Conversations: Rod Dreher

rod-dreher

Rod Dreher is a prolific journalist and author, and a senior editor at The American Conservative. He comments regularly on American culture, politics, and religion, and has written three widely-discussed books: Crunchy Cons (2006), The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013), and The Benedict Option (2017). His blog at The American Conservative gets about a million page views a month and draws followers from the left and the right. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, Rod has such a wide readership because he covers a wealth of interesting topics, in depth, and with valuable insight: “Because Dreher is at once spiritually and intellectually restless, [his] blog has become a destination for the ideologically bi-curious.”

Recently, Rod, who is a participant in our Tradition Project, agreed to answer some questions about his new, best-selling book, The Benedict OptionThe book argues that traditional Christians need to return to older, more intentional ways of living in order to thrive in a post-Christian culture. In our wide-ranging interview, Rod talks about why he thinks the Benedict Option is so necessary and why it isn’t just for monks and hermits. He discusses examples like classical Christian schooling and Christian centers at secular universities. He addresses the paradox of traditionalism in contemporary life, responds to progressive criticism, and explains the danger that “Technological Man” poses for traditional Christianity.

Movsesian: Rod, let’s begin by summarizing the main theme of your book. As I understand it, you argue that traditionalist, small-o orthodox Christians need to repurpose older, intentional ways of Christian living for our contemporary age. To take the “Benedict Option” means to establish tighter networks, communities, and institutions that will allow American Christians to survive in our post-Christian culture. Is that about right? Why do you think this option is necessary for American Christians today?

Dreher: Yes, that’s it. This is necessary because of the nature of postmodern culture, more on which in a second. In the book, I talk about a couple of social facts that so far, few if any critics have addressed head on. First is the fact that enormous numbers of Americans are leaving institutional Christianity. This has been shown repeatedly in recent years by reputable social scientists. In fact, back in 2010, Robert Putnam of Harvard and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell said that if it weren’t for the heavy influx of Latino immigrants, the US Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging adherents at the same rate as Mainline Protestant churches. The numbers are not getting better for any of us. Last year, Mark Chaves and David Voas, two of the top sociologists of religion, published a paper analyzing social science data from the last decade or so, and concluding that the US is no longer a counterexample to the “secularization thesis” – that is, the idea that as modernity progresses, religion withers. It’s not true elsewhere in the world, but it was true in the West, with the notable exception of America. But we are now finally on the same steady downward slide that Europe pioneered.

And overwhelming numbers of young adults who still identify as Christians hold a nominal faith that has only scant connection to historic Christian orthodoxy. Their true faith is something the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – basically a shallow, self-centered, feel-good, emotion-driven faith that’s all about being nice and feeling happy with oneself. Smith and his colleagues do their survey work on Millennials, but he has said he is confident that quite a few older American Christians hold the same vapid faith. I concur.

The point is that American Christianity is so shallowly rooted that it will not be able to withstand the strong currents of post-Christian culture. Anecdotally, in my travels around the country, especially to Christian colleges, I am hearing the same thing. One Evangelical professor at a conservative Christian college told me that these kids are all nice and big-hearted, but they come to college knowing next to nothing about Christianity, with no formation at all. The main problem is not these kids, but their parents, their churches, and their Christian schools. Few people want to face the reality of this spiritual and cultural crisis, and to make the kinds of radical changes that are going to be necessary if the faith is going to survive into the coming generations.

American Christians simply cannot imagine that the faith might not be here for their descendants. The history of Europe in the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, ought to disabuse them of that fallacy. I was quite taken by a 2015 book by the historian Edward J. Watts, titled “The Final Pagan Generation.” It’s a short history of Roman elites born just before Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century. They lived through the collapse of paganism, which had been the religion of the Empire for many centuries. It all happened in a single century. Watts shows that these men – intelligent, cultured men – had no idea what was happening around them. They could not imagine that the world that formed them could dissolve so quickly. But it happened. I think it’s happening to us Christians today.

Movsesian: Of course, to call it the “Benedict Option” is to conjure up an image of a monastic retreat from the world—something suggested, as well, by the book’s cover photo of Mount St. Michel. And some Christian critics have taken to you task for that. But that isn’t quite what you mean, is it? You’re not calling on all Christians to live as monastics. Could you explain? Is the Benedict Option only for spiritual virtuosos? What about regular people who live in the world but would like a deeper Christian life?

Dreher: No, I’m not at all encouraging Christians to run for the hills and live like monks. Rather, I’m saying that all of us believers have to live lives of much greater spiritual discipline, with much thicker ties to our local churches and Christian communities. If we don’t, we are not going to make it as Christians through this Dark Age upon us. That’s not just an anxious American journalist saying this; Father Cassian Folsom, the former prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, the saint’s hometown, told me exactly that when I first met him several years ago. This is not a game.

