How Christianity Can Ride The Tiger
Here’s an interesting, if somewhat wrong, take on my book The Benedict Option and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s book Strangers In A Strange Land. It appears in the LA Review of Books, and the author is Benjamin Teitelbaum. It begins:
An East Asian parable tells of a man who confronts a tiger in the forest. Unable to escape, and lacking the strength to subdue the animal by force, he opts for a third tactic. He leaps on its back and rides. One day the tiger would grow old, and if the man remained inconspicuous and patient, he might survive long enough to witness its decline, at which point he could grab its neck and start to squeeze.
This parable entered Western politics through the writings of Italian fascist-sympathizer and race theorist Julius Evola. The defeat of Hitler and Mussolini convinced him that nothing could stop the advance of liberal modernity — which he regarded as an anarchic scourge that sought to render natural human difference, moral truths, and tradition meaningless. He resigned himself to life in a postwar West where confrontation with progressive dogmas like equality and liberty was tantamount to political suicide. Resistance for the true anti-liberal consisted instead in secrecy and self-preservation. The tiger of modernity, he wagered, had a limited lifespan, and only those who kept themselves intact would be positioned to strike once the beast began to sigh.
Fear of chaos and of nihilism. Despondency as rallying cry. Withdrawal as political strategy. Hope only in the promise of time’s elapse. Evola would transfer these ideas to future generations, most notably to those utmost outcasts of postwar Western modernity we call white nationalists and ethnic separatists.
I offer this summary of Evola’s beliefs so that no one will be fooled into thinking that the literature coming from conservative Christian America today is especially new or distinctly Christian. I refer, first and foremost, to Strangers in a Strange Land by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative. Each of these works proceeds from the same concession: doctrinaire Christians’ struggle for the heart of America is over, and they’ve lost. According to Chaput and Dreher, secular liberalism has breached the innermost ramparts of our society, and mainstream American culture now finds itself in a loathsome state of aimlessness, in which history, place, and even our bodies mean nothing. The authors mobilize to expose this social confusion and guide Christians on a path toward spiritual and cultural survival. This path is one of entrenchment, of waiting out liberalism’s vital phase.
Yes, like the deluge, liberal secularism too shall pass, if only on “God’s time” — as Chaput puts it — rather than our own.
Well. I am grateful for the next line in the piece, which assures the reader that the Archbishop and I are not fascists. Good grief. (“Of course these God-botherers are not fascists, but boy, they sure look like fascists, don’t they?”) I can’t speak for Archbishop Chaput, of course, but I have no doubt at all that he would join me in condemning white nationalism and ethnic separatism. We are Christians, after all — and Archbishop Chaput, in fact, is a Native American.
To compare Chaput and Dreher to figures like Julius Evola is not to insinuate that they are closet fascists. Rather, it is to highlight the existence of a broad anti-modernism that now encompasses diverse, even mutually irreconcilable ideologies and agendas. It is an anti-modernism that, for all its cries of feebleness, poses the most serious threat to global liberalism. Strangers in a Strange Land and The Benedict Option are expressions of this phenomenon, and they show it through the grievances they lodge, the reactions they advocate, and the changes they envision.
This is a provocative point that I will address later in this post. Now, though, I want to point out that Teitelbaum says that The Benedict Option and Strangers should be read together — a conclusion that I heartily endorse. He says they complement each other, because each has strengths the other lacks. And I want to point out Teitelbaum’s assessment of a keystone of Chaput’s argument:
He indicates that his concern centers not on same-sex marriage per se, but rather on what it allegedly represents and perpetuates — namely, a society in which we are no longer able to orient ourselves because one of the most fundamental features of identity, gender, has been stripped of consequence. Any notion that certain features of who we are might be givens, that we could be born into one association or social role but not others, is now anathema. This drive to extinguish collectivizing instincts and practices, Chaput claims, is the logical conclusion of a democracy that lacks principles and ideals other than the absolute sovereignty of individuals. It requires citizens to disassociate from any institution or identity that could come between themselves and the state — be it a religious organization or a family — so that they can function as independent voices in democracy’s market of opinion. Furthermore, it pursues this hyper-individualism with fanatical intolerance of dissent. (So much for the hopes of some conservatives that their opposition to same-sex marriage might be permitted to live on in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges as a token of “diversity.”)
