Saving the World from Suicide: Localism, Christian Evangelism and the Culture War

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 to save the world from suicide. —T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”

When my wife and I married, one of our major logistical problems was figuring out where to put our combined libraries. We still have this problem, although we have discharged a number of volumes from our total. Among the books that were not part of the original merger but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse. It’s also—and this is perhaps a bit less obvious—because the spiritual civilization around us has already collapsed.

Rod Dreher has written in a couple pieces recently (here and here, both well worth reading), specifically addressing the question of same-sex marriage (SSM) but also touching on larger issues, that the culture war has essentially been lost by conservative Christians. (I use “conservative Christian” here to refer to a theological outlook, not a political one, though of course there are political implications to all theology.)

He writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior overwhelmed and even outright persecuted, because the competing moral vision that includes same-sex marriage as only one of its many tenets will demand more and more of the moral imagination of the people. The time is coming when Christians will not be allowed merely to tolerate moral dictates that are contrary to their own doctrines but will be expected to endorse and participate in them, or else face real penalties.

As I noted a few posts back, religious liberty is already being penalized by the courts because believers have the temerity to try to live out what their faiths teach them—and I’m not talking about trying to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else, but simply trying to live them for themselves. Christian doctrine is already thoughtcrime in countries not terribly unlike ours, and I have little reason to believe that we will somehow remain exempt.

I am not much of a social prognosticator, but I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive that something like SSM is, in Dreher’s words, “only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution.”

That is, the foundation of what was Christendom was ripped out long ago, and I would trace that to long before America’s founding. It’s taken a long time for it to come to such foundational errors regarding the nature of humanity as the Sexual Revolution makes, but those are only logical extensions of the atomistic culture of liberalism—and here, again, I am not speaking of political liberalism exactly, but of this moral idea that the individual and his desires is the only absolute on which the culture is built.

I think that conservative Christians’ problem is that we’re acting as though Christendom is under attack and that we have to defend it. But look around, folks. Christendom has already fallen. All we have left are the ruins, a handful of basic affirmations like the inherent worth of the person and the equality of all mankind—but even those things are subject to the charismatic domination of some ideology or leader, who may well turn those things on their heads, as the 20th century so amply demonstrated for us. As Dreher writes, “My sense is that we Christians and other traditionalists had better plan for resistance in the long run. My fear is that by focusing so many of our resources on fighting for ground we’ve already lost, we will have left ourselves unprepared to build the structures and strategies we are going to need to pass on what we know to be true to future generations in a culture, legal and otherwise, that is going to be ever more hostile to those beliefs.”

We cannot act any longer as though we are imperial soldiers defending the borders of the empire from the barbarians. We are resistance fighters engaged in a guerrilla battle against an occupying force that conquered us generations ago. Or, if you like, we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.

So what, then, do we do? I think we have to continue to speak sanity clearly even in the halls of the insane, and we have to be willing to suffer for it. Even if we could use the force of law to try to enshrine certain moral precepts into the legal code, such things will not last long, as they would be counter to the prevailing cultural logic of the age. True morality is always about more than the individual, about an appeal to a narrative grander than myself alone and certainly far grander than the state with its guns. In any event, I do not believe that making the state our primary mode of speaking truth to the culture will actually serve the truth. We should of course remain involved in the political sphere, but we have to keep in mind that the law can only restrain. It cannot make men moral.

If there is going to be any hope for Christians in a post-Christendom culture, it can only be found in that primal Apostolic fire that once, long ago, turned the world upside down. We may well have to suffer some martyrdom. But we will also have to show an increasingly inhuman society what it means to be human. That is the real purpose behind a Christian localism—to demonstrate a humanity of love to those who can receive it, who are right next to us and mostly only know the Machine. This is also the purpose of our evangelism—not only to save individual souls (though that would be enough!) but also to build a new culture, refounded on the one foundation of Christ. The Church has always been counter-cultural, but in some points in history the contrast with the surrounding culture is greater than others. This is one of those moments in history.

All this is part of the great worth of homeschooling, pilgrimage, gardening, opting out of the 24/7 entertainment/infotainment culture, knitting church communities more tightly together, and learning all the skills that many of our pioneering forebears had to know for survival. We may well need these things for basic survival, especially if the moral corrosion of post-Christendom continues to express itself in economic corrosion. But even apart from these skills’ value for survival, they also teach us to be human, to be humane, to love, to deny extraneous and unnecessary possessions. They have a spiritual value, both for our own salvation and for our evangelism.

