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The Fragility of Historical Memory

If Christians in the West don't embrace the past and make it live in the present, they won't have a future

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Psalm 137, verses 4-6

A new Pew religious landscape survey is out today, and it shows that 1) overall, America is becoming a less religious country, and 2) the devout are in some ways becoming more devout, and the secularization is coming from the large number of Millennials who are losing their faith.

The clear conclusion is that Christianity in America is dying because its culture is dying. Do not forget sociologist Philip Rieff’s dictum: “The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” The faith is not being passed on to the young. This is measurable. So many of us Christians think that yeah, our kids may not be so observant, but they’ll come around in the end. The faith will always be here. I think this is extremely naive, because it does not take into account the fragility of historical memory in modernity.

In a sermon he gave earlier this week, on All Saints Day, the Baptist theologian Timothy George said:

In our culture today, saints have been replaced by celebrities. We know a lot about celebrities. Movie stars, sports figures, icons of politics and business. Celebrities have something about them that attract our attention: they are wealthy, they are glamorous, they are charismatic—they are celebrities! But saints are not celebrities. Saints are those whose lives, shaped by holiness, have been given freely in service for others. True, some of the great saints in the history of the church have become well known across time: St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Francis. Yet most of the saints were not well-known in their own time. Some of them were little known at all. Perpetua was a mother pregnant with her child when she was called to witness to her faith in the arena at Carthage. Patrick, the apostle to the Irish, was a slave, taken away from his homeland to a foreign land. He declared, “I was like a rock stuck in mud until God by his grace lifted me up and gave me a new life.”

A little closer to our time is Jim Eliot, who, with his four friends, was speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador, where he had gone to share the message of Jesus Christ and his love. Or Maximilian Kolbe, a forty-seven year old Polish priest, number 16620 at Auschwitz, where he offered his life in exchange for another prisoner whom he hardly knew. In their own day, saints often received little reward, little applause. But now in glory they shine.

In my Benedict Option talk in Colorado Springs last weekend, I spoke of the importance today for us Christians to thicken our ties to the stories of the saints. We need to bring the narratives of the lives of these Christian heroes of ages past into our imaginations today, in part so we can know what we are to do by reflecting on what they did. We need to remember who they were so we can know who we are. Their stories are the stories of the Christian people. Christians who do not collectively remember their stories will lose their identity.

I have spoken of the Benedict Option as a project of remembering as resistance. The urban theorist Jane Jacobs was not a religious person, but she described our time as the beginning of a “Dark Age” in that it was characterized by mass forgetting. We have deliberately cut ourselves off from our own history; the past has no hold on us. We have maximized our own freedom by minimizing any narrative that tells us who we are and what we must do. We think of ourselves as self-created. There is no “Great Chain of Being” to the modern American, no order extrinsic to ourselves that we belong to. I think again of Rowan Williams’s remarks on Dostoevsky, which I highlighted in this recent post on the novel Laurus:

RW: Dostoevsky famously said: “If there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” It’s a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky’s not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.

[Interviewer]: And this ability can’t come from our experience of love and art, say?

RW: How do you see to it that one thousand flowers bloom and not one thousand weeds? The problem is one of the irreduceable divergence of moral ideals.

This is our condition. The contemporary Christian may look at this and thank God that he is not like those poor lost secularists, but he is not nearly as free from this trap as he thinks he is. In the many conversations I had over the weekend in Colorado Springs, it came up several times, in several ways, that Evangelical Christians are especially vulnerable to the shifting winds of culture, and tend to fall for faddishness. Evangelicals told me over and over that there is little or no consciousness of church history among their tribe. If any non-scholarly person thinks about the history of the Church at all, they said, it’s as if the Church took a big leap from the book of Acts to the Reformation.

Thing is, there may be some particularly Evangelical aspects to this phenomenon, but I don’t believe (like writing out 1,200 to 1,500 years of Church history), but I don’t believe American Catholics are much better in practice (the same may be true of US Orthodox, but I don’t have enough experience to say). This is not, obviously, because they are Catholics; Catholicism is a form of Christianity that in theory is profoundly shaped by history and maintaining the living continuity of the Church from Pentecost till today. This consciousness is barely present in contemporary American Catholicism, not because Catholics are Catholic, but because they are Americans, which is to say, they are moderns.

