The Evangelical Roots of the Benedict Option

In 1948 the Bible Presbyterian Church, a quasi-fundamentalist evangelical denomination, sent a 36-year-old pastor and his family to Europe to check on the state of the church after World War II. The family settled in Switzerland and worked mostly in child evangelism before coming back to the United States in the early 1950s on furlough. They returned in 1955 and settled down in a village called Huemoz, a small Swiss village about one mile up into the Swiss Alps near Lausanne. At that time their oldest daughter began attending university and would bring her friends back home with her to visit on weekends.

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Two scholars debate violence and the nation state

In the past month there has been a fascinating exchange going on between occasional Mere O contributor Brad Littlejohn and DePaul’s William Cavanaugh. It started with this critique of Cavanaugh’s work by Littlejohn:

In his 2004 essay “Killing for the Telephone Company” (Modern Theology 20:2, reprinted inMigrations of the Holy) Cavanaugh seems equally uninterested in both the theoretical (and very theological) issue of legitimacy, and in the empirical history of violence in pre-modern and early modern times.  The rise of the early modern state is described in terms of an escalation of military violence, and, following the work of Charles Tilly, Cavanaugh goes so far as to say, “The claim that emerging states offered their citizens protection against violence ignores the fact that the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.  What separated state violence from other kinds of violence was the concept of legitimacy, but legitimacy was based on the ability of state-makers to approximate a monopoly on violence within a given geographical territory” (p. 249).   Cavanaugh’s dismissive attitude toward the concept of legitimacy is a topic for another day; what I am interested in here is the breathtaking historical claim that “the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it.”

Cavanaugh responded:

Even if Pinker were right, however, Littlejohn is wrong to think that it would refute the central thesis of my book on “religious violence.”  My book is not an attempt to prove that modernity is more violent than previous epochs.  It is indeed not an exercise in “modernity criticism” at all.  It is a critique not of modernity as such, but of one of the primary ideological defenses of modern liberal politics, that is, the idea that there is a transhistorical and transcultural something called “religion” that must be tamed by the secular nation-state because religion has a peculiar tendency to promote violence.  My point is not that violence is a creation of modernity or that things in general used to be better than they are now.  My argument is negative: the myth of religious violence is false.  There is no coherent way, either now or in previous eras, to separate religious violence from secular violence in such a way that the former is peculiarly more pervasive or more virulent than the latter.

Littlejohn replies:

In his response to my post, Cavanaugh tried to insist that his main point had been only to decry the violence of war which early state-makers created, a violence which he says, according to Muchembled, simply redirected young men’s killing energies from neighbors to foreigners.  I would contest this defense at both levels.  First of all, that is not really Muchembled’s main argument, and if it were, it would be considerably overstated.  While there are some areas, such as Scotland, in which internal violence was essentially just redirected into military service, standing armies were too small a proportion of the early modern population for that to be the main explanation in most places.  Nor am I convinced that war deaths increased dramatically from, say, the 15th to the 17th century, cancelling out the plunging homicide rates, as Cavanaugh seems to want to argue.  Medieval wars were smaller and more local but more frequent and often quite brutal.  Second, however, I’m not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that he was only “referring to one specific kind of violence, that is, war between sovereign states.”  Although Tilly’s account, on which Cavanaugh is relying in “Killing for the Telephone Company,” is quite one-sided, Tilly talks not only about state-makers offering protection against external threats, but internal ones as well.  In his essay, Cavanaugh then goes on to blame the war of individuals against one another within society as a product of the state, as we saw in the quote above: “this reconciliation  [of many into one] only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state.”  To this I simply point out again that the antagonism was already there—the local forms of authority that predominated in medieval times were no guarantee of social harmony.

In a discussion of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation held at the University of Chicago, Brown University’s Rachel Fulton Brown raised an interesting possibility about Gregory’s argument that would apply to William Cavanaugh’s work as well, I think: Gregory’s book is less about romanticizing the medieval period and is much more about a certain wistfulness for a world that never had the chance to exist. In other words, certain cultural and philosophical movements in the late medieval world (most notably the humanist movement spearheaded by Erasmus, but the conciliar movement also deserves mention) looked like they could reshape aspects of the medieval world for the better without burning the whole thing to the ground and starting from scratch. But with the Reformation and the chaos that followed it, the possibility of an improved medieval world was destroyed and replaced by modernity.

In other words, we’re arguing over two equally problematic choices–the secular violence and totalitarian nature of the modern nation state or the coercive power of the church and political dysfunction of the medieval era. Both Cavanaugh and Gregory are saying something quite similar. They’re not saying “get rid of modernity and revert back to western Europe circa 1500.” They’re saying that there is a way of moving past the worst excesses of medieval culture and politics without adopting the radical changes brought about by modernity.

As a historian, Gregory is wistful for that world. As a political theologian, Cavanaugh is keen to introduce the modern church to its possibility.

Were the 1960s when it all went wrong?

