April 20th 2019

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COVER STORY Budget 2019: The dark side of 'back in the black': no vision

EUTHANASIA FYI: How to navigate the voluntary assisted 'dying' process

CANBERRA OBSERVED Take your tax cuts and be merry, for tomorrow ... is another day

FOREIGN AFFAIRS New Middle East alliance will challenge Saudis

LIFE ISSUES ALP abortion policy blithely tramples all our consciences

SOCIETY AND TECHNOLOGY Will Artificial Intelligence do the walking for you?

LIFE ISSUES Trump, Shorten and Morrison on abortion

GENDER POLITICS Women abused at Women's Day March

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bill Shorten's bizarre electric car policy

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Revitalising marriage and family: an especially lay apostolate

ASIAN AFFAIRS Entire nations going out without a baby's whimper


MUSIC 1+1=Sublimity: Explanations are like the back side of a tapestry

CINEMA Shazam!: Ambitious teen finds out what's in a name

BOOK REVIEW What will be left us after the deluge?

BOOK REVIEW Author puts some great minds to work



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What will be left us after the deluge?

News Weekly, April 20, 2019

STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World

by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

Henry Hold and Company, New York
Hardcover: 288 pages
Price: AUD$39.99

Reviewed by Conor Sweeney

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput is a rare breed among his class: a serious bishop. By this I mean he is a bishop who, far more than most, confronts real problems and asks real questions. Not only this: he also attempts real answers.

Strangers in a Strange Land was published in 2017, a year that also saw the publication of similar works by two of Chaput’s fellow Americans: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes. Each text is a variation on the theme of the relationship of faith and culture in an America increasingly hostile to anything Christian (or classical, for that matter).

In order, the subtitles of each book are as follows: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World; A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation; and Rebuilding American Culture. Each is a big ask.

At the heart of Chaput’s particular approach is a measured yet blistering critique of the reality of American life as it currently exists and the challenges that this poses for the living of faith. Chaput is not afraid to affirm the unique accomplishments and benefits of the American experiment in democracy. But neither does he flinch from acknowledging the more grotesque totalitarian and depraved aspects of its late-modern secularity, the characteristics of which are explored in detail throughout most of the chapters.

From searching accounts of the pervasive logic of technology to the perverse and escalating freedom of the Sexual Revolution, for example, Chaput makes a convincing case that America as it is at present is what liberalism always had to look like once the Enlightenment acids of freedom and possibility had more or less completely burned through the Scriptural beliefs and culture of faith that inspired them.

A strong theme in Chaput’s approach is that, even while Christians must continue to live and work in the temporal world, they remain more fundamentally “strangers” within it, signs of contradiction, witnesses to the City of God. As he puts it: “The deeper problem in America isn’t that we believers are ‘foreigners’. It’s that our children and grandchildren aren’t.”

Before anything else, then, Chaput writes as a pastor: and one not afraid to tell his children that their first allegiance is to God. Coming from a bishop, this is truly remarkable.

But does he have a practical solution to our woes? And is it viable? Is it still possible to be a Christian in America? Can the culture be saved? Patrick Deneen’s assessment of Chaput’s answer seems accurate: in a review of the books of Chaput, Dreher, and Esolen, he notes that, of the three, “Chaput is the most confident that Christian belief and practice can exist in close proximity with, and even transform, the contemporary liberal order”.

In other words, though Chaput makes it sound at times as if the jig is up, there is still an incorrigible attitude of American “can-do” optimism that permeates his writing. Things may be bad – “the world is a bloody and fractured place” – but in broad terms there is nothing particularly new or insurmountable about our situation: “It’s always been so. Scripture is a record of the same story told again, and again, in different ways but always with the same theme, for more than three thousand years.”

Overall he is confident, then, that the average believer can always rise above the grave challenges of our age, that a strong moral and spiritual resolve can still trigger social and political change. He believes we still have a religious capital strong enough to trump the evils of the age if only we would step up to the plate and do what we are supposed to do as followers of Christ.

