Hope, Optimism, and Magical Thinking
So much of my own thinking and writing has been for ages inspired by a 1996 essay in First Things, “The Politics of Architecture,” by Peter Kreeft. In it, the conservative Catholic theologian expresses surprise that he and a radical socialist colleague had a lot more in common than either of them did with their Democrat and Republican colleagues. I think about that essay every time I come across something by a secular left writer that strikes me as being onto something that the mainstream parties of the left and right don’t see.
A recent example is an essay, kindly sent to me by a Catholic reader, written by the radical left writer Chris Hedges. Hedges makes me seem sanguine. He argues that blind faith in progress blinds us to the nature of the decline around us, and anesthetizes us against the kinds of actions that conditions reasonably call for. Here’s how it starts:
The naive belief that history is linear, that moral progress accompanies technical progress, is a form of collective self-delusion. It cripples our capacity for radical action and lulls us into a false sense of security. Those who cling to the myth of human progress, who believe that the world inevitably moves toward a higher material and moral state, are held captive by power. Only those who accept the very real possibility of dystopia, of the rise of a ruthless corporate totalitarianism, buttressed by the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus in human history, are likely to carry out the self-sacrifice necessary for revolt.
The yearning for positivism that pervades our corporate culture ignores human nature and human history. But to challenge it, to state the obvious fact that things are getting worse, and may soon get much worse, is to be tossed out of the circle of magical thinking that defines American and much of Western culture. The left is as infected with this mania for hope as the right. It is a mania that obscures reality even as global capitalism disintegrates and the ecosystem unravels, potentially dooming us all.
You don’t have to accept his position that global capitalism is disintegrating and the ecosystem unraveling to grasp his essential point: that we live under an ideology of optimism that keeps us from perceiving actual threats to our well being and stability, because we have naive confidence that things are getting better and better all the time, and cannot do otherwise. More Hedges:
Wisdom is not knowledge. Knowledge deals with the particular and the actual. Knowledge is the domain of science and technology. Wisdom is about transcendence. Wisdom allows us to see and accept reality, no matter how bleak that reality may be. It is only through wisdom that we are able to cope with the messiness and absurdity of life. Wisdom is about detachment. Once wisdom is achieved, the idea of moral progress is obliterated. Wisdom throughout the ages is a constant. Did Shakespeare supersede Sophocles? Is Homer inferior to Dante? Does the Book of Ecclesiastes not have the same deep powers of observation about life that Samuel Beckett offers? Systems of power fear and seek to silence those who achieve wisdom, which is what the war by corporate forces against the humanities and art is about. Wisdom, because it sees through the facade, is a threat to power. It exposes the lies and ideologies that power uses to maintain its privilege and its warped ideology of progress.
Knowledge does not lead to wisdom. Knowledge is more often a tool for repression. Knowledge, through the careful selection and manipulation of facts, gives a false unity to reality. It creates a fictitious collective memory and narrative. It manufactures abstract concepts of honor, glory, heroism, duty and destiny that buttress the power of the state, feed the disease of nationalism and call for blind obedience in the name of patriotism. It allows human beings to explain the advances and reverses in human achievement and morality, as well as the process of birth and decay in the natural world, as parts of a vast movement forward in time. The collective enthusiasm for manufactured national and personal narratives, which is a form of self-exaltation, blots out reality. The myths we create that foster a fictitious hope and false sense of superiority are celebrations of ourselves. They mock wisdom. And they keep us passive.
Wisdom connects us with forces that cannot be measured empirically and that are outside the confines of the rational world. To be wise is to pay homage to beauty, truth, grief, the brevity of life, our own mortality, love and the absurdity and mystery of existence. It is, in short, to honor the sacred. Those who remain trapped in the dogmas perpetuated by technology and knowledge, who believe in the inevitability of human progress, are idiot savants.
Those with power have always manipulated reality and created ideologies defined as progress to justify systems of exploitation. Monarchs and religious authorities did this in the Middle Ages. Today this is done by the high priests of modernity—the technocrats, scholars, scientists, politicians, journalists and economists. They deform reality. They foster the myth of preordained inevitability and pure rationality. But such knowledge—which dominates our universities—is anti-thought. It precludes all alternatives. It is used to end discussion. It is designed to give to the forces of science or the free market or globalization a veneer of rational discourse, to persuade us to place our faith in these forces and trust our fate to them. These forces, the experts assure us, are as unalterable as nature. They will lead us forward. To question them is heresy.
