Friday, July 14, 2017


In 1851, Newman, then a Catholic priest, was called by Archbishop Cullen to help establish a Roman Catholic univeristy in Dublin.  His discourses on "The Idea of a University" were assembled for such a purpose and later became the book by that name.

In the preface, Newman writes: "The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science."

The advantage of reading Newman is that his clarity leaves little need for summary.  It is useful here, as it will prove throughout, to contrast his idea--explicitly stated and expounded upon in these discourses--with the idea, or rather ideas, of a university today.  No word yet from Newman on the hope that a degree will grant its holder remunerative employment.

Newman argues that the Church offers integrity to the university by way of Her support.  Moreover, if the end at which the university itself aims is this diffusion of knowledge, this knowledge itself is subordinated to the religious aim, Catholic in the case of the University of Dublin, Protestant in the case of other such institutions.  The student "rejoices in the widest and most philosophical systems of intellectual education, from an intimate conviction that Truth is his real ally, as it is his profession; and that Knowledge and Reason are sure ministers to Faith."

The object of the university is not to advance knowledge, for "there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge... for instance... the literary and scientific 'Academies'."  It is lamentable that modern universities are expected to fulfill two disparate aims.  As Newman trenchantly observes, "To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person."  But the university-cum-academy must advance knowledge; so every university student comes to find that professors who are passionate about research are instructors to be avoided.

Newman frankly admits that the Catholic university is created to grant advantages to Catholic students that Protestants have long been obtaining at Protestants universities.  During Newman's day, the English speaking world was overwhelmingly Protestant.  We find something similar in America, not merely with universities, but with the entire parochial system.  And though they have largely abandoned the faith of their founders, the elite colleges in the US remain nominally Protestant.

I found remarkable Newma's observation on periodicals, then a comparatively new phenomenon: "It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment's notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request."  Much the same holds true today, though the trickle of information has become a flood.

His argues that university education should help a man build a bulwark against this torrent.  "Let [the student] once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects."  The university educated man should see things as they are, and not let himself be carried away by the latest fad.

The Idea of a University - John Henry Newman

This post will contain links to sections discussing Newman's book: The Idea of a University.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Chapter 10: Man and the Machine

Dreher begins this chapter by recounting an anecdote in which our author--and intrepid blogger--was required to be offline while visiting a monastery.  He observes: "the smartphone and the computer dominate my life".  Such dominance provides a considerable challenge to authentic Christian living. 

For not only does technology control us to some extent--even while promising us that we will be able to control it.  It morphs into an ideology "that conditions how we humans understand reality."  It "trains us to accept that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign in our endless quest to master nature."

We are cautioned against seeing technology as morally neutral.  He quotes Michael Hanby: "before technology becomes an instrument, it is fundamentally a way of regarding the world that contains within itself an understanding of being, nature and truth."

The previous chapter dealt with the ramifications of a technology called the birth control pill--what Pat Buchanan claims will one day be termed the suicide tablet of the West.  The pill was only intended to allow married men and women to take control of their own reproduction.  But the technology contains within itself an implicit understanding of human sexuality.  The logic of the pill dictates that it be used to free all men and women, married and unmarried, from the natural consequences of sex.

The ramifications of the Internet are at least as significant as those of the pill.  Dreher is to be commended for recognizing this.  The Internet pushes novelty.  It's absurd to think of someone compiling a collection of old tweets for distribution.  The point of Twitter is to offer an up to the second take, after which the sentiment vanishes into the ether, to be replaced by one just as fleeting and ephemeral.

We're not going to do away with the Internet, which is probably good for this software developer, but we can monitor our usage.  We should undertake periods of digital fasting.  I could have used more examples here.  I offer these suggestions from a talk by John Cuddeback: we could have a place in our homes where phones should be placed, away from the business of living.  We could also have times when no one is to be utilizing technology.  The point here is not to define a hard and fast rule, but to live intentionality guided by prudence.  To use the Internet cavalierly is to be used by it.

Dreher also recommends taking smart phones away from kids.  Adult brains are barely able to cope with such technology; giving such devices to kids is little short of insanity.  Smart phones are also a gateway to the evils of pornography.  

This seems obvious to me, but based on the proliferation of the technology, it's not treated that way by the culture.  What seems to happen is that some idiot parents give in to the whining of their kid, after which that kid's classmates complain to their parents, whereupon the parents give in.  Homeschooling will be helpful here.  I envision telling people that, yes, our kids are weird: they're the ones who know how to have conversations.

Dreher should have mentioned that it's also important for parents to model moderation for their kids. If mom and dad are constantly on their smart phones, they can't expect their kids to behave differently.  If we're living for the good, the true, and the beautiful, we can hope to pass on these habits to our children.  But we can't give what we don't have.

