My friend Peter Leithart takes issue with my characterization of Russell Moore’s Erasmus lecture, taking care to say that he’s not sure if he is disagreeing with Moore’s point, or my characterization of it. He writes:
I haven’t listened to Moore’s lecture. From Dreher’s account, it sounds as pitch-perfect as most everything Moore has been saying and writing of late. But I want to register an objection to Dreher’s statement about trying to influence the culture. (I can’t tell whether I’m responding to Dreher or Moore or both.) My objection may sound like a quibble, but it’s not. It’s a friendly amendment, but a fundamental one.
The claim that Christians affect the world when they forget about trying to affect the world rests on a particular understanding of the gospel and the church’s mission. On this understanding, the gospel isn’t essentially about the world or its destiny. It’s about the destiny of souls, or the destiny of the church. The church has only a secondary interest in the world.
If that sounds too harsh a reading of Dreher’s comment, think about it back-to-front: If the gospel is a message about the world, then Christian couldn’t give up trying to influence the world, or culture, without giving up the gospel. If the gospel is about the acts of the Triune God to transform creation, we couldn’t give up trying to transform creation without calling a halt to mission.
I doubt that Dreher (or Moore) actually believes we should give up trying to influence the culture. They call Christians to carry on a testimony with a countercultural lifestyle. But testimony to what? And to what end? Surely they both want our testimony to have some effect. The question to pose to the Religious Right is not whether we try to influence, but how. And there Dreher and Moore are exactly right: We influence the world (and should try to) by living faithful lives of prayer and witness, worship and service, by discipling our kids and loving our neighbors, living out the kingdom we proclaim.
I think Peter is right, and I regret the confusion that my wording caused. I took Russell Moore to be saying that the kind of truly world-changing effects we are likely to see come indirectly from trying to serve God with all our heart, soul, and mind. This does not mean that we cease to engage in pro-life activism, or religious liberty advocacy, or anything else like that. It only means that we should re-think and re-frame our approach. The early Benedictines didn’t set out to “save Europe from barbarism,” or anything like it. They simply responded to the times in which they lived by dedicating themselves to an intense, purposeful life in a community whose habits were centered around prayer. Everything else followed from that.
I have known too many conservative Christians who think that the main work we have to do is to change the world through political action of one sort or another. For that matter, I was that sort of Christian for a long time, though if you had accused me of that, I would not have understood what you meant. I believed — or at least I lived as if I believed — that the main part of our work in the world was to apply Christian teachings to public matters, with the intent of creating a more just world. There is nothing wrong with that! But what I did not discover until I was put to the test, and failed it, is that I had not done the kind of deep, contemplative, even monastic work internally, and in community, that would have given me the strength to live and to advocate as I ought to have done. That is, I carried on as if my task was to get the arguments straight and apply them to politics. It was, and is, insufficient.
Don’t misunderstand: I am certain that there are many Christians engaged in public life who do live balanced, grounded lives of faith. God bless them. I was not one of these people, and I paid the price for my short-sightedness and lack of discipline and preparation. I thought I was strong, but in fact in my vanity and confusion, I had hidden my weaknesses from myself. I thought I was a lot stronger than I really was. Had I spent as much time in deep prayer and other Christian disciplines as I did on reading, talking, and thinking about politics (especially cultural politics), I would have been in a much better place, not only in terms of personal piety, but more importantly, as someone capable of bearing witness to the world.
It is not my calling to be a monk. But I see much more of Jesus Christ in the faces of the monks of Norcia than I do when I look in the mirror. My belief is that the more I try to live as they do, within the station in life God has called me to as a husband, father, layman, and writer, the more authentically and effectively I will be able to live out my vocation. It’s a matter of putting first things first, of rightly ordering things. The times in my life when I have been worst at my various callings are times when I was spending the least amount of time in prayer and contemplation, and the most amount of time on action.