Our situation is a gift, for God will give each of us who ask for it the grace to endure the darkness, barbarism, and loss of our customary sensible and cultural signs of God’s love and presence…
Only someone who has broken out of the restricted horizon of ideology can see clearly what has been left behind. And only those who have fully contemplated the abyss can be sure of having attained the spiritual truth capable of overcoming it.
Josef Zycinski, in his God and Post-modern Thought, writes:
To live the faith of Abraham is to be ready at a day’s notice to pack the tents symbolizing everything that is dear to one and to go to a new, unknown place, which God will indicate, completely independently of rational calculations or our emotional predilections. To live the faith of Abraham in the cultural context of postmodernity is to be able calmly to pack up the tents of congenial concepts and arguments, not in order to set out on a desert path, but to set them up again in a different context and in a different form, in a place indicated by God. In an Abrahamic testimony of faith, one may not lose heart on account of the wildness of new places or on account of a feeling of loneliness in a foreign landscape. We must constantly seek the face of the Lord (Psalms 27: 8), listening carefully to His voice, which could be either a discreet whisper or a delicate breeze (1 Kings 19: 12). We need to love God more than the logic of convincing deductions and the collection of respected authorities, to which we like to refer in times of difficulty. We need to accept the provisionality of contingent means, in order that the Divine Absolute might all the more clearly reveal in them his power. Only then does the contemporary “wandering Aramaean” reveal the style in which, amidst the darkness of our doubt, flashes the light of the great adventure of our faith.
I think Zycinski’s words are compelling, particularly, “We need to accept the provisionality of contingent means, in order that the Divine Absolute might all the more clearly reveal in them his power.” They also echo and confirm the prophetic thought of Romano Guardini, which we will examine presently. If Guardini and Zycinski are right about what it means to live in the fullness of the Abrahamic Faith today, Catholic traditionalism in general, and the Benedict Option in particular, are simply not adequate for living the life of Faith in today’s world and enabling others to do the same, for it is not the proper response to how things actually are and will be quite soon. To help us see how things really are, or at least, to present a view of our situation for which the Benedict Option may not even be an option, let alone the long-term solution to our problems, I would like to present three philosophers: Taylor, Girard, and Guardini, who look at three aspects of our world: Taylor, the existential, Girard, the political, and Guardini, the spiritual. Taylor will teach us that modernity is inescapable, Girard that our politics is in the final stages of the apocalypse, and Guardini that intimate union with God Himself—with nothing in between—is no longer an option, but an absolute obligation and necessity.
What I hope my presentation of these authors will do is not so much answer all our questions, but show us that we need to keep asking them and in deeper and deeper ways; for honest and courageous inquiry is precisely what in the end will defeat the evils we are facing. The evil is fundamentally bound up with the death of questions, as MacIntyre once wrote:
We have within our social order few if any social milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained . . . . This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning.
Charles Taylor and the Immanent Frame:
I think there is something almost ontological about the nature of secular modernity. Even though what we are talking about is a cultural or historical phenomenon, and so is not equivalent to being itself (I am not a Hegelian), cultural and historical being is, at least for us culture-dependent rational animals, the inexorable mediator of any “pure” being that we can experience. As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued persuasively, pace the Enlightenment’s “view from nowhere,” we never encounter reality unmediated by the cultural artifacts of language, conceptual schemes, practices, narrative, norms, etc., and though we can ultimately transcend history and culture to attain timeless truth, it is only through the cultural resources and productions that we both create and are created by, as it were, that we do so. Although I think his is an overly Hegelian interpretation of this dynamic, Louis Dupre is onto something here when he writes:
Those who in a particular epoch impose a new pattern of meaning on the life and thought of their time do more than apply a different film of thought to an indifferent reality. They transform the nature of reality itself. If the preceding carries any metaphysical weight, it would be contained in the original thesis that Being must not be conceived as a substance moved by thought. Cultural changes leave a different reality in their wake. . . Culture, then, consists not in what humans add to the real, so to speak. It is the active component of the real itself transforming the passive one.
Nevertheless, in light of the notorious, anti-Christian fruits that appear to have grown solely in the soil of secular modernity, it would seem an obligation to be against it, a la the Benedict Option—whatever its ontological status. And it would seem quite plausible that with enough prayer, education, and effort, by apprenticing oneself to the supreme culture-transcending Teacher, the Catholic Church, by immersing oneself in their pristine and infallible formative hands, one could more or less escape modernity, at least those aspects of it that deny God and the transcendent in theory and in practice. Should we not create, with Dreher, adequately anti-modern domestic, social, cultural, political, educational, and liturgical environments if the ones secular modernity has given us threaten our salvation? As Taylor’s thought suggests, however, the question is not should we but can we.
