Catastrophism And The Blogger
My friend Alan Jacobs, the professor of literature and author of many books, has written a little piece about me and my work on his blog. Several readers have asked me to respond, so I will. First, some quotes from Alan’s piece:
My buddy Rod Dreher has a book coming out soon called Live Not By Lies, and it’s about what American Christians can learn about living under an oppressive regime by studying what believers did under the old Soviet Union. I think this is a story that Christians ought to be interested in, whether they agree with Rod’s politics or not. Every thoughtful Christian I know thinks that the cause of Christ has powerful cultural and political enemies, that we are in various ways discouraged or impeded in our discipleship by forces external to the Church. Where we differ is in our assessment of what the chief opposing forces are.
Rod is primarily worried about the rise of a “soft totalitarianism” of the left, what James Poulos calls a “pink police state.” Other Christians I know are equally worried, but about the dangers to Christian life of white supremacy, or the international neoliberal order. For me the chief concern (I have many) is what I call “metaphysical capitalism.” But we all agree that the Church of Jesus Christ is under a kind of ongoing assault, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, sometimes blunt and sometimes subtle, and that living faithfully under such circumstances is a constant challenge. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from people who faced even greater challenges than we do and who managed to sustain their faith through that experience? Isn’t that valuable to all of us?
Alan says that for him The Benedict Optionwas that kind of book. You don’t have to agree with everything in it to profit from being compelled to think hard about the way Christians ought to be living in the here and now, in ways that strengthen our faith, which is under profound stresses. More:
Often when I make this argument people acknowledge the force of it but tell me that Rod is the “wrong messenger.” I understand what they mean. Rod is excitable, and temperamentally a catastrophist, as opposed to a declinist. (That’s Ross Douthat’s distinction.) Like the prophet of Richard Wilbur’s poem, he’s gotten himself “Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,” and I often think that if he writes the phrase “Wake up, people!” one more time I’m gonna drive to Baton Rouge and slap him upside the head.
Hey, I resemble that remark! I told Alan this morning, after I had read his bit, that there’s always been a part of me that is a catastrophist, and that that aspect of my character was solidified and electrified (the word is not too strong) by my writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal.
Part of it was seeing how people like Father Tom Doyle, and other activists, had begged the Catholic bishops to take it seriously, for years, but were ignored. When you bury yourself in the history of this thing, it really defies comprehension, the self-destructive blindness of the bishops and others in authority in the Church. Even if they had no moral sense at all, they should at least have had the sense to understand that if this thing ever became publish, it would destroy the Catholic Church’s authority. But they didn’t. The catastrophe of the scandal, from which the US Catholic Church might never recover, at least not in my lifetime, is something that could have been avoided had people listened, and acted.
Part of it too was seeing how my own writing about the scandal was dismissed by many as alarmist and shrill. It was alarmist, and at times shrill. But the facts merited alarm! The more defensive my fellow Catholics became at the time (early 2000s), the more alarmed I got. I could see bad men like Ted McCarrick lying about themselves and the situation, and so many ordinary, decent Catholics buying into the lie, because the truth was too painful to accept. As my regular readers know, all this broke me spiritually.
Something most people don’t know is that after I moved back to my Louisiana hometown, I became aware of a serious problem within my own family. It didn’t involve sexual abuse or anything criminal, but it did involve a trusted person lying to take advantage of vulnerable people. I tried to raise the alarm, but was bitterly denounced by others in the family as a cynic. What I was trying to tell them did not fit the narrative they preferred. Well, everything happened exactly like I warned it would, and it caused irreparable damage.
Point is, I come by my catastrophism in part through shattering experiences. Nevertheless, if a prophet is a shrieker, it makes it less likely that some will hear him. I get that. That said, it’s so, so difficult to watch people on the party barge headed for the falls, and not hearing the warnings from the screamers on shore that they had better turn around, or they’ll crash. In the past week, in large part through the Tarkovsky movie Nostalghia, I have had a startling warning in my own spiritual life that I had better sever myself from certain worldly attachments so I can better see what is right in front of me. I think about my poor father, and how his nostalgia for an Arcadia that never existed kept him from living in the real world, and dealing with problems right in front of him (and from accepting the graces offered him too). All of us can be like that. I’m no different from anybody else.
I think of myself as primarily (but not exclusively) speaking to Christians who consider themselves to be theologically conservative. I can see the particular form that blinding nostalgia takes for us. Just today I was talking to a Catholic teacher friend, a conservative, who said that he deals with students’ parents who are rooted in 1990s John Paul II Catholicism, and who believe that the spiritual and moral battles their kids face can be comprehended through a paradigm that has become outdated by the radical shifts within American culture. These are not bad people at all, but their passion for a past era has rendered them blind and deaf to the crises facing them and their families. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing that drives my alarmism on these matters.
Alan says that what alarms me has more to do with threats I perceive coming from the Left than from the Right, and that’s why some left-minded Christians dismiss me. He goes on:
But, you know, Jonah was definitely the wrong messenger for Ninevah — he even thought so himself — and yet the Ninevites would’ve done well to pay attention to him.
