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Augustine Vs. Rousseau

Whose life was better? When a college prof asked his students, something disturbing happened

I received the following e-mail from a professor who accompanied a group of his students to my Benedict Option lecture at Notre Dame on Thursday night. I’ve slightly altered it to protect privacy, but publish it with his permission:

One of my students runs on the cross-country team. After the talk, she says: “Mr. Dreher talked about preparing for a race and what kind of training is required. And it’s true. obviously. When we train there are all kinds of things we have to add to our regimen: stretching, weight-lifting, and so forth. But there are also things that we have to subtract: sweets, drinking, and other things. When you’re training, what you take away is just as important as what you add, but when you talk to Christians it’s all about what their faith adds to their lives and never about what it takes away. And the thing with college students, and the reason why they’re Moralistic Therapeutic Deists is not just because they haven’t been trained properly in certain practices, it’s because there are too many things they don’t want to give up, especially sex and drinking, but also their desire for material success. And so they think about God in a way that allows them to do things they want to do but not be held morally responsible for them, nor be required to take things out of their lives. In my Bible study I am constantly arguing with them about their claim that God wants us to be happy. ‘Where are you getting that from? That’s not in the Bible. God wants us to be holy, not happy.’ But you can’t get anywhere with that argument.”

This led to a long discussion about the nature of the Christian life, about Saint Augustine, and about how the Benedict Option was fundamentally a call to the church to renewal and holiness. They were engaged, thoughtful, and deeply self-reflective. I told them the story of how last year I was teaching a senior seminar class, which I organized around the theme of “Confession” and had the students read Saint Augustine and Rousseau side by side. “We confess with Augustine, but we live like Rousseau” I said, “for it is Rousseau’s moral universe we largely inhabit.” My contention was that the exercise would be clarifying for the students, help them understand the demands of the Christian life, and move them toward a more coherent understanding of the faith.

I was stunned by what happened. Over the course of the semester, as Saint Augustine in his book is healed — made more integrated and whole — and Rousseau in his book becomes more fragmented and dissolute, about half the students turned against Augustine (“too extreme”) and became more sympathetic to Rousseau. As it played out in class discussions the discussions concerning a dissolute and “disordered” life became more acute and generated more conflict (and, as you might imagine, much of the debate was driven by sex-related issues).

But here’s what happened: the “Rousseauists” became very aggressive and accusatory in their arguments, and the students who both understood what was at stake and how Saint Augustine was the proper guide started becoming timid and apologetic. The Rousseau-favoring students began to accuse the Augustine students of being “not nice” and “judgmental” and “intolerant”; and the Augustine students had internalized enough of this ethos to assume their own guilt and abase themselves. I began to comment on this in class: what has happened, I argued, when at a Christian college those students who defend the faith in its fulness are cowed, while those who want to gut the faith of its demands and disciplines feel absolutely empowered? How have we gotten to this point, and what does it suggest about us if we allow it to continue?

In our conversation last night some of the students expressed some confusion as to what the Benedict Option actually entailed. I said:

1) the culture is increasingly anti-Christian;

2) It’s not going to leave Christians alone;

3) Christians have accommodated too much to the culture, and don’t have the resources to defend themselves;

4) Much of it will get swept away, but that which will be left is purified.

That, I think, is in part what was going on in that senior seminar. Rather than standing up for the faith, these students (who are very likable) were so busy trying to fit into the predominant ethos that they “went along” as far as they could, and then apologized for not going farther. “What will enable us to remain standing while these winds blow?”

The 12 students I took along last night were deeply shaken by these questions, and very moved. They acknowledged this was not simply a matter of “belief” but of “faithful Christian living.” They are, every one of them, very eager to read your book.

That’s a real value of your book. It’s in part good fuel for those who already feel deeply concerned about the culture, but more so it’s a gathering of the disordered parts of young people who have been fragmented by this culture. The contemporary college is a floating complex of disconnected parts: there is nothing either anchoring them nor holding them together. Some of them are very aware of this. They see the revolving door on our counseling centers and the regime of medication that attempt to provide some ballast, and they intuit that these things deal with symptoms but not the disease itself. They want to be cured. I can see this among so many of my students. As Plato said: first diagnose the disease and then find the proper cure, but the most difficult thing is to get the patient to take the cure. Their prayer is often that of Augustine: “Lord make me chaste, only not yet.”

You need to know that the work you are doing matters on college campuses, and that it is resonating with (some of) these young people. If you had sat in our conversations last night, you’d be feeling more hopeful today.

I didn’t sit in on those post-speech conversations, but I did read this letter, and I am more hopeful. Thank you, Professor — and thank you, students.