Sunday, March 26, 2017

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

This chapter begins with an anecdote from an older woman who has gone to six consecutive baby showers in which the expectant mother was unwed.  Illegitimacy rates continue to rise, to the detriment of the children, their mothers, and society at large.  But the point here is made to highlight the collapse of religion among the working class.  How has America, this once Christian nation, fallen so far, and so fast?

What follows is a breezy summary of western thought from the high middle ages through the sexual revolution which continues in our time.  Dreher admits that this is an "incomplete and oversimplified" picture, but argues that it remains important.  This strikes me as basically correct, though the grand narrative does have its shortcomings.  It fails to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of men and women who lived authentic Christian lives in challenging circumstances.  We are called to nothing less, whether America continues slouching towards Gomorrah, or whether it experiences another religious revival.

Now let's examine Dreher's narrative.  "The people of the Middle Ages lived in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls 'an enchanted world.'"  It wasn't just that God's existence was clear, as that He imbued all of His creation with His essence.  The divine wasn't something only encountered by holy people on occasion, it was an integral component of the medieval experience.  Even those of us who share their beliefs live in a radically different world.

As Dreher tells it, the first blow to the medieval synthesis came from William of Ockham.  For thinkers like Aquinas, God willed the good because it was good.  Or rather, it was in His nature to will the good, and only the good.  For Ockham, something was good because God willed it.  Ockham argued out of a desire to avoid limiting God's sovereignty.  But in so doing, God could no longer be understood, however imperfectly.  All we could do was to bow before His inscrutable will.

This had significant implications.  For instance, no longer could scientists say, the dry tree erupted into flames when hit by lightning because of properties inherent in the tree and the lighting; instead, the tree erupted into flames because God so willed it.  So much for science.  (As an aside, the main reason the Islamic world has produced so little science is that a dominant strain of philosophy subscribes to an Ockhamite conception of God.)

The next blow--or rather, blows--came in the Renaissance and the Reformation.  The former caused man to become, in Protagoras' phrase, "the measure of all things."  Rather than study God, or His creation, man began to study himself in isolation from his Creator.  Undoubtedly, there was much glory in ancient paganism, and scholars unearthed material that was worthy of study.  The error was to believe that man was sufficient without the assistance of God.

The Reformation also called men back to an ideal.  To Martin Luther, the medieval Church had lost its way; it was too corrupt and had polluted Jesus's teaching with extra-biblical nonsense.  Whatever the merits of his claims, Luther, and reformers like him, tore Christendom apart.  No longer did people from Ireland to Spain, Norway to Italy, live in the same enchanted world.  They lived in (at least) two different ones.

Next came the so-called Enlightenment.  If the claims of religion were incompatible--as clearly they were in a world divided between Protestants and Catholics--philosophers arose who insisted that reason alone would provide the solution to the human dilemma.  Descartes doubted everything, and from this, reasoned that his very doubt proved his existence.  From this thin proof, he claimed to construct his entire philosophy.  Descartes remained Catholic, but centuries later, his followers would construct an entirely different philosophy.  If God was allowed to remain, He was no longer the Christian God Who revealed His Son in the Person of Jesus Christ.   He was simply the divine being, necessary to get the system up and running, who afterwards refrained from meddling.

Tellingly, some of the founding fathers shared these deistic beliefs.  This is worth mentioning, because the Benedict Option makes sense insofar as America is no longer Christian.  Of course, while some of the founders were hardly Christian, the bulk of the nation was; hence, the culture, which came from the masses, was likewise Christian.  The point remains: there were significant flaws even in America's founding.

Dreher next recounts the calamitous nineteenth century.  His account is confusing, as there were too many disparate impulses to file under a single heading.  To be sure, our culture has been influence by: Karl Marx and capitalism; the romantics and Darwin; Nietzsche and the third great awakening.  History can be a real muddle.  Anyway, "the important changes... took place among the cultural elites, who continued to shed any semblance of traditional Christianity."   Mainline Protestantism especially, jettisoned the Gospel for social causes.  Little has changed in this regard today, apart from the causes.

Finally, we have the triumph of Eros.  After two world wars in half a century, man had enough of sacrifice, and sought to fulfill his own desires.  Chiefly, these desires were sexual; as Malcolm Muggeridge put it: “The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment.”  The birth control pill has facilitated this replacement, but only apparently satisfied it.  In its wake are broken families, stilted relationships, abused children, and corpses of millions of unborn babies.

Thus things stand today.  It's not hard to see why MacIntyre, and Dreher, find the comparison with Rome to be as apt as it is troubling.  Nor is it surprising that St. Benedict and his rule would be seen as inspirational.  The next chapter will examine that Saint and his rule.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chapter 1: The Great Flood

In the first chapter of The Benedict Option Dreher lays out the landscape of the West, and the United States in particular, to show the necessity of his suggestions.