We may well find ourselves in a situation not unlike that described in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which most of a galaxy is plunged into war and barbarism, but there are two libraries (“foundations”) at distant corners of the galaxy, waiting for their contents to be used to restore civilization far more quickly would have formed unaided. Christians may end up being embattled enclaves of sanity, whose very existence will stand witness to the world that it is possible to live with self-sacrificial love for one another and who will retain the knowledge of how to worship the one God and to receive the divine energies needed to be fully human.

Even if it really is the case that religious liberty is not about to be overwhelmed by the atomist culture of materialism and desire, we still have to approach this culture as the Apostles did their own. We live in an empire that is not Christendom, but rather the domain of spiritual powers working for the Enemy. If the Gospel is going to fall on ears that are anything but deaf to it, it will have to be accompanied by a clear, authentic demonstration of the humanity of love, a sane humanity that loves people, loves the earth, and treats all persons and places as holy and bearing the sacred imprint of the Creator. We will soon be the only alternative to the madness of the Machine.

And some of us may well have to die. I hope we’ll be ready.

26 comments:

  1. I just came from your April post on Leithart to see what you’re saying more recently.

    “we are now in much the same situation of the Apostles, who had no particular dreams of reforming the government but were instead concerned with getting the light of Gospel into a world covered in darkness.”
    I think this is where many Christians lose focus, or go to fight on the wrong hill. Take the recent battles with homosexuality. We should be loving homosexuals and sharing the Gospel with them, not wasting our time fighting for the government to make meaningless laws.

  2. Yes, this is a legitimate basis for a libertarian approach. I would prefer to see a communitarian community, but it can only happen small-scale on a right basis. But I still have concerns with economic libertarianism because the narrow concern of the bottom line in the corporate world will drive disastrous global warming, erode public safety, and see most of our children and grandchildren becoming something like serfs.

    1. It’s not clear, though, that those would be the results. After all, what is being called the “free market” these days is really corporatism, crony capitalism that enables the formation of giant corporations by means of state sponsorship.

      1. Most of the scientists see global warming as the probable outcome. As to consumer safety, the fox is already in charge of the henhouse, for the benefit of Monsanto, the Pharmaceuticals, Insurance companies, Wall Street, etc. As you say, crony capitalism. One might wish the government could be an answer to corporate manipulation, but the government has been mastered by them instead. The conservative theme I feel best about, which you mentioned, Father Andrew, is localism. The Catholic social thinkers call it subsidiarity. Everything that can be done locally should be. I would vote for Ron Paul if he were an option, and give his approach a try, though I have a hard time trusting that the mighty would not abuse their freedoms to the detriment of the rest of us. Of course our God promised to provide and to be the Champion of the poor, so fear is not appropriate. I’m constantly battling thoughts of worst case scenarios on a number of levels; whereas love hopes all things, believes all things (bearing and enduring them as well).

      2. That raises the question of just what a “free market” should look like, or even what the definition really is.

        Couldn’t it be argued that corporatism is merely an inevitable result of free market capitalism? High-earning corporations will naturally want to use everything in their power to give them an advantage over others in the form of lobbying and sponsorship. If we put limitations on that, is the market still free?

        1. One could argue that, I suppose. But how is it “free” if one part of the market gets to use guns (which is the basis of state regulation) against another part?

  3. I tend to be a bit skeptical of Mr. Dreher’s “sky is falling” prognostication, having been reading him for years. I also shudder at any attempt to link Christianity to the GOP, and American “conservatism.” American Christianity sold its soul to that political devil a long time ago, and now is complaining because the fire is hot.

    Our religious leaders scream and holler about “religious freedoms” being infringed upon when their non-Church institutions are being forced to either pay a tax, or provide contraception to non-religious employees. We have had this desire to have our cake (tax-exempt status) and eat it too (not be told what to do by the government. Render unto Caesar…

    And at the same time, our particular cultural brand of Christianity (I say this as a former mega-church Evanglical/fundamentalist Baptist before that and now Orthodox) has been unwilling to address any of the real issues facing our communities and the people in them. And the powers that be — Big Pharma, BigAg, BigMilitary, BigBusiness, BigOil — spend a lot of money helping good Christian-types get elected who promised to give them everything they’ve wanted as long as they promised not to be pro-abortion. We’re not really pro-life and the culture around us knows it. We’re pro-comfort, pro-money, pro-IcanberichifIjusttryhardenough, and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown. We sign the Manhattan Declaration, but we don’t stand up against the corporations eating our families alive and breaking up our communities. We holler against “Obamacare” but don’t really do anything to help the poor cancer patient who has to choose between keeping her lights on and paying for chemo (my mom had one of those this week).

    Part of me thinks we can’t really complain or allow ourselves the luxury of fretting. We have the government and the culture we have chosen, by being on the wrong sides (as American cultural Christians) of most of the arguments and issues. For the rest of us, who truly want to live out the Gospel of Christ, this doesn’t feel like anything new.

