Walker Percy, “Notes from a Novel About the End of the World”

“What [the novelist] sees first in the Western world is the massive failure of Christendom itself. But it is a peculiar failure and he is apt to see it quite differently from the scientific humanist, for example, who may quite frankly regard orthodox Christianity as an absurd anachronism. The novelist, to tell the truth, is much more interested in the person of the scientific humanist than in science in religion. Nor does he set much store by the usual complaint of Christians that the enemies are materialism and atheism and Communism. It is at least an open question whether the world which would follow a total victory of the most vociferous of the anti-Communists would be an improvement over the present world with all its troubles” (111-112).

The Sin of “The Sin of Believing”

Last week I wrote a pretty critical review of Rod Dreher’s book-length articulation of his proposed course of action for the world in which we all live– The Benedict Option. I had many issues with Dreher’s conservative reaction to the modern world and the way in which he thought one must act to preserve a “true Christianity” in the midst of what he sees as a deluge of things that would pervert and subvert it.

However, in a wonderful bit of serendipity, I have been provided with an opportunity to push back the other way as the Times Literary Supplement has published an article on its website that swings entirely too far the other way and fundamentally misunderstands religion.

Arif Ahmed writes in “The sin of believing” that:

Religious beliefs are supposed to be “special” in a way that demands special respect. They are not special; they are just plain false. And as Clifford shows, but we seem unable to learn, they deserve no more respect, or funding, than the contrived absurdities – for which there is quite as much basis in observable fact – of the “birthers”, the “truthers” and the Elvis revivalists.

Ahmed, a member of the philosophy faculty at Cambridge, draws upon a statement by British philosopher W.K. Clifford that “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Using this as his starting point, Ahmed argues for the immorality and injustice of religion because it is something that cannot be proven in an “objective” or “scientific” way. Comparing religious belief to conspiracy theories and climate change denial, Ahmed writes of how one might “deny that men walked on the moon because the evidence that they did, overwhelming if treated in the ‘ordinary’ way, is simply irrelevant if taken in some special way that happens to suit you. How is religion different?” as “The evidence is all on the side of unbelief.” It is because of this, because it cannot be proven in this “objective” and “evidence-based” way that religion and religious belief should be thrown on the ash heap as something that is immoral and wrong.

What Ahmed gets wrong is apparent from the start, something that so many who argue in this sweeping and overly generalized way against religious belief get wrong as well. Ahmed does not fully grasp what religion is, what it addresses, and what it tries to answer. I do not aim to speak on behalf of all religious beliefs so I will be focusing mostly on Catholic/Christian belief as it is what I am most familiar with as a (very bad) Catholic. But these things apply to most-to-all forms of religious belief.

Ahmed describes religious belief as though it needed to be a scientific method and process when it is something that has to be taken on faith and, almost by definition, cannot be proven in the same way as a scientific theory. One of the great philosophers, particularly of the Christian variety, Soren Kierkegaard addresses this notion throughout his writings. I won’t aim to put together a comprehensive selection of all the points where  the Danish philosopher discusses these things, but I will call to mind selections from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. In that, Kierkegaard writes:

“It is Christianity itself that attaches an enormous importance to the individual subject; it wants to be involved with him, him alone, and thus with each one individually […] It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence […] Revelation is marked by mystery, eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity; if this is not maintained, then the esthetic and the religious merge in common confusion. … The religious lies in the dialectic of inwardness deepening and therefore, with regard to the conception of God, this means that he himself is moved, is changed. An action in the eternal transforms the individual’s existence.”

What Kierkegaard references here (and what recurs throughout his writing) is this emphasis on the individual (a hallmark of existentialism) but particularly in matters of religion and religious belief. The faith of Kierkegaard is one that cannot be arrived at through a rational or logical process but rather comes from revelation and personal experience. In short, what Ahmed wants religious belief to be or to do is simply what it cannot do. Religious faith, particularly Judeo-Christian faith, is something that cannot be arrived at through scientific processes and validated through evidence as other things might.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)Another idea that Kierkegaard refers to throughout his philosophy is the idea of the paradox being at the heart of religious belief (with the biggest example being Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as referenced in Fear and Trembling). It is the paradox, the state of exception, that defines religious belief (particularly as it’s depicted by Kierkegaard). The core tenet of Christianity, that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins to give him eternal life and to defeat death, overturns the established and natural order. This doesn’t address what Ahmed would require out of religious belief but it shows how what Ahmed wants is not something that religion will provide and that it would not suppose to provide. That is not the question that religion is answering.

