Against Christian Cultural Accommodation
I’ll be going to the Czech Republic (or Czechia, as they call it today) next month to give some lectures on The Benedict Option, which has just been published there. It’s a real challenge to figure out how to make the argument in a society that has been firmly post-Christian for a long time. I suspect I will be learning more on this trip than I will be teaching.
To prepare for the visit, I read a collection of short essays by Tomas Halík, a Catholic priest and leading Czech intellectual, titled Night Of The Confessor: Christian Faith In An Age of Uncertainty. I was especially interested in this because I had a brief encounter with Monsignor Halik at Notre Dame last fall. He was strongly against the Benedict Option, but we did not have long enough for me to hear him out, and he said he didn’t have time to correspond.
Having read his book, I think I better understand why he reacted as he did to my speech that night. But having read his book, I think he would be surprised to find that we have a lot more in common than he thought from my talk. It was helpful for me, reading Night Of The Confessor, to get a better idea of the cultural conditions into which I will be speaking about the Ben Op.
I especially liked this passage from Msgr. Halik’s book:
Those who wish to seek the living God and truly follow Christ must have the courage to learn to swim in deep water, not in the shallows. God is the depths; He is not to be found in the shallows. The path of faith and “knowing God” is not learning some subject or skill, where the desired result is “mastering” the thing, and where it is best to proceed systematically — such as when learning the piano — from “Frère Jacques” to Beethoven’s piano concertos. Until Christian teachers take seriously the idea that God Himself is the depth of all reality, and not some “subject of knowledge,” many sermons and religious dissertations and courses will fail to develop and awareness of depth and just keep bashing out “Frère Jacques” — and that song will start to sound increasingly out of tune and unbearable.
… Of course, certain specific “techniques” of spiritual life, as well as the study of theology or the traditions of the Church, not to mention getting a grounding in the world of liturgy, all require mastering by means of perseverance and a systematic step-by-step approach. But that is something else. When someone is introduced into the faith they need to be told clearly that they are being introduced into a world of mystery and depth, that Jesus is not “a pal they can chat with,” and God is not a Daddy represented by the appropriate ecclesiastical daddies, to whom we shall all now cry “hurrah,” and once more “hurrah,” and “Alleluia, Lord Jesus” — “Come on, kids, you can do better than that: at the top of your voice and all together!”
Elsewhere in the book, Halik has this great line, about the decline in the number of people in church:
The question isn’t how many of us there are, but whether or not we have lost our way.
That’s it, exactly! You can fill up an auditorium with all kinds of Jesus-y gimmicks and light shows, and of course the sugary doctrines of Father Frootloop and Sister Stretchpants go down much more easily than traditional Christianity. But if you are not leading people to real discipleship, and genuine transformation, you are failing, straight up. This is true whether you are Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox.
“Frère Jacques” is an introduction to the pianist’s life, but if the pianist never proceeds beyond it, to what extent can he be said to be a musician (as opposed to someone who just fools around on the keyboard)?
Anyway, I thought of Msgr Halik’s book when reading this interesting short essay by a Millennial Catholic Christian named Kevin Greenlee, in which he pleads with the Church not to dumb itself down to appeal to those who have rejected it. Excerpts:
In one way, though, I am an outlier. Fifty-nine percent of my generation who were raised in churches have dropped out. Many of them have become self-identified “nones”—that is, individuals who identify as having no religious affiliation when asked. This has often meant a drift towards “Eat, Pray, Love” style spirituality rather than sheer secularism, but the fact remains that a majority of millennials are leaving behind traditional religion. I, on the other hand, have moved into a more traditionalist religious affiliation than the one I was raised with. I am, of course, not alone in this. A quick Google search for Catholic or Orthodox conversion stories will find a whole host of millennials telling stories about how they left the non-denominational churches of their youth in search of something more rooted in history. Yet, the fact remains that we are a statistical minority. Catholics have lost more millennials than any other religious group.
