This weekend I am at an event called The Gathering, for Christian philanthropists. I did a panel yesterday with Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, discussing The Benedict Option. I met law professor John Inazu over breakfast, and he generously agreed to do a dialogue with me about the differences and similarities between my ideas and his concept of “confident pluralism.” Watch this space in the weeks to come for that. John, an Evangelical Christian, is more optimistic than I am about prospects for Christians in post-Christian America. I think it will be an interesting discussion.
Yesterday I heard a wonderful lunchtime address by Sen. Ben Sasse, who told the audience that the US is going through an unprecedented historic transition right now, driven by economic restructuring, technology, and other things.
“We’re entering an era for the first time in human history where people are going to hit forty to fifty [years old], where their entire skill set will cease to exist, because of technology,” he said. Sasse went on to discuss the strong challenges this new world pose to human community.
According to Sasse, social science data show that a human being needs four basic things to be happy:
- A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
- A family
- Close friends
- Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”
Sasse said that technology and automation is going to rob more and more people of meaningful work — and that whether we like it or not, this is going to have tremendous impact socially and psychologically.
He also quoted some statistics showing that loneliness, isolation, and the withering of friendship in recent decades has gone up markedly.
In the years to come, he said, we will see lots of confusion as fragmented, atomized people scramble to find a “new tribe.” The senator said that Christians will have to “figure out how to revalue place and the local at a time when place and the local is evaporating for most people.”
He ended by urging the philanthropist to “invest time and treasure” figuring out how to teach people to do this, and to make it possible.
Whether the senator realized it or not, he’s talking about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity,” in which nothing is solid. The world Sen. Sasse describes is Bauman’s world. In the Benedict Option chapter on the Monks of Norcia, I wrote about the Benedictine vow of “stability” as an antidote to liquid modernity:
Along those lines, a tree that is repeatedly uprooted and transplanted will be hard pressed to produce healthy fruit. So it is with people and their spiritual lives. Rootlessness is not a new problem. In the first chapter of the Rule, Saint Benedict denounced the kind of monk he called a “gyrovague.”
“They spend their whole lives tramping from province to province,” he wrote, adding that “they are always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills”—and are even worse, the saint said, than the hedonistic monks whose only law is desire.
If you are going to put down spiritual roots, taught Benedict, you need to stay in one place long enough for them to go deep. The Rule requires monks to take a vow of “stability”—meaning that barring unusual circumstances, including being sent out as a missionary, the monk will remain for the rest of his life in the monastery where he took his vows.
“This is where the Benedictine life is probably the most countercultural,” said Father Benedict [of Norcia]. “It’s the life of Mary, not Martha: to stay put at the foot of Christ no matter what they say you’re not doing.”
The Bible shows us that God calls some people to pick up and move to achieve His purposes, Father Benedict acknowledged. “Still, in a culture like ours, where everyone is always on the move, the Benedictine calling to stay put no matter what can call forth new and important ways of serving God.”
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says that liquid modernity compels us to refuse stability because it’s a fool’s game. “The hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building but avoidance of fixation,” he writes. In Bauman’s pitiless analysis, to succeed today, you need to be free of all commitments, unbound by the past or the future, living in an everlasting present. The world changes so quickly that the person who is loyal to anything, even to her own identity, takes an enormous risk.
Instead of believing that structure is good and that duties to home and family lead us to live rightly, people today have been tricked by liquid modernity into believing that maximizing individual happiness should be the goal of life. The gyrovague, the villain of Saint Benedict’s Rule, is the hero of postmodernity.
The more uncommitted people today are to anything — to a faith, to an institution, to a community, to a family, and so forth — the more they will thrive in the world of liquid modernity. “Thrive,” that is, in terms of “get ahead.” But it should be obvious that this kind of person will be a dead soul spiritually, and enormously stressed psychologically and emotionally by loneliness and purposelessness.
For Christians, navigating liquid modernity successfully while being faithful to the truth is a prime task of the church. As the senator indicated in his talk, we have no real model for this kind of thing — but it’s coming at us, and coming at us hard. We cannot afford to be complacent. Sen. Sasse’s charge to his audience — to spend time and treasure helping others to deal with the radical and constant instability that will characterize our world for the foreseeable future — is profound, and profoundly true.
It does make me wonder, though, whether men like Ben Sasse are at their best serving in politics, or if founding and leading civil society institutions is more important work. I did not realize until hearing the senator speak yesterday that he and his wife are Christian homeschoolers who educate their children by the classical method. Had there been audience Q&A after his speech, I would have asked him to reflect on the role education has in forming Christians to be faithful and resilient in liquid modernity. This passage from my book came to mind:
“Education has to be at the core of Christian survival—as it always was,” says Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at Washington’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute. “The point of monasticism was not simply to retreat from a corrupt world to survive, though in various iterations that might have been a dimension of it,” he continues. “But at the heart of it was a quest for God. It was that quest that mandated the preservation of classical learning and the pagan tradition by the monks, because they loved what was true and what was beautiful wherever they found it.”
As crucial as cultural survival is, Hanby warns that Christians cannot content themselves with merely keeping their heads above water within liquid modernity. We have to search passionately for the truth, reflect rigorously on reality, and in so doing, come to terms with what it means to live as authentic Christians in the disenchanted world created by modernity. Education is the most important means for accomplishing this.
“Retaining the imagination necessary to see or to search for God is going to be an indispensable element in the preservation of true freedom and Christian freedom when our freedom under law becomes more and more limited,” Hanby says.
Today, across the Christian community, there is a growing movement called classical Christian education. It is countercultural in both form and content and presents to students the Western tradition—both Greco-Roman and Christian—in all its depth. Doing it right requires a level of effort and commitment that contemporary Americans are not accustomed to—but what alternative do we have?
Prof. Hanby and Sen. Sasse both work in Washington, DC. They should meet and talk through these ideas. I’ll do what I can to make that happen.
UPDATE: Judging from some of the comments, a few of you think Ben Sasse was arguing that we just have to accept this rootlessness. That’s not the sense I got from his remarks. He was saying that this is simply the reality we live in, and are going to live in ever more; the challenge he put to this Christian audience is to figure out how to develop rootedness in this kind of environment. He clearly said that we cannot be happy if we surrender to what I call (after Bauman) liquid modernity. I don’t know that he has read The Benedict Option, but this is essentially my approach: saying that believers have to deal realistically with what’s happening, and develop practices and institutions to help us stay rooted amid this kind of environment.