Soil and Sacrament in Certain Kinds of CitiesBy Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
This past weekend here in Wichita, I participated in the Eighth Day Institute’s symposium, Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift; Rod Dreher has a couple of nice write-ups about it, here and here. For me, sitting beside and listening to and talking with and learning from culturally wise small-o orthodox Christians (whether I agreed with their ideas or not, or whether they agreed with mine) was a real pleasure. Also, preparing for my presentation–“Urban Environments, Urban Gifts”–gave me a reason to read a classic I’ve been meaning to read for a while: Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, which turns 50 years old this year. After reading it, giving my presentation, going back and forth with some other symposium participants about it all, and listening to Rod’s continuing explorations of the Benedict Option, I came home with a huge load of thoughts banging around my head. Here are a few of them.
Christianity has for a long time, particularly over the past century and especially in Protestant America, struggled with the city. Just over 100 years ago, the main outlines of what soon turned into modern Christian fundamentalism were laid out, and the movements those fundamentalist declarations gave rise to became deeply interwoven with disputes over all the other changes being accomplished in Progressive-era America. Clearly, the greatest of those changes was the fact that in the two generations since the Civil War, the country had gone from being primarily agrarian and rural, with the bulk of its population and its wealth tied up with farming, to primarily industrial and urban, with the bulk of money and people moving into America’s cities (a steady movement that, in the century since, has continued without let-up). The Social Gospel was essentially an acknowledgment that Christianity needed to make its home and find its vocation in the midst of urban industrialization. But even the Protestants who followed that liberal, modern, urban tradition through the first half of the 20th century were apparently bothered by it, haunted by the fundamentalist worry–a worry which, for better or worse (I think mostly the former), is probably unshakable–that in making peace with the modern American city, they were risking something essential about their faith.
Harvey Cox, though, insisted that kind of anxiousness was nonsense. In careful but powerful prose, he made the argument for the city, and all the secularism its growth as the defining type of social order in the post-Industrial Revolution world implies. Cox’s explanations are succinct, sketching out the privatization and diversification of belief which attends modern life–a topic philosophers like Charles Taylor have spent hundreds of pages trying to understand–in just a few short short lines, and then moving on. He touched on the idea that Christianity was essential to both the “universality and radical openness” which is necessary to the modern city (p. 10), and the destruction of the “magical vision…[in] which nature is seen as a semidivine force” which is necessary to modern secularism (p. 20). This is a profoundly Protestant history of Christianity, and fairly elitist one as well; I suspect Catholicism and Orthodoxy wouldn’t accept Cox’s enthusiasm for the “disenchantment of the natural world” (p. 21). But still, his grasp of a Christianity stripped of natural law and metaphysics did allow him to see what the last 50 years have admittedly made obvious: that the Christian faith can and often does flourish in the pluralistic city, that urbanism’s anonymity and distinction between public and private really can allow for a more charitable openness and the “capacity to live responsibly with increasing numbers of neighbors” (p. 39). In short, the pragmatism of the city is, he argued, fully compatible with Christian virtues–or at least not an enemy to them:
We should not be dismayed by the fact that fewer and fewer people are pressing what we have normally called “religious” questions. The fact that urban-secular man is incurably and irreversibly pragmatic, that he is less and less concerned with religious questions, is in no sense a disaster. It means that he is shedding the lifeless cuticles of the mythical and ontological periods and stepping into the functional age. He is leaving behind the styles of the tribe and the town and is becoming a technopolitan man. As such he may now be in a position to hear certain notes in the biblical message that he missed before. He may be ready, in some respects, to “do the truth” in a way his superstitious and religious forerunners we not (p. 60).
There’s a lot that I like about Cox’s vision; what he wrote economics, sex, and civil society in the life of urban-dwelling (really just modern-epoch living) Christians struck me as wise, or at least prescient. But again and again, his Kennedyesque boosterism, his optimistic embrace of technology and change, led him to insist upon a normative breadth to his arguments that was just untenable. For Cox, rustic towns and small cities are even worse than the “tribal” existence we had before the emergence of the city; what is needed is the mobility, choice, and innovation promised by the true “technopolis”; those older forms of life presumably encouraged static authority and reactionary traditions, whereas “the Kingdom of Jesus came when God’s doing something wholly new coincided with man’s laying aside previous values and loyalties….the emerging secular city entails precisely this kind of renunciation” (p. 98). It’s no surprise that Cox titles one of his chapters “The Church as God’s Avant-garde.”
But the problem with the avant-garde is that it almost always ends up being a friend to the impersonal and the authoritarian, and Cox wasn’t free of that. In his view, the Christian in the city needs to fight the “stubborn residue of tribal and town ideology which prevents the technopolis from being realized,” and that means challenging the “decentralization,” the “fragmentation of power,” and the “anarchy” in cities in favor of supporting “the power structure” so as to gain “political mastery over technical society” (pp. 116-117). The “defamilialization of work” has been a great, emancipatory thing, “sever[ing] once and for all the umbilical cord connecting family life and work life” (p. 148). The goal should be to direct our Christian efforts towards self-contained, rootless organizations that are “flexible,” “future-oriented,” “secularized,” and “limited” in its claims on its members–which means, of course, that one shouldn’t form attachments to those professions which resist such specialization and individuation (old-school industries and farming, mostly); “cybernation” is going to make them all go away, anyway, and with appropriate state planning those who are “emotionally attached to certain occupations” can be re-trained and moved into the service industries or simply subsidized: “We can easily,” Cox added as an endnote, “afford to keep certain people in agriculture as a kind of occupational therapy” if necessary (pp. 152-153, 162-163, 166). What started as a realistic appraisal of the fate of the Christian faith in the modern era of urban individuality, diversity, and anonymity, ends up being a broad argument for happily accepting constant mobility, professional and personal transient-ness, and state-maintained procedural rationality as perfectly compatible with the Christian faith. That’s a conclusion I find both socially unhealthy and scripturally untrue. But so what?