To be an American is to live in the present (“What do I want Now? What works for me Now?”). I would have said at one point that to be an American is to live in the future too, always looking ahead to the next new thing, but it seems to me that we don’t seriously plan for the future now, as in projecting ourselves imaginatively forward into the next generations, and allowing our present choices to be guided by a consideration of the effects they are likely to have on our children, their children, and their children’s children. To do so would limit the Self, and that is one thing we cannot have.

A reader of this blog, considering the long, much-updated post about my Colorado Springs experience, wrote to offer a thought about dissatisfied Evangelicals:

I find that most such folks hunger for a “traditional” Christianity but ONLY on their own terms. A “traditional” Christianity, but one which leaves them as the sole authority and judge over what that “tradition” actually is. For example, on such foundational things as church authority, worship, sacramental life (eucharist, particularly the major stumbling block of “closed communion,” confession, ordination (particularly women’s ordination, and which I believe will inevitably include homosexual as well), and such fundamental paradigm shifts such as what it means to be the “Body of Christ”, with respect to membership thereof (most of the members of these congregations move freely in and out of “traditional”, or on to the next fad, depending on their needs and desires of the moment).

The reader went on to express sympathy with Evangelicals who see value in expressions of traditional, liturgical Christianity, but also doubt that Evangelical dabbling in the trappings of Tradition will work without submission to the actual Tradition.

I think the reader is on to something, but I think this is very much a lesson that Catholics, Orthodox, and other Christians with deeper roots in liturgy and historical Christianity must ponder as well. I’ve mentioned many times before the testimony of my ex-Orthodox friends who say that all that rich liturgy and roots in the early church did nothing to hold them, because in their experience, it did not point them to a deeper relationship with God. It was all about worshiping the ethnos. And, there is a temptation easy to fall for within Orthodoxy, one identified by the late Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann, in his posthumously published Journalswhich is a marvelous book:

Since the Orthodox world was and is inevitably and even radically changing, we have to recognize, as the first symptom of the crisis, a deep schizophrenia which has slowly penetrated the Orthodox mentality: life in an unreal, nonexisting world, firmly affirmed as real and existing. Orthodox consciousness did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life. . . . In brief, it did not notice history.

The temptation is to mistake Traditionalism for Tradition. As theologian Jaroslav Pelikan memorably phrased it,

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

Now, I know plenty of Catholics who have little if any regard for their faith’s traditions, and who treat their Catholicism like people who have cabinets full of beautiful china and drawers full of silver, but who choose to eat off of paper plates and with plastic forks — and who see no difference. Metaphorically speaking, they would rather eat McDonalds for Thanksgiving and say there’s no difference between that and the traditional turkey-and-dressing feast. It’s all ballast anyway, and besides, the only thing that matters is to eat what makes you happy. Most Catholics like this are not hostile to Catholic tradition, only indifferent to it. And then you have those Catholics, especially theologians, who are downright antagonistic towards it, and who want to destroy it (read this; it will unnerve you).

The point is, tradition — including liturgy and institutions — are necessary, but not sufficient to guarantee the passing-on of the faith. Last night, I finished reading the galleys of an excellent new book coming out in the spring, by the Evangelical writers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, in which they confront the hard challenges of living faithfully in post-Christian America. One of the things they point out, based on research data, is that among Evangelicals, the authority of Scripture is slipping.

Based on my purely anecdotal research (= talking with a diverse number of Evangelicals around the country), this is happening in part because Evangelical institutions are failing to teach Scripture as they once did. That, and, as an Evangelical who had been raised in a strict fundamentalist family told me last weekend, some of them are teaching it in a way that is so rigid and thoughtless (e.g., as a divine rulebook) that it cannot withstand the clash with culture outside its confines. The example this particular Evangelical used is the way many conservative churches within that tradition argue against homosexuality by citing decontextualized Bible verses, and fail to explore the deeper teaching in the Bible about sexuality, purpose, and human nature. If the only understanding a young Evangelical has about homosexuality is that ten or fifteen Bible verses condemn it, and that’s the extent of the Bible’s message about it, she will be susceptible to the Levitical sophistry of pro-gay antagonists, e.g., taking commandments from the book of Leviticus and saying, “If you take Leviticus seriously on homosexuality, then you are bound to take Leviticus seriously on not wearing wool and linen together. If you don’t take fashion advice from Leviticus, you shouldn’t take advice of sexual morality from it either.”

