Saturday 27 May 2017

The Benedict Option: that review at last

Scottish nominalist philosopher John Major (1467-1550) denying responsibility for the sins of modernity

Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus...

Which, I should add, is a comment on my labours, not Rod Dreher's.

As I noted in my previous post, I've been putting off reading The Benedict Option. And then, having written that post and having released a flurry of tweets on the first few chapters,

I put off finishing it. I think that's a confession that I didn't really enthuse over it. But putting all that aside, I'm going to start off by suggesting two ways in which other readers -and indeed myself in part- have done the book a disservice by expecting it to be a different book.

1) It can't provide a detailed answer to everything. It's too short. It's written by a journalist not St Benedict. It has to appeal to a popular audience. Secularization is a phenomenon which has generated a vast academic literature and evangelism to the secularised: this book can't replace that depth of discussion and it's no use blaming it for not doing so.

2) It has to attract attention. This is a book written for the trade press and intended to reach a big audience.These are perfectly reasonable purposes, but it does mean that it has to be exciting and to grab its audience. Again, it's no use blaming the book for not coughing in ink.

Given those parameters, could the book be done any better? Possibly, but it's hard to imagine how. Moreover, I think Dreher's main purpose is simply a wake up call: unless Christians do something now, secularisation of some sort will continue to destroy church attendance and commitment. And I think he's absolutely right about that and I do think that most of us need to face this with greater alarm than we do. The perfect reader for this book is someone who is suspicious that things are going wrong in Christian practice, but who hasn't really thought much about the nature of that going wrong, and who has little idea what to do about it. If this were the first book you were reading about the subject, then it would be hard to better it. The worst reader? Probably someone like me...

Another needful prefatory remark is that this book is primarily (and explicitly) intended to deal with the US situation. Moreover (and this is less explicit) it's a book that works best if regarded at directed at a peculiarly American illusion: that with one big push, we can get a Republican government which will restore a Christian commonwealth. That this is an illusion is made clear by Dreher throughout: big business and big politics have signed up to an agenda that, while it may differ in detail between the two parties, in general offers no prospect of a general drift back to a Christian state. Neither of these two emphases prevents the book from having value for a non-American western audience, but they do mean that some of its focus needs to be critically reflected on in our different conditions. (For example, it is one thing to tell American Protestant Christians not to expect to be in the sort of control of society that they were, say, in the first half of the twentieth century; it is quite another to tell British Catholics to abandon a share in the public space that was crafted not in dominance but already as a despised minority.)

What's good about the book

It gets the broad nature of the challenge right: there are fewer and fewer Christians and they are failing to pass on their religion to their children. It gets the desperateness of the challenge right: we need to wake up and do something.

It presents a smorgasbord of interesting case studies, snapshots of imaginative and promising solutions and communities.

 It provides a proper and central place for cultivation of the self by ascesis in the way that the Orthodox and traditional Catholic would understand it: fasting, prayer, reading scripture, chastity etc.

What I didn't like

This is a personal bugbear. Dreher puts forward a 'it woz the nominalists wot dun it' view of cultural history. In rough terms, modernity is the result of a disenchantment of the universe caused by the rejection of realism of universals, particularly natural kinds, by thinkers such as William of Occam in favour of such universals existing solely in the mind. This is a commonplace of a lot of (semi and serious) scholarship, being popularised by eg Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences. I think it's broadly rubbish (eg: Occam died in 1347 and sexual intercouse began in 1963) but I'm possibly the only one to think this. (Tough. I'm still right.)

A more commonly shared worry might be that this diagnosis of the problem seems to serve no purpose. Unlike, say, Ed Feser's The Last Superstition, which shares a similar point of view, Dreher gives no hint that, if this is the main cause of present difficulties, the key treatment ought to be the restoration of realist metaphysics. Being a cynical soul, I'm afraid that this leads me to wonder if it is just intellectual shimmer, the need to give a sort of intellectual glamour to a brand much in the same way that former polytechnics import dark wood and Latin. (That's over sharp: the book does need to attract attention and part of the way of establishing that needful authority is by giving it an intellectual pedigree.)

