Monday, April 24, 2017

(Backup) The Roots of the Crisis (cont.)

Dreher treats the momentous changes that unravelled the sacramental universe of the Medieval model. Renaissance and Reformation shifted focus to humanistic areas and shattered authority. The rising political nation states and empires brought new pressures to bear. The Scientific Revolution may have been led by professing Christians but the "grounding lay undeniably in nominalism." Science worked in practical ways and the mathematisation of nature brought a new approach. "The natural world was to be taken no longer as something to be contemplated as in any way an icon of the divine, but rather as something to be understood and manipulated by the will of humankind for its own sake." 
Philosophers continued the fragmentation. Descartes inverted the medieval approach to knowledge, putting the Self as the reference point for knowledge. The Enlightenment was "an attempt . . . to find a common basis outside religion for determining moral truth.". 
 It was a decisive break with the Christian legacy of the West. Deism now became the forming theology. Spiritual and secular are to be separate realms. 
This worked while many people were still Christian or church- goers. Enlightenment morality depended on the virtue of a moral and religious people. There was still "a strong shared idea of the Good and a shared definition of virtue."
The swing of the pendulum came in the romantic movement's exaltation of emotion, freedom and individualism. This was a reaction against rationalism but not a return to faith.
Atheism in the 19 th century was real but kept in check by vigorous revivals and religious fervour. The secular elites pursued a secular revolution that introduced reformist and essentially secular thinking into established institutions. The early 20th century pushed religion further to the edges of life. 
I can't help feeling that the world wide traumas of Wars and economic chaos in the 20th century worked to delay the unravelling of Western values. People held on to traditions in the face of barbarism and suffering. But post war Western society saw further unravelling of the Western tradition. Dreher relies on Philip Rieff's analysis of the advent of Psychological Man in the 60's and Charles Taylor's insights. The triumph of Eros marks our time. Desire expressed as the assertion of individuality is the underlying world view. Thus same-sex marriage is asserted on the basis of love and desire, disconnected with any relation to biological embodiment.  Dreher notes: "The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfilment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.  . . Transgenderism is the logical next step, after which will come the deconstruction of any obstructions, in law or custom, to freely chosen polygamous arrangements."  
This new concept of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (citing a US Supreme Court Justice). 
So the West loosened its grasp on God as Creator and Lord, and now has arrived at a unravelling of human bonds with our bodies. The autonomous Self rules now, a god its own right. There is no ordered creation to which our desires must submit. Dreher: "The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other. . . . We have been loosed, but we do not know how to bind." 

So how does the Christian church, carrier of a very different world-view, respond, even to preserve itself in this corrosive sea that seeps into us? " We who still hold the golden thread lossely in our hands must seize it more tightly and cling to it for future generations, or it will be torn from our grasp." 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Roots of the Crisis

Rod Dreher turns in chap 2 of The Benedict Option to examine how the unravelling of the West's spiritual and moral consensus came about. " We are living with the consequences of ideas accepted many generations ago, and as a result of those decisions we are losing our religion."
He reminds us that religion provides the system of beliefs and practices that hold a community together. In the West it is Christianity that has provided this whole system, so that moral habits and social structures generated by belief kept going even when the underlying faith was abandoned. But eventually the flowers die on the cut root. The process is accelearating now, and the church is struggling to hold the younger generations because they are formed by this embracing culture that erodes faith. 

Owing a debt to Charles Taylor's analysis, Dreher notes five landmark events over seven centuries that has undermined its foundation faith. There are many forces and developments at work, but his survey is stimulating and in accord with other historians of culture. It is a long road from as a sacramental  experience of life in the Middle Ages to the emptied world of naturalism today. 
Dreher lists 
1. The loss of belief in the integral connection between God and creation (between transcendent and material realities) in the fourteenth century;
2. The collapse of religious unity and authority in the sixteenth century Reformation.
3. The eighteenth century Enlightenment that placed Reason in place of religion and privatised religious fai.
4. The Industrial revolution (1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in 19th and 20th centuries.
5. The sexual revolution from 1960 to present.

It is hard for us to grasp a sacramental view of life and the universe. It was undergirded by metaphysical realism- the principle that all things exist and have a God-given essential nature independent of human thought. All things aware grounded in God. "Realism holds that the essence of a thing is built into its existence by God, and its ultimate meaning is guaranteed by this connection to the transcendent order." (27)  It was the British monk William of Ockham who cut down the mighty tree of metaphysical realism. He ascribed meaning to God's will. Thus was born (again) the idea of nominalism - that objects have no intrinsic meaning, only meaning assigned to them. Ockham defended God's sovereignty at the cost of separating nature from the divine realm in itself; only by revelation could we grasp meaning. 
Dreher observes that this noinalism made the modern world possible. Nature was studied in itself and a new emphasis on empiricism and naturalism was born. War and world-wide plagues disturbed the life of Europe. The defeat of metaphysical realism used in a new dynamic phase.

This analysis is not novel to Rod Dreher, but it does remind me that most of us today are by instinct nominalists. A side-issue is worth considering: whether metaphysical realism was discredited or simply replaced. Still, we are witnessing in current sexual  identity politics, an intense nominalise about the nature of human identity say as gendered. The natural embodied self is not a given, has no transcendent reality; the desiring self within decides what meaning one gives and how the body is used. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Benedict Option


I've started to read Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option after hearing much about it and following his blog. So here is the first nstalment of my reactions.
Dreher's thesis is that the church in the West is facing a cultural rejection of the world-view and anthropology derived from Christianity. This is getting antagonistic and intolerant. The church in USA is weak in its ability to resist the worldliness and has lost the culture war. Allowing for his American context, the situation in Australia is comparable. The push for same sex marriage is a dramatic marker  because it was unthinkable and absurd until very recently but opponents now are labelled bigots etc. A new gender anthropology is being aggressively pushed in Australian schools. So society hasn't been "christian' for a long time, but laws and values have tracked the biblical norms. Now marriage is being radically redefined and laws will enforce it. 
Dreher picks up the example of Benedict who founded a new kind of Christian community to preserve the faith and civilisation in the unravelling days of the Roman Empire. Dreher thinks that Western Christians would be wise to gear themselves for a strategic withdrawal.
Is he exaggerating? I don't think so. We've known for a long time that we are in a post-Christian society. The pressures are more felt now as the pillars of the West are being knocked over. He is concerned about how the church can preserve itself with an onslaught of different values.