Monday, April 02, 2018

The Liberalism of the Benedict Option

An Austrian Monastery



The argument of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option (2017) is fundamentally the same as Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed.  And like Deneen, Dreher's argument is incoherent, because while he claims to reject liberalism, his proposed alternative to liberalism is founded on the liberal principle of individual liberty by which social order arises through voluntary choice.


A few years ago, Deneen wrote an essay placing himself and Dreher on the same side of an intellectual debate among traditionalist American Catholics.  (Since then, Dreher has converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church.)   On one side, there were the Whig Catholics taking the position developed by John Courtney Murray that Lord Acton was right about Thomas Aquinas being "the first Whig," and that traditional Catholicism was compatible with the American tradition of liberal democracy, because liberal pluralism and religious liberty secured a home for Thomistic Catholics to live their Christian lives.  The proponents of this position included Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and others who wrote for First Things, the journal founded by Neuhaus. 


On the opposite side of this debate were the radical traditionalist Catholics--Dreher, Deneen, and others--who took the position developed by Alasdair MacIntyre that Thomistic Catholicism and American liberal democracy are fundamentally incompatible, because the false anthropology of liberal individualism that sees human beings as essentially separate, autonomous selves destroys the conditions necessary for cultivating the natural and supernatural virtues in families, communities, and the Church.


Since Deneen wrote his essay in 2014, the journal First Things has moved away from Neuhaus's Whig Catholicism--Neuhaus died in 2009--and towards the radical traditionalism of Deneen and Dreher.  For example, in last October's issue, First Things published an article by Edmund Waldstein defending Catholic integralism, which Waldstein has summarized in three sentences:  "Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final end. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power." 

In particular, Waldstein recommends the medieval Catholic kingdom of St. Louis IX in thirteenth-century France as a historical model of a social order in which the temporal power of government was subordinated to the spiritual power of the Church.  Here then is a clear rejection of the modern liberal regime and endorsement of the medieval illiberal regime.

But what makes the argument of Deneen and Dreher so confusing is that while they reject modern liberalism, they also reject medieval illiberalism, because they want to build on the achievements of liberalism in promoting liberty, equality, and justice.  That's what I mean in saying that their argument is incoherent.

As I indicated in my previous post, Deneen condemns the medieval social order for its "practices of slavery, bondage, inequality, disregard for the contributions of women, and the arbitrary forms of hierarchy and application of law" (19, 23, 185).  Similarly, Dreher says that medieval Europe was "no Christian utopia," because "the church was spectacularly corrupt, and the violent exercise of power--at times by the church itself--seemed to rule the world."  And yet, "despite the radical brokenness of their world, medievals carried within their imagination a powerful vision of integration.  In the medieval consensus, men construed reality in a way that empowered them to harmonize everything conceptually and find meaning within the chaos" (25).

So, Dreher believes, medieval Christians had "a powerful vision of integration"--a metaphysical conviction that "meaning transcends ourselves and is grounded in God" (234)--but their medieval social orders failed to actualize that metaphysical vision of human beings living lives that are meaningful because they are part of a cosmos created by God with the promise of eternal life in Heaven. 

Liberal social orders must also fail to actualize that metaphysical vision of living in a sacred cosmos, because liberalism separates church and state, so that religious belief and practice become a private activity of individuals exercising their religious liberty, but without any public support from a political establishment of religion.

Through most of American history, Dreher observes, American Christians could be reassured by the thought that although there was a formal legal separation of church and state, there was an informal cultural consensus that America was a Christian nation.  Or as Neuhaus once said, even if America did not have a confessional state, it could have a confessional society.

In recent decades, however, Dreher laments, it has become clear that American Christians have lost the culture war--their Waterloo was in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, thus rejecting the biblical teaching about sex and marriage.  Orthodox Christians are now a small minority, and America has become a post-Christian society.

The only choice left for Christians who want to live a Christian life in a post-Christian culture, Dreher argues, is the Benedict Option.  With this term, Dreher is echoing the famous last paragraph of MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981).  MacIntyre had told the story of how the ancient Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics had been lost, how the modern attempt to ground morality in a shared, rational, and purely secular basis had failed, and how this had left us with a chaotic degraded morality of emotivist hedonism and Nietzschean nihilism.  He then concluded by suggesting that we are living through a time like that of the Roman empire declining into the Dark Ages, when men and women of good will set out to construct "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."  Now, we today face a similar choice.  "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. . . . We are waiting not for Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict."