The End of Naïveté
A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of peoples…. We have undergone a change in our condition, involving both an alteration of the structures we live within, and our way of imaging these structures. This is something we all share, regardless of our differences in outlook. But this cannot be captured in terms of a decline and marginalization of religion. What we share is what I have been calling “the immanent frame”; the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a “natural”, or “this worldly” order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the “supernatural” or “transcendent.”
According to Taylor, secular modernity is the ineluctable mode, background, and context for all thought and practice in the contemporary West, rather than any particular expression of it. It is, thus, a deeper reality than the merely ideological—it is existential. We encounter it deep within our lived experience of reality before we have the chance to reflect on it. It is not so much the reflective, philosophical description or account we give ourselves of a more fundamental, pre-philosophical and pre-reflective experience, but is itself this fundamental experience, embodied in the warp and woof of our lives in such a way that to attempt to disengage or extricate ourselves from it is equivalent to the attempt to escape reality itself. Because secular modernity is so intimately bound up with our experience of reality, it serves as the ineluctable background to and structure of the very form and content of our thinking, akin to the way grammar and rhetoric is the background to and structure of the matter and expression of our words. Although we can think about, and thus gain some distance from, this background and structure in an abstract, philosophical manner, we cannot entirely escape and transcend it.
If this is the existential milieu we find ourselves in, and if it is indeed inescapable, then any Benedict Option community must reckon with this, and thus not attempt, whatever else it attempts, to escape this mode of consciousness, for such would be futile. No matter how monastic and centered-on-God our practices and our community is, we simply cannot go back to the naïve theistic consciousness of the medieval man. We are inevitably going to feel the pull of other worldviews and social imaginaries, and we simply have to accept the deep pluralism of our age, even if it is a pluralism that cloaks a homogeneous and stultifying immanentism, materialism, liberalism, and individualism. In other words, what Taylor is telling us is that the Benedict Option is impossible, if what is meant by it is a return to a medieval consciousness and immunization from modernity through small-scale, communal participation in traditional religious, cultural, and familial practices. Although we are free to, and should when spiritually and morally urgent, create what we take to be “anti-modern” theoretical and practical constructs, as well as resist and reject the pernicious constructs of others, especially the mass culture of decadent egoist liberalism, we must remember that such are ineluctably erected from within and by virtue of the pre-constructive consciousness that is secular modernity itself—we are in it.
Rene Girard: Modernity as Apocalypse
The late Catholic thinker René Girard’s oeuvre is prolific and complex, including not only a rigorous psychological, sociological, anthropological, theological, and literary account of scapegoating, but also a persuasive analysis of the foundation of religion and culture in collective violence and ritualized murder. Girard has applied his formidable skill and erudition in literary criticism in the analysis of the myths employed by religious and cultural authorities to obscure their violence, including an examination of modern and contemporary Western culture in terms of scapegoating violence and ideological obfuscation. Here is a summary of his project in his own words:
My hypothesis is mimetic: it is because humans imitate each other more than animals that they had to find a way of overcoming a contagious similitude, prone to causing the complete annihilation of their society. This mechanism – which reintroduces difference at the very moment when everyone becomes similar to one another – is sacrifice. Man is born of sacrifice and is thus a child of religion. What I call, following Freud, the foundational murder– namely, the killing of a sacrificial victim, responsible for both the disorder and the restoration of order – has constantly been reenacted in rites and rituals, which are at the origin of our institutions. Millions of innocent victims have thus been sacrificed since the dawn of humanity to allow their fellow men to live together or, more precisely, to not destroy themselves. Such is the implacable logic of the sacred, which the myths dissimulate less and less as man becomes more self aware. The decisive moment of this evolution is Christian revelation, a sort of divine expiation in which God in the person of his Son will ask man for forgiveness for having waited so long to reveal to him the mechanisms of his violence. The rites had slowly educated him; now he was ready to do without them. It is Christianity that demystifies religion, and this demystification, while good in the absolute, proved to be bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to receive it. We are not Christian enough. One can formulate this paradox in another manner and say that Christianity is the only religion that will have foreseen its own failure. This prescience is called the apocalypse.
What Girard means by the apocalypse is not the event of divine judgment and retribution at the end of the world before the Second Coming of Christ, though he does not dismiss this way of reading the event. Girard himself interprets it, as he does most things, anthropologically, as the ever-escalating, mimetic violence unto self-destruction that modern man is ineluctably inflicting upon himself in our corporate rejection of both the archaic, violence channeling, sacrificial scapegoating of the pagan city, and the violence-destroying sacrifice of the Divine Scapegoat. Modernity is, for Girard, the graveyard of man’s futile attempts to control his own violence, attempts occasioned by his growing awareness of his inability to generate and preserve culture through violence. Instead, man has staved off the escalating violence by his own artifices: these are the katechons of the modern era: literally, “that which restrains,” such as the peace-making nation-state, the venedetta-canceling, impartial judiciary, the free market of victimless exchanges, and an endless supply of mass-produced consumer products and violence-and-sex-channeling entertainments.
