A trend in American Christianity to keep our eyes on now: as Christians of a certain stripe recognize that they may well lose the heated culture-war battles by which they defined Christian purity in the latter part of the 20th century — notably, the battles against women's rights and the full inclusion of gay people in church and society — many of these Christians are moving to abandon the public square. They're moving to a hard, determined Christ-vs.-culture stance in which they're calling for "pure" Christians to turn their backs on a world headed to hell in a handbasket, as they create enclaves of pure Christianity apart from culture.
For Christians of a certain kind face to face with contemporary culture, a wounded world, and all the complex challenges of living Christian faith within contemporary culture, it is, it appears, either control or abandonment. If we can't control, we intend to reject.
The clear, distinct message some Christians — particularly those who have equated Christian purity with male control of women and with heterosexual control of homosexuals — want to give to the rest of the world these days is this: Since you didn't want what we tried to offer you through the religious-right culture wars in recent decades, we're going to snatch our resources away and let you continue that tumble towards hell on which you're so intent now.
Along these lines, note the following recent discussions:
1. For Religion News Service a week ago, David Gibson analyzes the (self-imposed) "Babylonian exile" of American Christian conservatives:
But today, the culture war descendants of those Puritans are feeling increasingly alienated and even persecuted in the society they once claimed as their own. They’re shifting to another favorite image from Scripture — that of the Babylonian exile, preparing, as the ancient Judeans did, to preserve their faith in a hostile world.
2. At America, Drew Christiansen comments on Gibson's article and the trend to self-imposed Babylonian exile, proposing that Christians intent on avoiding assimilation to culture while shaping culture according to their values choose, instead, a variation of the Jeremiah model (on this model, see below) that Christiansen calls the conversion model. Christiansen notes that this model was developed by his fellow Jesuit William Spohn at the time of the U.S. Catholic bishops' debate about nuclear weapons as they wrote their pastoral statement The Challenge of Peace in 1983.
Spohn notes that the exilic period in Judaism purified the theology of the Jewish community, which had previously been ethnocentric, but which moved in a beyond-ethnocentric direction after the Exile — towards a "universalistic theology of redemption." Christiansen asks if Christian conservatives in America today could possibly undergo the same purifying process, as they contemplate exile due to their failure to seize control of American culture with their culture wars.
3. At Andrew Sullivan's Dish site last week, Matthew Sitman enters this discussion by juxtaposing Rod Dreher's "Benedict option" for contemporary Christians with Samuel Goldman's "Jeremiah option." Sitman describes Dreher's Benedict thesis as follows:
In the midst of our cultural catastrophe, the Benedict Option is a way for Christians to live virtuous lives uncorrupted by what's around them, resisting any kind of assimilation into mainstream society.
And here's Goldman's critical response to Dreher's thesis:
But a neo-Benedictine way of life involves risks. Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life—the intertwined commodification of personal relationships, loss of meaningful work to bureaucratic management, and pornographic popular culture—yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation.
What strikes me as I read these various proposals and analysis of them is how completely absent from the discussion is any recognition of the gender and sexual orientation questions that have driven the culture wars of the religious right in the first place, and which (in my view) are now driving the impetus to self-imposed exile of Christians who sense that they are losing the culture wars. The hidden gender and sexuality debates on which these discussions hinge are, after all, not so hidden: they're right in front of our eyes, if we choose to open them and to notice who is actually having these discussions.
Am I incorrect to think that this is a discussion taking place largely among men — and among white men (and ostensibly heterosexual men), at that? Is it snarky to notice this? Is it tacky to point out that what is driving the rhetoric of exile is the sense of many Christians who have equated the purity of the Christian message with male domination of women and heterosexual domination of homosexuals that they have failed to prevail with their purist interpretation of the Christian message? They have failed to impose this interpretation of the gospels on society as a whole, and they've failed to convince many of their fellow Christians that this reading of the gospels is adequate or correct.
So who wants now to go into petulant exile? From where I stand, this seems to be a curiously gendered appeal, one that is curiously driven by men, almost all of whom also happen to be white and heterosexual. Why not notice that important fact, I wonder? If nothing else, it should make us wonder, or so it seems to me, about the underlying control-abandonment dynamic at work in this discussion: either I have total control of you, or I abuse you by withdrawing my support from you and abandoning you.
More than one woman in an abusive relationship with a controlling male can easily recognize this dynamic as one to which a certain kind of man is peculiarly prone in his dealings with women. If women resist his intent to control them, then he abuses them in yet another way by turning as cold as ice, withdrawing affection and support. Abandonment is the flip side of control. On either side of the coin, it's ultimately about control, in the final analysis.
Meanwhile, there's a world full of suffering and need to be taken care of, and as has always been the case over the course of human history, women seem more prone to step into the gap and try to ameliorate the suffering and take care of the need than men do, because they have no choice: it's their children and the children of other women's children who are in need, and someone has to take care of them while the men choose to sulk in the shadows and nurse their bruised egos.
For Catholic Christians, in particular, the fact that we are even having these discussions right now seems to me to indicate how spectacularly the leaders of our church — all men, if we're talking about official leadership — have been in communicating to us what happened at the Second Vatican Council. We Catholic Christians in the U.S. have ended up in what seems to me a very strange place after Vatican II, with its call to place the Catholic tradition and contemporary culture in fruitful dialogue — and to dismantle the fortress model of the church that had prevailed from the Reformation through the birth of modernity, a model that called on the church to turn its back on a world that it could no longer control through top-down mechanisms of control.
What energizes us Catholic Christians in the U.S. today? As the discussion following Peter Schineller's statement about the Tridentine Mass at America recently suggests, we love nothing more than to talk about altars and Latinate liturgy of the purest sort, about turned backs and muffled Latin chants. While the world goes to hell in a handbasket around us . . . .
Or how about this eye-opening discussion at Commonweal recently, in response to E.J. Dionne's article on Ferguson and the deep, endemic racism that runs everywhere through American culture and is at the very bottom of the Ferguson crisis? It would be impossible, I think, to find racism more rank, more raw than the kind of peculiarly Catholic racism on full display in many of the comments following Dionne's article. Rank comments, I note, being uploaded by Catholic men, by white Catholic men . . . .
It's as if Vatican II just never happened, as if the pastoral leaders of the American Catholic church — all men, at the official level — have been asleep at the helm of our church for lo these many years now. As reactionary movements like the St. Pius X movement call on American Catholics to dream of setting up purist Catholic enclaves that stand as beacons of "healthy civil life in our declining society" — on this, see the latest installment of Grant Gallicho's series on Father Carlos Urrutigoity at Commonweal. Or as nutty apocalypticism that used to be confined to the evangelical fringes of American religion makes its way into the very center of the American Catholic church, where people who have defended the U.S. Catholic bishops' bogus "religious freedom" crusade now want to natter on about Black Masses and defiled hosts — now that the bishops have clearly failed to convince even American Catholics that everything in the world hinges on birth-control pills and bogus abortifacients.
We American Catholics have ended up in a very strange place, haven't we? It's not one that does much credit at all to our pastoral leaders — all male, in the official sense of the phrase — is it? Nor one that does much credit to us, since we, after all, are the church, too.
The graphic: a relief (ca. 600 A.D.) depicting the Babylonian exile of the Israelites, from the Louvre.