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‘Progress’ and the Benedict Option

How American notions of history condition our thinking

A reader makes a fascinating set of observations about the Benedict Option discussions:

One of the unconscious assumptions that many people bring to discussions like this is avery progressive notion of history. Going to most elementary and secondary schools in the United States makes that practically inevitable—it’s just how textbooks are written, curricula developed, and teachers trained.

On one hand, you’d have a kind of American exceptionalist Manifest Destiny historiography. On the other, you might get something more akin to what we see now in terms of rights talk and amorphous notions of justice that point towards utopian thinking, but that instead make for an unconscious (for most, I think) totalizing effect. The former, I’d imagine, would show itself more in middle class suburbia and rural areas away from the coasts. The latter would be prevalent more on the coasts, particularly in northeastern urban areas.

How these play out progressively is that in the Manifest Destiny historiography, the progress is demonstrated in moving towards America’s eschatological destiny or something like that. In the other example, well, we’re seeing that happen right now.

What I’m trying to get at is that, for many people, examining history inherently involves seeing the imperfections of the past as disqualifying all aspects of a given segment of history. So, slavery means the antebellum South is to be totally discarded. Jim Crow means that the South of the 20th century is to be discarded. The dispossession of the American Indian populations in the 19th century means that whatever goods might have come from American expansion are to be discarded. This is not to deny that there are enormous historical injustices that have been perpetrated, and indeed their acknowledgement is critical, but the perfect cannot become the enemy of the good (or the adequate) as we look backwards, because then we fail to heed the lessons of history and tradition.

I think that this plays a huge role in how we view things currently and prospects for things going forward. Reading this blog and a lot of what Ross Douthat has been writing in the past year or so has challenged me personally to examine my unconsciously progressive notion of history—and I am very well read in Alasdair MacIntyre and the authors around him, pro and con, and fairly well read in Christian theology and the history of Christian thought. I’m not trying to gain plaudits, but these assumptions are with us, sometimes whether we know it or not, and usually despite whatever else we’ve thought about since.

As Rod pointed out: there are no utopias; I would add that there are no utopias looking backward or thinking forward.

I had a conversation with a progressive friend a few months ago, and we were arguing some point (quite respectfully and civilly—”And do as adversaries do in law, / Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”) and eventually I said, “What happens here in this country when the progress ends?” She said, “But the progress never ends.” I immediately replied, “Oh, yes, it certainly does. Let’s think about the history of failed and fallen and former civilizations. There is no such thing as a world-historical movement, even in our ‘global village.’” She was stunned, and then she had to admit that it’s true: there is always an end to the “progress.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thinking forward and it’s influenced about how we’ve been taught to think and look backward. It needs to be challenged.

I would further add that a lot of what Rod proposes in the Benedict Option will be situational and involve decisions pertaining to degree rather than kind. What I mean is that I don’t think he’s conceptually bound to propose a system or structure of living that replaces liberalism. David Brooks had a great column right after the killing of Osama bin Laden. This is a terrible parallel, really a terrible one, but I think Brooks captures nicely what I’m trying to say: bin Laden created “an anti-organization – an open-source set of networks with some top-down control but much decentralization and a willingness to embrace all recruits, regardless of race, sect or nationality.” Strip out the top-down control and the jihad, and we begin to see the parallel: the open-source set of networks. That, to me, is how the Benedict Option begins to flourish. These networks of different kinds (monasteries, schools, towns, bookstores, e-mail discussion groups, whatever) that begin to connect with one another and form communities.

I suppose my major worry is that much of the thinking through these ideas is done with the persistence of a friendly liberal political system in mind, one that, even if unfriendly in particular contexts, largely honors the distinction between the public and the private. Religious views are frowned upon in the public square, but can be held privately. We can argue over definitions, but I think that’s basically right as to what contemporary liberalism espouses facially (think Rawlsian neutrality on comprehensive doctrines). I have to wonder if we’re in the midst of a reorientation of that: namely a situation in which the distinction between the public and the private is abolished (much like pre-modern times) yet again, but in favor of secularizing and secular views that are deeply hostile to religion.

In other words, is the seesaw is tilting back towards the side that has no distinction between the public and the private, but this time on the underside of the seesaw, where religious views can be actively suppressed? Are we entering into or already in a world where there is no longer an acceptance of the private sphere? A world in which there is no such thing as self-determination for people holding traditional religious views because those private views are somehow objectionable, and thus are subject to public scrutiny?

To end on a more hopeful note, from the work of a young Father Ratzinger in a recent translation, The Unity of the Nations:

Concern for the polis and its well-being justified the violation of truth. In other words, the well-being of the state, which was believed to be dependent on the continuance of its ancient forms, was more highly valued than the truth.

It was here that Augustine saw one of the great distinctions between Rome and Christianity in all its acuity: In the Roman understanding, religion was an institution of the state and hence a function of the state; as such it was subordinate to the state. It was not an absolute that was independent of the interests of the various groups that professed it; rather, its value was dependent on its serviceability vis-à-vis the state, which was the absolute. In the Christian understanding, on the other hand, religion had to do not with custom but with truth, which was absolute. It was, therefore, not instituted by the state but rather had itself instituted a new community that embraced everyone who lived in God’s truth. From that perspective Augustine understood the Christian faith as a freeing—namely, a freeing from the tyranny of custom for the sake of the truth.




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