18 March 2017

Three recent books are energizing conservative-minded Roman Catholics and other Christians these days. The theme in all three is the end of Christian America. One of my traditionalist friends called them to my attention, hoping to lure me away from my “dangerous liberal thinking.”

I guess a variety of viewpoints has always been with us; and I really do respect other opinions. I do not agree with the authors of these three books, however, because they propose solutions to some genuine American problems that are either unhelpfully narrow-minded or simply utopian fantasies.

On the other hand, out of fairness to my friend who brought them to my attention, I guess one could indeed use these books for a very healthy and effective discussion about what it means to be a truly contemporary Christian…..as well as a contemporary American, deeply concerned about religion, values, and morality in today’s USA.

I begin with Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World by Charles J. Chaput, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Archbishop Chaput offers a strongly negative critique of contemporary U.S. society. I suspect many readers who page through his book will shake their heads in agreement, as they read his lamentations that the United States has now been conquered by a secularist, pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed worldview that leaves little place for Jesus or traditional morality. Telltale signs of America’s “post-Christian” decadence, according to the Archbishop, are divorce, contraception, abortion, materialism, an invasive Obama-generated government, and gay marriage.

Considering my own religious tradition that has long valued the voice of the People of God, and thinking about the city where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the first red light about this book started flashing for me, when I saw Philadelphia’s Archbishop asserting that “Democracy tends to unmoor society from the idea of permanent truths.” An alternative fact?

Archbishop Chaput has Native American roots but, very frankly, political and ecclesiastical barrel vision. He says the U.S. press is much too hostile toward President Trump; and he praises Mr. Trump and his administration for their pro-life concerns. (It seems clear to me that the Trump administration’s pro-life concerns terminate once a fetus becomes a self-breathing human being in need of nurture, shelter, and education… but then I don’t want to be overly political.) Philadelphia’s Archbishop is critical of Pope Francis as well. Here he shares the concerns of the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. They both suspect Francis is not being faithful to Catholic orthodoxy and fear he is spreading doctrinal confusion in the church. Chaput, for sure, has no confusion. He has instructed pastoral ministers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to NOT allow communion for divorced and remarried or cohabiting couples (unless they can demonstrate that they are not having sex!); and he believes children of same-sex couples should not be allowed to attend Catholic schools. Very pro-life? When it comes to contraception, the Archbishop believes the widespread use of contraceptives has now subverted the purpose of human sexuality and has led to conjugal infidelity and a general lowering of morality. He is concerned as well about an exaggerated feminism which, he says, has actively contributed to women’s dehumanization.

The good old days. Archbishop Chaput has often said he longs for the 1950s. He would like to retreat to a (highly romanticized) time when everything was clear. Men and women were clear about their identities. Sex was for procreation. The church was clear about its teachings and Catholics were obedient to clearly demonstrated church authority. I suspect the Archbishop is indeed a stranger in his own strangely perceived environment.

A second Catholic author is sounding the trumpet for his own kind of strong retreat from today’s American malaise. A professor at Providence College, Anthony Esolen is widely promoting his book Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. In Esolen’s eyes, the United States is a cultural nightmare. I resonate with his concern about a commitment to truth; and I fear with him that America’s most powerful institutions—including the government—are becoming mass producers of deceit. I understand as well what he means when he says “Sometimes entire civilizations do decay and die, and the people who point that out are correct.” I do not agree, however, with his assessment of our contemporary United States. The situation is hardly as dark and decadent as he would have us believe.

I do not agree with Esolen that our public schools are failures beyond repair and must be replaced by private schools. Nor do I agree with him that most of our universities have become complete failures. In fact, I find it more than disconcerting that the handful of universities, he holds up as stellar examples for our emulation, are rigidly fundamentalist and lean far to the right politically.