What begins as a conversation about sexuality ends with visions of a society void of structure, a nightmare of order dissolving into chaos. And that narrative, more than any uniquely Christian message, emerges as a common thread in Chaput’s and Dreher’s writing.
I agree with the Archbishop. In The Benedict Option, I write that same-sex marriage marks the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution, which, in philosopher Michael Hanby’s apt formulation, is the technological mindset applied to the body. The Sexual Revolution is not only a moral catastrophe, but for Christians, a metaphysical one, because it undoes the story the Bible tells us about who we are. From the book:
If sex is made holy through the marriage covenant, then sex within marriage is an icon of Christ’s relationship with His people, the church. It reveals the miraculous, life-giving power of spiritual communion, which occurs when a man and a woman—and only a man and a woman—give themselves to each other. That marriage could be unsexed is a total novelty in the Christian theological tradition.
“The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology—the ultimate end of man. “As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.
Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order. “Male and female he made them,” says Genesis, revealing that complementarity is written into the nature of reality.
To be modern, as we have seen, is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self- definition. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).”
Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible. Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but as Rieff saw, it’s so near to the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith. This is why Christians who begin by rejecting sexual orthodoxy end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so.
“The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling,” Rieff writes. By that standard, Christianity in America is in mortal danger.
If a remnant wants to survive, it must resist the Sexual Revolution. But how?
Readers who don’t understand why Obergefell is such a big deal to traditional Christians would do well to ponder the point in this passage. Obergefell certainly does not stand alone. It is the culmination of a long journey through modernity. But it is a breaking point — and why the churches cannot compromise on the issue. I’ll write more about this in another blog post.
I bring it up here because the reader who does not grasp the argument the Archbishop and I are making may not fully grasp why sex is so important to it. It’s not that we are cranky old men. Rather, it’s that one’s morality derives from one’s metaphysics. By denying the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage, we deny the traditional Christian theology of the body, and ultimately the entire thing unwinds.
Anyway, back to Teitelbaum’s essay. Here he strikes on another neuralgic point:
And the rootlessness these authors observe is not confined to the material world of bodies and localities. American thought is similarly unhinged. The core of this problem, according to Chaput, is our disinclination to treat morality as fact. You might think that the claim “All men are created equal” is not the same kind of falsifiable statement as “the temperature outside right now is 86 degrees,” but Chaput begs to differ. The former is as much of a fact as the latter, he claims, and if it is regarded as a non-fact — as an opinion — it is more easily relativized and conditionally dismissed. “Moral disagreements,” he writes, “become rationally irresolvable because no commonly held first principles exist.” Chaput thus operates with a menacing standard for success. Until our society gives moral statements — presumably those he endorses — the status of scientific fact, he will not be satisfied.
This is wrong, but not entirely wrong, and it’s unfair to Chaput’s argument. Chaput says — correctly, in my view — that without sharing fundamental moral principles, a society cannot hold together. It is true that “All men are created equal” cannot be proven in the same way that “the temperature outside is 86 degrees”; they are different kinds of truths. But a society that does not believe that “all men are created equal” is metaphysically true (that is, built into the structure of reality) is going to be a different kind of society than one that does share that belief. And a society in which its people believe radically different things about too many fundamental phenomena is not one that can hold together over time.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue — put crudely — was that modernity killed God, but failed to come up with a secular substitute, or at least one that can bind society. Teitelbaum continues:
Things needn’t have come to such a pass, of course. Both Dreher and Chaput cite the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, who foretold that the United States would need Christianity to survive democracy. If liberal democracy had an inherent drive toward radical materialism and individualism, it could be tamed by religion; de Tocqueville saw Christianity and Enlightenment values as having found an ideal balance in the early America. What threw things out of whack? Social movements like the 1960s sexual revolution, as well as technological advances that separate us from each other. That, and non-Christian immigration.
