The most important aspect of what I have been calling the Sophia Option (an outgrowth of my Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything project) focuses on the regeneration of culture. Western civilization’s experiment in creating a culture without a religious or spiritual dimension has failed. And miserably. Without a mooring in the reality that a spiritual/religious understanding of the world supplies, culture can no longer sustain a people. We are left with a simulacra of culture: a simulacra that self-sustains through all the worst aspects of capitalism and the marketing of the self that the internet renders so insidious. Today, everyone is a brand.
Hilaire Belloc, I think, diagnoses the problem better than most:
“Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude towards the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it—we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today. The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancestral doctrines—the very structure of our society is dissolving.”
He wrote this over seventy years ago. Update: the structure of society has long since dissolved. Today we have the cultural equivalent of the war of all against all.
Despite this rather depressing scenario, I have always found great inspiration in the projects for cultural renewal undertaken by Rudolf Steiner, Joséphin Péladan, the Little Gidding community, and even (with the obvious caveats) that of Eric Gill and David Jones. Each found its successes, each failed in its own unique ways (as bush-league deconstruction is all too eager to remind us). But fear of failure should never be a deterrent. In a fallen world, failure should be assumed.
I don’t count Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option among these projects for cultural renewal because I don’t think it is one. Rather, the BenOp, at least from my perspective, is a project of cultural preservation: a communal enterprise evocative of the “remnant” of Ezekiel 6:8 that has been optimized to the level of paranoia by the alt-Catholic right (though I do not think this is what Dreher is doing). The Sophia Option, on the other hand, is a project for cultural renewal.
Part of my admiration for Rudolf Steiner is due to the way he appreciated traditional and folk forms of culture and then reimagined and reconfigured them for his own times, certainly, but more importantly with an eye to the future. He did in this a dizzying range of domains: medicine, education, beekeeping, the fine arts, architecture, economics (Guido Preparata has been doing some important work in this regard), and in agriculture. A doctor of philosophy, Steiner nevertheless often expressed a high regard for what he called “the peasant wisdom,” and his insights that led to what we now know as Biodynamic agriculture were in great part inspired by it. But he did not simply try to recapture and resuscitate these elements of the past and preserve them in a kind of museum (museums being the cultural equivalent of graveyards). Instead, his project was to start with this accumulated wisdom and bring its essence into the present, reveal what lives within it, and take it into the future. He lacked both the arrogance of the enlightened sophist and the poisonous suspicion of the traditionalist. He acted out of joy (by all reports he was unrepentantly optimistic), convinced that Christ continues to make all things new—if only with the aid of human participation.
An important element to Steiner’s grand project was to simultaneously develop a community that could sustain it. (I wrote about one aspect of it here.) He was right about that (though the community he developed was ultimately not up to the job). Cultural renewal assumes a community. Both culture and community atrophy in isolation from one another.
However, as I am certainly not the first to notice, the word “community” is now among the most impoverished in the lexicon. Essentially, and for all practical purposes, it now means “focus group.” This is the apotheosis of capitalism, as absurd as it is shallow.
My proposal is that we start taking things back.
First, we take back the word “community” to denote a group of people who come together for support, who celebrate together, who worship together, who mourn together. This doesn’t necessarily mean they need to live on the same block or go to the same church, but it does mean that the celebration of the moments of joy (and sorrow) that adorn the conjoined Church calendar and wheel of the year should be moments when people gather—in real time and in the flesh—to observe this wonderment together and be present to it. And these efforts need to be consistent over time, for rhythm replaces strength. When celebrations are woven into the year, they take on a life of their own: a life already present, though hidden from us by the absence of our presence to it. Community is the nature of communio.
Secondly, we take back the arts. The secular experiment in culture is a disaster, a wasteland. Let’s take it back since they don’t know what to do with it. The Church should not be following the insipid and spiritually dead forms of the secular culture that have so terribly failed on so many levels (like the horrible and horribly successful God is not Dead franchise where heaven, apparently, is a lot like a News Boys concert. I’ll take the flames.) This inartistic flatness and commodification touches even liturgy all too frequently—the dreadful experiments in “liturgical dance” (if you want to see liturgical dance that possesses spiritual fire, go to a Coptic liturgy), the banality of modern hymnography (even worse in those Protestant churches celebrating with the “innovation” of “the praise band”—Calvin would never stop throwing up), not to mention homilies that amount to an “infomercial for Jesus” and the priest sounds like a newscaster. If this is Christian culture, then it needs to hurry up and die. Christian art should be speaking in tongues. We need to be available to the movements of the Spirit. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but the pentecostal movement needs to be reasserted as primary to Christian art.This was the idea that inspired JESUS THE IMAGINATION, the arts and letters journal Angelico Press will premier this summer, but cultural renewal certainly needs to be more extensive than a few volleys here and there. It also needs to be bold, unafraid of martyrdom.
Essential to renewal is a renewal in education. A twelve-to-twenty year immersion in the banal, utilitarian, and spiritually dead forms of education available to us is and has been the chief weapon in the destruction of truth, beauty, and goodness that has resulted in our current political crisis, identity confusion, and existential malaise. Renewing education may be the most daunting task before us; but it’s not impossible. The late Stratford Caldecott knew this, and, had he lived, I had hoped the two of us could work in this direction. But I’m sure he’s still working with me. As he told me in his last email to me after I was complaining that to work on education with him in Oxford and me in Michigan would be a challenge: “Distance doesn’t matter too much these days.” Indeed. Various individuals have encouraged me to start a school over the years, but I’ve never felt up to the task or that such a thing could be possible. Still, something whispers to me—after more than twenty years of living with this question—that this still might be something that stands before me.
The Sophia Option, finally, is a response to the most fundamental of questions: what is the best way to live? It is not a flight from the world. Nor is it something so radically new as to be incomprehensible. Rather, the Sophia Option seeks to take the essence of the tradition, the essence of Christendom, and practice it as a lived reality mindful of our vocation to renew the world, a world in constant need of renewal.
And we are all called to renewal, as Czeslaw Milosz reminds us in the poem “On Angels”:
I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draws near
do what you can.
Don’t wait for someone else to make the first move.
Michael Martin is a biodynamic farmer, philosopher, theologian, poet, and musician. He is the author of The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy/Philosophical Essays on Poetry and Theology and The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics as well as other works.