I May Come to the Garden Alone, But Stay (in part) Because of Who’s There

Is it okay for conservative Presbyterians to talk about the perseverance of the saints in terms of social psychology? Not exclusively, but at least a little? The idea is that we certainly depend on the work of the Spirit to endure hardships and doubts. But what if the work of the Spirit includes the people around us, in our homes, congregations, friendships, social networks?

Part of what got me thinking about this was an exchange a while ago between Glenn Loury and Steven Teles about the former’s Christian background and how he experienced tensions between the fairly unsophisticated faith of his charismatic congregation and the intellectual cast of his peers at an Ivy League university. This was not simply a question of faith versus reason. It was one of whether Loury knew other academics who were Christian and, by virtue of associations with them, make his own Christian belief plausible. Here’s a link to that conversation.

These thoughts returned after reading Tommie Kidd’s post about Philip Jenkin’s reflections on fertility and religiosity. First Jenkins (via Kidd):

… there is an inverse relationship between the fertility rates of a community and that society’s degree of religious fervor and commitment. High fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. Conversely, the lower the fertility rate, and the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. That shift from high to low commonly takes place in a short time, a generation or so. Fertility rates thus supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization. What follows is a bare sketch, but I will deal with it in much greater detail in a book that I am currently working on–especially on issues of causation and correlation.

The classic example of demographic/religious change is modern Europe. Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular since the 1960s has also, in these same years, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates. Those rates are at their lowest in such countries as Spain and Italy, where they stand today around 1.3 or 1.4, and they have dipped well below that.

(Ahem. What am I missing about Humanae Vitae, Spain, and Italy?)

Then Kidd:

Religious adherence does have a lot to do with kids. In spite of horror stories about how many youth group kids “leave the faith,” people who took a break often come back into church when they get married and start having kids. Anecdotally, I know of parents who readily admit that they only go to church for the sake of their kids. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they would not go to a certain church because of a lack of children and children’s programs. My family would certainly have to re-evaluate our involvement at our current church if we felt like their programming for teenagers was inadequate (thankfully, it is terrific).

I too know of people who became pillars of Reformed congregations after having kids and recovering the faith that they had mainly abandoned during young adulthood.

But the point I am raising goes beyond families and child rearing. It has to do with the people with whom we hang out and how they keep us in the faith. You may have a doubt or two, but because you know other folks for whom these thoughts are not troubling, you may be inclined to go with the flow until you find a resolution. Conversely, without people in your faith tribe who reinforce your beliefs by virtue of their smarts, humor, outlook, sartorial display, or friendship, if you hit a period of doubt, are you more willing to consider unbelief?

Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is also behind providence, which are God’s most “holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”

So it’s not social psychology or pneumatology. It’s both/and, a win win.

Or maybe not.

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The Adam Option

If we wish to right the wrong that the Supreme Court has done, then, we must do more than change the law. We must change the culture. That’s no easy task, and again it is not obvious how we should begin.

That’s one of Phil Lawler’s observations after the Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage. One way to change the culture, I know right off the top of my head, is not the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option literally means no sex and no kids. And the one way that heterosexuals could change the culture in a heart beat is out-reproduce homosexuals. Think about it (but not to long). What’s so hard about that? One kind of sex results in kids, the other doesn’t. Birth rates alone will change demographics and all sorts of cultural bi-products follow. Think of all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Europe being overrun by Muslims who out-reproduce Christians Europeans and think again how those changing demographics are supposed to transform Europe.

It could happen here — families overwhelming singles.

Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy think that the Benedict Option still has possibilities but not the way that Rod Dreher frames it:

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.

I still don’t see room for sex. I am still left wondering what happened to these Benedictines once they die. For the Benedict Option to succeed, don’t you need to have kids and pass on your faith and “values” to them? And where do you see sex or kids in a monastery?

Dreher himself is pondering his critics and has recently come up with this as a better formulation of the Benedict Option:

The early Benedictine monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict, which directed how they were to organize their monastic communities to serve God. Benedict taught that they were to focus on prayer and work, and the common life. The five principles I have discerned from reading the Rule are:

Order
Stability
Discipline
Community
Hospitality

It should go without saying that a method for living out these principles is going to look very different for lay people living in the world than for vowed religious living in single-sex communities behind monastery walls. I think whatever forms the Benedict Option takes, we have to understand that it’s going to be diverse, depending on local needs, and particular religious traditions. How Catholics live it out won’t look exactly like how Southern Baptists live it out. How urban Christians live it out won’t look exactly like how rural Christians live it out. The ultimate goal, though, is developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.

Fine, but weren’t families islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture? And weren’t congregations also there to produce some of those same cultural goods? What happened to family and church? One answer is that families and churches didn’t do that great a job of passing on strict codes governing sex, marriage, and ambition? Did the pursuit of a Republican president in the White House and overturning Roe v. Wade also bring some strong winds and heavy rains to those islands of stability? I think so.

But those islands are still there. Climate change hasn’t obliterated them. Be fruitful, multiply, and catechize (but not that doorstop of a catechism produced by John Paul II — Luther’s Small, Heidelberg, or the Shorter Catechism should do).

Tommie Kidd gets the last word on what was the Adam (okay, ladies) the Adam-and-Eve Option:

How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.

These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

Pray that Americans Will Listen to Wendell Berry

For day three of the Old Life Prayer Vigil, a few excerpts from Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, given this past Monday night in Washington, D.C.

First, a cautionary word by implication to the W-Wists:

In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices. . . .

We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.

And then a word on behalf of economy, that is the household and the families that comprise them:

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.

I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.