Benedict Option too tame?

  1. Not radical enough?
  2. Ideological, not psychological
  3. A Senator shines
  4. Blog discovery

1

Phil Lawler, who I’ve read on and off for years, has a gently critical comment on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option: The Benedict Option – not radical enough.

After recounting his family’s move from Boston to rural Massachusetts, in an area with a strong Catholic parish life and a Benedictine Monastery should the parishes go goofy on them, Lawler ran against Ted Kennedy for the United States Senate:

The result was never in doubt, but the process was instructive. When it was over, I made a commitment to step away from politics and concentrate on working for the revival of the Catholic faith. As I wrote at the time, “we cannot expect reform in society at large until we achieve reform within our Church.”

To be honest, I’ve had trouble keeping that commitment. The tug toward activism is strong, particularly for someone who had been involved with political affairs for years. But on my good days, when I am thinking clearly, I recognize that Christian politicians cannot flourish when the Christian churches are weak. If we can repair the Church, the Church can repair society.

But here’s the catch: If you set out to repair the Church in order to repair society, you will accomplish neither. Invariably, Christians who have their eyes on the wrong prize compromise the message of the Gospel in order to seek public favor. When they do, they sap the radical power of the pure Gospel message, and thereby lose their only real claim on the world’s attention.

St. Benedict did not set out to establish Christendom; he sought to help a limited number of men pursue holiness. Paradoxically, through the power of their prayer and their evangelical witness, his monks did transform Europe. Had they set out with that objective, they would have failed.

Dreher’s greatest strength lies in his ability to stir up public discussion. The success of his book reflects the hundreds of blog entries that he has written on the same subject, provoking his critics and answering their objections. He offers a readable and reasonable analysis of how Christian ideas have been supplanted by secularism, and if that analysis fails to satisfy scholars, it will convince most readers. He is at his most persuasive when he argues that the political programs of the “religious right” are doomed to failure:

Today the culture war as we knew it is over. The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins.

…and…

Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.

But do you see the problem with that last sentence? Dreher writes about “Benedict Option politics.” But politics is the art of the possible, and he himself says that a political revival is virtually impossible. So why search for a political solution, when none is likely to be found? Why not retreat to the monasteries? There is an element of confusion in The Benedict Option, a failure finally to settle between a political or a religious mission.

If our parishes and our dioceses celebrated the liturgy properly, if we all based our lives on the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, we could bring an entirely different perspective to public life, without needing more than an occasional retreat to monasteries. And since we know that the Gospel message “sells,” and that the sacraments nourish the community, we can be confident that strong parish life would produce conversions and reversions, bringing a new vigor to the Christian community, giving us the strength to confront the secular culture—and ultimately to overcome it, since the secular world has no such source of support. Take care of the liturgy—the cult—and the culture will be transformed.

Dreher’s confusion as described may be the source of the less sympathetic critiques that he’s advocating radical withdrawal despite repeated denials that he is.

But even Lawler can’t resist closing with the promise of a transformed culture “if only.” That impulse is at least a sliver of justification for the major media’s cynical treatment of every Christian religious development as really about politics, because politics is all that really real. Really.

The pressing question is whether the current culture will even let people withdraw with their children to pursue holiness. We have some very strong legal precedents allowing private religious education and even home schooling, but there’s a strong cultural wind blowing, and the Supreme Court does read cultural tea leaves.

Again, I’m grateful for the small favor that our incumbent President, for all his manifold faults, may at least be sane in his judicial nominations.

2

Heather McDonald’s right to exist was denied  speech at Claremont McKenna College was disrupted. She holds forth Saturday in the pages of the Wall Street Journal against the “precious snowflake” explanation of such jackassery:

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” a 2015 article in the Atlantic, was the most influential treatment of the psychological explanation. The movement to penalize certain ideas is “largely about emotional well-being,” argued Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Jonathan Haidt of New York University. The authors took activists’ claims of psychological injury at face value and proposed that freshmen orientations teach students cognitive behavioral therapy so as to preserve their mental health in the face of differing opinions.

I was certainly influenced by that article, and I’m highly impressed by the free speech work of F.I.R.E. and by Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, but McDonalt makes a good case against the “largely about emotional well-being” view.

Campus intolerance is at root not a psychological phenomenon but an ideological one. At its center is a worldview that sees Western culture as endemically racist and sexist. The overriding goal of the educational establishment is to teach young people within the ever-growing list of official victim classifications to view themselves as existentially oppressed. One outcome of that teaching is the forceful silencing of contrarian speech.

At UC Berkeley, the Division of Equity and Inclusion has hung banners throughout campus reminding students of their place within the ruthlessly competitive hierarchy of victimhood. One depicts a black woman and a Hispanic man urging fellow students to “create an environment where people other than yourself can exist.” That’s not meant as hyperbole. Students have been led to believe they are at personal risk from circumambient bigotry. After the February riots at Berkeley against Mr. Yiannopoulos, a columnist in the student newspaper justified his participation in the anarchy: “I can only fight tooth and nail for the right to exist.” Another opined that physical attacks against supporters of Mr. Yiannopoulos and President Trump were “not acts of violence. They were acts of self-defense.”

