Tuesday, March 07, 2017

On Dreher's Benedict Option, the Christians and Localists Who Can Live It, and the Ones Who Can't

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Rod Dreher and I aren't close friends, but I've been blessed with the opportunity to associate with and learn from him a handful of times over the years, and like tens of thousands of his blog's regular readers, I've been further blessed by the ideas and arguments his writings have sparked in me--even the writings of his that I've thought to be overwrought, off-the-mark, or just plain wrong. The publication of The Benedict Option, a manifesto that he's been mulling over ever since he first staked out intellectual territory as a "crunchy conservative" more than ten years ago, feels like a capstone to that long intellectual association. I don't mean that to sound like a dramatic conclusion or completion; Rod and I, like many others, will no doubt continue to argue in a friendly way about all these issues for a long time to come. But this book helps me understand, better than I ever have before, a gap which exists between his perspective on what both community and Christianity mean and my own. Perhaps future events or arguments will lead to that gap being bridged, or perhaps they will widen it even further. For now, though, it exists, somewhat avoidable in its breadth, but by no means impossible to speak across. That, too, is a blessing.

I have three points to make about this book. The first is that it's really pretty great. Some chapters are better than others, but all are solid, as much as your mileage of appreciation may vary. (For example, I found chapter 2, "The Roots of the Crisis," in which Rod lays out the whole intellectual history of Western Christendom's rise to and fall from sociopolitical and cultural prominence in 26 pages, a little simplistic and pat, but those who aren't scholars may well disagree with me; on the other hand, I thought chapter 10, "Man and the Machine," was a sharp, haunting synthesis of the many powerful arguments which have been made regarding the "fatal error" of accepting unquestioningly "a world mediated by technology"...though I have no doubt that plenty of conservative Christian couples who only have children thanks to in vitro fertilization will be infuriated by his description of the damaging liberationist logic which he sees that practice as implicitly licensing--pp. 223, 234-235.) Overall Benedict Option is not, I think, Rod's best writing; ideas are most deeply and effectively explored when they are organically revealed in the context of a story, and he did that better when he told the tale of his sister's life, her death, and the hometown they shared in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (a book I couldn't write enough about when it first came out, and which I still buy copies of to give to students of mine as they graduate, marry, or move away), and then again when he wrote a spiritual autobiography of sorts as a sequel, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Benedict Option isn't organic in that sense; while there are stories in it, they are arranged to serve as parts of his argument. Here the ideas, not the stories, come first.

The second thing to say about this book is what all those ideas are for--but in all likelihood, anyone who has read this far already knows the answer to that question. Rod's great desire is for what he accepts as the truth claims and the culturally and spiritually formative power of traditional Christianity to be conserved, in the midst of a world which he sees as denying and undermining the conservation of both of those things left and right. By so doing, Rod argues that the moral stability (and thus the social and cultural stability as well) of Western civilization is at great risk. "We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood....The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization....This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world....The floodwaters are upon us--and we are not ready" (p. 8).

So far, so very much like many other reactionary jeremiads, whether from James Burham in the 1960s or from Newt Gingrich in the 2010s. But Rod's great insight, one which he has expanded upon and deepened as he has worked out the implications of being a "counter-cultural" conservative, is that the usual political tools of conservation which many American Christians have trusted in ever since the rise of post-WWII fusion conservatism--namely, using political organizing to capture and then maintain a commitment to the Republican party as a way to defend economic freedom, provide for a strong defense, and codify into law socially traditional Christian moral principles--have utterly failed. Hence the need for a turn to an older strategy--one older, as the above referenced intellectual history implies, than the founding of the United States, and indeed older than the entire post-Protestant Reformation socio-economic project of liberal individualism and moral pluralism. Rod's strategy is one of strategic withdrawal from (which also means, as Alan Jacobs astutely observed, a greater strategic attentiveness to) the ordinary cultural practices of the modern world around us, with the aim of developing sustainable local and communal alternatives to them, as the Benedictine monks of old did in the face of the chaos of the post-Roman world. "American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture...in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears. Could it be that the best way to fight [this] flood is to...stop fighting the flood?" (p. 12).

