This is a long account of the long decline of the Shakers. It’s an oddly fascinating article. I can’t say that I have thought much about the experience of living as a Shaker, especially as the celibate religious group is headed toward both physical and ideological extinction. To be the last person living in the dwellinghouse, holding religious services for visitors and locals who will never convert to the faith but inexplicably want to be close to it.
The author suggests that in the current landscape, most traditional religious communities are living on an intellectual brink. There is not much difference between being Catholic and being a Shaker in a world where passionate, irrational political bickering and pseudoscience has replaced God. Although other communities may not share the rigid celibate lifestyles of groups like the Shakers, they can relate to the sense that their ethos is dissolving into a nonsensical modern world. There are a lot of people nowadays who look around them the edge of their cloistered communities and it feels like the end of history:
In his book Radical Hope: Cultural Ethics in the Face of Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear writes of a leader of the Crow people named Plenty Coups. After “the buffalo went away” and the Crow had been moved to a reservation, Plenty Coups claimed that “nothing happened.” This perspective (“nothing happened”) isn’t just a sign of depression, or a figure of speech. Plenty Coups really meant to note the end of history, Lear contends, the end of a conception of the Crow “good life” outside of which nothing makes sense.
It is this “possibility of things ceasing to happen…the possibility of collapse” that Arnold lives with daily, the same possibility facing any ethnic and religious community whose numbers are dwindling, including cloistered Catholic orders. It creates an ethical question: How will one know how to live (and what to live for) when old standards for flourishing no longer apply? It’s impossible to imagine; and so “anxiety,” writes Lear, is “an appropriate response of people who are sensitive to the idea that they are living at the horizons of their world.” This anxiety is something we all might experience, to some extent: “We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world—terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes—have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name.”
Yet, Lear writes, we can still “hope for revival: for coming back to life in a form that is not yet intelligible.” What Arnold does in the face of that recognition—cook meals, make hay, sing hymns—represents not just an homage to the past, but a courageous confronting of the future, “[A] daunting form of commitment,” as Lear writes, “to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp what it is.”
I’m not sure you can liken communities living in self-imposed or government-imposed reservations to all traditional communities of faith. Just because traditional ideas of flourishing are unpopular in this decade or even this half century does not mean they are headed toward extinction.
Anyone who studies history knows that culture wars are a constant, enduring drama. There’s a reason we have the term Zeitgeist – the cultural mood of a period. Millennials will shout their abortions and talk about a gender spectrum, but they will inevitably be followed by an aggressively rational, stoic, conservative generation who rebukes every notion they hold. There’s a reason the Catholic Church has endured for thousands of years, and Aristotelian virtue ethics even longer, through periods of widespread rejection and more than one insane pope with political rather than religious aspirations.
A more interesting question would be what makes some communities of belief more resilient than others over the long haul. I would submit to you that the key to revival is having babies.