Are We Declining? Are We Falling?
Let me preface this post by saying that I spent my last day in France making a quick trip to stay with a farm family in Picardy. I’ll be writing about that in a separate post. One of the things I did while there was visit a restored German trench from the Battle of the Somme. As it turns out, the trench went right through the farmer’s land. One million men died or were wounded in that battle.
One. Million. Men.
My hosts told me that everything I saw around me in the villages was built after the war. There had been virtually nothing left.
What we are going through today is, I think, the working-out of what happened there on the Somme — and, more broadly, World War I. That is not an original thought, of course, but if you want to see where Western civilization committed suicide, well, the Somme is as good a place as any to visit.
Millennials are derided as “snowflakes.” But feelings of intensified vulnerability are not limited to the young. Religious believers also see themselves under assault. Rod Dreher’s recent book, The Benedict Option, has struck a chord in large part because it is suffused with end-of-days sentiments. “If demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty.” “We’ve lost on every front.” “The public square has been lost.” We face a “thousand-year flood.”
When religious people talk like this, one would think secular people should be confident and secure. But that’s not the case. They express a similar pessimism. They watch The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s imagined future of theocratic fundamentalism that forces women into sexual servitude. This dystopian pessimism was reinforced last fall when a number of powerful men were accused of sexual harassment. This led the New York Times to appoint a new “gender editor.” She told her readers that we need to battle against the “widely held perception that women’s bodies are available for public consumption.” There is peril everywhere, it seems. An academic friend tells me the administration at his university asks faculty to remove personal information from their curricula vitae—date of birth, home address, citizenship, marital status, and so forth. “It is good practice nowadays to not make this kind of personal information publically available.”
Our present cultural moment is one of suspicion, anxiety, and worries about vulnerability. Many, perhaps most, fear that they are being discriminated against and marginalized. And those who don’t? They often live in the fear that they will be accused of white privilege or some other sin. Perhaps this is to be expected. Patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity—they are said to infect everything. One area of public discourse immune from the postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion is wonkish policy debate. But this is dominated by economistic thinking, which takes as its first premise rational self-interest. Here, too, we’re pictured as eyeing each other with competitive suspicion.
The anxiety baffles me. Our society works pretty well. In many cities, crime is down dramatically, reaching historically low levels. The economy grows, both here at home and globally. American war-making has settled into a pattern of limited engagement that leaves most of us undisturbed. Meanwhile, public culture rings with warnings that things are heading toward disaster—global warming, resurgent racism, populism. Every week our office receives review copies of another book that promises to show us how to “save liberal democracy.”
Some point to social media as the source of our unease. It debases political discourse by reducing debate to brief punches and jabs. Others bemoan the general coarsening of our society. How can we feel at ease when TV hosts launch into rants liberally punctuated with f-bombs? And it’s not just celebrities posing as political commentators, but the commentators themselves, as well as those on whom they comment, including the present occupant of the White House. Then there is the general atmosphere of polarization and rancor, which beckons us to reach for rhetorical weapons. As many have pointed out, half of the country has difficulty talking to the other half. The red vs. blue divide has become cultural.
The chasm between reality and how we talk makes me skeptical of end-times rhetoric. It’s not the 1930s. Even the 1930s were not the 1930s of our overheated political imaginations. In this issue I offer a more modest explanation of our present travails (“Goodbye, Heraclitus”). Our crisis, I argue, emanates from problems in the upper reaches of society, not anger or protest from below. The unease at the top is the result of the decadence of our postwar political and cultural outlook. This failing consensus makes our leadership class increasingly unable to lead. And this, in turn, gives our present debates and challenges the atmosphere of crisis and doom. Those who need to lead us are frustrated with their ineffectiveness. They don’t like being ignored and tuned out. Like Americans abroad who imagine that foreigners will understand their English if they yell more loudly, the instinct of our elites is to insist upon their solutions (and their authority) with even greater force.
At the end of an era—and we are at the end of one, the postwar era—there’s a great deal of heat and not much light. We will have to endure a time of political and cultural disorientation. As we do so, let’s maintain our equilibrium. Our society needs people who remain focused on human realities rather than the apocalyptic visions and self-referential polemics of our disoriented elites. God’s truth illuminates reality, which means that as religious believers, we should be able to keep our cool in the present, overheated moment.
It is always a good thing for me to read sensible words offering caution about apocalypticism. I mean that. I take Rusty’s remarks with a sense of gratitude.