Such maudlin pleas for self-preservation are typical. An editorialin the Wellesley College student newspaper last week defended “shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others.”

That teaching this ideology is the “overriding goal of the educational establishment” strikes me as wild hyperbole (incidents like this are too common, but nowhere near universal), but so does the clenched-teeth crap about “creat[ing] an environment where people other than yourself can exist” in its various mutations, including above all the cancerous delusion that violent suppression of speech is self-defense against an existential threat.

McDonald takes that as the ideology underlying the slightly more winsome complaints of feeling threatened psychologically. Her view seems consonant with the now almost ancient chants of

Hey! Hey!
Ho! Ho!
Western Culture’s
got to go!

attacking core curricula in western civilization. McDonald:

In November 2015, a Columbia sophomore announced on Facebook that his “health and life” were threatened by a Core Curriculum course taught by a white professor. The comment thread exploded with sympathetic rage: “The majority of why?te [sic] students taking [Contemporary Civilization] and on this campus never have to be consistently aware of their identities as white ppl while sitting in CC reading racist, patriarchal texts taught by white professors who most likely are unaware of the various forms of impact that CC texts have on people of color.”

Another sophomore fulminated: “Many of these texts INSPIRED THE RACISM THAT I’M FORCED TO LIVE WITH DAILY, and to expect, or even suggest, that that doesn’t matter, is [obscenity] belittling, insulting, and WAY OUT OF [obscenity] LINE.” Those “racist” texts include works by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Rousseau and Mill.

That’s breathtakingly radical, and that it seems prominent at our (increasingly unjustifiably) prestigious institutions is a very bad omen.

Faculty and campus administrators must start defending the Enlightenment legacy of reason and civil debate. But even if dissenting thought were welcome on college campuses, the ideology of victimhood would still wreak havoc on American society and civil harmony. The silencing of speech is a massive problem, but it is a symptom of an even more profound distortion of reality.

3

Ah, Saturday! Ah, Bright Week! How many great reads do I miss other days of the week and weeks of the year?

Sen. Ben Sasse also has a fine essay in the Wall Street Journal Saturday, The Challenge of Our Disruptive Era. The title was descriptive enough to get me to look, but not so gripping as the realistic opening:

I am a historian, and that usually means I’m a killjoy. When people say we’re at a unique moment in history, the historian’s job is to put things in perspective by pointing out that there is more continuity than discontinuity, that we are not special, that we think our moment is unique because we are narcissists and we’re at this moment. But what we are going through now—the past 20 or 30 years, and the next 20 or 30 years—really is historically unique. It is arguably the largest economic disruption in recorded human history. And our politics are not yet up to the challenge.

That got my attention. Sasse continues:

There have been four kinds of economies: hunter-gatherers, agriculture (settled agrarian farmers in their villages), industry (mass urbanization and immigration), and whatever we’re entering now. Sometimes we call it the information-technology economy, the knowledge economy, the service economy, the digital economy. Sociologists call it the “postindustrial” economy, which is another way of saying “we don’t have anything to call it.”

What it really means is that jobs are no longer permanent …

In the 1970s, it was common for a primary breadwinner to spend his career at one company, but now workers switch jobs and industries at a more rapid pace. We are entering an era in which we’re going to have to create a society of lifelong learners. We’re going to have to create a culture in which people in their 40s and 50s, who see their industry disintermediated and their jobs evaporate, get retrained and have the will and the chutzpah and the tools and the social network to get another job. Right now that doesn’t happen enough.

I don’t mean to be exceedingly pessimistic. There are plenty of wonderful opportunities for American families and innovators in this new economy …

What I’ve elided isn’t trivial, and after these excerpts, Sasse goes on to non-economic challenges, adding as he winds down:

What will the American idea look like when we get to this new, disrupted world of the digital economy? What will entrepreneurship look like? What will cultural pluralism and a robust defense of the First Amendment look like? What will it mean to be able to say that the meaning of America is still centered in institutions that look like the Rotary Club—where people actually live, where they know and love their neighbors, and where they actually want to do good, not just wear tribal labels about some distant fight in Washington that isn’t anywhere near up to the task of the moment we face?

As a Senator, he’s in the solutions business, not the jeremiad business, and if this think piece is substantially his own, not ghost-written for him, I’m glad he’s in the Senate. Even if it is ghost-written, a mediocre guy with good organization skills and good people around him can serve us well.

4

I may have found a new favorite blogger: John Mark Reynolds.

He is a formidable figure. Trust me on that. There’s no Wikipedia profile and may never be, because he’s doing good, not trying to build a reputation. He stepped down from a tenured and worthy position as founder and former director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. He did so to become a classical education pioneer: president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education.

But he writes clearly as something of a polymath at his Patheos blog.

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.