Along with a couple members of the First Things editorial staff, I was blessed to spend this past weekend on the gorgeous Maryland coast. The occasion was the first annual Fare Forward Summer Symposium. In case you missed the First Thoughts and While We’re At It write-ups a while back, Fare Forward is a new “Christian review of ideas,” written by, and primarily for, emerging adults. Themes for this first year’s issues have included orthodoxy, place, the good life, and dualism.
The topic of the weekend’s symposium was “Public Christianity in the Twenty-First Century.” About fifty young Christians of all stripes made it out, some trekking from as far as Nebraska, Texas, and Arizona to be present. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, our keynote presenter, brought his whole family to join the festivities as well.
Much of the symposium was occupied by a conversation on competing versions of Christian presence in our contemporary world. While there were a variety of viewpoints expressed, the general consensus was that many of the styles of public engagement with the faith that our generation has inherited will not be our strongest options going forward. (Whether this is simply because the contextual setting for such engagement has changed, or rather is indicative of more pervasive problems with the old modes themselves, is of course another important enquiry.)
What should replace these outdated versions of public Christianity remained, and remains, far less clear. In my own remarks, I recommended something like MacIntyre’s famous “Benedict option,” his stellar conclusion to After Virtue in which he remarks, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”
Many—Douthat included—were and are skeptical of this “new Benedictine” reaction (though most agreed with me that the “old Benedictine” reaction of taking religious vows would be a perfectly appropriate answer). As Ross rightly observed, where we locate the correct response to our age’s ills—on something like a sliding scale from effective assimilation, to cautious engagement, to practical withdrawal—will depend almost entirely on how calamitous we believe the present state of things to be. As with MacIntyre, things look pretty dire from where I’m standing, as morally indifferent materialistic individualism gains more and more ground.
Still, the community that gathered together this weekend gives me great cause for hope: not a Utopian hope that our nation’s problems will be remedied overnight by our newfound expressions of public Christianity (though as MacIntyre would remind us, “Trying to live by Utopian principles is not Utopian”), but rather a hope that, whatever lies on the path ahead, none of us will be facing it alone.
And such solidarity will not be limited to these sorts of scholarly circles within the Body of Christ, a point driven home for some of us yesterday morning in a peculiar encounter with a nearby Catholic church. After finishing his homily at the morning’s Mass, the small-town priest briefly interrupted the liturgy for about ten minutes in order to call attention to a terribly special occasion in their parish: the sixtieth birthday of a parishioner in the front row.
Now, one might think that a sixtieth birthday, while momentous in its way, is not exactly a cause for a ten-minute addendum to the weekly sermon. (Indeed, truth be told, there probably would have been more appropriate timings to address this cause for celebration in a way that interfered less with the liturgy itself.) But, as the priest went on to explain, that anniversary was particularly important for this particular parishioner because of his Korean heritage.
The priest recounted every tidbit that Google had managed to teach him about sixtieths in Korea: their connection to the completion of the lunar calendar, the funny etymological roots of the word ‘Hwangab’, the ritual consumption of seaweed soup, and the cultural enormity of having reached that special day with one’s health in store. At the end of this speech, Father pulled out a cake from behind the ambo that he and his fellow priests had baked for the parishioner.
What this priest had done for the man was—while perhaps a little liturgically unorthodox—a beautiful expression of the community life so obviously vital in their parish. Earlier in our weekend symposium, an Evangelical Protestant with strong localist tendencies had expressed a certain sort of jealousy for those of us whose denominations operate on a parish model, for this, he thought, must make sinking roots into one’s church community far easier to do. Catholicism (and not just Catholicism) has of course struggled with how the parish model should operate in a world where mobility becomes easier with each passing day, ushering in obvious material advantages but making a connection to place more and more accidental to one’s experience of life. But what we found in this small-town church was the fruit of the parish model at its best, and further hope for the days ahead.
Going forward, should we ultimately take the radical “Benedict option” and withdraw from the culture at large? Perhaps. I admit I still have strong sympathies for this, though of course articulating how to enact it concretely is both complicated in itself and diverse relative to each individual’s specific circumstances. But likely Douthat is right that the future of Christianity will not be marked primarily by our pulling back from mainstream culture to subcultural communities of our own fashioning. Still, I think the health of such subcultural communities will be essential to our flourishing regardless, even if we also continue to live with one foot firmly planted in the outside world.
So perhaps what we need is something of a “Dominican option” or a “Norbertine option”—a vita mixta, if you will. And, of course, plenty of seaweed soup.