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Letter From A Struggling Young Man

Why The Benedict Option speaks to one Millennial living in the post-Christian ruins

I received this moving letter this afternoon. Its author has given me permission to share it with you:

 

I’ve been following you on twitter and also reading TAC over the last year or so. Finally, over the Christmas break, I decided to read The Benedict Option, as it’s interested me for a while. I don’t know if you check your mail (or even care if fans email you) but I wanted to give you some insight from a 26 year old in a very liberal/progressive part of North America.
I found it to be a fascinating read for so many reasons. Mainly because I fear that Christianity and religion in my age group is rapidly declining. I look around and see a culture that is so radically different from the one that I grew up in. And I’m only 26 years old! It’s very depressing.
Just a little bit of background to give you some context. As I mentioned, I’m 26 years old and living in Canada. I was born and raised here. I was born and raised into a Christian family and attended private Christian schooling. Christianity has been a part of my life since I was a kid.
However, my relationship with the faith has become extremely tenuous. My family BARELY attended church (only on Christmas and Easter). My elementary school years were fairly formative as I had several staunchly Christian teachers who guided us students in the right direction.
Secondary school was drastically different. I went to a “prestigious” Christian school in my city that is known for it’s athletics and academics. What I saw there shattered my belief in Christianity for years and I have only recently recovered in my faith.
A huge portion of my peers in secondary school openly mocked Christian values. Essentially nobody attended church amongst my friends and peer circle. Drugs and substance abuse ran rampant. And some parents openly mocked the faith. Their only rationale for sending their kids to this school was to avoid the riff raff of the public school system. By the end of my senior year, I would say that less than 5 students actually believed in God and attended church. Biblical literacy was non existent as well. All the warning signs that you talked about in the Benedict Option were things that I saw and lived through first hand during my teenage years.
Even now as an adult, I struggle with my Christianity. I’ve been to several different churches, across different denominational lines, and yet I still feel disconnected. The moralistic therapeutic deism that you referenced in the book is pervasive where I live. Church often times, acts as a social group to bring people together instead of bringing people closer to God. And while. I do believe church can play a healthy role in bringing people closer, that shouldn’t be its main purpose. Every time I’ve been excited to check out a new church and denomination, I’ve been bitterly disappointed when the service ends and I leave. The fit just never seems to be there.
Covid has exasperated this issue as well. Not being able to worship in person is extremely tough. We were allowed to have in person religious services in the summer. However, our provincial government recently shut down all church services. The few people I talked to seem to cheer this on. Not of an abundance of caution and safety, but rather to “stick it” to the churches. Anti religious sentiment is real around me. It’s gotten to the point where it’s best to avoid talking about being a person of faith.
I fear that things are just going to get worse. Churches are crumbling; unable to offer a vision and path for those seeking holiness. There are plenty of us, young people, who are disillusioned with the way that society is going. I truly believe it’s why so many people my age are suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Drug usage, alcohol abuse and a hookup culture are blankets of comfort for people who have no meaning or purpose in life anymore. While I’ve resisted that, I understand why so many of my peers have not. In a world with the most powerful technological advancements and highest living standards in history, so many people feel a deep emptiness and lack of direction in their life. And churches aren’t there to pick up the slack. It’s deeply distressing.
I don’t know what the path forward is for me spiritually. Christianity in the West has lost its moral foundation. I battle everyday because I strongly believe in God but haven’t been able to find the right fit for me. I would love to check out Orthodox Christianity (you’ve inspired me!) but with covid restrictions, that probably won’t be available for the next little while. The Orthodox congregation near me is very small and not exactly tech savvy. It might be the only denomination left for me to check out. My experiences with Evangelicalism left a bitter taste in my mouth. All flash and no substance (no offense to my evangelical friends).
I remember you commented on an article written in First Things by a man named Jacob Williams. In it, he talked about the anomie and lack of respect for traditions amongst his peer group. He eventually found Islam and has been a practicing Muslim since. I read this a few months ago and found it strange. But upon further reflection am now starting to understand why Williams would make the drastic leap of converting to Islam. I live next to a Muslim family. They are practicing and devout people. And I can tell they take their faith very seriously. From my conversations with them (and there have been many), I get the sense that this family has done a fantastic job passing on their values to their offspring. They are doing all the things that Christians used to do but no longer do because of the decline of faith in our societies. While some may question and even criticize my neighbors for their reluctance to fully integrate into a secular society, I applaud them. Promoting traditional values, the importance of family and submission to a higher being are important if one wishes to have a meaningful, fulfilling life.
Anyways, I’m starting to ramble and better cut this off. It’s extremely difficult being a young person nowadays. People don’t believe it or understand why I say this. They immediately point to the fantastic technological advancements and wealth in our society. While those things have undoubtedly made life better, there is a tremendous lack of meaning and purpose with most young people. I can confidently say that many of us feel hopeless and aimless in life. We are living in a society that promotes people to do whatever makes them happy, even if the consequences are dire. This emphasis on hedonism has hollowed out so many young men in particular, who are now succumbing to the worst of these impulses. Family life is quickly deteriorating around us, while unconventional and even harmful lifestyles are promoted. If you dare oppose these things, you’ll be labelled with all sorts of accusations. The funny thing is, most people recognize that something is seriously wrong with our society, but either don’t have the knowledge or desire to speak up. We’re living in a society that is prioritizing all the wrong things and I fear for the future.
Originally, I went into reading The Benedict Option with skepticism. After finishing the book, I know see it as imperative. I highly recommend it for any religious person, regardless of your faith or denomination. Religion is under siege already. It’s just a matter of if we’ll be able to successfully counter attack, or step away from mainstream society to keep our spiritual life intact.
Sorry for the long email Rod. I’ve been thinking a lot about the BenOp lately. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but it truly is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. It opened my eyes to so many of the problems that churches in our society face. As I said in the previous paragraph, I went into reading this book with a lot of skepticism. I’ve always enjoyed your work so I decided to give the book a chance. By the end, I couldn’t really disagree with anything. The only problem I kept coming back to is how to get started. I’m in my mid 20’s and in grad school. I’m in a serious relationship and planning to get married. But we don’t have the funds to start anew. And the overwhelming majority of churches we’ve been to have practiced the MTD that you touched upon in this book. It’s one thing to be older and established and have the financial resources at your disposal. For somebody like myself and my partner, it’s much harder. Hopefully, in the next few years, we can work something out. Because at this current rate, the irrational drive for power by the illiberal left is going to make life hell for so many people, if it hasn’t already.
Thank you, reader, for this moving letter, and for your kind words. This young man has drawn a vivid sketch of our crisis. What can politics possibly do for him? They can play some role in protecting his liberties, and the liberties of institutions that can give his life meaning and purpose, but what he and his generation are looking for cannot be found in political commitment. Only belief in God can give one meaning, purpose, and the ability to suffer without breaking.
But what can a church committed to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism do for him, or anybody struggling like he is? What can a church committed to the Prosperity Gospel, or the Social Gospel do? Think about that Muslim family next door. Their lives are a lived testimony to the power of the Islamic faith to stand as a sign of contradiction to hedonistic, godless North American society. I do not believe that Islam is true, but I know that those Muslims are closer to the truth than the others among whom this young man lives.
Ever read Houellebecq’s Submission? It’s about a burned-out French hedonist who witnesses Islam coming to power within post-Christian France. It’s not a novel about Islam. It’s a novel about how no culture can survive without religion to bind and guide. Houellebecq, the novelist, is not a religious believer, but he is a believer in sociology.
Jacob Williams, the young British man who became a Muslim, and who wrote about it in First Things, said in that piece:

