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The Demise Of Bourgeois Christianity

Building Benedict Option sanctuaries on a dark mountain

You see Jane Mayer’s profile of Vice President Mike Pence? It’s got a lot of material guaranteed to scare Manhattan liberals about the fundagelical Taliban mustering in the hinterlands. But the quote that stood out most to me was this one by Pence’s elderly mother, who is a Catholic:

“Religion is the most important thing in our lives. But we don’t take it seriously.”

That is so perfect it almost makes me want to weep at its flawlessness. This is the kind of Christianity with which many of us grew up. We could not imagine that God wasn’t the most important thing in our lives. But only weirdos let religion interfere with how we lived. Thus, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the last stop to the faith’s oblivion. MTD is for Christians who want to live like everybody else, but who lack the courage to affirm atheism. Their children will not lack that courage, and if not their children, then certainly their grandchildren. I’ve seen it in France.

Over at Mere Orthodoxy, the Catholic writer Brandon McGinley talks about how the serious Catholics of his generation (40 year olds and younger) are seceding from the conformist, middle-class Catholicism they inherited from the post-Vatican II generation. He begins by reflecting on how very few Catholics of that generation he knows who are both serious about their faith, and interested either in conservative politics or modern theology. Read on:

We could very quickly lose ourselves in very precise descriptions and definitions of these trajectories. What exactly do we mean by “conservatism” and “corporatism” and “liberalism” and so forth? What specific areas of the Tradition are attracting young people? I expect, though, that the basic trajectories toward tradition and away from mainstream American politics are recognizable enough to readers that I don’t need to get bogged down in definitional minutiae and can move on to the more interesting question: Why is this happening?

This is the unifying conviction that brings together the encyclical-reading eggheads and the everyday nine-to-five working men, the Marx-reading quasi-leftists and the Falange-curious corporatists, the homeschooling stay-at-home moms and the vocation-discerning bachelors: Living the Faith seriously is no longer compatible with respectable, mainstream American culture. This may seem like an obvious, even trivial observation. But its implications extend out and into just about every aspect of how we live and think about our lives in contemporary society.

He talks about how the Vatican II generation made its peace with middle-class (bourgeois) American culture — and how subsequent generations have lost the faith.  More:

Bougie Catholicism, it turned out, is thin gruel. We deemphasized the challenging, the mysterious, the confounding. We raised up the comfortable, the simple, the commonplace. And now eighty to ninety percent of teenagers stop practicing the Faith after Confirmation, because what does Catholic-bourgeois syncretism have to offer that the secular mainstream doesn’t—with fewer rules?

Every last one of my Catholic friends have watched friends and, most distressingly, family members leave the Faith or cool their practice of it to a respectable but emetic lukewarmness. These apostates and cultural Catholics aren’t patronizing crack houses or getting body piercings or quitting their jobs to become buskers: They are successful, respectable Americans. Indeed, part of achieving that status is, very often, not being seen as uncomfortably religious.

And so young Catholics who take the Faith seriously—and who wish to raise children who take the Faith seriously—regard this state of affairs in our culture and in their own families and they wonder: What, exactly, do we gain by conforming our politics to a mainstream ideology or pragmatic coalition? What, exactly, do we gain by muting those aspects of our tradition that are most dissonant with the prevailing culture? Not only have we gained nothing enduring from this strategy, but we have lost much—our distinctiveness, our patrimony, and, we suspect with anxious grief, a great many souls.

Rejecting any compromise with bourgeois respectability, this cohort then feels free to explore the depth of the Church’s intellectual and theological tradition—including the treasury of social teachings that open up horizons well beyond what everyday Republicans and Democrats can view.

Read the whole thing.  I wonder how many Evangelicals of McGinley’s generation feel the same way. How does this express itself within Evangelical communities?

In the US, Orthodoxy is so small that I hesitate to draw any conclusions, except to note that  Orthodox communities are losing their kids to the faith at a very high rate. We are no better than anybody else. It’s hard for me to see this firsthand, because I’ve always been part of mostly convert parishes — parishes that are heavily populated with ex-Evangelicals seeking more depth in worship, etc. The point is, all the beautiful liturgy and theological depth in the world will not hold anybody unless it is all leading to a life-changing encounter with the living God.