He cautions pastors against including social media in worship.  Again, obvious stuff.  As Anthony Esolen has pointed out, the silence of our churches should cry out to the denizens of an age of noise and cacophony.  Imitating the distractions of the modern world is a terrible strategy.  Dreher didn't recommend smashing the guitars of our worship leaders and bringing back Gregorian chant--but I will.

As an antidote to technology, we should work with our hands.  We are not disembodied spirits trapped in meat skeletons.  We are body and soul.  As St. Benedict knew, working with our bodies is an excellent way to remember this.  "Getting our hands dirty, so to speak, with gardening, cooking, sewing, exercise and the like, is a crucial way of restoring our sense of connection with the real world."  I would add home brewing to the list.

He ends this chapter with a magnificent quote from the great Wendell Berry: "It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Culture

This isn’t news to any practicing orthodox Christians, but the premise of chapter 9 is that “There is no other area in which orthodox Christians will have to be as countercultural as in our sexual lives.” Dreher points out that the concept of sex being limited to within a marriage between one man and one woman is heresy to the modern world. He also points out that this all matters so much because our Faith is an incarnational one – it is not disembodied.

In the early years of Christianity the Christian view of sex was the women-centric one. The Greco-Roman culture was pornographic and sexually exploitative, and infusing marriage and marital sexuality with love was particularly liberating for women. Now the culture has moved back in the other direction, and the Christian teachings on the subject are marketed as restrictive.

We don’t need to go into the factors that are leading this regression. Easy divorce, gay rights, and transgenderism are all topics that we are all very familiar with. They have led the advance of the sexual revolution and the retreat of Christianity.

Dreher essentially walks a circle around the problem of the advancing sexual revolution ethic and the retreat of Christianity, and he explains the various views of congregations and how their participants react to them.

First is that of progressives who do not agree with orthodox Christian sexual teaching. He says that “when people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.”

Along the same lines, he also demonstrates that watering down the message to appeal to Millennials and others with progressive sexual views doesn’t work. Mainline Protestant sects have already tried this and they are still in collapse. Even if it did work, watering down the truth to grow a congregation is to make an idol of community, which doesn’t get us anywhere.

On another hand, there are churches that downplay orthodox Christian sexual teachings and focus heavily on social justice issues instead. I like what Dreher says to this: “Social justice activism is laudable, but it does not earn you indulgences for sexual sin.” Bingo.

The other angle is the problem of boiling down life in Christ to following a moral and ethical code, or “thou-shalt-not” moralism. This isn’t Christianity, this isn’t a relationship with Jesus. While it is important to know these boundaries, Christianity goes much deeper than this and it is a lack of imagination and effort if this is all that is presented to people. In regard to this, we should probably go into the distinction between preaching abstinence and preaching chastity, as well as the great benefit and grace that a life of chastity brings, but I will have to leave that to somebody more qualified.

While Dreher does offer a couple of concrete solutions that can help with (though not even begin to solve) this problem, there is one particular sentence that stood out to me as the crux of the issue. He says that it is “ludicrous, even cruel” to withhold the church’s message on sexuality out of fear of bringing it up. Easier said than done. One has to be in pretty deep friendship with another to be able to discuss these topics, and (at least in perception) to bring up the topic of sexual sin is to introduce some risk that the friendship may become strained or fall apart.

Still, something that I recently heard somebody say sticks with me. He noted that “if we get to the ends of our lives and my family and friends realize that I had this gift of the Faith and Truth and I refused to share it with them, how ANGRY are they going to be with me? How much will I have let them down, on an eternal scale?”

Again, easy to say from behind a computer screen. There is a reason that I sit in an office and do the administrative work that supports the evangelistic work at a parish, as opposed to being out on the front lines. Evangelization is difficult work.

A final thought from the book before we move on to some of the solutions that Dreher offers: “If Christianity is a true story, then the story the world tells about sexual freedom is a grand deception. It is fake…we have to attack the fake in the name of the real.”

Moving on, I’m not sure that “solutions” is really the best word to describe what Dreher offers with the rest of this chapter, but these are at least some principles to keep us moving in the right direction in the fight.

First, parents must be the primary sex educator for their children. If we don’t do it the culture will, and it will happen earlier than we think. Some places are teaching gender ideology in kindergarten now. The accessibility and increasingly uncensored state of media now is also a force working against us in this battle. We now have to talk about these topics with our children early and often.

Secondly, the Church has to support unmarried people. It is easy to lose focus on the single people in the midst of a parish, but they are in a place that is especially vulnerable to sexual sin, and providing regular groups or even single-sex group homes to live in as a community can be a great help.

Though the situation is a little different, we have seen great fruit come from encouraging men’s and women’s intentional liing houses that are tied to the parish at the campus ministry where I work. Having the group of committed Christians around the house all the time, and committing to regular prayer together, has been a great success. In a university setting this is obviously a little easier to set up since every person’s housing situation changes yearly, but it can be done just about anywhere with some planning.

