Today at Ethika Politika, I take issue with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a term inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.
The basic idea is that, due to the Enlightenment, we have lost the social conditions — in particular a shared moral and religious narrative — that make virtuous living an intelligible and shared social standard. Thus, MacIntyre claimed, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” He concludes, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Dreher has done much to popularize this “Benedict Option,” which he defines as “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”
There is at least one major problem with this, however. I respond,
Yet as Owen Chadwick noted, it was not until the early ninth century, and that due to strong papal support, that the Rule of St. Benedict became the standard rule in the Frankish Empire. Until that time, the dominant rules were often Celtic, especially the Rule of St. Columbanus, as well as a strong influence from St. John Cassian, St. Basil the Great, and the fathers of the Egyptian desert.
And the Celts, importantly, were not retreating from the world but rather from Ireland in feats of what they termed “green martyrdom,” missionary exile as ascetic discipline. If Thomas Cahill is even half-right, the Irish played just as much a part in saving civilization as the Benedictines, if not far more so. Far from a retreat, their approach was quite confrontational (as was St. Benedict’s, as Goerke points out).
Thankfully, we need not wait for a “new and very different” Irish people as the Irish are still with us. Indeed, the equal respect accorded to Roman Catholics in the United States today is the result (in large part, at least) of a hard-won, confrontational battle of Irish immigrants to carve out an equal place in American society for their children and their cultural and religious heritage (see, e.g. Dagger John). Perhaps traditional Christians looking to preserve a moral culture today have more to learn from them.
It might have been better had I written “see, especially, Dagger John,” since his story is one of remarkable social action and spiritual reform, defending the cause of religious liberty and equal rights for Irish Roman Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and emphasizing the vital role of personal responsibility. (more…)
According to Daly, Soviet government sought to dictate every aspect of life in the name of the common good, including the indexing of Soviet publications by libraries. He writes, “[I]f Soviet publications failed to end up in libraries, then, as Lenin railed, ‘we have to know precisely whom to imprison.’”
In the Winter-Fall 2012 issue of Modern Age (54, nos. 1-4), Jonathan Daly contributes a helpful exploration of what happens when desire for the common good goes bad. His article, “Bolshevik Power and Ideas of the Common Good,” focuses on the disastrously ill-conceived effort by the Russian revolutionaries to promote the common good through their self-proclaimed “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Daly contends, “The horrors of Bolshevik governance stemmed directly from their repudiation of the precious fruits of Western political thought.” It is a classic example of the tendency of some to promote cheap moralisms while ignoring the empirical realities of any given context, what then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger termed in 1985, “the antithesis of morality.” In addition to fostering mass suspicion, starvation, and ultimately a despotic police state in Russia, the Bolsheviks also have the blood of literally millions on their hands, Orthodox Christians as well many Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others—the rotten fruit of their noble quest for the common good. (more…)
Ahead of tonight’s vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, Hunter Baker (a Baptist political scholar) and I (a Reformed moral theologian), offer up some thoughts as “Protestants in Praise of Catholic Social Teaching” in a special edition of Acton Commentary.
Commentators are already busy parsing the partisan divide between the co-religionists Biden and Ryan, but having Roman Catholics represented in such prominent positions in this campaign and particularly in tonight’s debate is also likely to catapult another player into the national political consciousness: Catholic Social Teaching (CST).
For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture.
We go on to point in particular to the objective moral order recognized by CST, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and the tradition’s commitment to religious liberty.
After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life
By Rev. Gregory Jensen
In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.
This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).
This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.
Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith. Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”
Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.
The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it: “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”
Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”
Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.
When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically. But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.
The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.
Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.
Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects. Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.
Frank Schaeffer: Bachmann, Palin, Perry Use Religion Like Snake Oil Salesmen (2011)
Remaining Orthodox in a Secular World : A Sermon by Frank Schaeffer (2002)
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has a story on FrontPageMag.com about Frank Schaeffer’s call for the Occupy Wall Street protesters to go after evangelical Christians. Schaeffer is the son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Tooley:
A blogger for The Huffington Post, young Schaeffer is now faulting religious conservatives for facilitating Wall Street greed. He’s imploring the Wall Street Occupiers to “protest the root source of America’s tilt to the far unregulated corporate right.” For Schaeffer, the next logical step is to demonstrate “outside mega churches, Evangelical publishing houses, [and] religious organizations that lead the ‘moral’ crusades against women and gays and all the rest.”