I am really pleased to welcome Matthew Tuininga to Mere-O.  A Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, Matthew is one of the sharpest young Christian voices working at the intersection of religion and politics.  I commend his blog to you highly.  – MLA

We can all point to the decade when things really began to fall apart. Conservatives were distraught; liberals were exuberant. Anti-war sentiment, labor strikes, racial tension and ethnic conflict were provoking urban riots that led to a level of violence few people had ever seen before. The new emphasis on equality was exacerbating a breakdown in social, political and family authority. College campuses were descending into chaos, with mass expulsions the only way that school administrators knew how to respond. Church attendance, which had been high for most of the century, was plummeting, with especially the intellectual elites turning skeptically against the country’s religious heritage. Perhaps the most obvious expression of it all was the new sexual libertinism. As young people pushed the age of marriage back further and further sexual immorality, adultery, and prostitution were noticeably on the rise, with illegitimacy rates reaching a level the country had never seen before. More and  more women were simply abandoning their marriages, giving expression to what one historian calls their “unprecedented social and sexual freedom.”

The 1960s were clearly a turning point in American history. And yet there is no going back. Older conservatives, those children who claimed for their parents the title of the “greatest generation,” are constantly annoying younger conservatives by their appeals to the way things once were. Younger conservatives tend to see that sort of attitude as a dead-end form of nostalgia at best, a culturally, politically, and theologically off-putting pessimism at worst. They are interested in looking forward, not backward.

But the description I just provided was not a description of the 1960s. I was talking about the 1790s-1800s, drawing from Gordon Wood’s chapter entitled “Republican Society,” in his magisterial Empire of Liberty. It is arguable that it was post-revolutionary America, not the 1960s, that witnessed the most godless period in American history. Indeed, in their classic The Churching of America 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have pointed out that the rate of religious adherence around the time of the Revolution hovered around 20% of the population. Church attendance rates and the general acceptance of Christian morality was higher, of course, but not as much higher as you might imagine. By Finke and Stark’s math, American church membership has steadily risen from 1776 to the 21st Century, with current rates approximately triple what they were in the days of the founding fathers.

Of course things got better already in the early 19th Century, in significant part thanks to the Second Great Awakening. By 1850 church membership had doubled and church attendance had increased by even wider margins. A plethora of Evangelical organizations and societies sought to combat sin and evil in a myriad of forms, from slavery to alcohol to illiteracy to paganism to poverty. If America ever was a Christian nation, a benevolent empire, it was in this century, the same century that saw Americans who had two very different visions for the future of this country go to war against each other in the bloodiest conflict of the nation’s history.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. Continue reading

Arguing with George William Curtis

I’d never heard of George William Curtis before this past Saturday. A quote of his popped up on my friend’s facebook wall, in what I assume to be a strange way of pepping himself up for the US/Ghana World Cup match. Apparently, Curtis – a contemporary of Emerson’s who shared his transcendentalist beliefs and New England roots – once wrote, “A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” It strikes me that this quote goes a long way in explaining how America sees itself – and by extension how we see physical things like bodies and land.

Central to American identity are the abstract values – to reference Foucault again – of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Unlike most other nations, which are defined by the “land, mountains, rivers and woods” that Curtis dismisses so glibly, Americans have always tended to identify ourselves with “principles,” as Curtis terms them. Historically, of course, it makes sense. We couldn’t really identify with the land in the way Europeans did because then we might have to face the ugly reality that we stole all of it, which doesn’t do much for our self-image as benevolent, freedom-loving individuals. Besides, it’s hard to cobble together an identity based on physical features when your population consists of immigrants from all over the world. We couldn’t identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context. So in the end, Americans had no choice but to rely on abstract values as their chief identifiers – it’s all that was left to us.

But is it possible that in this use of the abstract as primary identifier we have the seeds for both the raping of the land and the devaluing of our bodies? Within this view of the world, who you really are is something abstract. The importance of the physical is merely incidental, like the box that a gift comes in. The box may be necessary, but it’s importance is derived completely from what lies within. Further, is it possible that abstraction as identity leads to a completely arbitrary, impermanent, and malleable sense of the self? Consider the radical shifts in American culture in the past 100 years – isn’t that just a natural consequence of defining yourself with something intangible? Just look at the word “freedom” and how it’s used by different groups. It’s no surprise that America is polarized and politically dissonant, what else can you expect when everyone is free to define the source of our identity?

To put it most starkly, perhaps our current land crisis (and all it entails – the destruction of food culture, of ecosystems, the bland generalized cultures that result from a lack of commitment to a particular land) and our body crisis (and all it entails – a devaluing of sexuality seen in various forms of the sex trade, the marginalization of the family as creator and incubator of culture, the depression and eating disorders resulting from body image concerns) are simply the natural consequence of America’s abstraction-as-identity philosophy?

I’ll turn it over to the Mere O readers here, what do y’all think? How has America’s tendency to view itself based more on principle than on land shaped the way we view our land? And what about our bodies? Is our view of the body shaped by this same tendency?

500 Years of Women in Art — in 3 Minutes

A lovely video slide-show has shown up on YouTube which runs through 500 years worth of paintings depicting feminine beauty. The viewing experience is quite mesmerizing, as the video’s creator melds each successive face with a fluid ease. (The classical soundtrack adds a welcome touch too–I’m a sucker for cello.)

I unfortunately am far from a competent art critic, so I’d love to hear a response about what the video might reveal from someone who has a background in art history–or, for that matter, anyone with some general aesthetic sensibilities (this probably means you!).

All I’ll say for now is that were I a bachelor, I’d much rather date the women near the start of the clip than those at the end.

Art Women