What’s Really At Stake
Today I’m at a conference on the Reformation at Trinity School for Ministry, an Evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition. What a great place this is. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to me to come to places like Trinity, to talk to people, to see how faithful they are and how hopeful they are for the future. It’s not false optimism, at least it doesn’t seem like that to me. People know how serious the challenges facing the church are. Yet they strike me as preparing themselves to meet those challenges as creative minorities within this post-Christian culture.
This strikes me as hopeful in part because it is realistic. Yesterday I had a conversation with one conferee who told me some pretty distressing things about the state of the church in his part of the country. Yet I found that encouraging in one specific sense: there was none of this happy-clappy jibber-jabber meant to disguise the nature and degree of the crisis. The first step to effective resistance is understanding the nature of the crisis.
I find that the more I talk about The Benedict Option, the clearer this becomes to me. For example, someone here said yesterday that what we are really dealing with in these various crises is what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.” That is to say, when we argue about, say, LGBT issues, what we’re really arguing about (at least as Christians) is what it means to be human.
I think LGBT folks and their advocates would agree. For them, one’s full humanity requires being able to express sexual and psychosexual desires, because these things are part of their identity. For traditional Christians, being fully human (in the sense of fulfilling our nature) requires ordering those desires to the ideal God reveals to us in Scripture and in nature. Understand me clearly: I’m not saying that LGBT people are “less than human,” any more than I would say that someone who cheats on his wife is less than human. Rather, I’m saying that all of us realize our full humanity when we live by certain truths embedded within Creation. In this sense, sin can be seen as a failure to be fully human, i.e., to fulfill God’s will for ourselves.
At the heart of this debate are rival ideas of what man is, and beyond that, what matter is. You cannot get more radical than this. Does matter have intrinsic meaning, or does it only mean what we say it means? If it has intrinsic meaning, then how can we know what that meaning is? If it doesn’t have intrinsic meaning, then are there any limits on how we treat it? These metaphysical questions entail the anthropological question, “What is man?” Is there a givenness to human nature, and if so, what is it? If there is not, then what is wrong with a biological male declaring that he is a female, despite what his genes and his body testify? Is reality merely a human construct? And so on.
My point here is simply to say that until and unless we traditionalists, Christians and otherwise, confront the core questions driving these culture-war conflicts, we will never be able to think through them and to defend what we know to be true.
The battle lines are not where many partisans on both sides think they are. Consider the crisis at Evergreen State in Washington, where Social Justice Warriors and their faculty allies are intimidating dissenters, physically and otherwise. Michael Aaron calls what’s going on at the college “a battle for modernity”. In this, he says, trads like me don’t really matter. Excerpts:
It is this dichotomy between postmodern and modern that is the most important takeaway from this entire affair. In many ways, the old left/right dichotomy no longer applies. Instead we are faced with a three-part distinction between postmodern/modern/traditional. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and discuss why they are particularly important today.
Starting with the most right-leaning, the traditionalists. These folks do not like the direction in which modernity is headed, and so are looking to go back to an earlier time when they believe society was better. They may disagree with same-sex marriage, label sexual promiscuity as “deviance,” and feel threatened by racial and demographic changes in Western society. These folks include typical status-quo conservatives, Evangelical Christians as well as more nefarious types such as white nationalists and the “alt right”. Even though there is much furor in the media about the threat that these groups represent, I would argue that they have largely been pushed to the fringes in terms of their social influence, not withstanding the election of Trump who was actually opposed by many traditionalists such as the Never Trumpers.
Indeed, it is between the modernists and postmodernists where the future of society is being fought. Modernists are those who believe in human progress within a classical Western tradition. They believe that the world can continuously be improved through science, technology, and rationality. Unlike traditionalists, they seek progress rather than reversal, but what they share in common is an interest in preserving the basic structures of Western society. Most modernists could be classified as centrists (either left or right-leaning), classical liberals and libertarians.
Postmodernists, on the other hand, eschew any notion of objectivity, perceiving knowledge as a construct of power differentials rather than anything that could possibly be mutually agreed upon. Informed by such thinkers as Foucault and Derrida, science therefore becomes an instrument of Western oppression; indeed, all discourse is a power struggle between oppressors and oppressed. In this scheme, there is no Western civilization to preserve—as the more powerful force in the world, it automatically takes on the role of oppressor and therefore any form of equity must consequently then involve the overthrow of Western “hegemony.” These folks form the current Far Left, including those who would be described as communists, socialists, anarchists, Antifa, as well as social justice warriors (SJWs). These are all very different groups, but they all share a postmodernist ethos.
