On March 16 of this year, hundreds gathered at the Union League Club in midtown Manhattan for a public conversation about the future of Christianity in the West. The occasion was the launch of Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option, a New York Times bestseller dubbed by David Brooks as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” The event, co-hosted by Plough, First Things, and the American Conservative, brought together a varied group for a lively panel discussion.
In the face of an increasingly hostile culture, how should Christians approach participation in public life? What kinds of communities can foster true discipleship? How can we raise our children to follow Jesus? These are some of the questions raised by the book and addressed by the panelists.
Dreher began by laying out the ideas in the book and addressing common criticisms. Other panelists responded, including Ross Douthat of the New York Times, Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer, Jacqueline C. Rivers of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, and Randall Gauger, a Bruderhof bishop. Here, we present excerpts from that conversation.
Media organizations from The Federalist to the New Yorker covered the event. And the conversation hasn’t stopped: see the item titled “City and Kingdom New York” to learn about a new initiative co-sponsored by Plough that aims to continue to address these crucial issues.
You may have seen recently some criticism of me and the Benedict Option for being “alarmist.” The critics are right: I am alarmist about the state of our culture, our civilization, and the condition of the church within it. If you are a faithful Christian and are not alarmed, I think you are failing to read the signs of the times.
I do not claim that the world is coming to an end. No man knows the day or the hour. What I am claiming is that a world is coming to an end, and that if Christians don’t take radical action now, the faith that made Western civilization will not survive for long into its post-Christian phase.
A few years ago, a noted public intellectual said that “it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.” The intellectual went on to lament the collapse of the spiritual forces that sustain us.
That public intellectual was Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. When the heir of a global throne that has been in existence for nearly two thousand years says that the West is facing its greatest spiritual crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire, attention must be paid.
What are the signs of the times, then? After all, the West is living in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, though I hardly need to point out the sense of mounting political crisis throughout our civilization. But signs of our spiritual depletion are impossible to deny – and if we are spiritually depleted, and morally exhausted, our peace and prosperity will not last long.
I won’t recite a litany of statistics, but I do want to focus on a few that are of particular interest to Christians:
- The Christian faith is flat on its back in secular Europe. The United States has long been thought a counterexample to the secularization thesis. That is no longer tenable. Writing last year in the American Journal of Sociology, scholars David Voas and Mark Chaves say the data now show that the United States is on the same downward path to disbelief pioneered by our European cousins.
- According to data from the Pew Research Center, one in three 18–29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place.
- Those younger Americans who remain affiliated in some capacity with churches have been formed by a pseudo-religion that resembles Christianity in name only. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues call this “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). MTD uses the language and conceptual vocabulary of historical, biblical Christianity, but in fact it teaches a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-light philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self. Smith and his research colleagues found that MTD is the de facto religion of most young Americans today.
- In findings published in 2011, Smith found that among 18–23-year-old Christians surveyed, only 40 percent said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.
- An astonishing 61 percent of these so-called emerging adults said they have no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Christian Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass-consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
The Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined a phrase that perfectly captures the revolutionary spirit of our time and place: “liquid modernity.”
Modernity, as we know, is characterized by a conscious break with the authority of the past and its institutions. For Bauman, “solid modernity” describes the first phase of modernity, in which the pace of change had quickened, but was still slow enough for people to adjust. Things still seemed, well, solid.