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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Love Among the Ruins? Notes on Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option"

I have given conservative writer Rod Dreher a fair amount of stick on this blog. Despite this, I want to at once engage with some of his ideas regarding what he calls The Benedict Option. Despite disagreeing with many of Dreher's key arguments, I find that there is value to be found in the book, even for a liberal Episcopalian like myself.

Let's start with the disagreement. Dreher presupposes a cultural hostility to Christianity that is supported more by anecdote than by data, writing that "The workplace is getting tougher for orthodox believers as America’s commitment to religious liberty weakens." He invokes blacklisting, loss of accreditation, and a social disdain for socially conservative traditionalits.

With respect, I think that Dreher is making two errors here. First, his use of the term "orthodox believers" (often referred to on his blog as "small-o orthodox Christians") is doing a lot of lifting. It means traditional socially conservative Christians, not those Christians whose theological belief is in accordance with the creeds. Liberal Christians are "read out" of "orthodoxy" by Dreher, even if we hold all the creeds to be true without hesitation or mental reservation. Indeed, Charles Gore, whose The Reconstruction of Belief was an extended defense of the truth of creedal Christianity in the aftermath of the loss of faith caused by World War I, would probably not fall within Dreher's definition of "orthodox Christian." This is a very crabbed view of orthodoxy, in contrast to that of C.S. Lewis, who could disagree with radical theology without declaring it heretical, as witness his comment about J.A.T. Robinson's Honest To God:
The Bishop of Woolwich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long ago abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call this belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. . . .We have always thought of God as being not only "in" and "above" but also "below" us....His view of Jesus as a window seems wholly orthodox (he that hath seen me hath seen the Father....Thus, though sometimes puzzled, I am not shocked by his article. His heart, though perhaps in some danger of bigotry, is in the right place.
Dreher could, I think, learn from Lewis's charitable reading of his foes, and his expansive view of orthodoxy.

Nor do I believe that Dreher is correct to fear persecution. In 2012, the often bitterly divided Supreme Court was unanimous in finding a broad "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws in the Firest Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. Still, Dreher is not fabricating; rather, he is, I believe, overreacting to a loss of cultural hegemony that is in fact real. That, combined with the Supreme Court's relegation in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) to the political process of claims for lay religious minorities to "conscience exemptions" from non-discriminatory laws, a relegation authored by by the late Antonin Scalia, writing for the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--has basically removed constitutional protection for dissenters. Ironically, some of those dissenters are now the conservative Christians who make up Dreher's audience. The result is that conservative Christians are now themselves losing some of the political battles for exemptions and accommodations that they previously resisted when claimed by members of other faiths.

The question of when and how to extend such accommodations is a fraught one--do we effectively negate civil rights laws if we allow some accommodation, or do we oppress conscientious objectors if we follow Scalia's hard line view that it's purely a question of political (not constitutional) grace)? The facts that the right of equal marriage is so newly won, and is still being actively resisted, suggest that such a purely political process is not likely to be engaged in with much empathy. Churchill's old maxim, "In victory, magnanimity" is a good one, but it assumes a victory that is not yet solidified here. However, traditionalists are not specially targeted by the rule of Smith;in many places and occasions, they still are able to enshrine their views in law. But what is new for them is finding that in this realm they are now more likely than ever before to find themselves acted upon in the same way. That a cultural detente is necessary seems clear, but how to strike it is hard to envision.

One more:
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one 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 the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.
You will, I suspect, understand that I sign on to none of this. In fact, I find much of it deplorable--the notion that modernity is an "occupation" to be overcome suggests that Dreher is not looking for detente, but rather a regaining of cultural hegemony, which even he admits led to much mistreatment of religious dissenters, women, and gays and lesbians.

So why am I writing about this book?

