The French existentialist Albert Camus wrote a series of letters to a German friend during World War II. The friend had become a Nazi. Here are a couple of excerpts that remind me of our time and place:
You said to me: “The greatness of my country is beyond price. Anything is good that contributes to its greatness. And in a world where everything has lost its meaning, those who, like us young Germans, are lucky enough to find meaning in the destiny of our nation must sacrifice everything else.” I loved you then, but at that point we diverged. “No”, I told you, “I cannot believe that everything must be subordinated to a single end. There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” You retorted: “Well, you just don’t love your country.” …
We had much to overcome, first of all, the constant temptation to emulate you. For there is always something in us that yields to instinct, to contempt for intelligence, to the cult of efficiency. Our great virtues eventually become tiresome to us. We become ashamed of our intelligence, and sometimes we imagine some barbarous state where truth would be effortless. But the cure for this is easy; you are there to show us what such imagining would lead to, and we mend our ways. …
When you place the greatness of your country above all other things, or the pursuit of a particular social order above every end, then National Socialism could well be the end point of your logic. A greatness dependent on the manifestation of lies and raw power is no greatness at all. When you grow impatient with difficulty, with ambiguity, and weakness, that is when the Tempter comes to offer you the world if you will just bow down and worship him.
You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. You supposed that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world — in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed, that in the maddest of histories the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality, the realism of conquests.
That was what the Nazis believed. There are many people among us today who believe that good and evil can be defined according to one’s wishes, but they have a groundless faith that something will protect the nihilistic society they’re bringing about — that is, a society without a binding moral code — from National Socialism.
Within these two quotes by Camus I see the similarities between many of the #MAGA true believers and the Social Justice Warriors. And there’s this last Camus quote from the German friend letters. Here, he’s talking about a chaplain provided to French Resistance fighters headed for execution. A French teenager jumped out the back of the truck, and the chaplain alerted the German soldiers, who captured him. Camus wrote:
“I am ashamed for that man, and I am pleased to think that no French priest would have been willing to make his God abet murder.” [said the French priest who told Camus this story] That was true. The chaplain simply felt as you do. It seemed natural to him to make even his faith serve his country. Even the gods are mobilized in your country. They are on your side, as you say, but only as a result of coercion. You no longer distinguish anything; you are but a single impulse. And now you are fighting with the resources of blind anger, with your mind on weapons and feats of arms rather than on ideas, stubbornly confusing every issue and following your obsession.
Let the reader understand.
The small decisions of conscience we make everyday prepare our consciences for the big decisions to come. Guard your heart and mind.
You see Jane Mayer’s profile of Vice President Mike Pence? It’s got a lot of material guaranteed to scare Manhattan liberals about the fundagelical Taliban mustering in the hinterlands. But the quote that stood out most to me was this one by Pence’s elderly mother, who is a Catholic:
“Religion is the most important thing in our lives. But we don’t take it seriously.”
That is so perfect it almost makes me want to weep at its flawlessness. This is the kind of Christianity with which many of us grew up. We could not imagine that God wasn’t the most important thing in our lives. But only weirdos let religion interfere with how we lived. Thus, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the last stop to the faith’s oblivion. MTD is for Christians who want to live like everybody else, but who lack the courage to affirm atheism. Their children will not lack that courage, and if not their children, then certainly their grandchildren. I’ve seen it in France.
Over at Mere Orthodoxy, the Catholic writer Brandon McGinley talks about how the serious Catholics of his generation (40 year olds and younger) are seceding from the conformist, middle-class Catholicism they inherited from the post-Vatican II generation. He begins by reflecting on how very few Catholics of that generation he knows who are both serious about their faith, and interested either in conservative politics or modern theology. Read on:
We could very quickly lose ourselves in very precise descriptions and definitions of these trajectories. What exactly do we mean by “conservatism” and “corporatism” and “liberalism” and so forth? What specific areas of the Tradition are attracting young people? I expect, though, that the basic trajectories toward tradition and away from mainstream American politics are recognizable enough to readers that I don’t need to get bogged down in definitional minutiae and can move on to the more interesting question: Why is this happening?
This is the unifying conviction that brings together the encyclical-reading eggheads and the everyday nine-to-five working men, the Marx-reading quasi-leftists and the Falange-curious corporatists, the homeschooling stay-at-home moms and the vocation-discerning bachelors: Living the Faith seriously is no longer compatible with respectable, mainstream American culture. This may seem like an obvious, even trivial observation. But its implications extend out and into just about every aspect of how we live and think about our lives in contemporary society.
He talks about how the Vatican II generation made its peace with middle-class (bourgeois) American culture — and how subsequent generations have lost the faith. More:
Bougie Catholicism, it turned out, is thin gruel. We deemphasized the challenging, the mysterious, the confounding. We raised up the comfortable, the simple, the commonplace. And now eighty to ninety percent of teenagers stop practicing the Faith after Confirmation, because what does Catholic-bourgeois syncretism have to offer that the secular mainstream doesn’t—with fewer rules?
Every last one of my Catholic friends have watched friends and, most distressingly, family members leave the Faith or cool their practice of it to a respectable but emetic lukewarmness. These apostates and cultural Catholics aren’t patronizing crack houses or getting body piercings or quitting their jobs to become buskers: They are successful, respectable Americans. Indeed, part of achieving that status is, very often, not being seen as uncomfortably religious.
And so young Catholics who take the Faith seriously—and who wish to raise children who take the Faith seriously—regard this state of affairs in our culture and in their own families and they wonder: What, exactly, do we gain by conforming our politics to a mainstream ideology or pragmatic coalition? What, exactly, do we gain by muting those aspects of our tradition that are most dissonant with the prevailing culture? Not only have we gained nothing enduring from this strategy, but we have lost much—our distinctiveness, our patrimony, and, we suspect with anxious grief, a great many souls.
Rejecting any compromise with bourgeois respectability, this cohort then feels free to explore the depth of the Church’s intellectual and theological tradition—including the treasury of social teachings that open up horizons well beyond what everyday Republicans and Democrats can view.
Read the whole thing. I wonder how many Evangelicals of McGinley’s generation feel the same way. How does this express itself within Evangelical communities?
In the US, Orthodoxy is so small that I hesitate to draw any conclusions, except to note that Orthodox communities are losing their kids to the faith at a very high rate. We are no better than anybody else. It’s hard for me to see this firsthand, because I’ve always been part of mostly convert parishes — parishes that are heavily populated with ex-Evangelicals seeking more depth in worship, etc. The point is, all the beautiful liturgy and theological depth in the world will not hold anybody unless it is all leading to a life-changing encounter with the living God.
Reflections: Still, you find apathy about church.
Smith: If there’s one thing I know about younger people, whether they are 13 or 28, nearly every last one of them thinks of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. They aren’t necessarily fighting against that. That’s simply what they think Christianity is – a set of moralisms. The church is a place of moralistic requirements.
And that’s very understandable. Parents want their kids to turn out okay, and they rely on the church for moral guidance so they learn to behave. Parents are trying to cope with a world where lots of things can go wrong. There are lots of threats. But I think it can lead to a form of idolatry to treat the church this way. I feel for pastors. They are faced with this expectation from parents.
Boy, is that ever true. It was true for me when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the overwhelming beauty of the Chartres cathedral that I began to think otherwise. Reading Merton’s memoir The Seven Storey Mountain was another prompt to re-examine Christianity. The faith I encountered in Merton’s book (which was written in the 1940s) was a very, very different narrative than anything I had been given. It opened up my imagination to the depth of the Christian faith. I had not imagined it was anything more than moralism (defined as reducing the faith to good behavior). Well, I was wrong. The problem today is that churches eager to show that the Gospel is not mere moralism also tend to throw morals out the door. But I digress. More Christian Smith:
Reflections: How does a church stand for the gospel without sounding moralistic?
Smith: I don’t think techniques and practices are going to change the situation. Churches need to attack moralism wherever they see it and show what the gospel really is. Congregations need to have a conversation: What is Christianity? What is God for us? What is the power of the gospel?