And if you think Rod has a potentially useful message but is the wrong conveyer of it, then get off your ass and become the messenger you want to see in the world. Lord knows we need more Christians, not fewer, paying attention to the challenges of deep Christian formation. Wake up, people!
It’s a fair comment. I have never said that the Benedict Option is the answer. How would I know? It’s not a set of doctrines, or a crisp, clear formula, but rather a state of mind within which I believe people within the churches can work their way toward more grounded, effective modes of living, and of discipleship. It’s the best answer I can come up with right now. I have always said, and will repeat here again, that if you don’t like the Benedict Option, that’s fine — so what do you think we should do?
What we are doing is not working. You’d have to be blinded by ideology not to see that. I’ve received a lot of criticism from partisans of Pope Francis within the Catholic Church — chiefly the Vatican Jesuit Antonio Spadaro — who claim that the Ben Op is in opposition to Francis’s work. This, even though I don’t mention Francis in the book. It’s not an unfair accusation, though, insofar as Francis’s general thrust is a revival of 1970s-style social justice Catholicism. True, I don’t see how any faithful Christian can deny that believers have a responsibility to take the Gospel to the poor, to suffer with them, and to help them. My general objection to the Francis style of ministry is that it devalues orthodoxy, and seems to make a worldview on empathy alone.
You cannot bring to the world what you do not have. All you have to do is look at the studies and see that massive numbers of young people are falling away from the faith, and those who remain often have only the slightest idea what Christianity means, and why they should care. My challenge to progressive-minded Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) is: what are you passing on to the young? Is there any evidence that the young believe more strongly, or at all? Two years ago, I wrote a post about the falling-away of youth from Christianity, based on social science findings.
Religious conservatives haven’t figured out how to transmit the faith to our kids either — but progressive Christianity is the last stage before leaving Christianity altogether. It’s a massive crisis that all factions within the churches have to deal with — and are doing their best to avoid. I get letters from young people (= 35 and under) raised in #MAGA Evangelicalism, who are struggling to find a way forward in their faith, because they see the churches in which they were raised having been corrupted by mere conformity to white middle-class political conservative standards. I also get e-mails from young people who are sick and tired of the empty progressivism of their churches, and are seeking something deeper and stronger. Just last week a reader who is parent to small children e-mailed to say that they and their spouse have broken with the megachurch Evangelicalism within which they have been worshipping almost all their lives, and are going to an Orthodox parish in their city.
In both of these kinds of cases, the young people are yearning for something more, something they are sure must be there. One of the most important new book out there now is Strange Rites, by Tara Isabella Burton. It’s a book of reporting about how American religion is changing in pretty radical ways, fitting our tumultous time. She writes about how institutional religion is mostly collapsing among young adults, but they are not becoming atheists. Rather, they are “remixed” — collecting this and that and cobbling together a bricolage of spirituality that suits their desires. TIB writes:
This apparent contradiction — what does it mean to be “spiritual but not religious” and yet identify with a given religion at the same time? — points to a much wider and more serious problem, which is how difficult it is to define what a religion actually is. Is it about identity — the box we check on a form, or the way we describe our cultural heritage? Is it about community — the family and friends we gather with at regular festivals? Is it about rituals and practices — attending weekly services at church or synagogue, or fasting during Ramadan? Or is it about belief — what people actually think (and feel) about the metaphysics of the world around them, and the transcendent beyond? One of the biggest difficulties that we’ll return to, again and again, in numbering America’s religiously Remixed is that it’s not so easy to pin down what we’re remixing.
I’ll write about her really interesting book later. The point I want to make here is that if you care about religious orthodoxy — and to not care about religious orthodoxy is not to be serious about what religion is — the nostalgia you have for the world you wish were still here might well make you powerless to contend with the world as it is, and the world into which your children will go. A Catholic friend told me today that the crises this year have been an apocalypse for us, revealing the “thinness” of our lives, our institutions, and especially our Christianity.
This is what I’ve been shouting about for a while. At the risk of drawing down the slap of Alan Jacobs, I say therefore unto ye again: “Wake up!”
One thing about Live Not By Lies, the manuscript of which is in the hands of reviewers, in advance of its September 29 publication. One of those advance readers told me today that the book might suffer because it doesn’t tell people that they can escape what’s coming. It tells them flat out that none of us can escape it, but we can live through it faithfully as Christians, if we take seriously the testimonies and the advice of Christians who lived through worse in the twentieth century. The reader is correct in that I don’t offer a ten-point plan for avoiding soft totalitarianism, though there is information in the book that, if acted on, might blunt its effects. (I mean, if people read the book and recognize things emerging now as totalitarian, they may be moved to fight them). Mostly, though, it’s a book about what to do when all looks lost, but you are not willing to surrender. Christians have been there, within living memory, and they know what to do.
