Living In A Culture Gone Mad: Four Ways The Church Can Respond To The Coming Crisis

by Anthony Costello

In a recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, theologian Carl Trueman poses an initial question: why does a statement like ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body’ make sense to us today, where just a generation or two ago it would have been absolutely unintelligible?1Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 19. To try to answer this, he invokes the 20th century sociologist, Philip Rieff, for the sake of explaining to the Church why we find ourselves in such an upside down world. Trueman utilizes Rieff’s taxonomy of cultures to do this explanatory work. For Rieff, society could be categorized into three different “worlds:” first, second and third worlds,2 These designations shouldn’t be confused with how modern economists classify countries according to economic and technological development, although economics and technology might play a causal role in which category a particular culture finds itself. a classification which becomes useful in understanding our current culture. First world societies, according to Rieff, are cultures that define their morality, and subsequently their laws and customs, by appealing to something beyond society itself— to a sacred or transcendent reality. First worlds are “pagan,” however, in that they are largely rooted in primitive religious beliefs that leave mankind open to the whims of fate, fortune, and the furies. Nevertheless, that a sacred reality or sacred history acts as the foundation for societal structures, practices, and codices is undeniable in these cultures.

Second worlds are those that also ground their societal structures, practices and moral norms in the transcendent, but where the transcendent or sacred is expressed through an organized faith or theological system that is open to various forms of rational thought and scientific modes of thinking. Christendom of the ancient orthodox East or the Latin West, or Medieval Islam would be good examples of second world cultures. Both first and second worlds are relatively stable in their cultural forms due to the common sense belief that all things ultimately are sourced in a sacred, transcendent power or Person and, therefore, cannot be so easily altered or amended.

Third Worlds, on the other hand, are drastically different from the first two, in that they no longer accept a reality, a world or world maker, that lies beyond society itself. Society, as Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer argued years ago, is the sole determining factor of “the world and subjectivity in all its forms.”3 see James Bohman, “Critical Theory” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. for third world cultures. Or, as Trueman says, “Third worlds, by way of stark contrast to the first and second worlds, do not root their cultures, their social orders, their moral imperatives in anything sacred. They do have to justify themselves, but they cannot do so on the basis of something sacred or transcendent. Instead, they have to do so on the basis of themselves.”4 Trueman, 76, emphasis added In short, third worlds are categorically different from first and second worlds, whose own intramural differences pale in comparison. This is why the challenge to Christians living in a third world society like that of the United States or Canada today is much greater than that of early Christians living in pagan Rome or medieval Christians living in 11th century Islamic caliphates.5 The challenge may not be physically greater, but the chasm between people mentally is much vaster, making the communication of the Gospel that much more difficult. The framework for viewing reality is categorically other between first and second worlds and third worlds.

Before considering how Christians might respond to the challenge of living in this kind of “third world” culture, it is important to note three implications of Rieff’s theory. First, all three kinds of culture: first, second, and third world, can and do exist at the same time within the boundaries of one society.6 Trueman, 80. Second, because pagan, theological, and purely secular cultures exist in the same society at the same time, these societies (e.g. the United States, Canada, England and Western Europe) often feel like cultural battlegrounds, “This is the reason why society now often feels like a cultural battle zone: it consists of groups of people who simply think about the moral structure of the world in utterly incompatible ways.”7Trueman, 80.. Pagan-like cultures (animists, spiritualists, new-agers etc.), religious cultures (Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Orthodox Judaism), and purely secular cultures all live and move and have their being together. Regardless of the vast metaphysical, epistemic, and moral chasm that divides their adherents, members of each world find themselves lounging in the same coffee shops, enjoying the same entertainment, and buying from the same online vendors.

Finally, third world cultures, unlike their historical predecessors and contemporaries, are inherently unstable. Because third world cultures must determine their own identity, their own structures of authority, and their own moral norms apart from anything other than themselves, they become societies that are driven primarily, if not exclusively, by the emotional moods of the day and the sheer willfulness to reshape culture according to those moods. Even the natural sciences, logic, and the law find themselves subject to the passions, drives, and creative forces of third world society and its moods and fashions. Indeed, nothing could be more distinct from a Christian view of reality than that of a third world society.8 Except maybe abstract objects and concrete objects With this said, how can Christians appropriately respond to living in a society that is increasingly a third world one? How can we fight on this battleground of perpetual “self-creation” and “self-determination?,” where the majority of those in the culture no longer are willing or able to refer to a transcendent source or cause of morality or even reality?