Finally, Dreher suggests keeping smart phones and unmonitored internet access away from kids. You wouldn’t leave your kid in a room filled with pornography dvd’s, so why give them a device with easy, immediate access to all kids of porn and other problematic material?

The peer pressure on this is going to be brutal. Many kids have smart phones at a young age now, and withholding them from our kids is going to cause them some problems at school, at the very least with teasing or something similar, and may make it difficult for them to fit in or find things in common with other children. I couldn’t agree with this suggestion more, though. On many levels, I think it is an issue for children to have smart phones at a young age.

Even if we withhold the phones from our kids, however, the problem is not eradicated. We have to monitor our children's’ peer groups. As Malcolm Gladwell once explained, in the battle between nature and nurture our personalities are more the result of nurture, and the nurturing is not as much that of our family but that of our friends. If we don’t keep an eye on the kids that our children are hanging around, we leave the door open for those children to influence ours in a negative way.

In the end, these steps can only take us so far. We have to teach our children the connection between love and sex, and we need to provide them with communities of healthy chastity and purity so that the Christian sexual ethic can be passed on.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor

St. Benedict was known for the phrase: ora et labora, prayer and work.  The Benedictines can teach us a thing or two about work, the subject of this chapter.

The modern world sees work in the wrong light: we both undervalue it, seeking to get rid of it, by automation or otherwise; and overvalue it, by spending too much time working, forgetting why we labor in the first place.  For the Benedictines: "A monk learns to do the task given to him for the greater glory of God and for the support of the community of believers."

Our secular culture not only values work incorrectly, it also seeks to enforce its rigid views of work on the rest of society.  Specifically, companies that fail to toe the line in regards to the dogma of the sexual revolution may find themselves in court.  Moreover, Dreher prophesies: "Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment."  He cautions Christian students to carefully consider what employment may entail in the years to come before embarking on a particular field of study.

He also abjures us to be prudent in choosing which hill to die on.  The cause of religious liberty will be bolstered if those who claim it do so with good reason--and behave with charity.  This may not be enough, but our aim should be about more than winning in court.  As St. Teresa of Calcutta said: "God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful."

Therefore, we ought to be bold.   In so doing, we may be able to gain time for religious liberty.  Here, I think Dreher sells his case short.  For two thousand years, Christians have given up their lives for the Gospel.  It is no small thing to lose one's job, but we should draw strength from the many courageous saints who underwent far tougher trials.  Besides, as Tertullian famously noted, the blood of the martyrs was seed for the Church.  Who is to say that the endurance of Christians under persecution may not again pay dividends?

In the meantime, Dreher extols us to be entrepreneurial.  If corporations decide to expel the heretics, we will need to work for smaller firms who will respect our right to retain private beliefs so long as we are valuable employees.  We can take advantage of the Internet to peddle our wares to like-minded people across the country or even the world.

There's nothing wrong with this advice, but I think this shows a misreading of MacIntrye.  Eking out a living on the web might be the best thing for one's family.  It's hard to see how it fits at all with "the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness."  On the contrary, for all the Internet has given us--such as the ability to discuss this book with a friend who lives hours away--it's integral to the liquid modernity Dreher elsewhere rightly decries.  This is just scraping by until Benedict comes along.

He also insists that we buy Christian, even if it costs more.  He notes that we should build Christian employment networks.  If someone is fired from a job, he should be able to turn to his church community to get him back on his feet.  Our parishes will need to be more than places of worship; they should provide support for all aspects of Christian living.

Dreher counsels us to rediscover the trades.  This is more to my liking, and I think closer in line with MacIntyre's vision.  This section focuses on the die setters of Elk County, Pennsylvania.  Work is good, land is cheap, and there is a classical Catholic school starting up nearby.  Sam MacDonald, a resident of Elk County who recently returned from D.C. where he was a journalist,  claims: "Industrialism is the new agrarianism.  It's not back to the land, but back to the trades."  Okay, so maybe not entirely in line with MacIntyre, but at least it's not office work.

Lastly, we need to prepare to be poorer and more marginalized.  We need to serve God first, even if it means giving up a bigger paycheck.  Hopefully, we're already prioritizing faith and family over the McMansion with the pool and the brand new luxury car.  (You hear that Rhen?)  "Given how much Americans have come to rely on middle-class comfort, freedom and stability, Christians will be sorely tempted to say or do anything asked of us to hold on to what we have."  But "that is the way of spiritual death."

Dreher's advice in this chapter is sound, but I wish he had thought bigger.  There's a conservatism to his project which keeps popping up.  It's not a dig on his book per se; indeed, his value is less that of guru and more that he's figuring this out like the rest of us.  But it gives one the impression of a holding pattern.  The medievals were capable of sustaining institutions like the guilds for centuries on end; we'll be fortunate to retain the same occupation--forget employer--over our lifetime.  It's unreasonable to expect Dreher to solve this, but I don't think he plumbs the depths of the absurdity of work in the modern world.  

