Notes At The End Of The Benedict Week
Greetings from the Atlanta airport. I’m on the way back home after a whirlwind week in New York, Washington, and the Hudson River Valley. I spent the last couple of days communing with the Bruderhof communities there. Wonderful people, and a great time. I’ll be blogging separately on them and our visit, but let me say up front that we more mainstream Christians have a lot to learn from these Anabaptists.
I appreciate the concern a couple of you readers expressed for my health given my silence since Thursday. I’m fine! If you’re going to spend time in the countryside with Anabaptists, you can’t expect wi-fi access. This is a feature, not a bug. More on this later.
I have a lot of thoughts in my head from this busy, busy week. I saw old friends and made new ones. I was bowled over by the eagerness of folks to hear the Benedict Option message. Four hundred came out in DC, filling the room at the National Press Club, and five hundred showed up at the Union League Club in NYC, making it a standing room only event. C-SPAN’s BookTV was at the Union League, so you’ll be able to see that sometime soon.
Here’s a selfie with Jeff Polet of Hope College and Front Porch Republic, Ross Douthat, and me, just before the Union League event:
We had a really good public discussion after my speech, and then retired to the library there for a reception. Tristyn Bloom invented a cocktail for the event; she called it, naturally, the Benedict Option (“another — doubtless very different — cocktail”). It involves whiskey, Amaro, St. Germain, and lemon juice. The lead image of this post features me and my terrific editor, Bria Sandford, toasting the publication of The Benedict Option with glasses full of Tristyn’s delicious concoction: a little sweet, a little bitter, a little tangy, a lot just right.
At the afterparty, I was pulled every which way, talking to folks. I could have stayed there all night. A friend of mine who stuck around after I was taken to the official dinner told me that he was privy to a conversation involving a liberal Christian from a Mainline Protestant church, in which the liberal expressed real antagonism to my speech. The liberal reportedly said that the Ben Op sounds to him like a form of white supremacism because it equates Christianity with Western civilization.
Now, in the public discussion following my speech, I explicitly answered this charge by saying that in no way to I equate the global religion of Christianity with Western civilization. But I do say that Western civilization is inescapably Christian, because the Christian religion — with its roots in the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy, and Roman law — created the civilization that emerged in the West after Rome’s collapse. Pope Benedict XVI offered some detailed thoughts about this here. Though I am a communicant of the Orthodox Church, I am a man of the West, and I make no apology for wishing to see what remains of Western civilization — which, after the Roman era, was a Christian civilization — preserved and revived. In fact, it is my fervent hope that ties between Christian peoples of all continents — especially the ancient churches of Rome and Byzantium — will be strengthened. People who expect me to hate my patrimony are not going to get what they want — and they’re not going to get it hard, if you follow me.
This particular liberal Protestant, who belongs to one of the dying Mainline churches, fulminated about white, Southern, privileged me not having the right to say what I did, at least without first acknowledging my privilege and noting the many sins of the Christian West. Oh, whatever. This is such ridiculous self-hating prog claptrap. Of course the West and the Western church is stained with blood and sin, but it also boast of glories sometimes matched but never surpassed. Only a blind man or a fool can survey Western civilization and see only misery and cruelty, overlooking Greek philosophy, Roman law and architecture, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Greek sculpture, St. Augustine’s City Of God, the Hagia Sophia, the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the cathedral of Chartres, Dante, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong — do I really need to go on? There is a reason liberal democracy emerged in the West and nowhere else. There is a reason the ideals of human equality, including the equality of women, came out of the West. I wasn’t present for this conversation, but I would bet money that most of the principles that progressive Christian holds dear came out of Western civilization, and were most refined there.
You cannot separate these things from war, oppression, slavery, exploitation, and all manner of cruelty. Here’s the thing: every single civilization is guilty of the same. Saints are individuals. We don’t have saintly societies, cultures, or civilizations, because we don’t have utopias. The best we can hope for is to create a civilization in which our virtues are stronger than our vices, and it is easier to grow in virtue than it is to sink into vice.
True, we must repent of our sins and failings. But if, in a spasm of self-loathing we sever our roots, we will die. If we gaze upon our civilizational sins and put out our own eyes in remorse, we will stumble blind into the future.
Here’s the thing: progressive Christianity is dying, and will die. For example, Presbyterian liberals in the PCUSA are having a hissy fit over Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian pastor who has become one of the most influential Christian leaders in America, receiving an honor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Why? Because Keller’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), will not ordain women and holds to Christian orthodoxy on LGBT matters. But — hello! — the PC (USA) is collapsing:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lost 6 percent of its membership in 2015, and that came after three consecutive years of 5 percent declines. Current membership is just under 1.6 million. …
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has seen 463 congregations nationwide depart for other denominations between 2012 and 2015, according to newly released statistics from the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination.
