Fear-lined delights

Anthony Esolen writes:

I’m reading, for one of my classes at Thomas More College, Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel set in the last days of Saints Peter and Paul, Quo Vadis? The Rome of that imperial matricide, mass murderer, poetaster, and buffoon, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus Nero, was “a nest of evil,” “a seat of power, madness but also order, the capital of the world and also mankind’s most terrible oppressor, bringer of laws and peace, all-powerful, invulnerable, eternal,” so wicked, that Peter cannot fathom why God should lead him to build the Church upon such a foundation. Even the libertine Petronius understands that such a Rome cannot endure. “A society based on brute force and violence,” thinks that arbiter of taste, “on cruelty beyond anything possible among the barbarians, and on such universal viciousness and debauchery, could not survive forever. Rome ruled mankind, but it was also its cesspool and its seeping ulcer. It reeked of death and corpses. Death’s shadow lay over its decomposing life.”

Rome, pagan Rome, was exhausted. She would, in the next few centuries, produce a few fine public buildings, some aqueducts and roads, one near-great poet (Juvenal), a sad philosopher king (Marcus Aurelius), and a brief efflorescence of Platonic mysticism not uninfluenced by Christianity. That was it.

The west, the post-Christian west, is exhausted. She exceeds ancient Rome in population by twenty to one, she enjoys plentiful food and drink, and labor-saving (and labor-eliminating) machines, and the moral heritage of its Christian past, mainly spent down and in many places mortgaged. But she is exhausted. …

Quo Vadis? is a story of the irruption of the Christian faith into that exhausted world. Its protagonist, a young patrician named Marcus Vinicius, learns of a God who makes the Roman pantheon look ridiculous and shabby, and a force, a new thing in the world, Christian love, that the world dreads and yet desperately needs. Greece brought the world beauty, and Rome brought the world power, says his uncle Petronius, but what do these Christians bring? From what Petronius can see, all they bring is gloom; they spoil what few and fleeting pleasures are available to man in this life. But by the end of the novel Petronius admits that it is not so, though he cannot share in this new thing, this adoration of the God of love.

Vinicius will become a baptized follower of Christ. His passionate and violent desire for a young Christian woman—whom he would kidnap and rape rather than not enjoy—will be transformed, through his own defeat and humiliation, and a veritable miracle of Christ that saves her from the bloodthirsty Nero, into a love that he had never known, and that requires him to change his life forever. So he writes to Petronius, pleading with him to become Christian also. “Compare your fear-lined delights,” he says, “your concern for material objects when none of you is sure of tomorrow, your orgies that seem like funeral suppers, and you’ll find the answer. Come to our thyme-smelling mountains, to the shade of our olive groves, and to our ivy-covered coast. Peace waits for you here, the kind of peace you haven’t known in years. And love waits for you here, in hearts that truly love you. You have a good and noble soul, Petronius. You deserve to be happy. Your brilliant mind can recognize the truth, and when you’ve seen it, you will come to love it.”

“Compare your fear-lined delights … and you’ll find the answer.”

Liquid modernity

Rod Dreher introduced the concept of “liquid modernity” into my life through his Benedict Option book. Dreher writes a bit about liquid modernity in light of Sen. Ben Sasse’s recent remarks:

This weekend I am at an event called The Gathering, for Christian philanthropists. …

Yesterday I heard a wonderful lunchtime address by Sen. Ben Sasse, who told the audience that the US is going through an unprecedented historic transition right now, driven by economic restructuring, technology, and other things.

“We’re entering an era for the first time in human history where people are going to hit forty to fifty [years old], where their entire skill set will cease to exist, because of technology,” he said. Sasse went on to discuss the strong challenges this new world pose to human community.

According to Sasse, social science data show that a human being needs four basic things to be happy:

  • A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
  • A family
  • Close friends
  • Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”

Sasse said that technology and automation is going to rob more and more people of meaningful work — and that whether we like it or not, this is going to have tremendous impact socially and psychologically.

He also quoted some statistics showing that loneliness, isolation, and the withering of friendship in recent decades has gone up markedly.

In the years to come, he said, we will see lots of confusion as fragmented, atomized people scramble to find a “new tribe.” The senator said that Christians will have to “figure out how to revalue place and the local at a time when place and the local is evaporating for most people.”

He ended by urging the philanthropist to “invest time and treasure” figuring out how to teach people to do this, and to make it possible.

Whether the senator realized it or not, he’s talking about sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity,” in which nothing is solid. The world Sen. Sasse describes is Bauman’s world.