    We haven’t had a home here for a long time now. And we’re just trying to work out our own salvation, alongside our homosexual coworkers and promiscuous best friends, and show the world the Light of Christ.

    And the Orthodox will do what we have always done: We’ll pack up our icons and go to the woods, to the caves and the caverns. We’ll love our neighbors and we’ll fight the darkness till it bleeds daylight.

    Sorry to be so wordy…

    1. Rebecca,

      Good words. You’ve brought even more light to this discussion. I remember listening to James Dobson blathering on about how all his political involvement was meant to help the family but never once did I hear him talk about these giant corporations who lay off thousands to improve the bottom line. Correct me if I’m wrong but a good majority of those layed off folks have families to feed.

      I also like your strong take on how so much of Protestant popular Christianity has made the dividing line between good and evil to be synonymous w/ Rep. and Dem. I was quite disappointed when I found out that there are plenty of these rapid right-wingers in the Church also.

    2. “Sorry to be so wordy…”

      Don’t be! Your words are well-crafted and purposeful. That’s nothing to be ashamed of — after all, one of the great lessons of Orthodoxy seems to be, “‘verbosity’ is not a four-letter word.”

  4. Thank you, Fr Andrew, for another article like we have come to expect—well-thought out and easy to read. I like many of your conclusions, but I am confused about some of the things you say before the ending.

    For example, I think the following two statements are contradictory. The first statement: “He (Rob Dreher) writes that the time has come for Christians in America to use libertarian strategies to secure religious liberty for themselves before they find their churches, businesses, education and even private behavior…” The second statement: “I think Dreher’s right. The culture of what a writer he quotes refers to as “atomism”—that the most basic moral commandment of society is that the individual should be allowed to do whatever he wants under nearly any circumstances, that there is no grand narrative larger than the individual—has become so pervasive…”

    Again, this seems to be contradictory. Dreher is arguing for libertarian principles and then argues against the foundation of libertarianism, which is that everyone should have freedom to behave the way they choose to behave so long as they do not infringe on someone else’s freedom. You can’t have it both ways—OK, you can, but it’s not fair or right. You can’t fairly say, “I want you to act like a libertarian towards me and then enforce on homosexuals my values and beliefs.” If you are going to enforce libertarianism—and, socially, I would have to lean pretty libertarian—then it should be enforced on everyone equally. I can’t cry for freedom to express and live my views and then be upset about what others do with that same freedom if I am upholding libertarianism.

    The other concern I have with what you say in the middle (again, we somehow end up agreeing on a lot of your conclusions, nonetheless) is the whole notion of “Christendom.” I think the whole idea of Christendom is primarily a pipedream. No matter how we Orthodox tend to want to present history, there was never a fully Christian society and some ugly things happened in the name of “Christendom” and “Jesus Christ.” Much of the behavior during the “Christendom” era is sad, and personally I would prefer to repent of those things that happened and not pretend it was a great society. I sure would not want to go back in time and live under those circumstances. With few exceptions, it seems to me, the saints in the Orthodox Church are about 85% martyrs and 10-12.5% people persecuted by leaders of “Christendom.”

    Personally, I would rather fight an enemy that is clearly my enemy rather than an enemy that sits at table with me and dips his hand in the cup. I can teach my children easily about why we don’t do certain things that non-Christians do, but it becomes much more difficult to convince my
    children when other Christians behave poorly or teach something incorrectly.

    These last two paragraphs are why I really appreciated your comparison to Apostolic times. It would be great for us to get back to that zeal—not the zeal to convert governments that will never be able to force morality on others (as you so well noted), but the zeal to convert individual souls who are hungry for an authentic and transforming Gospel.

    1. Well, it is always hard to defend the arguments of someone who is not present to defend them himself, so I cannot really say what Dreher would say to your comments. I do not think, however, that he is seeking to “enforce on homosexuals [his] values and beliefs.” Anyway, he puts forth libertarianism as a strategy to defend religious liberty for Christians, not as a thoroughgoing philosophy of government (or even, God forbid, of theology). That is, it does not appear to me that he is seeking to rule others, but only to protect Christians.

      As for “Christendom,” I am not particularly taken by the romantic visions you seem to be arguing against. I know that the Church has never really triumphed in this world. Nevertheless, Christianity became a foundation for culture in a way that it was not before and now no longer is. The hows and whys of all this would take entirely too much room to go into here, but I will simply commend to your attention David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. It is a somewhat badly named book whose purpose really is to give a reading to history (especially Western history) that is decidedly different from the progressivist narrative in which Christianity = Dark Ages, etc. It’s really an excellent book.