Religion might be irrelevant to emerging adults as a group, but that does not mean they are hostile to it. Many are intrigued. They want to talk about it. Many who were raised non-religious feel culturally deprived of this big part of life. Many churches seem to think that non-religious young people are all atheistic like Richard Dawkins, but they aren’t. They’re aware that they don’t know much about religious tradition. Many want a conversation. If churches don’t make an effort to engage, it won’t happen.
In Paris, I gave a talk at Schiller International University to a group of about 25 undergraduates from around the world. I was speaking about the Benedict Option, of course, but I expected the conversation to be more about politics and culture. In fact, most of them wanted to talk about religion directly. A couple of the questions were hostile, but most were genuinely curious. I was amazed by this, and so was my host, the meeting’s organizer. More Smith:
Reflections: How did we get to this moment of disconnection from religious institutions?
Smith: I’m against blaming young people. And I don’t think church has failed. In the mid-20th century you could say there was a map in place that helped organize society. It featured well-defined units – family, religion, education, government, the military. Each had boundaries. Each had a role and respected the others. But those boundaries have broken down. The map isn’t in place. All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries. Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.
Reflections: Where does your research take you next?
Smith: I plan to focus on parents. In our work over the years, what has hit us harder than we realized is the role of parents in shaping their children’s spirituality. Despite the arguments today that sideline parents by placing great importance on the influence of peer groups and media, we find that parents are still the most powerful sociological force in transmitting spirituality and religion to their children.
Smith has written a fair amount about this — about how the way parents model the faith for their children is the most important factor in whether or not the children keep the faith.
The takeaway point is this: good old go-along-to-get-along middle-class Christianity is a suicidal strategy in post-Christian America. It just is. This is what The Benedict Option is meant to address.
Reader and frequent commenter Rob G. recommended to me a new essay collection by Paul Kingsnorth, the English environmental activist who accepted a few years back that the world would not actually do anything meaningful to stop global warming, and that people like him would simply have to adapt. Kingsnorth is a founder of the Dark Mountain movement. Here, from its FAQ page, is what Dark Mountain is about:
The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes.
New stories are needed for dark times. Older ones need to be rediscovered. The Dark Mountain Project was created to help this happen. We promote and curate writing, storytelling, art and music rooted in place, time and nature. We stand against the comforting narratives of our age. We aim to shake up our cultural establishment, and provide a home for writers and artists who are looking with honest eyes at the real state of the world.
It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.
Rob G. suggested that I read Kingsnorth’s essay collection not because he’s a Dark Mountain enthusiast (though he may be, I dunno), but because he sees parallels between it and the Benedict Option. He’s right. From Kingsnorth’s introductory essay:
Worlds are always ending; empires are always falling; the climate has changed before; change is the only constant. These are the comforting stories we tell to get ourselves through the night. These are the words that allow us to continue to avoid looking at the enormity of what we have done and are doing. They allow us to continue to pretend, for a little while longer, that the way we are living is right and normal and inevitable and that it will continue; that these are problems that can be ironed out through the judicious application of our celebrated human cleverness. Does anybody really believe this, down at the cellular level, down in their gut? Sometimes I think that we all know, inside, in the place where we are still wild animals, what we have done. Worlds are always ending, it’s true; but not like this. This is new. This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.
He is talking about global warming and other forms of environmental degradation. But almost everything he says here could be said, in my view, about Christianity in the West. As an anonymous Catholic priest said in this space the other day, lots of his co-religionists on both the left and the right tell themselves that if we only tweak matters this way or that, everything will come right again. It’s delusional, but it’s comforting, because it denies the radical nature of the challenge before us. Seriously, does any committed Christian really believe, down in their gut, that we’re going to pull this out by continuing to live as we are living today?
Christianity is always changing, it’s true; but not like this. This is new. The challenge liquid modernity poses to the faith is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as the church has been upon this earth. We are going to have to live through it, if we can, without losing our faith. This is what the Benedict Option is about. More Kingsnorth:
This book is about feeling lost, and trying to find a way again in a world remaking itself at incredible speed, a world racing away from the real towards artifice and a narrow human narcissism. Our direction of travel is clear, but our destination is not. The old is dead or dying, but the new has yet to be born. At times like these, I’m not sure anybody really has any useful answers. But maybe it is possible to at least pin down some useful questions.
He’s talking about the environment. I’m talking about the church. But we see the same unwinding taking place in the fields that concern us. Kingsnorth says that on the environmental front, we face not a “crisis of economics or politics or technology, but a crisis of stories — that the tales we [are] telling ourselves about our place in the world [are] dangerously wrong, that we needed to right them… .” Yes, this is true about the church in the modern world too.
And this as well, from Kingsnorth: the realization that this process was not going to be reversed, because “most people didn’t want it to be; they were enjoying it.” Of course. In the church, most middle-class Christians don’t want to change a thing. They are enjoying MTD too much, because it asks nothing of them. Nor do the people leading religious institutions want to change. Better to manage decline politely, to not upset the world too much, and to hope that God reaches down from heaven and works some kind of miracle to turn things around.
The Benedict Option begins with the realization that nobody is coming to save us. If we want to be saved — that is, if we want to be able to hold on to the faith in the present and coming trials, and to raise children who hold on to the faith — we are going to have to take responsibility for ourselves and our local communities. We are going to have to tell ourselves different stories than the familiar happy-clappy Christian narratives that bolster bourgeois respectability and emotional well being.
The hour is very late. We are not going to reverse the tide, but maybe we can ride it out. What other choice do we have? “Religion is the most important thing in our lives. But we don’t take it seriously.” This will be our epitaph if we don’t change, and change radically.
Young readers, there are other stories about Christianity out there, stories from long ago, stories that nobody has told you. Stories that defy expectation. They exist. But you have to undertake a quest for them. You have to rediscover for yourselves “the challenging, the mysterious, the confounding.” Everything in our culture today conspires against you hearing them and taking them seriously. You have to be a rebel for orthodoxy.
By the way, here’s the cover for the Slovak edition of The Benedict Option. I love this image so much:
A Satanically clad drag queen reading to children at the Michelle Obama Library in Long Beach, California. This particular tweet has been taken down, but someone saved it. Below, a tweet from the Long Beach Public Library system promoting the event:
Join Michelle Obama Library for a celebration of LGBTQ History Month! All ages welcome! pic.twitter.com/T7cmGxTTRv
— LB Public Library (@LBCityLibrary) October 7, 2017
Here, the drag queen, Xochi Mochi, talks on Instagram about how much fun s/he had influencing the minds of children:
Remember, public librarians invited this lunatic to come read books to children. And parents chose to send their little ones to hear it.
Nope, nothing wrong with this culture of ours…
I have never met her in person, but I consider Rebecca Sachiko Burton a friend. She used to comment often on this blog, and we’re Facebook pals. I very rarely check Facebook, but was on there tonight when I saw that she had posted this. I was first of all shocked that something like this had happened to someone I know. More than that, I was staggered by the moral courage she showed in making it public. I asked her for permission to post it here, and she agreed. Rebecca is a Mormon, a fact that, as you will see, is relevant to her story:
I wouldn’t blame you for not reading this, and it’s honestly terrifying the breath out of me to write it.
I won’t tell you every one, and I won’t tell you in detail. Just a few big ones.
My biggest started with [a family member] when I was 7. It was serious and injurious, and began a relationship where, as my recovery literature puts it, “sex is the most important sign of love”, especially when the alternative is physical abuse. It became a lingering relationship characterized by control–either through generosity and charm, or anger and abuse, but always, always, his need to own my life. To follow me around, to shame me or mock me, to need me to be his confidante, to rage at me privately. When he told me a couple years ago that I should thank him, because he considered himself my protector, and that I was the real seducer/abuser, I had to stop talking to him or seeing him. But it’s been hard, because many people in my circle were befriended by him, and experience shows that I won’t be believed, but he will.
As a teen, when I approached a bishop about the abuse, this very nice man, who was the father of many beloved daughters, took me through the repentance process–because being forced to perform sexual acts as a seven-year-old somehow made me culpable. This very nice bishop was the unwitting source of secondary trauma.
When I was 17, my boss–a married man in his 30’s–pursued me, talking a lot about “writers like us”, giving me gifts, and reminding me that I was now obligated to him. He gave me a galley copy of Game of Thrones, and now anything by George R.R.Martin turns my stomach.
