Christianity In the Brave New World
Michael Hanby, who teaches philosophy of science at Catholic University’s John Paul II Institute, recently gave a powerful lecture in Philadelphia, at the invitation of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese there. It speaks deeply to the reason for the Benedict Option, perhaps the most fundamental reason for it. I have a written copy of the lecture, but Michael has asked me not to publish it here, because he is reworking it as a magazine essay. However, he has given me permission to summarize it, and to quote selectively from it.
Hanby begins by assuring his audience that his is a lecture about hope. It’s important to keep that in mind, because what he goes on to say is pretty grim. Excerpt:
It should be obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that we are living through some sort of social revolution, though it is less than obvious just what sort of revolution this is. Nevertheless the signs of change are everywhere, extending widely across different spheres of life which seem, at first glance, to have little to do with each other. Ubiquitous electronic devices have radically reshaped the way we speak and think—there is some evidence that they may even changing our neuro- physiology—and they have just as profoundly reshaped personal and public life, which is lived now mostly in the instantaneous ‘virtual space’ of social media. Judging from the tragic news of recent months, random, senseless violence seems to be on the increase. There is social unrest fomenting in the streets and on university campuses, a further sign, perhaps of a deeper anger, despair, and meaninglessness beneath the surface of the culture. And we see revolutionary upheaval, less obviously violent perhaps but more profound, in those areas of life that cut closest to who we are as human beings. What previous generations have taken for granted— for example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marriage of man and woman is the foundation of human society and the optimal home for their flourishing—all this is now increasingly regarded as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted. Our society is rapidly accommodating itself to these changes: re-inventing the family, inventing new rights and revising its understanding of justice, refashioning the norms and archetypes shaping our children’s imagination, reforming education and even the language, policing the bounds of acceptable thought and speech through new forms of ‘citizen led surveillance’ enabled by social media, and punishing the bigoted transgressors of the emerging orthodoxy by both legal and extra-legal means. It is not difficult to foresee on the horizon the tragic irony that has accompanied most of the revolutions in human history, which promise a new spring time of human freedom and conclude in a dark winter of absolutism.
The America that many of us have taken for granted seems no longer to exist, or at least to be rapidly disappearing. From a Catholic vantage, there were always problems and ambiguities in liberalism, America’s founding political philosophy, and the way it conceived of the individual, freedom, and the nature and purpose of government. Yet most of us have assumed that America’s deep historical roots in the Christian West made it naturally hospitable to the principles of Christian morality and that it even secured the political conditions of possibility for the flourishing of the Church, which would act, for its part, as a kind of moral leaven for civil society. There may have been a hidden cost to this assumption, as our efforts to Christianize liberalism ended up liberalizing Christianity. But this was true in a certain empirical sense, as the by-gone age of brick and mortar Catholicism attests. Catholics could thus feel genuinely at home here, and we could fulfill our duty to serve the common good simply by being good citizens. Though it is an important question whether this was ever true, the point here is that this dream seems to be coming to an end, and the Bishops of the Catholic Church as well as many other Christians around the country are right to see that the end of this dream almost certainly means the erosion of religious freedom as we have known it in America and throughout the West.
While every effort should be made to defend religious freedom by legal and political means, these efforts are unlikely to prove successful over the long term. For the issue is not merely the bad will of a few belligerent activists which could be remedied with a dose of benevolence and some ‘live and let live’ tolerance toward fellow citizens holding minority positions. It is rather that the forces set in motion by this revolution cannot easily be recalled or contained within the scope of the law. The swift and decisive response which crushed Indiana’s RFRA legislation and made the simple owners of a pizza parlor in Walkerton, Indiana into objects of international scorn gives us a glimpse into the nature and reach of these forces and of their capacity to impose their will by extra legal means. It is unclear what protections the courts could provide against such action had they been inclined to do so, which they are obviously not. Instead a slew of court decisions up to and including Obergefell have effectively defined perennial Western and Christian wisdom as irrational and bigoted, an opinion which concurs with the cultural consensus of this ruling elite whose power increasingly resembles the subtle form of totalitarianism defined by Hannah Arendt: not the ‘rule of one,’ the tyrant who controls the levers of state, but rather ‘the rule of nobody’—not to be confused with the absence of rule—our submission to a system of our own creation with no outer horizon or controlling center, no levers to pull, and thus no responsible parties. This more subtle absolutism of liberal society consists not in the fact that it dictates everything one can and cannot do—indeed liberalism generates an endless plurality of private options—but rather in the fact that it is the all-encompassing whole beyond which there is nothing and within which these options are permitted to appear. This more thoroughgoing absolutism relies less on the police power of the state and the force of law than on the unaccountable power of bureaucracy and the overwhelming power of media to, well, mediate what counts as the real world. This is why it more perfectly approaches the more subtle kind of totalitarianism envisioned by Arendt, because its mechanisms of enforcement are internal as well as external. In a perfectly absolute society, whose rule was indeed total, no one would ever know he was being coerced. Rather there would simply be truths that could no longer be perceived, ideas that could no longer be thought, experiences that could no longer be had… and no one would know what they were missing.
