Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Amish and What We Can Learn From Them

A few weeks ago my wife and I sat down and watched: "The Amish." A documentary about Amish life which can be view on PBS' website. It was enlightening and gave me many things to think about.

Why do so many people today hold the Amish in such high regard? Why do Amish communities receive 20 million tourists per year? The answer is simple: people desire the peace, community, and security they perceive in the Amish. We moderns are desperately disillusioned by the rapid pace of life and constant increase in technology in our lives. Yet, with all these advances we have not found peace. Our communities have been ravaged and destroyed, often as a direct consequence of the technologies once greatly lauded. The Amish are an example of a society that sees no difference between religion and culture. They are one in the same for the Amish.

Christendom was also similar to this model where society and culture were intimately bound together. Faith penetrated every corner of politics, economics, art, architecture, and community. Religion and culture were the same thing. I think today many envy the Amish because they have a situation that has allowed them to integrate their faith into their own culture. However, the Amish are not perfect. Because of this intimate itegration, and ultimately a lack of authentic authority, differences often arise that cause splits in various groups. Amongst the Amish it is the Ordnung that states what can and can't be done in a community. These rules are prayed on and decided regularly for the good of the community. I guess the question many of us have is whether something like this could be imitated in a Catholic manner?

The one aspect of Amish society that sets them apart from everyone else in the modern world is their stance on technology. This stance is often misunderstood, but ultimately it is based on a very simple principle. If a technology will harm the community then it won't be allowed. This is very different from our modern view that any new technology is good no matter what the cost. They have managed through this micro-mananging of technology to create a sphere wherein it is easier to be good. A culture that is carefully guided and guarded has developed because technologies that are harmful to families and community life have been forbidden. In a sense, this allows the Amish to truly be in but not of the world. They are able to interact with the world, but also keep the values of the world at arm's length. Thus, as we struggle to stop the insinuation of modernity into our own homes, they have simply said: "No thank you."

This use of certain technologies and shunning of others makes life very transparent. There is no hiding behind Facebook posts and text messages. The reality is that we have lost most of our transparency, and we far too often hardly know our neighbor. We have no community, but we desire it more than we desire almost anything else. The Amish have community for precisely the reasons we lack it. They have made the Church the most important social unit. While this at times leads to friction, it also offers a sort of glue. The Church guides the people's use of technology, and protect the people from the ways of the world. Every technological decision is based on the good of the soul. We too often lose the sense that we are just pilgrims passing through.

As Catholics we greatly value freedom, but we also value responsibility. If a group of Catholics were to live near one another and choose to deliberately forego technologies that were harmful to their growth as a community, then I believe true community would be formed out of the seed of necessity. It has become too easy for us to avoid a face to face real life interaction. The Amish must visit their neighbors if they want to maintain relationships. We don't even have to hear the other person's voice over the phone any longer. We can send a text message that completely eliminates any human interaction.

The difficulty of changing technological habits is the lack of community. We have a catch 22 on our hands. To implement such difficult changes one needs community, but it is almost impossible to build community until such changes are made. I sit here at a computer writing this message. I hope and pray for the day that I will live in a Catholic village that has deliberately chosen to live differently than the world. Now we are isolated on the KS prairies. Maybe someday we will have many neighbors and the need for such technologies will be lessened or eliminated. I am hopeful that God will work this out in time. We have a universal longing for communion with others, and the false gods of technology and progress have worked to undermine this desire. Real community has been replaced by virtual chat rooms and Facebook. These things have their merits, but mostly because they are as close as we can now get to connecting with people.

So, why do people long to live like the Amish: Communion. We as Catholics understand that the faith is meant for more than an hour on Sunday. Our Faith is a Communing with the Most Holy Trinity and we desire to live out that faith in close relationship with others. The Amish share their Christian faith with one another daily. They live a simple life of hard work. Their life is not complicated, but nor is it easy. Their simple life can be imitated to some extent by Catholics returning to the land, but steering away from certain cultural peculiarities carried on by the Amish. Having certain technologies is not necessarily bad, but each one carries with it a load of consequences(many unintended). Technology is value-laden and it changes our lives, families, and communities. When we look carefully at each technology, then we can build a Catholic culture where faith will thrive and the family and community are central.

I will end with a story that was told on the documentary we watched: An Amish man got onto a bus of tourists to answer questions from the tourists. One question asked was: "What makes you different from us?" This is a simple question, but the Amish man gave a brilliant but clear answer. He asked the crowd: "How many of you own a television?" All of the hands on the bus went up. He then asked: "How many of you think you would be better off without the television?" Almost all of the hands remained up. He then asked his final  question: "Now how many of you are going to go home and throw your television in the garbage?" No hands went up. He simply said: "That's the difference between you and us."