Virtually all left for smaller, more conservative denominations such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which the historic Bellefield Presbyterian Church in Oakland joined last week after reaching a separation agreement with the Pittsburgh Presbytery.
Many departing congregations reacted to liberal theological and social trends in the past five years that included the approvals of ordaining and marrying openly gay members. And while the national population as a whole has become more liberal on such topics, not one congregation has joined the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and not only is membership down, but so are rates of baptisms and confirmations.
In New York, I was talking to a fairly well known young Evangelical about the overall decline in church life. But he also said: “Of all the people I know who are converting, all are converting to one form or the other of orthodox Christianity. There’s just no point to liberal Christianity, and no future.”
True. Thinking about my Evangelical friend’s line in light of the conversation my other friend had with the progressive Mainliner, it occurred to me that we really don’t have much to say to those folks, and shouldn’t waste our time trying to. Nor should they waste their time with us. We follow different religions. It is certainly true that Christianity is not the same thing as Western civilization, but it’s no coincidence that those who loathe Western civilization (or at least the Westerners who do) also loathe orthodox Christianity. They have cut themselves off from the source of life, and from cultural memory. They have nothing to pass on to their children, and their children’s children, except their alienation. They are the left-wing Christian equivalent of the right-wing Christians who are so enmeshed in partisan politics and culture-warring that they’ve lost the point of Christian faith and life. It seems to be a miserable truth of our era: when you’ve lost your religion, you double down on politics.
But look, I can’t in good conscience leave it at that. there are some things that we small-o orthodox had better not lose sight of, even as we rediscover the treasures of our own civilizational heritage. For one, to love and affirm your own history and heritage does not require you to pretend that it’s without fault or blemish. To do so is to make an idol, a false god, of it. Second, we have a lot to learn from non-Western Christianities, and non-Western Christians, and they from us. It is by now a cliche to say that conservative Episcopalians in the United States have more in common in things that really count with Anglicans in Nairobi than Anglicans in London. I just spent a couple of days with a colony of Anabaptists in upstate New York, and despite our serious theological divisions, those brothers and sisters are closer to me in essentials than many who profess the same Creed as I do, but whose real belief is in modernity. This is just how it is today, and how it’s going to be. It’s a new world.
One more important thing: though the faith is more important than particular cultures, I believe that Christian revival in the West must also entail serious education in Western culture and history. We have to teach our kids what Western civilization is, and why it is worth loving in spite of its great faults. Many of them are being taught to hate themselves and their civilization. Those who do this — and, crucially, those who don’t provide a good, life-giving alternative to this hateful narrative — are only going to drive young people into the welcoming arms of the hardcore alt-right, which turns Christianity into a racial or nationalistic cult. That’s a gospel as false as anything the pious Social Justice Warriors preach — but far too many of us conservative Christians fail to perceive the threat from it in our unstable, unraveling culture. A reader comments correctly and importantly:
A frightening thought. At the moment, the main danger to Christianity comes from the Left. What happens when a post-Christian Right starts to degenerate and decides that the Church with its message of love and universal brotherhood gets in its way as well?
Anyway, I’m not going to end on a somber note. I saw way too much reason for hope and joy this week. Tomorrow, I’m going to tell you here about the inspirational life of the Bruderhof. But tonight, I’m going to enjoy my family and my dog, and sleep like a rock. Glory to God for all things!
UPDATE: A reader comments:
For several years my family has been part of a parish that, when we first joined it, was arguably “moderate”. There was a handful of radical progressives, some of whom kept their views to themselves, some were pretty aggressive about trying to convert the rest of the congregation. I and several friends (with whom I have spoken) often wonder, “Why are they still here? Why don’t they join another church where they are not so at odds with what the other 60-80% of the parish believes?” I have some theories, one of which is active hostility toward traditional, conservative Christianity. Another is they see themselves as being on a mission to convert the rest of us poor, backwards ignoramuses.
But here’s the more important point. It’s reached the point (and my family is backing toward the exit) where it’s increasingly clear we are dealing with at least two parishes under one roof. And these two parishes represent two approaches to Christianity that are so different, that effectively they are two different religions. We can’t really talk about difficult issues (sexuality and marriage being the most obvious) because we don’t really think or talk within the same framework. “Can’t we just look at the Scriptures and work it out?” No, sorry, we can’t. Our understandings and approaches to Scripture are too different, and largely incompatible. We’re not just on different pages, we’re functionally operating out of different books.
It’s an utterly miserable situation. On the one hand, the more traditional Christians need to say “we love you, God bless you, and we’re going somewhere else” (and many have as the parish has become more openly liberal the last few years), and on the other hand, the radical progressives need to say something similar (why didn’t they leave years ago?).