I call this project the Benedict Option after the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous final paragraph in “After Virtue,” in which he recalled the example of St. Benedict, leaving the ruins of imperial Rome to found a monastic order. MacIntyre said that today, we await “a new – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict” to help those who wish to live out the traditional virtues create resilient communities capable of doing this amid the chaos and barbarism of our own time. In my book, I ask what would a new and very different St. Benedict look like today? What would he tell us?

We lay Christians – Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox – have a lot to learn from the Benedictine tradition. In the book, I talk about certain ways of thinking and living that the Benedictines have from the early sixth century Rule of St. Benedict that we can draw from and adapt to our life as lay Christians. Few of us can leave the world in a literal sense, but we all have to figure out how to live in this world without surrendering our hearts, minds, and souls to it. In this, the Benedictines can help – and so can the examples of various faithful Christian communities around the country, and even in Europe. The point is that we all have to be what Pope Benedict XVI called “creative minorities” to live out the faith joyfully and convincingly in the post-Christian West.

St. Benedict, in his Rule, said it was for beginners in the Christian life. It certainly won’t seem that way to newcomers to the Rule, to whom it will seem quite austere. But again, we are not monks, and cannot be expected to live strictly by the Rule. What I love about Benedictine spirituality in general is that it is a simple, everyday spirituality. It is about consecrating the ordinary habits and routines of everyday life to Christ, and filling all that we do with an awareness of the abiding presence of God. It is a highly incarnational spirituality. The saint tells his monks in the Rule to treat even their utensils and tools as if they were sacred vessels of the altar – this, because everything is a gift from God, and must be regarded as precious. If you take the Rule seriously, you cannot live mindlessly, as most of us do – and let me confess that I am a great sinner in this regard. But I’m trying to repent. The Benedictines take a vow of “conversion of life,” which formalizes the life of repentance that all followers of Jesus, no matter what their state, must live.

Movsesian: You give the classical Christian schools movement, and the growing number of Christian houses and student centers at American universities, as examples of how the Benedict Option can work in contemporary America. Could you say some more about these examples?

Dreher: The classical Christian school movement attempts to educate Christian children according to a medieval pedagogical model. But more importantly, it works on a different anthropological model of what a person is, and what education is for. At the risk of oversimplification, classical Christian school educates young people for virtue, to know and to serve the Lord as their highest calling. It does not follow the standard modern model, but adding some religion classes and chapel. It’s more radical than that. It rejects the idea that education is only about acquiring information and skills to make someone a productive worker, and to enable them to follow their dreams. True, there’s nothing wrong in principle with being a productive worker or following one’s dreams, but that is not what education has historically been. Until relatively recently, education was about passing on a culture: the culture of the Christian West, at the heart of which was worship of the God of the Bible.

Classical Christian education, then, sees as its primary goal forming the hearts and minds of students as followers of Christ and inheritors of the civilization that arose from the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem. This model expects students to encounter Christ, yes, but also Socrates, Virgil, Homer, the Fathers of the Church, Dante, and so on. If we don’t do this, if we don’t tell our civilization’s story to ourselves and our children, we will forget. Modernity is defined by the deliberate loss of cultural memory. Classical Christian education is an act of radical defiance.

Christian student centers at universities – the kind I praise in The Benedict Option – are simply institutions that serve as the hub of Christian community on a secular campus. I also praise innovative communal housing for Christian students. The point is that believers need to build thick Christian community, especially within universities, which are often hostile to traditional Christianity, if only by default. If building Christian resilience in a post-Christian culture is a primary goal, then these small communities of faith and obedience are necessary. In the book, I write about some of these “creative minorities” at the University of Virginia, and elsewhere, who are trying new things. It’s very encouraging.

Movsesian: I’ve noticed something puzzling in some of progressive criticisms of the book. When conservative Christians try to influence law and politics, progressives criticize them for pushing their views on others. Fair enough. But you’re arguing the opposite. You’re arguing for a strategic withdrawal from law and politics; you say many times that law and politics are not the heart of the matter. And yet you’re drawing criticism from progressives as well. Why do you think that is?

Dreher: It’s bizarre, isn’t it? I was on a radio interview recently, and was disoriented by the program’s host pressing me on this point. I wanted to say, “Look, people like you have been denouncing us conservative Christians for years for our involvement in politics. Now that I’m saying we should withdraw, you criticize us for that too. Make up your mind!” To steal from Ambrose Bierce, a progressive is someone who lives in fear that someone, somewhere, is praying to a God he believes is really there. I really do think that winning is not enough for them; they will not be satisfied until they have converted every last one of us heretics.