      1. Thank you for your response, Fr Andrew. I know you cannot respond on behalf of Dreher himself, but I was referring to what I sensed was your acceptance of his position. I am still not sure I understand how he is not contradicting himself by criticizing “atomism” while arguing we should use libertarian strategies to ensure freedom for ourselves and our churches. For whatever it’s worth, I do agree with your (and what I sense is his) idea of using libertarian strategies to uphold our own freedom. But I think if we do that then we ought to allow it for others without decrying their actions and saying it is because of “atomism.”

        As for Hart’s book, I am familiar with it. Overall, I think it is a decent book. I agree that a more “progressivist” narrative of Western history and equating Christianity with the Dark Ages is overly simplistic. On the other hand, our response to that should not be over-simplicity (and I am not trying to say or imply you have done that). Nevertheless, it is easy for us to fall into such simplicity and characterizations.

  5. As someone who tends to find Elder Thaddeus rather enchanting and on the right track (“Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives”) I’d tend to subscribe to the approach that if you tell yourself you’re at war, you will find one. If instead you tell yourself these people are folks who really need our love, and to be shown real love (as if we can without some sort of much deeper conversion), then we might actually find ourselves in a different place.This c indeed be a revolution, a real “libertarianism” rather than an ideology. Orthodoxy is not an ideology about God, but an experience of God, and if you subscribe to Fr. Meletios Webber’s view, “God doesn’t need you to defend him”… well, there you are. As St. Isaac the Syrian puts it, “Make peace with yourself, and Heaven and Earth will make peace with you.” Are there consequences to this? Sure. Could it get costly? Ah… if that’s our fear, then we have more conversion and “all that” still to do. Yes, that’s it precisely: We have more work to do on ourselves.

    All of which is to sum up as Antiochian Bishop Thomas said, “If we’re heading into an era of light persecution, bring it on. It will be an era of saints!” Sounds like instead of stressing out, instead of despairing. we just need to ‘man up’ a bit, realize the Body of Christ is going to take a few Body blows, and as the Psalms say,find our deep hearts.

  6. Father,
    Thank you for the comparison of our age to that of the generation of the apostles and Church Fathers. The challenge is that every generation of Christians needs to live like this. Success is as much a temptation as struggle when it comes to running the race. We need to live like Paul and Act like the apostles rather than thinking that bumper stickers and slogans equate to doing something.

  7. “… but are an increasing portion of our cache are tomes with titles ranging from When Technology Fails to The Square Foot Garden. We are, in short, stocking up on books (and items) toward the goal of being more self-sustaining. We have various reasons for this, but one of them is the sense that a possibility exists that we need things like a manual flour mill, because it’s possible that the industrial civilization around us may well collapse.”

    Will you expand upon this topic in future blog postings? While it is not the central (and quite important) theme of your recent posting, in the absence of further clarification, some folks might be a bit befuddled by the angst or (politely) amused by the self-confidence.

    (I mean no offense.)

    1. Will you expand upon this topic in future blog postings?

      Probably not much. I am not an economist. I do believe that our current economic course is unsustainable. We’re not going into “survivalist” mode, just trying to be more prepared and self-sustaining.

      If it’s of any consolation to you, we do not own any guns. 🙂

  8. Well, Father Andrew, that overall I appreciate the implications and conclusions you’ve made. We need to be ready to stand firm and courageously upon our Christian convictions and focus our attention on bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God.

    I think there should increasingly be an attitude of “come out from among them and be separate from them” – a post-Christendom culture as it were. The Desert Monastics fled from the perverse society around them. Christians need to join forces in learning survival skills of the 21st Century. In this way, I think the Amish and Old Order Mennonites have it right.

    I’m not talking about escaping society altogether, but rather having a uniquely Christian culture while ministering to the needs (both physical and spiritual) of the secular society around us. That is, working together to build up the Kingdom of God and enlarge our borders. I can hear the echoe of the prophet Haggai as if he is speaking to the Church today: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: This people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves but no one is warm; and he who earns wages earns wages to put them into a bag with holes…..You have looked for much and it came to little; and when you brfought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. BECAUSE OF MY HOUSE THAT LIES IN RUINS, WHILE YOU BUSY YOURSELVES EACH WITH HIS OWN HOUSE.”

  9. If you like Dreher on localism, you should check out the Front Porch Republic. It’s a site dedicated to “Place. Limits. Liberty.” Most of the commentators are Roman Catholics with a few Protestants and one (outrageously hilarious) Orthodox, Jason Peters. Many of them are academics. The site does not have a single agenda, but is open to a largely sane diversity of opinions (note: all traditional).

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