Alright, so what does liquid modernity really mean? Here what Zygmunt Bauman thought:

Liquid Modernity is sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s term for the present condition of the world as contrasted with the “solid” modernity that preceded it. According to Bauman, the passage from “solid” to “liquid” modernity created a new and unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. Social forms and institutions no longer have enough time to solidify and cannot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life plans, so individuals have to find other ways to organize their lives.

Bauman’s vision of the current world is one in which individuals must to splice together an unending series of short-term projects and episodes that don’t add up to the kind of sequence to which concepts like “career” and “progress” could be meaningfully applied. These fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability.[2]Liquid times are defined by uncertainty. In liquid modernity the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty.[3] The time it takes to fully consider options and make fully formed decisions has fragmented.

As society progresses, the creation of value liquefies and begins to flow unfettered. The production time it takes for value to occur declines. To survive, products and interfaces must quickly flow from spaces of high-resistance and poor usability to spaces of low resistance and user interaction. Successful interfaces induce a liquid state of flow in their users. Environments are becoming aware of relevant information, and are able to pull context-aware data into play when necessary. Devices can be small on the outside, but large on the inside.

If we’re living in a “liquid” time, that suggests that there really can be no meaningfully progressive sort of politics or mainstream social consciousness. It’s a radical idea, because it suggests that to thrive requires laying down the sort of social and physical roots that so much of the 20th century’s technology freed us from, starting with the combustion engine and automobiles and reaching its zenith with the internet.

Human dignity’s roots

Josh Herring writes that the notion of human dignity is a uniquely defining characteristic of Western culture:

I teach in a secular classical school, where we uphold transcendence and human dignity as educational principles, but without the doctrinal apparatus of theology to support our claims. Instead of the direct claims of theology, we follow the winding paths of wisdom derived from the humanities. Grounded in the Western tradition, we study literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye towards building a sound anthropology. By the time they leave Thales Academy, students should hold firm convictions about the value of the human person and live in light of those convictions. The study of history is complex, allowing students to see the different ways humans have lived, believed, and thought, and weigh which patterns lead to flourishing. …

Later studies in Greek thought reveal another vital dialectic that contributed to human freedom. Hesiod’s poetry shows humanity as puny creatures in the Greek cosmos, echoing Homer’s portrayal of the Trojan War as a game for the entertainment of bored gods and goddesses. With the flowering of Greek philosophy in classical Athens came the teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (alongside their contemporaries), who asserted that man, the “rational animal,” is capable of comprehending the world around him. This rational impulse allowed true sciences to develop through the centuries (although it gave rise to theories like Thales of Miletus’ conviction that all things are composed of water).

Having moved through historical, literary, and philosophical studies in antiquity and the classical era, students recognize the value Christianity bestows on the human person. Within the context of a Roman pursuit of universal justice and law, they study the birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the pieces fit together: this image-bearing yet fallen creature capable of rational thought contains such worth in the eyes his Creator that Christ came to redeem mankind from the rule of sin and death. This perspective makes sense of C.S. Lewis’ claim in The Weight of Glory when he writes:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”…

The West has long celebrated freedom, but that freedom did not develop in a vacuum. The ability of human beings from around the world to act freely in economic, religious, social, and political spheres grows out of key convictions that contribute to the rich tapestry of the Western tradition. It is not enough to celebrate freedoms without understanding how they developed. If we cut off the roots that nourish our concept of freedom, the tree of liberty will collapse under the rot of licentiousness. Cultivating an historical consciousness and a sense of gratitude to those men and women of the past reminds us that we are the heirs of many blessings. It is our responsibility to know our inheritance, act as good stewards of it, and pass it on to the next generation.

In the presence…

Rod Dreher shared the comments of a Muslim reader of his last month, and I made a note to share the entire comment (on the subject of The Benedict Option) to share. It’s beautiful:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.

Kamran

Wounds require recovery

A college professor writes the below, in support of Rod Dreher and the larger value of the Benedict Option, which is the strategic (not wholesale!) withdrawal of Christians from secular culture. There’s lots to his defense, which is a response to common Benedict Option criticisms, but this I think is particularly important as a reason opponents of the Benedict Option are naive:

A complacency about the state of the church. It’s bad enough that Ryn et al. are willfully blind to how bad things are out in the world and how things have failed. They also think things are hunky-dory in the church or at least their own part of it. Well, sorry to say, the evidence is strongly to the contrary. Sunday-morning-only feel-good MTD is no match for our culture. Sure, at the end of the day the Ben Op boils down to “Be the Church,” but we are so, so, so far from the world of the Tipi Loschi and the monks of Norcia yet oblivious to how poorly it is going and how much more interior work we have to do. Your alarmism is far preferable to their complacency. That is not just for monastics, but for all believers.

We all need to be far more intentional about our spiritual life, and far more dedicated to building community and planning for the Flood that is upon us, daubing our arks with pitch and preparing to stay afloat.

This is where I think you need to be more overt: the Ben Op is indeed a shift in emphasis, in tone, in focus, and in energy. Sure, fight some public battles. But check out of the culture far more, care about the politics far less, direct our time, talent, and treasures far more to religious and cultural matters than political ones. Some inward turn is necessary, and our outward turn should be more about religious witness and missionary activity than straight politics, and our straight politics should be more about religious liberty than anything else.

I think that checking out of the culture far more than most of us do is terribly important. People of Ryn’s age have no clue how badly their own grandchildren and nephews and nieces are being formed by it, and how that is the most immediate threat–we have met the enemy and he is us.

Remedying cultural malaise

Nathan Huffstutler writes:

I have a confession to make: I’m almost to the point where I don’t want to follow the news anymore.

Life can be exhausting in a nation of people who are constantly outraged at something. People seem to be losing a sense of respect for others. Our corporate and political leaders seem to be getting more arrogant, more corrupt, and less willing to actually solve problems.

But in the midst of this frantic, stressful world, I’m thankful for the moments when I can sit down and read a book. I’m especially thankful for writers who help me slow down and stay sane. One of them is Welsh poet R. S. Thomas. ….

Thomas’s poetry offers several ways to stay sane in dark times:

1. We can reconnect with nature

Thomas’s poetry reminds us that despite its flaws, this world is a beautiful place, and life itself is a gift. Thomas paid close attention to the beauty of his land, and his poetry shows an eye for detail.

2. We can focus on the individuals in our local communities, not huge, abstract problems out of our control

Despite his frustration with changes in his world, Thomas was fascinated by the people of his community, and his poetry includes some amazing sketches of individual human beings.

3. We can remember people of the past who have found hope in dark times

Thomas seems to have been deeply afflicted with depression and doubt. And yet he disciplined himself to remember the community of souls who had gone through dark times before, and who had found hope.

Huffstutler is writing about one particular poet, but draws out three core principles for living a healthy life. It’s about this time every four years that I get about as sick as possible from the media maelstrom of the national election season. Obviously this cycle it’s particularly bad. Withdrawing at least mentality but maybe also physically from the scene of this drama can be a healthy response.

The religion of America is America

Dan McCarthy’s observation about the American character has stuck with me since first reading it a few years ago:

“The Religion of America is America.”

We have both a robust and flexible social and legal culture, our entrepreneurial instincts keep us healthy, and our military and good intentions make the world both safe and pleasant. Does America exist to make the world “safe for democracy?” Adopt a global humanitarian mission? Export our entrepreneurial habits abroad? Export our cultural attitudes abroad? Solve problems of global peace? Commerce?

All of the above, and more. It’s in this sense that the American ideology is basically a religious impulse—a missionary impulse to shape global attitudes and cultures. We are unique in this way, in our ability to adopt a sort of cultural colonialism without recognizing what we’re doing as even potentially nefarious.

Consider just the global institutions post-World War II: the United Nations, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the World Bank, the International Court of Justice, etc. These are all institutions whose defaults are basically Western and usually American-default views on what constitute human rights. These institutions, I believe, have done more good than harm.

The extent to which we shape global attitudes and approaches can go to our head, fueling our ambitions as much as our vices. Our belief in ourself as an historically distinct force helped us reach the moon within 9 years of President Kennedy’s call to the skies. But it’s also what made George W. Bush believe that our enemies “hate us for our freedom.” And it’s what let Barack Obama hail his own politics as marking a moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

The religion of America is America. I think this should be understood as a call to pride as much as to caution about our place in the world.

Redeeming the time

“The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.” —T.S. Eliot

As much as Rod Dreher and others are contemplating a more formal Benedict Option for Christian interaction and, sometimes, strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture, it’s important to note that the shift from Christian to secular mainstream culture is a process that’s been underway for roughly a century.

In other words, we’re probably coming close to the “end of the beginning” of the shift to a non-Christian set of cultural defaults. The shift to gender fluidity, increasing hostility toward Christian institutions existing in the public square with their own cultural defaults, and other changes are probably the start of the next phase of this change, which could last decades or centuries in the extreme.

