My experience of Dreher’s BenOp is that he trying to posit a response to a dystopia as he sees America today. This dystopia is brought about by liberalism, which is rooted in the Enlightenment (1620 – 1789, depending on who you read). But the nub of it is a bemoaning of moral decline, most especially anything LGBTIQ, because this creates an inequality. Dreher cites the Obergefell decision in 2015 where the US Supreme Court voted in favour of the constitutional right for gay marriage as the turning point of the current moral slide.
Dreher periodically quotes MacIntyre in support of his reasoning, but I think he misquotes as MacIntyre is not speaking to the same issues. MacIntyre speaks of a looming dark age, but his argument is against the modern liberal individualist who is morally and ideologically blind. MacIntyre is interested in human agency and the renewal of moral political philosophy. But MacIntyre’s concern is to guide a society to value human life, he speaks of community, economics, politics with a view to developing an interactive community, a mutuality of moral value. When reading MacIntyre it is very clear that he never really left his first passion, Marxism.
MacIntyre doesn’t focus on hot topics nor seeks to speak to micro moral issues, he seeks a broad view of human potential. One of his concerns is the loss of ‘utility’ a teleological principle – if a rule or an act is right it will produce happiness. Utilititarian thought from Mo Tseu, Aristotle, to Bentham and Mill has been a deeply held ethic historically. This is not really ideal for Dreher.
In the BenOp, Dreher claims “This book does not offer a political agenda.” (p. 4). I beg to differ, it is indeed a political agenda, and a very conservative one. Dreher also has a conservative moral agenda. He quotes a situation (in regard to church discipline) whereby a Protestant church excommunicated a couple who divorced and refused church counselling. It sent a chill down my spine. This pining for theocracy with a conservative political agenda is akin to a fundamentalist wonderland or worse, a modern version of old Geneva, and deeply troubling.
Wrapped up in this is that hoary old argument over the sexual revolution as the nail in the coffin for ‘moral’ society. He writes “But if we use sex in a disordered way …” (p. 195) that is, outside of heterosexual marriage, then it is destructive. In support of this he cites single mothers, pornography, infidelity, and abuse, all of which, by the way, precede the sexual revolution. I also object to his generalisations which create a hollow pastiche, he doesn’t nuance his comments or delve into definitions. Disordered sex as I see it is anything abusive, including sexual assault and child abuse, I don’t see single parenting as either abusive or disordered. Pornography is a loaded descriptor and certainly needs definition, are we including erotica, naturism, Black Lace stories, what? Back to single beds in movies about married couples?
As I was reading BenOp I couldn’t help but be reminded of another book, from 1970, “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay. It is completely different, and theologically spurious, but the connect for me was the moralising. Lindsay cites the sexual revolution as one of the main proofs of the end of the world.
BenOp is a story of binaries, it offers a black and white vision, it subscribes to dualism, notably secular and sacred.
Professor John Milbank in his recent work “Beyond Secular Order” claims that there was in fact never a purely secular reality. And Milbank has a word for the would be reactionaries: “To those ‘anti-Constantinian’ Christians who would have preferred that the Church remain a quasi-Montanist nomadic puritanical sect … this is to have a somewhat deficient sense of both mission and common humanity.” (p. 248) Rowan Williams takes up a similar theme in his work “Faith in the Public Square.”
Milbank and Williams take a positive view of Christianity alive in the world today, infusing institution and offering a counter cultural view. Dreher wants to offer something positive but essentially he offers a reductionist view. When he proclaims the need for a very new St. Benedict it is a reactionary claim rather than an action. I think he miss-casts the Benedictines as withdrawing to cloisters, but if you read the Rule it is one of strategic engagement with the world.
Dreher also misses the wonderful engagement of a variety of Christian communities across the world. L’Abri, Iona, Northumbria, Wellspring, The New Parish Collective, Verge, to name a broad range of open community. There are hundreds, all with a guiding Rule of Life or principle. They already serve as a hub for sustainable Christian community as counter culture.
Forming community on the foundation of being against something is not for me, and doesn’t correlate to the original Benedict let alone promise a very new one. The BenOp raises some good questions, but in the main is too conservative and reactionary for my liking. Besides, I don’t agree with his assessment of the world nor his moral agenda. And I’m not waiting for a very new St. Benedict, I’m more interested in applying the principles of Benedict’s Rule, engaging with the world, and living the principle of loving one another, perhaps another form of utility we keep missing. My vision of community would be compassion, empathy, service, justice and inclusion.