Home/Rod Dreher/Cosmos & Chickadee

Cosmos & Chickadee


One of the Live Not By Lies themes I keep banging on is the importance of elites and elite networks in driving cultural revolution. From the book:

In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter.

Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed
networks and powerful institutions.”

This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who do not will leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

Arendt warns that the twentieth-century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. In our time, most people regard the politically correct insanity of campus radicals as not worthy of attention. They mock them as “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.”

This is a serious mistake. In radicalizing the broader class of elites, social justice warriors (SJWs) are playing a similar historic role to the Bolsheviks in prerevolutionary Russia. SJW ranks are full of middle-class, secular, educated young people wracked by guilt and anxiety over their own privilege, alienated from their own traditions, and desperate to identify with something, or someone, to give them a sense of wholeness and purpose. For them, the ideology of social justice — as defined not by church teaching but by critical theorists in the academy — functions as a pseudo-religion. Far from being confined to campuses and dry intellectual journals, SJW ideals are transforming elite institutions and networks of power and influence.

Twenty years ago, what we now call gender ideology (encompassing transgenderism and all its variants) was confined mostly to the academic fringes. Now it has conquered American institutions, and if it were up to the Democratic Party and our Democratic president, would be written into civil rights law. After Obergefell, religious liberty litigators and activists assumed that it would be years before the trans battles were joined. In fact, it was mere months.

This is why I focus my fire on leading institutions, e.g. today’s post criticizing the wokeness of Duke Divinity School.They are the leading edge of decline-and-fall. They are the ones taking us over the cliff.

It is not enough to point out the bad Christian intellectual elites. Where are the good ones, the ones who can build a plausible future for Christianity?

Ross Douthat explores this in his new Substack essay, titled “The Cul-de-Sacs of the Christian Intellectual”. In the piece, Ross discusses the role of the Christian public intellectual in the present moment. Here he talks about the four people (including, improbably, me) in his list of four different responses to the challenges of our time:

In my casually-chosen list of influential public intellectuals from the last twenty years, I represented Christianity with Fr. James Martin, Rod Dreher, Charles Taylor, David Bentley Hart and Tim Keller. I picked Taylor because he’s the scholar who’s produced something closest to a conventional definition of an Important Work, 2007’s A Secular Age, and Keller because he’s the most mainstream embodiment of the Calvinist revival within evangelicalism. But I picked Hart, Dreher and Martin because their work — more popular in the latter two cases, more idiosyncratic in Hart’s case — seems especially responsive to the dilemmas that confront Christian thinkers right now, and the challenges facing Biblical religion amid the decadence of its stepchild, liberalism.

It’s flattering that Ross included me on that list with people who have actually been well-educated. I think it’s because for all my shortcomings, I managed to identify with some precision the most serious problem facing Christianity today, and to propose a way (the Benedict Option) of dealing with it. Father Martin and I could hardly be more opposite, but Ross did not choose any of us because he agrees with us, necessarily.

Ross says that the neoconservative Christian intellectual project — Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel-ism — is dead. What can we do now?

From this apparent cul-de-sac, what is to be done? Well, one possibility is to go back to the ideas that the neoconservatives rejected or critiqued. That’s arguably what you find, in different forms, in the recent work of Hart and Father Martin (with Pope Francis looming behind them as a spiritual inspiration): New attempts at moral or theological adaptation, new attempts to find common ground with liberalism or to embrace some of the commitments of the left. This is not, crucially, an adaptation to secularism and anti-supernaturalism; that road I think almost everyone concedes is the deadest of dead ends. Instead in Martin’s writings and ministry you see an attempt to stretch, expand or adapt the Christian tradition sufficiently so that much of the sexual revolution, with abortion as the major exception, can be encompassed and accepted: Maybe not always formally, with new dogmatic pronouncements to contradict the old ones, but at least in a de facto way, with a theology of welcome that resolves the tensions between the church and post-1960s sexual culture and enables Christianity to breathe and preach anew.

