Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Demons of Wokeness Versus the Better Angels of Western Civilization

I'd intended to sit down today and write a post about the upcoming Advent observance and my plans to attend Latin Mass throughout the season. But then I got sidetracked by a post I saw from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. Dreher is a crunchy conservative and an erstwhile Catholic who left, disillusioned, for Eastern Orthodoxy some years back. His book The Benedict Option, which caused quite a buzz on its release, calls for Christians to form intentional communities as a bastion against an increasingly hostile post-Christian West. 

In 2017, when the book came out, it seemed needlessly alarmist. Just five short years later, with Christianity virtually dead in Europe and faltering in America as woke supremacy continually adds to its cultural gains, marginalizing traditional Western values more with each passing day, the Benedict Option already seems like a missed opportunity. The Amish have always lived out a kind of Benedict Option in their insular communities, but for the rest of the Christian West, it might just be too late to give it a try now, even if the will existed to do it. 

In the American Conservative article, Dreher cited a new book called Return of the Gods, by an evangelical pastor named Jonathan Cahn. I'd never heard of him before, but given my interest in pagan history, I was intrigued by the pastor's contention that with the decline of Christianity, the old gods have returned under new guises and are wreaking as much havoc on our world as they did for the ancient Jews who, much to their God's consternation, kept wandering off to worship the neighboring pagan deities.  

Dreher tells us that Pastor Cahn writes of the return of Baal, Ishtar, and Molech as something like demonic entities that have infiltrated our people and institutions. Cahn regards these entities as literally existing and not as, say, types of Jungian metaphors. I fall in the latter camp, but I can't bring myself to disagree with the pastor's observations as I look around at the confusion and evil running rampant in our world. As religious tradition wanes, it's clear that wokeism has filled the God-shaped hole in our culture. And the future doesn't look good, if the spirit of these malevolent entities that the ideology feeds upon is allowed to hold sway.

Baal, characterized in the book as the god of "fertility and abundance," is seen in America's "worship of sex and money," Dreher tells us, pointing to the similarity between the bull as a symbol of Baal and the bull statue seen on Wall Street, the holy temple of capitalism. Is there any doubt that money, material acquisition, and outright greed have become modern virtues? Your worth as a human being is so often determined by what kind of job you have and how much it pays, while so many average Americans have been conditioned to defend the worst excesses of capitalist greed, whether it's megacorporations offshoring their jobs to maximize profits or a healthcare industry that predates on the sick. If you can't afford your insulin, then you'd better go get a second job and stop whining about it. 

Meanwhile, our culture worships the rich and famous, and our entertainment is drenched in sex, often in the rawest and crudest terms, as what was once relegated to the shadows of porn increasingly becomes mainstreamed. 

The second deity to re-emerge, Cahn argues, is Ishtar, whose embrace of wanton sexuality, prostitution, and social transgressions is seen in today's embrace of gender ideology and the glorification of sexual deviance that has undermined the norm of the nuclear family. The goal of the Ishtar spirit, the pastor says, is to invert society's standards so that the traditional foundations of the culture are seen as outdated and repressive, while former taboos are first tolerated, then celebrated, then essentially worshiped. Turn on your TV for five minutes to see where we are as a culture on this point. 

Ishtar's sexual deviance extends to a blurring of the lines between male and female, and I don't need to tell you how deeply, and quickly, trans-ideology has taken root in the West, where "man" and "woman" have been reduced to interchangeable thoughts in someone's head. 

Finally, we have Molech, the god to whom children were sacrificed in exchange for blessings. Cahn draws a parallel to abortion on demand in our culture, and of course he's not wrong. But I think we can look deeper than that and consider how children are being sexualized while support for pedophilia grows, and those who try to shield kids from the madness are the ones who are vilified. In a very real sense, we're sacrificing our children's innocence.

"Woe to those who call good evil and evil good." Some biblical prophet wrote that about 2,800 years ago -- proof that some things never change.

I'm convinced that something happened to us, collectively, during the draconian COVID lockdowns. The fringe insanity that used to be confined to academia and think tanks suddenly spilled out into the mainstream, and no one was prepared, or even able, to push back. And now here we are, with the intolerant, authoritarian woke cultists forcing us all to pick sides. They divide us by reducing us to identities, praising some while marginalizing others based on perceived "privilege," rather than treating us all with equal dignity and respect. They've turned people's pigmentation, bedroom habits, and "gender" into political weapons. And they shield themselves from criticism by elevating minority groups and thereby equating criticism of their movement with bigotry. It's deeply sinister. And some of us aren't falling for it. Me, I choose to side with the commonsense, classical-liberal, equality-over-"equity" philosophy that underpins our civilization and has done so for two millennia.