Read the whole thing. It hardly needs saying where I, a religious conservative, diverge from Hedges’ diagnosis and prescription. For example, he is correct to point out the loss of technical knowledge in the so-called “Dark Ages,” but he dismisses the spiritual and aesthetic achievements of the era, and doesn’t understand how much worse they would have been if not for the Church, especially the monks. Point is, I don’t share his political vision, but I do agree with him that the ideology of progress that pervades discourse in the public square prevents us from seeing things as they are, and responding wisely. Says Hedges, “Resistance will take place outside the boundaries of popular culture and academia, where the deadening weight of the dominant ideology curtails creativity and independent thought.” I think this is right.
Hedges is alarmed by the despoilation of the environment and the rule of corporate oligarchs. My own particular focus has been the dramatic erosion of Christianity in our civilization. Not only is this a spiritual catastrophe, it inevitably leads to moral and material catastrophes, because we have lost contact with the source of our being, and the ground of meaning. I imagine that Hedges would reject this conclusion, but to me, the decline and potential demise of Christianity in the West is a civilizational disaster of the first order, because it severs us from our roots. I’m not asking you non-Christian readers to agree with me, but I am asking you Christian readers to think carefully about where we are and where we are headed — not for the sake of stoking yourself by fear, but for the sake of preparing yourselves, your families, and your communities for life in the world as it is, not as the world that was, or the world as you prefer to think of it.
In my latest book, I have written about a personal situation in which the refusal to deal with reality, of being captured by various Medusas that captured the gaze and paralyzed the will, led to destruction that was avoidable if only those involved had been willing and able to let go of the outdated and inaccurate certainties by which they had explained their world to themselves. It is a way of thinking that captured me too for a while.
One doesn’t want to replace one Medusa with another, so we must always guard against the idea that our knowledge is complete. Perhaps we have got something important wrong. Epistemic humility requires a certain skepticism of our conclusions. That said, the inability to think outside the dominant narratives fed to us by popular culture — media, politics, entertainment, and the like — prevents us from seeking wisdom instead of comfort.
Consider how insane it is that after the twin catastrophes of the last decade — the Iraq War and the economic crash — the country is facing the likelihood that the next presidential election will be a contest between members of the same families whose presidential administrations set us up for both disasters. Even if Jeb Bush isn’t the GOP nominee, you can be certain that the advisers that the nominee surrounds himself with will be the same establishment conservatives that led us into the ditch. And if you seriously think that Hillary Clinton will avoid the same neoliberal Democratic elites that guided her husband’s economic and foreign policies, you are dreaming.
The media, as the gatekeepers of the national conversation, set the bounds for what it is permissible to discuss. Because I have a special interest in religion, the family, and culture, I have closely watched the way the discussion of gay rights and same-sex marriage has unfolded over the last 15 years. It has been nothing but propaganda for the liberationist side. There was never a fair and honest discussion or coverage of the full range of perspectives around the issue, and never was going to be, because the overwhelming majority of people in the media accepted the liberationist position, and thought those who opposed them were bad people who didn’t deserve consideration. Their ideological conviction, and faith in Progress, dictated the boundaries of their collective moral imagination, which in turn set the borders of wider discourse around the topic.
That’s how it all came down. Now, if I can see that dynamic at work in an issue that I care a lot about, and know a fair amount about, I see no reason why similar discourses about foreign policy, economics, and other key issues are not similarly distorted. American liberalism’s belief in the universality of liberalism, and the progressive global march of liberalism (by which I mean the philosophy of 19th century classical liberalism), blinds us to harsh realities, and prepares us to accept delusional conclusions like, “All the Iraqis need to do is to get rid of the dictator, and they will be on the road to liberty and democracy, which are the natural states of humankind.”