Of course, since I'm a computer programmer, I can't exactly cast aspersions.  In any event, the next chapter examines Eros and the new Christian counterculture.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation

In this chapter Dreher encourages us to consider building a parallel culture to that of the mainstream through Christian schooling, using the example of the Czechs and the Polish who attempted to do the same under Communist rule, with varying degrees of success. The time to do this is now, while we still have relatively high levels of freedom to do so.

This system starts with developing classical Christian academies to serve from the early years of kindergarten on up. Today’s public schools simply are not a good environment in which to raise Christian children.

The first problem is that public schools are oriented toward transcript-building and equipping children to succeed in the workforce, build a comfortable life, and achieve personal goals. That sounds nice on the surface level, but it completely ignores the following of God’s will and the importance of growing in virtue.

The second problem with public schools is that they simply produce test-taking conformists. They seem to be better suited to creating compliant factory line workers than creative critical thinkers.

Third, public schools are a breeding ground of toxic peer pressure that leads to ridiculous levels of sex and drug use at a young age. On top of that, the public school system seems to be at the front line of pushing new cultural norms. Not only do they encourage the normalization of LGBT issues, especially transgenderism recently, but they almost seem to encourage children to consider themselves as such.

When you have a captive audience of confused kids in the midst of puberty, telling them over and over that it is a normal thing to consider themselves transgender, some be can easily “incepted” to start thinking of themselves in different ways. Never mind that they don’t actually know what it feels like to be of the opposite gender (none of us do). The constant input of feedback telling them that what they are feeling is probably transgenderism can create a Stockholm syndrome-like feeling in an already confused mind.

A good interrogator can confuse an innocent person into picturing themselves committing a murder and confessing to doing so, even though they didn’t. Robert Cialdini outlines this particular example very well in “Pre-Suasion.” How much more can a hormone-confused preteen be influenced?

Some argue that having their children in public school allows them to be a beacon to their peers. In a dramatic illustration that really captures how I feel about my own days in public school, Dreher notes that “leaving kids in public school to be “salt and light” to the other kids is like tossing your child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child.”

Notably, private Christian schools are rarely any better. They may enroll a marginally greater number of committed Christians, but rampant materialism and status seeking is a much bigger problem in many of these schools. Additionally, a private Christian education can be a “vaccination against taking the faith seriously rather than an incentive for it.”

So what to do? First, Dreher says, teach children Scripture and make it a part of their daily routine to study it. Get the Christian teaching “in their bones.” Also, immerse them (and yourself) in the history of western civilization. As he says, without historical memory we progress away from barbarism, not toward it.

As far as schooling goes, find or start a classical Christian academy that cultivates both wisdom and virtue along with the traditional Christian worldview along with encouraging and helping to form a personal devotion to Christ in the hearts of the students. Use a Great Books curriculum to help form creative thinkers who have knowledge of the history of the West and vision of the church of the future.

The best alternative if a classical Christian school is not an option? Dreher suggests homeschooling.

Much of the criticism that I have seen of The Benedict Option is that it is not easily applicable for low income families, and this is why. Enrollment in a private school of any sort is not cheap, and homeschooling requires the ability to live off of a single income in most cases. One of the ways that Dreher suggests to help fund these academies and make them more affordable for all is to redirect funds from political contributions to classical Christian academies. I am not sure of the scale of the difference this would make, but I see this redirection as money better spent.

At the university level, Dreher suggests finding schools that offer strong Christian campus ministries that build community and develop disciples of Christ. Recently, groups on some campuses have developed communal living situations such as dorms or private intentional living houses to foster that strong level of community. Groups such as FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and Intervarsity are helping to form students in their faith much more effectively than anything we have seen before.

As someone who works at a Catholic campus ministry at a state university, I can verify that this section is dead on. I have come to believe that when we look at the Catholic Church in America in particular twenty years from now, most or all of the vibrancy in the church will have ties to FOCUS or a small handful of other organizations. While the Church is diminishing for the most part on a national level, the 120+ campuses with a FOCUS team are exploding in Mass attendance, Bible studies, and students in dedicated formation as disciples of Christ.

Our school has also had intentional living houses for both Catholic men and Catholic women form and succeed in recent years, and the level of comradery among the students living in these houses is strong.

The situation for Christian faculty is bleaker. Academia is clearly being taken over by left-wing idealization. The Catholic faculty that I speak with regularly, at a school with a fairly conservative student body (at least relative to most) are generally very nervous to be seen as practicing Catholics or heard speaking about their faith in any way for fear of their careers. This is at a science and engineering school where matters of faith and philosophy rarely come up in the classroom. In humanities and liberal arts fields the pressure to abandon any connection to Christianity seems even greater.