He goes on to lay out a vision of the crisis as not primarily political (though political it is), nor primarily religious (though it is religious), nor legal or social, though it entails both those things. No, the fundamental nature of the crisis is metaphysical and anthropological. What is real? What is man? These are the questions faced not by theological and philosophical faculties, but by all of us. And most of us don’t even know it.
Hanby contends that we have come to see the body as a technology, which is basically a way of seeing the world. The Sexual Revolution, he argues, is “the human face of the technological revolution” — and this radically affects the way we see ourselves and the world. In brief, the body is regarded as something we can alter as we like, to achieve our desires. There are no natural limits, because there is no meaning inherent in Nature.
The key part of Hanby’s talk focuses on whether or not the instrumentalization of all things human is an inescapable function of the liberal political and social order. He believes it is, and that this comes from the modern conception of freedom as the power to effect our will. I won’t get into that here, but the important thing to take away is that in an order based on this concept of human freedom, and indeed on this concept of reality, is one to which the traditional Christian view cannot be reconciled. Hanby tells me he is going to develop that argument more fully in the essay he is writing.
For me, the real point — and the most important Benedict Option point — is found in these lines near the end of Hanby’s speech
Even if there were an abundance of tolerance and good-will, there is little indication that the brave new world which we have ushered in can accommodate a Christianity which refuses to conform to its ideal of human nature and truth. The more urgent questions is whether we can resist the enormous pressure to accommodate ourselves to this post- human ideal.
Think of it this way. It’s not hard for Christians to imagine George Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism coming to bear on their communities from a hostile state. It is much harder for Christians to recognize the threat posed by the Aldous Huxley view of dystopia — that is, a totalitarianism that is welcomed by those enslaved to it because it makes them comfortable, and because they don’t recognize it for what it is.
This is the greatest threat to authentic Christianity, and the one that I foresee the Benedict Option attempting to combat. Hanby references this long interview that Bill Kristol did with David Gelernter of Yale, in which Gelernter discusses how we have become a country where young people, even the smartest ones, like his Yale students, know nothing:
My students today are much less obnoxious. Much more likable than I and my friends used to be, but they are so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are. You tell yourself stories; it’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the 20th century – just sees a fog. A blank. Has the vaguest idea of who Winston Churchill was or why he mattered. And maybe has no image of Teddy Roosevelt, let’s say, at all. I mean, these are people who – We have failed.
They know nothing about art. They know nothing about history. They know nothing about philosophy. And because they have been raised as not even atheists, they don’t rise to the level of atheists, insofar as they’ve never thought about the existence or nonexistence of God. It has never occurred to them. They know nothing about the Bible. They’ve never opened it. They’ve been taught it’s some sort of weird toxic thing, especially the Hebrew Bible, full of all sorts of terrible, murderous, prejudiced, bigoted. They’ve never read it. They have no concept.
It used to be, if I turned back to the 1960s to my childhood, that at least people have heard of Isaiah. People had heard of the Psalms. They had some notion of Hebrew poetry, having created the poetry of the Western world. They had some notion of the great prophets having created our notions of justice and honesty and fairness in society
But these children not only ignorant of everything in the intellectual realm, they have been raised ignorant in the spiritual world. They don’t go to church. They don’t go to synagogue. They have no contact – the Americans. Some of the Asians are different. Some of the Asians – and, of course, the Asians play a larger and larger role. But I think, from what I can tell, the Asians are moving in an American direction, and they’re pulling up their own religious roots.
But when I see a bright, young Yale student who has been reared not as Jew, not as a Christian, outside of any religious tradition, why should he tell the truth? Why should he not lie? Why should he be fair and straightforward in his dealings with his fellow students? He has sort of an idea that’s the way he should be, but why? If you challenge him, he doesn’t know. And he’ll say, “Well, it’s just my view.” And I mean, after all everybody has his own view.
