Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si: Human and Non-Human Nature

Over the past few days I have been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical “Laudato si”. This work presents a radical critique of modernity. While I deeply disagree with Francis in some respects, this work should be read by anyone interested in politics, history or philosophy because it challenges some of the most basic presuppositions that many modern people take for granted. I cannot discuss all of “Laudato si”, but in particular, I want to focus on how humans relate to non-human nature. Francis discusses this topic in depth in “Laudato si” and contrasts the Christian relation to non-human nature with that of modernity. It seems to me that both the relation of nature encapsulated within the so-called modern tradition and Francis’ approach are modes of thought are problematic as they fail to fully appreciate the relation of the good of humanity to the good of non-human nature.

The modern tradition that Francis decries sees non-human nature as something that possesses no inherent value. According to this approach, man simply needs to figure out how to use the formless mass that is the Earth to serve his purposes; our relation to non-human nature is like a craftsman working with raw matter with no ethical significance. Francis critiques this perspective on numerous grounds including that it encourage ecological devastation, fails to respect the inherent goodness of nature, and encourages man to see himself as a God like being who only has to figure out he want to use nature, instead of asking how God intended nature to be used. In addition Francis points out that this view of non-human nature cannot help but affect the way we relate to other human beings and encourages us to see other humans too as objects to be exploited. Consequently our relation to non-human nature cannot be completely isolated from our relation to humanity.

Contrastingly, Francis puts forward a view of the way we should relate to non-human nature that sees nature as intrinsically valuable, and a reflection of God’s glory. Furthermore, he notes that it is man’s task to be a steward over the Earth and care for it. This is not only because the Earth is a common home for humanity, but because God has entrusted the care of Earth to mankind not only as a home for humans, but as a creation that needs to be cherished for its intrinsic worth. Man may have dominion over the animals, but he must take care of creation, rather than ruling over without due consideration for its worth. For Francis this requires not only changing law and behaviour, but fundamentally altering our understanding of the way we relate to non-human nature, such that we see it as God’s creation that must be cared for, rather than as something to be simply used for our convenience.

The modern perspective that Francis critiques is quite clearly problematic, and for those of us who are non-Christian, like myself, do not need to reference scripture to notice its shortcomings. At the most basic level all we need to do is recognize that non-human lives can go well or poorly, and these non-human lives matter in some sense. I think this is a plausible belief to hold because when we reflect, even if we believe that it is justifiable to slaughter animals for the resources they can provide, it does not seem justifiable to treat them in whatever way suits our ends at that given moment. For example, if wolf testicles were found to produce an oil that rejuvenated skin and prevented the appearance of aging it still seems horrifying to go around and castrate wolves or start raising wolves in conditions that don’t allow for the activities of the excellence of a wolf display itself, like having them live in small, isolated cages where they are not able to move, play or hunt to access these oils. Consequently, nature puts a claim on us, and I would agree with Francis that we have the responsibility to care for the Earth and other beings, and more specifically, all other things being equal, to try to ensure that we adopt a mode of life, that allows the lives of all beings to go well.

But what does it mean to ensure that the lives of all beings goes well? Is there a natural harmony of interest between the species that occupy the Earth that would allow all species to flourish simultaneously? The first of these questions is quite difficult for me to answer, and I will not get to it here, but to the second question I have to say that the answer tends to be no if we adopt a plausible conception of what makes a life go well. The flourishing of one species and another are not necessarily mutually supporting. The concept of “the ecosystem” sometimes has the hypnotic effect of making us think that there is a natural harmony in the environment such that we imagine nature as if it were the Garden of Eden. But this perspective does not hold up as from a very basic evolutionary perspective the ecosystem has no such harmony over time. If nature is understood in terms of species struggling for their survival, sometimes against other species, who compete with them for food and resources then it seems plausible to think that the flourishing of one species could come at the expense of another. Does this mean that humans should just struggle for their survival at all costs and not care for other beings? No, of course not. We, as beings capable of reflection on nature and value, have a responsibility to care for the Earth and ensure that its intrinsic worth is preserved. But this does not mean that non-human nature poses no threat to us. There is always the possibility that humans could be wiped out, or damaged by another species, whether it is a virus or super intelligent, malevolent Otters. From a historical perspective we have good reason to think that Cro-Magnon overtook Neanderthal man through violence among other means. So, I see little reason to think that non-human nature poses no threat to human flourishing.

