What's Tony Thinking

Cults of Futility, Part One


There’s a fair bit of gloom and doom these days. While I’d hardly call myself a cheery optimist, I am suspicious of going over to this dark side, or pulling a Chicken Little. Perhaps that is because I am somewhat inclined that way, and so make an effort to keep myself balanced.

Doom is announced regularly for Planet Earth, for democracy, for liberal culture, and perhaps most of all (of late) for the Democratic Party in 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

Do I worry about all these things? Yes, but I try to keep the caution of an older friend in mind. Browne Barr, a wonderful UCC minister, was about the age I am now when he said to me,  part in confession and part in warning, “As you get older you’ll find,” he said, “it very tempting to join the ‘Ain’t It Awful’ club.” Everything is awful, nothing good.

I came across the even starker phrase which I’ve used in the title of this piece, “the cult of futility” from a great, older book, Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles N. Cochrane. Cochrane was writing about St. Augustine who lived amid the dying embers of the Roman Empire and the onslaught of the “barbarians” in the fourth and fifth centuries. His time, like our own, was marked by enormous upheaval and huge transitions, endings on all sides, while paths forward remained obscure.

Here’s the bit that caught my attention. Of Augustine, Cochrane wrote,

“In a world, the moral and intellectual foundations of which appeared to have been shattered, he [Augustine] clung doggedly to a faith that . . .  the secular effort of mankind had not been wholly in vain; and he was determined not to resign himself, like so many of his contemporaries, to the cult of futility.”

Augustine was no Pollyanna, in fact he had a, shall we say, “realist’s” view of humanity including his own. Still, Augustine “was determined not to resign himself, like so many of his contemporaries, to the cult of futility.”

A cult of futility says, “Everything is a mess. Everybody everywhere (except possibly you and me) is an idiot. We’re going to hell-in-a-handbasket. Not a damn thing to be done about it. All efforts are futile.”

A cult of futility has something to do with the war in the Ukraine according to Volodmyr Yermolenko a Ukrainian philosopher and writer recently on Ezra Klein’s podcast. Yermolenko described the intellectual atmosphere in western Europe in recent decades as one that had given up on liberalism (liberalism broadly defined as the rule of law, rights of free speech, of assembly and so on, and rule by the consent of the governed). The intelligentsia believed liberalism’s time had past. There was a broad admiration, among Europeans, for Russia, along with complete disinterest in the Ukraine and its efforts to chart an alternative path from its powerful neighbor.

Yermolenko suggests that one reason people in western Europe, and the U.S., have been so surprised by the Ukrainian resistance was that many in the west had given up on their own liberal values and culture and really couldn’t imagine risking their lives for them. A kind of cult of futility had set in. Some Europeans and Americans have been astonished to find Ukrainian’s putting their lives on the line for a culture and values they had thought moribund or, worse, the font of all oppression.

There’s a far right version of this cult as well. There the liberal culture of the west is dismissed as hopelessly decadent and licentious by people like Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Rod Dreher. Dreher advocates “The Benedict Option,” withdrawing from the larger culture into self-contained Christian enclaves.

The QAnon claim that liberals are organized cabals of pedophiles is the extreme, if logical, conclusion of the “western decadence” narrative.

While not overlooking the terrible suffering and atrocities, something good has come from this hideous war. It has re-awakened the west, or at least many in the west, to their values and cultural inheritance. These, it seems, count for something after all. They are worth fighting for. They aren’t passe, unless you think strongman dictators or a complete revolution are the best or only options.

Yermolenko’s point is that disillusionment with the western culture inheritance had so widely set in that it was easy for Putin and other autocrats and dictators to exploit it and to add fuel to the flames via social media and cyber-warfare. Trump tried to do much the same. Remember the very dark version of America that Trump conjured in 2016 and his “American carnage” speeches?

I, for one, opt for and pray to be on Augustine’s path, he who “was determined not to resign himself, like so many of his contemporaries, to the cult of futility.”

Tomorrow I will follow this with a part two looking at another area where a “cult of futility” is a present danger, climate change.








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