Asimov & The Benedict Option
The other night, a friend in Kansas said that I should watch the new Apple TV take on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, because it sounds like the Benedict Option. I did, and really liked the first episode. Then yesterday, a friend in Texas texted to tell me that I should read those Asimov books to explain the Ben Op to people. Well, obviously I haven’t had time to read the books, but the first episode of the Apple series tells me a lot. Let’s talk about it for a moment.
This Wikipedia summary is accurate, and covers most of what you learn in the first episode of the Apple TV series:
The premise of the stories is that, in the waning days of a future Galactic Empire, the mathematician Hari Seldon spends his life developing a theory of psychohistory, a new and effective mathematical sociology. Using statistical laws of mass action, it can predict the future of large populations. Seldon foresees the imminent fall of the Empire, which encompasses the entire Milky Way, and a Dark Age lasting 30,000 years before a second empire arises. Although the inertia of the Empire’s fall is too great to stop, Seldon devises a plan by which “the onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little” to eventually limit this interregnum to just one thousand years. To implement his plan, Seldon creates the Foundations—two groups of scientists and engineers settled at opposite ends of the galaxy—to preserve the spirit of science and civilization, and thus become the cornerstones of the new galactic empire.
The Ben Op tie-in, obviously, is that Hari Seldon (played by Jared Harris in the new series) foresees the Empire falling, and wants to preserve its knowledge in these Foundations settlements — scientific monasteries. In the show, the Emperors (they are a triad) do not want to hear this bad news, because they are correctly afraid that it would demoralize the imperial population. Seldon and his protege barely escape with their lives.
Watching the show, and taking note of the parallels, it struck me that “the inertia of the Empire’s fall is too great to stop” is exactly the way I would put it regarding our own Empire. I believe that we are headed for a very nasty crash, and that it’s probably too late to stop it. If we hope to stop it, we are going to have to live in ways that few people are willing to live. Therefore, we are going to fall. It might not take place in my lifetime, but it is going to happen.
Watching Foundation gave me a certain perspective on particular objections to the Benedict Option. People sometimes ask me, “Where is a place for queer people in the Benedict Option?” or “What about poor people?” or “What about people of color?” These questions are not unimportant, but they are very much second-order questions. I get the idea that some of the people proposing them, though they probably don’t realize it, are basically saying that if the Apocalypse is not going to be kindly, and allow us to construct a civilizational ark that follows building codes set down by late liberal civilization, well, then, we are not going to have truck with this dark vision! What people like that don’t understand is that if I’m right about the decline-and-fall, then we are all going to be faced with a sauve qui peut (“save who you can”) situation regarding our religion and culture. To put it another way, it’s not that I think these questions are unimportant, but that I think they are often asked in the spirit of, if we can show that the Benedict Option causes people to behave in illiberal ways, or other problematic ways, then we negate the entire critique.
This, I think, is what’s behind the people — often on the Christian Right — who construe the Ben Op idea as “head for the hills and burrow down deep”: they find the diagnosis deeply disturbing (and they should!), and are grasping for reasons to reject it all. The other day Cardinal George Pell of Australia, a very brave and good conservative Catholic, dismissed the Ben Op because it seems elitist to him. I’ve got news for Cardinal Pell: if my diagnosis is correct, then the fact that it predicts a much smaller church, one made up of people who really believe the faith, and who are willing to suffer for it — that does not make the diagnosis incorrect. In other words, Pell seems to believe that I somehow want the Church to be tiny and elite. He could not be more wrong. I’m not saying what I think should happen; I’m saying what I think is going to happen, at least in the West. As this brief post-Christian period gives way to an anti-Christian period, many millions are going to leave the faith, or adopt some watered-down version that conforms to the world’s spirit. Only the nonconformists, those who are spiritually knowledgeable and spiritually disciplined, and prepared to suffer for the faith, will make it through with their faith intact.