In essence, the flood of secularism has overtaken the West through the breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities. These factors have been building for decades but religious conservatives were under the illusion that they could be pushed back, particularly by strengthening their case in law and politics, typically by voting for republicans.

While Dreher does not expressly say so in the book, it would seem that the rise of the post-Christian Right in the Republican party over the past couple of years demonstrates that the cause of the religious Right in the national political war is lost in roughly the same way that Obergefell demonstrated that the culture war is lost.

Returning to those three factors that have allowed secularism to overtake the West – the breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities – it has become increasingly clear that the third, the breakdown of community, leads to the first two.

The individualization of faith has led to the breakdown of traditional moral values by continually blurring the lines until nothing is clear and all that remains is relativism. With no clear moral values the takeover of the natural family was imminent, as we have seen.

While the loss of faith among the millennial generation is staggering, and is used as one of the indicators that now is the time for the Benedict Option, the fact is that the beliefs of this generation are those of their parents and much of Christianity today – mushy “kumbaya” spirituality where the goal is to be nice and feel good about oneself as a ticket to heaven, involving God only to watch from afar and solve our problems when they arise.

The term used to describe this type of faith is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), and it stands in clear contrast to the core of Christianity which teaches repentance and self-sacrifice to grow closer to God, and even places a deep value on suffering to grow closer to Christ.

As Dreher pointedly notes, “MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the self and material comfort.” It only values what feels good, leaving us to amuse ourselves to death a la Brave New World.

He also explores some of the points from Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” which was the impetus for The Benedict Option concept. In particular, Dreher examines the attitude of “emotivism” in which choosing what an individual feels is right becomes the ultimate moral guide. Emotivism breaks down a virtuous society, in which there is a shared objective moral good and a set of “practices necessary for human beings to embody those goods in community.”

A society that has moved toward subjective moral standards and broken down collective objective moral truths can no longer agree on what is virtuous, so the individual will becomes paramount. Moral standards and religiously- or culturally-based norms are abandoned, and individuals distance themselves from community and social obligations.

Dreher argues we live in this society now, and this society in which people answer only to their own will and care not about what they are destroying on their way to power and self-esteem looks a lot like barbarism. As he shrewdly notes, today’s barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears for designer suits and smartphones.

What Christian faith that is left in the West does not have much to stand on in defending a barbaric onslaught. MTD is a shallow form of religion. When it comes upon a challenge, it does not have the roots to stand and fight. In the name of being nice, it gives in. The people raised in a framework of MTD do not have sufficient experience with those practices necessary for human beings to embody the objective moral good. They might know the faith to one degree or another in their head, but they don’t “feel it in their bones.”

This brings us back to St. Benedict, who kept the faith alive by fleeing to the hills and eventually starting a network of monasteries after Rome was overtaken by barbarians. The monasteries allowed Christians to retreat behind the walls to strengthen and preserve their faith in a way that allowed them to go out and evangelize the barbarians.

In his case, St. Benedict saw that society was too far gone to save, so he built a proverbial ark to shelter the faith in until the flood receded.

Have we reached the same point? Have the waters risen so high that even the strongest rocks of faith are at risk of being carried away? As Dreher points out, “Our scientists, judges, princes, and scholars are at work demolishing faith, family, gender, and even what it means to be human.” The tyranny of human will is omnipresent in our society, and the waters are showing no sign of retreating.

What is the answer? As Dreher is clearly preparing to argue, it is time to build a new ark of some sort. Christians need to find a way to step back from the world in deep prayer and spiritual training so that they can effectively represent a real (small-o) orthodox faith when they are in the world.

Why not stand firm and continue to fight the battle in American politics and hope to take the country back? For one, it is too far gone. The politics reflect where the society has already moved, and what they are reflecting now is a nation that has moved on from Christianity in any real form.

Taking part in the current landscape of national politics will require further compromise. As the two political parties move in opposite directions they move further and further away from the middle ground in which much of Christian teaching resides. Siding with one political party means giving up on some subset of Christian belief in order to try to preserve another.

And, as the book wisely notes, the kingdom of which we are citizens is not of this world. We cannot compromise that citizenship in the name of our worldly citizenship.

While interviewing Dreher on the “Thinking in Public” podcast, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville, posits that there are four stages to secularism. The first two are secular ascendance and triumphalism, which we have already seen. The third is secular aggression, in which those driven by secular impulses feel validated in silencing Christians and their influence as a human good. This is where we are now.

The fourth step, though, is secular exhaustion. The theory is that since secularism cannot deliver on its promises and cannot perpetuate itself in the absence of a religion against which to battle, it collapses.

When the current cycle of secular aggression collapses it will leave in its wake a lot of people who have been heavily damaged by the culture, and they will need a strong church to serve as a triage center, providing hope, purpose, and structure.

