At ease in Babylon

Have you looked around lately and wondered if our civilization is worth saving? Would it really be so bad if barbarian hordes came raging down the Interstate? What would you fight for? For centuries now, conservatives have had the goal of “conserving” things that came before, discerning what is worth keeping and shoring up what it believed to be essential for human and societal flourishing. But as we survey the political and cultural landscape, it’s hard to see what’s worth salvaging out of the detritus of Western civ. 

So what became of conservatism? A thought-provoking piece from Jon Askonas at Compact Magazine argues that conservatism has failed (as he sees it) because it underestimated the ability of technology to erode tradition. Of course, our minds jump to the distracting power of digital devices, but Askonas lays out how the seemingly inane invention of commercial fertilizers not only changed farming practices but also had far-reaching effects on economy, family formation, and community.

So if conservatism failed to conserve, has liberalism triumphed? Not quite. Political theorist Patrick Deneen wrote the book on the failure of liberalism and in an interview from 2018, he reasoned that though liberalism has claimed lots of territory, it has been piggy-backing on tradition. Liberalism, he argues does not produce the values that sustain it. Deneen sees liberalism as a quest to free humans from “unchosen relationships”, the pursuit of an un-rooted existence, unrestrained by ties to family, nation and even nature. You would think we’d know better by now, but we keep trying.

Both sides loosely want the same thing – flourishing, freedom, peace, and prosperity – but Deneen notes there are inherent problems with the assumptions of each ideology. Conservatives want a global free market that won’t destroy their values while liberals expect markets to produce moral people. If that’s the score, it would seem they’re both mistaken. 

Events of recent years have disrupted the vision of a liberal global citizen. To paraphrase Paul Kingsnorth, the aspirations of both Lenin and Lennon have not resulted in a world living as one. Much to their chagrin, the Davos-type globalists have discovered that many people like their own culture, their national sovereignty and their way of doing things. They don’t want to get with the “you’ll own nothing and be happy” new world order and its assumptions about what’s best for everyone else. Fast travel, the normalizing of long-distance conversations, easy food, entertainment as a way of life – yes it is convenient, safe and accesible, but at what cost? Disembodied, global and comfortable when it’s at the expense of purposeful, local and familial is not a trade many would make. As Rev Fisk says, “effort in equals satisfaction out”.

In many ways, observers of tech over the last century were right when they suggested that the world we have built is not fit for us. Ivan Illich wrote: “Contemporary man attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it.” (Incidentally, we were just reading about the invention of elevators – does humanity really need “super-tall” skyscrapers?)

We are not decrying all the wonderful things modernity has brought us, but being aware of what these wonders do to us is as important as enjoying the things they do for us. As the Fisks discussed last week on Stop the White Noise, we need to rule technology, not be ruled by it. 

It’s clearer now than ever that latest is not always greatest, and that the way ahead, especially for Christians, will not look the way it did through much of the twentieth century. We might not be able to go where all the cool kids go; we must live differently. But as God’s people have always known, we are strangers in a strange land. We are used to seeking the good of our cities all the while knowing we are politically homeless.

The advantage of the saint is that he embraces the “unchosen” situation of being a creature, rather than struggling against it. He knows that he is made by a God whose unchosen (and undeserved) providence gives him life and breath and every good thing. So know that God’s wisdom will seem madness to this perishing world. Know that prayer is not weakness. We are not at ease in Babylon but we know that Jesus Christ has gone to prepare a place for us, which gives us courage for the sojourn. 

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