Zeb said...

I see two unique facets of Amish culture that I think are key to their maintaining their way of life and yet seem unChristian to me. One is the practice of shunning. It both serves as a huge deterrent for people who otherwise might want to leave and it keeps out critical viewpoints. The second is isolationism. I recently said to my Amish friend that I think the difference between him and me is I am thinking about how can I change the world and he is thinking about how can he keep the world from changing him, and he said that was about right. Both those, the shunning and the isolationism, seem contrary to the Gospel message and Catholic teaching. But I can't deny that they have worked to keep their way of life consistent and the communities cohesive where so many others have died out. I'd be interested to learn more about the Mennonite groups who have kept vibrant countercultural communities going because they do not practice shunning (not as a formal rule anyway) and they seem to be more engaged with the world.

Surretha said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. For a long time, I have pined for a Catholic community that is close knit with the parish Church at the center. Where neighbor helps neighbor. Where technologies do not rule our lives, but are used to enhance our lives, used minimally.

Anonymous said...


Appreciate the post. Never forget, Catholics were living "In the world, not of it" long before the Amish. We need to focus on our Catholic roots, Gospel Poverty. The Amish should be following us. Back to Holy Mother Church.

And Zeb is right; unless called to the monastic/cloistered life, Catholics are called to be "In the world, not of it." This could obviously be in small towns/rural locations, which I believe is the first step to the Restoration of Christendom, which is also the Restoration of Catholicism, the True Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Whatever we do, if it's not rooted in the salvation fo souls, the conversion of sinners, and the restoration of Holy Mother Church, it is flawed.

All that said, appreciate the post, Kevin. "From the heart."
I harbour many of the same sentiments...


David Meyer said...

Your post had me thinking of the Shakers. I watched a documentary about them a few years back. There are 1 or 2 Shakers left I think, if any. Why? They do not procreate. Now that makes me think of Catholic religious orders (and the priesthood in the Latin Rite). But Catholics have never had a problem with demographics, and in fact are very prolific when we follow our Church’s teaching about family. The difference here is about understanding vocation. The Shakers whole society was based on separation AND non-procreation. They had no room for people with a vocation for married life- yet that is essential to a community. So within their community was a contradiction which caused their destruction.
But Catholics can have religious orders who are not isolationist in the Amish or Shaker sense, because these orders are part of the larger Church and diocese, with (unlike Anabaptists) a hierarchy to obey outside the community, yet still these orders could have a vocation to some type of isolation / separation from the wider culture similar an isolated religious order. Television watching is not crucial for our engagement with the world! Nor are cell phones, nor are cars. I like how Amish have phones outside away from the house. The wisdom behind that could shape many aspects of a religious rule for Catholic families.
What I envision is a religious order for families, or more properly for married couples, where they voluntarily make vows to live by the rule of that community- which could be headed by priests (which would further strengthen it in a way Anabaptists could never do). The rule might concern technology, dress, transportation, what have you. But the huge advantage Catholics have over the Amish is that a community like this would be based on freedom of vocation, where for the Amish there is really only one path available to their children, and if they don’t like it they are shunned. If a Catholic son of one of these communities felt called to be a priest in downtown NYC, good for him. The openness of Catholicism allows for the community to be made up of people who truly want to be there. I often think of conservative protestants in general and their lack of vocational choice. If a female wants to devote her life to Christ in a vocational way similar to a nun, then as a Protestant she cannot do that. In her community the highest spiritual vocation is being a senior pastor… a position she cannot ever have. But for Catholic women there is vocational choice and they can be a nun. It is this idea of vocational choice that would make a Catholic community which is intentionally separate succeed.

Sorry for the long post, you got me excited!

Maresa Publishing said...

Thanks for writing the question at the bus! I think many historians/thelogians that want to understand the Amish use also the monthly Family Life magazines, bacuse it gives an insight into their real lifes and inner heart.

M said...

Plain Catholics pursue this very kind of life. They arose out of the din of the latter part of the 19th century and were at the very beginning of the Catholic Back to the Land movement.

I highly recommend The Church and the Land by Fr. Vincent McNabb, OP for an understanding of this desire to walk away from the secular practices in our personal lives and the website

Tom said...

As for shunning see 1 Corinthians 5: 11 - 13 & Matthew 18: 15 - 17. Also remember before 1983 the Catholic church had Vitandus, not as harsh as some Amish shunning but it was done.

As for isolationism, see John 15: 19 & John 17:14 & James 1:27 & 1 John 2:15 & James 4:4

Peace be with you...