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Rowan Williams On The Ben Op

The former Archbishop of Canterbury gives it a highly qualified endorsement

Rowan Williams reviews The Benedict Option in New Statesman. Link to the review is here. He is ambivalent about the book. He does, however, do a great job of summing up the book’s message succinctly:

Its argument is simple. For conservative religious believers, the battle on the political field has largely been lost; there is no point in wasting energy on forming coalitions to challenge or change legislation. What is needed, instead, is to develop a more densely textured religious life, in which regular patterns of communal prayer and intellectual and spiritual development will keep alive the possibility of inhabiting a nourishing, morally rich tradition. Christians ought to be more like Orthodox Jews or conscientious Muslims: living visibly at an angle to the practices of contemporary society.

Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. He expands on that thought:

This will demand a distancing from the assumptions of capitalism and the all-powerful market, and it will indeed entail the risk that Christians will find themselves de facto excluded from some professions. Dreher – an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a prominent conservative blogger in the United States – is sharply critical of a Christian rhetoric that ignores the evils of public acquisitiveness and selfishness while castigating personal delinquencies. He points to the tradition of monasticism as a model for developing alternative community patterns – hence the reference to Benedict – and invites a close reading of the saint’s precepts for monks as a guide to the practical challenges of living in close quarters with others. What lies in the more distant social or political future is not for us to see; but for now, what we need is a community life that seeks to live and worship with integrity and hopes to attract and persuade by the quality of its mutual care and the fulfilment of its members.

Williams says:

Dreher’s strategy is ultimately the only one possible for a traditionalist believer who does not want a revolution or a theocracy.

That’s true, and I wish conservative American Christians would realize this.

Williams criticizes the book, however, for focusing too much on sexuality (especially LGBT) and not enough on race and war, which are also of concern to Christian believers. I have several responses to that.

1) Gay rights are precisely the point on which court battles over religious liberty are playing out. Nobody proposes to restrict the rights of religious believers and religious charities and schools over their views on race and war. Liberals love to accuse conservative Christians of being “obsessed” with sex and sexuality, but it is impossible not to focus heavily on these things, precisely because the wider culture is obsessed with it, and legal attacks on our liberties are coming from those who wish to expand gay rights.

2) It is remarkably disingenuous for the former Archbishop of Canterbury to downplay the importance of the sexuality debate within the churches. His own global communion is coming apart over it! American churches of all kinds are splitting over it. And why not? This is an enormously important issue, having to do with Christian anthropology and the authority and meaning of Scripture. Again, whenever I hear liberals complaining that we conservative Christians are overly concerned with this stuff, what I really hear is their frustration that we aren’t abdicating to their position.

3) The debate within the church and Western society broadly over the meaning of sex and marriage is more important for the long-term future of both than any current arguments over race or war (though those two are certainly important). The family is disintegrating, in large part because marriage has come to be seen as merely a contractual construct that can be voided easily, if it needs to be taken up at all. It hinges on foundational questions like Who is man? What is sex for? The Bible and the Church formed by its authority has clear answers to those questions, though fewer and fewer people today want to hear them (and fewer and fewer priests and pastors want to answer them). Ideas have consequences, and, as Philip Rieff has said, the Sexual Revolution is the most radical and consequential in modern times. Christians and others who think the sex and sexuality issue is relatively unimportant are not thinking this through. We are seeing the Christian churches — including Rowan Williams’s church — abandoning clear and consistent Biblical teaching for the sake of assimilating into the post-Christian world.

One more clip from Williams’s review:

The Benedict Option is unsettling. It confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument.

I can see why he would conclude that, but I would respond that it’s perfectly reasonable to lack confidence in public argument. Reason matters far less to public debate than it once did. Generally speaking, people these days don’t think; they emote. Alasdair MacIntyre explains why “emotivism” dominates discourse in the West today. I’m not sure how the debate goes in the UK, where Williams lives, but here in the US, it is becoming increasingly impossible to discuss issues of race, sex, and gender without running into a buzzsaw of “bigotry” accusations. Besides which, our politics on both sides have become so tribal that people are not willing to critically examine their own positions in light of the other side’s arguments. This is how emotivism works.

Rowan Williams should ask Yale’s Nicholas Christakis and Evergreen State’s Bret Weinstein how much confidence they have in the viability of public argument. Here’s a clip of protesting students from Evergreen State demanding that the marshmallowy progressive college president order his faculty to exempt them all from doing homework that was due during their recent mindless spasm of protest:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yo-BGLoCDZU]

Naturally, Marshmallow Man capitulated.

Father Dwight Longenecker explained how emotivism has made public reasoning difficult to impossible. Excerpt:

Once the enemy goes to defend the wounded, weeping victim smells blood and is on the attack. The petitions are circulated. The lawyers are contacted. The lawsuits are launched. Apologies are demanded and resignations are forced. The emotivist army marches forth bristling with righteous indignation. They are no longer the wounded victims. They are the rampaging and righteous champions of the underdogs, the mistreated, and the misunderstood. They do not care about the majority vote for they are the brave pioneers who are destined to overturn the oppressive majority. They do not care for the process of law or democracy. Their cause is greater than all that. The surge in their hearts tells them so.

Why has the moral debate in America descended to emotivism? Because where there is no objective truth there can be no intelligent debate. If there is no such thing as right and wrong, then it is pointless trying to have a discussion on what is right and wrong. All that remains is your opinion against my opinion and therefore the one who best uses the tools of emotional blackmail and bullying will prevail.

I would say that Rowan Williams, a brilliant and cultured man, has too much confidence in the power of public argument. Anyway, read the whole review. He concludes:

The book is worth reading because it poses some helpfully tough questions to a socially liberal majority, as well as to believers of a more traditional colour.

UPDATE: Alex Wilgus reviews Rowan Williams reviewing The Benedict Option. He’s not a fan of Williams calling the book “unsettling”.  Excerpt:

This sort of disingenuous wordplay isn’t unique to Williams–who supposes himself a moderate on these matters–it’s just a good example of a broader attitude toward conservatives that pretends to charity and an even-minded tolerance but cannot stomach going through with it. Williams suggests that the upside of the book is that it challenges a predominantly liberal order to learn to allow religious conservatives to “dissent.” Well, The Benedict Option is such a dissent; it proceeds from an attitude of dissent and an intention to show conservative Christians about how best to dissent. But for Williams and other falsely moderate critics, the substance of that dissent is “worrying” and “unsettling.” Whatever Williams concedes may be admirable on the one hand is negated by all sorts of worrying, unsettling things on the other. This is how it has been for those of us who have not been swept away by the gender revolution. Those who would style themselves as moderates may condescend to allow religious conservatives the honor of tending the flame of some romantic thing called “dissent,” but one finds in their startled tone that they have no stomach for anyone actually dissenting from the order of progressive sexual ethics.

If “the salient political challenge is whether the liberal consensus can live with a diversity of cultures and their convictions” then the salient critical challenge is whether moderates like Williams can allow those convictions to be expressed plainly and vociferously without tagging them with cheap labels like “worrying” and “unsettling.” God forbid any of them “sound a note of angry anxiety and contempt”–even though meanwhile in the social justice camp, anger, anxiety, and contempt are all laudable passions with which to #resist the forces of oppression.



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