Here’s a relevant interview with sociologist Christian Smith, the MTD guru, about his work. Excerpt:

Reflections: Still, you find apathy about church.

Smith: If there’s one thing I know about younger people, whether they are 13 or 28, nearly every last one of them thinks of Christianity as a set of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. They aren’t necessarily fighting against that. That’s simply what they think Christianity is – a set of moralisms. The church is a place of moralistic requirements.

And that’s very understandable. Parents want their kids to turn out okay, and they rely on the church for moral guidance so they learn to behave. Parents are trying to cope with a world where lots of things can go wrong. There are lots of threats. But I think it can lead to a form of idolatry to treat the church this way. I feel for pastors. They are faced with this expectation from parents.

Boy, is that ever true. It was true for me when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the overwhelming beauty of the Chartres cathedral that I began to think otherwise. Reading Merton’s memoir The Seven Storey Mountain was another prompt to re-examine Christianity. The faith I encountered in Merton’s book (which was written in the 1940s) was a very, very different narrative than anything I had been given. It opened up my imagination to the depth of the Christian faith. I had not imagined it was anything more than moralism (defined as reducing the faith to good behavior). Well, I was wrong. The problem today is that churches eager to show that the Gospel is not mere moralism also tend to throw morals out the door. But I digress. More Christian Smith:

Reflections: How does a church stand for the gospel without sounding moralistic?

Smith: I don’t think techniques and practices are going to change the situation. Churches need to attack moralism wherever they see it and show what the gospel really is. Congregations need to have a conversation: What is Christianity? What is God for us? What is the power of the gospel?

Religion might be irrelevant to emerging adults as a group, but that does not mean they are hostile to it. Many are intrigued. They want to talk about it. Many who were raised non-religious feel culturally deprived of this big part of life. Many churches seem to think that non-religious young people are all atheistic like Richard Dawkins, but they aren’t. They’re aware that they don’t know much about religious tradition. Many want a conversation. If churches don’t make an effort to engage, it won’t happen.

In Paris, I gave a talk at Schiller International University to a group of about 25 undergraduates from around the world. I was speaking about the Benedict Option, of course, but I expected the conversation to be more about politics and culture. In fact, most of them wanted to talk about religion directly. A couple of the questions were hostile, but most were genuinely curious. I was amazed by this, and so was my host, the meeting’s organizer. More Smith:

Reflections: How did we get to this moment of disconnection from religious institutions?

Smith: I’m against blaming young people. And I don’t think church has failed. In the mid-20th century you could say there was a map in place that helped organize society. It featured well-defined units – family, religion, education, government, the military. Each had boundaries. Each had a role and respected the others. But those boundaries have broken down. The map isn’t in place. All of life is now being ordered by narratives and images that don’t reflect the old boundaries. Churches have something to say about this. They should go back again and again to the drinking well of the gospel and offer a true alternative transcendent story. If they can’t do that, if they remain saddled with moralism, then they better hang it up now.

Reflections: Where does your research take you next?

Smith: I plan to focus on parents. In our work over the years, what has hit us harder than we realized is the role of parents in shaping their children’s spirituality. Despite the arguments today that sideline parents by placing great importance on the influence of peer groups and media, we find that parents are still the most powerful sociological force in transmitting spirituality and religion to their children.

Smith has written a fair amount about this — about how the way parents model the faith for their children is the most important factor in whether or not the children keep the faith.

The takeaway point is this: good old go-along-to-get-along middle-class Christianity is a suicidal strategy in post-Christian America. It just is. This is what The Benedict Option is meant to address.

Reader and frequent commenter Rob G. recommended to me a new essay collection by Paul Kingsnorth, the English environmental activist who accepted a few years back that the world would not actually do anything meaningful to stop global warming, and that people like him would simply have to adapt. Kingsnorth is a founder of the Dark Mountain movement. Here, from its FAQ page, is what Dark Mountain is about:

The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes.