Somewhat like Archbishop Chaput, Anthony Esolen would like to return to the good old days of Western Civilization, to a time before the sexual revolution when, as he emphasizes, people truly understood what sex was about and “men were men and women were women.”  Yes I do understand what some call the glory days of Western Civilization. I speak Latin and Greek, and I know and appreciate the philosophical, literary, and artistic traditions in our cultural DNA. I do not however want to return to some kind of late medieval world view with its exaggerated patriarchy, misogyny, religious narrow mindedness, and its great ignorance about psychology and ongoing human development and understanding.

Now to the third book my friend recommended to bring me back to the straight and narrow: The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. In his life (he is 50 years old) he has already had quite a personal religious journey. He began life as a Methodist. Later became a Roman Catholic. He dropped out of the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Curiously he says that sexual abuse is not due to pedophilia but rather to a network of gay priests which he calls the Lavender Mafia. I think he is wrong here on both counts. Pedophilia does not spring from homosexuality and the Lavender Mafia is pure fantasy. After being a Roman Catholic, Dreher next joined Eastern Orthodoxy.

Journalist Dreher has strong conservative credentials. He is a former publications director for the John Templeton Foundation and currently senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. His view of contemporary America is totally apocalyptic. In his own words, he describes it this way: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

The solution for believers? The only way to escape apocalyptic destruction, according to Dreher, is for Christians to drop out of American society and create and live in their own subgroups like Benedictine monks. Not everyone of course can run off to a monastery. (I would suggest as well that Dreher has a misconception about Benedictine monastic spirituality and mission.)

My major concern, however, at the end the of this week’s reflection, is that the author of the Benedict Option misunderstands the Incarnation and what Jesus was all about. Jesus did not run away from his contemporary socio-cultural environment. He plunged in. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners. He understood the signs of the times. He lived in a Rome dominated society much more troubling and far more inhumane than contemporary America.

What Jesus did, of course, is now our contemporary Christian challenge.

My contact information:  Email: jadleuven@gmail.com

18 thoughts on “Retreat, Escape, or Face the Challenge 

  1. I like the way you think. I know of so many groups of people with open hearts & minds in community praying & meditating for healing in this world. The work of Center for Action & Contemplation with Richard Rohr & Cynthia Bourgeault, comes to mind. I personally resonate with the work of Sufi saint Hazrat Inayat Kahn, & Swami Amar Jyoti.

  2. I can only hope, Jack, that in the name of fairness you offered your friends some wonderful books that offered a more positive point of view of the future of Catholic Christianity. They might be happy that you love them enough to offer options to them to save them from their bleak future. It seems interesting to me that in “discussions” between conservatives and progressives, the progressives are offered insights into the “truth” that they have obviously missed or ignored while conservatives view opposite viewpoints as perversions, moral aberrations, or blatant immorality. It seems like your friends love the traditional “pray; pay; and obey” Catholicism. If only we could “Make Catholicism Great Again!”

    1. Well said Frank. I am sending my friends some well thought out articles and continuing my own friendly conversation with them…..Many kind regards. Jack

  3. Many of these kinds of authors want the right to pick their own view of Christisnity, but then turn around & deny the same rights to others, especially women, minorities or sexual minorities…
    Don’t try to shove Christian theocracy onto this country, claiming it is done for the overall good!! If God is okay with allowing humans “free will”, then so should his followers!!

    1. Yes indeed……But we are not going to lose genuine Christian Faith. Our faith will grow and adapt as we grow and adapt in our understanding of humanity and the world in which we live. What really bothers these three authors (and many others like them) is the loss of Christendom: a Christian theocracy, a geopolitical power at battle against “pagans” and especially Muslims.

  4. As always, Jack, I am impressed both with your scholarship and clear thinking as well as those who have commented. Most of all, I appreciate your advice that a true understanding of “what Jesus was all about” is the anecdote to the three misguided books you review. (And thanks for the reviews, too, since I had no intention of reading these much-discussed tomes.)

