When asked about the Holy Roman Empire the French philosophe Voltaire once quipped that said empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. I had something like that thought while reading Dr. James K. A. Smith’s piece for the Washington Post. That said, Dr. Smith’s post is far from the first to raise this concern. As mentioned previously, Katelyn Beaty and Emma Green’s reviews also critiqued Rod’s project for alarmism, though Green was more fair about it than Smith or Beaty. Rachel Held Evans also made this attack in her Twitter thread on the book.
In one sense, I should be more sympathetic to the critique than I probably am: Both Rod and Dr. Esolen invite that critique with some of their rhetoric, as I noted in my review of Dr. Esolen’s book earlier today. (Archbishop Chaput is another matter.)1
That said, it’s difficult to be too terribly sympathetic for a relatively simple reason. Virtually nothing that any of these guys are saying is new and, given how long it has been said and how accurate previous generations have been in their predictions, it’s difficult to dismiss this talk as alarmism
What is the basic claim behind The Benedict Option, Out of the Ashes, and Strangers in a Strange Land?
I have read all four of the books in question, if we include Rusty Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, which we should. In the cases of Esolen, Reno, and Dreher particularly, I have followed their work for a number of years. This is the basic idea behind all four books: “We are living in the last days of western liberalism, a way of understanding the world that treats all human beings as detached individuals free to define themselves in whatever ways they see fit and in whatever ways capital can enable and facilitate. As the system fails, its great shortcomings are becoming ever more apparent. As a result of this, the actions society must take to prop up the system are becoming more extreme and the dangers to the church and to civil society more generally are growing accordingly.”
But here’s the thing: Thoughtful Christians have been critiquing this sort of individualism and the systems and structures that support it for decades. None of what Esolen, Reno, Dreher, and Chaput is saying is new. They are simply observing the same problems in a later stage of development and their warnings have been adjusted accordingly. But the problems they are seeing are quite old and the church has been talking about them for many years.
What happens when you lose the notion of man as a creature? What happens when transcendent norms are discarded? What happens when the family breaks down and society elevates as good and normal the ugly and banal? What happens when even the design of our own bodies lose any sort of authority over our own individual identities? Most of these are old questions. All that is changing is that some questions have had to be redefined to accommodate ever more extreme cultural upheaval, such as the current transgender revolution. But none of this is new.
To make the point, I’m going to turn the remainder of the post over to the many different older authors who have said many of the same things.
T. S. Eliot
From The Idea of a Christian Society:
The more highly industrialized a country, the more easily a materialistic philosophy will flourish in it, and the more deadly that philosophy will be. Britain has been highly industrialized longer than any other country. And the tendency of unlimited industrialism is to create bodies of men and women—of all classes—detached from tradition, alienated from religion, and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob. And a mob will be no less a mob if it is well fed, well clothed, well housed, and well disciplined.
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.
By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.
Again, that was written in 1949. But it is a very good description of the present day. We have tremendous wealth, technological tools that allow us to do historically unprecedented things, and yet we don’t have the slightest idea to what end these resources should be directed. Thus the marker of our age is the storing up of tremendous wealth and the lack of any idea what we ought to do with this wealth.
From “Christianity and Sex” written in 1930:
According to European law and tradition, there can be no marriage without the intention of a permanent union, for it is obvious that only a marriage of this kind can render the family possible as a permanent social unit.
The European society of the past, like every other strong and healthy society, has always rested on this foundation. It is, however, incompatible with the complete mechanization of social life which is the characteristic feature of the new type of civilization. For if the primary social unit is a natural biological group which is defended by the strongest moral and religious sanctions, society can never become sheer mechanism, nor can the economic organization of the state absorb the whole life of the citizen. If, on the other hand, marriage is transformed into a temporary arrangement for the satisfaction of the sexual impulse and for mutual companionship, which is not intended to create a permanent social unit, it is clear that the family loses its social and economic importance and that the state will take its place as the guardian and educator of the children. Society will no longer consist of a number of organisms, each of which possess a limited autonomy, but will be one vast unit which controls the whole life of the individual citizen from the cradle to the grave.
Hence it is easy to understand the reasons for the hostility of the Communist, and even of the milder type of socialist, represented by Mr. Bernard Shaw, to the traditional code of sexual morality and to the old form of marriage, since the destruction of these is an indispensable condition for the realization of their social ideals.
But this does not altogether explain the strength of the modern attack on marriage and morals. The ordinary follower of the new ethics is not necessarily an admirer of the ideals of social mechanization and mass civilization. He or she is often just the reverse–an individualist and a rebel who is in revolt against ever kind of social discipline and external compulsion. He seeks not mechanism but freedom, and his hostility to marriage springs from a romantic idealization of sex and a desire to free his emotional life from all social constraints. The intellectual propaganda against the traditional morality which is so evident in England today is, in fact, the tail-end of the great liberal assault on authority and social tradition which had its origins in the eighteenth century.
