Why Isn’t Jamie Smith Alarmed?

Alarm sells more books (and Rod Dreher sells more books than Jamie Smith).

Jamie has a point that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option traffics in alarmism (does that mean alarm is okay):

And in his much-anticipated book, “The Benedict Option,” blogger Rod Dreher has seen the apocalypse: “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.” Note, again: if you’re not alarmed, you’re not seeing things, a circular reasoning to help work yourself into a froth of fear.

But Rod is right that Jamie goes too far and virtue signals to elite journalists in the nation’s capital who may not view Calvin College in high regard these days (think Calvin alum, Betsy De Vos) when Smith trots out the standard Never Trump meme that alarmism is a version of white backlash. Jamie, who promotes charity, really did go here:

But the new alarmism is something different. It is tinged with a bitterness and resentment and sense of loss that carries a whiff of privilege threatened rather than witness compromised. When Dreher, for example, laments the “loss of a world,” several people notice that world tends to be white. And what seems to be lost is a certain default power and privilege. When Dreher imagines “vibrant Christianity,” it is on the other side of the globe. He doesn’t see the explosion of African churches in the heart of New York City or the remarkable growth of Latino Protestantism. The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.

Jamie may work in Dutch-American country, but he’s no provincial.

So Rod feels betrayed:

I cite the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, who documents the stark decline of American Christian belief, compared to historical doctrinal norms. I cite the more recent findings, by Pew, by Jean Twenge, and by others, showing the unprecedented falloff of religious identification and practice among Millennials. And I cite the recent study by two eminent sociologists of religion who found that the United States is now on the same secularizing track as Europe (I wrote about that also here, on this blog.)

If you are a believing Christian who is not alarmed by this, you have your head in the sand. On his blog the other day, Alan Jacobs observed that some public critics of the Benedict Option seem to be operating from a position of “motivated reasoning” — that is, that they are reacting less about what’s actually in the book than in how the book’s premises, if true, threaten their own biases and interests. In other words, they may be motivated to react with hostility to it, beyond legitimate criticism. To put it more uncharitably, as the saying goes, it is hard to get a man to see something when his paycheck depends on him not seeing it.

Is that happening here? I don’t know. I can’t read James K.A. Smith’s mind. I do know that I find it awfully strange that he turned so sharply on the Benedict Option, in the time he did. And I find it especially dishonest — and, frankly, morally and intellectually discreditable — that he would impute racist motivations to me when the book I wrote, which he has in hand, makes a very different claim.

As I have indicated many times, what bothers me about the BenOp is that Rod only seems to understand a cultural crisis now when some Christians (the mainstream calls them fundamentalists) saw it at least a century ago. My sense is that Rod grew up fairly comfortable in mainline Protestant America and only when the mainline churches went really flaky did he look for Christian sustenance elsewhere — first Rome, then Constantinople. But he seems to have no awareness that Protestants circa 1900 saw trends in the mainline world that plausibly predicted what would happen to the Protestant mainline in the Angela Davis era.

One of those Protestants from the turn of the twentieth century who saw the crisis of modern society was a man who has inspired many of the faculty and administrators at the college where Jamie Smith teaches. The college is Calvin and the old Protestant is Abraham Kuyper. The Dutch pastor, university founder, politician and theologian knew alarm and encouraged it among his followers. Kuyper put the antithesis this way:

Not faith and science, therefore, but two scientific systems or, if you choose, two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith. Nor may it be said that it is here science which opposes theology, for we have to do with two absolute forms of science, both of which claim the whole domain of human knowledge…. [They dispute] with one another the whole domain of life.

Jacob Klapwijk explains that antithetical vision this way:

Throughout human society, in church, state, and community, the believer is called pro Rege, that is, he is called to follow King Jesus. Pro Rege means mobilizing Christian forces for the battle against idolatrous and anti-Christian powers at work in culture. To build science on Christian principles is part of that calling. The other side of the coin is that every form of s science based on, say, humanistic principles is to be opposed; demanded is a thoroughgoing antithetical attitude toward non-Christian thought.

That is part of the rationale that inspires the institution where Jamie Smith works. It’s the reason why parents send their children not to University of Michigan but to Calvin College. For Smith to act like alarmism is only a card that Rod Dreher plays is to be as historically unaware as Rod himself.

Alarmism happens. It’s even biblical:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

I do wish critics of modernity like Dreher and Smith would remember that the world went south well before Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor started writing books. It happened when God barred Adam and Eve from Eden.

Beware Where Anti-Dualism Takes You

It is of some interest to see the ties between the heavy hand of BBist transformationalism and the more palatable forms among progressive neo-Calvinists. Pinch hitting for Tim and David, Craig French may stretch to the breaking point the BBs opposition to 2k and its affirmation of the spirituality of the church:

Whatever we do with our bodies is spiritual in nature—we must remove the notion of a violent duality between man’s spirit and his body. Such a violent dualism has the lamentable consequence of many experiencing an excruciating alienation toward their bodies. Since this is rarely addressed head on, the infection becomes gangrenous because identity is divorced from embodiment. Because men refuse to be identified by their bodies, if they retain any notion of heaven, it is devoid of a Man ruling over all the stuff. A heaven devoid of such materiality is an emasculated one, which is the goal of LBGTQ-Z and egalitarianism. An emasculated eternal ideal cannot be reconciled with everlasting hell fire—so we must begin with heaven, otherwise the terrors of hell will burn down to a gentle warmth, until finally, they cease altogether. Hell cannot withstand an emasculated heaven.

[French does find support, though not without qualification, from Jamie Smith. Hey now!]

So what does French make of Jesus’ own words?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:24-28 ESV)

I know we need to define terms and interpret texts, but if you are going to draw the Manichean line in the sand, don’t you need to worry about where you leave Jesus?

Or even Calvin who writes the following on Jesus’ words?

The word soul is here used in the strictest sense. Christ reminds them that the soul of man was not created merely to enjoy the world for a few days, but to obtain at length its immortality in heaven. What carelessness and what brutal stupidity is this, that men are so strongly attached to the world, and so much occupied with its affairs, as not to consider why they were born, and that God gave them an immortal soul, in order that, when the course of the earthly life was finished, they might live eternally in heaven! And, indeed, it is universally acknowledged, that the soul is of higher value than all the riches and enjoyments of the world; but yet men are so blinded by carnal views, that they knowingly and willfully abandon their souls to destruction. That the world may not fascinate us by its allurements, let us remember the surpassing worth of our soul; for if this be seriously considered, it will easily dispel the vain imaginations of earthly happiness.

I understand if you don’t want to go back to the world-denying form of Protestantism with which the missus and I grew up — some version of fundamentalist, evangelical, dispensationalism. Watching Mad Men should prove that we are not in Levittown any more, Toto (yes, the missus also grew up in a Levittown, not the one in the virtuous commonwealth of Pennsylvania). But do you have to go all in with denying dualism and saying that our bodies are spiritual? Do you really counter the French Revolution’s anti-Christianity — thank you Abe K. — with saying that everything is religious? With that kind of argument I worry that Mr. French may wind up in the Church of Rome the men are ordained, and the women are merely religious.