The mess in Greece looks only to get messier. Puerto Rico is BK. Murmurs of a terrorist attack this holiday weekend. A beheading in France, just the scariest of several hideous terrorist attacks. That’s the hard geopolitical stuff. On the softer cultural side things that just a decade or two ago seemed unthinkable are now a part of our general cultural. Pot is legal in a lot of places and getting more so. Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. That’s just the spectacular stuff. I could go on and on and on. I think most of us have gotten a “flinch” reaction – that is to say when ever anybody approaches, we flinch in anticipation of more bad news.
Joseph Epstein had an interesting piece in the WSJ this morning about the political appeal of “going forward.” He discusses it as a means of political evasion:
Going forward is a useful phrase to cap an evasive political answer and close off further discussion of a tricky or touchy point. Implicit in the phrase is the notion of progress, futurity, help on its way. As such, it is perfect for the vocabulary of politicians, for electoral politics is built on promises. Something there is in human beings that imbues them with hope for happy days ahead, and skilful politicians, with the aid of this new mantra of evasion, play nicely to this. Recall Barack Obama’s promise of “Hope and Change,” a splendid double-barrel bit of going forward.
I think that is fair, but when the situation is as it now is, we still do have to move forward in some fashion. It is pointless to sit here in fear or malaise, here is clearly not a good place.
So, one’s first reaction to the need to move forward in a situation like this is to look for good news – something to buck us up if you will. I usually turn to the Bible for such things. I have been thinking a lot this week about the Sermon on the Mount, most especially the passage in Matt 6:25-34 that discusses worry. Verse 34 reads:
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
If you think about it each of us is fine today, the problem is the anxiety that the state of things brings on, so that verse seems most appropriate. A few others come to mind too. OK, so that gets our anxiety in check, but we still have to move on in a practical sense.
To move on, I think we have to figure out how we got here. Epstein’s point is not that moving forward is a problem, but that moving forward in an evasive fashion is – moving away from a mistake instead of seeking to evaluate the mistake, and figuring out how not to repeat it.
It is tempting to look at the state of things and think that it is not our mistake – It is Obama’s or the Democrats, or the atheists, or…, but that is still evasive. Nope, somewhere in my not quite 60 year lifespan we, as conservatives and people of faith, have moved from a position of cultural and political dominance to something far less than that. We screwed up somewhere.
One of the most discussed plans for moving forward has been Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” Dreher describes it this way:
It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said “a new — and doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”
Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries, and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization.
The history is good and the analogy seems obvious, but the analogy has a distinct flaw and that is the plurality of religious expression that we now enjoy compared to when Rome fell. There was, simplifying things a bit, one denomination then and there are hundreds now. At First Things Phillip Cary responded to Dreher. He discusses that Catholics and Protestants have related but different problems. About Evangelicals, the predominant American expression of Protestantism, he says:
Evangelical Protestants in America face a similar problem, which is especially evident in their youth. The next generation is more likely to side with the new regime than their parents are. This poses a mortal challenge to the predominant strategy for retaining the youth in growing evangelical churches: get them involved in an emotionally powerful youth group and convince them that the experiences they have there are a great thing they can only have with Jesus. The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.
That is the most succinct description of the problem I have ever read. Cary goes on to discuss the problem with authority that is transparent in American Evangelicalism – this is the classic problem that Catholics find in Evangelicalism. I cannot deny it, but I share it. I would argue that the problem is not just that American Evangelicals have an authority problem, but that religious authorities often squander or otherwise fail to live up to their authority. It is a two way street.
Which takes me back to Cary’s great description. Christianity has been in the minority for much of it existence; the position we find ourselves in is not new to the church. It is also not new that the church has relied on secular culture to appeal instead its own unique appeal. From that dilemma sprang the Reformation. Well, we certainly cannot split the church anymore than we have since the sixteenth century – and that is the problem with Dreher’s suggestion – it is just another split.
We have to rediscover Christianity’s unique appeal and then we have to aspire to it. If we do all the other things will, I think, take care of themselves.
The question of what is Christianity’s unique appeal is really more the stuff of Sunday School and sermons than it is this blog. Not to mention the fact that it would be a nearly endless series of blog posts. As to what it is, I will only provide this quote from G.K. Chesterton:
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”