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Religion in the ‘Great Exhaustion’

The Benedict Option as religious resistance to the decadent anti-culture
Religion in the ‘Great Exhaustion’

(I spent three hours on this post this morning, but hit the wrong series of buttons as I was preparing to publish it, and lost the entire thing. It must have been about 5,000 words long. I was too frustrated to try to recreate it this morning, but let me try again. It will probably be a lot shorter this time. Maybe it’s a good thing for my readers when I lose a post like that. I do tend to go on long when I get wound up about something.)

Some personal good news for me: I finally, finally, finished the great rewrite of my Benedict Option book proposal (working title: The Benedict Option: Resistance, Resilience, and Resurrection in a Post-Christian Age) and got it off to my agent. We’ll see what happens. It comes at a time when the BenOp idea really seems to be taking off. I see that John Stonestreet and my friends at the Colson Center are hosting a Ben Op-themed panel at the upcoming meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It’s called “Benedict, Babylon, and Kuyper,” which is probably the first time in history those three nouns have been linked. This BenOp moment is producing some interesting theological mash-ups and creative thinking.

Another Evangelical friend, Jake Meador, continues to enlighten me with his regular writing about the Ben Op at Mere Orthodoxy. His latest is a gloss on the use of nouns to describe various options. His essay proposes four Ben Op points in response to Evangelical critics who criticize the Ben Op for being all about disengagement. I agree with all of these points, by the way:

1. The BenOp is not primarily a strategy for the church’s interaction with popular culture. So there may not actually be any necessarily conflict between the BenOp and something like the city-church model so popular in the PCA right now.

2. Doubling down on engagement when your previous attempts at engagement have failed will also fail unless you understand why those attempts failed.

3. We probably shouldn’t make assumptions about how healthy our churches are.

4. You cannot give what you do not have.

Unlike in this morning’s lost post, I won’t take the time to comment extensively on Jake’s exegesis, but I do want to say this. He writes on the second point (engagement) that the way some Evangelicals think about sending their kids to public schools is a case worth considering. Some believe that they should send their kids to public schools so that they can be “salt and light” to the braoder community. Jake writes:

Unfortunately, the issue between the church and the public schools was never the headline-grabbing issues connected to the classic talking points—teaching evolution, sex ed classes, prayer in schools, etc. The issue is in the curriculum broadly speaking and with, to borrow from James KA Smith, the sort of catechesis that Christian children will undergo in public schools that will shape them toward a sort of market-focused individualism. If we engage more in this arena without understanding that issue, then we may have more positive relationships with some people (and that is a good thing), but the net cultural effect is likely to be minimal.

This, as an aside, is also why the sort of anti-public school thinking that has often gone on in evangelicalism has often failed to produce a robust alternative to our public education. We have often withdrawn from these schools out of purely defensive concerns with minimal understanding of the good which we hope to obtain through a more properly Christian education. And so what we often end up with is our own version of the same sort of materialism that reigns in the public schools.

I would say yes about the general “catechesis” in the public schools, with more of a focus on the catechesis and formation that goes on outside the classroom than within (this is also true of private schools). I think it is unrealistic to expect a child who is in formation herself to be able to carry the weight of the Christian ethos as she tries to swim upstream of a popular culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian moral values.

Further, Jake is absolutely right to say that Christians who think setting up a school and calling it “Christian” (or “Catholic”) takes care of the problem are deluding themselves. I talk to Evangelical and Catholic school teachers and administrators all the time who say that parents are one of the chief obstacles to the Christian formation of their children that the schools are trying to carry out. Parents want to outsource that formation to the school, but don’t actually want to co-operate in the mission of forming a Christian conscience in their children. When Christianity comes in conflict with achieving middle-class success, the parents don’t want Christianity interfering with the plans they have for their children’s lives. What it sounds to me like from these conversations is that many parents are fooling themselves: they don’t actually care about their kids being Christian, but rather want their children to go to school with kids they assume will be “nicer” and more middle class.

Elsewhere at Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Loftus responds to my answer to his jokey criticism of the Ben Op. I appreciate what he’s written, and it seems that we don’t really disagree all that much. Here is one point where we don’t see eye to eye:

Where I lose interest is when the dire circumstances of our time overshadow our appreciation for church history or the methods and means by which formation is already happening all around us. Where I start to point and laugh is when anyone supposes that any particular method that is too grandiose for missiology and ecclesiology is going to save us.