This is where Rod’s Benedict Option comes in. Rod’s presentation at the Eighth Day Symposium didn’t add a great deal to much that he’s written about the subject before. But, perhaps inspired by Hans Boersma, a Reformed theologian and historian who was also here in Wichita (and who is praised further in this thoughtful post by Rod here), he did sketch out a positively sacramental argument in favor of the idea of forming communities of practice, ritual, tradition, stability, and memory, as a tool to conserve in a truly equitable way the goods that we can know together. His various points all had their own significance, but they could be summed up, I thought, in one pithy comment of his: “Matter matters.” Things–the gardens we grow, the animals we raise, the food we cook, the products we fashion with our hands, the rituals we physically enact, the arts we make and share and pass down, the stories we preserve in books, all of it–matter as part of a gifted, sacramental reality. It put me in mind of Martin Heidegger’s “es gibt,” the notion (which really is ultimately Pauline, though Heidegger himself was reluctant to acknowledge that connection) that all entities and all relationships are things revealed to and given to us, as opposed to abstract objects whose being and meaning is entirely a product of our choice to turn our efforts upon them. (It isn’t surprising that Cox thought Heidegger was “entirely wrong in believing that the escape route [from our modern theological predicament] lies in returning to a kind of primordial mythical thinking,” since that “would deny that God has made man responsible for nature and that politics is the sphere of human mastery”–p. 219.) And it also made me realize: I think most people, at least most people who are familiar with the sort of issues Rod is struggling with, probably have some sense that matter matters too. And that’s what worries them.
It is rare for Rod to write or speak about the Benedict Option without him feeling obliged to push back against the idea that the communities he has in mind must be isolated, rural, restrictive, sectarian, agrarian communes. That’s not it at all!, he says and writes over and over again. But why must he always repeat himself? In part, I came to think during the symposium, because the sort of people he’s sharing his ideas with mostly live–as nearly all people nowadays live, myself included–in cities, as members of a near-completely urbanized civilization. And on some level or another, they recognize at least some part of themselves in Cox’s description (and celebration!) of the mobile, changeable, transitory city. Perhaps they work in advertising, trying to create ways to sell social media apps over the iPhone. Or they’re a project manager for some corporation, responsible for charting performance reviews and job training so as to hit some government agency’s quota. Or they handle financial derivatives. Or they process purchasing orders for online marketers. Or they collate information for hedge fund managers. Or they do one of a million other jobs which the diversity and anonymity and wealth of modern urban existence makes possible, and they read about the Benedict Option, and they think to themselves, even if Rod doesn’t put it this way explicitly: there is no matter to what I do. There’s no there there, at least not a real, sacramental, thingy there. And that worries them–as it worries me, city-dweller that I am.
A few years ago I pushed Rod on what I called the “undertheorized agrarianism” in his writings about community. That may have been a bit much–but it wasn’t, I think, essentially wrong. No, Rod’s Benedict Option does not have to be a rural, self-sufficient, agricultural monastery. But still, some of the very best arguments as to why one should be open to understanding the challenges of modern life such that Rod’s counter-cultural communitarianism seems an appropriate response to them cannot help, I think, but at least hint at preferring such a monastic life to the busy, globalized, trade-and-banking-and-service-economy-dependent, thoroughly monetized city which most of us know. Because Cox is right–there is so much about urban life which points, even a half-century ago, towards exactly that kind of abstraction, privatization, and context-less rule-making. What do cities make? What is the productive ground which their inhabitants can actually take in hand, the matter which they can hold in common? Rod’s urbanized readers, particularly the Christian ones, who are worried about the same things he’s worried about and who want, like him, to connect with communities where matter matters, may be forgiven for perhaps often looking around themselves and thinking “Well, maybe I can’t do it here.”
There are, of course, numerous possible responses to that worry, even assuming it applies (amazingly enough, there really are still are cities in the United States where actual things are built). Rod’s forthcoming Benedict Option book is sure to offer its own responses, and in a way, my own presentation did as well. On my reading of Cox, the real breakdown between the correct observations he made about the Christian possibilities available in the city, and his later acceptance of a religion and an economy entirely based on abstract choice, came with his embrace of the cult of mobility and innovation, and his (I think quite flawed) attempt to read a complete rejection of “place” into the Biblical story. If we take Cox’s legitimate insights seriously but decline to go as far as he did, and instead say that we need to be attendant to the virtues of stability even in urban places, we may notice that not all cities are made equal. Some cities–smaller or mid-sized ones, ones that still have within their local economy the resources for real material productivity and within the reach of their local ecosystem the soil for growing real food–have a bit more stability than Cox’s technopolises.
That kind of steadiness is a precarious condition in the world of global capital flows, obviously; it requires careful, thoughtful, long-term work to fight against the cult of zoning and save productive exurban (or even urban) land for farming, or to pull together the support necessary for small-scale artisanal manufacturing when the big city players (both banks and governments) usually just want to build a new mall–or, as Rod himself has noted in his praise for Wichita’s Eighth Day Books, simply build a community-centering small business (which really isn’t a simple matter at all!). Perhaps through and in the midst of that kind of work, the possibility for truly urban Benedict Option communities, urban places that can keep their connection to the matter that matters even in the midst to the many mixed and abstract distractions and anonymous blessings of modern cities, could be possible after all. Since that’s where most of us live, after all, such needs to be our hope, or else pondering the future of the Benedict Option (for those of us so inclined, whatever our reasons) is done for.