The article, titled “Wall Street Occupiers Urged to Target Churches,” also describes Schaeffer attacking Roman Catholics as “likewise ‘fundamentalists’ who have ‘delegitimized the US Government and thus undercut its ability to tax, spend and regulate.’ So Catholic bishops, like evangelical mega churches, have also tricked their followers into voting against their ‘own class and self-interest.’” See the top video in this post for a sample of Schaeffer spleen.
In August, New York Times reporter Mark Oppenheimer interviewed Schaeffer about his new book Sex, Mom and God and said that that the author’s “break with conservatism, and with evangelicalism, came in the late 1980s.” But, as Oppenheimer described it in “Son of Evangelical Royalty Turns His Back, and Tells the Tale,” Schaeffer:
… had long been skeptical of many of his bedfellows. He found the television pastor Pat Robertson and some of his colleagues to be ‘idiots,’ he told me last week, when we met for coffee in western Massachusetts. Looking back, Mr. Schaeffer says that once he became disillusioned he ‘faked it the whole way.’
Schaeffer might be telling the truth, but remember he’s a self-confessed faker. One thing’s for sure — Oppenheimer didn’t do his homework.
The second, grainy video at the top of this post, shot in a Greek Orthodox church about six months after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shows Schaeffer in his post-evangelical, pre-HuffPo culture wars mode — more than a decade after his purported “break” from the right. You hear him warning those in the pews about the threat from “the Islamic horde that now pours toward our frontiers” and hear him berating Protestants and Catholics for their soft “feminized” Christianity that won’t stand up to secularism, hedonism and a whole catalog of evils that might have been formulated by, say, Pat Robertson. Schaeffer wants a Christianity that isn’t wishy-washy, therapeutic and “sentimental” but has a “my way or the highway” ethic — a lot like the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, he has found the alternative to America’s flabby faith: the Orthodox Church.
A tireless book promoter (see also the first five minutes of this longer video), Schaeffer spent a good part of the 1990s and beyond attacking Western Christianity for its many failures and novelties over and against the “pure and clean and perfect” Orthodox Church, into which he was received as a convert. The launching pad for much of this vitriol was his 1995 book, Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions, which combined Orthodox triumphalism and cold-hearted sectarian vituperation and took it to new heights.
My Greek Orthodox parish was instrumental in bringing Schaeffer to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1995 for a speaking engagement at a local high school that drew more than 1,000 people. The crowd included many curious Protestants who wanted to hear the son of the famous evangelical theologian explain why he had left the fold and converted to Orthodoxy. While in town, Schaeffer was interviewed on Calvin Forum, a public affairs program on the Calvin College educational TV channel. Indeed, the Reformed minister who interviewed him later was received into the Orthodox Church. Listen to Kevin Allen of Ancient Faith Radio interview former moderator of Calvin Forum, Robert Meyering, about the role Schaeffer played in his journey East.
What is Orthodoxy? According to Schaeffer, “it is the church that has maintained the worship, the sacrament, the truth, in its only pure form that can be found in the world today.” Problem is, in his current incarnation as scourge of the Religious Right, Schaeffer doesn’t say much about the Orthodox Church and his many years of (faking it again?) traveling the country as a Neo-Byzantine circuit rider. You see no evidence on his personal web page of any of those rants against the Catholic and Protestant enemies of Orthodoxy, nor access to a digital version of his tabloid Christian Activist newspaper that was frequently the vehicle for these attacks.
In Dancing Alone, Schaeffer decried the “Protestant debacle [embodied in the ecumenical movement] which has resulted in the disintegration of Western civilization, the acceptance of abortion on demand, the ordination of women, homosexuals and lesbians, the apostasy and heresy inherent in ‘liberal’ Protestant theology.” This was years after he “broke” with the conservatives and Religious Right? Here’s the contents page for the book on Regina Orthodox Press, the publishing house Schaeffer founded and which continues to sell titles like From Baptist to Byzantium and The Virtue of War.