Yet Francis does not mention this threat that non-human nature puts to humanity. I think there are two reasons for this. The first likely lies within Francis’ Christian anthropology. If God gave the Earth to humans to care for as Francis thinks, than it seems plausible to think that part of the structure of the universe is that humans will maintain their dominion over non-human nature until the end of time. The other reason however is that Francis’ understanding of goodness is rooted in the Christian notion of love or Agape. For Francis, it seems that the core of living well for a human being is to participate in Agape, God’s love for all creation, by loving and caring for one’s fellow human beings and for creation. According to this understanding human goodness is never at odds with the goodness of other species or nature as a whole, rather Agape unites all of creation and relates it back to God.

Now while Agape is a very powerful notion I have a difficult time seeing it as the fundamental core of goodness. For example, let us consider a person who is kind, courageous, caring and generous. In one set of life circumstances this person is a slave to a wealthy landlord. The wealthy landlord does not physically abuse her, but she lacks the ability to pursue many of her own interests and so while she is always kind, courageous, caring and generous, she is never able to pursue romantic love, or develop her interest in the plastic arts or music. Now, on the other hand imagine this same person lives in a society where she is an equal citizen with access to resources that allow her to pursue romantic love and her artistic interests, and consequently she pursues these activities. From the standpoint of character, in both circumstances this women lives equally excellent lives as in both the woman is kind, courageous, caring and generous. But in another sense the latter life circumstances allow the women to live a better life than the former life circumstances, as in the latter life she not only can develop her ethical character, but also can develop other capabilities such as the expression of romantic love and beauty that seem integral to a good life. This is a point that Aristotle makes in the ethics when he suggests that certain external conditions need to obtain for man to have a life that is good in a fundamental sense such as wealth and health. The slave can exhibit positive character traits, but in not being free certain forms of goodness are closed off to him.

In this sense we might say that there are two forms of goodness that need to be present for the best kind of life: the first is goodness of character, and the other is goodness of circumstance. The former ensures the development of intrinsically worthy qualities of character, while the latter ensures that one lives in a context that allows one to pursue the range of activities necessary for the best kind of life. The modern tradition that Francis critiques focuses exclusively on goodness of circumstance by focusing on transforming raw nature to serve human ends and make human life commodious. Contrastingly, Francis seems to be overly fixated on goodness of charaacter to the degree to which he cannot recognize that non-human nature presents a threat to man. Now Francis does not deny that we should try to develop technology and institutions to support the increase of material prosperity for all, but he seems to think that we can do this without any cost to nature, as nowhere in “Laudato si”, does he ever suggest that human flourishing might come at the expense of the flourishing of God’s creation. But if we return to my earlier point about evolution this seems far from plausible. While we can do our best to care for nature and creation to ensure that it flourishes we sometimes have to face the agonistic choice of the flourishing of our species and the decline of another. Without looking at the specifics of the case it is difficult to say what the right choice is in this case, instead, we need to see that, as humans we bear the responsibility of trying to figure out how to make these painful decisions. In this sense human flourishing and the flourishing of non-human nature can come into conflict and in some cases one good will have to be take priority over another, so I find Francis’ suggestion in “Laudato si” that there is a complete harmony between the good of man, and the good non-human nature implausible.

In response to this someone might say that there is no conflict if we reconceive human flourishing so that it is less focused on material prosperity and more on spiritual health, as the conflict is not between human flourishing per se and the flourishing of other species, but between material prosperity for humans and the flourishing of other species. However, this objection seems misguided as imagine that an insect carries a disease that like Syphilis eventually ends in madness, and we have made no progress in understanding how to cure this disease. It probably makes sense to purge this species of fly from urban areas if possible, as this species not only affects physical health, but spiritual and moral well-being, and so there is a genuine conflict between the good of this fly and the good of humanity.

It is possible that I am misreading Francis, and that we actually agree at the most basic level, but if that is the case than Francis has been too willing to conceal the conflict that exists between humanity and non-human nature, such that he make it seem like there is a natural harmony of interests between the two. One of the most profound difficulties in caring for all beings is that some of these beings may pose a threat to us, and our flourishing. So we need to take note of this difficulty.