We are in a new era of preparation. The deconstructors have come and, mercifully, will soon be gone. The world we have known is at an end. This is true for the church, I think, as many of the defining movements of the 20th century western church are either dead or dying. It also seems likely to be true of our political regime. The sequence of events beginning in 2008 with the recession and leading up to COVID may mark the end of one world. The likely invasion of Ukraine by Russia may, indeed, cause us to enter a second 1930s-style decade, as the pieces for war and revolution slowly and perhaps irrevocably move into place.
The question before us, then, is what the preparers of our day need to do. And that’s the question I’m trying to answer in the book I spent the better part of two years writing which is launching today: What Are Christians For?: Life Together at the End of the World. The church we have known, it seems to me, is at an end. So too is the America that we have known. For better or worse, a new movement is upon us.
The core problem facing the western church today is that virtually everyone, including many of us, believes that the most basic, elemental right a person has is the right to self-designate. This means that, as we are cast adrift in the world, trying to make sense of who we are, where we are, and what we ought to do, we mostly do not turn outward and allow the need of neighbor and nature to answer our questions. We do not look to culture for guidance or to family or to faith. In the words of Hauerwas, “we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story.” And so to answer the question of who we are, we look inward toward our own ambition and aspiration, desire and need. We act according to that, with scant attention paid to the costs such action will have for the world or for our neighbors.
After all, the world outside of our selves still exists; we are simply ignoring it. Unsurprisingly, this routinely leads to violence, dismemberment, and disease, as we are seeing today in a time of climate change, familial breakdown and decline, and fragmenting social trust, to say nothing of the de-churching crisis that we are only beginning to understand or reckon with. The costs of self-designation are high and it is likely that we will be paying them for some time to come.
You can trace this story of the costs of self-designation back quite a way, of course. Simone Weil locates it in The Iliad in her essay on the poem. She argues that Homer’s epic is about what happens when people reduce the world outside themselves to mere matter, something which can be operated on and manipulated by a blind, indifferent force.
More recently, we can see this same spirit at work throughout the story of colonial modernity. You see it in the original colonizers of the Americas who encountered a new world, needed to find their place in it, and then ignored the voice of the land, to say nothing of the voices of the people who belonged to that land. They rode over them, raping, pillaging, conquering, thieving. The story of modernity begins with powerful people from Europe encountering new worlds and reducing them to matter, forming their own sense of self in these new places and trampling underfoot the life that was already there.
You see this same self-designation carried through the other great revolutions of the modern world. In industrialization, the wealthy reduced their national commons, to say nothing of the nation’s many tradespeople and craftsmen and the families their work supported, to mere matter, ripping up their way of life by the roots and replacing it with routinely cruel, violent, and degrading factory work. Even when the financial rewards of that revolution began to materialize, they mostly flowed toward men as the home was hollowed out and the women expected to care for it were left behind.
The sexual revolution purported to fix this problem. It extended the chance for self-designation to women, freeing them from the chains of their own bodies. It should tell us something that the way our modern world promoted “equality” between the sexes was simply making our emerging dystopia more egalitarian. Our sexual relationships, which are the most intimate and fruitful relationship human beings are capable of have been rendered sterile by an array of technologies and beliefs that conspire to separate us from our partners, to frustrate the creation of life, and that render the ultimate act of self-giving into an act of self-expression
Most recently we can see a technological revolution which furnishes us with remarkably powerful tools that allow us to simply speak, or type, our identities into being. We have sought to become like God, creating worlds through our speech, our language.
Where it has led us is despair. We are a lonely, barren people living on a rapidly warming planet, struggling to find good work and a people to share our work with. But none of this is surprising. These are the wages of self-designation.
So what do we do? We turn back toward the well-worn paths, marked by care, affection, and attention that can lead us toward home, toward neighbor, toward the small, simple lives that are our birthright as human creatures made in the divine image.
We return to work as a form of neighborly love, measured not in a simplistic way purely by its financial output, but by the way it affects our neighbors, by the role it fulfills within our communities. We learn to again encounter the world as our mother to whom we owe a kind of filial care. We recognize in our husbands or wives an intimate partner given to us for our good and God’s glory and for the creation of life. And we encounter reality itself, not as a thing pre-packaged for us by large and impersonal institutions, but as a wild and surprising thing given to us by a God who loves wild things and loves surprises.
What are Christians for? They are for glorifying God and loving neighbor. And how do we love our neighbors in a world where we do not even know them? We seek to build and renew the places where authentic encounters between human beings can take place, where we can share work, worship, and rest, where we can delight in God’s world and in one another together.
The work of today’s preparers, in short, is the work of renewing the commons, the unenclosed domains of life where we are bound together to our neighbors by love, by work offered to them for their good, where our families join together in delight at life in God’s world, and where we care not only for ourselves, but for the generations to come after us and for the earth, our mother.
It is in the commons that we receive identities we do not choose, that we are constrained and bound by the cords of love and then find that they suit us. We have lived in a world made by and for the self-designators. It is time to begin the work of making a new world, but one that is not actually new, but rather quite old, if also forgotten by many. If we are at the end of the post-Cold War world of the past 30 years, and given yesterday’s news from Eastern Europe it would seem that we certainly are, then it is time that we begin to prepare to plant new gardens and raise new crops. It is work that many of us will attempt with a variety of swords hanging over our heads. Yet, regardless of the comfort of our world or our prospects of success, this is good work that has been set before us to do. All that remains is to begin.