Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Building Shelters Along the Pilgrim Path

Bruce Frohnen and the problem of setting down roots

Here’s an interesting critical take on my last three books by the conservative law professor Bruce Frohnen, who finds in them (mostly accurately) a progressive disillusionment with the idea of finding a place on earth to settle. Excerpts:

None of this is to say that the idea or even the reality of return is foolish, let alone wrong. But there is no one magic element, or even a set of magic elements, that can make for certain success in this fallen world, let alone the atomized world created by generations of restless movement, government interference, and secularization. What, then, is to be done? If the land cannot provide the answer (and it cannot), if the family often is too broken to serve as the model (and it is), and if the local community is a mere shell of its former self (at best), what is left? Mr. Dreher seems to be moving toward the answer as “the church.” Yet our churches, too, are in crisis. Not just the child abuse scandals (there have been many, and most not involving Catholics), but the scandal of bishops abandoning schools and parishes, of meaningless pandering to pressure groups, of the increasing mediocrity and political correctness of religious education, and of the sheer ugliness of so much that passes for religious liturgy, art, practice, and architecture are signs of how much our churches by nature are a part of our corrupt society. They cannot serve as sanctuaries from the wider world.

I fear that there is no single “option” for facing the hostile culture we have seen grow up around us. The hope is that such a predicament will call forth the energy and determination to do what we can wherever we are, professionally, geographically, and as members of various communities, to recover and restore whatever we can of a decent life.

Well, yes and no. “Yes” to Frohnen’s general point, but “no” to the spin he puts on my project. I think he’s misinterpreted me in a meaningful way … but then, I’m not entirely sure. Let me explain.

I was never an agrarian. I’m all for people who want to embrace an agrarian way of life, but that’s not me, and never has been me. It is true that I have been for most of my life on a search for a place where I could put down roots. The longing for roots is, I think, a common one, and it’s one that our way of life in contemporary America — especially our economic model — makes very hard to satisfy. This was a main point of Crunchy Cons. 

I found through the death of my sister that my wife, kids, and I needed those roots more than we quite realized, and that the search for roots could take me back to my own hometown — something I never thought possible. Love, I thought, built a bridge that circumstance had burned down. This was a main point of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. 

I discovered after I had arrived at home that the bridge-building project was a personal vanity, and that the bridge went to nowhere. My sainted sister had, in fact, raised her children to think I was a bad man for having left home in the first place, and turned them against me. “Can you blame them?” said my father. “Y’all are so weird” (“weird” = not 100 percent like them). I discovered that all the good intentions in the world won’t allow you to put down roots if the soil will not receive the seed. This hard lesson — and reading Dante, the exile — taught me some important lessons:

1. The search for roots, for permanence, is mostly folly. We are all exiles; it’s the human condition. Dante learns when he returns to the Garden of Eden that all longing for utopia, however modest, is a memory of Eden, an Eden that is unattainable in this life. All we can do is approximate it, but if we make the recovery of Eden into an idol (as I had done, without realizing it), we are going to go off the straight path and into the dark wood.

2. Anything touched by humans dies eventually, and always has about it the stink of death. Bruce Frohnen seriously misinterprets How Dante Can Save Your Life if he thinks that I’m saying that the Church is a new Eden. I made that great mistake when I was a Catholic. No Church is Eden, or can be. What I saw in How Dante is that my little mission parish has unexpectedly become the place where the seed we planted took hold, and is bearing fruit. I don’t believe that it is perfect, or that it will last forever, or that it can provide for the longing for Eden that is within us all. Rather, I advance the Augustinian point that our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord. All of life is a pilgrimage; exile is our condition. We can find places of rest, and can build shelters for ourselves and our children, and their children, but we must never allow ourselves to believe that we have settled in heaven — this, even though we long for that security. The best we can do is more or less recreate an approximation of heaven, and that can be anywhere that people dwell together in community, in love and mutual self-giving.

Bottom line: I did not find the home I wanted or expected, but I found the home I needed. This is a main point of How Dante Can Save Your Life. No place in the mortal life can provide ultimate sanctuary. What we long for is communion with God, of which the best places on this earth are only a shadow.

3. I realize now that the best we can hope for in the world of America 2015 is to settle among people who love us, and whom we can love, and where we can worship God and do good work. I could have done this in Dallas, where we lived, and I could have done this in Philadelphia, where we also lived. And I have done it in Starhill, though again, not in the way I anticipated. At Notre Dame, I spoke to a Catholic who said that the university community has lots of problems, but the great thing about it is that it offers within the broader community a particular community of Catholics who love each other, who take the Church’s teachings seriously and strive to live them out, and who dwell in real community together. This man said that was more than he had before in his life, and for all the imperfections within the university, and within South Bend, Indiana, it’s a place he can take his stand.

Reading Bruce Frohnen’s essay, I realize that I have written a trilogy about roots in contemporary America — a trilogy in which none of these books can fully be understood without relation to the other. There’s something Dantean about that.

There’s one more thing I want to address about the essay (which you should read). Frohnen writes that the Benedict Option is “the next stage in Mr. Dreher’s journey, which of course is still coalescing around a very strong and thick notion of congregation.” He seems to think that the Benedict Option is, or is going to be, a back to the land idea. No, it’s not! I think one can live in the city and still live the Benedict Option. It is about forming countercultural community, a “strong and thick notion of congregation,” as a form of resistance to the increasingly vicious disorders of the age. I am quite aware of the problems that come with this kind of thing, including (perhaps most acutely) the temptation to abuse of power, or a certain hard-heartedness. I grew up in a “strong and thick notion” of community, and it is precisely the strength and the thickness of my family’s idea of community (well, my dad’s and my sister’s) that created an impassable wall. What we lacked, what we lack, is a sense of humility, which would have given our thick community the sense of forgiveness and mercy and repentance it needed to thrive in the imperfection of time.

There will be more to say about it later, but I expect that most people taking the Benedict Option will do so within cities or suburbs, because that’s where most of us live, and have to live to support ourselves. It is a fantasy to think that you can move to the country or to a small town and escape the decline and fall. Anywhere there is modern media, there are the barbarians, by which I meant the forces of atomization, of hedonism, of nihilism. When fifth graders in Mayberry are watching hardcore pornography on the iPhones their parents gave them, you learn quickly that the Benedict Option is necessary wherever you live on the map.

UPDATE: This came in an e-mail just now from Bruce Frohnen:

Thanks, Rod, for your insightful and generous response to my post. I do not think, actually, that there is much difference between the two of us regarding the situation in which we find ourselves. As much as anything else, I sought to use your wonderfully self-reflective work as a guide for showing that there is no easy solution to decades (a century, really) of cultural self-destruction. All of our institutions, like our traditions, have suffered great damage, so we must not fall prey to either nostalgia or utopian visions. If anything, the message I sought to convey was that Crunchy Cons continues to be highly relevant for its attempt to show that we need to work to piece together a good life wherever God has put us, knowing that there will be no true refuge, here. I look forward to learning more about your vision of the Benedict Option.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now