Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Describing a Monastic Response to Collapse

In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman reflects on how the western Roman Empire fell and how monks and monasteries preserved its best ideas for a later renaissance. He then speaks of how Western Civilization is collapsing again today. In Chapter 4, “The Monastic Option in the Twenty-first Century,” he writes about how we might respond to our collapse in a manner similar to our medieval predecessors.

He begins his discussion with a quote from Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing:

There are people in the world all the time who know….But they keep quiet. They just move about quietly, saving the people who know they are in the trap. And then, for the ones who have got out, it’s like coming around from chloroform. They realise that all their lives they’ve been asleep and dreaming. And then it’s their turn to learn the rules and the timing. And they become the ones who live quietly in the world…
Our civilization is collapsing. Nothing we do now will keep this from happening. We can, however, work together to make a meaningful response to it. “At the very least,” says Morris, we can pursue a contemporary monastic option and perhaps “provide a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved and handed down, to resurface later on, during healthier times” (133).
Morris makes an interesting point about the Great Books program. This alludes to the publication of a set of 54 Great Books of the Western World by Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. in 1954. The idea was to preserve and transmit to as many people as possible the best books of Western civilization and to promote lively discussions about them. Almost all of these books are now available free via the internet. The same can be said of the Bible in dozens of English versions. The problem, however, is that having all of these wonderful books available isn’t enough “because the Great Books program is really a way of life, not a database” (133). Our problem is that we are not reading, thinking critically about, and living the ideas in these books. Instead, we are living what we see on TV and in other corporate media.
In contrast, a contemporary monastic way of living has certain characteristics. First, it’s incognito. It “consists in creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye” (134). We won’t want to place advertisements for it. Even for this website, best is a word from you to someone you know who might appreciate it. Nor does this way of living “involve anything showy or dramatic, and virtually anyone reading this book is capable of making an effort in this direction” (134).
Second, it’s a humble way of living. It’s “not heroic,” has “no glory attached to it, and offers no immediate payoff beyond a personal one” (134). But it is a much more meaningful way of living than that offered by the corporate media and embraced by the vast majority of our fellow citizens and Christians.
Third, it’s “nomadic” (135). People living this way, past and present, are iconoclasts: breakers of fixed forms. “Yet they don’t try to elevate their iconoclasm into…a new fixed form” (135). Because freedom is one of our core values, we cannot fix the forms it will take—personally or communally—in a new moral code or in obedience to a new human master.
Morris calls these incognito, humble, nomadic people “NMIs” (135): new monastic individuals.
Olympians, those devoted to the gods of power, really can’t stand NMIs. We need only recall what happened to Jesus. They want everyone, gods and all, fixed to a certain place. Nothing wild.
For NMIs, however, the “model is that of a tribe in the desert” (138)—like the people of Israel in the wilderness after its liberation from Egypt. For them, “the tent is not tied to a territory, but to an itinerary. Points are reached, only to be left behind. The road to truth is always under construction; the going is the goal” (138).
“An NMI doesn’t participate in anything that can be labeled an ‘ism.’ She might be an independent woman, but never a feminist; he might do environmental work, but keep his distance from Greenpeace. For an NMI knows the historical irony, of how movements start out with vibrant critical energy and wind up as the new (oppressive) orthodoxies, complete with texts, heroes, and slogans” (138).

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
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