The Fellowship Of The Cross
We have an informal rule in our house: no watching the movie version of a novel until you’ve read the novel. My daughter finally finished reading The Lord of the Rings, so last night she and I watched the first of the three films, The Fellowship of the Ring. It had been many years since I had seen it; I had forgotten how good it was. But the opening sequence, in which Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) sets up the story, sent a chill down my spine. Here is Galadriel’s prologue:
Her opening lines:
The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.
Listening to that last night, I felt a chill pass over me, because she’s speaking about us, and our time. The world is ever changing; that we know. But this time is different. This apocalyptic year, 2020, has unveiled what was hidden. So too did Justice Ginsburg’s death. When Justice Scalia died in 2016, many of us conservatives felt shock and loss, but I think none of us feared for the country. Not now. It’s not because of who Justice Ginsburg, of blessed memory, was; it’s about what she symbolized. She was a kind of katechon — a figure whose presence held back the tide of destructive spiritual and political passions. Now she is gone, and the armies gather.
Look, I can’t pretend that I’m standing apart from this. I know my role and I accept it. It’s not a fight I want, but here we are.
This past summer, I listened to the Jess Fields podcast in which the political scientist Ryan Burge mentioned (around 1:19) that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death during the election campaign would be a “nuclear bomb for democracy.”Listen to it and judge for yourself. I think he’s right. But I also think that the logic of all our alliances, and all the things we believe — left and right, secular and religious — draw us inexorably into … what?
I read this essay on the Wisdom of Crowds site by the progressive journalist Murtaza Hussain. In it, he makes a case for how the death of religious faith will hurt the left. It begins:
Over the past decade, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the inner lives of Americans. They have begun to collectively turn away from traditional religion and embrace new ways of giving life meaning. A recent study in Foreign Affairs underscores the incredible scale and speed of this change. “From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little,” the authors noted. “Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.”
The impact of rapid technological change, social fluidity, and the collapse of decrepit institutions have all played their role in dissolving this once-sturdy pillar of American life. In a historical blink of an eye, the United States has gone from being one of the world’s more religious countries to one of the least religious for which data is available.
Some will naturally welcome this change, while others won’t. But there is no denying its basic importance. Such a transformation is unlikely to pass without some kind of turmoil, no less than the transition from pagan Europe to Christianity did two millennia ago. The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?
In the best case, a people fully uprooted from religion could devote their energies “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,” as Robert F. Kennedy once said (citing Aeschylus), rather than placing their hopes on a world to come. This has certainly been the hope of many noble atheists in the past. But there is a darker possibility as well. Shedding our old beliefs and developing new ones, we might end up reviving in new guises the worst aspects of the old religions, including moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting, and the persecution of those who think differently. Frighteningly enough, these base sentiments would also be unchecked by any countervailing religious imperatives towards mercy or the recognition of human frailty.
These are questions we should consider sooner than later. Because while people have rapidly stopped believing in organized religion, they have certainly not stopped believing. As old ways of belief pass away, loosely-knit mass movements have already begun developing their own texts, rituals, mysteries, martyrs, and moral hierarchies. The pandemic has given these changes a massive push forward. Like plagues throughout history COVID-19 has triggered an outpouring of public spiritual energy. In doing so it is also revealing how new systems of morality and belief are already beginning to fill the God-shaped hole that has emerged in America’s collective consciousness.
Three years ago, I published The Benedict Optionas a warning to my fellow Christians, and a sign of hope: that there were things we could do and must do to prepare ourselves for what’s coming. If you haven’t read it, or have dismissed it (wrongly) as “head for the hills” alarmism, I urge you to reconsider. From the book, this from a talk I had with the Benedictine monk Cassian Folsom:
When I first told Father Cassian about the Benedict Option, he mulled my words and replied gravely, “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.”
The next morning I met Father Cassian inside the monastery for a talk. He stands tall, his short hair and beard are steel-gray, and his demeanor is serious and, well, monklike. But when he speaks, in his gentle baritone, you feel as if you are talking to your own father. Father Cassian speaks warmly and powerfully of the integrity and joy of the Benedictine life, which is so different from that of our fragmented modern world.
Though the monks here have rejected the world, “there’s not just a no; there’s a yes too,” Father Cassian says. “It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new. And we spend a lot of time in the rebuilding, and people see that too, which is why people flock to the monastery. We have so much involvement with guests and pilgrims that it’s exhausting. But that is what we do. We are rebuilding. That’s the yes that people have to hear about.”
Rebuilding what? I asked.
“To use Pope Benedict’s phrase, which he repeated many times, the Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” he says. “I think that’s true. Fragmentation, fear, disorientation, drifting—those are widely diffused characteristics of our society.”
Yes, I thought, this is exactly right. When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders. We are adrift in liquid modernity, with no direction home.