On the religion front, the unwillingness of so many Christians, both clerical and lay, to face the facts about the ongoing collapse of the faith is a form of denial that is going to bring about what they most fear, or ought to most fear. I keep going back to things like Christian Smith’s work on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and the late Philip Rieff’s analysis of the therapeutic culture, because they offer valuable insights into the state of Christianity in postmodernity, and why the faith is being hollowed out from within. In talking to Christian college professors around the country, I hear the same story over and over: most of our students lack the basic conceptual framework to see the world in a Christian way, and to aspire to lead authentically Christian lives. If they identify as Christians at all, the summit of their faith is Being Nice and Non-Judgmental. Many of them don’t even know the basic stories of the Bible, or if they do, why those stories matter. This is true at both Catholic and Evangelical colleges, I have found in my personal investigation. Christians have raised a couple of generations who have been far more catechized by secular, capitalist, hedonist, individualist culture than by the church.
Something that can’t go on won’t go on. If Christian churches and families don’t radically re-assess what we are doing, and change our ways, things will continue to unwind. Last year, the Greek Orthodox writer Seraphim Danckaert pushed back hard on the conclusions of his own church’s leadership, which had issued a report blaming the loss of Greek Americans to Orthodoxy on both secularism and the failure of the church to welcome interfaith couples. Danckaert wrote, in part:
Just as telling as the Church’s historical experience are the insights of modern-day sociology of American religion. Rigorous studies on what makes American young people and emerging adults retain their family’s religious traditions do exist; and the studies suggest an entirely different solution than accommodation to the trends of the modern American family.
If we are speaking on the scale of statistical relevance (not just pastoral care in individual cases), the data are clear: patterns of religious conviction and observance are set far before one’s 20s or 30s. Simply put, if clergy are trying to play triage nurse at the point of marriage and starting a family, the Church has already lost the war and probably the battle as well (except by the grace of the Holy Spirit, of course!).
Data collected and interpreted by sociologists of religion in a major project called the National Study of Youth and Religion show that there are three main factors that contribute to a young person retaining their religious tradition into adulthood:
1. The young person’s parents practiced the faith in the home and in daily life, not just in public or churchly settings.
2. The young person had at least one significant adult mentor or friend, other than parents, who practiced the faith seriously.
3. The young person had at least one significant spiritual experience before the age of 17.
One could therefore say that a person is most likely to retain Christian faith throughout adult life if he or she had three meaningful and healthy relationships in their early to mid teenage years: one with faithful Christian parents, one with a faithful Christian mentor outside of the family, and one with God Himself.
If a young person experiences all three relationships in their childhood and especially in their early teenage years, they are far less likely to drift away from their family’s faith tradition as they transition into “emerging adulthood” and beyond. In addition, while all three relationships are important, what the young person observes in the actions and daily life of his or her parents is the most decisive element by far.
The practical conclusion is rather straightforward: For most people, and when viewed as a sociological trend, unless there is a specific adult in a teenager’s life who shows the teenager by example and in the context of a meaningful, long-term relationship how an adult incorporates Christian faith into daily life, no program, camp, mission trip, youth group, worship style, musical trend, Sunday school, church reform, updated pastoral style, modernization, or even catechetical class will make a statistically significant difference. Further, to retain their faith into adulthood young people need to experience God’s grace for themselves, preferably before the latter part of high school.
As I have been writing for some time, the broader culture is turning increasingly anti-Christian, and this will accelerate. You don’t have to believe that the Apocalypse draweth nigh — I don’t believe this — to confront the fact that Christians in this country are facing a rolling disaster that we are not ready to deal with, because our leaders and their followers are captive to an ideology of optimism. Yesterday I wrote to a Catholic friend who is trying to raise his family in a large coastal city where most of the local institutions of Catholicism inculcate an indifference or even a hostility to orthodox Roman Catholicism. He and his wife have been taking Benedict Option measures simply to make it more likely that their children will grow up as faithful Catholics. I asked him what his take on the Irish vote was. He responded:
I suppose the Irish have simply become Europeans. Ireland hasn’t been the Ireland that Sean Thornton discovered in The Quiet Man for quite a long time. I spent a month there in 1990 (I was 19), and even then young Irish girls were more than willing to fornicate with American tourists. I don’t recall any of the Irish kids I met being concerned with the opinions of the Church. They were too busy smoking hash and trying to get jobs in the States. I don’t think we are seeing a revolution, we are seeing an abandoned battlefield. The bones are white and the armor is rusted through.