David Bentley Hart is attempting to saddle theological orthodoxy (more or less) to far-left economics, and apparently plans to insult the world into compliance. But what about responses from the Right? Ross:

But if you don’t follow the new adaptationists, then what are the other post-neoconservative possibilities? Here’s where Dreher is important, as the eloquent and prolific spokesman for the view that what Christians need is less a vision to transform a decadent society than a plan to survive the “long night” of tyranny and social-cultural breakdown waiting in its wings. This view reflects his fundamental pessimism about our cultural circumstances — you can read the two of us going back and forth about our differences in this conversation — and his sense that the West may be too far gone to be renewed without some intervening catastrophe or Change. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on renewal — his interests roll in all kinds of possibilities — but both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies, his two major statements, are fundamentally arguments about communal resilience under pressure, informed by analogies to the Dark Ages and Communist persecution, respectively. So even if Christian communities seeking revitalization can draw important lessons from his work (including communities that don’t share his traditionalism in full), the Dreher vision generally assumes that a slow decline under decadent conditions is the best that Christians can hope for in the short run, and that our social order’s worst features are likely to deliver something grimmer and more oppressive soon, that to be defeated must be first survived.

There’s me, and there’s the Neo-Integralists:

Which, bristling with impatience with this pessimism, is where the various forms of post-liberal Christian thought come in. As I said in my last post, I think it will be a little while before we can decide on a central post-liberal influencer from the Patrick Deneen/Adrian Vermeule/Edmund Waldstein/Sohrab Ahmari list. But the tendency is certainly important right now, embodying both a rejection of any accommodation with liberalism and an impatience with any form of quietism or defeatism.

Can it really be the case, the post-liberals ask, that Christians facing the present age can only choose between accommodation and resilience-in-retreat? Isn’t the current form of liberalism obviously weakened, exhausted and beset with self-contradictions — and very, very far from being the all-conquering historical force implied by some of Dreher’s dramatic historical analogies? And of so, why should we regard the failure of Christian neoconservatism as proving something definitive about the impossibility of Christian witness, when maybe all it shows is that Christian witness fails if it yokes itself to Americanist pieties and the liberal/Christian convergence of 1955?

But with that said, the post-liberal project also feels like a tentative beginning, prone to dialectical confidence yet unformed as yet in various respects, and it’s easy enough to see how it could end up in its own cul-de-sacs. If it’s a fantasy for neoconservatives to imagine restoring the lost 1950s, after all, the idea of plugging Christian concepts from the 1880s or 1260s into the political landscape of the 2020s does not necessarily bring us closer to political realism. If it’s folly for liberal Christians to imagine reaching a permanent accommodation with socialism or secular progressivism or liberalism itself, the idea of simply defeating liberalism and remaking liberal culture through a top-down administrative coup does not necessarily answer the challenge by enlarging it. If naively embracing the sexual revolution is a dead end for Christianity, it’s not clear that new roads open immediately if we simply act as though it didn’t happen. If it’s a historical mistake to suggest that we can only have certain political liberties and socioeconomic goods under the rule of liberalism, it still remains to be explained what post-liberal Christians have learned about power and its corruptions from all the places in which the last Christendom went wrong.

Read the whole thing. There’s a lot more in the essay than I’ve mentioned here. And you should subscribe to Ross’s Substack, which is free. If you’ve missed bloggy Douthat, well, you pretty much get him back here.

Deneen and Ahmari are friends of mine, whom I greatly like and respect. But my main beef with the Neo-Integralists is that theirs is a project that is intellectually interesting, but can’t actually go anywhere until and unless Catholicism converts, and re-converts, millions more people. (Integralism is a political model that integrates the authorities of Church and State.) Leaving aside the fact that most Americans are not Catholics, in this country, relatively few Catholics recognize the Church’s binding authority on their consciences. In a 2019 Pew survey, only about one-third of US Catholics said they believe that the Eucharist actually becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at the consecration part of the mass. If you have only one in three Catholics who understand one of the most basic claims of Catholicism, you have a long, long way to go to convince American Catholics, much less the non-Catholic majority, to submit to the authority of the Pope in governance.

I should point out that Orthodox Integralism was how Russia was run until the Revolution, so there is a long history of it in my own religious tradition. According to The Josias, an intellectually stimulating integralist site Catholic Integralism can be defined simply, like this:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

I am sympathetic to this in principle, especially the first sentence. But I see no way in our post-Christian situation to carry out the second and third sentences without some form of authoritarianism. My chief concern is what tying Church and State together would do to the Church. The Republic of Ireland was a more or less integralist Catholic democracy, but the cover-up of sex abuse by the institutional Church, and the complicity of the Irish state with it, has been a wholesale catastrophe for the Church. Anyway, I don’t see Neo-Integralism as being a serious option, barring a meaningful religious revival.