The fragmentation, the fear, the disorientation — all of it is accelerating. We know this in our bones. The world is changed. A new world is emerging from the death of the old. Murtaza Hussein is a progressive, but he knows that the passing of Christianity will not guarantee a better world for progressives. If you haven’t read the (secular) historian Tom Holland’s book Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Made The World , you really must. Holland argues that all the good things that we associate with liberal modernity came out of Christianity. “Human rights” mean nothing outside of Christianity. Holland is very clear that Nietzsche was right on this point. The “self-evident” truths of the Enlightenment were only “self-evident” to people of a culture that had been shaped by Christianity.
Until reading Holland’s book, I had not fully realized that slavery was a universal institution that had existed since the dawn of human history, even through Christendom, until English and American Evangelicals demanded its abolition — and got it. It was not obvious to anybody prior to the abolition movement that slavery was an offense against God. This blog post is not about Holland’s book, or the slavery question, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole. The point I wish to make is complementary to Hussein’s: that the loss of Christianity to our civilization is going to have staggering effects.
We are post-Christian not because there are no more Christians, but because our civilization no longer understands itself as Christian — that is, guided by the teachings of the Bible and the churches. I strongly urge you to take a look at this blog post of mine in which I discuss the historian Edward Watts’s book The Final Pagan Generation— about the transition of Rome in the fourth century from a pagan civilization to a Christian one. Constantine converted in 315, but you don’t turn a civilization around on a dime. Paganism had shaped the classical world for thousands of years. It took only one century, though, for the foundations to shift to Christianity. Watts points out that this was very hard for the pagans to grasp at the time, because all the temples remained open. But by the second half of the fourth century, it was clear that the younger generation had lost the old faith, and had taken up the new one.
The longer we Christians in this century take to face up to this reality, the less able we are to construct the ways of life that, God willing, will preserve the faith through the long darkness ahead. Greco-Roman paganism did not make it. Christianity might, if only because there are so many new converts in Africa and Asia.
My new book — out in fewer than 10 days! — Live Not By Lies is, in a way, a crystallization and a focusing of the lessons in The Benedict Option. It didn’t start out that way, but I clearly see the development of doctrine, so to speak. It started with my trying to understand what immigrants from formerly communist countries of the Soviet bloc meant by saying that they see happening to the US (and UK) now what they left behind under communism. I explain that in the first half of the book. The second half is given over to practical advice for how to build resistance to totalitarianism.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I foresee “soft totalitarianism” for us. Hard totalitarianism is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the Soviet bloc. Soft totalitarianism will attempt the same control of people’s behavior and thoughts, but using softer methods (at least at first).
For example, the other day I received an e-mail from a grad student in the Classics, who wrote to say that I should not allow myself to be gaslighted by people saying that it’s not so bad in academia. This student sent details from a session his department had this semester, in which everyone confessed their white privilege, and discussed the need to dismantle the study of Classics. They are committing intellectual and cultural suicide. The student begged me not to post the details, because simply to be known as a dissenter from an ideology that seeks to bring about the field’s own destruction is enough to destroy a career. It’s complete madness!
But this is how soft totalitarianism works. Agents of the state aren’t marching into the university, dismissing scholars, and burning books. They don’t have to. Critical Theory is causing the scholars to do it to themselves. When we lose departments of Classics, and the study of the Classics, and replace it with ideological mumbo-jumbo, we will lose one more foundation of our civilization. Totalitarians know that the way they gain control of a civilization is by capturing and controlling cultural memory. The reader who sent me that letter said that they had been in touch with another Classics student, one from a communist country, who told them:
this really is starting to sound like when Communists in [that person’s] country and other Soviet satellites condemned entire fields to the dustbin for a generation or more because they were “bourgeois.” Classics was a target then, too. It was only the heroic work of local dissidents like the Bendas and their allies like Roger Scruton that kept those peoples from forgetting themselves entirely. He who has ears to hear, as the saying goes.
I hear more and more talk of civil war here, and so many conservatives taking comfort in the fact that our side has guns and knows how to use them. I’m grateful that we have guns — I have them myself, and I know how to use them too — but I am certain that we have false confidence if we trust in our weaponry alone. Sure, it will be vital if there is street fighting, but that’s not going to be the main source of conflict.
We live in a wealthy technological civilization. The people who increasingly hate conservatives control most of the institutions. In our concept of totalitarianism, the all powerful State is the enemy. Soft totalitarianism won’t be like that. Rather, I think of it as a confederated Regime: state, corporations, universities, media, and major institutions. (I suppose it’s like Mencius Moldbug’s “Cathedral”). After a period of crisis, which may be prolonged, the Regime will consolidate its power by using technology to suppress dissenters, and marginalize them economically. This will happen through an American version of China’s social credit system. You will not be able to participate fully in the economy, or rise in the professions, unless you burn the pinch of incense to Caesar, so to speak.
