Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Benedict Option: Chapter 2 (The Roots of the Crisis)

Or: Zounds! The Founders Have Joined With the Barbarians to Bring Us Wrack and Ruin!

So I'm obviously not in the target market for any of the books I've featured here, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I never would have read any of them. I've been tricked - or tricked myself - into reading quite a bit of crap over the years, and I could easily picture scenarios in which I could have picked up any of these things. I could see 13-year old me browsing through the social sciences section and gravitating toward something like The Road to Character or The Upside of Down, not really knowing anything about them. I could imagine myself being conned into reading The Mandibles by an arty friend or teacher. Hell, in some alternate universe in which I'd never heard of Glenn Beck, I might have even read Agenda 21 of my own accord.

The Benedict Option is a different beast, though. I find it hard to imagine any set of circumstances in which I would have cracked this thing were it not to put it on display here. That's mostly because, on just about every page, Dreher says something to remind me that I was never meant to read this. Example: Chapter 2 features an extensive list of everything that led us to this grim dystopia of prosperity and health. The culprits? The Renaissance, scientific inquiry, democracy, capitalism, industrialization, free religion and the United States Constitution.

This is, in short, Dreher's desire to literally go medieval.

The devilry that those fiendish Deists wrought upon our souls.

Dreher's brief history of the death of Christendom begins in the 14th century. That's right - Rod has to go back seven hundred years to find a time before the One True Faith was compromised. Per Dreher, this was an idyllic time in which people "experienced the divine as far more present in their daily lives," who "took all things that sacramental."

Much of this comes from philosopher Charles Taylor, specifically the book A Secular Age. Like David Brooks, Dreher dearly wants you to know that he has read some books. And, like Brooks, it's hard to say how much of this is original thoughts. Well, I, too, have read some books. One such book, The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, presents rather a different picture of this utopia, one in which a peasant might spend his free time by watching a criminal get tortured in public or watching a helpless animal get ripped to shreds (but only in a "sacramental" way) before ending his day by getting into a knife fight with a neighbor over some petty dispute. Indeed, it wasn't until the end of this idyll that the rate of homicide in Europe went into long-term decline, possibly due to some of the very factors Dreher decries.

None of this matters, though. Whereas many theocons approach religion in an oddly utilitarian manner - offering it as a solution to a suite of real or imagined social ills - Dreher is much more philosophical. He seems to believe that a uniform, homogenous religion is not only a good in and of itself, but is the highest good there is. Dreher acknowledges that life is far better now than it was seven hundred years ago, but that doesn't matter. He seems to be willing to put up with a lot in the name of homogeneity, including institutional corruption, tyranny, warfare, and a disease-ridden life that ends at 35.

The remainder of the chapter is an impressive list of everything and everyone - from Martin Luther to Sigmund Freud, from natural philosophy to slut pills - that ruined this idyll. Apart from the amazing scope (other than the priggishness of Victorian England, apparently nothing good has happened in the past thirty generations), it's actually pretty boring. Fortunately, Dreher included, at the end of his little book report, a synopsis and timeline of all the things that doomed society. It goes thusly:
  • It all started when that heretic William of Ockham argued that the true nature of God couldn't be derived through observation of nature because such a material analysis implies limitation. Can you believe we survived this long after that blow?
  • Then came the "Renaissance", a filthy lie of a term that implies that the flourishing of philosophy and arts in Italy was a good thing. Suddenly there were all these humanists running around who believed in things like dignity and freedom, which means they weren't thinking so much about what despicable sinners they all were.
  • And just as society reeled from that blow, along came all these rabble-rousing reformers who had the audacity to disagree with the Pope and even argue that the Roman Catholic Church was misusing its power. Look, we can all agree that the RCC was somewhat corrupt, but couldn't we have dealt with a little theocratic extortion if it meant keeping the family together?
  • That's when things got really bad, because all of a sudden people were talking about "science." At this point, nature stopped being sacramental and instead became "something to be understood and manipulated by the will of humankind for its own sake," something that had never been done unless you count that insignificant little development known as the "Agricultural Revolution." Really though, other than a doubled life span, air conditioning, high-speed air travel and an end to yearly plagues, what has science ever done for us?
  • Also there was that bastard Descartes and his unholy spawn that the filthy seculars insisting on calling the "Enlightenment." There's nothing "enlightened" about treating people as fundamentally equal, you know, and there was nothing funny about how those "enlightened" thinkers convinced the Founding Fathers that representative rule was a good idea. That only works when everyone thinks the same as me and there's an authority figure to slap you on the wrist when you vote wrong.
  • Then it got downright calamitous, because there were factories, and that led to cities, and that led to people not living in isolated villages where they could be easily controlled. They even began to expect to have "money" so they could buy "things" that they "need."
  • So people got alienated, but did they turn to God? No! They turned to that bastard Alexis de Tocqueville and, who had all these crazy ideas about the rights of the ruled. Suddenly, it wasn't just the Americans and the French who wanted "freedom," it was everyone. Fortunately, the Victorians stopped that nonsense in its tracks, at least for a while.
  • Then there were two huge wars, which was awful because they convinced people that there was something wrong with society. Also a lot of people died, but I think we all know what the real consequence was.
  • That consequence, of course, being that bastard Sigmund Freud. He makes me so angry I can't even think of anything he specifically said or wrote to criticize!
  • This, of course, brings us to today, an era of slut pills, womb baby murder, gay marriage, atheists who don't hide their faces in shame, transgender people who must be sinners because they make me uncomfortable, and Christians who don't hector and condemn even a fraction as much as they should.