Surprisingly, Girard claims that the real possibility of apocalyptic violence was occasioned by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the Son of God, for he defeated the ancient model of channeling violence, but gave no quarter to any other mimetic model but Himself. And this apocalyptic possibility has been actualizing itself ever since, to an exponential degree in late modernity. Modernity’s soteriology is thus twofold, depending on one’s perspective: for those who reject the Divine Scapegoat, modernity, with its programmatic rejection of all religious violence and its relentless, even fanatical, ideological concern for victims, is precisely what saves us from the apocalypse; for those who accept His non-violent atonement (and on this Girard insists), modernity is nothing else but the apocalypse’s inevitability. Girard:
The trend toward the apocalypse is humanity’s greatest feat. The more probable this achievement becomes, the less we talk about it…. I have always been utterly convinced that violence belongs to a form of corrupted sacred, intensified by Christ’s action when he placed himself at the heart of the sacrificial system. Satan is the other name of the escalation to extremes. The Passion has radically altered the archaic world. Satanic violence has long reacted against this holiness, which is an essential transformation of ancient religion.
In spite of modernity’s katechons having performed their restraining function for hundreds of years in the modern world, there is still much mimetic violence in today’s world, indeed, more than ever before: The prolongation and escalation of violence and millions upon millions of human sacrificial victims—the unborn, the elderly, the handicapped, the poor and middle-class in the first world, the vast majority in the third world; religiously, culturally, and intellectually starved souls; the normalization of political propaganda; pathological violence and plasticized sex in media and entertainment; massive private indebtedness; masses of brave new world soma addicts (in forms Huxley couldn’t have dreamt of), the so-called collateral damage of millions of innocents in perpetual, epic-scale wars started by false-flag terror events; the perpetual fear and terror of the national security and surveillance state; wars and rumors of wars; the renewed threat of nuclear Armageddon.
In other words, scapegoating in the contemporary western world has not just continued since the onset of modernity, but has both escalated beyond control and cloaked itself in an all but unrecognizable form; out of a concern for the victims, it is perpetrated in their name. The politically correct on the left persecute those they deem the persecutors in the name of the persecuted. The “war-on-terror” terrorists of the right terrorize those they deem the terrorists in the name of the victims of terror, victims by terrorists, such as ISIS, which they themselves have created and use as pawns to attack any threats to their deep-state empire. What is particularly apocalyptic about this new, secular, post-Christian scapegoating violence is that we are in denial, we know not what we do, and that each person and state-actor insists upon the cosmic righteousness of his use of violence and the demonic depravity of his “enemies”—all in the name of concern for victims. What Girard is telling us is that contemporary politics can’t save us now, and while dropping out from it in Benedict Option communities might protect us from its contagion for a while, it is akin to hiding out in a “safe” room on the Titanic.
Modernity, for Girard, is now witnessing the birth-pangs of the apocalypse, conceived, as it were, two-thousand years ago through the Gospel’s revelation of the scapegoat mechanism as the original sin of all cultures, a revelation accepted by the Church and embodied in medieval Catholic culture, but still tainted with the religious violence it was supposed to eradicate. This revelation was corporately and politically either thoroughly rejected, as in secularist Europe, or relegated to one private opinion among others, as in America. In both, it was replaced by an officially established, “gospel” of secularized victim-concern, with the divine victim, the only effective means to avoid the apocalypse of scapegoating violence, himself scapegoated through indifference and incomprehension. What ensued was the unleashing of, in Paul’s words, “the man of lawlessness,” now in his full fury—the uncontrollable, escalating mimetic desire of undifferentiated and equal, autonomous, relativistic persons in a secularized, mechanistic, individualized culture bereft of any authoritative, corporate, transcendent meaning and purpose—without the safety valve of the archaic mechanism of religiously authorized human sacrifice.
In short, René Girard identifies modern politics as fundamentally a system of satanic, world-destroying, scapegoating violence. Needless to say, if Girard is correct, while we can protect ourselves from the spiritual contagion of scapegoating by unwavering obedience to and identification with the Divine Scapegoat, the apocalyptic political violence Girard foresees will not be forestalled by Benedict Option communities, and we will not ultimately be protected from it wherever we go. Only a national and even global wide rejection of scapegoating and full conversion to the non-violence of the Gospel will suffice to prevent the man-made apocalypse we are already witnessing.
