The Phoenix in the Ashes of the Culture Wars
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
The simultaneous appearance of three seminal books surveying the landscape of what some now call “post-Christian America” has been both welcome and frustrating. Welcome, because each confirms a deepening sobriety concerning what Richard John Neuhaus once called the American Babylon. And frustrating, because reviewers have tended to blur the contributions of each book by discussing them together rather than singly.
Adding to that frustration, each of these works – Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land – further joins a conversation started and augmented by still other books, as the Archbishop has pointed out elsewhere. So in the interest of putting asunder what critical sluggishness has joined together, we might meditate a bit during this Easter Week on one book in particular, Strangers in a Strange Land – because it is above all a work of hope, appearing in a moment when many Western Christians could use some.
Strangers is a masterful, beautifully argued rendition of its subject, which is the state of Christianity in a world where many modern people have decided on a life without God. That story is told by Archbishop Chaput with soulfulness and piercing sincerity. The book is also a wonderful read, and a generous guide to the thoughts of others. In short, Strangers in a Strange Land is a great and erudite Catholic book. It’s also a subversive book to give to non-Catholics, who could spy in it many wonders that a secularizing culture has hidden from their eyes.
Strangers goes straight to the roots of today’s toxicity. Writing in the last century about the central crisis of his own time, St. John Paul II observed that the chief error of socialism is anthropological: it mis-measures human nature itself. Today a new form of anthropological error dominates, and that is the deformed understanding of the human person in the world after the sexual revolution. The archbishop gets all that into a single sentence, observing that the problem with this revolution is “that it has made all sex, and all relationships, a matter of transaction, a matter of consumption and disposal, between radically distinct individuals.”
Like the socialist error before it, today’s quasi-theology of the revolution denies the existence of a transcendent realm. Also like socialism, it refuses to acknowledge that the family is antecedent to the state. And because Christianity cannot help but contradict this dominant and powerfully seductive view, Christianity cannot help but attract the criticism and ire of those who want passionately to live by the secularist code instead. Hence, the “Strangers” of the archbishop’s title.
The landscape of our time, he notes in a striking image used throughout the book, has been “flattened.” (The reference is to an eerily apt novel called Flatland written 130 years ago by Edwin Abbot, an Anglican priest.) Nonetheless, the archbishop – by no coincidence, a Kansan – finds in the wide-open plain many reasons for hope. Fully four chapters are devoted to the sources from which hope flows, including the weakness of the secularist alternative: “the cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but of presumption.”
I propose a friendly amendment in keeping with that imagery: This very pressing down of the earth, and the corresponding expansion of the horizon, means also that we can see things now that couldn’t be seen before. And one more reason for hope is that rising up from today’s plane are the figures of men and women who rebel against today’s anthropological error, who are turning to Christianity for refuge and fellowship and a home – because they can’t find refuge and fellowship and a home anywhere else.
It is truly shocking, but shockingly true: the overbearing, secularist culture increasingly averse to Christianity is itself sowing the seeds of a religious revival.
Consider today’s outpouring of new, and newly urgent, scholarship by writers both emerging and established: in addition to those already named: Ryan Anderson, Erika Bachiochi, Gerard Bradley, Patrick Deneen, J.D. Flynn, Sherif Gergis, Robert George, Aurora Griffin, Michael Hanby, Francis Russell Hittinger, Ashley McGuire, Catherine Pakaluk, Chad C. Pecknold, Rusty Reno, Robert Royal (and the rest of TCT‘s roster), George Weigel, Christopher White, and Stephen P. White – again, among others. Such is one measure of a burgeoning intellectual counterculture.
So is the proliferation of new associations, like the Catholic Women’s Forum in Washington D.C. and the Siena Symposium at St. Thomas University in Minnesota and more. Washington, D.C. is home to the Leonine Forum, founded by Fr. Arne Panula at the Catholic Information Center – a rich, yearlong intellectual seminar, which last year garnered over 130 applications for 40 spots. Then there’s the planting by Dominicans of Thomistic Institute circles on campuses around the country – including almost all those in the Ivy League. There’s the explosive growth of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students; and the Love and Fidelity network, headquartered at Princeton; and other recently blazed byways of religious counterculture.
These are just a few of the newly minted, organic forms of fellowship that will transform the American Babylon during the next fifty or one hundred years, in ways unimaginable as yet.
So as befits the moment just after Lent’s end, it feels like winter and spring in America at the same time. Yes, as the archbishop and others note, the idea of an earlier generation of believers – that Christianity would find salvation through politics – lies cold in the ground, done in by decades of the so-called culture wars. Yet as is barely understood as yet, that same interment is sending forth prodigious shoots, undreamed of in earlier times that took the Christian foundation of America for granted.
In retrospect, Strangers in a Strange Land and its fellow literary travelers may read not so much as epitaphs, but as birth announcements for an emerging moral and cultural renaissance.
This column is adapted from remarks delivered at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 2017, following a speech by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia about Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.