In Catholic countries the moral aspects of the liberal revolt were evident from the beginning. The Encyclopaedists attacked the moral code of Christianity even more fiercely than its theological doctrines, and all the stock arguments of the modern English sex reformers are to be found stated in their most incisive and paradoxical form in the writings of Diderot, La Mettrie and their friends. In Protestant lands, however, and above all in England and America, the revolt against tradition did not extend to moral principles. Indeed, the leaders of advanced thought and particularly the feminists were usually persons of exceptionally strict traditional morality, while the Victorian agnostics professed an unbounded admiration for the ethical ideals of the religion which they combated on intellectual grounds.
Today all this is changed. The attack on tradition has shifted to the sphere of morals, and men no longer believe that it is possible to throw over the religious doctrines of Christianity, and yet preserve the moral and social traditions of European civilization intact. Consequently our civilization is now faced with a definite issue. We have to choose between two contradictory ideals–on the one hand, that of the traditional Christian morality which find its most complete expression in Catholicism–on the other, the ideal of a purely hedonist morality, which involves unrestricted freedom in sexual relations and the reorganization of marriage and the family on the model of the new Russian legislation.
You can draw a straight line from Dawson’s “society will no longer consist of a number of organisms, each of which possess a limited autonomy, but will be one vast unit which controls the whole life of the individual citizen from the cradle to the grave,” to Barack Obama’s 2012 “Life of Julia” campaign. In other words, Dawson saw the events of 2012 coming way back in 1930.
For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
This problem touches on a variety of issues. The core idea is easy enough: In most traditional societies (not just Christian societies!) there is an innate belief in the idea that there are norms and standards that exist above us as human beings which we cannot alter and which we are subject to. The belief in such things has mostly been lost. (I wrote about this point for Fare Forward four years ago.)
Thus what we are left with is man and his ambition and whatever techniques he can develop to help him do whatever he chooses to do. The applications here can range from something like a mass abandonment of the land as we have seen in the so-called Green Revolution in post-war America, to the mass murder of unborn infants to serve the emancipation of men and women from the burdens of family life, to the destruction of the land wrought by industrialism, to the transformation of marriage from an institution of child-bearing and -rearing, to even the transformation of male bodies into female bodies via surgery and medication. The big idea is that when you lose norms that exist above us and limit our behavior then the only thing left to control human behavior is what we are technically capable of doing. And given human sinfulness and ever-improving technology, that should terrify us because it means more powerful tools for more debased people.
From Begotten Not Made in the early 1980s:
When every activity is understood as making, then every situation into which we act is seen as raw material, waiting to have something made out of it. If there is no category in thought for an action which is not artifactual, then there is no restraint in action which can preserve phenomena which are not artificial. This imperils not only, or even primarily, the ‘environment’ (as we patronizingly describe the world of things which are not human); it imperils what it is to be human, for it deprives human existence itself of certain spontaneities of being and doing, spontaneities which depend upon the reality of a world which we have not made or imagined, but which simply confronts us to evoke our love, fear, and worship. Human life, then, becomes mechanized because we cannot comprehend what it means that some human activity is ‘natural’.
Politics becomes controlled by media of mass communication, love by analytical or counseling techniques. And begetting children becomes subject to the medical and surgical interventions which are the theme of this book.
The final paragraph here closely relates to what Eliot said but also to Lewis: When all you have is technique, then one of the most powerful groups in society will be those groups which control the tools necessary for technique and those groups attempting to influence people to use various tools.
I think this life is a stark alternative to the life many lead today, which I take to be lives of quiet desperate loneliness. My way of putting this is we live at a time, you may call it modern, if you so desire, when we believe we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story. We live at a time when we believe we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story. We call this freedom.
J. Gresham Machen
From Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923:
Scientific investigation, as has already been observed, has certainly accomplished much; it has in many respects produced a new world. But there is another aspect of the picture which should not be ignored. The modern world represents in some respects an enormous improvement over the world in which our ancestors lived; but in other respects it exhibits a lamentable decline.
The improvement appears in the physical conditions of life, but in the spiritual realm there is a corresponding loss. The loss is clearest, perhaps, in the realm of art. Despite the mighty revolution which has been produced in the external conditions of life, no great poet is now living to celebrate the change; humanity has suddenly become dumb. Gone, too, are the great painters and the great musicians and the great sculptors. The art that still subsists is largely imitative, and where it is not imitative it is usually bizarre. Even the appreciation of the glories of the past is gradually being lost, under the influence of a utilitarian education that concerns itself only with the production of physical well-being. The “Outline of History” of Mr. H. G. Wells, with its contemptuous neglect of all the higher ranges of human life, is a thoroughly modern book.
