What Are We Conserving?
[The Trump victory, Brexit, Macron victory] happened because our political establishments, left and right, have become decadent.
The decadence is not the result of bad policies. It stems from failures of the imagination. As Richard Weaver once wrote, “Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.”
The American side of the story is easiest to tell. Since World War II, the metaphysical dream of the West has been one of deconsolidation. American conservatives promoted economic deregulation. Liberals endorsed cultural deregulation. All of this made a great deal of sense. Reaganism opened up an overly constrained and government-dominated economy. Our brutal system of state-sponsored racial discrimination needed to be dismantled. Rigidly patterned male and female roles were overthrown as well, and sexual morality was relaxed, perhaps with less justification. For good and ill, the momentum of deconsolidation carried things forward.
This is true. The book to read on this is Age Of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers. Reno says that both the establishment left and the establishment right share a “metaphysical dream” of an open, fluid society. They think Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity” is a good thing. From a discussion of what “liquid modernity” means:
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bauman was known as a key theorist of postmodernity. While many theorists of the postmodern condition argued that it signified a radical break with modern society, Bauman contended that modernity had always been characterized by an ambivalent, “dual” nature. On the one hand, Bauman saw modern society as being largely characterized by a need for order—a need to domesticate, categorize, and rationalize the world so it would be controllable, predictable, and understandable. It is this ordering, rationalizing tendency that Max Weber saw as the characteristic force of modernization. But, on the other hand, modernity was also always characterized by radical change, by a constant overthrowing of tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship—“all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx characterized this aspect of modern society. For Bauman, postmodernity is the result of modernity’s failure to rationalize the world and the amplification of its capacity for constant change.
In later years, Bauman felt that the term “postmodern” was problematic and started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he sees in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity, Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life.
For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.
But we cannot live like that forever. Reno concludes:
Nationalism can be dangerous, and the French may have made the safer choice. But we face many threats, and we must be wise enough to recognize which are most pressing. I can’t speak for France, but by my reckoning, the greatest danger facing the United States is social disintegration. As family instability and other social pathologies increase, large sectors of our society become atomized and vulnerable. Add the rapid and largely un-examined revision of the social contract brought about by economic deregulation, especially in its global phase, and the situation can become politically toxic. We are losing the social and economic conditions for democratic self-government.
Conservatives must always ask themselves what they seek to conserve. In 2017, our goal must be to conserve democratic self-government, which is the basis for political freedom. A generation ago, we could focus on the perils of an enlarged government (and the Soviet Union). Now the problem has changed. The greatest threat to freedom is our dissolving society. Voters sense this, which is why they’re tilting in the direction of nationalism, however inarticulately and tentatively. We need to renew solidarity, something that can’t be done by citizens of the world.
Here’s a rewritten version of Reno’s last graf, to explain the Benedict Option:
Conservative Christians must always ask themselves what they seek to conserve. In 2017, our goal must be to conserve the conditions under which orthodox Christianity can thrive, which is the basis for the continuation in history of orthodox Christianity itself. Two generations ago, we could focus on the perils of an enlarged secular government. Now the problem has changed. The greatest threat to Christianity is liquid modernity, which dissolves any historical understanding of the Christian faith, and displaces worship of the God of the Bible with the worship of Self. And though the increasing (and increasingly militant) secularism of society is a threat to orthodox Christianity, the greater threat comes from within: most importantly, the religious illiteracy of contemporary Christians, and the failure of believers to comprehend the nature of present-day threats to the faith. Christians sense that something is deeply wrong, but they resist the radical nature of the diagnosis, which is why they either deny the seriousness of the problem, or mischaracterize the proposed solution (the Benedict Option) as a prelude to dismissing it entirely. We small-o orthodox Christians need to renew solidarity — solidarity with the Gospel, solidarity with the teachings and experience of the historical church, and solidarity with each other — and this is something that can’t be done by Christians who have allowed their metaphysical dream be dictated by the post-Christian culture of liquid modernity.
The Catholic priest Father Dwight Longenecker writes that the Benedict Option may well be the only option left for faithful Christians. He says that today, we have entered into a world that C.S. Lewis foresaw in Perelandra, in which Reason is used not as a tool to get to the truth, but as a weapon to achieve power over one’s enemies:
I have found the same to be increasingly true in any discussion not only with progressives, but with an increasing number of ordinary folks. The discussion may concern politics, religion, sexuality, economics, or cultural matters. If there is a disagreement, there is very little logical thought or rational debate. The two weapons of emotivism and utilitarianism usually rule the day. No true debate takes place. Instead, arguments are dismissed by changing the subject, launching a personal attack or playing the victim.