Anomie was one thing; the ferocious renunciation of tradition I encountered at university was quite another. I had hoped that the spiritual emptiness of wider society was a result of ignorance, and that the ­academy—especially the ancient, venerable, Gothic academy of Oxford—had preserved what I vaguely imagined was my country’s noble heritage. Studying philosophy did provide some engagement with an intellectual inheritance, but for anyone moderately interested in public life, the campus movements for “social justice” were impossible to ignore. All of these—whether their goal was the liberation of women, of LGBT persons, or of ethnic minorities—seemed to have the same vision of man: a deracinated, protean aggregate of desires. These movements gained in strength every year. ­Formerly apolitical spaces were distorted by the need to appease one demand after another. The culture of the university, once imbued with the brash boyishness of the English public schools, now accommodated the sterile, strenuous inclusivity of progressive zealots.

After three years of this, I was frustrated and alienated. I needed a purpose. Philosophy classes had sharpened my inquiries, but they didn’t rectify the meaninglessness all around me. My utopian peers found their purpose in crusades against racism and homophobia, but their contempt for England revolted me. I chose a different course and embarked on a search for God.

Where could a lost soul go? Nowhere in college or country offered an answer. What the campus Conservative Party outlined was absurd: We can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits, getting riotously drunk, and reviving the divine right of kings. I had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity.

But when I entered the chapels and listened to the ministers, the regeneration I sought didn’t happen. Christian voices sounded all too agreeable and compromising. I wanted something stronger, something that didn’t ­bargain with secularism. I found it in Islam.

