Saturday, March 22, 2014

Should Christians circle the wagons? Or engage the culture?

Sure, we’re ticked off about the “marriage equality” laws. And a lot of other things, to be sure. But in our culture now, there are two ways to go: hunker down? Or go and have conversations?

Two articles came across the social media yesterday. First there was a Rod Dreher article from “The American Conservative entitled “Christianity, Collapse, & The Benedict Option”. Then Darrell Bock posted a link to an article where he was interviewed, one that dealt with the same sort of topic, but offering a different solution: “Are Young Christians ‘Embarrassingly Ignorant’ of Their Faith? Professor Has a Plan to Fix That”.

Both described the same problem: a lack of understanding among younger generations particularly. First Dreher:

Bad news for the future of Catholicism in America, according to the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, and his colleagues. In their new book Young Catholic America, they build on social science data showing the following about young Catholic adults:

·        They don’t understand their faith well enough to pass it on to any children they may have

·        They believe that their own subjective beliefs and experiences are a more important arbiter of truth than the Church

·        They pick and choose what they want to believe, discarding the parts that they dislike (e.g., in particular, teaching on sexuality)

·        They are less involved with the Church as an institution (e.g., don’t go to mass as often), and feel more loosely tied to it than previous Catholic generations

·        They tend to believe that the Catholic Church is just one church among others, with no special claim to the truth

·        They affirm a Catholic identity, but reserve the right to define that as they want to; plus, they see their Catholicism not as being at the center of their identity, but one facet among others

·        They are unable to articulate a coherent case for what it means to be Catholic

I don’t have a copy of the book in hand, but reading the excerpt available on Amazon, the authors say that the collapse of Catholic identity in the US had a lot to do with the collapse of catechesis after the Second Vatican Council; with a determination among leaders of Catholic universities, which had been important custodians of Catholic identity, to assimilate into the mainstream; and the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical in which Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s historic teaching outlawing contraception. The authors are careful not to blame HV for this, but simply to say that once American Catholics decided that they didn’t have to obey the Church on this teaching, a cultural and psychological Rubicon was crossed.

The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.

Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.

Here’s the important, not-to-be-missed point from Smith’s work: everything that has gone wrong with American Catholicism and its young adults is pretty much equally true of other Christian churches…. (emphasis in original).

Now here is a selection from the Bock interview:

“We believe the church has done a very poor job of helping teens prepare for what they need on the university campus,” Bock said. “And we felt like pastors and youth leaders, not to mention students and parents, needed this basic help and orientation.”

Bock and his co-authors believe that many young people have been ill-prepared to deal with the scrutiny and tough questions they are sure to face — and that a shallow faith hasn’t enabled them to think deeply about Christianity’s more intricate elements.

“They are embarrassingly ignorant of our faith,” proclaims the book’s description, referencing experts’ analysis on young Christians.

Ignorance often leads to doubt, which led Bock to describe why so many young people simply aren’t prepared to handle these ideological and theological battles.

“There’s just a lot more information out there. There’s a lot more happening in terms of documentaries and specials,” he said. “It’s been happening really since the end of the 1990s … you’ve got a lot more niche channels … most of these shows are done through university settings.”

The author said that university experts presenting these projects tend to be more secular in nature and less likely to understand Christian theology. But that’s not the only factor at play.

Bock also said there are many Christians who aren’t attending church today and who are thus not receiving the theological training they need to form solid ideas about the faith.

So, the descriptions of the problems seem to be somewhat parallel. But the two solutions are very different.

First, Dreher:

And so we come to what I’ve been calling the Benedict Option. When I write about it, people have this idea that I’m talking about everybody running away to a compound in Idaho to wait out the deluge. I’m not, not at all. True, I am talking about the possibility of doing things like that, though not so radical — I wrote a TAC story about it last year – but for the great majority of us, that’s not possible, or even desirable. It must not be forgotten that the early Benedictines did not bunker away behind monastery walls, with no contact at all with the outside world. Rather, they constructed a way of life for themselves — a habitus, but one that in their case required a particular material structure (the monastery) — that allowed them to live out the faith and to carry on with the moral life in community, passing it on vertically, to future generations of Benedictines, and horizontally to the peasants to whom they ministered over the centuries and the generations. Without knowing what they were doing, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilized life in Europe.

For Christians living through the current collapse, this is our most important task. It will necessarily have many facets, but it’s the kind of thing that all of us — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — have to be working toward, together. I was so thrilled to see on Monday afternoon how excited Jamie Smith was to learn about what Dante had to say to us about this, and thrilled to learn last night how much work Smith, as one of the leading Protestant theologians of his generation, has done to show his people why habitus is so critically important to us all, and why worship, which he says includes “forming us in ways that elude conscious awareness,” is more important than intellection.

Then Bock:

When asked how believers can be sure Christianity is “true,” the author highlighted the faith’s historical narrative.

“I think if you just look at the roots of how improbable the emergence of Christianity was historically — think about its origins,” Bock said. “It was tucked away in a tiny corner of the Roman Empire … involved people who had no political power whatsoever.”

He added, “If you just look at its emergence, that in itself is almost a supernatural story.”

Bock also discussed some of Christianity’s central figures — people he says were radically changed by the faith. Paul, who had previously persecuted Christians, is perhaps the most prevalent example of the sort of evolution he says belief in Jesus yields.

According to Bock, other faiths are “more of an ethic than they are a movement,” but that, in Christianity, “God fixes the problem for us,” whereas every other religion urges human beings to “fix the problem for ourselves” (emphasis added).

Dreher’s solution, “the habitus”, is in reality the circling of the wagons to preserve what he considers to be “our way of life”, to hand it on, while remaining untainted by the world.

Bock’s way is rather, to continue to trust God, while we gird up ourselves and our young people to face what needs to be faced in the world, and to have intelligent conversations with the people in the world around us, to defend the truths of the Scriptures, and to understand that it’s God who fixes the problems for us.

Especially in the United States, it seems to me, we have the opportunity to influence the world for the better. I’m not advocating a new group, a “moral majority”, or a new movement, or a political action committee. I’m not advocating “transformationism”. What I’m advocating is that each Christian live boldly in the world – understand what it takes to do that, to be sure.

We don’t live in the second century or the fifth century or the middle ages. We live in our world, today, with technology and rampant immorality. Augustine and Dante lived and wrote in times that are radically different from ours. We may or may not find some wisdom for our age in what they wrote.

But the fact is, we are living in our age, today, with its own challenges, its own resources. Remember the past, to be sure. Learn from it. But live boldly, today, as Christians in a hostile world, and the Lord may yet grant us to be pleasantly surprised by the results. 

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