Interesting Ideas – and their Limitations

For the first time in a few weeks, I have found a subject that strikes me as being of interest. There was the Semaine du Golfe when I was totally off-line. The only electricity I was using was a rechargeable lantern, a transistor radio for the news and some music on France Musique, my camera, mobile phone and VHF radio – all with low voltage batteries. Other than that, my life was dinghy cruising in the raw and meeting others on the basis of our common interest. Strangely, the conversation mostly was not about boats. I occasionally “came out” about being a priest, but not with a view to getting a person into a church – but rather share life with them.

Perhaps I have become of the same radical ways as the French worker priests of the 1940’s or Fr Guy Gilbert. Christianity is lived at several levels: contemplative, seeking to transform humanity to make empathy replace competition and seeing other people as lower elements of a food chain. There is also the vocation of some to bang the drum of a number of symbolic issues such as the family and sexual morality as a way to influence secular politics as a sine qua non to the notion of Christian witness. The latter way is shared between American traditionalist Roman Catholics, converts to Eastern Orthodoxy and fundamentalist Protestants – and with the tiny minority in France of monarchists, legitimists, Le Pen supporters and intégristes.

Could it be that the drum-banging against legal abortion and same-sex “marriage” is no longer conducive to Christian witness? There will always be fanatics and right-wing radicals, which is a fact of life. Thought is emerging about introducing a rift between Christianity and the ideology. Politics turn me off, since between conservative capitalism and state socialism, it is all about money, who exploits who.

I discovered The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics through Facebook, and more particularly one of our priests in America. I’m not American, so it is difficult to discern the meaning behind the words used in the title. Firstly, I wondered if it was something based on an idea promoted by Pope Benedict XVI, though it wasn’t without accident that Cardinal Ratzinger chose that name (Benedict XIV, Benedict XV or St Benedict of Nursia). My other question is knowing whether the “Christian Right” is an organisation, a movement or a tendency among certain individuals who express themselves through speech and writing. The Americans love putting names to things, even when the concept is not yet defined and mature. The article needs to be read.

The central concept seems to be one of abandoning attempts to work with secular politics and moving towards a more contemplative notion of Christian life and witness. Putting it in simple terms, you can’t stop people from doing what they want, even if sinful, but they cannot be influenced or constrained if they don’t have the faith we have. They will do what they want – we can’t stop them – but we can try to teach through example. Some can have big families, if they can afford them. Others would adopt a more contemplative life as monks or ordinary people living a marginal and “simple” life in communities (the reality of intentional communities is often fraught with problems of the cult guru or internal conflict management). The theme especially rings true to my own feelings and ideas. The kind of Christian ideal I tried to live between about 1982 to the early 1990’s, namely French traditionalist Roman Catholicism, profoundly alienated me – as did the emerging Parisian bourgeois Catholicism of the 1980’s. Does that leave me without any political ideas?

No, but I have no confidence in the existing system in the western world. Elsewhere on this earth, people are also governed by the principle that wealth and might are right. I find conservatism based on the same power struggle as state socialism. Human society cannot work at the mega-level of nations, states and anonymous bureaucracies. We seem to be going towards a kind of world socialism or private capitalism – and it spells dystopia. I am naturally pessimistic, but I have hope that something will crack and bring humanity to live at a more realistic and human level – and old Romantic dream.

The problem for me is not homosexual “marriage” (marriage being a Sacrament uniting a man and a woman) or even abortion (which is more serious since it involves the destruction of human life). The problem is one of a world becoming a “machine” that feeds on human “food”, that takes away humanity and the sublime of the human person. However, if that is the way the world is going to go, we can’t stop it any more than we can halt a hurricane or a tornado.

Since the French Revolution, churches and Christian people have tried to influence the political system with a “brick-by-brick” approach. This is certainly why easily identifiable issues are targeted, like the homosexual agenda, human life and the family. The world becomes less and less Christian. Why not let it go? It seems a selfish idea to live in a world like Nazi Germany and dig ourselves into a hole. Eventually, we would be found and sent to a concentration camp, and our only witness would be offering our lives in the gas chambers and cremation ovens.

Christianity began in the catacombs, divided internally as well as persecuted from the outside (Jewish establishment, Roman Empire, etc.). Much is said about the Constantinian Church, that as power and money were given to the clerical structures, and the Church became like the Temple of Jerusalem between the end of the Second Exile to the time of Christ, Christianity became less a matter of personal gnosis and transfiguration but of domination of the world in the name of moral principles.