New stories are needed for dark times. Older ones need to be rediscovered. The Dark Mountain Project was created to help this happen. We promote and curate writing, storytelling, art and music rooted in place, time and nature. We stand against the comforting narratives of our age. We aim to shake up our cultural establishment, and provide a home for writers and artists who are looking with honest eyes at the real state of the world.

It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.

Rob G. suggested that I read Kingsnorth’s essay collection not because he’s a Dark Mountain enthusiast (though he may be, I dunno), but because he sees parallels between it and the Benedict Option. He’s right. From Kingsnorth’s introductory essay:

Worlds are always ending; empires are always falling; the climate has changed before; change is the only constant. These are the comforting stories we tell to get ourselves through the night. These are the words that allow us to continue to avoid looking at the enormity of what we have done and are doing. They allow us to continue to pretend, for a little while longer, that the way we are living is right and normal and inevitable and that it will continue; that these are problems that can be ironed out through the judicious application of our celebrated human cleverness. Does anybody really believe this, down at the cellular level, down in their gut? Sometimes I think that we all know, inside, in the place where we are still wild animals, what we have done. Worlds are always ending, it’s true; but not like this. This is new. This is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as humans have existed, and we have done it, and now we are going to have to live through it, if we can.

He is talking about global warming and other forms of environmental degradation. But almost everything he says here could be said, in my view, about Christianity in the West. As an anonymous Catholic priest said in this space the other day, lots of his co-religionists on both the left and the right tell themselves that if we only tweak matters this way or that, everything will come right again. It’s delusional, but it’s comforting, because it denies the radical nature of the challenge before us. Seriously, does any committed Christian really believe, down in their gut, that we’re going to pull this out by continuing to live as we are living today?

Christianity is always changing, it’s true; but not like this. This is new. The challenge liquid modernity poses to the faith is bigger than anything there has ever been for as long as the church has been upon this earth. We are going to have to live through it, if we can, without losing our faith. This is what the Benedict Option is about. More Kingsnorth:

This book is about feeling lost, and trying to find a way again in a world remaking itself at incredible speed, a world racing away from the real towards artifice and a narrow human narcissism. Our direction of travel is clear, but our destination is not. The old is dead or dying, but the new has yet to be born. At times like these, I’m not sure anybody really has any useful answers. But maybe it is possible to at least pin down some useful questions.

He’s talking about the environment. I’m talking about the church. But we see the same unwinding taking place in the fields that concern us. Kingsnorth says that on the environmental front, we face not a “crisis of economics or politics or technology, but a crisis of stories — that the tales we [are] telling ourselves about our place in the world [are] dangerously wrong, that we needed to right them… .” Yes, this is true about the church in the modern world too.

And this as well, from Kingsnorth: the realization that this process was not going to be reversed, because “most people didn’t want it to be; they were enjoying it.” Of course. In the church, most middle-class Christians don’t want to change a thing. They are enjoying MTD too much, because it asks nothing of them. Nor do the people leading religious institutions want to change. Better to manage decline politely, to not upset the world too much, and to hope that God reaches down from heaven and works some kind of miracle to turn things around.

The Benedict Option begins with the realization that nobody is coming to save us. If we want to be saved — that is, if we want to be able to hold on to the faith in the present and coming trials, and to raise children who hold on to the faith — we are going to have to take responsibility for ourselves and our local communities. We are going to have to tell ourselves different stories than the familiar happy-clappy Christian narratives that bolster bourgeois respectability and emotional well being.

The hour is very late. We are not going to reverse the tide, but maybe we can ride it out. What other choice do we have? “Religion is the most important thing in our lives. But we don’t take it seriously.” This will be our epitaph if we don’t change, and change radically.

Young readers, there are other stories about Christianity out there, stories from long ago, stories that nobody has told you. Stories that defy expectation. They exist. But you have to undertake a quest for them. You have to rediscover for yourselves “the challenging, the mysterious, the confounding.” Everything in our culture today conspires against you hearing them and taking them seriously. You have to be a rebel for orthodoxy.

By the way, here’s the cover for the Slovak edition of The Benedict Option. I love this image so much:



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