A Christian academic subculture is needed, for, as Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it.”

The next chapter will look at what we can do when our faith causes us to lose our careers in certain fields.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village

Americans have always fashioned themselves rugged individualists.  As a bulwark against that temptation, Dreher offers the idea of a Christian village.  We don't exist in isolation; the people with whom we interact on a day to day basis may be influenced by our Christian witness, but they also influence us in turn.  Even if a particular family is living out its vocation as a domestic church, they will still need to be supported--by clergy, other families, as well as single men and women.

Nonetheless, it does start with the "domestic monastery" of the home: "That means maintaining regular times of family prayer.  That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of the saints."  In order to pass on the faith to our children, we must live that faith, and not just on Sundays.  Like the Benedictine monasteries, our homes should provide shelter from the world, and not just for ourselves.  Hospitality is important for lay Christians as well as monks.

Dreher implores us not to be afraid to be nonconformist.  From the beginning, the faith was a stumbling block to the worldly.  We've always been weird, even if we've sometimes forgotten it.  As the culture becomes less hospitable to Christian teaching, this weirdness will become more apparent--at least if we're doing our job right.  This is a hard burden to bear, especially for teenagers, but parents can help by being aware of the peculiarity of Christianity.

A child's friends are of paramount importance.  "Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person's character like their peers."  The careful work of parents can be undone if a child befriends children who don't possess good character.

Dreher cautions against idolizing the family.  This makes more sense in light of his books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life but the main takeaway is: even good things can be loved for the wrong reasons.  So a family, surely one of life's goods, can become an idol of sorts if it's not loved based on what it is.  The family exists to help us get to God; it is not an end in itself.  Since all families are flawed in some measure--the Holy Family excepted, of course--we can ask too much of them.  The family remains very important to Benedict Option communities.

He counsels Christians to live close to other members of their community.  It's well and good to drive to a solid parish for worship, but if the church is to truly be the nexus of a parish, it's not enough to meet once a week.  It's far easier to come together when the members live near the church.  Dreher then offers some examples of families who have moved closer to their church and have been strengthened in their faith because of it.

Here I offer, not so much a criticism, as some context.  While it is desirable to live near one's church, this must be balanced against other familial considerations.  No doubt Dreher understands this and would grant the point.  It remains important to remember that often we are seeking to do what's best for our families.  Sometimes, that will mean moving closer to our church; sometimes, it will mean hauling the kids across town to get to daily mass or youth group.

Dreher wants us to make the Church's social network real.  He draws on the example of the Mormons, who ensure every member of the church is part of an active community of coreligionists.  As social pressures intensify, our parishes will need to provide more than the grace of the sacraments.  For instance, if a man is laid off for religious reasons, the parish should be able to help him get in touch with someone to find another job.

On a somewhat related note, Dreher wants us to build relationships across church boundaries.  Real doctrinal differences separate the various Christian churches.  We can't pretend otherwise.  But we can find common cause amidst a hostile culture.  We can also draw inspiration from one another.  I would add that we can pray for Christian reunification, so that the Church can again be one as Jesus and the Father are one (John 17:21).

Just as he cautioned us against idolizing the family, so too with the community.  Some of the pushback Dreher has gotten comes from people who were raised in rigid Christian communities; such an approach failed to nurture people in the faith, and often drove them away.  He quotes one of my favorite lines from Solzhenitsyn about how the line between good and evil runs down the center of every human heart.  No community, no matter how well it lives the Gospel, will be without sin; just as no world, no matter how fallen, will be without goodness or beauty or truth.  We should also remember that we draw inward so as to give us the strength to go out again into that fallen world.

Lastly, Dreher cautions against a perfectionism that renders action impossible.  here is never going to be an ideal Christian community.  We need to "have some sort of vision and a plan but also be open to possibility."  He quotes Leah Libresco (who is now married to Alexi Sargent of First Things): "People are like, 'This Benedict Option thing, it's just being Christian, right?' And I'm like Yes!... But people won't do it unless you call it something different."

It's kind of funny, but in some ways, it also sums up the book.  There's nothing really earthshattering here; instead, it's a lot of stuff we should be doing but probably aren't.  If the book helps people start doing some of the things Dreher writes about, it will have accomplished its purpose.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Chapter 5: A Church for All Seasons

The fifth chapter is dedicated to building church communities that can, in theory, stand as pillars of faith through times of challenge.

Dreher starts by laying out the picture of our current situation, in which Christians have neglected to build their own distinct culture and have been essentially co-opted by modern secular culture in the name of reaching out to that culture and being “normal.” Noting that we cannot offer what we do not have, Dreger gives some recommendations for how we can rediscover a distinct, strong Christian culture even as the society around us tries to root it out.

He first notes that as Christians become more of a minority our focus should naturally sharpen to where it ought to be.

