The Great Flood
No one saw the Great Flood coming.
The newspaper said heavy rains were headed to south Louisiana that weekend in August 2016, but it was nothing unusual for us. Louisiana is a wet place, especially in summer. The weatherman said we could expect three to six inches over a five-day period. By the time the rain stopped, the deluge had dropped over thirty inches of water on the greater Baton Rouge area. Places that no one ever imagined would see high water disappeared beneath the muddy torrent as rivers and creeks hemorrhaged and burst their banks. People fled their houses and made it to high ground with minutes to spare. Some had not even that much time and were lucky to clamber with their families onto their roofs, where rescuers found them. I spent the Sunday of the flood at a makeshift shelter in Baton Rouge. My son Lucas and I helped unload the rescued from National Guard helicopters, and we joined scores of other volunteers in feeding and helping the thousands of refugees flowing in from the surrounding area. Men, women, families, the elderly, the well-off, the very poor, white, black, Asian, Latino—it was a real “here comes everybody” moment. And nearly every one of them looked shell-shocked. Serving jambalaya to hungry and dazed evacuees, one heard the same story over and over: We have lost everything. We never expected this. It has never flooded where we live. We were not prepared. These confused and homeless evacuees could be forgiven their lack of preparation. Few had thought to buy flood insurance, but why would they? The Great Flood was a thousand-year weather event, and nobody in recorded history had ever seen this land underwater. The last time something like this happened in Louisiana, Western civilization had not yet reached American shores. We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood—or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen--hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us—and we are not ready. The storm clouds have been gathering for decades, but most of us believers have operated under the illusion that they would blow over. The breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities—we were troubled by these developments but believed they were reversible and didn’t reflect anything fundamentally wrong with our approach to faith. Our religious leaders told us that strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay. The sense one had was: There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed by continuing to do what Christians have been doing for decades—especially voting for Republicans. Today we can see that we’ve lost on every front and that the swift and relentless currents of secularism have overwhelmed our flimsy barriers. Hostile secular nihilism has won the day in our nation’s government, and the culture has turned powerfully against traditional Christians. We tell ourselves that these developments have been imposed by a liberal elite, because we find the truth intolerable: The American people, either actively or passively, approve. The advance of gay civil rights, along with a reversal of religious liberties for believers who do not accept the LGBT agenda, had been slowly but steadily happening for years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was the Waterloo of religious conservatism. It was the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end. In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost. Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either. Well, so what if those around us don’t share our morality? We can still retain our faith and teaching within the walls of our churches, we may think, but that’s placing unwarranted confidence in the health of our religious institutions. The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything, even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. As conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”1 Don’t be fooled by the large number of churches you see today. Unprecedented numbers of young adult Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all. According to the Pew Research Center, one in three 18-to-29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place.2 If the demographic trends continue, our churches will soon be empty. Even more troubling, many of the churches that do stay open will have been hollowed out by a sneaky kind of secularism to the point where the “Christianity” taught there is devoid of power and life. It has already happened in most of them. In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds. What they found was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudoreligion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).3 MTD has five basic tenets: A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
This creed, they found, is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers. Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy. Smith and Denton claimed that MTD is colonizing existing Christian churches, destroying biblical Christianity from within, and replacing it with a pseudo-Christianity that is “only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.” MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering—the Way of the Cross—as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort. As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.4 It’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality. An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.” These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations. MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have -adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now. “America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.” The data from Smith and other researchers make clear what so many of us are desperate to deny: the flood is rising to the rafters in the American church. Every single congregation in America must ask itself if it has compromised so much with the world that it has been compromised in its faithfulness. Is the Christianity we have been living out in our families, congregations, and communities a means of deeper conversion, or does it function as a vaccination against taking faith with the seriousness the Gospel demands? Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back. The wave cannot be stopped, only ridden. With a few exceptions, conservative Christian political activists are as ineffective as White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy. One wishes them well but knows deep down that they are not the future. Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears. Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. Fear not! We have been in a place like this before. In the first centuries of Christianity, the early church survived and grew under Roman persecution and later after the collapse of the empire in the West. We latter-day Christians must learn from their example—and particularly from the example of Saint Benedict.
One day near the turn of the sixth century, a young Roman named Benedict said good-bye to his hometown, Nursia, a rugged village pocketed away in central Italy’s Sibylline mountain range. The son of Nursia’s governor, Benedict was on his way to Rome, the place where promising young men seeking a place in the world went to complete their education.
This was no longer the Rome of imperial glory, the memory of which remained after Constantine’s conversion made the empire officially Christian. Nearly seventy years before Benedict was born, the Visigoths had sacked the Eternal City. The collapse of the city of Rome was a staggering blow to the morale of citizens across the once-mighty empire. By that time, the empire was governed in the West from Rome, which had long been in decline, and in the East from Constantinople, which thrived. Yet Christians throughout the empire mourned because Rome’s suffering forced them to confront a terrible fact: that the foundations of the world they and their ancestors had known were crumbling before their eyes. “My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance,” wrote Saint Jerome in its aftermath. “The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” So great was the shock that Jerome’s contemporary, Saint Augustine, wrote his classic City of God, which explained the catastrophe in terms of God’s mysterious will and refocused the minds of Christians on the imperishable heavenly kingdom. The city of Rome did not disappear, but by the time young Benedict arrived, Rome was a pathetic shadow of its former self. Once the world’s largest city, with a population estimated at one million souls at the height of its power in the second century, its population plummeted in the decades after the sack. In 476, barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor of the West. By the turn of the sixth century, Rome’s population had scattered, leaving only one hundred thousand souls to pick over the ruins. The overthrow of the Western empire did not mean anarchy. To the contrary, in Italy, things went on much as they had gone for decades. Theodoric, the Visigoth king who ruled Italy in Benedict’s time from his capital in Ravenna, was a heretical Christian (an Arian) but made a pilgrimage to Rome in the year 500 to pay his respects to the Pope. The king assured the Romans of his favor for them and his protection. In fact, the best he could do was to manage Rome’s decline. We know few particulars of social life in barbarian-ruled Rome, but history shows that a general loosening of morals follows the shattering of a long-standing social order. Think of the decadence of Paris and Berlin after World War I, or of Russia in the decade after the end of the Soviet empire. Pope Saint Gregory the Great never knew Benedict, but he wrote the saint’s biography based on interviews he conducted with four of Benedict’s disciples. Gregory writes that young Benedict was so shocked and disgusted by the vice and corruption in the city that he turned his back on the life of privilege that awaited him there, as the son of a government official. He moved to the nearby forest and later to a cave forty miles to the east. There Benedict lived a life of prayer and contemplation as a hermit for three years. This was normal in the first centuries of the church, and it continues in some places even today. In the third century, men (and even a few women) retreated to the Egyptian desert, renouncing all bodily comfort to seek God in a solitary life of silence, prayer, and fasting. They took to an extreme the scriptural injunction to die to self to live in Christ, obeying the Lord’s command to the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Him. Saint Anthony of Egypt (ca. 251–--356) is believed to have been the first hermit. His followers founded communal Christian monasticism, but the figure of the hermit remained a part of monastic life and practice.