Being Christian in a Secular Society, Part 3 - A Message for Young Adults
A few weeks ago I began a series dealing with features of our present society, which for some time now has been called “secular.” The series will be in four parts. This week in part three I want to say a little about another feature of our present society, and how Christians can deal with and respond to it. Catch up on the first two articles in the series by visiting the “Blog” section of our parish website.
The Breakdown of Moral Argument
The problem: calm, rational public discussion over deep disagreements has become impossible
The Catholic philosopher Alisdair McIntyre has helped us to explain what we all feel is the case, that the public conversation about ethics and morality is radically broken in our time. The universe of moral and ethical thought and language is marked by fragmentation, incoherence, and fundamental disagreement about standards of judgment, notes McIntyre. If you’ve ever entered into a discussion about ethics or morality with a secularist (or if you’re the secularist who has tried this with a Christian) you’ve probably learned that it’s almost always hopeless—you just can’t get anywhere. At best you’re talking past each other and at worst you’re talking at each other, or yelling. The reason for this is that when two rival positions argue without common ground, not only is progress toward agreement impossible, there can’t even be a coherent conversation. There is no shared idea in our public square about what is the good for human beings, since we can’t agree on what it means to be good or to be human, or whether there is any such thing as “good” or “human” beyond what we posit them to be from “consciousness” and pure will. But for Christians, moral and ethical argument just is argument about the good for humans understood in absolute terms. Do we see what is happening here? A real conversation between Christians and secularists can hardly get started before it runs into insuperable obstacles.
Since reasoned argument about the good cannot take place in the public square, our public debate devolves into the struggle for political power. Instead of reasoned debate, we have marketing slogans, public demonstrations and even riots. Such poor substitutes for dialog and debate have become the primary tools of politics in our time. Socio-political solutions are increasingly sought with recourse to coercion, to force and violence.
This all leads to radical increase in indignation. Mutual bad feelings and hatred seem to rule the day, and this makes our public square a kind of cold civil war, in which opposing sides in a debate view one another as mortal enemies threatening each other’s rights, freedoms, and dignity. You and I don’t just disagree with one another, we’re engaged in a zero-sum war with one another. Our politics have become a vicious circle of mutual and escalating recriminations, and the “other side” must be defeated by any means necessary, since it’s a matter of survival.
When social-political life within a society is carried on in these terms, there really can be no such thing as victory for anyone, since “winning” for one side means making the other feel disenfranchised and subjugated, and that’s intolerable. Disagreement escalates quickly into anger and violence, since to be contradicted with force provokes forceful reaction. Our society is hopelessly divided in this way. We are no longer able, as a society, to understand ourselves as working together across our disagreements to achieve a common goal. Rather, we face each other as enemies across polarized battle lines.
THE OPPORTUNITY: the “Benedict Option”
To listen to the situation as McIntyre describes it is to be confronted with the toughest of cases, because things may have actually deteriorated beyond all repair, if by “repair” we mean, getting into the current engine of culture and attempting to tweak and tinker with it instead of proceeding with a ground-up rebuild. McIntyre makes a compelling argument that things have indeed fallen apart more than we realize—it’s not merely that the “barbarians are at the gate” but rather that they are within the gates and “have been ruling us for some time.” In short, for McIntyre, we are the barbarians.
He calls for a certain kind of revolt, but nothing akin to political revolution, nothing violent. Rather, he says, there must be a new sort of Benedictinism which understands that the current crisis must be waited out by Christians who, in repentance, have dedicated themselves to relearning our classical culture from its foundations. This response to the barbarism of our time is not a resigned or indifferent shrugging of shoulders. Rather it is a tactical retreat for the sake of preparing a reformation. This reformation must happen first on a small and local level, where we can rediscover that Christian belief means Christian life, that the Creed is not merely a religious “pledge of allegiance” but implies a certain practice of living. An intentional commitment to living Christian community will mean that Christians must step out of certain patterns of life as dictated to them by the secular, technological society in order to form the basis for a more human society on truly human, and therefore Christian, principles. This “retreat” is not a “flight from the world” because it will be done for the sake of the world, in preparation for the rebuilding of society.
While McIntyre himself gives no specific advice on how practically this is to be done, the journalist Rod Dreher, inspired by McIntyre (as well as our next thinker, Benedict XVI), has recently published an international best-seller, The Benedict Option, in which he chronicles many and varied examples of how Christians the world over are forming just these minority, creative communities—in rural/agrarian settings, in the towns and major urban areas, and even within larger institutions secular or Christian. The important thing to know is that with a right intention, with a true experience of Christian discipleship in community, anything is possible and anyone can become a seed of the renewal of culture. But unless we are committed to relearning our faith from the inside out, as a concrete way of life and not merely as a set of notional beliefs, not only will we be powerless when confronting the secular culture, we’ll remain at risk of colonization by it, or worse: we won’t realize that this colonization has already taken place in us.