This brings back the identity vs. relevance dilemma that we talked about in chapter three, where focusing on being relevant to the culture diminishes a Christian group’s identity, but focusing on a strong identity makes the group less relevant in the prevailing culture. It is clear that Christians over the past few decades have sought so intently to become relevant in the culture that their identity has largely disappeared. It still exists in pockets, but is nowhere near what it used to be on a national level.

At some point, probably more recently, I believe that we began to slide back toward the identity end of that identity/relevance scale without necessarily putting a conscious effort into it. As church attendance and the devotion of the population to any form of Christianity has dwindled, the “pruning” effect has left many churches with smaller but more devout congregations.

Some churches have forsaken that pruning by digging out their roots completely and selling out to modern trends in a drastic effort to be more culturally relevant, effectively making themselves irrelevant to both the culture and Christianity simultaneously.

The churches that have held on to their teachings and traditions have slowly, necessarily been moving in the direction of a Benedict Option style community of strong, well-catechized congregations if they have been putting any effort into sustaining their faith into the future. The current moment in American history seems to beg for a turning point toward stronger Christian identity, and books like The Benedict Option as well as other by Anthony Esolen, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and others all seem to be bringing that call to the people in quick succession.

Dreher provides an outline for what a strong, Benedict Option-like church community must look like in order to withstand coming challenges from a secularizing culture. This includes re-learning Christian traditions, recovering liturgical worship, developing a habit of both individual and communal asceticism, tightening church discipline, evangelizing with goodness and beauty, and embracing the possibility of exile and martyrdom.

Dreher dives more deeply into each of these ideas, but a few points and illustrations stood out to me in particular. I like how I saw Matt Fradd describe this book recently – “Rod Dreher is saying things that, until I read them, were laying half asleep in my mind.” That is how some of these points make me feel.

First, on recovering liturgical worship Dreher has us imagine attending a Catholic Mass in a 1970’s-era suburban church and also in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. While every part of the Mass may be the exact same at the two places, the holiness of the Mass is conveyed much more effectively in the Cathedral than in the suburban pole barn church. The beauty helps lead us to desire deeper communion with God.

I’m not sure what a shrinking suburban Christian community can really do if they are stuck with a horrendous local church building, but I do agree that beauty in the church makes a big difference.

Second, on asceticism, Dreher says that “A church that does not emphasize asceticism and discipleship is as pointless as a football coaching staff that doesn’t care if the team shows up to practice.” On a related note, while talking about church discipline, he says that “The Way leads somewhere, and those who refuse to walk the Way need to be brought back to it or eventually be sent away if they persist in sin.”

Both of these point relate to a level of accountability that is far above any church that I have experienced. It is very interesting to contemplate what it would mean to have this accountability in our parishes, given that it was held in a pastoral and understanding manner.

The thought of asking somebody to leave a congregation is dramatic, and I am not certain that it can be correct. This is probably the first point in the book that I have had a real, hard disagreement with Dreher.

I realize that, like the monks setting boundaries to protect their communal life, some boundaries are probably healthy in parish life. However, in the Catholic Church, for example, even those who are excommunicated are still bound by the obligation to attend Mass each Sunday (while foregoing some sacraments until they are reunited with the Church), so preventing somebody from being a part of a congregation, especially if it is the only congregation around that area, is problematic.

I see and understand where he is going with this – it can be scandalous and a blow to the integrity of a church to have somebody living a life antithetical to church teaching involved at the church, but I think a more pastoral approach of limiting that person’s influence in the church by asking them to relinquish leadership roles and public ministries, including liturgical roles, and possibly refraining from some sacraments until a time that the error is corrected, is probably the more Christian way to go. They need to walk through the error, preferably with the pastor, rather than simply being banished.

An increased level of accountability and of communal asceticism, however, I can totally get behind.

Finally, Dreher quotes Russell Moore as saying that in the future we will no longer be reaching out to “baptized pagans” who are already on the church roles, but rather to people who are hearing the Christian message as something new, possibly for the very first time.

This is already happening. Most of today’s college students have no background in Christianity, no knowledge of Christianity and its teachings, and very little Christian vocabulary. At the Catholic campus ministry where I work we have seen an increase in the number of students with no religious background whatsoever getting involved just to learn what this whole Christian thing is about.

This was stunning to me, being only ten years ahead of many of these students. I had the sense that most of my peers at least were raised with a general sense of what religion and Christianity were. It is increasingly clear that I was on the tail end of that reality. Going into the future, Christianity will become increasingly unknown, which may actually help it to attract some interest as people with no background seek to find some of life’s answers. With few preconceptions, they can be more open to learning about it.

Chapter 6 will explore the concept of the Christian village.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Chapter 4: A New Kind of Christian Politics

Although the focus of the book is not political, in this chapter Dreher discusses what we ought to do politically: "The Benedict Option calls for a radical new way of doing politics, a hands-on localism..."