I see America sliding towards the pessimistic realism of us Europeans. Maybe things are on the horizon to resist the drift towards world socialism. I have always been interested in the idea of micro-societies based on monastic concepts adapted for lay people and secular (married) priests. Benedictine monasticism of the sixth century resumed earlier monastic ideals and rules of life to produce something that would be a viable alternative to the crumbling of mainstream society leaving a “dark age”. Parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and our own times are nothing new.

… local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages…

Are there any such communities other than monasteries? There are the various charismatic communities like Le Chemin Neuf in France and any number of intentional communities whose members may be religious but the foundations of which are above all practical. They are certainly a little more “realistic” than many of the hippie communes of the 1960’s. There is the scouting community of Riaumont in northern France that does wonders with young people. None of them can get any degree of independence from the state, the bureaucracy, the increasing number of regulations and above all taxation. It becomes increasingly difficult to live off the grid, especially for organised communities – often labelled as cults to discredit them. Some communities are indeed totalitarian sects intended to enslave rather than liberate their adepts!

The ideal is wonderful, but what about the reality? What exists here and now? It seems about as elusive as western rite Orthodoxy! My immediate thought is that anyone wanting to go that way must sacrifice living in the western world. Go where? South America is largely corrupt and welcomes those with huge amounts of money. Like in our own world, you don’t get ought for now’t. Increasing amounts of the world are going under the jackboot of jihadist Islam. In the far east, we just cannot assimilate their culture. That would seem to leave small and remote islands. But, the warning is the famous book by William Golding, The Lord of the Flies. We are fallen humans, and we can sink very low. No amount of regulation can prevent that, and the Christian ideal can be a shallow veneer indeed!

I will keep my eyes open and watch for the emergence of new communities. If they exist, we know about them. A lot of thought will have to go into it and a lot of baggage will have to be left behind. It is my own dream, realised only very partially by living out in the country – but I am not farming but still doing things that maintain my dependence on the “system”. Alternative living is just as fraught with problems as living in a mainstream society that allows or compels its citizens to sin.

The article doesn’t go deep enough into the history and practical aspects of alternative living. It is easier for individuals to go and live in boats (since the sea is generally less regulated than the land), but all the consequences have to be considered. Doing away with money is a non-starter because we still need to buy things from those with the ability to make them. Where is the line drawn? Solitude usually leads to mental illness and deterioration.

I have read scenarios about what people would do after something on the scale of an economic crash, a pandemic or a world war. Most could not survive because we don’t have the skills people had only a hundred years ago. Most of the preppers are going to be in for a big surprise. You can live on a boat for a week, with money and the possibility of buying food and drinking water. Otherwise, life goers downhill very quickly. You don’t survive by buying “prepper” kits but through being able to withstand the “hard” life. Military training is an asset… If something like that happens, most of us will die from starvation, being killed by predatory gangs or from disease. The fall of society will be no picnic!

If this is the basis of the survival of Christianity, then little hope remains. Perhaps we just have to live in the system but as an invisible contemplative leaven. That also for most will be a dream, just as difficult as living the “hard” life. It will be a question of asceticism, not panem et circenses. That is the sort of asceticism we will have to live ourselves and not impose on others.

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3 Responses to Interesting Ideas – and their Limitations

  1. Stephen K says:

    Well, Father, I’ve read the “Benedict option”, but it isn’t really equivalent to the Benedictine option. It’s less a commitment to a non-venal way of life as a kind of temporary or strategic retreat from the world as they politically dislike it. The Benedict option is ultimately not a spiritual course of action but a political one, something that does not appear to have lain at the heart of St Benedict’s enterprise or vision. A good example of the kind of thing you are talking about is not the model proposed by either Mr Dreher or Mr Linker, but the model lived by the Bruderhof, followers of Eberhard Arnold, whose life is very exemplary and for whom I have great respect.

    Besides, this notion that just because same-sex marriage (or however you prefer to term it) is being endorsed by modern secular states, therefore it becomes impossible to live the Christian life, is nonsense. Many of the modern secular developments in law have come about because not only do they derive from some corrective ethical notions (think slavery, popular franchise etc) but the counter-arguments put by traditionalist religionists no longer persuade. Whose fault is that? Could it possibly be (no, God and the Pope forbid!) that there’s something wrong, lacking or deficient about their arguments or moral force?!! Spare me!