I’m not going to go looking for my copy of Chaput’s book in the piles and piles of books unsorted from our recent move, but I doubt very much that he says this. The only time immigration comes up at all in my book is a single brief mention of Catholic immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The argument in my book is far broader and deeper than Teitelbaum indicates here. The problem is not located solely in the Sexual Revolution, as even a shallow reading of The Benedict Option would indicate. The problem is modernity itself — especially the late stage that Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity.”
To be fair to Teitelbaum, he does paint Chaput and me as “anti-modernists,” which I suppose is reasonably accurate for me (I’ll let the Archbishop speak for himself). But Teitelbaum’s piece does not give a sufficient sense of the argument I make. It comes across as a standard liberal reading of The Benedict Option as a simplistic reactionary tract by a guy who can’t deal with the glory of diversity and the wonders of Snapchat.
If he’s not accurate in rendering the Ben Op’s diagnosis of the source of our problem, Teitelbaum does a decent job of encapsulating my proposed solution: constructing thicker, smaller communities of the faithful, who are committed to going deeper into the Christian faith and tradition, and by so doing resisting the dissolving forces of modernity.
Which brings us back to Evola and his latter-day followers, who likewise defend a bounded community against a totalizing liberalism deemed too strong to face head-on. We ought not get carried away with the analogy: there is little to suggest, for example, that Chaput and Dreher mean “white people” when they say the “Christian West.” Dreher has responded to such accusations, asserting that the population he champions is based on spirituality and culture rather than race. But neither is his the evangelizing Christianity that proclaims itself true for all peoples in all ways and at all times, and which cannot allow itself to retreat from any arena of human society lest it betray its own destiny. Rather, his Christianity is the banner of a tribe — which may not necessarily be racialized, but which yearns for a similar sense of belonging in time and space. It is one of many tribalisms reluctant to participate in pluralistic democracy and to accept the limitations of public influence that come with it. They are the forces of disintegration reshaping our world today, striving, each in its way, to undo the project of the global community.
I appreciate very much Teitelbaum pointing out that neither the Archbishop nor I are talking about ethnicity. I take issue, though, with his characterization of my view of Christianity.
My Christianity, like the Christianity of St. Benedict, does proclaim itself as true for all peoples in all ways and at all times. But the manner of proclaiming that truth and living it out has to be somewhat different, related to time and place. The challenges of being a Christian in sixth-century Rome were different from the challenges of being a Christian in sixth-century Constantinople. The challenges of being a Christian in 1950s America were different from the challenges of being a Christian in 1950s Poland. The truth of Christianity did not change, but the way that truth was lived out certainly did. It is clear from The Benedict Option that I do not believe Christians today are at liberty to fail to evangelize. We have to evangelize. The question, is, though: How do we do that in this time and in this place? From the book:
The first Christians gained converts not because their arguments were better than those of the pagans but because people saw in them and their communities something good and beautiful—and they wanted it. This led them to the Truth.
“Apologetics then and now has a limited role,” Robert Louis Wilken, the early church historian, has said. “We must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We’re really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people.”
What’s more, to believe that the ultimate point of the church’s existence is to get someone to pray the sinner’s prayer, or to get baptized and/or confirmed within it, is a serious mistake. Making a decision for Christ is only the first step of the journey. What we lack today is discipleship — that is to say, the formation of faithful Christians and congregations. In our time and place, we have reduced the faith to warm, fuzzy feelings. It should not surprise us, then, that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has replaced Christianity as the de facto religion of young American Christians (and, I would say, the majority of American Christians). MTD is cheap grace, and as Bonhoeffer warned nearly a century ago, cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Christian faith.
