Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Serious Christianity Is Never Mainstream

Everyone else is taking their stab at the Benedict Option concept, so in the end I too have to get in on the action. Indeed, I just ordered a copy, which is something that I probably would not have done but for the odd phenomenon of Dreher's book being covered with surprising fairness by some venues like The New Yorker while being enthusiastically attacked by a lot of Christian writers, many of whom seem not to have actually read the book. I'll post a review in a couple weeks once I'm done with the book, but in the meantime I have to get in my own contribution to the "I haven't read the book yet but here's my reaction to the concept" genre.

Dreher has been writing about his Benedict Option concept for some years prior to the publication of this book. It's inspired by a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue:
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 . . . 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 is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . 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 quite different—St. Benedict.
The New Yorker piece (which is a really good piece of journalism very much worth your time, providing a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of Dreher as person and author) summarizes the application of this concept to the current period of rapid cultural and moral consensus thus:
This March, Dreher published “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” which David Brooks, in the Times, has called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.

Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
“I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible,” Dreher said, at the National Press Club, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of priests and journalists. The election of Donald Trump, he said, proved that the country was in the midst of a profound moral and spiritual crisis; the fact that so many Christians voted for him suggested a weakness in their faith. American Christianity had been replaced with “a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-lite philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self,” he said. “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.”
I wrote earlier about some ways in which I think MacIntyre's and Dreher's take on the fall of the Roman Empire is overly simplistic from a historical point of view. Leaving that aside, however, I think that Dreher's basic assessment is wrong in its diagnoses of a unique modern moment of crisis between Christianity and the mainstream culture, yet right in its call for a certain type of withdrawal and mutual support for Christians.

Perhaps its worth starting out with the monastic impulse which led Saint Benedict and others to seek lives and prayer and stability away from the secular world. The impetus for the monastic movement was not primarily increasing political chaos in late antiquity. Monastic communities began to form well before the first sack of Rome, while Benedict founded Monte Cassino during the time of the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. Rather, the fathers of monasticism withdrew from the world because they believed that in order to devote oneself fully to the perfection of the Christian life, it was necessary to withdraw from the distractions which are part of pursing earthly success. And indeed, though I believe that I'm doing important work as a husband, father, and provider for a family, I can see that point very clearly. I spend a lot of time dealing with the material needs and wants of this world, and much less pursuing prayer and fasting.

Of course, not everyone is called to the religious life, and Dreher is not actually calling for people to withdraw into a family equivalent of monasteries. It's not a new idea to write about how devout Christians can live in the world without being totally of it. A key work that comes to my mind in this regard is St. Francis de Sales's book Introduction to the Devout Life. The interesting thing about de Sales' work is that it's written specifically with the devout layperson living in the world as its intended audience, and de Sales does not at all assume that the mainstream culture of 1609 is going to be particular reinforcing for Christian virtue.
EITHER to seek or to shun society is a fault in one striving to lead a devout life in the world, such as I am now speaking of. To shun society implies indifference and contempt for one’s neighbours; and to seek it savours of idleness and uselessness. We are told to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. In token that we love him, we must not avoid being with him, and the test of loving one’s self is to be happy when alone. “Think first on thyself,” says S. Bernard, “and then on other men.” So that, if nothing obliges you to mix in society either at home or abroad, retire within yourself, and hold converse with your own heart. But if friends come to you, or there is fitting cause for you to go forth into society, then, my daughter, by all means go, and meet your neighbour with a kindly glance and a kindly heart. (Chapter 24)
Elsewhere he has advice on dressing properly without being vain, attending amusements like dances without being overly frivolous, etc. The idea that you needed to think about whether your attachments to mainstream society were pulling you away from the Christian life is hardly new.

And this, to me, is a key point. de Sales was writing in 1609. Wasn't the mainstream culture Christian then? What about a time like today when the mainstream culture is aggressively contrary to Christian teaching?

It's true that in some other times and places the mainstream culture has given much more lip service to Christianity than it does today. But just because most people in a given time and place were nominally Christian does not mean that most people were devout. And indeed, in some ways, if a hollow version of Christianity is widely accepted, it's all the easier to be lulled into ignoring the ways in which conventional morality differs from actual Christian morality.

So I think that Dreher is very much right that serious Christians today will find themselves to some extent aliens within the mainstream culture. I think he's also right that it's thus important for Christians to realize that being a good Christian may make it hard or impossible for you to achieve some types of worldly success. And he's right that in order to help ourselves persevere in the face of an unfaithful culture, we as social creatures will find ourselves in need of finding community with others who share our determination to live out the faith seriously.

What I draw back from a bit is the idea that our time is unique or apocalyptic in this sense. In his Press Club speech Dreher talks about communities of believers being like arks riding upon the flood of modernity, as if a cataclysm is sweeping over us that we need to wait out so that we can re-populate the world after the chaos is gone. There are clear ways that the mainstream culture of 2017 draws people away from Christianity. That was also the case in 1917, in 1848, in 1788, in 1618, in 1517, in 1378, in 1209, etc. The forces and temptations are different, but those who are committed to living as serious Christians will always find themselves at odds with (and often rejected by) the mainstream culture. We humans are a fallen people, and the more we try to draw back to God and away from our fallen nature, the more we will find ourselves divided from many of our fellows.

The solution, I think, is right, but the crisis is both more universal and less urgent than Dreher at some times seems to imply. We will always be aliens in this world.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

I like this line of thought very much. It ties into a problem I've always had with Dreher's notion of the Benedict option, namely, that he often slips into talking as if (1) there were only one way to do it, which was not even true of early Benedictine monasticism, much less of the broader Christian community of the day; (2) one could say beforehand what would 'work' in the sense of making possible a future in which one "can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth". (He always seems to read MacIntyre's 'doubtless quite different' as if MacIntyre were just saying it would different; whereas part of the point is certainly that we don't know yet what it would even look like.) It's the crisis-talk, treating it as unique or apocalyptic, as you say, that pushes the discussion into that shape.

It is not the task of Christians to make the world's course go right. That can be left to divine providence. It is our task to live Christian lives in the fields we know, and do our best given what comes along.