Then an older boyfriend, when I was in high school, who raped, and later hit me. Because my [family member] still blamed me for seducing him as a 7yo, I fully believed I was irredeemable. I believed I had turned a perfectly nice boyfriend into a monster; that I was capable of turning any man into a monster. That just by getting too close for too long, I would pollute anyone around me.
People who’ve been abused or assaulted tend to have poor boundaries–you can google “shark cage theory” for more info on this–and it means that if a teacher, or church neighbor, or employer was going to pick one person to touch inappropriately, to stand to close to, to give gifts to, to pursue, to abuse, it is often someone who has already been assaulted, because they’re missing crucial boundaries that other people have.
I tried to throw myself into church, where the Young Women’s lessons seemed either not to apply to me, because they seemed to have been written for some bright-eyed virgin, or they applied perfectly to me, where I learned that I was chewed gum, a licked cupcake, a rotten apple. Every new modesty lesson emphasized that I was in charge of men’s lust, and that I had already failed to keep men pure by the time I was 8 years old.
Each worthiness interview through my 20’s and 30’s started with an acknowledgement that they knew I had gotten married as a pregnant teenager, who was “unworthy”. When my baby son died, the bishop immediately brought up my questionable worthiness, and how that might affect my being able to see him again. In my annual worthiness interviews, maybe because I was marked as dirty or lesser, I was asked if I was wearing my garments enough, if I was wearing them properly, which activities I took them off for. I had to do this while sitting in a small chair on the other side of a large desk, in an office with a closed door, with a church leader with a portrait of the Savior behind him. This well-dressed man that I didn’t know, but who lived in my neighborhood, whose kids knew my kids, to whom I was obligated to somehow please with the worthiness of my body and the correctness of my underwear….the surprising thing is that the debilitating church panic attacks didn’t begin sooner. I knew, from lots of personal experience, that suits meant nothing, that being married stopped no one, and a closed door was the prelude into someone else getting to do whatever they liked.
I’m trying to think of the best way to say this, and I can’t come up with a soft way, so I’m going to give it bluntly: there are many more like me. There are many more who are watching and listening when something about abuse or assault comes up in the news and we see which men ask, “Well, what was she wearing?” Which ones say, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” or “you’re oversensitive”.
We remember which ones will use their voice to tell women to be more modest, to be more pleasing, to tell them that they are obligated to subject themselves or their children to being alone with men they don’t really know or feel safe with, because that’s what’s socially expected, or that’s what good church women do. We see which ones believe the abused, and help them; and which ones look the other way when people are made to feel small, or afraid, or helpless; or who pretend nothing happened, or who kindly victim-blame, echoing the same things the demons inside us already shout, every day.
Like a friend of mine says: This isn’t about blame. It’s about a frighteningly large group of human beings saying, “We have been hurt. We have been made afraid. Please see us. Please believe us.” The world is full of incredible men who stand against harassment and abuse. It is also full of good men who do not see that there is a battle in need of fighting. This can be seen as a call to arms, or a call to discomfort. I think the former is more productive.
And, my sisters–I see you. I believe you. I have your back. You are of infinite worth.
Also–I don’t know if this is relevant–but I went to a recovery retreat last Easter. They asked, “How many of you women here have been blamed by a church leader for a husband’s addiction or for abuse by another?” Every hand went up.
Every hand went up. My God.
Rebecca Sachiko Burton, I salute you.
If you readers want to add your own #MeToo stories to this thread, please do. Do not feel that you have to identify yourself by name. Please be aware, though, that if you have posted here before under your own name, I will be able to see who you are. Of course I would never reveal your identity, but for the sake of your own privacy, I just want you to know that this information is displayed to me as the administrator of this blog. If that troubles you, then please don’t post.
UPDATE: I slightly edited this post to make two people Rebecca accuses of abuse less identifiable. This should not be taken as me disbelieving her.
So, yeah, I was there.
And let me tell you one thing.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing:
Not that he was raping.
No, that we never heard.
But we were aware of a certain pattern of overly-aggressive behavior that was rather dreadful.
We knew about the man’s hunger; his fervor; his appetite.
There was nothing secret about this voracious rapacity; like a gluttonous ogre out of the Brothers Grimm.
All couched in vague promises of potential movie roles.
(and, it should be noted: there were many who actually succumbed to his bulky charms. Willingly. Which surely must have only impelled him to cast his fetid net even wider).
But like I said: everybody-fu*king-knew.
And to me, if Harvey’s behavior is the most reprehensible thing one can imagine, a not-so-distant second is the current flood of sanctimonious denial and condemnation that now crashes upon these shores of rectitude in gloppy tides of bullshit righteousness.
And do you know how I am sure this is true?
Because I was there.
And I saw you.
And I talked about it with you.
You, the big producers; you, the big directors; you, the big agents; you, the big financiers.
And you, the big rival studio chiefs; you, the big actors; you, the big actresses; you, the big models.
You, the big journalists; you, the big screenwriters; you, the big rock stars; you, the big restaurateurs; you, the big politicians.
I saw you.
All of you.
So, yeah, I am sorry.
Sorry and ashamed.
Because, in the end, I was complicit.
I didn’t say shit.
I didn’t do shit.
Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.
So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.
And for that, once again, I am sorry.
But you should be sorry, too.
With all these victims speaking up…
To tell their tales.
Shouldn’t those who witnessed it from the sidelines do the same?
Instead of retreating to the cowardly, canopied confines of faux-outrage?
Doesn’t being a bystander bring with it the responsibility of telling the truth, however personally disgraceful it may be?
You know who are.
You know that you knew.
And do you know how I know that you knew?
Because I was there with you.
And because everybody-fu*king-knew.
Read the whole thing. It’s powerful.
Allow me to be metaphysical for a bit. I am reading theologian David Bentley Hart’s just-published translation of The New Testament. In his First Things review, Father Paul Mankowski says:
It is a truism that those who know the Bible only through translations are cut off from a good deal of what is communicated in the original texts. It is also widely recognized that translations made over-familiar by liturgical or personal repetition tend to steer the mind of the reader down habitual paths and for that reason insulate him from what is terrible or perplexing in the text. Hart acknowledges this, but he also makes a point more rarely considered: that scholars accustomed to reading biblical documents in the original languages—especially those who believe they have “gotten a feel” for the voice of the ancient author—likewise glide over much that is ambiguous and problematic, and that it isn’t until one is forced to translate, that is, to reformulate the familiar phrases using the equipment of another language, that the difficulties announce themselves with full impact. Says Hart:
To translate a text is to be conducted into its mysteries in a way that no mere act of reading—however conscientious or frequent—makes possible. At the very least, the translator is obliged to confront the words on the page not merely as meanings to be received, but as problems to be solved; and this demands an attention to detail for which most of us never quite have the time.
The problems Hart refers to are of two sorts: places where we know what the Greek says but find English (or whatever the receptor language may be) inadequate in conveying the meanings, and places where the meaning (or text) of the Greek is itself in doubt. In addition, many readers have doctrinal or theological commitments that in effect cut them off from readings that the original texts permit, and sometimes compel.
Hart is well aware that few scholars will applaud all his decisions, and admits his preference for choosing the “unfamiliar or more baffling interpretation” because it is unsettling—and because it is sometimes more accurate. Even those of us convinced that the Holy Spirit is the author of Sacred Scripture are rarely attentive to how many purely human anticipatory choices, based on purely human prudence, are involved in deciding for each particular verse which text, which grammatical and syntactical analysis, and which translational rendering best reflect the sacred author—and thus end up on the printed page of our English Bibles. Inasmuch as one goal of Hart’s eccentric formulations is to make us rethink the validity of the accepted ones, he provides a useful service even where we judge him wrong, in pushing us back to the original texts to assess the plausibility of the rival claims. If, after considering the evidence, we decide the conventional expression remains superior to Hart’s alternative, our preference is no longer a sentimental loyalty, but a choice more alive to the ambiguities of the original.
One thing that leaps out at the reader is Hart’s decision to use the original koinē Greek word “cosmos” instead of “world.” Here’s John 3:16-19, in Hart’s translation:
For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever has not had faith has already been judged because he has not had faith in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the cosmos, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were wicked.