The idea of recasting a broad social and cultural transition and struggle as something other than a straight-up political battle between interest groups and party factions is hardly new, of course. But Rod expresses the ideal of this old vision--a humble, communitarian, civic, populist, local, familial, and "tending" vision, to use the language of political theorist Sheldon Wolin--beautifully:

Here's how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. Start a church, or a group within your church. Open a classical Christian school, or join and strengthen one that already exists. Plant a garden, and participate in a local farmer's market. Teach kids how to play music, and start a band. Join the volunteer fire department....We faithful Orthodox Christians didn't ask for internal exile from a country we thought was our own, but that's where we find ourselves. We are a minority now, so let's be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark....Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires (pp. 98-99).

Rod's description of "antipolitical politics" is deeply influenced by the writings of dissidents from Eastern Europe during the era of communist tyranny there, Vaclav Havel most particularly. He sees the Benedict Option as a way to talk about Christians building, as Czech and Soviet and other dissidents had to, "'parallel structures' in which the truth can be lived in community," a "parallel polis" for the sake of "establishing (or re-establishing ) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society" (pp. 91-92, 94). What he's talking about is coming to recognize that ordered actions and traditions, routines of integrity and sacrifice and commitment, performed in particular places among a shared community, are valuable in themselves, and not because it may have some practical consequence in the public world. In comparison to the utilitarian and individualistic assumptions of liberal modernity, this is a powerful vision.

It is also, in a perverse way, an appealing one; few are the people who haven't, at one point or another in their lives, enjoyed seeing themselves as the lone sane people in the room, as the brave and necessary and suffering resistance to a malevolent agenda, whether embodied in some ignorant bureaucracy or a hateful boss. But there is a complication which comes relying upon such language: it tends to reinforce a circle-the-wagons mindset, thus making the appeal to an alternative seem more exclusionary than perhaps it ought to be. The attention which Rod--a strong moral traditionalist when it comes to sexual morality, who writes that "the modern re-paganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity" (p. 197)--has paid on his blog, and in this book, to same-sex marriage, transgender issues, and more, often takes this form. In a response to a review of The Benedict Option by Emma Green, in which she notes that the book provides very little advice on how conservative Christians should deal with "the LGBT Americans they blame for pushing them out of mainstream culture"--something Green correctly observes Benedict Option Christians couldn't avoid even if they wanted to, since there will always be "challenges at the boundaries of sub-cultures," Rod becomes a little defiant:

LGBT activism is the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war. The struggle over gay rights is what is threatening our religious liberty, putting Christian merchants out of business, threatening the tax-exempt status and accreditation of Christian schools and colleges, inspiring the federal government to order public schools to allow transgenders into locker rooms....Our religious liberty and the doctrinal integrity of our churches, especially our understanding of human nature and the meaning of sex and the family, depends on it.

There are lots of "ours" in those sentences, just as the passages quoted above speak of "we Christians" a lot. Of course, American Christians are Rod's target audience, and he's one himself, so that makes sense. But the more you dig into this book, the clearer it becomes that, as much as what he has to say about liturgy ("corporeality is how God created us to function....liturgies do more than pass on information....they form our imaginations and our hearts"--pp. 109,111), work ("Germany's strict laws mandating shop closing times...make life less convenient for consumers...but...the protection of that regulation....cultivate[s] more balanced, integrated lives for the German people"--p. 178), community ("we have to start locally....in order to know what our neighbors need and want, we will have to be close to them"--p. 95), and technology ("to see the world technologically, then, is to see it as material over which to extend one's dominion....technology as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically"--p. 221) may appeal to and positively provoke many, Rod really isn't speaking to all of us Christians. Which leads to the third thing to say about his book: that its persuasiveness is very much dependent upon looking inside yourself, and figuring out whether you are part of its true target audience or not.

Rod writes that the Benedict Option is of crucial importance to "orthodox Christians" (sometimes using a small o, sometimes a capital O) or "believing Christians" or "faithful Christians" or "serious Christians," all of whom "recognize the toxins of modern secularism." But recognizing that isn't probably enough--after all, there are thousands of liberal Christians and others who would readily admit to the role modern secularism has played in robbing American culture of a way of talking about the necessity of justice and the plague of greed. (Think of anything written by Ron Sider or Karen Armstrong or Jim Wallis or dozens of others, or most anything published in Sojourners or Commonweal.) So more specifically, Rod means "faithful Orthodox Christians...theological conservatives within the three main branches of historical Christianity." But even more, it means believers who have "internalized" the "classical Christian view" that "[t]he point of life, for individual persons, for the church, and for the state, is to pursue harmony with [Christianity's] transcendent, eternal order" (pp. 18, 54). But even there we have a problem. At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone "deeply hostile to core Christian values" (p. 89)--yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly--and honestly--assent to believing that "the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order." Rod has long been bothered--and rightly so--by "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God "created and orders the world" (p. 10). So it can't simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a "transcendent, eternal order"; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod's mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.

