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The Telos Crisis

David Brooks says that America has lost its way as a nation. Excerpts:

One of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.

For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.

The Exodus story has six acts: first, a life of slavery and oppression, then the revolt against tyranny, then the difficult flight through the howling wilderness, then the infighting and misbehavior amid the stresses of that ordeal, then the handing down of a new covenant, a new law, and then finally the arrival into a new promised land and the project of building a new Jerusalem.

The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn’t make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence. It made them self-critical. When John Winthrop used the phrase “shining city on a hill” he didn’t mean it as self-congratulation. He meant that the whole world was watching and by their selfishness and failings the colonists were screwing it up.

But we have lost our national story. We no longer have a telos — that is, a shared goal, a sense of mission that unites us and raises us out of ourselves. More:

Today’s students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.

The academic left pushed this reinterpretation, but as usual the extreme right ended up claiming the spoils. The people Gorski calls radical secularists expunged biblical categories and patriotic celebrations from schools. The voters revolted and elected the people Gorski calls the religious nationalists to the White House — the jingoistic chauvinists who measure Americanness by blood and want to create a Fortress America keeping the enemy out.

We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don’t know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don’t know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.

Here’s the entire column.

I agree with most of this, but I would take the critique a bit deeper: we have a Telos Crisis in America not simply because we have lost a sense of collective meaning, but because here in late modernity, most of us have lost a belief that there can be meaning independent of our individual desires. Marxism, the secular utopia, has failed. Even most Christians today believe in a God whose purpose is to validate our quest for happiness — which is not the same thing as holiness. 

David says the Exodus story from the Hebrew Bible ought to be our national mythological template. We have to remember that the Hebrews coming out of Egypt believed they were going somewhere definite. Where is America going? When we had a shared Judeo-Christian ethic, we at least had a picture of what the Promised Land (so to speak) to which we as a people should aspire. We believed that because we believed, however imperfectly, that there was a moral order independent of ourselves by which we were all called to live. That moral order was revealed and guaranteed by the God of the Bible.

The 20th century cultural revolution — which included a revolution in theology — left this in shambles. As Brad East pointed out last week, Christian theologians and cultural critics have been talking about this for decades. Awareness of this stark new reality long predates The Benedict Option, a book written in response to the crisis. The problem David Brooks identifies — the loss of a binding national narrative — is not something American Christians are prepared to address because we ourselves have also lost our religious narrative. Sociologist Christian Smith has written:

We are also not saying than anyone has founded an official religion by the name of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, nor that most U.S. teenagers have abandoned their religious denominations and congregations to practice it elsewhere or under another name.  Rather, it seems that the latter is simply colonizing many established religious traditions and congregations in the United States, that it is merely becoming the new spirit living within the old body.  Its typical embrace and practice is de facto, functional, practical, and tacit — not formal or acknowledged as a distinctive religion.  Furthermore, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religious faith limited to teenage adherents in the United States. To the contrary, it seems that it is also a widespread, popular faith among very many U.S. adults. Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Moreover, we are not suggesting that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a religion that teenagers (and adults) adopt and practice wholesale or not at all.  Instead, the elements of its creed are normally assimilated by degrees, in parts, admixed with elements of more traditional religious faiths. Indeed, this religious creed appears in this way to operate as a parasitic faith.  It cannot sustain its own integral, independent life.  Rather it must attach itself like an incubus to established historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image.  This helps to explain why millions of U.S. teenagers and adults are not self-declared, card-carrying, organizationally gathered Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. This religion generally does not and cannot stand on its own.  So its adherents must be Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Jewish Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, Mormon Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and even Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. These may be either devout followers or mere nominal believers of their respective traditional faiths. But they often have some connection to an established historical faith tradition that this alternative faith feeds upon and gradually co-opts if not devours.

Believers in each larger tradition practice their own versions of this otherwise common parasitic religion.  The Jewish version, for instance, may emphasize the ethical living aspect of the creed, while the Methodist version stresses the getting-to-heaven part.  Each then can think of themselves as belonging to the specific religious tradition they name as their own — Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, whatever — while simultaneously sharing the cross-cutting, core beliefs of their de facto common Moralistic Therapeutic Deist faith.  In effect, these believers get to enjoy whatever particulars of their own faith heritages appeal to them, while also reaping the benefits of this shared, harmonizing, interfaith religion.  This helps to explain the noticeable lack of religious conflict between teenagers of apparently different faiths. For, in fact, we suggest that many of them actually share the same deeper religious faith: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  What is there to have conflict about?

MTD doesn’t demand anything of you except that you affirm that there is a gauzy God looking out over the affairs of men, and that He wants you to be happy and nice to others. This is not the God of the Book of Exodus. This is not the God revealed to us in Exodus 20:

Seeing the thunder pealing, the lightning flashing, the trumpet blasting and the mountain smoking, the people were all terrified and kept their distance.’Speak to us yourself,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.’

Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; God has come to test you, so that your fear of him, being always in your mind, may keep you from sinning.’

So the people kept their distance while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.