More — and pay close attention to this:
All of this matters because, whether people are overtly aware of it or not, their beliefs and actions are implicitly guided by one of these three world-views. A person may have never attended an Ivy League gender studies class, but if they belong to and agree with the ideas of a typical urban, liberal, hipster milieu, they are very likely subscribing to a postmodernist ideology, even if they’ve never cracked open Lyotard.
In the end, the Weinstein/Evergreen State affair poses a significant crossroads to modern society, extending well beyond the conflict occurring on campus. Evergreen State represents the natural culmination of postmodern thought—roving mobs attempting to silence dissenting thought merely based on race, informed by far left theories that weaponize a victim status drawn solely from immutable, innate traits. Unfortunately, I cannot place full blame on the students either, as they have been indoctrinated with these ideas on the very campus that is now serving as the petri dish for applied postmodernism.
Aaron’s piece — read the whole thing — is really important, in large part because he points out that the reason the progressive administrators at Evergreen State have been so weak in the face of the postmodernist mobs is because confronting them would require the administrators to re-evaluate the things they have been teaching these kids. Says Aaron:
[T]aking a stand against the students would require administrators and professors to re-evaluate the meaning and value of the entire raison d’etre of their adult professional careers. Holding on to madness is a way of forestalling dealing with the grief that comes with the realization that one’s higher purpose has been a fraud. I am not sure of the final outcome, as this kind of process is long, difficult, and very, very painful.
This is true, and it’s perhaps ever more true, and important, for traditional/conservative Christians, and Christian leaders, to grasp about ourselves and where we stand. I keep pointing out that we have been defeated not because that gives me any pleasure, but because the Faith is the most important thing to me, and I want to do my utmost to keep it alive, and keep the Church strong through this time of great trial.
Aaron is correct that the real fight right now is between Modernists and Post-Modernists, but it’s not simply because Trads have been pushed to the margins of the public square. It is because within the ranks of the Trads, we have absorbed Modernist ideas so thoroughly that our own people don’t understand how weak our position is, and how little sense it makes to ordinary Christians who have been catechized by post-Christian culture. As an Evangelical professor said yesterday at this conference, the basic Evangelical stance — that it’s just God and the individual, and everything else is extraneous — is not enough to withstand what we’re dealing with today. I would add that the overwhelming number of non-Evangelical American Christians share the “just God and the individual” point of view, in that they believe they have the right, as individuals, to pick and choose how they will relate to God, without accepting any authority that they don’t wish to accept.
Facing the roots of the crisis within the Church requires pastors to rethink the entire raison d’etre of their entire professional careers. And it requires the laity to rethink the way we have lived as Christians. The process is long, difficult, and very, very painful. It is not surprising that so few want to do it. This, I think, accounts for the willful distortion of the Benedict Option message by so many. If they can say that Dreher is telling everybody to head for the hills and build compounds (so to speak), they can safely dismiss anything else I have to say, because that message is clearly too extreme.
The thing is, if we don’t confront the core of the crisis, we will be destroyed by it. What we Christians have been doing for a very long time is not sufficient. We are fighting a battle that has already been lost, because it is familiar, and we know how to do that (we think). At the conference yesterday, an Evangelical professor who teaches at an Evangelical college admitted that his four children — all young adults in their late teens and twenties — do not have the Christian faith. As a Christian father, this pierced my heart. None of us have the ability to control our children and what they believe and don’t believe, but we have to form them as best we can. In the context of this particular discussion, the professor was arguing that we Christians today have to do some things very, very differently, because we are not passing the faith on.
Later, in conversation with a pastor, I heard him speak a difficult truth: That we don’t have a clear idea of what to do; that we are going to have to figure this out for ourselves. St. Benedict and his men emerged from a chaotic and traumatized society, it is true, but they did not have to face the metaphysical and philosophical radicalism we do today. This is liquid modernity. This is why the Benedict Option is about building arks to ride out the flood.
We really are talking about the abolition of man, the abolition of rationality, and the abolition of truth. It is worse than you think, and later than you think. As Michael Aaron says, you don’t have to have taken any classes in postmodern theory to be formed by it and driven by it. It is built into the structures of society under liquid modernity. If we don’t build Benedict Option arks, we are going to drown. Simple as that. Our arks may not be seaworthy, but the alternative is oblivion.