To think through what MacIntyre might be suggesting, Dreher tells the story of St. Benedict (480-543 A.D.) and the monastic tradition that he began.  Disgusted by the corruption that he saw in Rome under barbarian rule, Benedict turned to a life of prayer and contemplation, living for three years as a hermit in a cave.  After leaving his cave, he joined a monastic community, and founded twelve monasteries of his own.  To guide the monks and nuns living in such monasteries, Benedict wrote a book The Rule of Saint Benedict with rules for how each day in a monastery can be devoted to prayer, work, eating, fasting, and other orders of ascetic discipline, in which monks learn to live a holy life in this world to prepare for the eternal life to come in Heaven.  This guided the monastic tradition of the Middle Ages.

To show that this is a living tradition today, Dreher describes his time visiting the Monastery of St. Benedict in central Italy near Norcia--the modern name of Benedict of Nursia's birthplace.  This monastery was founded in the tenth century.  It was closed in 1810 under the tyrannical rule of Napoleon, who was trying to destroy the Catholic Church in the territories under French imperial rule.  The monastery was reopened in 2000 by some young American men who wanted to live the contemplative life of Benedictine monks.

Oddly, Dreher does not reflect on how this manifests the religious liberty secured by liberalism.  This monastery was closed under the illiberal rule of Napoleon, but then reopened under the liberal order of modern Italy.  Moreover, as Dreher indicates, all of the monks have voluntarily chosen to submit to the discipline of this monastery, because they want to live a Christian monastic life.  Therefore, the monastery is a voluntary association, which is possible in a liberal social order that secures the liberty for forming such voluntary associations.  So, if the Benedict Option is optional, if it's a product of individual choice without coercion, then it is founded on the liberal principle of social order arising by individual consent. 

Like the Amish children who choose to be baptized as adults and thus become members of the church, the men and women who choose to become monks or nuns are freely choosing to limit their choices by submitting to the rule of their religious community.

In his review of Dreher's book, Edmund Waldstein tells his story of how he became a Trappist monk in a Cistercian monastery in Austria as an illustration of Dreher's Benedict Option.  He came from a family of eight children, living in the United States and Austria. They were raised by Catholic parents, and they are all still practicing Catholics, because their parents took them to Mass everyday, prayed with them, and educated them to understand and appreciate the intellectual and artistic traditions of Christendom.  They lived in Catholic communities all their life.  Waldstein attended Thomas Aquinas College, a small Catholic "great books" college in California, and he sees the college and the community of families surrounding it as a Benedict Option Community.  All of this prepared him to seek out the monastic life.

But notice that the formation of Waldstein's Christian life was made possible by the freedom of liberal social orders in America and Austria--a freedom expressed in the free choices of his parents and of his siblings to live in Christian communities, and in his choice to live as a monk.  In fact, living the monastic life remains an option in liberal societies around the world, as indicated at the website with instructions for how one can become a Trappist monk or nun at one of the Cistercian monasteries in the United States.

Here is a video about the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a Cistercian monastery made famous by Thomas Merton, who was a monk there:



It is hard, therefore, to understand Waldstein's scorn for modern liberalism and his Catholic integralist longing for the medieval theocratic monarchy of St. Louis IX, which suggests that he doesn't appreciate how he has benefited from the liberty secured by liberalism.

Now, of course, few people will choose like Waldstein to live in a monastery.  But Dreher points to many other ways that people can choose the Benedict Option.  He writes:

"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 smartphone 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 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" (98).
Even without living in a monastery, Dreher argues, parents can turn their home into a "domestic monastery."  A Christian family can have regular times of family prayer.  The family can have strict rules limiting television and online media.  The family can live in neighborhoods with other Christian families.  And the family's life can be organized around their church's worship services and around their private Christian school. 

Much of Dreher's book consists of his reports from interviewing people who live in local Christian communities of families.  One example is the community of orthodox Catholic families who live in one district of Hyattsville, Maryland.  They moved there so that they could live in a neighborhood with other Catholic families.  Many of them are rooted in St. Jerome Parish. 

In 2010, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., was planning to shut down the school attached to St. Jerome Parish because of the school's dropping enrollment and increasing debt. Parents organized to persuade the archdiocese to allow the school to be turned into a "classical Christian education school" based on a "Great Books" and Christian curriculum.  The new St. Jerome Academy was so successful that it has become a model for establishing other classical Christian schools around the United States.

But here, again, one sees the incoherence in Dreher's argument as soon as one notices that the flourishing of these Benedict Option communities depends on the liberal principles of tolerance and religious liberty that Dreher rejects as threats to Christian life.