The Benedict Option’s aims are far more modest: to keep the Christian faith alive through the new Dark Age, with the hope of renewing our civilization in the future. Whether we are talking about a Christianized liberal democracy or some Neo-Integralist system, both would require a far more meaningfully Christian population than we have today. If you want to know what may be happening to the Christian churches today, read historian Edward J. Watts’s The Final Pagan Generation, which discusses Roman elites of the fourth century, when the Roman Empire was going Christian, though it was hard for elites to recognize how much trouble they were in.

The other day, I wrote about Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Indians, who negotiated the transition for his tribe from their traditional way of life to life after the coming of the white man (read: modernity). I see in Plenty Coups’ story a possible hopeful way forward for us traditional Christians. What I did not appreciate was picked up by several of you readers: that a negative way to interpret Plenty Coups’ story is that he sold out the Crow way of life to hold on to their land. Reader Sam M. said it would be like surrendering to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism so we could keep our cathedrals.

To be fair to Plenty Coups, there really was no way for the Indians to hold on to their nomadic way of life, which depended on hunting and waging war with other tribes. We Christians don’t face a situation as drastic as that. We can hold on to our beliefs and rituals, though we can’t hold on to the normal way of living to which we have all become accustomed. A reader who is a Catholic priest sent in this smart comment:

I was struck by the Plenty Coups story. That the tribe would embrace his vision and then carry out the change are astonishing events–really all but unimaginable in audacity, scope, and sacrifice.
The core question to my mind is the ultimate nature of that change and its relation to their cosmology (and hence the true nature of the change they underwent). For it’s one thing to shift from a particular  pattern (Crow) to another (Chickadee) within a given cosmos–as rare and difficult as such a change would be, the cosmos remains the same  despite the extreme dislocation experienced. It is, however, an entirely different matter to abandon one cosmos for another, because then a person really does becomes a stranger in a  strange universe.
At some point Plenty Coups himself, if not the tribe, moved from changing patterns to changing cosmos by becoming Christian. I’d be particularly interested in that latter move on the human and theological level to see how it  took place and how the old cosmos was understood afterward.
As for our situation, his story is ambiguous or breaks down as a  parallel precisely because as Christians we can change patterns, but not cosmology. And that is where the real fight is shaping up.
If we are asked to adapt to living as a marginalized group within a secularized culture, that can be done. If asked to adopt a secular cosmology, we can’t.
One reading of the present moment is that Western liberal secularism is struggling between a pragmatic form (and hence willing to leave ultimate questions of meaning open to interpretation, including religious interpretation) and an ideological form (and hence absolutely rejecting religion and claims of objective purpose as enemies of humanity).
The thing is, ideological secularism denies any relation of creation and humanity to God.  Once that happens, questions of meaning have no answer outside individual or perhaps a culturally imposed narratives. If either becomes the Creed, Christians can only follow the pattern of the martyrs. If instead pragmatic secularism reigns, any number of patterns may be available.
An urgent question for Christians is whether we think the basic structures of sexual differentiation, marriage, procreation, and family are fundamentally part of a cosmology or simply a set of customs to be adapted as cultural circumstances require. [Emphasis mine — RD]
For some Christians setting those structures aside is like shifting from Crow to Chickadee. For others it is a shift from an old cosmos to a new one, and thus from an old religion to a new one.
Of course, there is no new religion, so if the issues are cosmological, we can’t adapt to ideological secularism and remain authentic Christians.  It is the old problem of syncretism which so troubled Israel and has ever haunted the Church.
Whatever one thinks is the right path forward, those who believe the way to deal with these issues is a matter of becoming chickadees already live in a different cosmos than those who think the issues are cosmological. I think that is ultimately an unbridgeable divide. If so, the schism or apostasy is already upon us.
This is true. I read the Plenty Coups tale as abandoning patterns, not a cosmos (though he did convert late in life to Catholicism, which was abandoning a cosmos, though he seems to have held on to some of the old Crow religion, in a syncretistic fashion). The Crow Sun Dance was a kind of ritual prayer for vengeance on their enemies, but it lost its meaning when the US Government put an end to tribal warfare. Did that mean an end to the Crow cosmos, or just a pattern of life? I don’t know enough Crow history to say. From what I could glean from the book Radical Hope, where I learned of Plenty Coups’ story, it seemed to me that the Crow were forced to abandon a pattern of life (nomadic, warlike, hunting), not a cosmos. But on second thought, the division is not so clean. If the Crow cosmos cannot make sense outside of a nomadic, warlike, hunting way of life, then the cosmos-pattern distinction may not make much difference.
The priest’s comments make me see the four choices Douthat sees in a different light.
All three of the preserve the cosmos options — Neo-Integralism, the Benedict Option, and Hart’s Christian socialism — either presume a change of pattern (Ben Op) or seek to cause one (the other two).
Father James Martin’s model, though, is a change the cosmos strategy. As Ross said, Father Martin is trying to stretch the Catholic Christian cosmos to encompass and make peace with the Sexual Revolution. This cannot be done. In my 2013 essay “Sex After Christianity,” published four years before The Benedict Option, I said:

The magnitude of the defeat suffered by moral traditionalists will become ever clearer as older Americans pass from the scene. Poll after poll shows that for the young, homosexuality is normal and gay marriage is no big deal—except, of course, if one opposes it, in which case one has the approximate moral status of a segregationist in the late 1960s.

All this is, in fact, a much bigger deal than most people on both sides realize, and for a reason that eludes even ardent opponents of gay rights. Back in 1993, a cover story in The Nation identified the gay-rights cause as the summit and keystone of the culture war:

All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.

They were right, and though the word “cosmology” may strike readers as philosophically grandiose, its use now appears downright prophetic. The struggle for the rights of “a small and despised sexual minority” would not have succeeded if the old Christian cosmology had held: put bluntly, the gay-rights cause has succeeded precisely because the Christian cosmology has dissipated in the mind of the West.

Same-sex marriage strikes the decisive blow against the old order. The Nation’s triumphalist rhetoric from two decades ago is not overripe; the radicals appreciated what was at stake far better than did many—especially bourgeois apologists for same-sex marriage as a conservative phenomenon. Gay marriage will indeed change America forever, in ways that are only now becoming visible. For better or for worse, it will make ours a far less Christian culture. It already is doing exactly that.


Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen whether we can keep Christianity without accepting Christian chastity. Sociologist Christian Smith’s research on what he has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism”—the feelgood, pseudo-Christianity that has supplanted the normative version of the faith in contemporary America—suggests that the task will be extremely difficult.

Conservative Christians have lost the fight over gay marriage and, as we have seen, did so decades before anyone even thought same-sex marriage was a possibility. Gay-marriage proponents succeeded so quickly because they showed the public that what they were fighting for was consonant with what most post-1960s Americans already believed about the meaning of sex and marriage. The question Western Christians face now is whether or not they are going to lose Christianity altogether in this new dispensation.

Too many of them think that same-sex marriage is merely a question of sexual ethics. They fail to see that gay marriage, and the concomitant collapse of marriage among poor and working-class heterosexuals, makes perfect sense given the autonomous individualism sacralized by modernity and embraced by contemporary culture—indeed, by many who call themselves Christians. They don’t grasp that Christianity, properly understood, is not a moralistic therapeutic adjunct to bourgeois individualism—a common response among American Christians, one denounced by Rieff in 2005 as “simply pathetic”—but is radically opposed to the cultural order (or disorder) that reigns today.

They are fighting the culture war moralistically, not cosmologically. They have not only lost the culture, but unless they understand the nature of the fight and change their strategy to fight cosmologically, within a few generations they may also lose their religion.

All of this is to say that the Chickadee of Father Martin’s approach is, deep down, another religion. It cannot be reconciled with the Christian cosmos, because it cannot be reconciled with what Christianity teaches man is, and is for.
If that’s true, then it is clear that the accommodationist/assimilationist Christian intellectuals — who hold the high ground in most sizable Christian institutions — are moving from strength to strength. That leaves us Christian intellectuals who uphold the authentically Christian cosmos with the grave challenge of how to keep our cosmos alive in the hearts, minds, and lives of the Christian people. The way I see it, you can be an orthodox Christian socialist, like David Bentley Hart, or you can be a Catholic Neo-Integralist, but given how immense the cultural tides, and the powers and principalities of the era are aligned against us, if you are not first a practitioner of the Benedict Option, you’re not going to make it. You will be assimilated.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles