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.

Conscientious believers

“A lot of the recent religious freedom debate has taken place in terms of conscience. … That’s important, but it’s also important to maintain the social and institutional space within which Christians can be formed,” he continued. “Conscientious believers aren’t hatched; they’re formed. They’re formed in communities, and we’ve got to get religious freedom protections so those communities won’t be homogenized by the state.”

How do nondiscrimination laws threaten institutions? The best known example is the possibility raised by some liberal commenters that the government could take away the federal tax exemption from churches. Experts said, however, that is not likely to be politically possible. The greater risk is a cutoff of federal funding, both direct and indirect—student loans, vouchers, etc.—to schools that violate federal antidiscrimination law. And if an educational institution loses its accreditation, the value of its diplomas plummets. Graduates of these religious colleges could be barred from law schools and medical schools.

“Most people don’t understand that the government has at its disposal the incredible power of licensing and accreditation rules and public-funding conditions,” the Lawyer said. “The government is able to compel compliance with its norms not only by making you comply with them but by making you an offer that you can’t refuse.”

One reason we grant tax exemptions is because we understand that “the power to tax is also the power to destroy.” What Rod Dreher’s speaking to here isn’t just the value of protecting the cultural space (or cultural nests) that tax exemption helps make possible, but also the ways that state power has developed to coerce and incentivize its own values through its accreditation and regulatory powers.

We might be nearing the point where we need “state exemptions” for corporations, rather than simply “tax exemptions.” In other words, exemptions from the state’s ability to do anything other than recognize the existence of an organization.

I’m hopeful that technology will strip the state of its role in accreditation in terms of both work and school places.