I don’t think I understand his point. The Ben Op, as I conceive it, is not a method; it’s an antagonistic stance towards modernity from which Christians can work out responses that are faithful to their own particular traditions (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox). Of course it will involve ecclesiology and missiology. It seems clear that Matthew Loftus, who is a missionary, has thought about this a lot more than I have; it’s why I keep saying that as I undertake this book project, I will be interviewing people like him to find out what they’re doing, and how the rest of us can learn from it. (Tonight I’m interviewing the great patristics historian Robert Louis Wilken, asking him what we have to learn from the early church that can help us respond in our own circumstances). The “Benedict Option” rubric is just a conceptual framework built around MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and meant to emphasize how radical our situation as Christians in this culture is. I said yesterday in The Great Oprahstasy that the postmodern take on religion offered by the Christian historian Diana Butler Bass is a greater threat to orthodox Christianity than the New Atheists, because it baptizes anything and everything. It’s what sociologist Robert Bellah called “Sheilaism”: a DIY faith in which the Self is the authoritative arbiter of all religious truth. It comes from a woman named Sheila Larson, interviewed by Bellah and his co-author in their influential book Habits of the Heart. Sheila said:

“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”

I’d say that most people I know are Sheilaists. They may be Christian Sheilaists, but Sheilaists they are. I find this a greater challenge to Christian orthodoxy than honest atheism, because it’s parasitic on Christianity. Because he’s engaged in the grit and grimness of the impoverished inner city, Loftus no doubt sees every day suffering people who would be lucky to have Sheilaism as their biggest problem, so it makes my fretting over it seem like a First World Problem. But a real problem it is, and the souls lost because of it are no less precious to God than the souls of those men, women, and children who live in very different circumstances.

(I don’t really hear Loftus saying this, but when people dismiss these kinds of concerns on the grounds that the lives of Christians elsewhere in the world are so much harder, it sounds to me like someone telling the person who lives on the south side of Chicago, surrounded by drugs, violence, and despair, to cheer up, because nationwide, the indicators of crime and social dysfunction are going down.)

Anyway, it seems to me that Loftus’s main criticism of the Ben Op is that it is trying to claim some new insight into something that Christians have always recognized as a perennial problem: missiology and ecclesiology. I concede, obviously, that Christians have been thinking about the problems of church and mission since the very beginning. My point with the Ben Op concept is to highlight for ordinary Christians in the pews how very late in the day it is, how serious our situation is, and how much our own modernity — that is, the things we contemporary Christians take for granted because we have been formed by modernity — has to do with getting us to this dangerous point. Pope Benedict XVI once said:

As we know, in vast areas of the earth faith risks being extinguished, like a flame that is no longer fed. We are facing a profound crisis of faith, a loss of the religious sense that constitutes the greatest challenge to the Church today. The renewal of faith must therefore take priority in the commitment of the entire Church in our time.


Benedict XVI elsewhere compared our times to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, saying that Christians in the West have not faced a moment like the present one since those days. Joseph Ratzinger is not a hysteric. Attention must be paid. This is the spirit in which the Benedict Option is conceived. Any solution to the problem that is based on modernist assumptions is bound, I think, to fail.

Over at the Living Church’s blog, historian Hannah Matis takes exception to the idea that the Benedict Option, or the life of the early Benedictines, was about strict separation from society:

In the long history of the effort to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict, signing out of society is not a noticeably prominent theme. Rather, the reverse is true: monastic foundations required patronage, either by royalty or the aristocracy, and rendered goods, services, and, in some cases, soldiers and arms, back to the king and to his aristocracy, praying for the well-being of the realm and for their patrons in life and death. Monasteries made excellent prisons, when required. Until the twelfth century, the elite of Benedictine monasteries were child oblates rather than adult converts, placed by their parent and socialized in that community from a very young age; the Venerable Bede, for example, entered Wearmouth-Jarrow at the age of eight or nine. Foundations for women, on the other hand, frequently acted like Catholic convent schools in the nineteenth century, taking in and educating aristocratic girls who could be withdrawn from the community suddenly if a good marriage alliance presented itself. In fact, so deeply did Benedictine monasteries become enmeshed in their local communities that they were not really an “order,” strictly speaking. Instead, each house developed within its own regional context and, to some extent, became a locus of memory and community identity.

She goes on to say that the Benedictine Rule succeeded because it was embraced and promoted by Pope St. Gregory the Great, who was Benedict’s biographer. Matis writes:

Gregory recognized the very real potential for active witness in people of committed discipline, and he famously argued not so much for a separation of the active and contemplative lives, but a balance of the two in which the energy derived from contemplation was directed outward and downward into pastoral care. …  Monasticism is a counterculture, and the proper function of a counterculture, like a political third party, is sometimes not so much its own long-term survival but the re-direction of a larger unit. Historically, the movements that thrived didn’t so much break the tie between a monastic community and its broader culture as let that tie stretch and, like a lever, exert the greatest possible torque at the greatest possible distance. The key lies in the precise amount of distance: if the connection was lost altogether, the community nearly always failed for lack of members; too close, however, and the community merged into society at large.