It also makes sense for me to refer to Walker Percy here because his thinking about religion is particularly apropos, given that he was a man with a background in medicine and science and one who had the utmost respect for the logical and scientific in matters where they were apropos. When Percy was asked in an interview for The Paris Review, he described his Catholicism (one steeped in existential philosophy as well) as “a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding—all of which he is, but not entirely.” The idea being that in addition to all these different ways that man can be understood (as a biological organism, as a member of an economic system), there is something more to him. Man cannot be reduced to simply one thing. Again, I cannot speak authoritatively about the many belief systems but what persists throughout the many Christian denominations (and throughout the religions of the Abrahamic faith) is this view of the individual. Rather than oppressing man, as Ahmed and others might argue organized religion does, it liberates man by accepting man as something special and unique. While science can and does offer explanations and answers for many things, it does not provide the answer for everything. What is not answered by the scientific, these things that go beyond what can be defined in such concrete ways, is addressed by religion. The inability or unwillingness to understand this dynamic is what hinders Arif Ahmed’s article and that leaves it as a polemic against a two-dimensional conception of religious belief rather than what religion actually and truly is.

Terry Eagleton, in his wonderful review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for the London Review of Books, makes an excellent point:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claim that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need. The world was not the consequence of an inexorable chain of cause and effect. Like a Modernist work of art, there is no necessity about it at all, and God might well have come to regret his handiwork some aeons ago. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. God is an artist who did it for the sheer love or hell of it, not a scientist at work on a magnificently rational design that will impress his research grant body no end.

Ahmed, (not surprisingly) like Dawkins, requires the evidence of the “chain of cause and effect” to show between God and the world for religious belief to be justified. But what many, dare I say most, religious believers and thinkers know is that is not what God is and not the purview of religion. While the rational and scientific do have their place, it is the realm of religion that deals in this decidedly irrational and superfluous act of love that is creation and existence. This is what is at the heart of religious belief (particularly the Judeo-Christian belief) and it is also that which Ahmed so conspicuously overlooks.

The Benedict Option– A Review

One opinion shared by people across the ideological spectrum is that things aren’t great in the world right now. From the greatest progressive to the most fervent conservative, you’ll find an argument that things are lacking right now. Morals and ethics are at an all-time low, there’s a lack of engagement with issues of substance, our concern for our fellow-man is lacking, religion is fading from society, religion is too predominant and prescriptive in the world, you’ll hear it all. And you’ll hear a wide range of proposed solutions and remedies to these issues. One example of this, and one that has gained a great deal of traction amongst those interested in religious matters, is an idea put forth by The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is something that Dreher has been writing about for a while and documented online but he’s just released a book length consideration of this idea entitled, appropriately enough, The Benedict Option.

As defined and articulated by Dreher in his book, the Benedict Option is

“a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant culture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper” (18-19).

The Benedict to which Dreher alludes is Saint Benedict of Nursia who, after leaving Rome because of its rampant decadence, authored the Rule of Benedict and founded monasteries and a monastic order. What Dreher has put forth as the Benedict Option is not necessarily a full-scale retreat from the world but, instead of “looking to prop up the current order” that is the modern world, “recogniz[ing] that the kingdom of which they are citizens is not of this world and thus will “not […] compromise that citizenship” (17). It does not negate the modern world or wholly deny it, but rather it seeks to minimize it and downplay its importance to the Christian.

It is not surprising, given that Dreher is presenting a concept driven to some degree by a disengagement with the modern world, that the Benedict Option is plagued by an overly simplistic line of thinking. While Dreher makes it clear that the Benedict Option is not simply a retreat from the world by denying everything that comes along with it, it still paints the present world as something that is pretty definitely not good. While he might not intend to be that reductionist or simplistic, that is how it comes off. Some of the complaints articulated in The Benedict Option are valid and true. Saying that the bulk of western civilization has become superficial and disposable is certainly something I agree with and I certainly agree with some of the overreach of the Enlightenment and modernity that he discusses in his second chapter. While I, and many others, would say that there have indeed been these instances of overreach through modernity and technological advances, what Dreher prescribes swings too far the other way. Dreher describes a “long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning  […] to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46). Again, it’s not so much the sentiment that I necessarily disagree with or that I think it’s wrong but rather it’s the degree to which the idea is played out that I resist. While certain aspects of the modern world do take away from meaningful connection, to deny that the advancements in technology and the progress that has been made would be foolish. It would also be foolish to deny that there weren’t issues in those past times that created issues that were, in their own like, like the ones we encounter now (in terms of their effect on people).