The shift in cultural attitudes is a process that will likely continue for centuries. The next dark age of our culture will feel different—this time characterized by material abundance rather than privation, for instance—but its essence will be the same of every dark age, which is alienation from knowledge about who we are, why we are, and what we were born for.

There’s no reason to panic about any of this, or even necessarily to bemoan this shift. It is, as they say, what it is. Sobriety is the context for “redeeming the time.”

American protestantism in context

Rod Dreher recently shared a reader’s message to him on the Benedict Option, and his perspective as a professor at a small Christian college:

As a “Ben-Oppish” commitment, my wife and I usually open up our house to anyone who needs a place to stay, for free. We’ve used the guest room for a professor who lived there for a couple years, and for a friend of my wife’s who had some serious family issues, but usually it’s my own students who have the greatest need. In the last month we’ve had two students staying with us for various amounts of time (and one of them brought his brother). The experience of being in close contact with a semi-random cross-section of millennials is really eye-opening.

Let’s talk about young men, since I know more of them. Young white male millennials (the demographic group I have most contact with, due to teaching science/engineering) pretty much live online around the clock during their leisure time. Faithful to the cliche, they enjoy playing computer games and watching streaming media content — but more to the point, they tend to organize their extended social networks around those leisure activities, and those networks exist largely in a virtual world. That world is universally scrubbed free of any trace of religious content, aside from a few vestigial holiday greetings. It’s a world in which the church has no presence and might as well not exist, the spiritual equivalent of tribes in a deep jungle in 19th century Africa before the arrival of European missionaries.

To provide some sense of its scale: The most subscribed YouTube channel, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, has 44 million subscribers. He can routinely generate five million views in a day. …

Let’s compare that subscriber base to religious denominations. Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination, have about 15 million members. The Mormons are about the same size, if you want to count them as Protestant. United Methodists, 8 million. Evangelical Lutherans, 4 million. Episcopalians? 2 million. All of them put together wouldn’t add up to the “Bro Army church” that tunes in for weekly sermons from PewDiePie. And most of those denominations are aging and in decline…

“If the Benedict Option is going to be effective,” Dreher realizes, “it has to find a way to reach young men like this…”

Sustainable v. unsustainable culture

Patrick J. Deenen paints a portrait of the “unsustainable” vision of contemporary liberalism. This is not so much an endorsement of an oppositional “conservative vision,” but it is a debunking of so much of what we consider progressive about our culture.

For most people of the West, the idea of a time and way of life after liberalism is as plausible as the idea of living on Mars. Yet liberalism is a bold political and social experiment that is far from certain to succeed. Its very apparent strengths rest upon a large number of pre-, non-, and even antiliberal institutions and resources that it has not replenished, and in recent years has actively sought to undermine. This “drawing down” on its preliberal inheritance is not contingent or accidental but in fact an inherent feature of liberalism.

Thus the liberal experiment contradicts itself, and a liberal society will inevitably become “postliberal.” The postliberal condition can retain many aspects that are regarded as liberalism’s triumphs—equal dignity of persons, in particular—while envisioning an alternative understanding of the human person, human community, politics, and the relationship of the cities of Man to the city of God. Envisioning a condition after liberalism calls us not to restore something that once was but to consider something that might yet be; it is a project not of nostalgia but of vision, imagination, and construction.

Many of what are considered liberalism’s signal features—particularly political arrangements such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism—are to be found in medieval thought. Inviolable human dignity, constitutional limits upon central power, and equality under law are part of a preliberal legacy.

The strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute “liberalism” inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of “liberty.”

Liberalism introduces a particular cast to its preliberal inheritance mainly by ceasing to account for the implications of choices made by individuals upon community, society, and future generations. Liberalism did not introduce the idea of choice. It dismissed the idea that there are wrong or bad choices, and thereby rejected the accompanying social structures and institutions that were ordered to restrain the temptation toward self-centered calculation. …

Ironically, the more complete the securing of a sphere of autonomy, the more encompassing and comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires in the first instance liberation from all forms of associations and relationships—from the family, church, and schools to the village and neighborhood and the community broadly defined—that exerted strong control over behavior largely through informal and habituated expectations and norms.

“…the more complete the securing of a sphere of autonomy, the more encompassing and comprehensive the state must become.” If this is true, where does it leave us? Deenen suggests we reopen the door to a more authentic federalism.