But — and you knew there would be a but — I simply cannot believe that from a Christian point of view, “steady on” is a sensible general option. No, I’m not saying “run shrieking for the exits” is what we should do, but it seems quite clear to me that we Christians (and all religious believers in the West) are in an intense crisis, one that will prove decisive for our future.
After all, Pope Benedict XVI himself spoke of the spiritual crisis of Europe as the worst since the Roman Empire’s fall. In a 2008 general audience in Rome, Pope Benedict commemorated the patron saint of his pontificate, saying in part:
Benedict describes the Rule he wrote as “minimal, just an initial outline” (cf. 73, 8); in fact, however, he offers useful guidelines not only for monks but for all who seek guidance on their journey toward God. For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today. By proclaiming St Benedict Patron of Europe on 24 October 1964, Paul VI intended to recognize the marvellous work the Saint achieved with his Rule for the formation of the civilization and culture of Europe. Having recently emerged from a century that was deeply wounded by two World Wars and the collapse of the great ideologies, now revealed as tragic utopias, Europe today is in search of its own identity. Of course, in order to create new and lasting unity, political, economic and juridical instruments are important, but it is also necessary to awaken an ethical and spiritual renewal which draws on the Christian roots of the Continent, otherwise a new Europe cannot be built. Without this vital sap, man is exposed to the danger of succumbing to the ancient temptation of seeking to redeem himself by himself – a utopia which in different ways, in 20th-century Europe, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, has caused “a regression without precedent in the tormented history of humanity” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, 12 January 1990). Today, in seeking true progress, let us also listen to the Rule of St Benedict as a guiding light on our journey. The great monk is still a true master at whose school we can learn to become proficient in true humanism.
John Paul II spoke of the communist utopias. This alludes to why this crisis is far worse than most people think, given that they judge by the fact that “our society works pretty well.” Yes, historically speaking, it does. But guess what: techno-optimism was quite strong at the dawn of the 20th century. That all died in the Somme, and at Verdun. Or at least it ought to have done; Auschwitz should have finished it off. And if not that, then Soviet communism, and Maoism.
Point is, civilization is an extremely fragile thing. What concerns me — not as a Christian, in particular — is that we are fast losing a sense of what it means to be human. We are a people unmoored from transcendent values, from history, and from a sense of limits. How far can we go? Can anybody say with any confidence? The point is not that things are more peaceful and prosperous than they ever have been, but the growing sense — a realistic sense! — that it’s all a high-wire act without a net.
This past weekend, I met a French Catholic social activist who told me that he had appeared at a small demonstration in Paris last year in which he held up a sign saying that the gender of children is not a game. (I saw the sign: that is literally what it said.) He said that the media treated him and his fellow demonstrators as if they were the second coming of Adolf Hitler. He knew things were bad for people who believe the things that he does, but it deeply shocked him that his position is considered by the dominant culture today to be viciously bigoted.
Ten years ago is the blink of an eye. Had you told people in 2008 that this was coming, and coming fast, they would have accused you of scaremongering. Yet here we are.
As a Christian, specifically, I don’t know how fellow believers can be sanguine about what we’re seeing. The Western world will go on without Christianity, should it come to that, but as believers, we hold that this would mean the loss of countless souls. I want my children, and their children, and their children’s children, to profess the Christian faith. I believe their eternal destiny depends on this. Christianity in Europe is flat on its back — and we in the US are on the same path. Now is the time to sound the alarm! I strongly urge you to read my response from last October to the absurd remarks of Father Antonio Spadaro, a top Jesuit adviser to Pope Francis. His retro-1970s accomodationist rhetoric is based on an absurd read of the times, at least in the West. For US Catholics, sociologist Christian Smith delivers a bit of the bad news:
Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.
But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.
Nobody is safe. The time to act to sauve qui peut is now. One of the strongest points I’m taking away from my time in Paris is that young French Catholics (30 and under) know much better than their American counterparts what it is like to live in a post-Christian country — and they know that if they don’t live with more radicalism than their parents, they aren’t going to make it.
“The chasm between reality and how we talk makes me skeptical of end-times rhetoric,” my friend Rusty Reno writes. Just looking at the situation with Catholics and other Christians, what reality, exactly, is there to be skeptical about? I talked to a Catholic farmer this weekend who showed me his village church. They have one mass there every three months. There is one priest for 25 parishes.
On the up side, I met a young French Catholic couple who returned last year to France from Houston, where the husband worked in industry. They were part of a big, active Catholic parish in the city, and came home to France full of enthusiasm and ideas for living a more active Christian life. Reality is not dismal everywhere! But we have to be serious about our time and the challenges it poses. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.