Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The real world, and the real battle

Rod Dreher continues to inspire important discussions in the orthodox Christian community with his suggestion that the time is ripe for a "Benedict Option." Today, Rod asks readers what we think of critiques of the Benedict Option from those like Princeton Professor (and "New Natural Law" theorist) Robby George, who want to hold off on the Benedict Option and continue fighting, e.g., civil same-sex marriage (SSM), in the public square. Although a sacramental SSM is of course a non-starter for an orthodox Catholic like me, I think the larger question of whether cultural traditionalists should continue to follow the "Moral Majority" model of focusing our energies on politics is the right one is an important question. More precisely, I question if the Moral Majority model was ever the right one. Here is what I commented on Rod's post.

Robby George’s zeal and dedication are admirable (and he’s about the single most patient, affable, unaffected guy I can imagine, having once had the privilege of meeting him at a Christian Legal Society brown bag lunch) but I think the sacrifice he personally may be called to make is accepting that his prominence as a celebrated G.O.P. intellectual won’t survive much longer as the G.O.P. cynically walks away from the SSM issue so that it may better woo the pro-SSM cohorts that will be an ever-rising percentage of the electorate from 2016 onward. Happily, he has far more important work to do; as a selection from the Ken Myers talk about "seed ideas" quoted above says:
The most important way we can be a counterculture serving the common good is not through influencing government policies but through re-forming the moral and metaphysical imaginations of our contemporaries.
Precisely. Those seminal ideas are what rule the world, not political ephemera. St. Paul wielded far more lasting influence over the future than Nero. The Scholastic debates between realists and nominalists (as the post about Richard Weaver noted yesterday) did far more to lay the groundwork for the astonishing historical ruptures of modernity’s five centuries than the Hundred Years’ War. No one in a thousand years will care whether SSM became legal in the ancient American Empire because of a high court mandate or on a province-by-province basis. But today’s ideas, today’s discussions, today’s communities and culture, and most importantly, today’s prayers to the living God: those seeds will still be bearing fruit in a thousand years, in two thousand years. In reality, the fate of each individual soul—which is eternal—is of far more consequence than the political trifles of a decade, a century, or a season. Our worldly cares tempt us to ignore this, this lay of the land in the real world. As Frank Sheed wrote in the dedication to his classic Theology and Sanity:
Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else; it means living in the real world. But some of the most important elements in the real world can be known only by the revelation of God, which it is theology’s business to study. Lacking this knowledge, the mind must live a half-blind life, trying to cope with a reality most of which it does not know is there. This is a wretched state for an immortal spirit, and pretty certain to lead to disaster. There is a good deal of disaster around at this moment.
If we think that helping some politician get elected is more important than prayer, contemplation, and community, then we are not living in the real world, but only in secular society’s impoverished, imprisoning view of what is real and important—devoting our lives to bickering about shadows with the other manacled fools in Plato’s cave. In his novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis tried to evoke the reality in which we actually live, the water we fish don’t notice:
He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word “seeing” is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells—peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilizations, arts, sciences, and the like—ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind. At first he could not say what. But he knew in the end that most of them were individual entities. If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it Some of the thinner and more delicate cords were beings that we call short-lived: flowers and insects, a fruit or a storm of rain, and once (he thought) a wave of the sea. Others were such things as we also think lasting: crystals, rivers, mountains, or even stars. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colours from beyond our spectrum were the lines of the personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendour as all of them from the previous class. But not all the cords were individuals: some were universal truth or universal qualities. It did not surprise him then to find that these and the persons were both cords and both stood together as against the mere atoms of generality which lived and died in the clashing of their streams: but afterwards, when he came back to earth, he wondered. And by now the thing must have passed together out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure as the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the inter-weaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and a simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such a quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood Farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awaking from trance, and coming to himself.
Angels and demons see this reality and its stakes for what they are. Elections and wars are but wet paper to them, fragile and ephemeral.

But the eternal soul of the most humble, pathetic “loser” you can imagine? A fortress forested with alabaster spires; vast as Sahara; looming like Himalaya; battlements warded by Heaven’s hosts, but besieged by demon legions; a great strategic prize in the one, only really Great War that ever was or will be: a rich trove of gems, a palisaded garden, a dazzling, awful armory of prayers meekly offered and thus terrible, terrible in their power to shape the Great War. A high-walled treasure city: the celestial and infernal armies’ struggle for it—could we but see it—a saga far worthier sung than trifling Troy’s! That’s the soul of the raving bum on the corner; the addict trembling in the squalid crack den; the disabled, disfigured child in the womb; the gay activist calling you a bigot in all caps on Facebook. That soul is of infinite value.

And so is your soul, and mine, and the soul of the young atheist you bring around to faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ by chatting about ideas in the coffee shop. That’s reality. Yes, this sublunary sphere matters: it is God’s good gift to us, which we are to cherish and steward, this globe both our garden and His Temple. But the really great common good is not most ably served by statesmanship, but by discipleship. Today’s hegemonic Rome may burn, and we will rightly mourn it as patriots who love our native earth. But we must not forget that it is not this Babylon, but the New Jerusalem, that is our country:

The Benedict Option is not a retreat: it is joining the battle in the real world.

Don’t retreat into the beguiling tribal squabbles of politics. Follow the King to battle.

No comments:

Post a Comment