This unprecedented decline in literature and art is only one manifestation of a more far-reaching phenomenon; it is only one instance of that narrowing of the range of personality which has been going on in the modern world. The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man. The tendency is most clearly seen in socialism; a socialistic state would mean the reduction to a minimum of the sphere of individual choice. Labor and recreation, under a socialistic government, would both be prescribed, and individual liberty would be gone. But the same tendency exhibits itself today even in those communities where the name of socialism is most abhorred. When once the majority has determined that a certain regime is beneficial, that regime without further hesitation is forced ruthlessly upon the individual man. It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although “welfare” is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.
The result is an unparalleled impoverishment of human life. Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state. The state then exercises its authority through the instruments that are ready to hand, and at once, therefore, the child is placed under the control of psychological experts, themselves without the slightest acquaintance with the higher realms of human life, who proceed to prevent any such acquaintance being gained by those who come under their care.
Such a result is being slightly delayed in America by the remnants of Anglo-Saxon individualism, but the signs of the times are all contrary to the maintenance of this half-way position; liberty is certainly held by but a precarious tenure when once its underlying principles have been lost. For a time it looked as though the utilitarianism which came into vogue in the middle of the nineteenth century would be a purely academic matter, without influence upon daily life. But such appearances have proved to be deceptive. The dominant tendency, even in a country like America, which formerly prided itself on its freedom from bureaucratic regulation of the details of life, is toward a drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are to be lost.
Pope St. John Paul II
From “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,” written in 1984.
First, the pope refers to the crisis of community that existed in the late Cold War society of the day:
These divisions are seen in the relationships between individuals and groups, and also at the level of larger groups: nations against nations and blocs of opposing countries in a headlong quest for domination. At the root of this alienation it is not hard to discern conflicts which, instead of being resolved through dialogue, grow more acute in confrontation and opposition.
Careful observers, studying the elements that cause division, discover reasons of the most widely differing kinds: from the growing disproportion between groups, social classes and-countries, to ideological rivalries that are far from dead; from the opposition between economic interests to political polarization; from tribal differences to discrimination for social and religious reasons. Moreover, certain facts that are obvious to all constitute as it were the pitiful face of the division of which they are the fruit and demonstrate its seriousness in an inescapably concrete way. Among the many other painful social phenomena of our times one can noted.
The trampling upon the basic rights of the human person, the first of these being the right to life and to a worthy quality of life, which is all the more scandalous in that it coexists with a rhetoric never before known on these same rights.
Hidden attacks and pressures against the freedom of individuals and groups, not excluding the freedom which is most offended against and threatened: the freedom to have, profess and practice one’s own faith.
The various forms of discrimination: racial, cultural, religious, etc.
Violence and terrorism.
The use of torture and unjust and unlawful methods of repression.
The stockpiling of conventional or atomic weapons, the arms race with the spending on military purposes of sums which could be used to alleviate the undeserved misery of peoples that are socially and economically depressed.
An unfair distribution of the world’s resources and of the assets of civilization, which reaches its highest point in a type of social organization whereby the distance between the human conditions of the rich and the poor becomes ever greater.(2) The overwhelming power of this division makes the world in which we live a world shattered(3) to its very foundations.
Later in the document, he considers how the church ought to respond to this crisis of community and social trust. Here is his answer:
My venerable predecessor Paul VI commendably highlighted the fact that the church, in order to evangelize, must begin by showing that she herself has been evangelized, that is to say, that she is open to the full and complete proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ in order to listen to it and put it into practice.(37) I too, by bringing together in one document the reflections of the fourth general assembly of the synod, have spoken of a church that is catechized to the extent that she carries out catechesis.(38)
I now do not hesitate to resume the comparison, insofar as it applies to the theme I am dealing with, in order to assert that the church, if she is to be reconciling, must begin by being a reconciled church. Beneath this simple and indicative expression lies the conviction that the church, in order ever more effectively to proclaim and propose reconciliation to the world, must become ever more genuinely a community of disciples of Christ (even though it were only “the little flock” of the first days), united in the commitment to be continually converted to the Lord and to live as new people in the spirit and practice of reconciliation.
So according to the beloved late pope, the church exists in an era of widespread social mistrust caused by a variety of issues and the proper response to that is for the church to first make sure that “she has been evangelized” herself and that she is faithfully displaying to a watching world the true nature of Christian fellowship and community. If I were on social media I would be reaching for the “thinking face” emoji at this point. Where have I heard that before?
I could go on, of course. Wendell Berry has warned about this for much of the past 40 years. G. K. Chesterton was constantly going on about the dangers of market-backed individualism to a free and just society. Other popes have sounded the alarum bells too. None of it is new. And if it is alarmism, then it is alarmism with an impressive pedigree.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).