Making Christian Prophets Within Liberalism
Alan Jacobs considers Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule’s criticism of Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed. He quotes this passage from Vermeule’s essay:
Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.
Vermeule is arguing that the Benedict Option, as well as Deneen’s prescription for embracing a post-liberal localism, is a mistake. He believes orthodox Christians should try to infiltrate the institutions of power, change them from within, and in that way change society. Jacobs says this is an attractive vision in many ways, but:
But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees.
Jacobs says that the liberal order catechizes. It is not neutral. It teaches
So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West – all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse across the board of participation in church life.
What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.
Let me repeat Jacobs’ point: if you don’t think the Benedict Option will work, or is a good idea, I can certainly respect that. But you really do have to explain how we small-o orthodox Christians are going to manage a counter-catechesis to secular, materialist liberalism. As I said to audiences in Italy, a 2016 study found that only 22 percent of the most faithful and engaged Catholic families manage to pass on the faith to their children. Think about that! Only one in five.
Meanwhile, atheist families and nominally Catholic families have no trouble handing down their worldview to their kids. This is not hard to figure out. The broader culture supports their worldview. Small-o orthodox Christians are up against immense power. Think of the opening lines of David Foster Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address :
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
This is liberalism. If we wish to change the water, so to speak, we have to first learn what water is, why it’s wrong, and how to be in the water, but not of it. You see?
I just gave a talk at the Catholic Medical Association meeting in Dallas. In my speech, I told about the late Vaclav Benda, and how he and his wife Kamila formed their children to hold on to their Catholic faith amid the overwhelming power of communism to dictate reality. The Bendas lived as conscious counterculturalists. One of the six adult Benda children told me that in their Prague childhood, every day when they would come home from school, their father would ask them what they had learned that day, what they had seen and heard in the world. He would listen to them, and talk through it with them. In this way, the father helped their kids to discern what was real and true and what was not.
It was a hard daily work of cultivating the children’s imagination. For her part, Kamila Bendova dedicated herself to reading literature to the children for hours every day. Every day. The Bendas knew that they had no choice: if their children were going to be faithful Catholics, and to stand in whatever way possible against the corrupt communist order, mother and father were going to have to treat their home like a kind of domestic monastery, where they slowly and patiently transmitted a conception of order to the imaginations of their children.
I don’t see any other way to do this, except through small Christian communities — the family first, but then networks of families. Do you? If so, let’s hear it.
Finally, I claim Dante Alighieri’s wisdom is on my side. Here’s my analysis of Canto XVI of Purgatorio — the exact midpoint of the Commedia. Excerpt:
Tonight we enter the choking, blinding black cloud of Wrath. There Dante meets Marco the Lombard, and asks him what is to blame for the world today having been consumed by evil and chaos. The moral philosophy Marco espouses is at the heart of the Commedia‘s meaning. I have abandoned the Musa translation for the Hollander one here, because it has more grandeur:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
to a groan, and then began: “Brother,
the world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew
all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.”
Marco refers to the medieval habit of blaming moral failures on forces outside of man’s control — symbolized by the heavenly spheres (hence the belief in horoscopes). Marco’s point here is the same as Shakespeare’s: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Men believe that they can’t help themselves, that they are playthings in the hands of forces larger than themselves — but that isn’t true. Marco continues:
“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations,
I don’t say all of them, but even if I did,
you still possess a light to winnow good from evil,
“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain
in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.”
In less poetic language, Marco concedes that we all have inclinations toward sin, but we can still see good and evil, and have the power, through free will, to resist our sinful inclinations. If we refuse sin the first time, and keep doing so, there’s nothing within our own natures that we cannot overcome. This is what Purgatory is all about: straightening through ascetic labors the crooked paths within us, making ourselves ready for Heaven. Marco goes on to say that if we submit ourselves, in our freedom, to God (“a greater power”), we free ourselves from the forces of fate and instinct. Here’s the clincher:
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”
Boom, there it is. If you want a world of peace, order, and virtue, then first conquer your own rebel mind and renegade heart. Quit blaming others for the problems in your life, and take responsibility for yourself, and your own restoration. God is there to help you reach your “better nature,” but because you are free, the decision is in your hands.
But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as babies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue.
This is the connection, it seems to me, between the Benedict Option and what Vermeule advocates. It’s not an either-or, but a both-and. But as Alan Jacobs says, if we’re going to have Daniels and Esthers, we have to have fathers, mothers, and communities that produce Daniels and Esthers. Notice, though, that Dante (the pilgrim) comes to Marco from a world where the formative institutions have become corrupt. Marco tells Dante that if he wants to undertake the work of reforming the corrupt institutions, he has to start with his own heart, and work outward.
It’s true for us too.