The culture war is still winnable if we Christians can just dig a little deeper, believe a little more strongly, and take up our crosses with a little more determination.

Retreat is no answer

So, Chaput’s solution is not as drastic as, say, Dreher’s. That is, at various points the good Archbishop is quick to stress that retreat or separation from culture is not an option for the Christian. As he puts it, early Christians “didn’t abandon or retire from the world. They didn’t build fortress enclaves. They didn’t manufacture their own culture or invent their own language. They took elements from the surrounding society and ‘baptised’ them with a new spirit and a new way of living.”

But there are some prickly questions that need raising here. In fact, at least in the first few centuries before Constantine (before Christianity became “mainstream”), Christians were an out-group. They were “resident aliens” noticeable for their eccentric beliefs and practices and for their marginality, privacy, and deviancy vis-à-vis the prevailing pagan order. They very much were a people with a distinctive culture and language, above all else prioritising faithful worship and holy living as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Benefits to culture are a side effect of faith

In other words, Christians initially began to convert the world and transform culture by commitment to being a community set apart, not by politics, social activism, or even by “evangelisation” as we would understand it today (and, as Professor of Church History Alan Kreider has pointed out, it was remarkable just how rapidly Christianity spread with this “playing hard to get” mentality: in just a few centuries, as a secretive and persecuted sect, around 5 to 8 per cent of the Empire’s citizens had become Christians. As Kreider puts it, even a more conservative estimate of 4 to 5 per cent is an “astonishing figure” given “imposing disincentives” to conversion in the pre-Christendom era).

The key point is that the original measure of Christians’ earliest success was precisely by being distinct from the world, by taking seriously true worship and true communion within their own community, and holding up demanding standards for membership in it.

It’s true, of course, that once Christianity entered its Christendom phase, it did become much more “mainstream” and expansive in the way that Chaput draws attention to. But a couple more points need to be made more explicit here. First, you couldn’t have had the second mode without the first. That is, Christians’ capacity to “baptise” and engage the culture faithfully is only as good as the extent to which they have first been immersed in and transformed by a robust and functioning economy of distinct Christian belief and practice.

It is only from the real convictions first instilled in and shaped by this unique horizon that could ever have come the impetus that spread the Gospel throughout the world; the movement whereby Christianity moved from its sectarian status to begin to transform the existing social order and engage in the glorious complexities of “plundering the spoils of the Egyptians”.

But this leads to my second point. It would be foolish to deny the good things produced by the mainstreaming of Christianity. But it would be naïve not to acknowledge at the same time the deep ambiguities associated with Christianity’s triumphant social and cultural rise.

One of these ambiguities is that, as soon as Christianity becomes mainstream, the seeds of its own decay are sown. That is, once it becomes socially and politically advantageous to be a Christian, the qualitative conditions and markers of what it means to be a Christian also change.

It becomes easy, then, for the Christian faith to be used for various social and political ends that may begin to erode and supplant the fundamental meaning of Christianity as the immersion of the self into a baptismal relation and community distinct from this world.

At a certain point, the understanding of the role of Christian faith, which for the believer ought to measure and frame everything else, will subtly shift. Faith will begin to be seen in instrumental terms, as good for morality, order, civilisation, and so on. But, when this happens, the very social and cultural order that Christianity generated will have claimed a determinate and normative status for itself. Christianity will become the handmaid of this new “secular” order.

For a time, Christianity will still be seen by this new order as a beneficial source of “values”. But, as we become increasingly “enlightened”, it will soon start to be regarded as outdated and retrograde. And so the new order will begin to turn on Christianity, seeing in it a force that blocks new standards of liberation and progress.

What eventually happens, then (and what has happened, in the West), is that we reach a point where we would prefer to have all memories of our Christian past erased. It is profoundly significant that the “death of God” arises within the very same tradition that claimed to know God most intimately.