American Christians are no better than anybody else. When I was at the First Things symposium in the fall of 2014 — the one at which Michael Hanby presented this paper, which you really should read — I was profoundly struck by what younger Catholic theologians were saying about the students on campus today: that most of them know nothing about their Catholic faith, even if they’ve been through Catholic education. They are blank slates. The one thing they do know is that they desire. They don’t know how or why to order their desires.
I had a very similar conversation with professors at a couple of Evangelical colleges. Many of the kids — and they’re all bright, kind kids — come to college knowing nothing but shallow youth-group pieties. That is all they have been given by their churches, their parents, and their communities. They are virtual blank slates. I’ll never forget the professor who said to me, the emotion audible in his voice, “We only have four years with them, and we do the best we can,” but it’s never enough.
We cannot keep going like this in the American church, or there won’t be an American church. There may be churchgoers, but they will have been catechized not by the church, but by the culture. They will accept whatever the culture tells them to believe, without protest.
In First Things today, poli sci professor James Rogers writes about the “ecclesiastical failure of Christian America.” We have been a go-along-to-get-along people since the country was founded — and now that the tide of cultural Christianity has receded, we stand in the surf with our nakedness present for all to see. Excerpt:
Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.
As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.
These habits and practices, or the lack thereof, created all sorts of problems, even ignoring how they obscured the Gospel. Evangelicals naturally, if idolatrously, turned toward politics rather than to ecclesiology for the solution to the moral disorientation they saw in society. The Moral Majority, school prayer, “Take back America for Christ” campaigns, all reflected more of an attempt to reassert ownership of America’s moral public space than to save souls or spread the Kingdom or strengthen the life of the community of disciples in the churches. Recovering a full-orbed ecclesiology for the Church—not for the Church in the abstract, but for the practical lives of Christian layfolk and leaders in the churches—must be in initial imperative for the Church today.
Well, yes, up to a point. I think the Benedict Option is something more radical than “the church being what the church ought to be,” though it certainly entails that. Here’s what I mean. I was talking earlier today with some publishers who had queries about my Benedict Option book proposal, and they wanted to know why this moment is different from all previous moments. My answer is this: because the culture has come to reflect a post-Christian understanding of the nature of humankind, of truth, and even of reality. We have not been in this place in the West since the fall of Rome. I didn’t say that (though I believe it); Pope Benedict XVI did.
That sounds airy-fairy and philosophical, but when you try to talk with people — not just young people, but with ordinary Christians — about what they believe and why they believe it, they quickly reveal themselves to be Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. I’m not talking about people being unable to give articulate, complex theological accounts; I’m talking about people being able to state, however basically, what human beings are for, how we can know what’s true, what families are for, who God is, and so forth — and to build lives in public and private based on those understandings.
The young people in Gelernter’s classes didn’t get that way on their own; they got there because their parents and their pastors gave them stones, not bread. And their parents too may have been given the same thing. Yes, the church in America is failing, but the church isn’t just the institution and its leadership, but every mother and every father, and their children. This is, as Hanby said in his speech, “a winnowing time.” It will not be enough to have the correct thoughts in our heads, or to hear the correct sermons at church. We have to do what Robert Louis Wilken said, and regain the ability to tell ourselves our own story, and to instantiate it in our local culture (e.g., in our churches, in our families). And we have to radically change our practices to make those truths live in tangible, deeply felt ways. The faith can no longer be part of our lives; it has to be our lives in a thick and binding way.
And — here is the bad news — we have to prepare ourselves to suffer for our faith. To deny ourselves. This gets to the sclerotic heart of comfortable American Christianity. But don’t be discouraged, says Michael Hanby. The truly hopeless person is the blind Christian optimist who trusts in the present order, and who is willing to accept the limits that order puts on our imagination. If we go along to get along, we will forget who we are and who we were made to be. We will, in our Babylonian exile, forget Jerusalem. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Our freedom depends on our knowing the truth, and our knowing the truth, and passing it on to our children, depends on establishing ourselves in fundamental opposition to the present and emerging cultural order — which, if we understand ourselves as Christians rooted in our tradition, we cannot help doing.
If you aren’t consciously countercultural, you aren’t going to be Christian for long. Contemporary culture — and that includes normative religious worship and life — severs us from our roots, and from the divine order. It cannot do otherwise, not if freedom is found in liberating the individual Self and its will. The question facing American Christians is, following Hanby: “Can we resist being assimilated to this post-human, post-Christian ideal?”
I don’t think most of us will be able to. But I’m talking to the people who want to fight. I’m talking to the people who know why the martyrs died as free men and women, and why their stories rightly give us hope. You can follow Your Best Life Now to the death of Christianity, but some of us, we will find another way to go, even if we have to pioneer it ourselves.