For those who worry that withdrawal of any kind from the broader culture will mean the loss of the younger generation, remember St. Antony. If we are clear what we are for, whatever that may be and in whatever range of permutations possible, that is a far better tool for evangelization than being pulled in twelve directions at once. I am just barely millennial myself, according to some calculations, and one of the main differences between the older generation and younger millennials in the church is the desperate longing on the part of millennials, in an overwhelming and despairing wider world, to be part of some sort of smaller, functioning community.

Read the whole thing; it’s a wonderful post. And it’s a reminder to me of the problem of carrying out this project of defining the Ben Op in public, in real time, on this blog. In the best of all possible worlds, you would not have heard any of this until I wrote the book. But in that world, I never would have thrown this idea out there, people wouldn’t be talking about it, and I never would have heard of Jake Meador, Matthew Loftus, or Hannah Matis, and been able to learn from their perspectives.

So, after all that, why did I title this post “Religion in the Great Exhaustion”? It comes from the title of an essay in The American Interest by the political theorist Josh Mitchell. I found it via David Brooks’s last column:

Writing in The American Interest, Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown argues that we are heading toward an “Age of Exhaustion.” Losing confidence in the post-Cold War vision, people will be content to play with their private gadgets and will lose interest in greater striving.

I only have space to add here that the primary problem is mental and spiritual. Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.

Here’s a link to the “Great Exhaustion” essay.  I had extensively quoted it in this morning’s post, but can’t do it now because I’ve used up my three-article quota from the magazine this month. You’ll have to read it yourself. As I recall, Mitchell says that Liberal Triumphalism (by which he means the belief that classical liberalism, which entails faith in democracy, free markets, and human rights, is destined to be the ultimate model for global development) has failed, but the anti-Liberal solutions in identity politics proposed by progressives are no persuasive solution. Instead, Mitchell says, we are overtaken by the Great Exhaustion, defined by a loss of faith in anything bigger than our private concerns, and a retreat into private life.

This is a bad thing, says Mitchell, and I agree with him to a point. The United States and the world would have been a lot better off if we had not gone crusading to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, and instead minded our own business. Only a fool would be eager to redouble that effort to reclaim a sense of national mission. But it is also true that we seem to have lost a sense of public purpose, of a sense that there is a sacred order with which we should strive to harmonize, and which ought to give purpose and meaning to our lives. In a piece last year in First Things about the Middle East, Mitchell indicates his frustration with the way liberal democracy (modernity) has run smack into pre-modernity there:

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago wrote that the democratic age is upon us. By this he meant that the “links” to family and tribe that held us fast in the aristocratic age were breaking apart before our eyes. The political consequence of this social de-linkage, however, was not necessarily benign democratic governance. Indeed, he worried that attempts would be made to refortify the old links, to reaffirm roles at the moment when delinked persons were emerging. What we today often identify as “Islamic Fundamentalism” is just such an attempt to re-fortify the old links, to re-enchant the world. Herein lays the dilemma of the Middle East. Caught in the matrix of the political and social arrangements of the twentieth century that defy credulity, drawn and at the same time repulsed by the fugitive freedom they see on Western shores but only dimly understand, nascent citizens more than occasionally dream of returning to an enchanted world for which an imagined Islam provides a ready guide.

Under these wildly unstable conditions, U.S. foreign policy-makers should take the long view. Democratic governance will not arrive soon in the Middle East. If it does at all, it will emerge only when families and tribes become much less important than they now are. Citizens and entrepreneurs?the building blocks of democratic governance and of market commerce?do not spring up spontaneously out of societies where families and tribes still retain their hold on the imagination. The slow process by which that changes, moreover, cannot easily be accelerated by U.S. foreign policy. In the meantime, in the interludes of peace, diplomatic and cultural outreach and, above all, higher education initiatives intended to help the younger generation understand and thrive in the disenchanted world it will inherit offer perhaps the most constructive ways to engage the region.

Mitchell, plainly, is a modernist who believes in liberal democracy as an ideal. His “Great Exhaustion” piece is built on the same insight he brings to the one I quote. I wonder, though, what he thinks of right-wing anti-Liberalism. The life that pre-modernity prescribes for Arab Muslims is not working for them, and perhaps the “disenchanted” world would be better by comparison. Obviously many of them feel that way, because they are leaving their own countries for the disenchanted lands of the unbelievers.