He notes that the 2016 Presidential election was not a hopeful one for committed Christians.  This is not to say that recent elections have been much better, only that in this latest round, even the Republican candidate had given up pretending to offer much to Christian voters. His reward was 80% of the Evangelical vote, and the Presidency.

More importantly, although the State can be a threat to Christians who wish to live out their faith--just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor--ultimately, the State's power flows from the culture.  So long as the culture is militantly secular and treats earnestly held Christian belief as a dangerous superstition, we will need to be on guard.

As he has taken pains to point out, Dreher is not advocating quietism.  We must still do what we can in the political arena, even as we recognize that we may achieve very little.  "The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions."

For all that Dreher has been accused of being too pessimistic, I find the opposite to be true.  It would be a quibble to chide him for misreading After Virtue; his intention is clearly to use MacIntyre as a springboard rather than develop that philosopher's thought.  On the other hand, it is fair to ask whether MacIntyre sees more clearly than does Dreher, at least insofar as the political situation is concerned, for this will alter the political component of the Benedict Option.

The notion that there is any space within which orthodox Christians can build their own institutions is a dubious one.  Clearly, we are still granted that privilege now, and it would be dishonest to suggest we cannot have what we currently possess.  However, one of the contentions of the book is that the State has expanded its sphere beyond any reasonable bounds.  In Obergefell, the court insisted that the State has the right to redefine the institution of marriage, which is to say, human nature itself. That conceit has been on full display in the push for transgender rights.

It's possible that Christians will be left alone, and they probably will--for a time.  But the logic of Obergefell is totalitarian.  To disagree with gay marriage is not to express a different understanding, it is to challenge the ability of the State to decide.  Hence the vitriol over florists, bakers and the like who refuse to acquiesce.

I hesitate to think what people would have thought of Dreher had he cast doubt on the validity of liberalism itself--though that is what MacIntyre did, I think rightly.  Suffice it to say that even the very modest goals Dreher proposes may prove too much for the State to grant us.  Time will tell.  It behooves to do what we can to enshrine religious liberty in law, but we would do well to put no more faith in that than we do in princes.

Dreher's examination of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel is more valuable.  For Havel, the essential thing was to live in truth. Dreher borrows Havel's example of a greengrocer who refuses to display the sign: "Workers of the World, Unite!" in his shop window.  He will be punished for this, precisely because his act addresses the lie inherent in the communist propaganda.  For Havel, this wasn't a foolish protest; it was authentic and important.  Comforting words, one hopes, for the aforementioned beleaguered bakers and florist.  Havel wrote that: "Only by living a better life can a better system be developed."

Dreher also draws inspiration from the pro-life movement.  They haven't stopped trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they have focused their efforts on creating a culture of life, for instance, by opening crisis pregnancy centers to give mothers a better option for them and their child.  Whatever the State may do to us, in the meantime, there is urgent work to be done.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chapter 3: A Rule for Living

To start chapter three Dreher introduces us to the monastery at Norcia, the hometown of St. Benedict, and the monks who live there. He gives us a glimpse into their lifestyle and purpose and then uses this as a springboard into the “Rule of St. Benedict,” which is the detailed instruction for organizing and governing a monastic community.

Dreher notably points out that the Rule, “far from being a way of life for the strong and disciplined…was for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith.” This doesn’t apply just to head knowledge about the Faith. Rather, the Rule helps to “channel your spiritual energy into conversion of heart and putting beliefs into practice.

In short, the Rule is “an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ within a strong community.” The main point of the Benedict Option is that we can use this Rule, at least in adapted form, as a guide to building strong Christian communities that will preserve the Faith in the West through a time of testing and antagonism.

There are seven main element to the Rule, and Dreher shows that we can apply each of them to form a strong Christian community. The first is order, which is really a recognition of the order that God has written into creation. The effort of Christians to hold onto order and truth stands in stark contrast to a world of disorder and constantly changing values. This order keeps us focused on God and prevents us from wandering away with the latest fashions in theology and culture.

The second element, not surprisingly, is prayer. This includes both private and communal prayer, and both structured prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours and less structured prayer like lectio divina. This prayer is simply time spent being with God and communicating with Him. Without this explicit element in community it is easy for the community to simply become a social circle which can lose its rudder and drift off with cultural trends.

As ridiculous as it sounds, it is extremely easy to find Christian groups in which none of the members have a deep or regular prayer life or relationship with Christ. The element of prayer is one that has to be fought for on a daily basis and at an individual level. It is too easy to think that there is not time in the schedule to fit in prayer, and soon enough prayer disappears completely. This is when Christian identity starts sliding easily into the realm of moralistic therapeutic deism or conforming to whatever the prevalent cultural trends may be.