    No, in my view, the challenge posed by the Gospel is, as it always has been, a very personal one, and nothing the empires of State…or Church….can ever do, can abrogate the very different quality and nature of the “kingdom that is not of this world”. I think those who wish to pick up their bat and ball and go home have to be careful they are not simply ‘biding their time’ rather than seeing how flawed and imperfect the human and religious condition always is, even when you think you are doing the right thing or have the answers.

    The following is not mine but someone else’s but it speaks very powerfully to me and the answer to your plaint, Father, may well be found in contemplation of the following:

    In the beginning there was Love,
    and Love was with God,
    and Love was God.

    She was with God in the beginning.

    Through her all things were given the breath of God;
    without her nothing was living that is alive.
    In her was life,
    and that life was the love of women and men.

    The Love warms the coldness,
    but the coldness has not understood it.

    There came a man who was sent from God; his name was Jeshua.

    He came as a witness to testify concerning that love,
    so that through him everyone might be filled with the Spirit.

    He himself was the Light;
    he came as a witness to the truth and love which is in God.

    The true love that burns in the heart of everyone
    was coming into the world.

    She was in the world,
    and though the world was given life through her,
    the world did not recognize her.

    She came to those who were her own,
    but her own did not welcome her.

    Yet to all who did accept her,
    to those who were open to her power,
    she gave the breath and warmth of God’s children
    – born not of nature’s urging, nor of human choice nor of man’s determination,
    but born again ‘of God’.

    The Spirit was poured out and she came to dwell in every heart.
    We have seen her glory,
    the glory of the binding love between the Father and the Son,
    full of grace and truth.

    Jeshua testified concerning her:

    “I will ask the Father,
    and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
    the Spirit of truth,
    which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees her nor knows her.
    But you know her, because she remains with you,
    and will be in you.

    “I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.
    For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.
    But if I go, I will send her to you.

    “When she comes, the Spirit of truth,
    she will guide you to all truth.
    She will not speak on her own, but she will speak what she hears,
    and will declare to you the things that are coming.

    “She will glorify me,
    because she will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
    Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you
    that she will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”

    He cried out, saying,
    “I have come to cast fire on the earth and how I would that it were kindled.”

    From her fullness we have all received,
    grace for grace,
    because while the law was given through Moses,
    grace and truth came through Jesus Christ,
    and the Spirit is poured out over humankind
    as a nourishing, mothering love.

    No one has ever seen God.
    The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him
    and the Spirit of Love abides in our hearts.

    • Again, a fine reflection. It is a little like a father and mother of a family seeing a child go wrong in life. They should do everything possible, depending on the child’s age, state of intellectual and emotional development, etc., to correct the child. In the end, the child has his or her freedom to go wrong – and the child exercises his freedom. It is tragic to see a young person go wrong (drugs, stealing, sexual promiscuity, etc.), but they sometimes have to learn the hard way. We are not prevented from being Christians because we are impotent in forcing non-Christians to follow our moral teaching (because we have no Franco or Pinochet in our pocket). I do believe that the priority is to find our own spiritual life and solve our own problems before going on and on about what other people get up to.

  2. Justin says:

    I’ve reached the point where some part of the ” Benedict option” seems very enticing. Overall I do not think Christianity is going to have the same influence it used to, despite the overly optimistic claims of traditionalists. The Divine Office, the Jesus Prayer, the occasional Latin Mass and the attempt at living like a Benedictine Oblate are my mainstays, without any particular hope that there will ever be some grand return of anything quite like ” Christendom” again.

    In terms of politics these days I don’t vote, I don’t pay attention to the news and on some level I feel like it doesn’t matter anyway. I’m still a Roman Catholic eccentric ( trad in sensibilities but not so rigid in others) and probably always will be, but as Christianity continues to decline in influence I recognize that it’s best to foster as much understanding and ” spiritual ecumenism” as possible with other traditional minded Christians.

    Perhaps the ” People of God” imagery from Vatican II, as well as the less rigid ecclesiology, was prophetic. As Christians we are wandering the deserts of the world in exile until we reach the Promise Land, a place that is not a new Christendom of Throne and Altar but Heaven itself.

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