They are working themselves up into a frenzy over Trump and theocracy. It’s crazy. Someone said on Twitter the other day that the left is watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” and worrying about theocracy, while conservative Christians are reading The Benedict Option and talking about how we’re going to make it through these post-Christian times. I was recently reading a paper by a radical black philosophy professor in which he wrote that the very existence of white people in America is a threat to black Americans. It was an astonishing document, but it gave me real insight into the progressive mind. I genuinely believe that they fear that America will not be a safe space as long as we’re here.

What that means for the future, I don’t know. But we had better be ready to suffer for the faith. I get frustrated by some more-or-less conservative Christians who seem to believe that being “winsome” is going to protect them from persecution by progressives. You can be as winsome as you want, but as long as you hold to Christian orthodoxy on issues like abortion, euthanasia, and sexuality, you’re going to be hated as bigots. That’s not license to hate them back, of course, but it is an exhortation to prepare yourself for the world we actually live in, not the one that makes sense to you now.

Movsesian: I wonder if we could talk about tradition, which runs like a red thread through your book. You argue that it’s necessary for Christians to return to tradition in order to resist “liquid modernity,” which denies the value of all attachments and identities except those individuals freely choose for themselves. In liquid modernity, the only thing that has meaning is momentary individual choice. This is quite destabilizing for individuals and for society; that’s where tradition can be helpful.

As co-director of the Tradition Project, I have sympathy for your view! But I think there’s a paradox about tradition in a pluralist society like ours. In such a society, tradition is itself a matter of individual choice; there’s no avoiding it. Tradition is just one available option among many for an individual to choose; in the end, each of us is free to choose tradition or to reject it; to choose it and then reject it; or to choose some aspects of it and not others. This is true even of people brought up in a tradition—like the kids attending classical Christian schools today. What do you make of this paradox?

Dreher: There’s no escaping it. I am quite aware of the near-absurdity of my own personal case: a 50-year-old man raised a nominal Methodist, a convert to Catholicism in my mid-20s, converting to Orthodox Christianity at 39, and having moved around the country a great deal for my career, writing a book in praise of tradition. Yet … what else is there? Charles Taylor says that we all live in a secular age, which he defines as the awareness of the possibility that we don’t have to live the way that we do. We cannot escape choice.

This is why our St. Benedict, if we are to have one, must be new and very different, as MacIntyre said. The first Benedict emerged in a West that was still new to Christianity. Now we have been through the Christian era, and can’t un-see what we have seen. And the consciousness of an ordinary person living in the 21st century can hardly be compared to the way a 6th century layman saw the world conceptually and imaginatively. This point hardly needs elaboration, but it conditions any approach to tradition we make today.

To bring this discussion down to earth, I think a lot these days about my late father and sister, who were in most respects traditionalists without knowing what they were doing. That is, they assumed that the rural way of life they had in south Louisiana was going to continue forever. They were quite intelligent, but they strongly rejected as alien anything that challenged their way of seeing the world. That meant rejecting me, and the things that I loved and stood for, though I didn’t realize how thorough this rejection was until I returned to south Louisiana after my sister’s 2011 death. My dad died in 2015. The family has not held together, for various reasons – and this was something I never expected. I deeply admired the unselfconscious traditionalism that my dad and sister represented. They didn’t theorize this stuff; they lived it. But I can see in retrospect that they believed that force of their iron wills was sufficient to ward off all threats to the things they valued most, especially family and place. It was a tragic mistake. Their rigidity, by which I mean their unwillingness to adapt and to change certain things that needed to be changed for the sake of holding on to the things that really mattered the most – that was the fundamental flaw that doomed the entire thing. They thought that stoically preserving their fortress-like outer walls would keep the interior safe. They were wrong.

It’s heartbreaking and tragic in the fullest sense of the word, and a very Southern tragedy too.  But I try to learn from what happened. I suspect I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to learn from what happened. Right now, I think the most basic lesson is the need for discernment in our approach to tradition. There is no substitute for it. We have to know what we have to change so we can conserve what is essential. This is hard.

On the more optimistic side, though, I believe that we are starting to see more and more people realizing that the future is not determined. Yes, I think we have to be aware of all that is against us in post-Christian modernity, but we also have to be aware that God can surprise us – and we can surprise ourselves. I mean, look, Napoleon closed the monastery in Norcia, St. Benedict’s hometown,  after at least eight centuries of constant presence there. For nearly 200 years, there were no monks. And then, at the turn of the millennium, a handful of American Benedictines who wanted to live in the old Benedictine way re-opened it. Now they have a thriving community of 16 monks. The average age is 33. Who could have expected that?

In The Benedict Option, I quote one of those monks, Father Martin Bernhard, who left the Texas Hill Country to follow his calling to Norcia. When I visited him there in early 2016, I told him that they are a sign of contradiction to the modern world. He smiled, and said that anybody could do something out of the ordinary if they are willing “to pick up what we have lost and to make it real again.”