My argument in The Benedict Option is that we Westerners live in a time and place in the nearly 2,000 year history of the Church when the faith has been scattered and radically weakened. Now is a time for gathering and storing. A Methodist pastor friend the other day suggested that I read a book called The Celtic Way Of Evangelism, in which the author draws on early Celtic monasticism to come up with lessons for how contemporary Christians should evangelize. The book talks about these insights from the work of sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann:
(1) A person’s view of Reality is largely shaped, and maintained, within the community into which one has been socialized.
(2) In a pluralistic society, the possibility of conversion, that is, changing the way one perceives essential Reality, is opened up through conversations with people who live with a contrasting view of Reality, and
(3) one adopts and internalizes the new world-view through re-socialization into a community sharing that new worldview
How I wish I had come across that book when I was writing The Benedict Option! I’ve not read the whole thing yet, but it sounds like the vision of the author, George G. Hunter III, really dovetails with my own. Evangelism has to be different in the 21st century West, because Christian living — which will be the most powerful form of evangelism — has to be radically different. We are living in a post-Christian world. If Christians today uncritically absorb the modern view of seeing reality — that we are autonomous conscious beings who live in a universe of dead matter, which only has meaning if we choose to give it meaning — then we will not be able to resist the collapse of the Christian faith. The Bible — the basis for the historic Christian faith — gives us a certain view of reality. It is radically (= at the root) different from the modern view.
Our failure as Christians to understand this, and to grasp its implications, leaves us vulnerable. We are like defenseless British troops trapped on Dunkirk beach. But most of us don’t get it. At all. We think we can continue to live inside the modern view of reality, and continue to adjust, to temporize, and be okay. But those days are over.
If you want to see the end result of godless, hedonistic consumerism and hedonism, read Michel Houellebecq. The order that we take as normative could change very quickly. As the eminent historian of the early church Peter Brown has explained, nobody — not even the Christians of the era — understood how rapidly things were changing in the western Roman Empire of the fourth century. The Roman Empire was all they knew; neither pagans nor Christians could imagine a world without it. And then it was gone, just like that.
For Christians, the spiritual and cultural part of our own “empire” — that is, the framework we use to understand our culture and civilization — has already collapsed. If we Christians are going to be able to see and to know the truth in this long Dark Age, we are going to have to come together and build communities — within our churches and elsewhere — capable of living out and teaching to others what is really Real.
Christianity has to return in some way to its pre-modern, patristic and medieval roots, or it will cease to exist. How Protestantism and Catholicism are to do this is not up to me to say, but rather for Protestants and Catholics, respectively. This means that they will need to first recognize that they are minorities in post-Christian America, and second to get busy being creative minorities. Orthodox Christianity, in which I believe, is fully pre-modern in its teaching and ethos. My particular task as an Orthodox Christian is to figure out a way to live it in this time and place, no matter what — and to help my Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters when and how I can.
One final passage from Teitelbaum — and this is important:
Christian anti-modernists may be the most tragic participants in the anti-modernist cause, however. Both Chaput and Dreher would do well to ponder more deeply the charges coming from other anti-modernists that their religion is the real driver of globalist liberalism. Some contemporary ethnic separatists — like, for example, Alain de Benoist — name Christianity itself as the enemy of community, identity, and spirituality. Modern liberalism’s claim to universal validity, its disinterest in roots and history, its yearning for a hyper-individualism, its contempt for religion — all of these features are, according to such thinkers, elaborations of a Christian model whereby God’s word is the singular, ultimate, and final revelation, where the past is sin and the future is salvation, where all are deemed equal before God and the divisions humanity has erected within itself are illusions to be transcended. The seeds of public secularism, they would argue — following Nietzsche — were sown by Christianity’s totalizing teleological vision, and by Christ’s edict to render unto Caesar.