Similarly, the Ben Op annoys politically engaged Christian conservatives, because they see it as discouraging believers from political involvement. It doesn’t, though — it’s right there in the book that we need to stay involved politically, if only to protect the liberty of our churches and institutions to do what they are supposed to do. My warning in the book, though, is that politics can never be a substitute for the hard work of discipleship. It does no good to win elections if you can’t pass the faith on to your children. What does it profit a man to win the House, the Senate, and the White House, but to lose his children’s souls?
I’m trying to prepare for the long game here. My Texas friend just texted to say that Hari Seldon is what the Ben Op is not: those people are actually fleeing the collapsing Empire. True, and I mean it when I say that in our case, we are not at the head-for-the-hills moment (and anyway, heading for the hills doesn’t mean much if you bring the Internet with you). There are so many things that can and should be done right now, by Christians embedded within this civilization, to prepare ourselves for resistance. Most people just don’t want to do them. Most people will choose bourgeois conformity and comfort every time. It’s human nature for one, and for another, they — we — have all been raised in a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) culture that has not given us the wherewithal for resistance.
Here’s what I mean. To me, one of the most convincing voices of the decline-and-fall narrative is the late Philip Rieff. In this remarkable essay for UnHerd, Park MacDougald explains what Rieff taught, and why an unbelieving Jewish academic became a prophet of the West’s doom. I know that regular readers of this blog are familiar with Rieff and why I like him, but if you’ve forgotten, then MacDougald’s excellent piece is a great refresher. Excerpts, starting with what Rieff meant by “the triumph of the therapeutic”:
But Rieff’s point was not merely that we had come to view ourselves in therapeutic terms, supplanting older moral and religious modes of evaluation. He was making an argument about the wider implications of this shift in perspective — a shift that he considered to be, without exaggeration, the most important cultural development in the West since the Enlightenment. Indeed, Rieff saw it as nothing short of an apocalypse. Modern therapeutic culture, in his view, had become what he called in his later writings an “anti-culture”: a negation of the very idea of culture that, because it set itself in opposition to everything that had traditionally given human lives meaning, was inherently unstable. It could not reproduce itself indefinitely, and would be succeeded, Rieff predicted, by barbarism and chaos.
All societies, in Rieff’s telling, are sacred, in that they point to an authority beyond themselves. The task of “culture” is to “transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities — social orders”. This “transliteration” occurs by rendering the moral commandments given in advance by a culture’s highest authority — God, in the case of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim civilisation; the primitive vitality of nature in the case of classical pagan civilisation — into terms that people can understand and internalise, so as to regulate their behaviour in line with their culture’s conception of good and evil. Ensuring that this transliteration takes place is the task of the cultural elite (or “officer class”), who control both the character-forming institutions and the symbolic language through which commandments are expressed within the secular world.
Rieff believed that the commandments of sacred authority always come originally and primarily in the form of “interdicts”, or prohibitions — “Thou shalt not” sleep with your mother or covet your neighbour’s wife. “No” comes before “yes,” and “no” is the ultimate origin of culture. It is only by first restricting the legitimate range of behaviours, and in particular the expressions of instinct or libidinal energy, that cultures can be said to operate on their members. Culture is repression.
Why? Because we can only build by learning how to govern our impulses — how to sacrifice them for the greater good. These “interdicts” — Rieff’s made-up word for Thou Shalt Nots — are deeply embedded in the foundations of human psychology. We usually state them in religious terms, but whatever culture or civilization you’re in, there will be interdicts. There have to be, or civilization falls apart. More MacDougald:
All this may seem quite esoteric, but it is important for understanding Rieff’s account of therapeutic culture. The modern West, in his telling, is the first culture in history that has attempted to deny the legitimacy of the interdicts and to live without some form of sacred authority. Therapy is our means of getting away with this denial. The therapeutic ethos teaches us to overcome the guilt and shame, especially around sexuality, prompted by what we have come to regard as the unrealistic, unhealthy, and oppressive moral prohibitions inherited from Christianity. But because, for Rieff, these prohibitions are a core part of our psyche, therapeutic culture can only ever lead to their transgression or negation, never to their genuine overcoming. He believed, for instance, that sexual liberation was seen as a positive ideal purely because it transgressed the inherited Christian virtue of chastity. It was good because it was the opposite of what our religion used to teach; it had no positive value in itself.