The monk told me, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock.’ That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.”

God knows it will not be easy to revive traditional Christian life and practices. But again: what else is there?

Movsesian: Much of your book concerns the impact of the sexual revolution. This has been discussed a great deal elsewhere; frankly, it is the aspect of your book that most causes controversy. But the book is actually about much more. For example, you argue that tradition-minded Christians need to find a different relation to work than many of us have. Could you please explain?

Dreher: The main thing you notice about the Benedictine life is that it is a life of harmony, of wholeness. The fragmentation and compartmentalization that we have all come to assume is our natural state in modernity simply does not exist for Benedictines. Everything they do is ordered towards God, and directed by love for Him, and desire to unify everything in Him. For the Benedictine, all of life is prayer. Work, for example, is regarded as creative participation in God’s fruitfulness and ordering of creation. How much differently would we regard our labor if we truly considered it to be for the glory of God above all things?

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the pilgrim Dante meets in the Inferno his old teacher, Brunetto Latini, who is damned. Brunetto reminds Dante that he taught him to write for glory – his own. Later on the pilgrimage, in Purgatory, Dante learns that this is wrong. The glory of mankind fades quickly. What lasts are works done to glorify God, who is Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. This sounds very la-tee-da, maybe, but it’s a profoundly practical point of everyday Christian spirituality. Our lives are not our own, and if what we do with the work of our hands is truly worthy, it will glorify God. That is, our work will be like an icon, pointing, however indirectly, to God. An insurance salesman who fulfills that vocation honestly, serving God by serving his customers, glorifies God. So does a baker, a teacher, a bus driver and so on. We are all called to be artists in that way, to regard our labor as a prayer. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word meaning “work of the people.” In that sense, our entire lives, not just what we do in church, must be liturgical, and regarded as a form of worship.

The work chapter in The Benedict Option focuses heavily on preparing Christians to lose their jobs for the sake of fidelity to Christ. There will be some fields that will be off limits to faithful Christians, who will not be able to compromise their beliefs. For example, a prominent Christian physician who asked not to be named told me that he would not advise his own children to go into medicine. He believes that very soon, performing abortions, euthanasia, transgender surgeries, and things like that will be  required for doctors to get their licenses. I spoke with religious liberty attorneys and law professors who say this sort of thing is coming fast at traditional Christians across a number of professional fields. We will be put to the test. Will we be willing to sacrifice professional ambition for the sake of the Gospel? We had better be, because the trial is coming.

I like to tell people who think I’m talking about running for the hills that no, I believe that God’s instruction to the Hebrews in Babylonian exile, in Jeremiah 29, is a good guide for us today in the post-Christian West. We are to dwell in the city and pray for its peace and prosperity. But I also remind them of the story of the Hebrew exiles Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were state officials in Babylon, but when Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to worship an idol, they chose the prospect of a martyr’s death over apostasy. What was it about their lives in Babylon, even as servants of the king, that gave them the courage to accept martyrdom before betraying God? We Christians had better contemplate this question now.

Movsesian: The last chapter of your book addresses technology, and how Christians need to develop a better relationship to it. To you, technology is an ideology that most Christians, even traditionalist Christians, accept without thinking. Actually, I found this the most provocative and challenging part of your book. Could you explain what you mean by “Technological Man”?

Dreher: Thanks for asking that. It’s one of the most important parts of the book, but nobody ever asks about it. All they want to talk about is sex and politics. Anyway, Technological Man is a term that originates with Michael Hanby, the contemporary Catholic philosopher, who is a very important thinker right now. As Hanby puts it, technology is not just a tool, but a worldview. It holds that there is no intrinsic meaning to nature, that the world is just matter over which man should extend his control.

To Technological Man, freedom is liberation from anything not freely chosen. In pre-modern times, people allowed their religious convictions, broadly speaking, to govern how they used their tools. In the modern era, we have become mastered by our tools, and allow them – our technology – to define our religious convictions, and our sense of how the world works. Technological Man believes that if it can be done, it should be done.

There’s a new book out by the historian Yuval Noah Harari, called Homo Deus. It is a paean to Technological Man. Harari foresees the near future as a time in which mankind, having freed itself from religious superstition, allows his will to run as far as his imagination and his technological innovation will take him. Harari looks forward to genetically re-engineering the human species, for example. He says that Silicon Valley is the most important religious place on earth today. I think he’s right. We are witnessing the birth of an idolatrous new religion, one that is taking most Christians of the West right along into it. And many of the most conservative Christians barely understand what is happening.

This is why Father Cassian said that Christians who don’t do some form of the Benedict Option aren’t going to make it.  But we aren’t going to make it by force of will alone. My hope and my prayer is that this book awakens the creative minorities among contemporary Christians, and that God uses it to call forth the new and very different St. Benedicts that we so desperately need.

 

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