Schaeffer’s Orthodox history might be inconvenient to him today because based on the Church’s teachings — sanctity of life, sexuality, marriage, a hyper-patriarchal priesthood — it looks a lot like the dimwitted “Taliban” Christians and “fundamentalists” that Schaeffer spends so much time denouncing of late. Then again, you can hardly go around advertising the fact that you spent years proselytizing on behalf of traditional morality if, today, you want to maximize your page views on HuffPo and get MSNBC producers to call you back.
IRD covered a speech Schaeffer recently gave in which he cited the Orthodox tradition’s reverence for “holy mysteries” as grounds for rejecting “the frozen being of belief.” But the mysteries of the faith in Orthodox teaching (indeed, the Christian faith rests on profound mysteries) do not provide a basis for a faith that changes, as he puts it, “like the weather.” He should go back and re-read his history of the Ecumenical Councils if he thinks that “anything goes” is how the Church does theology.
Years ago, it was obvious to some Orthodox Christians that Schaeffer had anger management issues. In a 1995 review of Dancing Alone, the scholar and essayist Vigen Gurioan said the book “oozes with the same moralism, instrumentalism and pragmatism that have contributed to the secularization and loss of catholic Christian consciousness that he condemns.”
Schaeffer, Guroian wrote, is at heart an individualist who has taken it upon himself to single handedly interpret the Truth and right all wrongs:
Schaeffer seems to have become Orthodox because the rest of America has gone wrong, and Orthodoxy is the best religious remedy for cultural crisis and moral malaise. At work here is not the catholic mind of the church but the romantic self that takes upon itself the task of reconstructing and arbitrating theological truth. Schaeffer intones “Holy Tradition” repeatedly when he passes judgment on the falsehood in others and claims truth for his own statements (“Holy Tradition says…”). But at center stage as arbiter and mediator of this so-called Holy Tradition is the “I.”
Schaeffer is still arbitrating the truth, but now from the left. Fair enough. That’s his choice. Although, inciting mobs to attack churches and publishing houses does sound a tad intolerant.
But the New York Times claim that the years of “faking it” among Christian traditionalists ended in the late 1980s, doesn’t hold water. Actually, his right wing, sectarian hate speech phase extended deep into the 1990s and 2000s, albeit masquerading in the rich brocades of Orthodox triumphalism. You wonder: Because Frank Schaeffer is such a good faker, could he still be faking it today? Is he a double agent in the culture wars, secretly going among the liberals at HuffPo and MSNBC until the time is ripe to once again expose the evildoers with new books and fresh tirades? We’ll have to stay tuned.
I had the pleasure of appearing on Relevant Radio last Friday to talk to Sheila Liaugminas on her show, “A Closer Look.” I discussed the idea of “intergenerational justice,” a term favored by evangelicals (Roman Catholics tend to talk about “intergenerational solidarity”), and how that concept relates to much of today’s discussion about the federal budget.
One thing you hear from many is that we need a “both/and” solution: we need to both cut spending and raise revenue in order to close the annual deficits. I’m not really convinced of this, in part because the federal government has historically shown that increased revenue always results in increased spending. The government spends what it takes in, with a little bit more to boot. There has to be something structural and meaningful to stop this from continuing to happen, especially since we can’t count on the political culture to do so itself. Whether that structural obstacle is a balanced budget amendment or some other kind of binding agreement, something like that has to be put in place.
I don’t think it’s fair on the other side, though, to say that closing some tax loopholes, making tax avoidance more difficult, and simplifying the tax code is tantamount to “raising taxes” either. So in that sense there might be a case for raising revenues in this limited sense if it gets the tax system focused on what it is supposed to do (raise revenues) rather than using it as a tool for rent-seeking, social engineering, and pandering to special interests.
What’s more important than the question of revenues vs. cuts, however, is recognizing that the size of the federal government has stayed about roughly constant when you look at it in terms of tax receipts relative to GDP. Anthony Davies does a nice job illustrating this. He points out that the government basically takes in amounts roughly equal to 18% of GDP (+/- 2%). So that’s essentially what the government needs to learn to live on. By contrast, we’re spending about 24% of GDP this year, and that number only goes higher as entitlement promises come due.
So how about this for a both/and solution: we cut spending to get within a couple of percentage points of 18% of GDP and we focus on tax policies that will grow GDP in a sustainable way in the longer term.