Sunday, May 21, 2017

Vacation or Evacuation

Last week I was on vacation. I hadn’t been to the beach in years, and I spent most of the time lounging around and eating seafood. I got up early to greet the sun coming up over the ocean. I drank mint juleps. I fell in love with the local church. I watched my skin freckle despite 50 spf. I tried to ignore the news (hard week to do so). I had packed several books, but I only got one and half read. The vacation served its purpose. I relaxed, recharged, and come back with some new energy and determination to continue work.

A popular topic among the religious blogosphere lately is the Benedict Option. Author Rod Dreher argues in his book by that name [disclaimer: have not read] that the world is post-Christian, and Christians should therefore reject the world and form their own communities. Some take this to mean a strong church community committed to Christian devotion, which is what churches should be anyway and isn’t that radical. Others take this more literally, claiming that it’s time to form geographic, insular communities, where every aspect of civic life rejects the current paradigm. I dangerously find the extreme option alluring. Who doesn’t picture what their ideal community looks like? A community of pious, similarly-virtued people ridding themselves of the violence and sin and false philosophies of modern life and rather building one another up. Well, there is a reason utopia means “no place.”

First, there is no perfect place. The idea is impossible, because people are complex. They are not wholly pious or wholly evil. They are sinners, some striving harder than others. There can never be a pure community because there are not pure people. Trying to make the community pure just creates cliques, the kind of churches known for kicking people out or looking down on others. The entire Old Testament follows the Jewish people trying to maintain their pureness and failing. It’s a struggle. Isolation doesn’t stop bad ideas or bad behavior.

Second, Dreher has said, “I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.” But how will a time when light returns ever come if Christians aren’t active in bringing it? Who will want to hear the gospel if no one is there to tell them it exists?

Christians are never told to box up their faith and retreat from the world. They are to reject worldly temptations. But they also have the duty to continue to spread the word, help the needy, and be salt and light. We have to live in the times we’re given, and that means battling the heresies and temptations and persecutions of our times, not hiding the faith away. Are we really going to close in, close up, and admit that our adversary has conquered?

The Benedict Option is named such because it calls to mind the order of life of the Benedictines. Monasticism was never so exclusive as to completely reject the world. (That’s hermits, and even they had visitors coming out to the desert to seek their wisdom.) Throughout the centuries, monasteries and convents interacted with their local communities through services, trade, or sharing in Mass and religious festivals. Lay people could go to the monastery when in dire straits or when seeking the advice of a learned man. And then they would go home, back to the village or their farm, hopefully a little stronger or wiser. The monastery was a well, a respite, a source of energy, not a safety deposit box, keeping Christianity away from the dirty, sinning world.

The Benedict Option is desperate and despairing. It is an option for when there are no other options left. Yet world is redeemable, because it was created by a God who offers us redemption. We have to cooperate with his will. It is challenging work. We need to help one another in a world full of challenges, both our Christian brethren and those who have fallen into modern ideologies. At times, we need to step back and rest and rejuvenate, but only so we can return and continue the work, continue the fight. We need quench our spiritual thirsts. We need a vacation not an evacuation.

Supporters of isolation have given up on the world and written it off. I’m glad God in his mercy doesn’t think that way.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fixed and Established Principles

Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history so that, by your faith, His name will continue to resound throughout the world.” It’s a two-fold reminder to me that I often need to return to. First, no matter what the times are, it is necessary for Christians to live in them and to carry the faith through. We cannot retreat because it is a time of persecution or heresy; that is when the faithful are needed most. Second, the times in which I live will shape me. I will be susceptible to certain temptations or heresies that someone 400 years ago might not. Rather than bemoan my predicament, I should use my position best I can to carry forward the mission of the Church. We don’t get to pick the circumstances we face, but we have an obligation to face them anyway.

In college, I was around a lot of both modernist and postmodernist thought (though it was rarely labeled as such). And it seemed logical and consistent with what I’d already developed about reality, knowledge, philosophy. It’s not so much that I was taught this ideology but rather that I was surrounded by it as “just the way things are” so that it seemed silly to think otherwise. Modernism posits that human reason is bound entirely to what is perceptible to the senses and in the manner in which they are perceptible. Therefore, we are capable to finding all our answers anew through experience and observation. From this spring postmodernism, which rejects any overarching theories or ideologies; it must all be defined by the individual. Both posit that traditions (art, architecture, literature, religion, organizations, daily activities, etc) are outdated for an industrial world and must continually evolve to sate a developing society as it sees fit. Simple, right? Look around, take what works for you. Tear apart structure and form and build anew as you deem necessary.

But it’s too simple. And it’s untrue. By rejecting realism, modernism rejects reality. In Pascendi Domninici Gregis, Pope Pius X says, “It is a fixed and established principle among them[modernists] that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded.” He saw the deceptions of modernism and the ideas of relative truth they led toward.

Under modernism, at best, religion is born out of an innate, animal desire for the divine being expressed. Religious reality exists in the experience of the individual, and the individual’s experience is proof enough. Absolute truth is meaningless, as experience can be had in any religion. It also cannot be argued against, for that would be an attack on the personal believer. We see this in the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and in “well, this is true for me.”

This aspect of modernism is something I’ve believed for a long time, and it’s still a work to break out of this cycle of thinking. Because to tell someone that they are wrong feels like a personal attack. I feel that I am judging them or devaluing their life experience. We’re told not to judge, right? Then who’s to say that I am right or they are wrong? My truth is not their truth, and it’s intolerant for me to suggest otherwise. So how do I defend objective truth?

When original experience trumps passed-down tradition, all religions become equally true (or rather, equally untrue). When the Church is criticized as being judgmental and rigid, the criticism comes from the belief that there is no authority and there is no universal truth. All personal experiences, insomuch as they are perceived, are equally valid. In this ideology, tradition and authority try to conserve the status quo while modernism and individual consciences try to continually evolve and progress, pitting tradition against conscience and authority against the individual.

As Pius X says, “With all this in mind, one understands how it is that the Modernists express astonishment when they are reprimanded or punished. What is imputed to them as a fault they regard as a sacred duty. Being in intimate contact with consciences they know better than anybody else, and certainly better than the ecclesiastical authority, what needs exist - nay, they embody them, so to speak, in themselves. Having a voice and a pen they use both publicly, for this is their duty. Let authority rebuke them as much as it pleases - they have their own conscience on their side and an intimate experience which tells them with certainty that what they deserve is not blame but praise. Then they reflect that, after all there is no progress without a battle and no battle without its victim, and victims they are willing to be like the prophets and Christ Himself. They have no bitterness in their hearts against the authority which uses them roughly, for after all it is only doing its duty as authority.”

Disagreement on the existence of truth, on the authority of experience, on foundational ways of understanding the world seems like insurmountable barriers to communication. And many days, it feels like modernism has won, in society, in corners of the Church, in myself. I don’t have solutions, other than recognizing my own faults, and vocalizing that there are ideologies that are not rooted in modernism. It is not “just the way things are” and debates do not need to follow the rules of modernist thought. I do not have to bow to that standard just because I live at this moment in history.