That said, the Great Exhaustion comes from the disenchantments of modernity. Modern religion — Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the Great Oprahstasy — is only an analgesic, not a solution. Carle C. Zimmerman, the Harvard historian and sociologist, was not a religious man, but in his book Family and Civilization, which examining the history of the decline and fall of ancient Greece and Rome, and looking at medieval and modern European history, Zimmerman found that the presence of 11 factors preceded the dissolution of those civilizations — factors relating to the atomization and fragmentation of what he calls the “domestic family” (one man + one woman, exclusively). Those factors include widespread divorce, the loss of a sense that the domestic family is normative, and the general acceptance of sexual diversity (called “perversity” by Zimmerman, but he wrote in 1947).

In Zimmerman’s view, the family is the basis for civilization, and “familism” — an ideology that in general puts the family’s needs above the needs of the individual — is necessary for a healthy, stable society. A society that has lost familism will follow customs and impose public policies that work against the domestic family, thereby eating its seed corn. Fertility declines, and with it, the civilization’s ability to thrive.

So says Zimmerman. If he’s right … this is us. In fact, Zimmerman, back in the ’40s, believed it was us. He did not recommend religion as a solution to the decline, no doubt because he was not a religious man. He hoped that science and education would give us the answer. Plainly that’s not going to happen.

Traditional Christians today find ourselves embedded in what the (agnostic) sociologist Philip Rieff calls an “anti-culture” — so called because the things that make any culture possible — shared moral absolutes that bound individuals to the commons — have dissipated. As he wrote in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, “Western culture is changing already into a symbol system unprecedented in its plasticity and absorptive capacity. Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all contradiction, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.” Rieff invented the term “deathworks” to describe works of art, literature, and culture that catechize us to believe that there is no such thing as sacred order, no absolute “thou shalt nots”.

Rieff, again, was not a religious believer, but far better than many people who profess faith did Rieff understand the price of non-belief — and of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. From an interview with The Guardian not long before he died:

Rieff has always been the most cross-grained of American neo-Freudians – one who believes the psychoanalytic “therapeutic culture”, far from “curing” ills, has brought our world to its third, and terminal stage, staring barbarism in the face.

Rieff, it should be explained, sees the world as having developed through three successive cultures, or what he calls “ideal types”. “The first, historically, is the pagan, or pre-Christian world,” he says. “The second the Christian culture and all its varieties. And finally the present Kulturkampf, which is the third culture.”

Are we, then, in a state of barbarism? “No, we’re not. But we’re near it because we treat the past with considerable contempt. Or nostalgia. One is as bad as the other.”

Is there any way back, or around the barriers that confront us? “I don’t know whether what I’ve called the second culture can survive as a form that is respected and practised.”

And is the third culture the end of the road? Rieff is not to be drawn into prophecy. “I don’t know. It remains to be seen.” He says it with the air of a man who only knows that he won’t himself be around to see what the future holds.

What, then, is it about the third culture that is so ominous?

“It’s characterised by a certain vacuity and diffidence. The institutions which were defenders of the second world, or second culture – I think cultures are world creations – have not offered the kind of defence or support that would have been more powerful than therapeutic forces. So Christianity becomes, therapeutically, ‘Jesus is good for you.’ I find this simply pathetic.”

“A certain vacuity and indifference” — the Great Exhaustion. But we are not entirely indifferent. No. Look at what happened last week in Chicago:

The battle for equal access for transgender students is pitting Illinois’ largest high school district against federal authorities.

At issue is locker room access for a transgender high school student in Palatine-based Township High School District 211. The student, who identifies as female, is asking that she receive full access to the girls’ locker room.

Citing privacy concerns, the district has denied the request and instead offered a separate room where the student can change.

“At some point, we have to balance the privacy rights of 12,000 students with other particular, individual needs of another group of students,” said District 211 Superintendent Daniel Cates. “We believe this infringes on the privacy of all the students that we serve.”

An official with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the student in a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, called the district’s stance “blatant discrimination, no matter how the district tries to couch it.”

“We’re talking about somebody who is being denied fair and equal treatment as compared to the other students, only because she is transgender,” said John Knight, director of the LGBT and HIV Project at ACLU of Illinois.

Federal officials responded to the complaint, which was filed about a year and a half ago with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, by saying the school is in violation of the Title IX gender equality law, according to the ACLU and district officials. A representative of the civil rights office could not be reached Monday.

So, the entire might of the Empire federal government is being brought to bear on a school district that wants to prevent a teenage boy who thinks he’s a girl from using the girls locker room at a high school. It is a small thing, surely, but a telling one, as Zimmerman foresaw. When Christians see this kind of thing, they intuit what Alasdair MacIntyre meant when he said:

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. … What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.

The Empire is greatly exhausted, spiritually and otherwise, and signs of its thrashing in its fatigue are everywhere. Hence the Benedict Option. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Full-on modernity devours itself, as we are finding out. To the extent we contemporary Christians understand ourselves in a modernist framework, we will be complicit in our own dissolution.



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