Romano Guardini and the End of Modernity
In his book, The End of the Modern World, written in 1956, the great Italian born and German educated Catholic theologian, Romano Guardini, wrote:
The new age will declare that the secularized facets of Christianity are sentimentalities. This declaration will clear the air. The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean. . . . As unbelievers deny Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through Him; he will have to learn to experience what this honesty means. Nietzsche has already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning.
Guardini described a world in the 1950s similar to the one Dreher describes now, one of a neo-pagan totalitarianism that is no longer tolerating any threats to its secularist, atheistic, and humanist dogmas, one in which Christians and other theists are called to brook no compromise and live out their Faith all the more integrally and heroically. But Guardini’s prescription for action is something at once more bracing and consoling than Dreher’s. Nothing but the “free union of the human person with the Absolute through unconditional freedom will enable the faithful to stand firm—God—centered—even though placeless and unprotected.” He goes on: “Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love that flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ. . . . Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day.”
In short, Guardini sees no real possibility for “safe” havens of Christian culture, and even if we could create them, they have the real potential of stunting our spiritual growth. God is calling theists to a higher level than mere orthodoxy and orthopraxy, indeed, a heroic and mystical level, of Faith, obedience, and trust—unshakable, naked, intimate, experienced union with God, communicating this supernatural reality wherever we go and to everyone we meet. Like Christ, we will have nowhere to lay our heads.
Benedict Option—or Mandatory Mysticism?
What Taylor, Girard, and Guardini are telling us is both worse and better that Dreher’s depiction of our situation. Although the Benedict Option is a crucial strategy for theists to protect their families and to preserve Christian consciousness and community, it very well may not be possible in the long term. If Taylor is right, the immanent frame is our home, and if Girard is right, the escalating apocalyptic violence in which we are all complicit renders any attempt to construct safe havens of Catholic culture that are spiritually, psychologically, and physically immune to the contagion of violence and scapegoating delusional.
But if Guardini is right, our situation is a gift, indeed, a priceless treasure, for God will give each of us who ask for it the grace to endure the darkness, barbarism, and loss of our customary sensible and cultural signs of God’s love and presence. We will emerge with our idols and crutches and safety nets broken and useless. As Zycinski puts it in the quote at the outset, “We need to accept the provisionality of contingent means, in order that the Divine Absolute might all the more clearly reveal in them his power.” Thus will be able to know God as He is and be conduits for his inexorable Love which will conquer all and save all.
We can surely try to opt out of the decaying culture and to shore up theistic culture in small enclaves of likeminded devotees of Tradition and the Transcendent, but whatever we do, we must do the one thing most necessary, as Mary did at the feet of Jesus, while Martha was busy with other things she thought more important. We must all become mystics now, in intimate and real contact with Jesus Christ, so we can be His hands, heart, voice, and presence in our ever darkening world. As the great German theological Karl Rahner once prophesized, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not be at all.” Rahner again:
Do not despair when experiencing despair: Let the despair take all away from you, since what is taken from you is only the finite, the unimportant, even if it may have been ever so wonderful and great, even if it may be yourself with your ideals, with your smart and detailed plans for your life, with your image of a god that looks more like you than the incomprehensible one. Allow all the exits to be blocked, for they are only exits into the finite and paths into dead ends. Do not be frightened by the solitude and forsakenness in your internal prison, which appears to be as dead as a grave. For if you stand firm, refusing to flee from despair and in the despair over the loss of your former idol that you called God you do not doubt the true God; if you stand firm, which is a true miracle of grace, then you will realize suddenly that your grave-like prison cell is locked up only against what is meaningless and finite, that its deathly emptiness is only the vastness of God’s presence, that silence is filled with a word without words by the one who stands above all names and who is all in all. The silence is his silence. He is saying that he is here…. He is here.
I end with a quotation from a paper of one of my humanities students at Wyoming Catholic College. She wrote this after studying postmodern philosophy and literature, both the godless authors—Conrad, Camus, Derrida, and Foucault—and the godful—Dostoyevsky, Eliot, O’Connor, and Girard:
Living in the modern era is a gift. Despite the broken traditions, abolished communities, and heap of worn-out philosophies, this era is still a gift. In one way, man can no longer distract himself with human constructs. They have all failed, and anyone who lives in denial of this failure will be forced to face tragedy at some point like the grandmother (even if that point only comes at his or her own death.) In another way, man is called to even more intimate encounter with God as a result of this Wasteland. Quite literally, we have been placed in a society that purges us of pride and confidence in human accomplishment. The disparity of the Wasteland calls for deeper love and communion, but God provides a more intimate way of encountering Himself to overshadow this disparity. And, this is a gift.
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