This is a critically important insight. Of course it brings to mind Ross Douthat’s well-known quip, to the effect of if you don’t like the Religious Right, wait till you see the Post-Religious Right. Many on the Alt-Right really are hostile to Christianity. Richard Spencer once told me that he hated Christianity, and was a follower of Nietzsche. As I’ve written here before, I have anecdotal reports from Christians in high school that alt-right white nationalism is starting to appeal to young white Christian males. As a reader who attends such a high school wrote to me a while back:
Milo isn’t getting conservative ideas out there in a subversive label that’s appealing to Millenials. He’s a prophet of the deeply un-conservative alt-right. He’s not creating a climate that’s accepting of conservative ideals. He’s creating one that specifically rejects those values as hallmarks of a system that they view as a failure through not being radical enough.
That’s why all the good little Christians at my high school are falling in behind him — not because they actually give a crap about conservatism but because he’s giving angry, aimless young men whose church hasn’t given them anything solid to fall back on an alternate source of values that happens to be steeped in fascist and white supremacist ideals. It’s just as absorbed in identity politics as any social-justice movement on the left is, except focused on white men and not LGBT people.
It has swallowed up most of the guys in the senior class at my school, and I’m tired of it. You can’t just not talk about politics with them, because everythingis politics to them. Every discussion devolves into things like which girls are “feminazis,” celebrities dating outside their ethnicity being “white genocide,” and so on. It’s suffocating to feel like if you say “actually, that’s really racist” you’re going to be brushed off as some liberal or a cuckservative. I’m genuinely scared that it’s going to spread to the point where I won’t have anyone I can talk to like a normal human being. This isn’t hyperbole.
I’ve sat and heard multiple conversations in the school hallway about things like how the very concept of legal immigration is “cultural Marxism” and about how if all the blacks in America moved back to Africa there’d be less crime, and Africa would be better off because they would have people who had learned things in America. It’s absolutely nuts, but what am I going to do? I don’t know that any adults would take me seriously if I told them this was a problem. The alt-right has defensive talking points are baked right into the ideology so as to make it more palatable for conservatives, just like how communism masqueraded as concern for the workers in the early days to make it appealing to moderate socialists.
Maybe that’s just the norm for kids my age now, and I’m going to just have to be paranoid that everyone that I meet is secretly a white nationalist.
Racialism is a powerful god — a false one, but a powerful one. Look at how identity politics (racial, sexual, etc.) has destroyed old-school liberalism. Racialism is going to do the same thing to old-school conservatism. Even if our churches are conservative in theology, if all they’re giving is right-wing politics and bland therapeutic pieties, it will give us nothing with which to resist the anti-Christian Right. Note this well: the enemy of Christianity is not only the secular left! I don’t think this is well understood at all in conservative Christian circles. The post-religious Right will not be much more friendly to Christianity than the post-religious Left is and will be.
The question I always have for liberal critics of anti-modernists is this: what do you have to offer? If the Christian religion and its precepts are no longer undergirding and binding our civilization, what is? I find it hard to believe that anybody who thinks seriously about the state of the West believes that we can continue like this for the foreseeable future.
UPDATE: Reader Caroline Walker, commenting on a different thread, said something relevant to this post:
Rod, your discussion w Michael Hanby at mars hill radio back in January nailed our predicament so expertly that I wrote it down in my Notes for the Apocalypse: “you find your philosophical options come down to two: Either there is a word, or a Logos at the foundation of reality, so that reality is inherently intelligible and meaningful, and therefore there are natures, forms that persist in spite of the flux of history and time; or reality is fundamentally meaningless, and meaning is a kind of an epiphenomenal construct superimposed upon it.”
The Bay Area is ground zero for Technological man. Ye shall be as gods.
I keep telling people: it’s not a political divide. It’s a clash of world views. Spiritual warfare.