Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culture Wars or Facing Challenge of Modernity

Everywhere I turn and for years now I keep hearing "What is the Church going to do about this?" The usual referent is either some example of corruption which has found its way into the Church, what Pope Paul VI called "the smoke of Satan", or in terms of a perceived estrangement or distance of the Church from everyday concerns, in short, a kind of irrelevance. Sadly, the media have taken to Pope Francis' lengthy interview given to the world's Jesuit publications much like sharks in a feeding frenzy, less hungry, to appearances at least, than bent on tearing off a piece of the victim and carrying it off. While most of us simply wish there'd be less feeding of the sharks, it would be denial not to admit that there is something troubling about the picture the Church presents these days. There may have been a time in the early 1970's where exclusion of the Church from media coverage was perceived as discrimination, but it would be too good today to be able to attribute our casualties only to "friendly fire". To just blurt it out, I think the avid coverage does more harm than good and that we could benefit from a little down time to sort out our difficulties in private. At some point we need to realize that "Watergate" is not the only model for a catalyst for change and improvement of performance.

In the west, especially North America, the media's scrutiny of this challenge or conflict is couched in terms of "the culture wars". Here's a Fox News quote on the topic:

"I don't see how the pope's remarks can be interpreted in any other way than arguing that the church's rhetoric on the so-called culture war issues needs to be toned down," said John Green,  a religion specialist at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. "I think his language calls for less stridency on these issues." [Read more:]

It is all too clear from this quote and John Green's call for "less stridency" that the war image is happenstance and insufficient to describe our situation, the nature of the conflict and what is at stake. No doubt John is not Catholic and comes from a very different world view, unaware of the identification of Christ with His Church and the reason/mission shared, the reason for which He came into the world and for which His Bride is here until He should come again in glory. "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world , to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18,37] If it is war, even culture war, how can it be calibrated or choreographed, rendered less strident? Even the notion of culture war would seem to compliment the opponent, classing him worthy, and render opposition to the Gospel message somehow respectable.

Here in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world of eastern Christians (I'm reading a book, with lots of historical background included, on the Copts in Egypt and their plight), much the same issue is couched in terms of Church facing the challenge of modernity. Whether the issue is the Copts in 19th Century Egypt trying to stay abreast of the times and rapid change, or Byzantine monasticism which experts tell me is in total disarray today because it can't cope with the challenge of modernity, in either case my interlocutors give privilege to some notion of progress, of moving ahead and leaving what was true, good and beautiful behind, in exchange for something new seemingly and irresistible.

Both expressions want to strip seeming choices facing Christians of moral value. Life becomes a choice of costuming, accessorizing, grooming, or something: important, but somehow subject to resigning to or reconciling oneself to the inevitable march of progress. Inaction is condemned as unworthy and reaction or resistance to the flow as futile, as if the greatest piece of wisdom ever to be handed down was: "Broken eggs? Make an omelet!"

I watched a bit of the video summarizing the Valdai Discussion Group, this year's considering Russia's national identity. One gets the impression that consensus and constructive collaboration on the basis of shared values, in short, an upbeat approach will open doors to a bright and prosperous future. In the first segment of the video Putin defends Christian values and holding to Russia's historic identity. Culture wars? The challenge of modernity? Reasoned discourse based on common ground acquired by convincing, principled and inclusive argument? This would be a third construct and I am sure there are other models or metaphors, but no doubt they too fall short of greatness or fullness, simply because they all bind us to this same notion of progress as destiny.

The notions of war, challenge, discussion or debate certainly have their merit. In fact, in a sense, that is where we want to be, arguing in favor of the good, the true and the beautiful (The statement of His Beatitude Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk on the common Christian roots of Europe and the goals to be striven for together point this out). The problem rests with tying this quest to anybody's notion of progress as the litmus test for value or the compass pointing the way in this common effort.

Since my time home in South Dakota last May, one of the images which has haunted me has been that of our Benedictine Abbey of Blue Cloud empty, the monks gone. Culture? Modernity? No, the flowering of Christian monasticism has always been in response to conflict. Think of St. Anthony the Great in the midst of the Diocletian persecution! Think of St. Benedict of Nursia and generation after generation of his sons always and everywhere rising to the challenge not of modernity but social decay! Always and everywhere key to such flowerings and expansion was obedience. Of the three counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, none's role can be diminished, but in the end obedience to Father Abbot and to the Rule was ultimately the saving grace which bestowed upon the world so much of good.

If I thought I could get by with it, I'd go to Marvin, South Dakota and start doing penance and praying, with a copy of Benedict's Rule in my pocket. Maybe I'd just die at some point thereafter and some kind soul would find me and come and bury me. Maybe the halls and farmlands would again be hallowed by the sweat and prayer (Ora et Labora) of countless young men seeking the truth through obedience.

"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world , to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18,37]


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