Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 1 (The Great Flood)

Or: Deus Vult! The Barbarians Have Sundered the Gates and Only God Can Intercede!

Usually, the jokey fake alternate chapter titles are exaggerations. True, Dreher is a self-important prick who thinks that all those filthy secular liberals are out to get him, but he wouldn't call them "barbarians." That would be absurd, which doesn't mean he won't do it.

"Attila has come to ravage Constantinople, codify trans-inclusive policies and promote therapeutic cloning."

As to the actual title: "The Great Flood" is not in reference to the Deluge as you may have assumed - Dreher isn't that kind of theocon - but rather to the August 2016 flood in Baton Rouge. Is this relevant to anything? Well...

The Great Flood was a thousand-year weather event, and nobody in recorded history had ever seen this land underwater...

...We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood...

...Not really.

This does, however, bring us to one important way in which Dreher differs from most of the religious conservatives you may have dealt with at family reunions over the years. Typically, these guys assume that cultural changes they don't like are the result of some cabal manipulating the nation for an unsavory purpose. Dreher, by contrast, acknowledges that these cultural shifts are more or less natural...but that only seems to scare him more. While he explicitly marks Obergefell as the death knell, it's clear that he believes that this was brewing for decades if not centuries. There's no Real, True America in his worldview, only an ever-growing wave of "Hostile secular nihilism." Yes, he is that dramatic and yes, he is that mortified.

But what about Dreher's "orthodox Christians"? He uses this term a lot, but it doesn't refer to the Orthodox Church of which he claimed membership at one point. Rather, it refers to Real, True Christians, and Dreher believes this group is on the verge of annihilation. Per Dreher, most of the youngs are subscribing to a belief known as moralistic therapeutic deism, consisting of the following beliefs:
  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.
To you, that may sound rather squishy but not at all offensive. To Dreher, it's proof of the pending death of orthodox Christianity, the denial of "repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart." As adults, they embrace consumerism and seek to selfishly enjoy life. Yes, this argument was made by a guy who opened Crunchy Cons with encomiums to his regular wine and cheese parties. No, I'm not going to point that out every single time he rambles on about materialism.

Of course, fake Christians are only half of the problem. The other half are those filthy seculars who have already ruined society beyond repair:
...[D]espite our wealth and technological sophistication, we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it. Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes - they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones.
I wasn't kidding about that barbarian crack - per Dreher, there's no substantive difference between the Visigoths who ruled Italy in Saint Benedict's day and any of you reading this. You're all uncivilized swine, and why not? After all, each of you has helped achieve a barbaric society, which Dreher (with an assist from Alasdair MacIntyre) defines as one that's done the following:
  • abandoning objective moral standards;
  • refusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen;
  • repudiating memory of the past as irrelevant; and
  • distancing oneself from community as well as any unchosen social obligations.
This is, of course, a crock of shit, but it is a crock of shit that's worth more extensive commentary. In this regard, Dreher is much more like his less sophisticated theocon brethren, assuming that a moral code not based on tradition or revealed knowledge is no moral code at all. The particular code he condemns in this chapter is something like humanism, although the idea is older than the term. Humanist codes are based on philosophy rather than tradition, which leads theocons to castigate it as based on nothing - arbitrary. Many of you no doubt have a different take on this, viewing blind adherence to tradition as the arbitrary, but let's set that aside for the moment.

Does Dreher's definition capture American/Western society? Not at all, says I. Of course our society has objective moral standards - for all the talk among theocons about "moral relativism," the idea that Americans generally or liberals/seculars/whatever don't believe in right or wrong is transparent nonsense. We have a robust set of standards derived from philosophical constructs like egalitarianism, rationalism and pluralism, and ultimately based in simple concepts like agency, dignity and consent. Dreher might not agree with those principals and I can't say that we've always done a great job of upholding them, but they exist. If they didn't exist, conservatives wouldn't whine about them so much.

What about the rest? A lot of our modern philosophy is based on avoiding the mistakes of the past (again, conservatives love to complain about this), so the third point is off. And I can think of plenty of communal obligations - protecting the vulnerable, supporting those who suffer, pointing out injustice - though again, Dreher likely wouldn't acknowledge these as proper obligations.

And there's the heart of it right there, Dreher's real problem. I suspect that his real beef is that our culture doesn't have a strong traditional hierarchy to keep everyone in line. The telling bit is in the second point - we're allowed to choose our culture, opt to step away from prevailing beliefs. We have no Popes or Patriarchs to wed us unwillingly to a given philosophy, no formal system of shunning to keep the heretics silent. It isn't that the barbarians have invaded the churches and murdered the priests, it's that the new crop of priests are unacceptably heterodox. In sum, Dreher longs for a homogeneity of culture and identity that is well behind us, and in this regard he is right - his time has passed. He's just electing to view that passage as a decay of virtue rather than the consequences of an increasingly diverse society.

Next time, we'll explore Dreher's concept of history and his views on how the barbarians won.


  1. Very nice work. Thank you.
    It's important to call out silly people like Dreher (or in another context the likes of David Brooks).
    These people posture as highly principled "conservatives" (whatever the hell that even means anymore) but I smell "reactionaries". Mark Lilla does a nice job of flensing these jackasses in his The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. And there is ALWAYS with them and their arguments this undercurrent of authoritarianism (cause you may need a little muscle to get people to do the right thing).

    The real enemy, of course, has always been not communism, homosexuals, uppity feminists or any of the rest of it but The Enlightenment which must be rolled back.
    "Tradition and authority today! Tradition and authority tomorrow! Tradition and authority forever!"

    1. Just wait until we get into the next chapter. Dreher does indeed have a beef with the Enlightenment but it's so much broader than that.

    2. Yes, authoritarianism seems to be his real guiding light. He's upset that he's not in charge as is his (and a few other white males) due.

  2. hellslittlestangelJuly 21, 2017 at 3:26 PM

    [R]efusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen.

    In which chapter does he explain how he acquired his binding narrative without having chosen it? Was it injected into him like a vaccination at one of the several churches he has belonged to?

  3. Does Dreher know what religion the Visigoths were practicing at the time they took over Italy? Christian, but not "orthodox" in the most direct way: they were Arian heretics who denied the co-eternity of God the Son with God the Father and believers in all kinds of looseness following from this obnoxious humanization of Christ, ancestors of the Unitarians, as close to "therapeutic deism" as you could easily get in the fifth century. Then at some point in the sixth century (as a result of Benedict's work?) they turned to Nicene orthodoxy. Does Dreher understand his all in a more literal way than I would have imagined?