There are more fundamental problems with the approach that many take to the millennial problem, however. First, the discourse around young people who leave the Church often does a very good job of ignoring those of us who have stayed. To be a loyal Churchgoing millennial can at times feel like being married to a spouse who keeps pining for their old girlfriend who cheated on them and abandoned them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article on the subject of millennials leaving the Church that has asked why those who stay stay. The assumption seems to be that we’re just millennials who haven’t left yet. The truth, however, is that we stay because we believe in what the Church is, despite her imperfections, and don’t want to see her try and doll herself up for those who have already abandoned her. We believe that the Church is God’s means for our salvation and have submitted ourselves to being formed by her. Of course, the Church, being full of sinful humans, doesn’t do a perfect job in her mission, but to assume that millennials who have left know better what she should be than those who have chosen to be formed by the Church is entirely backward.
In saying this, there is the danger that we become like the older brother in the tale of the prodigal son, resenting the Church when she welcomes back those who have gone astray. We must be wary of this danger, but it does not justify selling away our birthright.
This resonates with me. I’ve been open about how the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, as well as my own personal spiritual failures, led me to lose my Catholic faith. God was merciful to me, and gave me another chance, this time in Orthodoxy. I have tried to learn from my Catholic experience to protect myself from the same thing in Orthodoxy (e.g., I have not idolized the institutional church, and I have worked much harder at personal prayer and spiritual discipline, versus intellectualizing church). Nevertheless, Kevin G.’s words brought to mind the plain fact that there was very little in parish life to hold me within Catholicism. It was clear to me that most priests, deacons, and lay teachers were devoted to a lowest common denominator Catholicism, presumably for the sake of not alienating people. It was all shallows, and all deliberately shallows.
In my little Orthodox parish here in Baton Rouge, our pastor speaks in everyday language, but he is constantly challenge us to go deeper into the Gospel, and into the traditions of the Church. Just yesterday, he told us that not everybody keeps the same fast during Lent, but fasting itself is obligatory on everybody. And he explained why. I’ve known other Orthodox priests who are like this. They take discipleship seriously. I am also sure that there are Catholic priests (and Protestant pastors) who are like this too. But I don’t think they are the rule, because to be serious about faith and discipleship in today’s world is to risk alienating people. What church leaders don’t understand is that the people who keep showing up every week need to be fed solid food too, and not taken for granted.
Kevin Greenlee continues:
It is true that the Church needs to adapt, but she must do so in a way that is faithful to her identity and not marketed to millennials. Heck, having grown up in a world saturated with marketing, millennials are probably too market savvy to be won over that way anyway. Repeatedly in the modern world, we have seen that churches which try to adapt to the prevailing culture (and make no mistake those millennials who have left the Church are of the prevailing culture) inevitably die.
I would argue that the answer to this problem is the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option, introduced by Rod Dreher and spelled out in his book of the same name, often gets misconstrued as a kind of fundamentalist withdrawal from society. In truth, Dreher argues that those in the Church need to accept that the Church has lost mainstream political and cultural power. Rather than withdrawing, however, we must build institutions that will allow us to thrive as a cultural minority. Two of Dreher’s primary examples of groups that have done this successfully are Orthodox Jews and Mormons. Neither group has withdrawn from cultural and political life, but they have found ways to build a distinct culture that thrives alongside the mainstream American one. It is time that orthodox Christians do the same.
Such institutions will serve to support those millennials who have chosen to remain in the Church and will help them to raise families steeped in Christian culture. As the example of the Mormons indicates, such an endeavor does not entail abandoning evangelism or cultural and political engagement. It simply means reading the true signs of the times and acting accordingly to preserve what we value. Inevitably, a true Benedict Option Church will reach those millennials who can be reached and will engage them in a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. As the Vatican proceeds with its 2018 Synod on Young People, I hope it will see its way to the necessity of the Benedict Option, rather than becoming seduced by the cultural accommodation that so many millennials say they want. I urge those at the Synod to let go of the centers of cultural power they have already lost and instead strive to build something truly beautiful and hospitable at the margins.
Read the whole thing. It’s really good, and I’m grateful to Kevin G. for his kind words.
Christians — Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox — cannot hope to change the world if we have nothing to give it besides emotions.