Four Responses to Living in A Third World Culture

  1. Reconquest

One prima facie option is to reconquer the culture for Christ, or at least for Christian morality, regardless of what people actually believe about Christianity. While there is a biblical way to attempt to retake lost cultural territory, this response can lead to new forms of a spiritual danger that both Roman Catholicism and historic Protestantism have traditionally warned against, namely Messianism.9 see Catechism of the Catholic Church, here. The idea here being that we can reclaim “the land” for Christ via the same means as we lost it to the culture, primarily through politics, and if not there, then through either physical force or some other ignoble and coercive means. This idea of “fighting fire with fire” acts as a fleshy, in the Pauline sense, replacement to the transforming love of Christ. While integration of the Christian vision can be done peaceably through positioning ourselves in places of institutional influence, e.g. in academics, entertainment, and government, it must be said that these attempts often have the reverse effect, i.e. converting the Christian influencer rather than the Christian converting the secular space. This inability to impact culture is one reason why the “reconquest” impulse emerges even among true believers, if not especially among them. Moreover, if the cultural battle has already been lost, which many believe to be the case, then the temptation to take by force, under the banner of some corrupted view of Nationalism,10 Nationalism itself gets a bad rap these days, and I believe there is a good, biblical case to be made for Nationalism increases greatly. As such, this option must be rejected, and that in virtue of Christ himself who came not to overthrow governments and systems, although he could have done so and one day will, but who came to change people’s hearts through love and self-sacrifice.

  1. Capitulation

While readers may say that capitulation is never an option, the reality is capitulation is already the preferred route of many in the Evangelical (and Roman Catholic) church today. The capitulation response seeks not to infect the culture with Christ, but to adapt Christ to the cultural norms and social moods of the day. Defenders of cultural capitulation may argue that this is the means to sow a seed in culture, i.e. through the very affirmation of it, and that by integrating the Church into the culture this is how Christ’s love is shown. However, the damage done to the truth of the Gospel in the meantime is unacceptable and, as alluded to above, whether this is actually an effective form of evangelism is highly suspect. While it can be difficult to know when one is actually capitulating, as Martin Scorcese’s film version of the book Silence brings to light, nevertheless capitulation does not seem to have much going for it, especially in this era of “soft tyranny.”

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued in his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity,11 At the time he wrote this book, MacIntyre was himself an atheist and a socialist. He eventually went on to convert to Roman Catholicism in the 1980’s. this kind of cultural Christianity ultimately does little for the cause of Christ:

For if Christianity, in even the semi-secular society of the present,[i.e. in 1968] is to be able to present itself as having a relevant content and function, it is forced to present itself as having a secular content and function. Hence the many attempts to demythologize Christianity, to separate relevant kernel from irrelevant husk. The tragedy of these attempts is that what is disentangled as the essential human meaning of Christianity is so platitudinous, and it is platitudinous precisely because what is presented is a way of life in accordance with the liberal values and illiberal realities of the established order. That function of religion which consisted in providing a radical criticism of the secular present is lost by those contemporary demythologizers whose goal is to assimilate Christianity to the secular present.

In other words, liberal or progressive Christianity waters down the Gospel message to the point of impotence in offering any kind of critique or any resistance to whatever the culture it resides in has already determined as the way forward. Capitulators have no “prophetic voice” and, as such, capitulation should be seen as a non-option, regardless of how many Christian “leaders” embrace it as a legitimate approach.

  1. Strategic Retreat

In the late 5th century, as the Roman Empire was crumbling and the Italian peninsula being ravaged by constant, barbaric conquest from the North and the East, Benedict of Nursia retreated strategically to the high hills of Southern Italy, to what became known as Monte Cassino. There he established the first monastery in Latin Christendom and formulate the “Rule,” a way of life which established the ecclesial and social vocation of religious orders. Recently, philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and popular writers like Rod Dreher have suggested that pursuing a contemporary “Benedict Option” may be needed for the Church.

For example, after analyzing the current state of morality in his magnum opus, After Virtue, MacIntyre suggests there are two basic options for modern man in the West, a return to the classical philosophy and virtue ethics of Aristotle, or an embrace of Nietzsche’s “will to power.” Obviously MacIntyre, like many others, does not want Nietzsche. Unfortunately, the culture around us seems to be trending in a Nietzschean direction, where again the sole determining factor of what we do, what we believe, and what we think is right or wrong is the sheer “will of the people,” a will unattached and unmoored from anything transcendent or sacred. For MacIntyre then, Aristotle is the clear alternative. However, he wonders at the end of the book whether this return is feasible. He presents a haunting third option that he mentions only briefly, at the tail end of the book. Having acknowledged that our current cultural climate, our “third world” in Rieffian terms, is eerily parallel to the dark ages of the late 5th and 6th centuries, he says,

If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

“St. Benedict” is in fact the very last word of MacIntyre’s book.