Of course he did. Allah — the Islamic god, I mean — is a strong god. Again, I do not believe that Islam is the true faith, but I can certainly see why people in the West are drawn to it. I believe that Christianity is the true faith, but unless it recovers a strong conception of God, and lives by it — sacrificially — it will be dissolved within the acid bath of liquid modernity. This is simply true. Christians don’t want to hear it. Listen to the voice of that struggling young Canadian man. He wants to find the true God. Why doesn’t he in our churches, and in our ways of life?

A couple of years ago, I did a short Q&A with Louis Betty, an American scholar of French literature who wrote a book about Houellebecq’s metaphysics. Excerpt:

RD: Though he’s not a religious man, Houellebecq believes as a matter of sociological fact that no society can endure without religion. By “religion,” let’s use a broad definition that means “metaphysical framework” — though as you point out in your book, Houellebecq believes that transcendence itself is not enough; a resilient religion also has to offer some form of immortality. Is his case persuasive to you?

LB: Here it’s important, I think, to distinguish between religion as a human phenomenon and the specific case of Christianity in Europe. I don’t think such a thing as a “society without religion,” in the sense of having a metaphysical framework, really exists; to me, that’s akin to imagining a society without a language, or some notion of kinship, or ways of preparing food. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems clear that any human society worthy of the adjective “human” is going to articulate some metaphysical system that makes sense of reality and offers consolation and a sense of meaning in the midst of natural vicissitude.

In the case of Christianity in Europe, I think the question to ask is something like this: can a civilization maintain its identity if it sheds its native religion? Houellebecq doesn’t think so, and neither do I. This isn’t a political or polemical point. Imagine taking as an anthropological platitude the claim that human beings will be religious and, moreover, that civilizations are built upon the metaphysical systems they create (or which are revealed to them, to give credit to the metaphysical on its own terms). It’s obvious from such an assumption that the collapse of the metaphysics entails the eventual collapse of everything else. This should be deeply alarming to anyone who cares about the West’s tradition of humanitarianism, which emerges—and it would be wonderful if we could all agree on this—out of the original Judaic notion of imago Dei and later from Christian humanism. Secular humanism has been running for quite some time on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian religious inheritance, but it’s not clear how much longer that can go on.

Honestly, it’s frightening to think what a truly post-Christian West would mean for our basic institutions. I’m not stumping for Christianity here; I just happen to have the intellectual conviction that the analysis of human society begins with religion. If you incline toward Marxian thinking, which looks at things in the diametrically opposed way, you’re going to hate what I’m saying. But that’s how I see it.

As for your question about immortality: it’s clear to me that religious systems holding out a promise of survival are going to do better than those that don’t. There are many reasons Christianity overwhelmed Greco-Roman religion in the early centuries of the first millennium, but part of it has surely to do with the relative weakness of the Stoic understanding of immortality, which involved a figurative incorporation into the cosmos, compared with the personal immortality Christianity promises. In this respect, I think Christianity will always be a powerful metaphysical player, even if the present situation in much of Europe seems to point in the opposite direction.

Mortality is too overwhelming a fear and the difficulties of life too great for whole populations to go on without remedies to them for very long. I read a few months ago that religious practice in Venezuela has increased as the country becomes more and more disordered. Perhaps all it would take in Europe is a little upheaval—not that I wish it—for young people to start, say, making a habit of going to Mass. In any event, this is just my own somewhat-less-than-scholarly speculation. Ultimately, the future is opaque.

Read it all. Either Christianity will recover itself in this crisis, or it will die. To be precise, the forms of Christianity that recover themselves, and posit themselves as clear, distinct, strong alternatives to hedonistic materialism and progressivism, will survive, and eventually thrive. There is no middle ground.

But there is hope! Just in the past week, I have heard from two different readers, both of them British, raised without religion, who have become Christians recently. They thought they had Christianity figured out, and took it to be a dead thing. Then they started investigating, and found that there is something there. One of them will be baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church tomorrow, on the Feast of Theophany. He told me a book that was key in his conversion to Orthodoxy was Kyriacos Markides’s The Mountain Of Silencewhich helped me along my path to Orthodoxy too. If you think you know all there is to know about Christianity, read Markides’s book, which is about Orthodox spirituality as explained by a contemporary monk of Mount Athos (who, after the book was published, went on to become a bishop). Powerful, powerful stuff.

One book I heartily recommend to all is The Spirit Of Early Christian Thought: Seeking The Face Of God, by the eminent contemporary historian of the early church Robert Louis Wilken. Wilken is a Catholic, but this is a non-sectarian intellectual history of key thinkers of the early church. This is history written for the general reader, by a man who writes like a dream. Again, if you think you know all there is to know about Christianity, open your mind to Prof. Wilken’s work about the foundations of Christian thinking.

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