Sunday, July 30, 2017

Discourse 2. Theology a Branch of Knowledge

In this discourse, Newman ponders "whether it is consistent with the idea of University teaching to exclude Theology from a place among the sciences which it embraces."  For a university by its nature professes to teach universal knowledge.  Therefore, if we can obtain any knowledge whatsoever of God, theology is a science, and should be taught in a university.

We're liable to balk at the word science as applied to theology, since, in our age of scientism, that term is used exclusively for the physical sciences.  But this modern usage is narrower than Newman's understanding of the term.  He is using it to refer to a unified body of knowledge, just as Aquinas did centuries previously.

Later in the discourse, Newman highlights the epistemology that undergirds our truncated understanding of universal knowledge.  He asks: " For instance, are we to limit our idea of University Knowledge by the evidence of our senses? then we exclude ethics; by intuition? we exclude history; by testimony? we exclude metaphysics; by abstract reasoning? we exclude physics."  We obtain knowledge in various ways; if we limit the ways in which we know, we necessarily limit knowledge itself.

I don't think Newman would be surprised that our universities no longer teach ethics, or if they do, they teach it as a survey of ethical theories.  He argues: "If the knowledge of the Creator is in a different order from knowledge of the creature, so, in like manner, metaphysical science is in a different order from physical, physics from history, history from ethics. You will soon break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge, if you begin the mutilation with divine."   It's not all obvious that this must be the case.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent summary of the divisions that are characteristic of the modern university.

There is an alternative position which justifies the failure to teach theology.  Namely, "in an Institution which professes all knowledge, nothing is professed, nothing is taught about the Supreme Being, it is fair to infer that every individual in the number of those who advocate that Institution, supposing him consistent, distinctly holds that nothing is known for certain about the Supreme Being."

Yet if this this about summarizes the majority opinion today, the reasons for failing to teach theology were somewhat different in Newman's time.  He engages in criticism, both of contemporaries, as well as of the philosopher David Hume.  Newman's two main points are that religion is not mere sentiment--a tendency he attributes to Lutherans--but an assent to truth.  Also that God is not simply nature--as the deists incorrectly taught--but a being--Aquinas would say Being itself--that transcends nature.  In the following discourse, he promises to treat of God as understood by Catholics and so give an account for theology as well as how it bears on other branches of knowledge.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Discourse 1. Introductory

In the introductory discourse, Newman begins to lay out is vision. It appears that Newman is acutely aware of the political tightrope he is walking. He is careful to never go too far nor to leave any counterargument undefended. He is proposing a middle ground which is always vulnerable to being flanked on purity. Newman’s idea of a Catholic university the institution maintains a modest independence is most vulnerable to those that thought the Church should take tighter control. 

Newman writes of his former institution in England, “it was giving no education at all to the youth committed to its keeping.” One major reason given was brought upon by the push for universities to drop “their remoteness from the occupations and duties of life.” Newman draws liberally from his past work in education. Defending this at length in the piece. He seeks to build his new institution with safeguards against the failings he personally experienced.

Addressing his Protestant background, he seeks to undercut the idea that it will be different in Ireland simply because she is Catholic. He cautions, “we are sometimes tempted to let things take their course, as if they would in one way or another turn up right at last for certain.” While there are distinct differences between the universities of England and the Ireland, Newman sees no reason to not learn from England.

Ireland and the Church in Ireland, according to Newman, were at a crossroad with regards to university education. Where the Church saw the necessity of some secular education when expedient, now, “highest authority has now decided that the plan, which is abstractedly best, is in this time and country also most expedient.” Newman shows that the Church has learned from non-Catholics in the past but that does not mean a more Catholic experience cannot be achieved in their lives.

Newman is careful to check the Bishops of Ireland by noting the ultimate decision rests with “the highest authority on earth, from the Chair of St. Peter.” This is maybe the most telling section of this discourse. Tipping the reader off that what he is reading is meant as more than a thought experiment. There is a political component that underlies the entire piece. This added complexity can be difficult as we are left without context of the other players. We must infer from the text what the various schools of thought were.

Knowing he is an outsider to Ireland, Newman is quick to show humility but maintains an air of authority. The prose is careful to not insult where it is not needed. He recounts the historic spreading of the Church’s theology. This being accomplished by outsiders entering a foreign domain and spreading the Gospel. Newman noting when the Saints of past often being sent by Rome.

Newman gives us an idea of some of his larger goals at the end of the first discourse. After acknowledging that the past stays the past he speaks of Britain and Ireland, “Rome is where it was, and St. Peter is the same: his zeal, his charity, his mission, his gifts are all the same. He of old made the two islands one by giving them joint work of teaching; and now surely he is giving us a like mission, and we shall become one again, while we zealously and lovingly fulfil it.”

Friday, July 14, 2017

Preface

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.

Preface
Discourse 1. Introductory
Discourse 2. Theology as a Branch of Knowledge

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.