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‘Cultural Climate Change’

Lord Jonathan Sacks on the Benedict Option and the decline of the West

Many thanks to the reader who sent me a link to the lecture Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gave at Chautauqua last week. I’ve embedded the video below. It’s just under an hour, and time well spent. I’ll summarize the talk here, and respond to it.

Lord Sacks begins by saying that we are today living through an epochal moment he describes as “cultural climate change.”

“An old pattern that has governed the West for four centuries has broken, and a new one has not emerged,” he says.

Three “master narratives” have guided Western thought since the 17th and 18th centuries:

1. The world is getting progressively more secular
2. The world is getting more Westernized
3. Any religion, to survive in the contemporary world, has to accommodate to society, has to go with the flow

Each of these is breaking down today.

  • In the 17th century, the West had the “secularization of knowledge”In the 18th century, it had the secularization of powerIn the 19th century, it had the secularization of culture

    In the 20th century, it had the secularization of morality (e.g., it repudiated the Judeo-Christian basis for morality, especially regarding the sanctity of life and of traditional marriage

The West is a senescent civilization. The future belongs to rising non-Western civilizations.

Religions that accommodate themselves to Western secularism are dying, but the more orthodox ones are holding their own. Lord Sacks characterizes it like this: “not religion as accommodation, but religion as resistance.”

“These are not small developments,” he says, adding that “it’s the biggest thing to happen to the west since the great wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

There are “two prophets” who saw it coming. First, there was Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, which Lord Sacks calls “a life-changing book.” In that 1981 book, the philosopher said that the Enlightenment attempt to build a binding morality on Reason alone has failed, leaving us in a new Dark Age. The only thing to do is to withdraw to communities of virtue, and try to ride it out.

That, says Lord Sacks, is the Benedict Option.

The second prophet is the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his 1965 book The Lonely Man of Faith (which, reader, you will not be surprised to learn I have just a moment ago ordered.)

In the book, according to Lord Sacks, the Rav contrasts the view of man presented in Genesis 1, and the view in Genesis 2. The first is the urge within man to dominate and control nature; the second is the religious urge to contemplate nature and care for it. The Wikipedia entry on the book explains the thesis in more detail.

According to Lord Sacks, the Rav said that these two images of Adam have always been in tension, but in the present age, Adam the First, the dominating Adam, rules supreme. He doesn’t want to know about religion, Adam the Second, except insofar as religion can serve his desire to control. Adam the First is so powerful that if you want to preserve your spirituality intact, you have to withdraw from the world — a strategy that Lord Sacks calls “the Jewish equivalent of the Benedict Option.”

Lord Sacks says of MacIntyre and Soloveitchik: “These were real prophets, because they saw it coming far in advance.”

So, how does this affect us today? Lord Sacks says that the loss of religious faith in the West has had, and is having, dramatic consequences for Family, Community, and Society.

The West is dying in part because we are not reproducing ourselves. The birth rate in the US is now the lowest on record. Europe has been ahead of us in this race to oblivion, of course. From an entirely Darwinian point of view, we are declining because we are “spectacularly failing to pass [our] genes on to the next generation.”

Lord Sacks says that this is because fewer and fewer people want to sacrifice personal happiness for a goal larger than themselves. The fact is, raising children requires real sacrifice. Parents know they have to die to themselves to a large degree, so that their children might flourish. Religious people — authentically religious people, I would have added — know how to do this, and expect to do this as a normal part of life.

But we are less religious than we once were (and even most who profess religion, I would say, are really living by MTD, which is the Adam the First mode of religion).

“There is no case on record in which a secular society has been able to uphold its birthrate,” Lord Sacks says. Europe took Darwin “as the patron saint of atheism when actually he was the prophet of reproductive success, of having enough faith to bring a child into the world.”

You lose religion, you lose the family. But you also lose society, because the success of all societies depends on its altruists — on those who are willing to suffer personally for the greater good. Religion — at least Jewish and Christian religion — binds individuals together into a covenantal community, one that teaches us that we are all in it together, and in some real sense responsible for each other.

When you lose the idea of covenant, says Lord Sacks, all you’re left with is the social contract: an abstract sense that one’s membership in society is a matter of rational exchange.

