Catholic World Report
facebook twitter RSS
The Dispatch: More from CWR
Books
Dreher appears to be an Eastern Orthodox public intellectual who is conspicuously lacking in Eastern Orthodox outlook, as Andrew Sullivan, Russell Moore and various Internet cliques inform these pages more than do Aleksandr Nevsky, Dostoevsky, or Alexander Schmemann.
(Image of abandoned church: us.fotolia.com/Roman Robroek)

Editor's note: This is the third of a series of reviews and essays—positive, critical, and mixed—of Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option (Sentinel, 2017). A listing of previous essays is found below.

“[T]he greatest danger we face today does not come from aggressive left-wing politics or radical Islam, as many seem to think,” Rod Dreher explains in The Benedict Option. “For us, the greatest danger comes from the liberal secular order itself. And our failure to understand this reinforces our cultural captivity and the seemingly unstoppable assimilation of the next generations.” For Dreher, Christians who hope to pass on their faith to the next generation must appreciate the power of beauty in liturgy and architecture, develop temperance with respect to the allurements of cyberspace, and stop investing quite so much attention and energy into national political contests that we cannot much affect anyhow.

All this is fine, so far as it goes—yet it does not nearly go far enough.

Though I would never call myself a "MacIntyrean," I do (like Dreher) take an interest in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. For me, however, interest in a celebrated thinker's work is always conditioned by an inclination to zero in on those very aspects of the work which are most likely to make people—especially liberals and respectable conservatives—uncomfortable. No doubt some find this inclination perverse, but in my defense I can turn to Macntyre himself, who in his essay “Natural Law in Advanced Modernity” suggests that “out of a range of rival views on a particular subject-matter, the more nearly one of such views approaches the truth, the less likely it is to be acceptable to modern persons.”

In other words, if we mean business when we talk about resisting assimilation, we must first summon the nerve to question the liberal secular order's most cherished dogmas, even at the risk of ostracism. And with all due respect, I don't believe Mr. Dreher has found the nerve. Is patriotism a virtue, and if so what does that imply about the ubiquitous ideology of inclusiveness? Are human rights a load of make-believe, analogous to unicorns, as MacIntyre famously claimed? Was MacIntyre correct to assert that many accounts of natural law fail because they rely upon liberal anthropology, and thus cannot “understand human individuals as essentially parts of larger wholes – of the family and of political community, for example – wholes apart from membership in which the human individual is incomplete”?

The quintessential expression of the "liberal secular order" is globalism, a movement that aims to abolish borders and purge mankind of national, provincial, and local identities. Dreher mentions globalism once, only to studiously avoid critiquing it. Indeed, if anything, his remarks about the political events of 2016 lead one to believe he would be deeply distressed to see counter-globalist dissidents receive any real representation in the political process. Yet while congregations comprised largely of post-ethnic, New York Times-reading pilgrims are as easy to imagine as a body could wish, when one speaks of them one is not speaking of the Amish or the Orthodox Jews or any other real and proven alternative to modernity. It seems probable that the pervasive decline of Christian community might only be reversed if—and this is one whopper of an if—Christians rediscover the importance of stable, functionally-integrated kinship networks. As T.S. Eliot has argued, such a commitment would go well beyond the culturally impotent “nuclear” family.

Were the only shortcomings of The Benedict Option Dreher's limited treatment of MacIntyre and an inability to admit the place flesh-and-blood ties must occupy in an incarnational faith, it is just possible that I could see my way to recommending the book. As is, peculiar and awkward phrases such as “Benedict Option Christians cause me to cringe; I half-expect to see a ™ materialize to the right of and above the word “Option.” In something supposedly inspired by a deep interest in a sixth-century saint we find relatively few references to old books, but many references to blogposts. Dreher appears to be an Eastern Orthodox public intellectual who is conspicuously lacking in Eastern Orthodox outlook, as Andrew Sullivan, Russell Moore and various Internet cliques inform these pages more than do Aleksandr Nevsky, Dostoevsky, or Alexander Schmemann.

And for all Dreher's considerable and evident intelligence, his analogies can be very odd. In one passage, for instance, he compares conservative Christian activists to “White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy.” Now, I do not myself find many conservative Christian activists terribly inspiring, but as the thought of a Russian monarchist is now for better or worse the de facto ideology of the Russian Federation, the point of comparing such activists to “ineffective” White Russian exiles is not entirely clear. Nor is it clear why near the end of his book Dreher calls upon Kentucky poet Wendell Berry in support of the Benedict Option. Berry has insinuated that opponents of gay marriage are “perverts,” rejects the idea of placing legal restrictions on abortion (including even during the third trimester,) and consistently expresses distaste for formal hierarchy, authority, and rules. I am not saying that Berry's work is without its insights; I am saying that it is dark comedy for Dreher to solemnly invoke a man who dislikes orthodoxy at the conclusion of a 10-step, how-to guide for preserving it.

Prudence, moderation, and civility are of course indispensable, but at times it seems as if Edmund Burke’s emphasis upon them has led Dreher and other would-be Burkean conservatives to mistake him for an advocate of peace-at-any price with respect to the left. In reality, Burke was one of the first Englishmen to call for war with revolutionary France, and his remarks about the Jacobin revolutionaries are anything but conciliatory:

It is a dreadful truth, but it is a truth that cannot be concealed: in ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views, the Jacobins are our superiors. They saw the thing right from the very beginning. Whatever were the first motives to the war among politicians, they saw that in its spirit, and for its objects, it was a civil war; and as such they pursued it. It is a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all.

For decades, the strategy of the conservative establishment—Christian wing included—has been to broadcast at every opportunity the message that we pose no fundamental threat to the liberal democratic status quo. The hope, I suppose, was that by emphasizing how harmless we are, we might be graciously permitted to keep our seat at the liberal table. Now the hope seems to be that we might simply be left alone in an ever-dwindling little corner. Dreher's program represents less of a departure from business-as-usual than either his critics or supporters think.

Related on CWR:
• Christian Politics Is the Benedict Option Now (May 9, 2017) by James Matthew Wilson
• Reading Rod Dreher's Benedict Option with MacIntyre and Schmemann (May 5, 2017) by Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 

 
About the Author
Jerry Salyer 

Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor living in Franklin County, Kentucky.
 
Write a comment

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

View all Comments

Catholic World Report