Dreher, following MacIntyre has penned a book simply called The Benedict Option, which also suggests the strategic retreat response. While this approach has many pluses, and can certainly been seen as compatible with both the Bible and the history of the church, it does have its deficiencies. First, it raises the question of evangelism to the culture from which the church now seems to be retreating. Second, in light of today’s ubiquity of technology and media, and our incredible sense of interconnectedness, it is unclear as to how we actually perform this strategic retreat. Finally, if we cannot really retreat, we might run into the problem of trying to form semi-isolated communities that themselves become toxic in their own way. It was one thing for Benedict to “head for the hills” of Southern Italy in the 6th century, but how does the average Christian “head for the hills” in 21st century Southern California? The retreat itself seems almost impossible.12 Here I admit that I have not yet read Dreher’s book, only MacIntyre’s. As such, I imagine I might be straw manning Dreher’s view. Please read the book itself, or go to his website for more. In some sense, from the website, it looks like Dreher is not really advocating for something as drastic as to what was Benedict’s actual response to the encroaching “dark ages.”

  1. The Daniel Plan

A final response could be called “The Daniel Plan.”13 Pastor Steven J. Weibley of the Carlisle Congregational Church in Massachusetts gave me this term in a recent Zoom meeting. While this is not a fashionable call to fast on fruits and vegetables so one can have more energy and lose weight; it nevertheless should likely entail some kind of fasting; a fasting for spiritual leanness however, not the leanness of our waistline. The Daniel plan draws from the story of Daniel as he lives out a faithful and prophetic life amidst the pagan nation of Babylon, the nation that is equated with all the iniquity of the world in the book of Revelation. The nation which is seen as a “whore” rife with sexual and sensual sin, perhaps not unlike our current sex-crazed culture. John Lennox has written a significant book about living like Daniel in the middle of modern Babylon, aptly titled “Against the Flow.” The Daniel plan is preferable to the rest in that it does not seek to overthrow Babylon through coercion or by “playing on the enemies battlefield,” nor does it capitulate on the main issues that the culture would want the church to capitulate on (e.g. abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism). Finally it does not hide itself from a world that is perishing and in desperate need of a witness to the light and life of Christ.

The only downside of the Daniel plan, if it could be called a “downside,” is that it will cost people their lives. Like Daniel and his comrades, there will be very real furnaces and lion’s dens into which men and women will be thrown. Prisons will begin to fill their cells with Daniels and Danielas,14 This is already happening, as was the case in Canada recently. who through simply saying “no” to the cultural program will find themselves ostracized and attacked by their nations, their communities, and potentially their own churches and families. However, this response was the response of those in 1940’s Germany who we so admire today. This was the response of men like Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Jägerstätter, as well as women like Edith Stein and Sophie Scholl, who in Christ received the power to resist the evil in which they found themselves. Unfortunately today we see many church leaders already capitulating to that same evil out of the mere possibility of losing their audience, their tenure, or another book deal. If pastors, professors, and priests cannot even bear the thought of losing a few friends on social media, or getting a few cold stares on campus, then the likelihood we will see many Daniels is not high. But, the history of the Church, or even any great nation, has never been reliant on sheer numbers. It has relied only on the few “chosen,” who have hearkened the divine call in spite of persecution by the profane. As Tertullian put it, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Conclusion

Of these four possible Christian responses to the unstable and neurotic culture in which the Church in the West resides, the first two are clearly non-starters. They are not really Christian options, even if some “Christians” will pursue them as such. The “strategic retreat” response has its merits: stronger local communities, greater depth of discipleship, avoidance of ‘the worst’ of culture, etc. However this “Benedict Option” also has its deficits: first, how does the command to disciple the nations and preach the good news to the lost go forward, and second, how do we even perform the actual retreat from a culture that is so interconnected through technology and media? Finally, there is the Daniel plan, which like the strategic retreat option is biblically compatible, and seems to have the advantage of not forsaking the task of evangelism or having to find means to escape culture. That said, for the Daniels and Danielas who are in the Church, this will likely spell some kind of very real earthly demise. When Franz Jäggerstätter, the Austrian farmer, persistently refused to sign the Hitler oath, not only was he beheaded, but his wife was widowed, his three daughters left fatherless, and his elderly mother left to die after her son. Their lives after Franz’ death did not improve, they also suffered. Nevertheless, it is sacrifices like these that are the heart of God’s Church and that ultimately unite us to the very suffering of the Cross and the person of Christ.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.