In such a situation, we end up outsourcing normal community duties to the state. There is no sense of shared identity, and the losers are those who don’t have access to social networks of support.

When you lose strong communities, you will lose the entire society. Everything and everyone becomes fragmented. And that, he says, is when our liberty hangs in the balance. Liberty, as we know it, “is not the default setting of the human condition.” It is highly contingent. And in this regard, “the secular West is in real trouble.”

Lord Sacks quotes the historian Will Durant, an atheist. I didn’t copy down every word Lord Sacks said, attributed to Durant, from Durant’s sweeping Story Of Civilization. But the quote is within this passage:

A certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seem so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continuously, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a ‘conflict between science and religion. Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, new courage to the human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

These are the stakes at the present moment in the history of the West. According to Lord Sacks, “religion can do one of three things”:

1. It can attempt to conquer society. This is the radical Islamist option. If we do this, it’s straight to the Dark Ages
2. It can withdraw from society. This, says Lord Sacks, is “the Benedict Option, the Ultra-Orthodox Option, the Soloveitchik Option. If we do this, we can survive the Dark Ages, but they will be very dark indeed.
3. It can attempt to re-inspire society. If we can keep reaching out to the broader society while being true to ourselves, he says, “we have just a chance of avoiding the Dark Ages, and countering cultural climate change.”

The rabbi concludes by saying the third kind of religion “is content to be a minority. I have to tell you that Jews have been a minority wherever we have been for the last 2,000 years.” This kind of religion “doesn’t seek power, it seeks influence. It’s engaged with the world, not in retreat from the world.”

“We can bring the light that can vanquish the darkness,” Lord Sacks says. “Boy, do we need that kind of religion now.”

Below, you can watch his entire address. Before you do, I want to offer a few remarks.

First, as usual, I don’t know whether or not Lord Sacks has actually read The Benedict Option, because it’s a lot closer to his Option Three than he thinks. This is because of the missionary, evangelistic nature of Christianity. Even the Benedictine monks did not wall themselves off completely from society — and they understood themselves as called to solitude. We ordinary Christians are not called to that kind of solitude. The argument I make in my book is that in order for us Christians to be the blessing God calls us to be for the world (to “bring the light that can vanquish the darkness”), we need to withdraw substantially more from that world than we are doing now, for the sake of building ourselves up in prayer, contemplation, and community. This, so we can go out into that same world living as actual Christians, no matter how great the sacrifice.

In browsing through The Lonely Man Of Faith, which I’ve received on my Kindle app, I read that Rav Soloveitchik says that both Adam the First and Adam the Second are our God-given nature as human beings. We are not called to be either wholly active or wholly contemplative, nor are we called to swing between the two poles. Rather, we are called to unite the two within ourselves.

Here’s the thing, though. The Rav addresses not atheists, but modern religious believers who construe religion in self-serving terms — the kind of people I would call the Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. In the final two chapters of his book, the Rav says that all Adam the Second can do is to present the truth to Adam the First. But — and this is crucial — Adam the First has become so alienated from his religious self that he only wants to hear about God in terms of a religion that suits his interests and need to control. He thinks of religion as something man-made, something that can be changed to suit perceived needs, not as something given to man by God. If this faith is cut loose from its “absolute moorings,” says Soloveitchik, then it will lose all of its redemptive power.

(This is modern Christianity! This is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism!)

“It is here that the dialogue between the man of faith and the man of culture comes to an end,” writes Soloveitchik. Thus begins “the ordeal of estrangement,” in which Adam the Second withdraws into loneliness. “This is both the destiny and the human historical situation” of religious man, writes the Rav, but the Man of Faith has to keep presenting the truth to his brother, and hope for the best.

In The Benedict Option, I say that if the Man of Faith (to use Rav Soloveitchik’s term) is to keep hearing the Falconer (per Yeats), he will no longer be able to accompany the other falcons as the widen their gyrations. To put it another way, if the Man of Faith is going to be faithful in his witness to the others, he will have to adopt certain ways of living in a militantly secular time. Otherwise, he will be assimilated.

Bottom line: I think the Benedict Option is somewhere between Rabbi Sacks’s No. 2 and No. 3.



[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNlvYFxUK1Y]



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