His diagnosis about Catholic conditions in the US was even worse. This is not someone like me, sitting in a leather chair in the country, opining from reading studies and the like. This is a guy who has been intimately involved with his diocese, giving of himself and his talents, trying to make a difference. And he has become overwhelmed by the spiritual deadness of the bureaucracy, the massive indifference of most Catholics in his area to the faith, and the lack of any sense of reality among his coreligionists locally. Yet to hear from the archdiocese, things are getting better and better. What if your bishops were Baghdad Bob? That’s the situation. And it’s not just in the Catholic Church — it’s in all American churches, according to Christian Smith’s research, and the Pew surveys.
You can become as paralyzed by cartoonish pessimism as you can by cartoonish optimism. This is not the End of the World™, but it is and is becoming the end of a world, if we Christians continue drifting towards the falls, lulled like Larkin’s rabbit into a false sense of security. As Christians, we are commanded to hope; despair is not an option. But optimism is not the same thing as hope. The ideology of lazy optimism, in fact, can be a barrier to real hope, which is a catalyst to confident action in the face of tremendous challenges. Finding meaningful hope begins with refusing the ideological blinders and the magical thinking of optimism, which keep us from seeing that in many parts of the Christian world, the bones are white and the armor is rusted through.
We can’t satisfy ourselves with managing decline. We have to act radically in the face of radical challenges. We can’t do what needs to be done if we continue to think everything will come right again, if we could only keep quite still and wait.
UPDATE: I see that Father Dwight Longenecker has blogged about the Benedict Option today. In his piece, he quotes the prophecy of Benedict XVI:
In five little known radio speeches made in 1969 and published again a while ago by Ignatius Press in the volume“Faith and the Future”, the future Pope gave his vision of the future of man and the Church. His last teaching, which he read out on “Hessian Rundfunk” radio on Christmas day, had a distinctly prophetic tone.
Ratzinger said he was convinced the Church was going through an era similar to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. “We are at a huge turning point – he explained – in the evolution of mankind. This moment makes the move from Medieval to modern times seem insignificant.” Professor Ratzinger compared the current era to that of Pope Pius VI who was abducted by troops of the French Republic and died in prison in 1799. The Church was fighting against a force which intended to annihilate it definitively, confiscating its property and dissolving religious orders.
Today’s Church could be faced with a similar situation, undermined, according to Ratzinger, by the temptation to reduce priests to “social workers” and it and all its work reduced to a mere political presence. “From today’s crisis, will emerge a Church that has lost a great deal,” he affirmed.
“It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges.” It will start off with small groups and movements and a minority that will make faith central to experience again. “It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
The process outlined by Ratzinger was a “long” one “but when all the suffering is past, a great power will emerge from a more spiritual and simple Church,” at which point humans will realise that they live in a world of “indescribable solitude” and having lost sight of God “they will perceive the horror of their poverty.”
Then and only then, Ratzinger concluded, will they see “that small flock of faithful as something completely new: they will see it as a source of hope for themselves, the answer they had always secretly been searching for.
As I see it, the Benedict Option has as much to do with Benedict XVI as Benedict of Nursia. The hope is that this approach to the faith, whether you undertake it as a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, will not only strengthen oneself and one’s family and community against the challenges of the present moment, but will also do what is necessary to make sure that the faith survives to be that source of hope for an exhausted world.
I believe he is right in assessing both a trend and a necessity. As a parish priest I am already seeing the trend. Nominal Catholics are increasingly not there anymore. I know of several families who have disappeared from our parish, for example, because they disagree with the church’s teaching on same sex marriage. If I preach the Catholic faith with clarity and charity those who want the fullness of the Catholic faith remain and grow stronger in their commitment. Those who were ambivalent about the church’s teaching but were happy to drift along are increasingly angry, distant and are removing themselves.
So be it.
At the same time those who wish to affirm the fullness of the Catholic faith are expressing an increasing desire to belong to a strong community that builds up that faith for them and their families.
Is it time to hunker down and be committed to such communities?
I think so.
This is the kind of priest who will shepherd his people.