Indeed, this is how Rieff came to understand our culture war. He believed that the Western elite had abdicated its responsibility to continue transmitting moral commandments, instead embracing an ethic of liberation and transgression designed to free themselves from the too-strict demands of the interdicts. But because this cultural shift had penetrated deeply only among elites, the result was a constant war between the “officer class” and the population at large, who still clung to a basically traditional conception of the moral order. Elite cultural output — both the modernist high art that Rieff analysed and the pop culture of our own day — had become a series of “deconversion therapies” attempting to train the lower classes out of their supposedly primitive superstitions, which in his telling were actually the vestiges of a sacred impulse toward transcendence.
For Rieff, of course, such efforts were doomed to failure. Even if the therapeutic elite succeeded in loosening the hold of the interdicts, they could not create new ones because their moral codes referred to no transcendent authority. Injunctions to be nice and rational, or not to be a “shitty person”, simply cannot burrow their way into our unconscious selves in the same way as commands from God. But without these commands to bind us together into a “saving larger self”, we are subject to persistent existential unease — a small, nagging sense that there should be something more to life, some higher meaning, than earning money and consuming sensory experiences. Indeed, to live according to the therapeutic ethos is, according to Rieff, to deny our nature as human beings. We crave the limitations, and the clarity and meaning, provided by a genuine authoritative culture, and we cannot live without them indefinitely.
Read it all. It’s superb.
See, this is why I don’t believe that the coming Fall is a left vs. right thing. We are all caught up in the therapeutic ethos. Very few of us want to live life within limits. The idea of sacrifice is alien to us. Last night I watched Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia for the fourth time, and I swear, I get more out of it with each viewing. The idea of sacrifice as necessary to fertility is powerful in that movie. In the opening scene, Eugenia, a cosmopolitan Roman woman, visits a rural church, and happens upon some sort of prayer ritual by women seeking to have babies. The sacristan tells her that she will never get anything unless she humbles herself to kneel and pray. She can’t, or won’t, do it. This introduces into the film the theme of sacrifice as connected to fertility — literally, in the case of this scene, but more broadly, the idea that in order to achieve anything lasting, you have to be willing to sacrifice for it.
Tarkovsky once said:
I am drawn to the man who is ready to serve a higher cause, unwilling — or even unable — to subscribe to the generally accepted tenets of a worldly ‘morality’; the man who recognizes that the meaning of existence lies above all in the fight against the evil within ourselves, so that in the course of a lifetime he may take at least one step towards spiritual perfection.
But what is “spiritual perfection” to us in this post-Christian age? Rieff said that it was impossible to believe in the interdicts absent a sense of sacred order — that is, a strong belief that there is a transcendent order to which we must try to conform ourselves. It’s easy to see how this belief can be abused in the hands of utopians of the Left or Right. The fact that this abuse is possible does not negate Rieff’s insight. I keep going back to John Adams’s observation that the US Constitution only works for people are already “moral and religious” — meaning they carry within them a sense of sacred order, a sense that they broadly share with everyone around them.
We are not that people anymore. We are now a people whose elites believe it is imperative to educate our children to doubt their sex, and to believe that there is no such thing as male and female simpliciter. We are a people who are so enamored of our idea of liberty that we cannot bring ourselves to ban pornography, which is destroying our ability to form ordinary human relationships of the sort that are necessary to creating the next generation. In short, and in a hundred ways, we are deconstructing our civilization because we believe that there is no sacred order, and that limits are anathema.