Ah, since I started writing this post, I received from my publisher this comment on my book by one of the advance readers, Prof. Daniel Mahoney, one of the foremost Solzhenitsyn scholars in America:
“As a new cultural revolution aims to institutionalize a tyranny of ideological clichés, Dreher renews Solzhenitsyn’s great call to ‘live not by lies.’ I cannot imagine a more timely and urgent book, or one with a more enduring spiritual, political, and cultural message.”—Daniel J. Mahoney, Augustine Chair of Distinguished Scholarship, Assumption University, co-editor of The Solzhenitsyn Reader
I’m so grateful for these kind words. If anything in my book inspires readers to turn to Solzhenitsyn, and the other literature of anti-communist dissent, as well as testimonies by Christians who carried the cross through the persecution, it will have done its job. I strongly recommend Prof. Mahoney’s recent book of cultural criticism, The Idol Of Our Age.
UPDATE: Several readers have e-mailed privately to ask what I mean by saying this:
Just today I was talking to a Catholic teacher friend, a conservative, who said that he deals with students’ parents who are rooted in 1990s John Paul II Catholicism, and who believe that the spiritual and moral battles their kids face can be comprehended through a paradigm that has become outdated by the radical shifts within American culture.
It’s not a criticism of John Paul. It’s about how much and how fast the culture has changed. Read this fantastic 2015 essay by Michael Hanby, on how Christianity has ceased to have salience in contemporary America. Here, from the beginning of the essay, is the core reason why:
What availed as the common wisdom of mankind until the day before yesterday—for example, that man, woman, mother, and father name natural realities as well as social roles, that children issue naturally from their union, that the marital union of man and woman is the foundation of human society and provides the optimal home for the flourishing of children—all this is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency.
America is a decisively post-Christian country, and culture. During JP2’s heyday, this wasn’t so clear. Now it is. When I talk about “John Paul Catholicism” in this particular context I’m talking about the mindset of conservative American Catholics of a certain generation (my generation) who don’t really grasp how radically different things are. At the very meeting at First Things where Hanby presented the paper (I was in the room), there was a fascinating exchange between older Catholic intellectuals (George Weigel and his generation) and younger Catholic professors in the room. The conversation was about politics and Christianity; younger Catholic profs, from Catholic universities, were telling the older ones that their students really are blank slates. They have come out of parishes where they were taught nothing serious about the faith and its traditions, and out of families where this wasn’t done either. How, said these younger professors, are we supposed to get them to reason about the intersection between faith and public life when they cannot even reason as Catholics?
That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. I’m sure that Christians from other traditions are just about as blind about the youth and the world that formed them.
UPDATE: A reader responds to a comment by the ever-liberal Engineer Scotty, of the Pacific Northwest:
Rod is obviously more than capable of speaking for himself, but as a fellow Christian catastrophist I can perhaps fill you in on what, exactly, folks like me worry about. I understand you live in the Pacific Northwest, as do I. I understand your worldview very well, in fact, I was on your ‘side’ until about a decade ago. Here is where the rubber meets the road: when you open your mouth and speak your opinions at work you need not fear any retribution and will most likely be surrounded by nothing but approving nods. People espousing my views would almost certainly be fired. There is no local news source that reflects my worldview or my opinions except maybe one AM radio station. The local public schools, should it be my grandson’s misfortune to attend one, will teach him that he is evil and the world’s problems are his fault, along with “facts” about his “gender” and human sexuality that are, I believe, antithetical to objective reality.
I already live under the soft totalitarianism Rod writes about. I am guarded when I meet people, and I never speak freely unless surrounded only by those I trust implicitly, lest I be outed. If my grandson is to be an orthodox Christian many careers will be largely closed to him: medicine, law, academia, journalism, the arts, public service, etc., etc. Perhaps he could be an accountant if he wants a white collar job, or maybe a computer programmer if he keeps his mouth shut at work. Otherwise he will have to work at a trade, which is fine by me but sort of puts the lie to the whole “freedom of opportunity” shtick. There is only one socially acceptable viewpoint where I live and the minority who disagree mostly just keep their heads down and their mouths shut in public. Those few brave enough to stand by their principles find the full authority of the state brought to bear against them, and their lives ruined. Just ask that pharmacist who didn’t want to dispense “Plan B” or that florist in the Tri-Cities who didn’t want to do the gay wedding. Honestly, do you think our situation is likely to improve under President Biden?
Will Biden send me and my fellow Christians to the gulags? Of course not. Why would he have to? We are constantly informed in thousands of ways that we are “other” and as such not wanted and not protected. We know that if we want to work, and therefore eat, we must keep silent. And for the most part we do, we have no choice. And no, I didn’t vote for Trump. Trump is an idiot, though I can see why he would appeal to certain segments of society. People who are constantly belittled and discounted and called names by their betters in Blue states like mine. Trump’s election was a giant eff you to the elites but it was for naught, and likely did more harm than good because the elites now hate on Trump voters with a white hot fury instead of just ignoring, ridiculing or disdaining them. They will get no clemency now.
I think you vastly overestimate the tolerance of your fellow travelers.