Damian Thompson has just published The Amish, Jews, Muslims and the future of religion. He writes about the Amish, who with certain groups of Jews and Muslims would represent the future of religion. It’s an interesting idea.
I visited Pennsylvania in a hired car back in January 1998 and followed the traces of Harrison Ford’s Witness and another film starring Gregory Peck as a mad Nazi trying to recreate his Führer by breeding little cloned Hitlers. The farmland sprawls wide and is punctuated by white clapboard houses, gambrel barns and wheat silos. One would see cattle and horses in the fields. Occasionally, I would see an Amish man travelling along the road with his horse and carriage. The countryside is rather lovely, not very different from some parts of the south of England.
Authors and researchers have written on this subject of people who take their religion very seriously in their whole lives, in their families and the wider community. They try to find reasons why some religions thrive despite modern times, and why others wither away.
As far as I can see it, the Amish is almost a kind of “monasticism for lay people” and families. They refuse modernity, but the line is often difficult to draw. Damian Thompson notes the parallels with orthodox Jews and Muslims: strict dress codes and isolation from the modern world. The accent is placed not on theological speculation but an eminently practical approach to Christianity – live it in our lives. Monasteries work because they are micro societies, fed not by procreation but by vocations, and they follow a rule under the direction of the abbot, just like a well-run ship with its officers and crew.
This notion seems to characterise the Jesuit approach of Pope Francis: develop Guarani-like societies where the seed of the Gospel has been planted. Above all, put the Gospel into practice. Might this be the future? Look out for such communities coming into existence. I have already commented on communities like L’Emmanuel, the Chemin Neuf and others in the charismatic way. Such communities can easily fall victim of cult gurus and dictator-like leaders of narcissistic tendencies! That is the downside of isolating from the “real” world. There must be some relationship with the world, as Blessed Charles de Foucault in his hermitage maintained relations with his Muslim neighbours in the Algerian desert.
Most of us will never live in such a community or minister to such, but I have always shied away from modern urban life, preferring the country and the sea. Even though I am a priest, there is little one can do outwardly. The Christian Gospel then becomes something interior and an invisible leaven in our ordinary life. I would be interested in comments from readers who have decided on a simple life for the sake of Christian living.