The Texas friend with whom I was texting this morning is a leftist who is not a Christian. He told me about a conservative Christian friend from high school who
tells me that he would rather be friends with Muslims and Hindus than other Christians, because the former, at least, are serious about their religions and view the hegemonic order as threats, while Christians are unserious about their religions, and to the extent that they see hegemony as a threat, it’s one they want to control, not destroy.
That makes a lot of sense to me. I usually vote Republican as the lesser of two evils, but I don’t have any faith in the Republican Party, because I see the choice between the two parties as between the one who accelerates decline (the Democrats) versus the ones who manage the decline (Republicans) — though in the case of the G.W. Bush administration, it was the Republicans who were accelerating the decline.
Anyway, you regular readers, you know my spiel here. I’ll stop now. Going back to the Foundation series, like Hari Seldon, I don’t believe that what’s coming can be stopped. The best we can do is to deflect the worst of it, and to prepare institutions, settlements, and ways of life within which the old wisdom can survive the accelerating collapse. I sent off to my literary agent last night the formal proposal for my next book, which I now see is the completion of a trilogy about Christianity in a post-Christian age. In this planned new book, I’m going to talk about the search for the sacred, and how we in the WEIRD West have blinded ourselves to the world as it really is. We are going to have to learn how to see again. And we are going to have to learn once again the value of sacrifice. In this passage from The Benedict Option, Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Norcia monastery, explained why the monks’ habit of saying “thou shalt not” to themselves every day was a way of orienting themselves for life-giving sacrifices:
Despite the very specific instructions found in the Rule, it’s not a checklist for legalism. “The purpose of the Rule is to free you. That’s a paradox that people don’t grasp readily,” Father Cassian said.
If you have a field covered with water because of poor drainage, he explained, crops either won’t grow there, or they will rot. If you don’t drain it, you will have a swamp, and disease. But if you can dig a drainage channel, the field will become healthy, and useful. What’s more, once the water becomes contained within the walls of the channel, it will flow with force, and can accomplish things.
“A Rule works that way, to channel your spiritual energy, your work, your activity, so that you’re able to accomplish something,” Father Cassian said.
“Monastic life is very plain,” he continued. “People from the outside perhaps have a romantic vision, perhaps what they see on television, of monks sort of floating around the cloister. There is that, and that’s attractive, but basically, monks get up in the morning, they pray, they do their work, they pray some more. They eat, they pray, they do some more work, they pray some more, and then they go to bed. It’s rather plain, just like most people. The genius of St. Benedict is to find the presence of God in everyday life.”
People who are anxious, confused, and looking for answers, are quick to search for solutions in the pages of books or on the Internet, looking for that “killer app” that will make everything right again. The Rule tells us: No, it’s not like that. You can only achieve the peace and order you seek by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it.
If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order. If we don’t have internal order, we will be controlled by our human passions and by the powerful, who are in greater control of directing liquid modernity’s deep currents.
For the traditional Christian, establishing internal order is not mere discipline, nor is it simply an act of will. Rather, it is what theologian Romano Guardini called man’s efforts to “regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God.” This means the discovery of the order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of Creation, and seeking to live in harmony with it. It also implies the realization of natural limits within Creation’s givenness, as opposed to believing that nature is something we can deny or refute, according to our own desires. Finally, it means disciplining one’s life to live a life that glorifies God and helps others.
Order is not simply a matter of law and its enforcement. In the classical Christian view, the law itself depends on a deeper conception of order, an idea of the way ultimate reality is constructed. This order may be unseen, but it is believed and internalized by those living within a community that professes it. The point of life, for individual persons, for the church, and for the state, is to pursue harmony with that transcendent, eternal order.
To order the world rightly as Christians requires regarding all things as pointing to Christ. Chapter 19 of the Rule offers a succinct example of the connection between a disciplinary teaching and the unseen order. In it, Benedict instructs his monks to keep their minds focused on the presence of God and His Angels when they are engaged in chanting the Divine Office, called the opus Dei, or “work of God.”