Try 1 John 2:15-16:
Do not love the cosmos or the things within the cosmos. If anyone love the cosmos, the love of the Father is not within him; Because all that is in the cosmos — the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of living — is not from the Father, but from the cosmos.
In his essay accompanying the translation, Hart offers his rationale for why he made certain choices. About using “cosmos” instead of “world,” he writes:
But, while there are instances in the text where the world functions as an equivalent of oikoumenē, the inhabited world of human beings, it more frequently means the whole of the created order, the heavens no less than the earth. It certainly carries this latter meaning in some crucial and occasionally unsettling ways in many verses in John’s Gospel, Paul’s letters, and elsewhere. It is good, for example, to be reminded that in the New Testament, and in Paul’s theology in particular, both slavery to death in sin and final liberation from death in divine glory are described as cosmic — not merely human — realities, taking in the whole of creation. Moreover, the word “world” as we use it today simply does not capture what is most essential to the ancient concept of “cosmos,” a word that most literally means “order” or “arrangement” or even “loveliness of design.” For us, the “world” is either merely the physical reality of nature and society “out there,” or it is the human sphere with all its attendant moral and historical contingencies. For the late antique cultures from which the New Testament came, the “cosmos” was quite literally a magnificently and terribly elaborate order of reality that comprehended nature (understood as a rational integrity organized by metaphysical principles), the essential principles of the natural and animal human condition (flesh and soul, for instance, with all their miseries), the spiritual world (including the hierarchies of the “divine,” the angelic, and the daemonic), the astral and planetary heavens (understood as a changeless realm at once physical and spiritual), as well s social, political, and religious structures of authority and power (including the governments of human beings, angels, celestial “daemons,” gods, terrestrial demons, and whatever other mysterious forces might be hiding behind nature’s visible forms). It is a vision of the whole of things that is utterly unlike any with which most of us are today familiar, and that simply does not correspond to any meaning of “world” intuitively obvious to us. For the author of 1 Peter or of 1 John, for instance, to tell his readers to have nothing to do with the “cosmos” is to say something far more comprehensive, imponderable, and astonishing than that they should avoid vice and materialist longings, or that they should withdraw from society. It seemed better to me to risk oddity of expression than to risk losing sight of these truths.
I can’t stop thinking about the implications in this for Christian belief. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, as Hart also is, this is not exactly new information. But somehow, seeing it in familiar passages in the New Testament jarred something in me. Just seeing that word — cosmos — where I expected to see world compelled me to take more seriously the radicalism of the Christian claim. When Jesus says, in John 16:33, “In the cosmos you have suffering, but take heart — I have conquered the cosmos” — that strikes one as a far more radical concept than we are used to. Jesus is saying that he has become master of the entire created order, that by his death and resurrection he has transcended it and brought it unto subjugation. Note that he is speaking here of all things, including the natural world. Historian Robert Louis Wilken points out that the pagan philosopher Celsus, writing in the second century, well understood the profound implications of the Incarnation. Celsus said that if the Infinite became finite, it would upset the entire cosmic order. (This is a claim we hear again, 1,800 years later, from the mouth of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.”)
What does it mean for Jesus to have come into this world to save “the cosmos”? Cosmos is not a synonym for “universe,” because a cosmos is a phenomenon that is diverse but fundamentally unified and ordered by the Logos (here is a good, clear explanation of what this meant to early Christians). The word “cosmos” implies not simply individual souls, everything that exists. That means that nothing that exists can be taken for granted, because God so loved the cosmos that He sent His son into the cosmos to save it. Think of it: God so loved even the rivers and the grass and the animals that He sent His son to save them too — not “save” in the sense that humans are saved, but saved in the sense of being perfected, of being redeemed, or being restored to full participation in the divine life, as God intended. The beginning of the process of cosmic redemption occurred in the Resurrection. St. Ambrose, writing in the fourth century, proclaimed a truth that is still recognized in Orthodox Christianity: “When Christ arose, the earth itself arose.” (People who mock Pope Francis’s “environmental” encyclical Laudato si ought to realize that they are mocking Christian tradition going back to the early church.) When Jesus tells his followers in John: 16:33 not to be afraid, for “I have conquered the cosmos” (Hart’s translation), he is saying that the cosmic victory has already been won, and that we are simply living out its meaning in time — a meaning that will only be fully realized at the end of Time, according to Christian eschatology.
What would it mean to be “in the cosmos, but not of it”? How can we be outside the cosmos, given that the cosmos is the entire created order? The answer is that the more we conform ourselves to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and allow ourselves to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, the greater the share we have in his victory over the cosmic. In a 2003 essay, Hart gives us the answer to the question I pose. In the piece, he says that in our post-Christian culture, we need to work much harder to observe the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I’ve boldfaced the words below that answer my question:
Moreover, we need to recognize, in the light of this history, that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism—especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers—that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture ” all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.
It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are—even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant—usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.
A paradox? Yes, absolutely. This is how we mortal creatures participate in the redemption of the cosmos: through loving it ascetically, which is to say, by loving it through the mediation of the One who is not of the cosmos, but who is rather the Creator and Conqueror of it.
Mind you, this is a decidedly Eastern view. As Louis Dupre has written, of an early split between Eastern and Western Christianity, “Whereas for Eastern theologians salvation meant deification (union with God), Westerners tended to view redemption as a healing of human nature.” Dupre says that after Rome’s fall in the West, the Latin Christian mind became very dark about human nature, and only began to recover a sense of God’s sacramental presence in Creation in the High Middle Ages.
Anyway, I want to focus on what it would mean to us everyday Christians if we started to think of what the New Testament says about the “world” as talking about the “cosmos.” That is, not as “society,” but as “all that exists.” How would that change our relationship to it? I think it would require that we live ascetically, in the sense Hart means above. It would teach us to see the created order not as something we submit to, but something that we struggle with, toward its ultimate redemption, and our own. It would make it clearer what the Benedictine monks mean when the talk about rightly ordering all things by and towards God. The first commandment — “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” — gets into your bones better when you think about the world as cosmos, does it not? It teaches us “to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God,” as Hart writes. This struggle towards sight is a lifelong pilgrimage. Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at in The Benedict Option is a recovery of the cosmic vision Hart articulates — the metaphysical vision that united the Church for its first millennium. G.K. Chesterton said, “Religion is not the church a man goes to but the cosmos he lives in.” Yes.
Thoughts? I know this must be dull to non-Christian readers, but perhaps it will give you some insight into why people like me believe what we believe — and how we fall short of what we profess.
Over the weekend, the Family Research Council held its annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. It is an opportunity for conservative politicians to speak to politically engaged conservative Evangelicals. Donald Trump spoke to them — the first sitting US president ever to do so. They also heard from ex-Trump White House staffers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.
From what I’ve read of the event, it further solidified the unqualified support by the Religious Right for Donald Trump and his movement.
“This is not my war,” Bannon said in his speech. “This is our war.” Cheers from the audience.
Later, he told the audience: “The most important thing is an authentic candidate. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Judge Moore — this is who you ought to vote for.”
Fascinating. Bannon advises voting not on principles, but on “authenticity,” which is an extremely slippery concept. Don’t let the word pass without pondering it in light of philosopher Charles Taylor’s insights into what he calls the Age of Authenticity. Excerpt from an interview:
spiked review: You mention the importance of aesthetic expression, and Nietzsche even argued that we should make ourselves works of art – why has the aesthetic been so central to modern ideas of selfhood?
Taylor: You can see how there’s a very deep interweaving, coming from the Romantic period, of the ethic of authenticity on the one hand, and the elevation of the aesthetic on the other. So when people began to work out the ideal of authenticity at the end of the 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th century, there was also a corresponding emphasis on originality in art. This was new. If you go back far enough, when people made religious icons, they were craftsmen. They had no sense of their work being original or even that it would be good if it was original. Their products weren’t supposed to be original; they were supposed to be artefacts. And this has been totally overturned during the past two centuries. We now admire art, or music, or poetry not for its craftsmanship – the extent to which it realises a template – but for its originality. So you can see the interweaving of the aesthetic with the ethic of authenticity. The seeds were there from the very beginning.