And I think that, despite my well-documented struggles with religious belief, this is why I still feel a draw toward the essential tenets of Christianity, and particularly the Catholic bias toward the Platonic ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty. 

Even when the institutional church has fallen far short of being Christ-like, the fact remains that our culture of tolerance and charity, one that embraces the goodness of life and the worth of the human being, one that gives our lives a spiritual dimension that saves us from becoming mere one-dimensional consumers driven by our base instincts, with no greater purpose to our existence and nothing greater to strive toward, all stems from the ethics of Christianity upon which our civilization rests.

As I was organizing my library of books on religion and spirituality the other day, I commented to my wife that I feel as if I have trouble articulating to my daughter why I find religion socially and personally valuable. And I think it's because of the way Christianity has positioned itself in the centuries since the Enlightenment. It's been constantly on the defensive, seen as a relic of primitive and ignorant minds that attributed lightning bolts and earthquakes to angry deities, with nothing else to offer the modern person. And the church does itself no favors when it only reinforces that impression in the minds of people who have grown weary of a religion that, to them, feels like an ancient holdover wielded as a weapon today, in contradistinction to the central figure of Christianity, who taught compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.

Not that Jesus was an anything-goes hippie; that's an error in the opposite direction that a lot of contemporary churches are making. Jesus, after all, had little use for hypocrites, the greedy, and those who exploited or neglected the poor and needy. And yes, he did make moral distinctions, as when he condemned most instances of divorce and said that men who looked lustfully at a woman had already committed adultery in their hearts. 

The truth is that modern Christianity draws far, far more from Paul and the Old Testament than it does from the four Gospels that give us the crux of the life of Christ and the path he laid out for his disciples to follow. Just look at the ethics expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and see if they square up with what Christianity looks like today. The fact that they don't is evidence that Christ himself has been marginalized in Christianity. The Quakers and Anabaptists are exceptions in centering their faith life on the Sermon on the Mount, and because they do, they express a Christianity that's far more authentic to what Christ seems to have wanted from his followers. Catholicism likewise has the Corporal Works of Mercy, based on the parable of the sheep and goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew. 

But Catholicism also, for better or worse, represents what mainstream Christianity became in the West, shaped as it was through the lens of pagan Rome and its empire of violence and control. Yet the church still somehow managed to remain essentially Christ-centered while adding layers of rituals, creeds, and devotions that gave the practice of Christianity enough depth to build a civilization upon. 

I think things started going wrong when the first Protestants, rightly calling out the failures of institutional Christianity, overcorrected and shifted the focus of the religion away from Christ, to whose example we look to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:1-4), and onto an interpretation of Paul's epistles that emphasized a simple one-time declaration of faith in an atoning sacrifice as sufficient to call oneself a Christian. Christianity thus became transactional and effortless. Instead of following a righteous example, picking up our own crosses, enduring hardships, and confessing when we fall short so as to reconcile ourselves again on our lifelong journey toward theosis, we no longer had to make any effort at all, beyond a simple acceptance of Christ as having died as a stand-in for the punishment we deserved. In fact, post-Reformation, making an effort at all was said to be missing the point, inasmuch as it implied a "works-based salvation" when salvation was a "free gift" given to all who accepted it.

It's this overly simplistic reading of Christianity that I think leaves it unable to push back against an extremely relentless woke ideology that's every bit as powerful, rigid, and intolerant as the medieval church was at the height of its own powers and corruption. Nor does it help that, as mentioned, this same brand of Christianity has a tendency to boil itself down to a condemnation of a tiny handful of personal sins -- in particular, abortion and homosexuality. 

Yes, scripture is clear about sexual morality. And Paul, as much as I dislike him, was eerily prescient in regard to what a debauched and dying culture would look like. In fact, let me give him the floor for a moment, from the epistle to the Romans (1:24-32):

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

But the point is not that Christians are to go around judging people for their ungodly practices -- and notice that it's not just homosexuality that Paul condemns, but also gossip, slander, deceit, infidelity, materialist idolatry, and a dearth of love and mercy. Those details tend to be conveniently glossed over. No, the point, as ever, is for Christians to serve as an example to others of how to live a righteous life. It's essentially a life of self-discipline and sacrifice, of giving to those in need, of bringing love into a world filled with malice, of celebrating goodness and life. You live in such a way that your example will heap hot coals on the heads on your enemies -- quoting Romans 12:20 and Proverbs 25:22. As when Christ told his followers to give their accusers the shirt off their backs or to walk two miles when conscripted to walk for one, you strip away any claim to moral authority that your enemies may attempt to hold over you. 