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, and that ‘the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place” (Proverbs 15:3),” writes Benedict. “But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God.” He concludes with an admonition to remember that when they pray the Psalms together, they are standing before God, and must pray “in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”
Every monk’s life, and all his labors, must be directed to the service of God. The Rule teaches that God must be the beginning and the end of all our actions. To bound our spiritual passion by the rhythm of daily life, and its disciplines, and to do so with others in our family and in our community, is to build a strong foundation of faith, within which one can become fully human and fully Christian.
As a result of their orientation toward Christ, the monks recognize the He is the Creator, the One in Whom all things consist, and that man is not the measure of all things. Unlike the secular successors to the nominalists, the Benedictine monk does not believe that things of the world have meaning only if people choose to give them meaning. The monk holds that meaning exists objectively, within the natural world created by God, and is there to be discovered by the person who has detached themselves from their own passions, and who seeks to see as God sees.
“One cannot be attached to created things, because one will end up seeing them as ordered towards oneself,” said Brother Evagrius Hayden, 31. “This is wrong. We are not the ones who give things meaning. God gives things meaning.”
You see? These monks have a specific idea of sacred order, and have ordered both their outer lives and inner lives around it. In The Benedict Option, I say that the fall of this civilization is coming, and is indeed already underway; I call on Christians to look to the Benedictine monks, whose religious order arose out of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and understand that if what we know about the sacred order is true, then we have no choice but to change our lives, both individually and communally, to protect that knowledge of sacred order from the coming collapse — a collapse that has already begun.
If I’m right about the collapse, then it’s going to happen whether or not you think the Benedict Option concept is too elitist, or insufficiently diverse, or what have you. You might not like the Benedict Option, which is fine — but what do you have to offer instead?
I was thinking about this comment from a smart Protestant reader, who sent it to me last year (and which I posted here):
Your critics may lack imagination. Who in the 1950s could have imagined the behemoth GM would file for bankruptcy in 2009? No one. But when it did happen, it wasn’t catastrophic–no one beat their breasts. The world didn’t stop in awe. No comets hailed the great bankruptcy. It was just another news story from the great recession. Because by the time it happened, the world was such a different place that GM was virtually the sick man of Michigan.Similarly, I can imagine that the institution we know as the Roman Catholic Church might collapse in the next thirty years. But when it does, the world won’t gawk, it will have already moved on. RCC will likely go out with a whimper. When it does happen, it won’t be cataclysmic. But your readers can only think about this in terms of how they envisioned the RCC when they were young. Now if that institution were to suddenly collapse, that would be shocking and cataclysmic. But look with your eyes, not your memory, and that RCC is already gone. The sick one in front of us may not recover. See the RCC for what it is right now and for where it is headed–where it is trending, not your Platonic ideal concept of it you fashioned in your youth when you imagined the world was static and unchanging.Everything I say about RCC I could say about the SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] –which I think is definitely coming to nothing. Nonexistence by 2100, irrelevance within just 5 years. I could say about Wheaton, Calvin, Baylor, etc etc.
That piece, and the comments from the reader above, sent me back to thinking about historian Edward J. Watts’s The Final Pagan Generation, which I last wrote about here.It’s a study of pagan elites in fourth century Rome, when Roman society was radically shifting away from its pagan roots to the new Christian religion. The pagans Watts writes about didn’t see it, no doubt because they had so much psychologically invested in the continuation of Roman society, and because all anybody in Rome had known since time out of mind was paganism. I wrote two years ago:
[A]s Watts tells it, in fourth century Rome, the educational system was overwhelmingly pagan, and socialized the students into an overwhelmingly pagan hierarchy. They learned to identify with this, and simply assumed things would always be this way. This was an educational system designed to educate kids into thinking things would be the way things were for their fathers.
