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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Responding to Bacevich's "History, Hope and Iphones"

The August 12, 2011 issue of Commonweal magazine had as its cover story an extraordinary meditation by my mentor at Boston University, Andrew Bacevich. As much as anything he has written, "Selling Our Souls: Of Idolatry and Iphones" shows Bacevich to be profoundly troubled by the direction of American culture. In fact, his final paragraph leaves no doubt about what he thinks is the state of the modern world:

"Either humankind’s quest for freedom in the here and now, achieved through human effort and ingenuity, represents the ultimate heresy and offense against God—in which case we invite his continuing punishment. Or belief in God’s existence represents the ultimate illusion—in which case the chaos humanity has inflicted on itself as it careens from one dynamo to the next may be merely a foretaste of what is to come."

When I read the article I wondered what the reaction to its bleak tone would be. It didn’t take long to find out. In a subsequent issue Commonweal published an eloquent reply to Bacevich written Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and an associate professor of theology at Boston College. In addition, Commonweal included a lengthy, candid reply by Bacevich to Imbelli. It is precisely the kind of thoughtful exchange we need more of and in the hope of advancing the conversation still further, I posted the following reflection at Commonweal’s website tonight:

I consider myself fortunate beyond words to have been mentored by Andrew Bacevich when I was a part-time graduate student at Boston University from 1999-2002. The masters I received in international relations was an honor, but the highest honor of my time there was working as Dr. Bacevich’s graduate assistant while he was working on his landmark book American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of American Power. I believe that book, and others by him since, are necessary and urgent correctives to American culture. His 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is as genuinely prophetic and insightful a book as has been written in the post Cold War world. Though written before the financial crisis of August 2008, it remains the best explanation for that crisis and the resulting political and economic convulsions that have come in its wake.

Having said all of that, I must agree with what I see as the genuine thrust of Robert Imbelli and ask Dr. Bacevich to consider whether or not his prophetic voice in laying bear American idolatry and America’s all too visible embrace of power at the expense of principle has limited his sense of what God is doing in the global Christian community. In other words, I affirm Bacevich’s insight into the judgment that American culture may be said to be under by God, but I am concerned that he is confusing that judgment with the whole of God’s actions in this time. When he says that Christianity “survives in the so-called West…[only] on the margins, having long since been supplanted by more alluring forces” he is right, but when he equates that with evidence that “the Christian enterprise has failed” I fear he falls into the same American-centric attitude that he so regularly exposes in others.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the Church, a Church far wider and deeper than the cultural calamity that is the American Catholic Church. As he continues to cry out as a voice in the wilderness of America, I hope Dr. Bacevich will see that the Christianity he longs to see here is coming alive in places around the world. I think for instance of the extraordinary witness of Ryan Boyette and the Nuba Mountain Christians in Sudan, whose story Nicholas Kristof so eloquently told in the New York Times last Sunday and continues to tell at his blog. In these people and countless others around the global South we see not  “a path of accommodation and compromise”, but rather the life of a Church that is always “ever young” and coming alive to a “new evangelization”. Its leading edge is not in the so-called West, but where it is flourishing and finding cultural and institutional expression it is anything but a Christianity that “has become largely ornamental”. For those who have eyes to see, stories like Ryan’s are the Church as sacrament, the Church in whom “the crucified and risen Savior has won the victory and led death itself captive.” We can not let the corruption and cowardice of American Christianity blind us to that enduring truth.

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