The third element is work. There are two primary views of work in society today – for some it is a source of identity, for others it is simply a means to make money so that we can do whatever we wish. The Benedictines show us that neither of these views is correct. Our work is not supposed to serve us, but rather it should serve God. Our work is an opportunity to glorify God.

Dreher suggests that we need to reorient to this view of work as glorifying God, especially as we move toward a time when Christians will lose their careers and be blocked out of certain professions due to their faith. Seeing our work as serving God rather than serving or defining us will help as some proportion of Christians are forced to work in a field other than their chosen profession.

The fourth element of the Rule is asceticism, or the taking on of physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal. An obvious example of this is fasting. Asceticism trains us to put God ahead of ourselves and helps to prevent against self-centeredness by saying no to our desires and yes to God. As one of the Benedictine monks mentioned to Dreher, “We are often further away from God than we realize. Asceticism serves as a healthy reminder of how things are. It’s not a punishment for being so far away.”
A great illustration that Dreher uses when discussing asceticism is that of an athlete training his body for competition. In the same way, asceticism trains us in the love and service of Christ and His Church.

The fifth element of the Rule is stability. For the monks this means spending their entire lives in the same monastic community. For lay people, stability means setting roots and investing in community. Moving from city to city from one job to another to climb the career ladder, or eschewing family and community for the sake of travel and novel experiences cuts off the roots that build community. There is great value in the lifelong relationships of a deep, stable community in times of trouble, but also in everyday tasks of supporting one another, raising children, etc.

This leads into the sixth element of the Rule, which is in fact community. In a deep, strong community the individual members are really part of an organic whole, a spiritual family. These communities allow for accountability between the members and deep levels of support. This level of community is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maintain, especially among a variety of families from differing backgrounds, and it can take some reckoning.

The social interaction within a strong community leads to bonds that are hard to match in any other way, though. This interaction is glaringly absent from society today. Much of human interaction has been reduced to pixels on a screen, and this can never replace the bonds between real people, especially those formed over a long time in community.

The seventh element of the Rule which Dreher focuses upon is hospitality. This is the part that many reviews and discussions of the book seem to miss. While the element of stability and community that he recommends require us to draw back a little bit from society to augment our closeness and cohesion with others that share our faith, we still must reach out, welcome, and serve outsiders.

The Rule requires monks to welcome outsiders, at least to a point. That hospitality cannot interfere with the community’s way of life. As one of the monks puts it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much we can’t really welcome anyone.” Even so, the goal is to be as open to the outside world as possible.

I like how another of the monks describes the balance between preserving the community and welcoming outsiders: “Yes, you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.” He states that this is done first by changing our own hearts toward God, and then our families, and then the world.

The final element of the Rule is balance. The Benedictines strive to be rigorous but not extreme. As one of the monks says, “If a community relaxes its discipline too much it will dissolve. But if it is too rigid, it will make people crazy.” He says that a balanced community should show good fruit – they should be cheerful and happy, growing, doing good, and helping people.

It is also pointed out that balance is not to be confused with spiritual mediocrity. This is where some amount of rigor comes in, especially in prayer. The balance is not between good and bad, but between different goods. The end goal, given to us by God, is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. This is a goal that requires balance in the approach, but really requires total abandonment of self-will to the will of God.

Applying all of these elements to the building of strong Christian communities, Dreher suggests, is what will help to build strong fortresses of the Faith to stand in contrast to the culture, and against its onslaughts, in the coming years when orthodox Christianity becomes increasingly unwelcome in the West.

The conundrum faced by a community that begins to implement the various elements of the Rule is the identity and relevance dilemma, as pointed out by Bishop Robert Barron. This theory states that the more we emphasize the uniqueness of Christianity, the less is seems to speak to the wider culture, and the more we emphasize the connection between faith and culture the less distinctive Christianity becomes.

The Benedict option is asking us to move to one end of this dilemma, or perhaps to the opposite end than we have been: emphasize the uniqueness of Christianity and let the culture view it as irrelevant for a time. Keep it alive until the culture is looking for what Christianity has to offer, and then offer it in spades.

Bishop Barron also offers an example of this being done very successfully, one that I had not heard connected to the Benedict Option before. Growing up in Poland under Nazi and Communist rule, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) was a part of an underground theatre group that kept Polish literature, poetry, and faith alive in an environment of dramatic oppression. Later on, as a priest, then bishop, then Pope, he was able to help bring the Polish culture back from the ashes to become one of the more prominent Catholic countries today.

Perhaps the difference in this example is that the Polish people were trying to outlast an outside force that was controlling their country, while the West is moving into a self-inflicted oppression of Christianity in the sense that it is our own country and culture that is secularizing. Even so, I think this is a great illustration of how the Benedict Option can be effective.

The coming chapters will break from the macro-level examination of the Benedict Option and start digging into some of the specifics for how the Benedict Option can be carried out.