This is an extensive list of criticisms against this modern, nightmarish world of choice. That's the watchword, the real problem. Seven hundred years ago, there was no choice - you did as you were told or else you ended up flogged, exiled or broken on the wheel. Bit by bit, this changed as the Western world acquired the political and economic means to exercise choice as well as the knowledge to recognize that those choices existed. Before the Reformation, you had to be a Catholic. Before the Enlightenment, you had to obey your rulers. Before the Industrial Revolution, you had to stay in your village do what your parents did. Before the 21st century, you had to be a heterosexual. And before the spread of information brought about by technologies such as the printing press and digital computers - also mentioned by Dreher as contributing factors - you might not have even known that there was an alternative. You did what others told you to do and you were whomever others said you were, whether you were happy or miserable about it.

Dreher doesn't like the fact that people around him have the freedom not to believe in God, or to believe in a different god, or even to worship his God in a manner different from him. What he longs for in this book is enforced homogeny.

In the next chapter, we'll take a look at Dreher's ideal homogenous society and ask ourselves: "If this place exists and it's everything Dreher wants, why isn't he living there?"


  1. Hmmmm. Assuming one's need to believe in A God, The God, Our God, Gods, The Family of Gods (all of which have been tried), isn't it possible that He/She/They created everything as a puzzle for man to figure out (you now, philosophy, reason, science and that stuff) in order to redeem himself?
    And if that is the case that would mean that Dreher and his ilk, in rejecting His/Her/Their Divine Puzzle, are the True Heretics! To the stake with them! Light the bonfire!

    1. Going by the book, Dreher is fine with exactly one branch of philosophy - medieval realism. Other philosophies, including other God-centered ones (I wasn't kidding about how pissed he is at Descartes), are hazardous. We knew everything we needed to know in the 10th century, and then Occam's razor struck a fatal blow.

  2. In this chapter it really just sounds like Dreher is going through that phase I did when I was twelve and discovered King Arthur and Tolkien and spent boy scout hiking trips pretending I was taking the one ring to Mordor or looking for the Grail. Sounds like his Benedict option boils down to joining a Ren fair.

  3. "experienced the divine as far more present in their daily lives," who "took all things that sacramental."
    This sounds like pagan nature worship to me.

  4. It amazes me that Dreher's life was one long plea to be accepted and understood despite the fact that he didn't fit into social norms, and now he's doing his best to recreate those repressive circumstances with himself as the judge and jury.

    1. I have had the exact same thought about Rod, fellow genius. If he becomes the funhouse mirror image of the daddy that never accepted him, maybe he'll love him back.

    2. It is amazing. He's a real treasure.

      I know there's a school of thought out there that he's repressing so much, he must be gay. I think especially since I identify as a gay man, I'm always a little wary of that notion that the biggest homophobes are all gay. I grew up Catholic and that is one big repression factory. It might not even be something as dramatic as being gay that's spun him off like this. I've met plenty of Catholics spun out on less.

  5. If Dreher thinks choice is evil and submission is the highest good, he should check out the religion named after it.