  5. More each day, I tend to view the authors of these books, the evangelicals/fundamentalists and other “Christian” spokesmen as perfect descendants of the Pharisees (as portrayed in the Gospels)–eager to control others, hard to deal with forgiveness, hypocritical in the sense of imposing restrictions that do not deal with themselves (e.g., women), and focused on the continuity and conformity of external practices.

  6. The Gift of “Secularism”
    Often and for many years or even centuries, some have descried the popularity of the increasingly secular universe, especially in the so-called developed parts of the world. Secularism has been linked to the loss of morals, the waning of ethics in public policy, and the breakdown of personal morality. Very frequently in churches, it is the culprit named as responsible for the decline of organized religion.
    The schizophrenia inherent in the “old” world view familiar to Christian dogma, for my experience, is based upon a dichotomy. There is Supernatural in opposition to natural. There is Sacred as opposed to profane. There is Heaven standing opposite (and usually above) the earth and things earthly. There is Spiritual to counter material. There is a split between the realm of God and the ways of godliness, and the realm of the non-god, the undivine, usually the realm of the “merely” human.
    Missing from this kind of framework is the notion of the Good Universe. This kind of notion is referred to by the Jews in their creation accounts, as the Creator looks out upon all the works of creation and finds them to be, indeed, very good. When Eve and Adam collaborated to introduce evil into creation, the first fact became irreparably lost in the contagion brought on by their love of fresh fruit.
    What a secular world offers is the platform for incarnational grace. This means that we see the hand of God not imposed upon human hands, but springing forth as the hand of the truly, fully human. Secular allows us to find the depth of Ultimate Reality breaking forth “like shining from shook foil”, as the reality of “natural” in all its fullness. Good and Power and Light and Spirit flow from within the depth of this reality, the reality of our cosmos. This is the place of grace. The ground we stand upon is holy ground. The dust from which we spring is divine if it is anything.

    1. Thank you for a nice and enriching contribution. I like to think that Jesus, the Child of God, was in fact a “child of this world God created,” and pointed us over and over to the Father-Creator who made our environment–delicately, lovingly, and slowly….When he said “the Father is Greater than I,” he was insisting not to focus on religion or Jesus, but on Creator and Nature and the Mystery. That viewpoint “makes” us a fellow-child of God (“adopted” in the language of Paul)–but included and chosen (“the elect” in Paul). I agree that it is time to drop the “supernatural/nature” chasm.

  7. Joris Here (not John)–it is an odd name–wondering what kind of “inclusive theology” you are discussing. Reflecting on some of your posts, I continue to emphasize (and think Pope Francis does it better), the gradual drift back to the Gospels as opposed to “theology.” Hans Kung mentions his tendency to believe that Islam arose from some Christians including the family of Jesus who emphasized the lifetime of Jesus (vis-a-vis Paul and later theologians)/ Paul and later “classical//western theologians” emphasized the Messiah/Christ and 2nd Person of the Trinity and a strict Canon and tightly defined sacraments (Trent) and an imperial-style hierarchy–whereas the Gospels have a different view of emphasizing the Father, the “realm of what is right” (my terminology for the “kingdom of heaven,” brother-sisterhood of a family, the whole servant outlook as the basis of leadership, forgiveness as essential, etc. In some ways, the Western Church theologized John and Paul and just kinda absented itself from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

  8. And I love your approach of uniting the different spheres of knowledge that you do! I do believe that Gospels are more inspirational than theological–a seed more than a tree, and that is the point that from this “big bang” of the Gospels can spin the variety of ideas, moralities, viewpoints, etc. I acknowledge that as the quarks and galaxies lay potent in that infinitesimal infinity “prior to the Big Bang,” so Jesus lies there waiting to be “unpacked” (a current political jargon word I borrow). Yes, Gospels contain theological elements. Yes this is, to continue the analogy, like the Inflation–the Gospels are pregnant with the later development, but even as (with Hans Kung), I believe Islam is a development of Jesus, so could the Gospels have gone a different direction, eschewing the complexity and occasional misdirections of Greek theologians.

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