The point of this is to say, we aren’t in Kansas anymore. It’s to say that our efforts to keep the faith and positively engage the culture will have to contend with something far stronger and far more poisonous than that confronted by the first Christians.

What marks out our condition as uniquely problematic is that we don’t just face garden-variety resistance to the Gospel. Rather, we face a culture that is positively and actively anti-Christ, a culture deliberately premised on and being reengineered against the Christian faith. And we face it, crucially, without the benefit of a strong culture of faith in our own communities and churches, for these have today largely been overrun by the ethos of a “cultural Christianity” amenable to the secular status quo.

Try smarter, not harder

This leads me to a conclusion: a merely or even mostly moral effort to reclaim faith and transform the culture is doomed before it even begins. Trying harder will be of no avail unless we try smarter. I am thus far more pessimistic than Chaput when it comes to what is possible by moral effort in the face of a culture that is anti-Christ.

In this situation, without a real, living alternative outside one’s head – without an ongoing and supported formation born from a feeling, touching, and tasting kind of relationship with faith – the vast majority of believers will simply capitulate to the dominant social and cultural condition.

So, this is how I see it: you can’t reclaim culture until you reclaim faith. Chaput would agree. But you can’t reclaim faith without a distinctive, fully functioning counter-culture. You can’t go back from or resist the social and cultural death of God and a culture of anti-Christ without once again being radically and existentially conformed to Christ via something like the conditions that sustained the belief of the first Christians.

But this means that the absolute first priority for the recovery of faith and engagement with culture today means, paradoxically, the regeneration of the basic patterns of our own worship and community. In other words, something like Dreher’s “Benedict Option”.

It’s not that this is any easier. It’s far harder, actually. But without it, most seeds of belief and cultural engagement will ultimately fall on rocky ground.

Along these lines, one more thing struck me as I read through Strangers in a Strange Land. The other blind spot in Chaput’s analysis, as I see it, is a subtle tendency to downgrade the significance of the corruption and unfaithfulness so typical today among the leadership class of the Church.

The informed Catholic will know that these days all is not well within the walls of the Church. They will know that there is a struggle for the soul of the faith going on within these walls, and that the struggle is probably far graver than we know. As the ongoing sex-abuse scandal has made apparent, these are problems endemic in both the local and universal Church that touch the deepest aspects of faith.

But, as long as the Church is in such disarray, we don’t have much hope of doing anything “out there”, let alone keeping the faith ourselves. Sheep are lost without their flock and without their shepherds.

Chaput gives some acknowledgement of these problems, but it tends to be rather perfunctory, and he seems to place his hope on the individual overcoming ecclesial incompetence and corruption by sheer dint of will and moral effort. But without a thick community, and without faithful leadership, most individuals will be like sheep led to the slaughter.

And so, Chaput’s following words about the importance of telling the truth, directed to those living in secular culture, apply better – I think – to the ruling class of which Chaput himself is a member:

“It’s easier to accept lies by invoking a misguided alibi of tolerance and mutual respect than to live outside the cone of public approval … Many of us are happy to live with half-truths and ambiguity rather than risk being cut out of the herd. The culture of lies thrives on our own complicity, lack of courage, and self-deception.”

My critical comments should not detract from what is otherwise an admirable book well worth reading. But I do really believe that we are fast approaching a point where even stronger forms of truth telling will be required. We probably need another St Catherine of Siena. We are well overdue for a Jordan Peterson “clean your own damn room first” moment; and, as we are now discovering in our Australian context, if we don’t clean it ourselves, the world will happily take it away from us entirely.

So, read Strangers in a Strange Land. But, as you do so, consider the possibility that the most pressing problem we may in fact be facing today is not how to be a stranger in a strange secular land, but how seriously to follow Christ as a stranger in one’s own Church.

Untill recently, Dr Conor Sweeney was a lecturer at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family. His latest book is entitled Abiding the Long Defeat: How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age.

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