This aspect of the book made me think of a quote from Mad Men: “Maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all. Bet there are people in the Bible walking around, complaining about kids today.” In a show that is very much about the relationship between the old order and the new, it probably bears a bit of consideration in this context and is relevant. Throughout history, everyone has assumed that the next generation and the younger people and the newest things would be the undoing of the world as they knew it. Dreher, by contrast, seems to be saying that this time, this moment, is the end of it all and it’s where everything has gone astray (with special attention paid to the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage throughout the United States). But, in reality, this has been something that has been going on for a long time and to point to this instance as some kind of absolute or sea change (he even refers to this moment in terms of the flood and Noah as depicted in the Book of Genesis) is profoundly reductive and a bit silly.

The proposal that Dreher puts forth is one that necessitates a certain degree of inherent privilege. Those who can afford to live a slightly more isolated or withdrawn life, who can make choices in terms of where their kids go to school (more on this later), who can make choices exclusively on principle, those people are the ones who are the safest and most secure in society. Basically the Benedict Option is an option for straight, white, upper-middle class people. If you are any number of minorities and for whom the system in place is already set up to disadvantage you, the choices the Benedict Option asks you to make are not feasible. Maybe that’s the point Dreher is trying to make, that this choice and to adopt this approach is a radical choice, but for some (and, from how it reads to me, the target audience for this) it is going to be easier and more feasible to make that choice than it is for others. That necessary privilege is something that is never addressed.

If those were the only points of disagreement between Dreher and myself, I might not feel as strongly in my disagreement with his concept. However, there are two points he makes that illicit a reaction that goes beyond benign disagreement to an outright distaste. One is something that runs throughout the book (how he addresses the LGBTQ community) and the other is one particular section (his section on public education). The way Dreher sees those who are members of the LGBTQ community is as people making a choice with their sexual orientation or gender identity based on a broader desire to emphasize pleasure and immediacy and gratification. This attitude rings so profoundly hollow to me. It casts that choice as a lifestyle one rather than something that is inherent that no one has control over. It also sees rights such as those to get married civilly (not in a church) as being some kind of overreach. While making the occasional perfunctory gesture by saying that Benedict Option Christians need to be more open and welcoming, Dreher would deny gay people the right to get married and, what is perhaps more important, the legal standing that goes along with it. Dreher describes the Obergefell decision as “the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively” (9), as though the struggle of gays and lesbians to avoid unjust discrimination is merely a victory for lifestyle. I will certainly argue for moments and instances in which the spirit of the 1960s reached too far and we’ve gone astray from what would be best for everyone, but that gay people can now be civilly married (again, this has nothing to do with a church and is not forcing any church to marry anyone they do not want) is not a part of that. Dreher wants the more apparent existence of gay people and their desire for equal rights and treatment to be the product of this era of hedonism dominated by the libido and pleasure-seeking. Instead, because we have been able to encounter and understand members of the LGBTQ community our views have expanded and we understand them better (and here I think of Christianity as a religion based so much on witness and encounter). This is not something that happened overnight. Now we are more aware and we have seen more and thus our views have changed and progressed.

My distaste for his comments on public education might be a bit more personal (as someone who is the product, by and large, of a public school education) but nevertheless is something that is real and points to the major flaws in the book. Dreher writes “[b]ecause public education in America is neither rightly ordered, not religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (155). Beyond the fact that this is a highly privileged position to take (the only people who can afford to turn their back on public education are, by and large, those who can afford private education of some kind), the idea that public school is “not religiously informed” and that is a reason to turn one’s back on the whole enterprise seems ridiculous to me. It is not nor should it be because this is a space for anyone, not just one who follows a certain creed or belief. And while I do have my issues with the state of education in this country (as anyone who spends any time in any kind of educational environment will have), I do not think casting off our public school system as a lost cause is the way to proceed.

What comes through in The Benedict Option is that secular, in Dreher’s conception, necessarily equals bad. All the things of the “secular” world– public education, the assistance of public works and government, popular culture (or, even more broadly, a not explicitly religious culture)– are inherently flawed and not worthwhile. This seems like a sweeping generalization to me and one that is unnecessarily reductive and untenable to boot. I’d refer to a famous quotation from the Bible in response to this: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While I do not profess to be a biblical scholar and do recognize that there can be robust debate about the proper interpretation of that scripture, I would personally contend that it acknowledges the existence of something of a secular state and that it exists alongside the church but not against it. The idea of a separation between the church and the state is a good thing and thus we should not strive to make the state into a church (and vice versa). Each is stronger and better if they are their own individual, autonomous entities. Now, my beliefs and morality that are derived from my personal religious beliefs will affect what I think the job of that secular state is but it is a secular state nevertheless and one that will not reflect all of my personal/religious/moral beliefs.