So it’s possible, if you look at ethics in the broad sense of what the good life is about, then people can say that the good life is really about this superior self-expression, of being original, rather than about what you might call morality, which is doing the right thing by other people. Indeed, for someone like Nietzsche, morality, doing right by others, gets in the way of what he sees as the real substance of the good life, which is self-realisation, becoming an Übermensch and so on. I think you can see that that’s part of the whole turn in modern culture, which promotes the aesthetic to the highest possible position.
This speech, and its rousing acceptance by the audience, reveals the extent to which Christian conservatives are entirely creatures of liquid modernity, and the system of lies that they tell themselves they oppose. What connects the sybaritic billionaire and serial liar Donald J. Trump to the fire-breathing Alabama fundamentalist Roy Moore? It’s not principles, heaven knows; it’s “authenticity.” But authentically what? Themselves? But what does that mean? Christians are supposed to judge the authentic self by the standard of Christ-likeness. That’s not what’s happening here. “Authenticity,” in this context, seems to mean “hated by the people you hate.” It is entirely aesthetic, without ethical substance. So, the political good, in the eyes of these political Christians, is about solidifying a sense of identity, and using it for the sake of gaining political power.
How is this not nihilism?
Bannon and Gorka talked of the “war” they are waging on the GOP establishment. Reflecting on his and Bannon’s exile from the White House, Gorka said, with relish: “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens, as people unfettered by being part of the U.S. government.”
This is a gathering of Christians, mind you, and this is the kind of rhetoric they’re cheering. True, it’s a political event, so one shouldn’t expect it to have the politeness of a church meeting. But this is the vision that many politically active Christians on the Right have embraced, this wrathfulness. I’m not talking about Christians who reluctantly voted for Trump last fall as the lesser evil. I’m talking about Christians who gleefully embrace the man and what he stands for. The Evangelical Christian writer and literature professor Alan Jacobs said something important about this kind of thing in his interview with Emma Green:
Green: Is the right or the left more to blame for this fracture?
Jacobs: They’re bad in different ways. There’s a smugness on both sides. But I am more worried about the condition of the right in America right now.
I think the primary moral fault of the left is a kind of smug contemptuousness toward people who don’t agree. And I think that’s a bad fault. But the primary fault of the right at this moment in America is wrath. I worry about the consequences of wrath more than I worry about the consequences of contemptuous smugness.
So do I. Look, there’s a lot to be angry at, but this is a fatal trap. I lived through wrathfulness — righteous anger over the sex abuse crisis — destroying my Catholic faith, and very nearly destroying my faith in Jesus Christ, period. Wrathfulness can destroy a society. In Dante’s Purgatorio — the second book of the Divine Comedy — the pilgrim Dante encounters Marco the Lombard, a man who is having the tendency to wrathfulness purged from his soul. Dante comes from a world that has been torn apart from wrathfulness unleashed. City has turned on city, families have turned on families, the entire fabric of society in 14th century Tuscany has been shredded. The pilgrim Dante asks Marco for wisdom that he can take back to the world of the living to help them out of this particular dark wood.
As I once wrote about the meaning of this canto, Marco tells Dante that wrathfulness has blinded everyone to the truth. They came to believe that they had no control over their emotions, and gave their emotions liberty, as if it were fated. In fact, God gave us free will, and we not only have control over our emotions, but we also have responsibility for them. Says Marco:
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”
What Marco means is that if you want to understand why the world around you is so messed up, look into your own heart. It’s not because of outside forces beyond our control. It’s primarily because of moral choices we have made. If you want to repair the world, start by changing your own heart.
But it doesn’t stop there. From my post about this canto:
But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as baabies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.
The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.
Yesterday I blogged about this in a non-Dante post. I’m talking here about new research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team, in which they examine the collapse among US Catholic Millennials of a basic understanding of Roman Catholic teaching and institutional loyalty. Like their counterparts in other churches, these young people are Catholics in name only. You may blame them for their ignorance and unbelief, and you would be right. But that’s not the whole story. The failure of Catholic institutions — families, parishes, schools — played a big role:
The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.
Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.
It’s not only the churches, obviously. But if you ask me, there is no more important failure than in the churches and in families.
Dante seems to be telling us to discipline our own hearts and make them beacons of virtue, and many around us will find their way to the path of righteousness and concord. That’s an easy message for us Americans to grasp. What is much more difficult for us to grasp is Dante’s insistence that there is a public obligation to create a habitus, through secular and sacred institutions, in which people, especially the young, are educated toward virtue. This is a bedrock traditional conservative belief, but it goes against our disposition toward conceiving of public life in individualistic and libertarian ways. Thus the moral thinness in our public life, and, increasingly, a moral thinness in private life as well. We will get what we are — and the fault for that is not in our stars, but in our individual and collective selves.
Wrath blinds us to this. Anger is a dark cloud of unknowing, and what we who are lost in it do not know are ourselves.
Our true selves. Our authentic selves — which, as I’ve said, has a particular meaning for Christians. In their wrathfulness at the left, and their eagerness to take power to punish the left, these politically engaged Christians have bound themselves and their imaginations to a cause that makes a mockery of what they profess to believe.
Back in 2009, the late Michael Spencer prophesied what he called “the coming Evangelical collapse.” Among the reasons Evangelicalism was going to collapse, said Spencer:
1. Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.
The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap ofbelieving in a cause more than a faith.
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
To repeat Christian Smith’s warning: “We will get what we are.” A Christian Science Monitor story last week discussed the falling-away of younger Evangelicals from the faith, much of it driven by alienation from their churches’ political activism, and stance on LGBT issues. As readers know, I firmly embrace Christian orthodoxy on sexuality, and I do not believe churches can afford to compromise. More important, though, is the fact that conservative churches have by and large done a very poor job of teaching their young not only what the Bible expects of them on this front, but why it does. No wonder young Evangelicals (and Catholics) think Biblical orthodoxy looks “mean” and hard to reconcile with a loving god.
What’s happening to conservative Evangelicalism is a tragedy. These Values Voters summiteers really do seem to think they are going to vote in the Kingdom. They really do seem to believe that political warfare with the left is where the real battle is. Meanwhile, the inner strength and the public witness of the churches is falling apart. Those Christians that welcome this nationalistic, power-craving wrathfulness into their hearts — “Make Babylon Great Again” — have traded principle for “authenticity,” and thus have become not an answer to the crisis of our time, but a part of it. Tim Alberta, reporting on the conference for Politico:
[A]nyone expecting the evangelical right to shy away from Trump world’s hardball approach to politics hasn’t been paying attention the past 18 months. Many Christian voters embraced Trump not despite his provocative style but because of it, betting on a brash street brawler to win the culture battles they had been losing for generations. And their faith has been rewarded: From abortion policy to religious liberty to judicial appointments, Trump has delivered for social conservatives more than any other constituency, making them the unlikely cornerstone of his coalition.
With political victory, however, has come the loss of moral high ground for a faithful whose church-averse champion personifies much of what their scripture condemns. It’s a trade-off plenty of conservative Christians, reeling from eight years in which they felt ostracized and demeaned by Obama, the media and popular culture, have proven eager to accept.
Bannon and Gorka are now throwing the full weight of their populist movement behind Moore in Alabama—a candidate who connects viscerally with faith voters on the basis of his objection to the physical removal of God’s presence from American life. If he wins the Senate seat, a spiritual renaissance in America is unlikely to result. But something else will: a deepening alliance between economic nationalists and social conservatives, two distinct tribes that are growing codependent in the era of Trump. As Perkins now sees it, Republicans will win elections only by merging these factions—hence his inviting Bannon and Gorka to speak.
The president is right when he says, in the context of culture wars, that the times are changing. But it’s not just about Christians pursuing the return of a bygone, pious America. It’s about what they are willing to sacrifice to get there.
We will get what we are. For Christians today, this message is the “mene, mene, tekel upharsin” — the “writing of the wall” at Belshazzar’s feast.
UPDATE: From Jane Mayer’s profile of Mike Pence in the New Yorker:
“Trump thinks Pence is great,” Bannon told me. But, according to a longtime associate, Trump also likes to “let Pence know who’s boss.” A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy—he wants to hang them all!”
