it a certain meaning, and certain binding obligations.
So, let’s go to this Harari quote:
We want to believe that our lives have some objective meaning, and that our sacrifices matter to something beyond the stories in our head. Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.
Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories. Why does a particular action — such as getting married in church, fasting on Ramadan or voting on election day — seem meaningful to me? Because my parents also think it is meaningful, as do my brothers, my neighbours, people in nearby cities and even the residents of far-off countries. And why do all these people think it is meaningful? Because their friends and neighbours also share the same view. People constantly reinforce each other’s beliefs in a self-perpetuating loop. Each round of mutual confirmation tightens the web of meaning further, until you have little choice but to believe what everyone else believes.
Yet over decades and centuries the web of meaning unravels and a new web is spun in its place. To study history means to watch the spinning and unravelling of these webs, and to realise that what seems to people in one age the most important thing in life becomes utterly meaningless to their descendants.
He’s right about this, too. To stick with the subject most important to me, Christianity: in the West (though not elsewhere on the planet), we are living through the unraveling of the distinct web of meaning we call “Christianity”. We should not be surprised that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has supplanted Christianity as the de facto religion of America; it is an attempt to hold on to some meaning, articulated in familiar religious concepts. But as Christian Smith has demonstrated, it is simply impossible to reconcile MTD with any version of historical Christianity. It is a different religion.
What the Harari passage above tells us, though, is the inconvenient truth that “Christianity” as a sociological fact is inevitably going to be whatever most people who call themselves Christians say it is. If you believe in some form of traditional Christianity, and believe it to be objectively true, then you have no realistic choice now but to form small communities of really convinced believers, and from that dense, thick community try to form the next generations with a resilient commitment to the traditional Story. Otherwise, as Father Cassian of Norcia puts it, you will not make it through what’s coming. Learn more about this here.
It’s not just about religion. We face the unraveling of the postwar world order, and within our own country, the fraying of the bonds that have historically united our diverse people. One has to hope that this process can be halted, but once people have lost a common Story — be it sacred or secular — it is hard to see how it can be easily reclaimed.
Harari — who, recall, is a professional historian — says that humans think they make history, “but history actually revolves around the web of stories.” It is impossible to organize masses of people without them sharing some “fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.”
He predicts that
in the 21st century, we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.
We will do this because people cannot stand too much isolation and lack of meaning. A reader sends in a link to an unsettling George Monbiot column in The Guardian talking about the physical and social toll that our social order is taking on people. Monbiot, you may not know, is a left-wing secularist. He writes:
If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.
Experiments summarised in the journal Physiology & Behaviour last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.
It is not hard to see what the evolutionary reasons for social pain might be. Survival among social mammals is greatly enhanced when they are strongly bonded with the rest of the pack. It is the isolated and marginalised animals that are most likely to be picked off by predators, or to starve. Just as physical pain protects us from physical injury, emotional pain protects us from social injury. It drives us to reconnect. But many people find this almost impossible.
This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.
Back to Harari now. Harari says that liberals hate it when you say that they believe in religion, because they associate religion with supernatural claims. In fact, he says, all that means is that they believe in some system of moral laws that all humans must obey. Here is a non-religious statement that is “religious” in the sense Harari means: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What’s important about this is Harari’s recognition that human beings require a sacred story to make sense of their lives — and “sacred,” broadly speaking, is not strictly religious, but a shared story that people see as defining their identity, and binding them together and to beliefs they understand as higher than themselves. “We hold these truths” is part of one such story.
Harari understands that modernity has a way of dissolving all inherited sacred stories. Here is a key paragraph that is incredibly important:
Yet in fact modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.
Read that again. Think about it. What he’s saying is that ceasing to believe that there is fixed meaning in the universe leaves us in an unstable situation, but it gives us more agency to remake the world in our own image. Very few people are what Damon Linker calls “honest atheists” — that is, atheists who understand what it means to surrender the meaning that comes with theism. Most of them end up becoming sentimentalists of some sort or another — and that is the fate of Yuval Noah Harari, who is an incorrigible nostalgist for the future.
He believes that having been freed from the old myths is a very good thing indeed, because it liberates us to do what we like. Harari believes that capitalism is a force for good in the sense that it responds to human desires. Human desire is good. The desire to be free from pain, suffering, and death is good. Therefore, anything done in service of those goals is good. He eagerly anticipates the power of redefining what it means to be human that will soon be delivered to us via science and technology.
It is breathtaking to read this book and to accept that an intelligent person believes these things in the 21st century, given events of the 20th century. You do not have to be any kind of religious believer to accept what in Christianity is called “original sin” — the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us humans. Harari doesn’t deny this, exactly, but he seems blithely confident that there’s nothing wrong with us that science and technology won’t one day fix.
His understanding of religion can be crazy-making, because deep down, he doesn’t really get what it is and what it’s for. He indulges in techno-triumphalist cant about “new discoveries” in religion — as if revealed religion were like science. That said, I find it hard to deny his point that religions have to be able to answer the challenges of their own times, or they fade away. The thrust of the Benedict Option project is to say that Christian life in the West, as it is presently constituted, is wholly unsuited for enduring the post-Christian order. Harari praises progressive Christianity for updating itself by accepting contemporary mores and conventions, but he laughs gently at the lie they have to tell themselves: that these things can be justified by the Bible.
“Then they pretend the [modernizing] idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault,” he writes. “The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”
Here’s the fundamental question Harari asks:
The humanist belief in feelings has enabled us to benefit from the fruits of the modern covenant without paying its price. We don’t need any gods to limit our power and give us meaning — the free choices of customers and voters supply us with all the meaning we require. What, then, will happen once we realise that customers and voters never make free choices, and once we have the technology to calculate, design or outsmart their feelings? If the whole universe is pegged to the human experience, what will happen once the human experience becomes just another designable product, no different in essence from any other item in the supermarket?
In other words, he says that we have enjoyed the economic and technological benefits of modernity — that is, of being set free from a world of pre-determined meaning, our passions and desires being the only real guides for our life. Those days are coming to an end, he says, because science is discovering that there is no such thing as free will, that the human person is nothing but an algorithm. The good news (from Harari’s point of view) is that science will be able to come up with new ways for us to satisfy our desires. For him, being blissed out, to banish awareness of suffering, is to achieve freedom. And if man is nothing but an algorithm, then in theory, it will be possible to engineer his permanent happiness.
This is batty. Because I’ve gone on far too long here, let me refer you to Alan Jacobs’s deft evisceration of this childishly naive point of view. What troubles me so much about Harari’s book — and why I think it is a good bad book — is that he really does exemplify the way a lot of very smart people think. At one point, he says that the future is determined by small groups of dedicated innovators (= Toynbee’s “creative minorities”), e.g., the scientists and engineers who created the iPhone will probably have had more influence on the direction of history than hundreds of millions of people who did nothing. Whether you and I think that this Silicon Valley Epicurean mythology Harari has concocted is viable or true is beside the point. If those elites who maintain a monopoly on the means of idea production in our society believe it, then we are all going to have to live in the world they have brought into being.
If you think Brave New World is utopia, then you will love Harari’s book without qualification. If, however, you think it is a dystopia, then you may respect Harari’s analysis in many (but by no means all!) respects, but find his prescriptions terrifying. I think the book is ultimately a lie, but it is a seductive lie. Again, I believe Harari has done a pretty good job of showing why, if many of the things we accept in late modernity are true, we really have no strong reasons for following the logic further, into his dystopia. Harari is an evangelist for the Grand Inquisitor of the Church of Silicon Valley (“the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley”), preaching that we can have perfect happiness if we will surrender all our freedom to the ones who know better.