To say that a secular or non-religious infrastructure is automatically bad or flawed because it is not directly reflective of the religious seems problematic. As Patrick Gilger, S.J. writes in his review of the book for America Magazine, Dreher’s “reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift.” He cannot or will not accept any kind of good unless it comes from a religious source (and his particular, conservative version of it at that). I think specifically of Dignitatis humanae and what it has to say regarding religious freedom and the state, as it affirms (as I understand it) that the state’s duty is not to do the specific work of the church and that one must have the freedom to discover the truth and cannot be forced into it. This allows for a “common good” to exist, something that is shared by all in a way that spans creeds and beliefs and it is the duty of the secular state to uphold that good. Just because that “common good” is not tied to one specific religious belief does not mean it is bad or should be overlooked.

Just as the secular is automatically treated as inherently negative, so too is anything that is more liberal or not orthodox or conservative. Dreher notes the concept of “Moralistic Theraputic Deism” that is “mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness” and is “the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort” (10-11). Mainline Protestantism along with the more liberal wings of Catholicism get lumped into this as Dreher appears to be saying that there cannot be a liberal Christian belief that is truly Christian. While there is always a conservative impulse or component that goes along with most organized religion (and I mean conservative in the actual definition of it/the way it is meant to be understood, not in the reductive American way we think of it to mean right-wing politics), Dreher’s seeming belief that the truly Christian belief has no place in the more liberal modern world is very limited.

Admittedly, I come at these things from a Catholic perspective and can’t speak as much to other denominations and faith traditions, but Dreher’s thesis seems to ignore and overlook much of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Now for Dreher that might not be such a bad thing and those reforms might be something that has led to the state we are in, but nevertheless they are a major part of the largest Christian denomination in the world. And the reforms that came out of the Council have yielded a great deal of good– whatever you think of the changes in the liturgy and the move away from Latin, the reforms in attitudes towards other religions (especially towards the Jewish people) and other Christian denominations are good and reflect the balance that can exist between a conservative past and a liberal present.

Additionally, with Dreher professing a desire to return to some kind of “authentic” or true Christianity, I found there to be a startlingly small amount of time considering the plight of the poor and what one should be doing for them. I understand that, in the eyes of some, a strong social safety net created by liberal policies and an active and involved government is not a way of trying to care for the forgotten in our world (I understand it but I think it’s pretty ridiculous to not see how those things are related, but I digress…) but to not offer any suggestions or consideration of this seems to limit the Benedict Option’s ability to stand as some kind of return to true Christian teaching. Perhaps Dreher’s conception of Christianity does not emphasize those qualities or sees the idea of something like Matthew 25: 31-46 not in quite these explicit terms, but the fact that there isn’t an engagement with ides of social justice and concern for everyone including the least and most vulnerable is decidedly problematic. I do agree with Dreher that, particularly in America, we do not have the religion we once did. However, I believe that its absence has more to do with us not caring for the outsider and the poor and the forgotten, that we do not exhibit compassion and that we do not try to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The loss of these things has less to do with liberal/progressive/Democratic politicians and more with the right-wing and the Republican party that has turned religious belief into a series of bromides and bumper stickers while supporting a most cutthroat economic policy that ends up hurting the marginalized the most.

For one who professes to be such a fan of Walker Percy (the author that provided the title for this blog as well as much of my own outlook on life, though in a slightly more liberal/progressive way), I find that Rod Dreher and The Benedict Option is not consistent with what Percy (and what the Second Vatican Council) had to say about man. Percy, influenced by Gabriel Marcel, believed in a conception of man as a wayfarer or pilgrim making his or her way in the world. It also mirrors the third and religious stage in the view of Soren Kierkegaard, not the pleasure-seeking asthete nor the withdrawn and stoic ethical man. While Percy did often (and quite justly) point out the flaws and foibles of the modern world and the times when it went astray, he never left or denied the modern world itself. It often makes me think of the Minor Doxology within the Catholic Church, “As it was in the beginning, and now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” There is that present, that “now,” in which one must live. It cannot be denied. There is also the beginning (or the past) and what ever shall be, but that “now” is there and cannot be denied or ignored. Pope Francis described, in an interview with America Magazine “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” That the church is in the midst of things, doing the work of healing and salvation, requires it to be present and engaged in some way with the modern world. Dreher, in The Benedict Option, points to a church that is removed from the “battle” and opts to only tend to the health of a select few.