In his (difficult and uneven) posthumously published book Charisma, the social critic Philip Rieff, a secular Jew, diagnoses the modern problem as a loss of “holy terror” — something the Bible calls “fear of the Lord.” From Rieff’s first chapter (N.B., by “charismatics,” Rieff means :

Perhaps the best place to begin is with the suggestion that holiness is entirely interdictory [that is, forbidding, proclaiming ‘thou shalt nots’ — RD]. A moral absolute thus becomes the object of all. Holy terror is charismatic [a bearer of grace — RD]; our terror is unholy. For our charismatics are engaged in no wrestlings of angels, but, rather, with the obeying of demons. Jacob was a charismatic when Laban and Jacob took mutual pledges before the God of their fathers; Jacob swears by the fear of his father, Isaac (Genesis 31:53). What is this charismatic fear? What is holy terror? Is it a fear of a mere father; in a phantasmagoric enlargement, Freud’s idea is silly. Holy terror is rather fear of oneself, fear of the evil in oneself and in the world. It is also fear of punishment. Without this necessary fear, charisma is not possible. To live without this high fear is to be a terror oneself, a monster. And yet to be monstrous has become our ambition, for it is our ambition to live without fear. All holy terror is gone. The interdicts have no power. This is the real death of God and of our own humanity. It is out of sheer terror that charisma develops. We live in terror but never in holy terror. Those are the only alternatives, as I shall try to show in the course of this book.

A great charismatic does not save us from holy terror, but rather conveys it. One of my intentions is to make us again more responsive to the possibility of holy terror.

Rusty Reno’s review of Rieff’s Charisma brings all this down to earth, as does Christopher Caldwell’s in the Times. Excerpt:

For Rieff, “all high cultures … are cultures of the superego.” A culture is a sacred “moral demand system,” sharply divided along lines of faith and guilt. Faith means obedience to commandments. Guilt means transgression, not as that word is understood in graduate schools but as it is understood in the Bible — as ostracism, disgrace and death. The system is ruthless, but Rieff shows it to be more supple than it looks. This is one of the windfalls of his long apprenticeship to Freud. Faith and guilt, like yin and yang, imply their opposites. Immoral impulses are always there. “They may be checked,” Rieff writes, “but they are not liquidated, they are not destroyed by these interdictory processes any more than the instincts are liquidated or destroyed by therapeutic processes.” Indeed, there would be no reason to have rules — a culture — without them.

As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics — those with charismata, or special gifts of grace — are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, “renewal” movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking — they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation. These principles are true of Christianity as a whole, in its relation to Judaism. Pivotal here is the passage in Mark 10:17-19, where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “Thou knowest the commandments,” Jesus replies.

Rieff calls this a “liberating dynamic of submission” and suggests “soul making” as a synonym for the kind of charisma he defends. The discipleship (striving toward God) that exists in a charismatic Christian community has nothing in common with the conformity (following orders) that characterizes modern mass organizations. United in their submission to the sacred, the members of a chain of belief teach through the act of keeping the commandments and learn through imitation — there is no master-slave relation. Such a sacred order is less likely to be corrupt, because it “constantly resists being made convenient for the cadres who come to administer the creed.”

Rieff’s point is that we in the modern West have lost the sense of the holy. When we lose holy terror — the fear of the Lord — we set our own inner demons free. Mythology tells us that nemesis must inevitably follow this hubris.

So, yes, let The Benedict Option be thought of as “reactionary” in the sense Caldwell means. Let us Christians submit “to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation” — that is, let our lives be our witness to the truth of our faith. Let us refuse the fake Christianity that is MTD within our own traditions, and return to the faith of our fathers. Doing so, as the church historian Robert Wilken has said in this extremely important 2004 essay, requires this of us:

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

His point is that we Christians today have ourselves lost our narrative. We cannot give the world what we do not ourselves have. Wilken’s is a cause for a return to inwardness, precisely so we will regain the story that can liberate the world when we go out into it.

Where does this leave the Telos Crisis identified by Brooks? I don’t know, but more to the point, I don’t care about it as much as I used to. I don’t believe there will be any national rediscovery of a telos, because the nature of modernity, including our consumerist popular culture, is anti-teleological. This is what it means for the therapeutic to triumph. How is civics education going to produce a narrative stronger than “Ye shall be as gods”? Stronger than “ye shall create your own truth, and you will use it to set yourself free”? How can a patriotic narrative speak transformatively into the lives of people raised in the social catastrophe (including fatherlessness, drug addiction, violence, community dissolution) that has become domestic life in so many parts of America? Aside from a dramatic rebirth of Biblical religion, where will Americans find the courage and inspiration to stand together against the intoxicating narratives of identity politics, of both the left and the right?

Religion is no guarantee of anything. A friend of mine, an observant conservative Catholic, is fighting to rescue his teenage son from far-right, conspiracy-driven hatred — malevolent ideas he acquired from his friends at school. But if not religion — a religion not of moralistic therapy, but of holy terror (in the Rieffan sense) — then what? There is nothing else.

Alasdair MacIntyre:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

If America — and the West — is to be saved, it will be saved as St. Benedict and the Church saved the West for Christianity after Rome’s fall: by the slow, patient work of fidelity in action. The most patriotic thing believing Christians can do for America, then, is to cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the American order, and instead focus our efforts on strengthening our communities. It begins by re-learning our story, and regaining a sense of the holy. All the rest will follow, in God’s time.

This does not require us to turn our backs on our neighbors — indeed, I don’t see how any Christian can justify that. It does mean, however, that to the extent that engagement with the broader world compromises the telling of our Story to ourselves, and embodying that story in practices, both familial and communal, we must keep our distance. My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.

Can it be healed? Maybe. But it will take strong medicine — medicine that only the church can offer, once it has healed itself from the same disease. I fear we Christians, and we Americans, have entered into the era described by the ancient Roman historian Livy, remarking on his own society: “We have reached the point where we can tolerate neither our vices nor their cure.”


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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