The importance of doctrine rears its head when Rod writes, briefly, about my own faith, Mormonism, and some of the ways our congregations work to encourage "unusually strong social bonds" and a "unified community of believers": "The Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormons) may not be Orthodox Christians, but they are exceptionally good at doing the kind of community building that...is a vital part of being a Christian" (pp. 131-132). I don't mean to make a big deal out of this generous passage, especially since Rod surely knew that his book would be read by any number of old-school evangelical Protestants for whom Mormonism is a dangerous cult and thus must be discussed carefully. But still: so we're not Orthodox Christians, in The Benedict Option's particular definition of "Orthodox Christians," even though he then goes on to say that we're doing exactly what, in his view, Orthodox Christians in today's secular world should be doing? Well, of course, I suspect he might reply; what you do is important, but so is where you stand, doctrinally and denominationally, when you do it. (Rod's complimentary words attracted some thoughtful attention in Mormon circles, but none focused on this particular point, perhaps mainly because most American Mormons couldn't care less about the doctrinal boundaries of traditional Christian denominations.)

So clearly, Rod's argument does not escape doctrinal presumptions. To his credit, he does not over-emphasize this. On the contrary, he speaks highly of intentional Christian groups which take an ecumenical approach to membership (so long as they "avoid watering down doctrinal distinctives for the sake of comity"--p. 137), and he never denies to those who don't hold to his correct doctrine of the eternal order the right to label themselves "Christians"; he never calls Hillary Clinton an apostate or an anti-Christ, for example. But still, he plainly believes that there are Christians--like himself--whose doctrinal take on "core Christian values" will make them targets when and if religious protections which long sheltered religious traditionalists from the full give and take of modern liberal pluralism are taken away...and then there are those that, for better or worse, are already pluralistic enough that living in a "post-Christian" nation will not be threatening. The Benedict Option is a strategy for the former group.

The clearest way to know if you are in that former group, I think, again comes back to sexual morality, about which Rod has written much and thoughtfully before. "Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian," Rod writes, and the greatest example of that heterodoxy, in his view, is the belief that sexuality is subject to individual determination--that it is not essentially a corporeal, or communal, or cosmic, but rather a consumer good: "Sexual autonomy, seemingly the most prized possession of the modern person, is not only morally wrong but a metaphysical falsehood." Hence, the line is drawn. If you are essentially opposed or want to distance yourself from any kind of sexual identity or practice which exists aside from or outside of "the covenant through which a man and a woman seal their love exclusively through Christ," then Rod sees you as likely the kind of Christian that is probably in need to seeking a Benedict Option solution in your life  (p. 197, 200-201). If you're not, though, then the Benedict Option probably won't be necessary.

Of course, ideas have a life of their own, and the fact that Rod's argument for the Benedict Option includes elements that are pretty much incompatible with how my wife and I understand the needs of our family at the present time (for example, Rod's emphatic insistence that "it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system"--p. 155--really doesn't resonate with us) in no way prevents me from taking inspiration--a localist, communal, tending inspiration--from the ideas Rod presents. But it is, nonetheless, a cause for reflection when one comes across such a stark gap. Alan Jacobs strongly dislikes Rod's tendency to talk about the Benedict Option by way of "tip of the spear at our throats"-type formulations, but he wonders if he doesn't have a motivated interest for thinking that way, and that perhaps Rod and his audience of doctrinally traditional believers are "just better Christians" than he is. Liberal Christian (and liberal Mormon!) that I am--as much as I dislike the baggage carried by those particular labels--I confess: I wonder that as well. But I also wonder if Rod's determination on this point may at least partly reflect a perspective that hasn't yet been fully disentangled himself from the tight political association which right-wing Catholics and evangelical Protestants built into the electoral infrastructure of the Republican party from the 1970s through to the 2000s, an infrastructure that became so second-nature to culture war arguments in the wake of the 1960s that the America-centric perspective it lends to debates over Christianity's doctrines and social role is probably pretty hard to shake.