In his chapter on "The Roots of the Crisis," Dreher writes:
"The U.S. Constitution, a Lockean document, privatizes religion, separating it from the state.  Every American schoolchild learns to consider this a blessing, and perhaps it is.  But segregating the sacred from the secular in this way profoundly shaped the American religious consciousness."
"For all the good that religious tolerance undoubtedly brought to a young country with a diverse and contentious population of Protestant sectarians and a Catholic minority, it also laid the groundwork for excluding religion from the public square by making it a matter of private, individual choice.  In the American order, the state's role is simply to act as a referee among individuals and factions.  The government has no ultimate conception of the good, and it regards its own role as limited to protecting the rights of individuals."
"When a society is thoroughly Christian, this is an ingenious way to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing.  But from the Christian point of view, Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity's undoing." (36) 
Notice Dreher's evasiveness here.  Is privatizing religion and separating it from the state a "blessing"? "Perhaps it is."  Religious tolerance brought some good--"to keep the peace and allow for general flourishing."  But it also "contained the seeds of Christianity's undoing."

Elsewhere in his book, however, Dreher declares that religious liberty really is "a blessing to us" (80). And he explains:  "Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option.  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 values" (84). 

So here it seems that rather than planting "the seeds of Christianity's undoing," the religious liberty in a liberal order is the critically important opening for the Benedict Option. 

Far from being anti-liberal, the Benedict Option is made possible by liberalism.

7 comments:

CJColucci said...

I doubt that Deneen, Dreher, et al. are unaware of the incoherence of their argument. I think they do not care about it. The Benedict Optioners know perfectly well that they are currently able to pursue their project only at the sufferance of the liberal state they despise. To them, they are pursuing an option that is a distant second-best simply because the liberal state does not give them the power to pursue what they really want. Their reliance on the liberal state to leave them alone is purely opportunistic; if they thought they had a prospect of getting the state on their side, they would eagerly and frankly junk the liberality on which they now depend.

Larry Arnhart said...

You are probably right about this. They surely see that openly appealing to the Catholic medieval theocracy--as the Catholic integralists do--would be persuasive with only a tiny audience of Catholic traditionalists.

Anonymous said...

I'm not as optimistic about the prospects for Liberal societies as you are Mr. Arnhart.
Modern Western states, seem to be acting very illiberal when it comes to certain ideas.
A new orthodoxy has emerged on a number of social issues;race, gender, immigration, family, to name some of the more obvious.
Dissenters are often not allowed to even present their arguments.
They're often attacked or threatened by what is essentially a new Red Guard, self- appointed guardians of the public morals,a new type of censor.
Given that modern telecommunications can make a "village" of the world,we could see whole countries becoming like Salem,Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.
With "apostates" from the "Truth" being outed, ostracized, losing jobs, having family members publicly denounce them,even imprisoned for the expression of a belief.
There are organizations that collect data on private citizens solely on the basis of beliefs they've expressed.
These groups are essentially white- collar vigilantes,and in my opinion more dangerous to liberty than the people they "watch" .
Liberal societies flourished for awhile,mostly under the stewardship of men who were nominally Christians,and populations that were overwhelmingly Christian.
This, along with the ethnic and racial homogeneity of the Western States, forged through the long crucible of the Middle Ages, and Early Modern times, created the conditions;consensus and community, that allowed the Liberal order to emerge.
I suspect it will pass once consensus and community have broken down.

JG said...

Larry: I've been skimming your posts on Deneen/Dreher (I admit, I haven't had time to read them carefully, so perhaps you address this somewhere). I can't help but think your criticism of them hinges on a conflation of any degree of personal or communal liberty with liberalism. Just because they rely on a degree of freedom to promote some form of communal life, doesn't mean they are hypocritical to reject the comprehensive doctrine of liberalism, which goes well beyond an appreciation of some personal liberty, but promotes radical personal autonomy as the ultimate goal of political life (I recognize this is not your form of liberalism, and perhaps this is the crux of your disagreement with them - does classical liberalism necessarily lead to a doctrine of radical autonomy?). Deneen addresses this near the beginning of his book, noting that liberty was not invented by liberalism, it was just redefined by liberalism. Burke on religious liberty is informative on this: He can defend and promote religious liberty without embracing the radical autonomy doctrine which makes religion a purely personal matter. I don't think that makes him hypocritical or incoherent; he simply has different reasons for promoting liberty than liberals do.

Larry Arnhart said...

As I have indicated in my posts, Deneen and Dreher incorrectly identify Lockean liberal individualism with "false individualism" rather than "true individualism" (in Hayek's terms). That they are wrong about this is clear to anyone who looks carefully at Locke's book on the education of children or Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. Deneen and Dreher are silent about these texts. Indeed, they present very little textual interpretation to support their Straussian caricature of Lockean liberalism.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Dreher's book. However, my impression is that he wants to have a society that is staunchly Christian traditionalist, but still retains a great many of the benefits of liberal modernity, including many material ones. I don't think that is possible.

--Les Brunswick

John Farrell said...

A great post, Larry--and I think it's spot on.