But I ramble. Lord, don’t I ramble.

Here’s a really interesting 1986 NYRB interview with Czeslaw Milosz. The interviewer (“G”) is Nathan Gardels. Excerpts below; emphases are all mine:

G: You’ve written about civic virtue in the West declining to such an extent that “the young generation ceases to view the state as its own, worthy of being served and defended even at the sacrifice of their lives.” Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist, says similar things. “The real evil of liberal capitalist societies is the predominant nihilism, not a nihilism which seeks the critical negation of established values, but a passive indifference to values.”

Where does this come from in the West?

M: The indifference, even the anti-American posture, which I have observed while teaching at Berkeley is very shocking. It is very hard to understand. Probably it means that still I come from a very traditional world as far as values are concerned. I have been witnessing in America the subversion of the ethic of the working class which was God, my country, my family.

As to the causes for all this, one can go back infinitely. I link it with a very profound transformation as far as religious imagination is concerned. There are some people who are optimistic about the state of religion today, but I am rather pessimistic. I consider that both believers and nonbelievers are in the same boat as far as the difficulty of translating religion into tangible images. Or maybe we can say that the transformation that is going on in religion reflects something extremely profound in the sense of nihilism. I am inclined to believe that only when profound shifts appear, for example a new science, will there be a basic change.

What do I mean?

At the present moment science is in the process of transition from the science of the nineteenth century to a new approach, in physics particularly. The whole society, as we observe in America, lives by the diluted “pure rationalism” of nineteenth-century science. What young people are taught in high school and the university is a naive picture of the world.

In this naive view, we live in a universe that is composed of eternal space and eternal time. Time extends without limits, moving in a linear way from the past to the future, infinitely. Functionally speaking, mankind is not that different from a virus or a bacteria. He is a speck in the vast universe.

Such a view corresponds to the kind of mass killing we’ve seen in this century. To kill a million or two million, or ten, what does it matter? Hitler, after all, was brought up on the vulgarized brochures of nineteenth-century science.

This is something completely different from a vision of the world before Copernicus, where man was of central importance. Probably the transformation I sense will restore in some way the anthropocentric vision of the universe.

These are processes, of course, that will take a long time.

G: In your writings, you link nihilism to memory. “The eye of the nihilist,” you quote Nietzsche writing in 1887, “is unfaithful to his memories; it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves.” In your Nobel lecture, you said that our planet is characterized “by the refusal to remember.”

M: If nihilism, as Nietzsche says, consists in the loss of memory, recovery of memory is a weapon against nihilism. There is probably no other country as full of historical memory as Poland, and somehow that memory provides a foundation for values. There is a link, a feeling of profound affinity and identity with past generations. With memory, classical virtues once again acquire value. In Polish poetry, memory goes back to Rome and Greece. There is a feeling of the continuity of European civilization. We find that a certain moral, even natural, law is inscribed in centuries of human civilization.

I feel that the greatest asset that my part of Europe received in the history of the twentieth century, the privilege of our being the avant-garde of inhumanity, is that the questions of true and false, good and evil, became operative again. Namely, good and evil, true and false, have been discovered not through philosophical discourse, but empirically, like the taste of bread.

In my opinion this is one of the secrets—maybe the main secret—of the mass participation of the Poles in religious rites today. One can say that this participation is purely political, that religion is popular because it marks political opposition of the nation to the state. But there is more than this. Nonbelievers and believers alike take part in the pilgrimages because they share the same notion of good and evil. And, the Church maintains, there is a convergence between believers and nonbelievers. Here is good, here is evil. This affirmation of basic values of good and evil brings people together.

G: Do we have a truthful way of thinking, of judging good or evil in the West?

M: Yes, but under the condition that intellectuals and writers do not insist on forcing nihilism in their descriptions of the world as the only valid image from the point of view of the literary establishment. Of course, every period has its fashions. To break away from fads is extremely difficult. Nihilistic presentation of the world is a fad today. And if there is an original talent, like Singer, who doesn’t care about it, he immediately grows in stature.