Two examples from The Benedict Option. While writing about the importance of staying involved enough to fight on a national level of religious liberty guarantees, even while focusing primarily on building up local and familial religious practices and resources, Rod comments that "without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and our values" (p. 84). There's a lot of sense to that...and yet, it's a comment which he makes immediately after having devoted an entire chapter to thoughtfully (and justly!) praising the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy, as an antidote to the disorder of the modern world...an antidote which exists in a country where, obviously, there is no First Amendment. And yet, they abide.

Another, more relevant, example: Rod writes that "Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generativity of the divine order" (p. 201). There are fascinating debates that could--and should!--be had here regarding natural law, Platonic philosophy and the Great Chain of Being, the Holy Spirit, the authority of tradition, and the Hebraic core of actual Biblical ethics (Rod insists that real Christians cannot "abandon clear, binding biblical teachings on homosexuality" (p. 213), but surely only the most blinkered devotee of Biblical inerrancy would insist that the traditional conservative condemnation of homosexuality as disordered can be fully elaborated from the seven short verses in the entire canon of the Bible which mention it)...but even setting all those discussions aside, it is worth noting that Rod speaks of "marriage" here--the civic, legal institution--as opposed to "sexual relations"--that is, the practice which impacts directly upon his understanding of the moral telos of our created embodiment. Which prompts the question: even if one accepts "the generativity of the divine order" as a doctrinal, cosmic, anthropological fact, what does that necessarily have to matter for how a society which does not have an established church--and Rod never calls for one!--chooses to legally respond to the reality of sexual pluralism (a reality which Rod does not deny, even going to far as to point out the many ways Christians need to repent of their "rejection and hatred" of gays and lesbians in the past--p. 213)? Yes, yes, there will be marginal cases, issues involving children, involving those who lack material resources and are culturally adrift, involving conflicts over clashing rights in arenas of medicine, education, business, caregiving, and more. I've never denied the importance of these marginal cases (much as I didn't care for much of the baggage attached to the case, I think Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius was correctly decided, and have said so repeatedly). But to take those marginal concerns, and see in them a wave which will flood public Christianity entirely away is, I suspect, to have at least some part of one's thinking frozen in an era when a particular kind of traditional Christian doctrine really did serve as an at least informal civic establishment in the United States, conveying the idea that if the dominant institutions and practices of public life weren't legally shaped around and weren't politically supportive of the cosmic order, the functions of the universe itself would be violated. Well, count me as modern--and, while you're at it, as Augustinian too: I just don't think, even if I believed all the foregoing was true (and I don't, not anymore; I changed my mind about same-sex marriage five years ago), I just don't see our collective individual choices necessarily having such permanent cultural warping effects on the world around us, nor do I see such cultural warpings as disturbing God's sovereign intentions for the universe even one tiny bit.

So I come to the end of this fine and challenging book and have to conclude: Rod's thoughtful and important call for strengthening our families and rebuilding our communities by way of the same rules of attentive withdrawal and humble practice which communist dissidents and Catholic monks alike long exemplified is one that I can be inspired by and learn from--but it's a lesson he's not actually directing it at me. This makes me sad, a little bit: because when I look at the end of the book, and I read passages like this...

The Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real work from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity's big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like (p. 236).

...I think to myself: yes, that's what I want and need. If I am to make rational sense of the fact that I find my soul responding to much of Rod's antipolitical politics, his parallel polis, his localist alternatives, and his traditionalism, will I need, ultimately, a deeper conversion? Maybe. Or maybe not. But in the meantime, I hope Rod never forgets: for all our disagreements (and some of them are pretty huge), there are plenty of capitalist dissidents and liberal communitarians and heterdox Christians and modern pluralists and aspiring "intenders" like me who think you're on to something. Even if you're not talking to us, we're listening, and we like a lot of what we hear, and are thankful for it.


Bill said...

I find the passage you quote from pages 98-99 beautiful and intriguing. If the words "faithful Orthodox Christians" are removed, this seems to me good advice for a great many of us, and perhaps even the beginning of a recipe for a sustainable agrarian and artisanal renaissance.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I agree, Bill; Rod often expresses a vision of local sustainability in downright beautiful, wise, Laschian or Berryesque terms. My struggle with his ideas, as this post makes clear, is the degree to which he thinks the kind of alternatives you and I appreciate is driven by doctrinal imperatives--doctrines which I mostly, but in a few decisive ways definitely do not, share.