I enjoyed very much this conversation with Mark Movsesian about the Benedict Option and Tradition. Excerpts:
Movsesian: I wonder if we could talk about tradition, which runs like a red thread through your book. You argue that it’s necessary for Christians to return to tradition in order to resist “liquid modernity,” which denies the value of all attachments and identities except those individuals freely choose for themselves. In liquid modernity, the only thing that has meaning is momentary individual choice. This is quite destabilizing for individuals and for society; that’s where tradition can be helpful.
As co-director of the Tradition Project, I have sympathy for your view! But I think there’s a paradox about tradition in a pluralist society like ours. In such a society, tradition is itself a matter of individual choice; there’s no avoiding it. Tradition is just one available option among many for an individual to choose; in the end, each of us is free to choose tradition or to reject it; to choose it and then reject it; or to choose some aspects of it and not others. This is true even of people brought up in a tradition—like the kids attending classical Christian schools today. What do you make of this paradox?
Dreher: There’s no escaping it. I am quite aware of the near-absurdity of my own personal case: a 50-year-old man raised a nominal Methodist, a convert to Catholicism in my mid-20s, converting to Orthodox Christianity at 39, and having moved around the country a great deal for my career, writing a book in praise of tradition. Yet … what else is there? Charles Taylor says that we all live in a secular age, which he defines as the awareness of the possibility that we don’t have to live the way that we do. We cannot escape choice.
This is why our St. Benedict, if we are to have one, must be new and very different, as MacIntyre said. The first Benedict emerged in a West that was still new to Christianity. Now we have been through the Christian era, and can’t un-see what we have seen. And the consciousness of an ordinary person living in the 21st century can hardly be compared to the way a 6th century layman saw the world conceptually and imaginatively. This point hardly needs elaboration, but it conditions any approach to tradition we make today.
To bring this discussion down to earth, I think a lot these days about my late father and sister, who were in most respects traditionalists without knowing what they were doing. That is, they assumed that the rural way of life they had in south Louisiana was going to continue forever. They were quite intelligent, but they strongly rejected as alien anything that challenged their way of seeing the world. That meant rejecting me, and the things that I loved and stood for, though I didn’t realize how thorough this rejection was until I returned to south Louisiana after my sister’s 2011 death. My dad died in 2015. The family has not held together, for various reasons – and this was something I never expected. I deeply admired the unselfconscious traditionalism that my dad and sister represented. They didn’t theorize this stuff; they lived it. But I can see in retrospect that they believed that force of their iron wills was sufficient to ward off all threats to the things they valued most, especially family and place. It was a tragic mistake. Their rigidity, by which I mean their unwillingness to adapt and to change certain things that needed to be changed for the sake of holding on to the things that really mattered the most – that was the fundamental flaw that doomed the entire thing. They thought that stoically preserving their fortress-like outer walls would keep the interior safe. They were wrong.
It’s heartbreaking and tragic in the fullest sense of the word, and a very Southern tragedy too. But I try to learn from what happened. I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to learn from what happened. Right now, I think the most basic lesson is the need for discernment in our approach to tradition. There is no substitute for it. We have to know what we have to change so we can conserve what is essential. This is hard.
On the more optimistic side, though, I believe that we are starting to see more and more people realizing that the future is not determined. Yes, I think we have to be aware of all that is against us in post-Christian modernity, but we also have to be aware that God can surprise us – and we can surprise ourselves. I mean, look, Napoleon closed the monastery in Norcia, St. Benedict’s hometown, after at least eight centuries of constant presence there. For nearly 200 years, there were no monks. And then, at the turn of the millennium, a handful of American Benedictines who wanted to live in the old Benedictine way re-opened it. Now they have a thriving community of 16 monks. The average age is 33. Who could have expected that?
In The Benedict Option, I quote one of those monks, Father Martin Bernhard, who left the Texas Hill Country to follow his calling to Norcia. When I visited him there in early 2016, I told him that they are a sign of contradiction to the modern world. He smiled, and said that anybody could do something out of the ordinary if they are willing “to pick up what we have lost and to make it real again.”
The monk told me, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.”
God knows it will not be easy to revive traditional Christian life and practices. But again: what else is there?
Next month, I’m going to Italy for an international conference co-sponsored by Mark and the Tradition Project at the Center for Law & Religion at St. John’s law school. There are some exciting things happening on this front. Watch this space.