And that's precisely what the woke cult is doing in our world today -- lording their intolerance over everyone. They have the upper hand not just because they've captured every major institution of power, but because too many traditionalists, including Christians, don't know how to serve as an example of a better way to people, especially young folks, who've been conditioned for years at this point to think that deviance is normal, speech is violence, upside-down discrimination is progress, male and female are feelings, and opposing views are "hate."

Some Christian groups have once again overcorrected, as they did during the Reformation, and attempted to appease the culture by essentially aligning with it, even if doing so undermines the very tenets of the faith. By doing so, they might put themselves in the good graces of the woke, but they make themselves culturally irrelevant. What purpose do you serve if you're just an echo chamber for the prevailing culture?

In fact, by arriving at a place where it ends up on the outside looking in, Christianity actually has an opportunity to do what is hasn't been able to do since it was compromised by its alliance with empire: to be a social corrective, a voice speaking truth to power, as Christ himself did. The personal cost may well be high, as it was for Christ himself, but doing the right thing is scarcely easy. 

Back in 1969, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI had much to say about this moment in our history, when the church would lose its social influence. A great deal of what he foresaw has come true. But he didn't fret, because he was confident that the true church, the church of faith, would prevail over shifting cultural tides, even those that crash down and inflict massive damage upon what we think of today as Christianity. Here's some of what then-Father Joseph Ratzinger had to say back then:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge -- a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. 

[...] The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. 

[...] But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. 

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man's home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

This new church will have no choice but to shake off its cultural accumulations and the comfortable privileges it has long enjoyed. It will have to return to the basics of the faith, which will mean that, like the Quakers and Anabaptists already know, it must become more Sermon-on-the-Mount-centric. Father Ratzinger also said that out of necessity, many of its priests will "pursue some profession" outside of the priesthood, to meet the increased demands of a small and voluntary society, "entered only by free decision." 

I see myself as one of that group, eager to keep the spirit of Christ's teachings alive, even though my chance to enter the seminary has long since passed. My ordination would come by way of an alternative seminary whose apostolic succession follows untraditional lines, and I do indeed plan to follow that path to ordination in the near future. My concept of Christianity is rooted more in the ethical and mystical than in following institutional rules and dogmas, and it incorporates an affinity for the Sacred Feminine and the dynamic dance of yin and yang energies that come from Taoist philosophy. So my religious and spiritual philosophy is not in any way Christianity by the book, though it at least bears some similarity to what Ratzinger envisioned, in terms of looking at Christianity through a new lens. 

The most important thing for the future will be that Christianity presents itself as a dynamic, hopeful, life-affirming way, setting itself up as a viable alternative to the corrosiveness of wokeism, which is something that it's spectacularly failing to do right now. And what it must do to get to that point is to successfully explain to people why it's a viable alternative, while also demonstrating the authentic classical-liberal tolerance that's always been a hallmark of Western civilization. That's what wokeism lacks, and that is its Achilles' heel. Wokeism is waging a strident crusade on our culture. Its cross held high against the infidels is the rainbow flag. Its original sin is whiteness. And unlike Christianity, it offers no redemption, no salvation, no forgiveness, only condemnation, self-loathing, divisiveness, and destruction. 

We have an opportunity to show that we're better. Western culture has always made room for dissenters and those of different political and social leanings. In Christian terms, we love the sinner and hate the sin. But we also insist on proclaiming what's right, and we attempt to win people over by persuasion, not by judgment and coercion. 

We absolutely have to try. The stakes are high, and our civilization stands on the edge of a knife. It feels as we're at the beginning stages of a paradigm shift in which authoritarians, globalists, elitists, secularists, technocrats, corporatists, and the wealthy and powerful are aligning against common-sense populists, traditionalists, localists, liberty-lovers, and the everyday working class. We're certainly seeing how important religion is as a cultural glue, and how quickly another ideology can rush in to fill the void left by a lack of religious and spiritual unity. We need no less than a new Enlightenment to pull us out of the irrationality and hatred of wokeism, along with which will come the end of individual autonomy if it succeeds. 

We can fight and prevail, or we can tumble into an abyss of totalitarian intolerance and kiss liberal Western society goodbye.

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