Well, Dreher has another focus; he writes about the decline of Christianity from within. As he writes:
As bleak as [Notre Dame sociologist] Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
Right, I don't share Dreher's or Smith's concern with "MTD" (here's my take on it), or "liberal individualism," but the cultural of illiteracy of many young Christians, and the decline of the churches in membership is a real problem for Christians, liberal and conservative alike. As is the harm done by unrestrained consumerism, a point on which I agree with Dreher (In fact, I think I go farther than he does, in more than one direction).

And in asking how to respond to a secular world in which Christianity, whether traditionalist or liberal, is in decline, , Dreher has turned to St. Benedict for concrete steps that can be taken.

As summarized by Karen Swallow Prior (with Dreher's endorsement):
The heart of The Benedict Option is the third chapter of the book. Here, after describing the order of St. Benedict and his Rule, Dreher draws from the Rule to identify and adapt principles that we in the church should apply within our modern context:

*Order: recognizing and establishing inner order that is in harmony with the natural limits and ultimate reality created by God
*Prayer: making communication with God through prayer and scripture the basis of daily life
*Work: recognizing that work is not separated from the spiritual life and must glorify God
*Asceticism: resisting the materialism, consumerism and hedonism that drive modern culture and inhibit the spiritual life
*Stability: putting down deep roots where we live, work and worship
*Community: prioritizing fellowship with others over individual interests and freedoms
*Hospitality: being as open to the world as is possible without compromising orthodox faith
*Balance: practicing the prudence necessary to balance not only right and wrong, but competing goods.
We can all agree that that the devil is in the details, and I'm not saying that I would apply all these principles in a way that even resembles Dreher's. But there is something here for liberal Christians to ponder. The values Dreher identifies have something to offer us in our distracted to death society.

Order is not necessarily conformity to external human authority; living with integrity, being one's own best self, in harmony with our individual calling from God, is not a conservative belief, it's a Christian one. Integrating prayer and the active practice of a life of faith reflects a will to live a lie that is a whole, not compartmentalized. Likewise work's reflecting our values. Who we are at home or on the job should not be unrecognizable from how we present ourselves at church.

Asceticism gets a bad press. All too often it means rejecting the good the world, often embracing joylessness as a condition of being "good." But it should not be this. Asceticism is hardly my strong point (nor was it St. Augustine's), but it can be viewed as holding a personal life in balance--not living solely through our nerve endings. To nick a phrase from Robertson Davies, it can mean having the body in the soul's keeping. Asceticism as a turning away from that which hinders us from fulfilling our responsibilities and our potential makes considerable sense to me, but that's a very biblical view--it occurs several times in St. Paul's writings.

Stability and community--I would suggest that these two are, ideally, linked. Committing oneself to a life with others who remain a part of our lives for the long haul, committed relationships in family, in friendship, and in our spiritual friends--those who help us to mature into our God-given potential by their roles in our lives, and who we, in turn, support. C.S. Lewis would not be so quick to suggest de-prioritizing individual interests--in The Four Loves, he makes the point that common interests can be the milieu of the deepest friendships. But freedom? Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty is an illuminating rumination on the subject of freedom, both positive and negative, and the dangers of trying to pare down freedom to one core meaning. Without wanting to ride old hobby-horses, an absolutist valorization of freedom as the sole good in itself can lead to the paradoxical, and to me, deeply repellent vision of freedom purveyed by Ayn Rand. Or, to quote the old song, "If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free."

Hospitality--I am a deacon at a church that practices radical welcome, and has long before it was fashionable, pinned itself to the words of St. Benedict, "“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” It was that radical welcome that brought me in, and formed me to the point that I discerned a call to the diaconate.

Finally, balance. I don't feel a need to add to Prior's definition here.

The Benedict Option is a book written from a traditionalist perspective, and with a deep-seated resistance to much that has, in my view, improved the lives and faith of many who were for too long relegated to the margins by traditional Christianity in some of its crueler forms. Yet, if we can find in ourselves the humility to hear those who strongly disagree with us, there may be something to learn from it.

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