First, the comment by the Catholic:
As a young Catholic priest of an archdiocese of a major city in the United States, what strikes me is not only how unaware most Catholics in the pews are of the decomposition of traditional Christian culture (or how long ago that decomposition began in earnest), but how even many — perhaps most? — members of the clergy are unaware.
Whether more traditional or more progressive, many seem to believe that if we adjust the dials a bit, we can turn things back to the 1950s (the former long for its institutional strength and cohesion, the latter pine for its influence in culture). Few recognize that in the 1950s we were witnessing the last gasps of a kind of cultural Christianity that had sold its inheritance for a mess of pottage — and in fact, American Catholics were not much different from their Protestant peers (see Will Herberg’s classic, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”), and took most of their bearings from the liberal tradition of modernity, rather than traditional Catholicism.
Even within the episcopacy today, many still have not grasped the nature of this cultural shift. Just as many seem quite Cartesian in their understanding of how the Faith is appropriated — just preach the right ideas, and people will change. They fail to recognize how the Faith is transmitted culturally — how the reception of practices and symbols and relationships in an embodied integral context are often more important than clear and distinct verbal communication of ideas.
Case in point, notice how few bishops seem interested in the Liturgy as a force for cultural change. In my own archdiocese, there is almost no central coordination or even concern on that point — far more effort is spent on clarifying ideas by publishing documents that no one reads, as well as furtively remonstrating in social media, posting videos with views in the mere hundreds. Meanwhile, as the numbers of Catholics in the pews declines at 3% every year, the few left take their cues from mainstream culture, and their experience of Sunday Mass remains a minimalistic affair of compromise, with little beauty or ritual: a mostly spoken denuded 60 minute sleepwalk, with hymns from the 1970s (still!), inside churches built or renovated in the 1960s. The exceptions only prove the rule.
I have found that much of this is a generational difference: most parishioners are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They’re are quite attached to this denuded version of Catholicism, moralistic and therapeutic in its preaching, cold and empty in its mystagogy. It’s a bell curve as you look for younger parishioners, but the younger they are, the more they explicitly crave substance in doctrine and mysticism in ritual. But even they often do not realize just how diseased the culture outside is, or how deep its reach is into their lives, or how radical the cultural changes must be for them to live Christian life in its integrity, or how difficult this will prove.
Despite their craving for doctrine and mysticism, many young Catholics still think that orthodoxy and orthopraxy lie in an interior commitment of the will, having a personal relationship with God, understanding and believing the truths of the Faith, trying to live the Faith in one’s life. They fail to see that Catholicism must always be a cultural experience and commitment: that one needs the support and formation and achievements of a culture, that the human person will always be a cultural animal, and that if one is not being shaped and formed by an integral and comprehensive Christian cultural experience (however big or small, in the case of a Benedict option), one is being subliminally shaped and formed by a very different culture. Most Catholics, both lay and clergy, assume that most of the culture and their participation in it is indifferent to their practice of the faith. That is what a Cartesian and voluntaristic account of the Faith looks like in practice.
As for the clergy, I find that even the orthodox priests who were formed during the JPII pontificate remain curiously unconcerned and aware of the importance of culture – for them, it’s often about orthodoxy – as in preaching the truth – and less about an experience of beauty and mysticism. The attitudes of priests formed during the JPII years versus the BXVI priests with respect to liturgy best illustrates this point. The former are content having removed the crazy abuses, and are convinced that clear and distinct preaching of the truth will cure the culture (notice their passion for didacticism). The latter are much more concerned about the liturgy as a force for cultural change and the primary way that the Faith is experienced and appropriated, particularly insofar as it is celebrated beautifully and mystically.
(I should add, I am not talking about the Extraordinary Form, and have no special preference for it. I’m talking about celebrating the Novus Ordo as beautifully as possible, about helping people actively pray it, and forming their lives around the Lord’s Day and the Liturgical Year. In short, putting James K.A. Smith’s thesis about liturgical cultural formation in practice, in a Catholic mode.)
I know these comments are more general, rather than answering some of the questions in this post in detail. But all that is to say, yes, most of us are still shoring up the imperium. There is little awareness or concern for a Benedict Option in most Catholic circles – precisely because, the circles are mostly limited to a rote practice of the Faith for one hour a week, or a dutiful maintenance of the institutional structures as they are (as they fade). There remain small numbers of Catholics who do get it, but their presence is indeed small, and they share little with most of the people who are filling the pews or running the store. I often feel that working for the Church today is like working for Blockbuster Video about ten years ago. We’re arguing about how we should display DVDs on the racks in the stores, when our very model of business is becoming suddenly obsolete.
(I hope my tone does not seem pessimistic. I am quite hopeful, and agree with what Pope Benedict has said about this change in the Church. Moreover, I think an institutionally humbled Church will be more saintly and pastorally effective, once we give up trying to adjust the dials in order to get back to the 1950s. Even now, if one has the eyes to see, there are great things happening in the Church, signs of promise and encouragement. It’s only when one is set on shoring up or recovering the 1950s imperium, that one feels so discouraged, and probably fails to notice all the signs of hope.)
Here’s the comment by the Protestant:
I serve a relatively conservative congregation in historic relation to a mainline Protestant tradition, and I’m our area’s designated “historian” on matters of polity & ecclesiology.
So while I take Rod’s point, as I look both back as well as across our congregation, what I struggle with is that it’s very hard for me to say we’ve lost theological formation (or catechesis as some put it, which no one in our tradition would spell or say) when there’s no evidence we have had it. This is a new realization for both ordained clergy and lay leaders in our very laity-centered congregation and region.
What our community (local church, state, wider tradition) has in common with much of the mainline Protestant family is less the apostasy that I know folks here like to point to, than the fact that for many of our congregations, Christianity and membership in a local church was a form of social aspiration. Trying to move up from poverty and rural isolation and little or no property to owning land, a house, and a salaried job — these were the underpinnings of what it meant to be “part of the church” a century and change ago. Cleanliness being next to godliness, and a steady income with some savings tucked away a sign of divine favor, was all part of a cultural Calvinism that included dressing nicely for going to baseball games in the 30s and flying in the 60s. It was a middle-brow appreciation for “The Lost Chord” and “The Holy City” in music and popular prints in our homes and Sunday school classrooms, Warner Sallman prints in our Bibles and a “Head of Christ” in the auditorium, “Great Books” on the shelves and newspapers piling up next to Dad’s chair, under the table with his pipe.
Congregations in the Midwest like the one I serve have a very general knowledge of the Bible, and that’s from those who come from the era where supposedly this was all being done “right,” and a dim sense of right order in worship having something to do with older traditions whose source is as mysterious as the IHS on the front of some of the altar cloths. Younger members, by which I mean anyone under 65, have trouble finding anything that’s not Genesis or the Gospels, and I’m talking about the lifers, not the newer members.
They are all confused as the dickens over contemporary music and the “outline” of songs, a long prayer, a longer sermon, and one more song; by dressing down which they’re gamely trying to live up . . . down to; by tattoos on ministerial candidates and city council members; by the fact that none of their adult children and adult grandchildren are getting married, at least not until they’ve lived together a few years, or after the second kid is born.
The social aspiration that was part of the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship and mission dinners and community outreach was not judgmental, it was meant to be inclusive in the sense of “come change your life like we have, put on a tie, quit drinking, marry your girlfriend, and come regularly to sit in worship with us.” The fact that churches which are growing in our area are led by shaven-headed, tattooed worship pastors where there’s little singing, little social interaction in terms of visiting each others’ homes, and where the language of sexual morality is used more stringently in preaching, but the lives of those attending are still pretty much as they were on entry — they’re baffled. Since I came here five years ago, they keep asking me anxiously “do we need to get a drummer?” and talk about the different concerts and Christian festivals some of their grandkids go to. We have been building Biblical literacy and a sense of where our beliefs and practices come from in Scripture & Tradition, but some of the sharper ones (in my opinion) buttonhole me to say “does anyone else out there want this? what do we do about the fact that an orderly life seems to have little appeal for younger people?”
Obviously, the goal here for me, our congregation, for Christians, needs to be truth. If what we say and share and celebrate is true, then we should hold fast to it. I don’t think the earlier generations of our movement meant to abandon truth, they were in a mid-nineteenth sort of American way trying to pare down, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, to simplify an overly complex Christendom, and I honor their intent.