I feel great affinity with Singer because we both come from religious backgrounds, I from Roman Catholicism and he from Judaism. Constantly, we deal with similar metaphysical problems.

I have taught Dostoevsky for many years. And I have been fascinated by his prophetic insight into what was happening at that time in Europe and in Russia. He evinced a very deeply seated fear of the future, of the nihilism that would appear.

For me, the religious dimension is extremely important. I feel that everything depends on whether people are pious or not pious. Reverence toward being, which can be formulated in strictly religious terms or more general terms, that is the basic value. Piety protects us against nihilism.

But what happens when that very piety is infected with nihilism, in the Nietzschean sense that Milosz indicates? That is, what kind of condition do we enter when our religion embraces wholeheartedly the modern refusal to remember? Can a religious sense so construed possibly be an effective bulwark against nihilism?

I do not think it can.Piety that is based on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is worse than no protection at all, because it lulls parents into thinking that they are giving their children what they need to carry on the tradition in an embattled age. In fact, they’re giving them armor made of paper and paste, and a sword forged from Play-doh.

Yet Christians who think they are doing better by their kids by enmeshing them in the aesthetic trappings of historical Christianity without committing to the spirit and substance of same are only embracing a more vivid and interesting illusion. If you go deep into the Pew numbers out today, you will see that on nearly every measure of piety, Evangelicals are much stronger than Catholics and Orthodox Christians. As someone who was once Catholic and is now Orthodox, I believe strongly that Catholics and Orthodox have ecclesiological advantages over Evangelicals when it comes to holding onto the faith in the long run. But the truth is, right now, Evangelicals are putting us to shame with their devotion.

For example, when asked what they look to most for guidance on questions of right and wrong, 52 percent of Evangelicals say “religion,” but only 22 percent of Catholics do, and 25 percent of Orthodox (the latter two favor “common sense,” by 57 and 52 percent, respectively). Unsurprisingly, I guess, only 28 percent of Evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while a majority of Catholics (57 percent) and Orthodox (54 percent) do. On abortion, 33 percent of Evangelicals say it should be mostly or entirely legal, while 48 percent of Catholics do, and a disgraceful 62 percent of Orthodox do. It would be nice to report that Americans with feet planted in the ancient church traditions were more likely to be historically orthodox on key moral issues addressed by the faith, but it’s not true. This is why I strongly believe that Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox interested in the Benedict Option have to work it out together. Evangelicals have to learn how to embrace the Christian past, the “tangible images” of historical Christian culture, and the stability of historical forms — or the passionate conviction that keeps them relatively strong now will dissipate. Catholics and Orthodox are going to have to learn how to revive their inherited forms with much more passion and conviction, or they will wither.

I had never heard of the I.B. Singer novel The Penitent until I read it mentioned by Milosz. I read the Author’s Note on the Amazon.com page (yes, of course I ordered the book), and found a truth that is central to the Benedict Option. Singer says that there is no “final escape from the human dilemma, a permanent rescue for all time.

The powers that assail us are often cleverer than every one of our possible defenses; it is a battle which lasts from the cradle to the grave. All our devices are temporary, and valid only for one specific attack, not for the entire moral war. In this sense I feel that resistance and humility, faith and doubt, despair and hope can dwell in our spirit simultaneously. Actually, a total solution would void the greatest gift that God has bestowed upon mankind – free choice.”

This is the same truth Dostoevsky presents us in the parable of The Grand Inquisitor. There is no Benedict Option that can unfailingly defend us from nihilism, unless we refuse the divine gift of freedom, and choose slavery. Still, if we want to preserve our Christian freedom, and not be slaves to our passions, and to the present moment, we have no choice but to remember who we are, and pass on that memory effectively to the young. Teaching doctrine matters, but it’s not the most important thing. Creating a thick culture of Christianity is. Please do not fail to take seriously the words of church historian Robert Louis Wilken:

But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

… Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.

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.

That is the reason for the Benedict Option. Resistance requires remembrance. Remembrance requires enculturation. The culture of modernity, of modern America, annihilates memory, sees memory as its enemy. If we forget Jerusalem in our exile in American Babylon, we will be assimilated and cease to exist. If we small-o orthodox Christians in the West do not lay claim to the past, and make it a living, vital part of our present, we are not going to have a future.