A position is advocated according to sentimental feelings or practical considerations. The more intellectual, like Lewis’ demon- possessed Weston, use intellectual arguments not as a process to discover the truth, but as a weapon—and a weapon that is more like a bludgeon than a rapier. If their intellectual argument falls flat, they simply deny, lie, and shout more loudly.
In other words, the Benedict Option may be the only option because debate has ended. Our society is so worm-eaten with relativism the any idea that one might use reason, research and debate to discover truth is defunct. The idea, not only that truth can be discovered, but that once discovered one has a duty to believe and obey, is even more obsolete. Consequently, if there is no truth there can be no reasoning into truth, and if there is no reasoning then there is no reason to argue. All is relegated to a matter of opinion—and often the opinion is not even offered as being true. The person asserts it simply because they believe it and they believe it because they assert it.
Thus the silence of the monks. They are silent not only in order to listen to God more acutely, but also because all the words are falling on deaf ears. If humanity is deaf there is no need for words.
The Benedict Option is therefore more about a change of heart and mind than growing a beard, getting some chickens, and building a utopian religious community in the woods. The Benedict Option means coming to the realization that the time for dialogue and debate is over and the time for quiet action has begun.
I am convinced that this is the true reason why Benedict headed for the hills in the sixth century. The dialogue was pointless. The debate was a dead-end. So Benedict did what he could with what he had where he was.
Likewise the conservative Christian option today is to step back from the endless dialogue and debate and to focus on being consistent and being Imaginative Conservatives. Within our families, our parishes, our schools and our workplace we will be committed to a way of obedience, stability and conversion of life, and our method will use the timeless tools of work, study and prayer.
Yes, this! Read the whole thing.
This is what I don’t get about my fellow believers who are still so convinced that the world cares to listen to what we have to say, if only we will figure out the right way to say it. No, it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean that we have the right to quit bearing witness to them, but it does mean that we cannot neglect the building up of the body for the sake of standing out on the streetcorner, rain or shine, shouting a message that the world does not want to hear. There is a time when you have to go back inside, nourish yourself, and build your strength for the long haul. I get the impression that there are a lot of Christians who reject the Benedict Option because they are afraid to do anything other than what they’ve been doing. An evangelism strategy that makes sense for a society that is basically Christian in its self-understanding does not make sense for one that is not Christian, or that is post-Christian (i.e., it has gone through a Christian phase, and has rejected the faith, or what it takes to be the faith).
Here’s a typical reaction — this from an Amazon reviewer:
The writer makes timely observations about the deterioration of our culture and the decline of Christianity’s influence. Yet his solution elevates just one school of Christian discipline as the solution, that of the Benedictines.
Mixed with the good there is a whole lot of man-made dross, lifting liturgy & other catholic ideas like celibacy to the level of Biblical teaching. Better stick to Scripture and continue its solution – the Great Commission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But not retreat. Never, ever retreat.
Well, this second graf is just a bizarre way to interpret the book. The reader is apparently a fundamentalist or Evangelical who cannot read anything that sounds “Catholic” with anything like an open mind. The Benedict Option does talk about liturgy, but in a general way, quoting a leading Evangelical theologian discussing rediscovering its importance. And it talks about how ideas are carried through liturgies, both secular and religious. And I do not talk about “celibacy,” but about chastity — the right use of sexuality within Christian thought and practice. Plus, this guy believes that simply banging away on preaching is the “solution” to the crisis, which is wholly inadequate to the crisis we face.
But this is the only way some Christians think. And they are going to be wiped out. A very well informed conservative Evangelical friend of mine, a Millennial, e-mailed this morning to express strong doubts about the long-term viability of Evangelicalism. His general point in our conversations about this stuff is that Evangelicals are far too embedded in popular culture and its modes of thought and discourse to resist the deep currents that are eating away at the faith. This desperation to be “relevant” to a culture that has no interest in the faith delivered to the Apostles — and let’s be clear, Catholics and Orthodox suffer from this too — is deadly.