But my reading of the last century in congregational and judicatory life is that our moral uplift and common community effort and our Christian-ish preaching was aimed more at the driving force of aspiration, the desire to move up from a grim and grimy life close to the land or assembly line, to something better, and Temperance and Continence were clearly means to that end, so they got intertwined. Even now, I read those accounts of the 1880s through the 1920s and my sympathies are with them.
What they forgot to do was anchor those social impulses to a more enduring faith and an everlasting truth, other than as a religious frosting added at the end of making the cake. And social advancement became our entire program, which looked not too terribly un-Christian until, in the 1960’s, it suddenly did. We thought we were stepping back into the “side” that defended Christian values, but we were actually doubling-down on a cultural “gospel” of middle class conservatism, and striding away from Christ and the Gospel.
Which, in my opinion, is how we — and not a few in my church — ended up hanging off of Trump’s coattails. Those folks are starting to have private conversations with me, after a rugged stretch where the “right thinking folk” were startled to hear their preacher say, not from the pulpit but personally, “I can’t and won’t support Trump.” The vacuity of cultural conservatism as its own thing in and of itself is getting ever more obvious.
Meanwhile, the union Democrats and socially more progressive folks in our congregation are starting to ask, about marriage and family and children and where these institutions fit into our self-understanding as Christians, “how did we get here? Is it too late to turn back?” And the social conservatives are still sure of the recipe, but not confident of the means.
In my denomination, I feel almost alone in saying, again and again, “the answer is to be found in congregations.” That’s the part of Rod’s book that I find the most resonance with. Not a wider movement or mailing list, not even a church organization of any sort, but a local congregation that has a healthy regard for the fact that there are reasons why we do things (baptism, church calendar, communion, membership, leadership roles), and that our life together face-to-face is going to be crucial as to whether or not we have anything to pass along to our great-grandchildren.
I’ve not written anything this long here before, and don’t know that I’ve even said the half of what I’m thinking, but thank you for listening. I don’t believe, based on what I hear older people say and what I read in old newsletters and minutes and letters, that we really had terribly well-formed Christian adults steering the ship a hundred or fifty-some years ago. We just got too wound up into American middle-class culture, to the point where we’re still stunned by where that culture has suddenly shifted to, and lack the tools to discern where our cultural trends end and the solid rock of Christian tradition begins. It calls for a geologist’s hammer and some judicious tapping, with the occasional sledgehammer. I think we’ll get there, but it’s not easy, and won’t get easier. And I used to blame the Boomers, but I think I’ve gotten wiser, and realized the rot or confusion or whathaveyou goes back much, much farther than that. It was just that the cracks started showing when the Boomers were in charge, and as is so often the case, they panicked and threw up their hands. But they didn’t set the course or steer the ship most of the way to where we’re now stranded.
What these two comments have in common — or at least what stands out starkest to me — is the shared sense that the church in this country doesn’t even understand what has happened and is happening to it, much less how to change course.
My priest preached a very good sermon today. In it, he told us that Orthodox Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, or what we do on Sunday. It is a way of life. These days, Christianity of all kinds must be that … or it won’t be anything tomorrow.
One of my Italian readers sends me a short piece from the daily Corriere della Sera, in which the interviewer interrogates Father Julian Carron, the head of the international Catholic movement Communion & Liberation. This week, Father Carron will publish a book-length series of interviews with Andrea Tornielli, a journalist close to Pope Francis. Excerpts, courtesy of Google Translate:
Hence profound consequences for the ongoing debate in the Christian world. In the United States, for example, he discusses Rod Dreher’s book, the author of The Benedict Option comparing liquid modernity with the Universal Flood of the Bible, and invites Christians to do as the Saint of Norcia in the 6th century , to retreat to new convents: “Build us the arches with which to survive, and with the help of God to float until we see the mainland again, and we will begin to rebuild, replicate and renew the world.”
>Carrón points to the opposite, what he calls the “Francis Care”, the therapy of Pope Bergoglio: instead of retreat, rather throwing oneself into the world. However, knowing that the only way to do this is to return to the origins of the Christian message: not to present it as a doctrine, as a set of rules and formulas, or a morality, a civil religion, a private devotion. But rather as a historical event, an event, meeting with Christ; which is communicated not for proselytizing, but “by attraction,” writes Francis in Evangelii gaudium. Just as at the dawn of Christianity, when people looked at those crazy people who believed in the equality of men who cured sick people during epidemics, who respected women and did not force them to abort or kill newborns, and began imitating them . “Christianity,” says Carrón, “ultimately communicates with envy: seeing that Christian life is fuller, more intense, more capable of embracing the other, loving the other, the desire to live so is turned on.”
The Francis Option, which the CL leader constantly points out is consistent with the founder’s magisterium, Fr Giussani, and the continuity with the papacy of Benedict XVI, is truly a firm stand for a movement that has long been told as a bastion of conservatism, militant on the front of “non negotiable values”, a piece of the Christian right, which does not coincide with some of the sharpest critics of this papacy. “I must confess that I miss the reasons for such positions,” Carrón says. “Pope Francis represents a grace for the Church in today’s world. Those who do not believe that Francis is the cure do not understand what the illness is. “
Here we go again. I feel that I have to answer this, because Father Carron is a really big deal in the Catholic Church, and I don’t want to let his claims go unaddressed.
It is perfectly clear to anyone who reads my book that I do not advocate simply running away from the world. I advocate an inward turn towards deepening contemplation, strengthening Christian practices, and thickening community, so that when we go out into the world, we will do so as authentic Christians. The Benedict Option is about recovering discipleship, and doing so with the understanding that the world, especially in the West, is going through epochal changes. If we continue to live the way we have been doing as Christians, we will continue to be assimilated, and ultimately cease to be Christian. It is happening right now, and has been happening. The statistics don’t lie.
I agree with Francis that we in the church have to bear witness to the world. What I don’t see in him is a clear sense of what distinct things Christians must bring to that encounter.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview earlier this year that Father Carron did with Crux. It gets to the heart of what I’m saying:
Of course, what worries some people is that when Jesus met Zacchaeus, the point was to get him to change his heart. Today, some worry that the pope, along with some priests and bishops, are engaging in ‘encounter’ without the same expectation of conversion from the errors they’re committing.
Conversion doesn’t depend on the act, it depends on us. When we go to meet a thief, we bring ourselves to that encounter. Jesus had no problem going to the house of Zacchaeus, without explaining all his theology or moral rules. He went because the truth was incarnate in his person. The problem is, what people are meeting when they meet us? If what they meet in you is simply a manual of things to do, they already know that and they’re still not able to do it. But if they find themselves in front of a person who offers love, they’ll start wanting to follow that person and be like them, which is what happened to Jesus.
I suspect many would grant that we can’t start with the rules, but what worries people is whether we’re ever going to get to them at all.
If a person falls in love, at a certain point that happens naturally. When you get married and are really in love, it’s just natural to want to clean the house, to put together a nice lunch, and so on. The problem now is that people aren’t meeting someone for whom it seems to make sense to invest themselves like that. An ethical code isn’t that kind of encounter.
To get concrete, lots of people inspired by Pope Francis today say the Church needs to accompany the LGBT community, for instance, or divorced and civilly remarried believers, and we do it regularly. But what critics would say is, doesn’t that have to involve at some point telling them that their behavior has to change?
I’ll respond with an example. Too often, we think the choices come down to either saying nothing or being ambiguous. I knew a group of couples, families, that involves about 18 to 20 families, and no one is married, all for different reasons, sometimes with understandable reasons. Some of our families involved in Communion and Liberation spent time with them, without saying anything about their ‘irregular’ situation. Over time, they all got married! They found themselves in front of people who were living family life in a way that just couldn’t leave them indifferent. In the end, they all got married not because someone explained the rules or Christian doctrine on marriage, but because they didn’t want to lose what they saw alive in these other families.
In Christianity, the truth has been made flesh. You only understand the full dimensions of this truth made flesh by meeting and watching a witness. The whole Christmas liturgy is about the fullness of God becoming visible. If it hadn’t become visible, we would never have understood it … that’s the great challenge.