Most Americans, including most American Christians, will go along with this. For one, it’s because their faith has already been assimilated by the ideology of the Regime; Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is, to use Mustapha Mond’s phrase in Brave New World, “Christianity without tears.” Memory of what Christianity is and has been has largely dissipated. For another, it will be hard to resist, because suffering is always difficult. When I talked to Christians in the former Soviet bloc about their resistance, they kept telling me that they were not typical — that most Christians conformed. We should expect that here too.
The cost of that conformity, though, will be the death, or near-death, of the faith. Here in America, we love stories of the rebirth of Christianity in the former Soviet Union. It is true that faith is experiencing a resurgence, but it is still quite small. Russian Christians point out that even still, few Russians go to church today. Most Russians have no idea what Christianity is, they told me, because it was so effectively suppressed by the Soviets. Christianity survived, thank God, but the Church in the former Soviet lands has a long way to go. The occupied Central European countries are also very weak in the faith. Poland is the great exception, but Polish Catholics of the younger generation predicted to me with grim confidence that their country is going to be Ireland in a decade or two.
Of what use will guns be when the Regime can, say, cut us off from access to credit? Covid has accustomed us to buying and selling electronically as our ordinary means of exchange. I don’t know about you, but almost all of the transactions I do now are by card; some stores will only accept cards, as a health measure, or because they don’t have enough coins to make change. What happens when that becomes mandatory, and all our purchases can be tracked? When the Regime can cut us off from access to our money by the flip of a switch, because it could tell from our smartphone’s GPS data that we went to a dissenting church on Sunday, or bought a book that had been forbidden?
We need to know how to prepare for this. Live Not By Lies –– a signed copy of which you can pre-order exclusively from Eighth Day Books by clicking here — is meant to get us started thinking and doing what needs to be done.
Watching the movie last night, I thought about what the Christians of the Eastern bloc told me over and over about the importance of building fellowship. From Live Not By Lies:
In fact, everyone involved with the Christian samizdat project would have been sent to prison had the secret police ever discovered the network. As Šimulčik breaks down for me the complex moving parts of the operation, he emphasizes the extraordinary risks the underground Christians took for the sake of publishing these documents. Why did you get involved? I ask. You could have lost everything.
“When you ask that question, you are really asking about where we find the meaning of the underground church,” Šimulčik replies. “It was in small community. Only in small communities could people feel free.”
He goes on:
When you were with your friends in these communities, you had freedom. You knew that when you went outside, there was totalitarianism. It controlled everything and oppressed you. People like me who wanted knowledge and freedom, and wanted to know more about our faith, depended on these small communities. They were well organized, and we had strong leaders. This was the only place to find that. First, I did it because I wanted to experience personal freedom, but this was connected to Christ. After we tasted freedom in these communities, we gradually came to want to fight for freedom for everyone.
Šimulčik tells me that he and his cell of several other young Catholic men were all afraid. You would have been crazy not to have fear.
“The question is, which is going to win: fear, or courage?” he says. “In the beginning, it was mostly a matter of fear. But once you started experiencing freedom—and you felt it, you felt freedom through the things you did—your courage grew. We experienced all this together. We helped one another to gradually build up the courage to do bigger things, like join the Candle Demonstration,” the 1988 mass Christian manifestation that was a precursor to the revolution a year later that peacefully brought down communism.
“With this courage also developed our sense of duty, and our need to be of service to other people,” the historian continues. “We could see the products of our work. We could hold these samizdat books in our hands, and we could see that people really read them and learned from them. We saw what we did as service to God and service to people. But it took years for us to see the fruit of our labor and to see our communities grow.”
Zofia Romaszewska is one of the true heroes of modern Poland. She and her late husband Zbigniew were academics and activists in the Solidarity trade-union movement. The couple joined the fight for liberty and human rights in the 1960s, when they hosted dissident meetings at their apartment. When the communist regime declared martial law in 1980 in an attempt to smash Solidarity, Romaszewska and her husband went into hiding, and founded the underground Solidarity radio station. She was eventually arrested, but amnestied after several months.
Today, at eighty, Romaszewska, now a grande dame of the anti-communist resistance, still retains the spark and tenacity of a street fighter. After five minutes of speaking with her in her Warsaw flat, it’s clear that any commissar faced with a firebrand like this woman would have no chance of prevailing.
Romaszewska is fierce on the subject of, well, solidarity. She sees the danger of soft totalitarianism coming fast, and urges young people to get off the internet and get together face-to-face to build resistance.
“As I see it, this is the core, this is the essence of everything right now: Forming these communities and networks of communities,” she says. “Whatever kinds of communities you can imagine. The point is that the members of that community must be very supportive of one another, no matter what comes. You don’t have to be prepared to give your life of the other person, but you do have to have something in common, and to do things together.”
I cannot wait for you to read this book, and meet these people, these heroes of the faith. These people had no guns, and if they had, weapons would have been useless against the tyrant states they faced. What they had was convictions, and courage, and each other, in the Fellowship of the Cross.