I thought here about what so many Christians have said to me about Christian secondary and university education: that it’s built on the assumptions that things are always going to be the same way for Christians, despite the rapidly changing culture, and that Christian education is about socializing young Christians for leadership in that familiar social order.
Watts says it’s very important to remember that the first 50 years of the lives of the final pagan generation were quite stable in terms of government. Thus they were socialized into believing that things would always be that way. Elites did very well under the stable Constantinian system. Wealth concentrated in their hands. Personal connections became vital to entering and maintaining oneself in the elite classes. Cronyism was common.
By mid-century, when the elites of the FPG (final pagan generation) were well-established in their careers, the state’s attempt to privilege Christianity and marginalize traditional religion picked up. Constantine died in 337, and civil conflict followed. Roman leaders faced pressure from more radical Christians to step up the de-paganization, and tried to walk a balance between their demands and not upsetting the still large pagan population. In 356, Constantius stepped up the anti-pagan laws.
Interestingly, the pagan elites didn’t take all this too seriously, according to Watts. A lot of temples remained open despite Constantius’s orders that they be closed. The emperor’s policies “might have been disagreeable, but they hardly seemed to be a pressing or universal threat.”
Towards the end of his reign, Constantius’s anti-pagan laws grew even stronger, but paganism was still such a vivid and powerful presence in daily life that the pagan elites felt confident that the danger would pass when the emperor did. Watts judges that in retrospect, the elites ought to have stood up to the emperor in some way, to protect their religion. Instead, they chose to take the easier route, protecting their careers and their money-making opportunities by not antagonizing a powerful emperor. That seemed a reasonable bet.
Constantius was succeeded by Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor so called because though he had been raised a Christian, reverted to his ancestral faith, and tried to re-impose paganism on the empire. He failed. The culture, though still dominantly pagan, was moving quickly. More:
What’s interesting about this is that even though daily religious realities for most Romans were not very different than they had ever been, this hid from most people the massive changes that were actually taking place. This seems contemporary to me. Liberals may well see Trump as a Julian the Apostate figure, trying to roll back the progressive Sexual Revolution. And there are certainly conservatives who regard Trump that way, and love that about him. But the cultural changes that have overtaken America, and that are continuing to do so, are fundamental, and aren’t going to be undone by government policy.
Furthermore, I believe that Christians see daily life going on locally much as it always did, with the exception, maybe, that their churches don’t attract as many people. Nothing radical is happening in most places. Maybe they think that a sympathetic president in Washington is going to turn things around for the faith. The situation strikes me as rather like that of the pagan believers in Rome in the 360s.
By the 390s, the strength of paganism had waned so much that Christian bishops began exercising political power to convince Roman officials to actively suppress paganism. Watts writes that when it came to appealing to Roman authorities to protect pagan institutions and practices from the Christians, “the final pagan generation sometimes seemed as influential as the president of Polaroid in the age of the smartphone.”
And yet, writes Watts, the final pagan generation, up to the end, still believed that it was going to last forever for them. Theirs was a failure of imagination. When I hear conservative Christians today talk about the “Constantine Option” — by which they mean making sure that Christians have allies in political power — I recognize that they have a point, but I urge them to consider also the fate of Julian the Apostate. He was every bit the Roman emperor that his ancestor Constantine the Great had been. But it didn’t matter. He was able to suppress Christianity to some degree, but the new religion was too well established to turn back by imperial decree. Political action alone will not stymie an idea whose time has come.
Among the things I said Christians of this “final Christian generation” should do:
Stop thinking that it’s always going to be this way, and that anything short of radical action is sufficient. The mindset of older Christians may actually be a hindrance, because they don’t understand how radically different the world today is.
Do not mistake the presence of Christian churches and symbols in public life for the true condition of Christianity in the hearts and minds of people. Remember, the pagan temples and statues of the gods remained long after paganism was a dead letter.
Enough from me on this. If you don’t really get The Benedict Option, and you haven’t read the book, watch the Foundation series on Apple TV. The concept will become clearer.