It’s useless to ask others if they’re everything they’re supposed to be. The real question is, are we convincing witnesses to the faith? Do we still believe in the disarmed beauty of the faith? A person who’s in love will know what to do, and you fall in love through meeting someone. That’s what made the experience of Jesus a ‘Copernican revolution’ for humanity.
I agree with this, for the most part. That’s why I say in my book and in the speeches I give that the best argument for the faith today is not the arguments we make — the world cannot hear those — but the lives Christians live and the things Christians create. (This is not my idea; it comes from Pope Benedict XVI.)
The problem is that in today’s world, far too many churches and Christian individuals have lost the knowledge of what it means to be a Christian. This is why sociologist Christian Smith’s findings that the overwhelming number of US Christians believe in a pseudo-Christianity he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is so important — and so catastrophic to the present and future of the faith. Christianity is not whatever people who call themselves Christians happen to believe. That is MTD. That is emotivism. You cannot authentically disciple people who believe there is no truth beyond themselves to which they should conform. What many, many Catholics and other Christians think of the faith has been conditioned by liquid modernity: it is always changing to fit the felt needs of the time.
By ‘moralistic’ I mean oriented toward being good and nice, in ways that assert certain moral claims (for example, ‘You should never have sex with someone you don’t really care about.’) in fairly arbitrary ways without their being integrated into any larger, coherent moral tradition.
By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness, good feeling, personal comfortability, and emotional wellbeing—in contrast to, say, a focus on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others.
Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except (as qualified by the ‘therapeutic’) if one has a problem one needs God to solve, one can call on God to fix it and make one feel better. In MTD, in other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.
CS: Right. Teenagers aren’t universally inarticulate. In areas where the adult world has made a point to get their attention and educate them, where the young people can see that something really matters, like not diving drunk or getting pregnant, teenagers can be quite articulate.
But it hit us like a ton of bricks that most religious teenagers aren’t being well educated in the faith or given much practice in articulating their beliefs and why and how they matter. For more than a few teenagers, in fact, it seems like ours was the first time any adult ever asked them what they believed. Some of them said exactly that.
TJ: If you’re right about this—and I suspect that you are—it would seem that Christian parenting and Christian youth ministry have largely failed to inculcate or implant a distinctly Christian identity in our 13- to 17 year olds. Would you agree?
CS: Yes. In very many cases it seems that is so. Many parents come from a generation that has bent over backwards not to ‘shove anything down anyone’s throat.’ Consequently, their kids aren’t getting much direct theological substance to embrace, revise, or reject. If so, that’s a real disservice to kids.
My sense is that most youth ministers are knocking themselves out to do their best. Many also tell me they’re under pressure from all sides to entertain their teenagers, which isn’t a great context for sustained, solid teaching in faith. But for whatever reasons, the bottom line is that the majority of teenagers, including many evangelicals, turn out to be pretty clueless and inarticulate about their own faith perspectives.
TJ: You surmise that this ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ isn’t unique to young people, but that they’re actually just reflecting the less-than-passionate faith of their parents. Many youth workers will agree with you on this; yet you caution church youth workers not to see parents as their adversaries. Why?
CS: One of the most powerful realizations I took from our research is how formative parents are in their teenagers’ lives. They often don’t realize it, but parents are the most significant influences on their teenage children’s faith lives. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that normally the most important pastor a young person is going to have is his or her father and mother—for better or worse (often the latter).
If this were the case, youth ministers would be much more effective working with parents rather than against them. I realize not all parents want to work with the youth minister. I’ve picked up among youth ministers from many faith traditions a distinct sense of tremendous frustration with the parents of their teenagers—and I can understand why—but in the long run, an adversarial relationship with teenagers’ parents is counterproductive. It seems to me that the more youth ministry can work with parents and be set in a larger context of family and church ministry, the more effective it will be.
That was Smith (who is a Roman Catholic convert) talking about the spirituality of the coming generation of Christians in general. On the specific situation with Catholic youth, Smith calls it “grim.”
The indisputable fact is that the Catholic Church in this country — both the institution and the parents within it — has done a terrible job in passing on the faith to their children. Look at this report, based on Christian Smith’s book Young Catholic America. Excerpt:
Since [the 1960s], Catholics’ religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don’t need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it’s OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.
And they are leaving the church in huge numbers. This is a crisis, and all the happy-clappy in the world will not address it effectively. This may not be clear to Father Carron. I count a few CL members as friends, and I have found that CL members are well formed in their faith. But that’s not most people in the Church.
My question is: where are all these Catholic Christians who are going to engage the world and spark transformative encounters with non-believers going to come from? Pope Francis’s ideas would make sense if the Church, and Catholic families, were already doing a good job of forming faithful Catholic disciples. You cannot have the “Francis Option” without meaningful formation and spiritually disciplined practices in daily life. The pope often leaves the impression that this is unimportant, that this is something that only Pharisaical Catholics care about. But without real formation, the Francis Option is nothing but emotivism.
My sense is that the so-called “Francis Option” is a gateway to MTD, because it downplays the importance of intellectual and spiritual formation. So I will repeat: Yes, lay Christians must go into the world to serve and to evangelize. They are not called to the cloister. But they cannot do that effectively if they don’t have far better formation, first of all in their families, but also in the community of the church. Without that, Pope Francis is sending medics to the field hospitals with no medical training. They are as likely to put Nutella on wounds as they are real medicine.
Hollywood’s de facto governing body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to “immediately expel” Harvey Weinstein, breaking with 90 years of precedent and turning one of the biggest Oscar players in history into a hall-of-fame pariah.
The academy’s 54-member board of governors made the decision at an emergency session after investigations by The New York Times and The New Yorker that revealed sexual harassment and rape allegations against him going back decades.
In a statement, the academy said the vote was “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority.”
It added, “We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society.”
Well, we shall see if that era really is over in Hollywood. I can’t watch this annihilation of Harvey Weinstein without thinking of René Girard’s theory of the scapegoat mechanism:
Whereas the philosophers of the 18th century would have agreed that communal violence comes to an end due to a social contract, Girard believes that, paradoxically, the problem of violence is frequently solved with a lesser dose of violence. When mimetic rivalries accumulate, tensions grow ever greater. But, that tension eventually reaches a paroxysm. When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
Girard calls this process ‘scapegoating’, an allusion to the ancient religious ritual where communal sins were metaphorically imposed upon a he-goat, and this beast was eventually abandoned in the desert, or sacrificed to the gods (in the Hebrew Bible, this is especially prescribed in Leviticus 16).The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.
However, Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.
The thing is, Harvey Weinstein really is guilty of monstrous transgressions. But in Girardian terms, the point is that everyone believes that he is. More:
According to Girard, the scapegoat mechanism brings about unexpected peace. But, this moment is so marvelous, that it soon acquires a religious overtone. Thus, the victim is immediately consecrated. Girard is in the French sociological tradition of Durkheim, who considered that religion essentially accomplishes the function of social integration. In Girard’s view, inasmuch as the deceased victim brings forth communal peace and restores social order and integration, she becomes sacred.
At first, while living, victims are considered to be monstrous transgressors that deserve to be punished. But, once they die, they bring peace to the community. Then, they are not monsters any longer, but rather gods. Girard highlights that, in most primitive societies, there is a deep ambivalence towards deities: they hold high virtues, but they are also capable of performing some very monstrous deeds. That is how, according to Girard, primitive gods are sanctified victims.
I don’t know how this Girardian process might work out in Weinstein’s case. I mean, I don’t know what it would look like if it worked according to Girard’s script.
What concerns me is that the Hollywood community will allow itself to believe that having “executed” Harvey Weinstein, metaphorically, it will have purged itself of its own sins of sexual exploitation and brutality. It is a deeply human instinct to believe that a sacrificial victim bears the sins of the collective. What is happening to Harvey Weinstein is just, no question, but it will be deeply unjust if Hollywood’s moral reckoning ends with Harvey Weinstein.
The next few weeks will tell us whether or not Harvey Weinstein will have been a Girardian scapegoat, or something else. I’m betting that the people of the Dream Factory, so talented at creating illusions, will work hard to find a way to make this thing end with Harvey, to isolate the infection to him. I hope I’m wrong.