In some respects we may already be seeing the beginnings of the strengthening of the Church for this purpose. Looking at Church demographics and comparing them to those of a few decades ago is a discouraging practice in these times, particularly in the Catholic Church with which I am most familiar: church attendance is down, priestly vocations are down, and religious communities are shrinking and closing their doors. But, as a priest once pointed out to me, it is in some respects a pruning.

Today’s priests, though fewer, are much more effectively trained and went through a much more intense discernment process before ordination. Religious communities are falling off the map, but in many cases these communities had already assimilated to a new-age spirituality that only vaguely represented Christianity anyway. More orthodox and vibrant communities are starting to grow as their orthodoxy stands in contrast to society and becomes very appealing to young men and women seeking a real relationship with God.

Church attendance is down, but (at least in some communities) those that are attending Mass are incredibly committed and have access to resources that generations before would only have dreamed about. In addition, organizations are showing up that are doing evangelization and catechesis the right way. As an example, FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, has church attendance growing rapidly on many college campuses, and a staggering percentage of those students are plugging in to weekly Bible studies.

Today’s millennial generation didn’t grow up with a religion that had any meat to it, but they still have that innate thirst for something deeper. In some respects, they are easier to reach out to than college students were just ten or fifteen years ago, because they have no working knowledge of religion and are curious about it.

On the other hand, the problem facing Christendom today isn’t completely a shortage of good Christians. Orthodox Christianity is quickly becoming viewed as wholehearted bigotry by all of the institutions in our society, allowing them to discriminate against Christians in a widely accepted way just as Mohler’s phase of secular aggression describes.

While Benedict had to start a process to outlast centuries of barbarism, I have to wonder if the cycle that Albert Mohler described might move by in an accelerated fashion with the incredible speed of information and the short memory of today’s society. Perhaps we only need to preserve the faith for decades, rather than centuries. We will see.

In the meantime, perhaps the Benedict Option can be used to prevent a secular culture from turning a pruning of the Church into a full controlled burn of the entire Christian landscape.

While the focus of this chapter was on the crisis that has beat down our society over the past five or six decades, Dreher insinuates that the roots of the problem actually go back centuries. That is what he explores in the next chapter.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Introduction: The Awakening

The Benedict Option begins with a short introduction.  There was a time when Dreher believed that being a conservative and being a Christian were virtually synonymous.  But the birth of his first child had the affect Mencken attributed to the prospect of hanging: it concentrated his mind wonderfully.  He realized that some of the causes championed by conservatives, especially the free market, actually worked to undermine the family, an essential institution which ought to have been conserved.

These thoughts were sussed out in Dreher's first book, Crunchy Cons, published in 2006.  Tellingly, its subtitle refers to the salvation of the Republican Party.  His most recent effort expresses no such intent.  Interestingly, however, Crunchy Cons did reference the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose book After Virtue, concludes with a quotation that inspired The Benedict Option:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages.  Nonetheless certain parallels there are.  A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.  What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was 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.  If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point.  What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.”

Whence Benedict and his option.  What changed over the course of the ten years between Dreher's first and most recent book?  There is a simple, though slightly misleading answer.  Two events happened in as many months that exposed the character of our supposedly Christian nation.  First, Indiana passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sought to provide a legal avenue whereby citizens could defend themselves if sued for discrimination.  Corporations and the media lined up against the bill, denouncing its proponents as bigots.  Not willing to side against their corporate masters, the Republicans of Indiana backed down.  Two months later, the Surpreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land.  The triumphant left, bereft of a cause, turned to transgender rights so as to continue the crusade.

As I said, simple.  But also misleading, because these decisions didn't erode the foundations of Christian culture: they revealed them to be disintegrated.  Obergefell, the Supreme Court decision, was of tremendous symbolical importance.  Whether its members were willing to admit it or not, the secular left was ascendant.  And numbers notwithstanding, committed Christians were a minority--and probably had been for some time.

The book is divided into two parts.  In the first, "[Dreher] will define the challenge of post-Christian America as [he] sees it."  In the second, "[he] will discuss how the way of Christian living prescribed by the Rule [of St. Benedict] can be adapted to the lives of modern conservative Christians of all churches and confessions."

The Benedict Option - Rod Dreher

This post will contain all the links to discussions of Rod Dreher's new book, The Benedict Option.  I may be getting some assistance from a friend on this one.  Otherwise, you're stuck with me.

Introduction: The Awakening
Chapter 1: The Great Flood
Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis
Chapter 3: A Rule for Living
Chapter 4: A New Kind of Christian Politics
Chapter 5: A Church for All Seasons
Chapter 6: The Idea of a Christian Village
Chapter 7: Education as Christian Formation
Chapter 8: Preparing for Hard Labor
Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Culture
Chapter 10: Man and the Machine