Another problem is that, inevitably, Dreher doesn't have the space to develop and defend his solutions in detail. For example, at one point, he suggests that young Christians should think of moving to rust belt industrial areas which are struggling to find skilled workers rather than pursuing the sort of university education that is increasingly anti-religious and also ineffective at generating sufficient income to raise a family. Fine. But if I were a young Christian, I would be asking how long any such skills and industries will survive globalization and new technology. Members of high prestige professions are certainly not immune to such fears. But they do have the advantage of being well-placed to enforce their own self-interest. No doubt Dreher would have responses to worries of this kind. Inevitably, however, unless we attribute omniscience to him, all this book can do is to start a conversation in these areas. And equally inevitably, although some solutions may suit some people, they won't suit everyone, however committed a Christian you might be. A standing niggle I've found in common with a lot of modern Church life is that they seem to require a clubbability of a degree that I and suspect many are quite incapable of. It would be ironical if, in a scheme devoted to bringing Christians back to the depths of their traditions, no room could be found for the eremetical and solitary.

Staying with this inevitable lack of space for detail, the question of 'withdrawal' has figured in a lot of criticism of Dreher. In essence, he has been accused of a pre-emptive exit from the public sphere, instead of struggling to turn back some of the secularising forces. In fairness to Dreher, he is quite specific that this is only a refocusing of attention to building up the Church (rather than attempting to impose it through the Republican Party -see above) and not a complete withdrawal. But because he can't deal with detail, he can't quite flesh out what this withdrawal-but-not-a-withdrawal might look like. For example, in setting up Christian 'classical' schools, my betting would be there would be quite a lot of day to day struggling over the details: my own experience of Catholic groups is that they inevitably pull in people who do not share what I would regard as orthodox belief or practice. It's all very well to suggest 'set up your own school' as a Benedict Option; my guess would be that, in many cases, it will be very difficult to do so without reproducing some of the same difficulties that already plague existing Catholic schools. It's not that it can't (on occasions) be done: it's rather that, because it is so difficult to do, it will succeed in very few cases.

Putting aside the general tendency of a reviewer to recommend the writing of the sort of book the reviewer himself would write, my chief worry about The Benedict Option is that it doesn't provide a new solution. Already there exist small initiatives to 'rescue' gathered communities from the secular world. And that's excellent. We need more monks and nuns, more priests, more lay communities. But what works for the saints is not really the problem: some people in every generation will have both the grace and the virtues to grow to holiness. The problem of secularisation is the rest of us who struggle to survive and need the help of others to carry us. And here The Benedict Option is a bit like the underpants gnomes. Instead of, 'Steal underpants, become rich,' we have, 'Stop being secularised, become holy.'

In sum, Dreher has done a good job in starting a phenomenon of which the physical book, The Benedict Option, is only part. He has presented a forceful wake up call in a way that some who previously have been complacent or overly trusting in Republican politics might well heed to their benefit. But the start of a conversation is just that, a start. And my worry in particular is that the focus should not be on creating small faithful oases in a secular desert -there are many, many examples of organisations like Opus Dei etc etc doing that- but of irrigating the desert. I don't think The Benedict Option takes us very far in that: its recipes, in any case inevitably incomplete, will only work for a few.

The Benedict Option is an option. Fine. But it can't be the only one. Let's think of some more options to go with it.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Mass Readings in Scots: Feast of the Ascension (Year A)

First reading
Acts 1:1-11

The first historie I made, O Theophilus, anent a' that Jesus begude baith to do and to teach, till whatna day he was taen up, eftir that he had by the Holie Spirit gien commauns to the Apostles he had waled oot; and to wham he schawed his sel leevin eftir his sufferans, by mony sure and certain tokens, appearin to them throwe forty days, and speakin o’ the things anent the kingdom o’ God. And companyin wi’ them, chairged them no to gang awa frae Jerusalem, but to bide for the promise o’ the Faither, “ Whilk,” quo’ he, “ye hae heard o’ me. For in sooth John bapteez’t wi' watir, but ye sal be bapteez’t in Holie Spirit no mony days frae noo !”

And sae they, whan they cam thegither, speir’t at him, “Lord, do thou at this time bring back the kingdom to Isra’l?” And he said to them, “It isna for you to ken times and seasons, whilk the Faither has keepit in his ain haun. But ye sal hae strenth, eftir the Holie Spirit is come to ye; and ye sal be witnesses for me baith in Jerusalem, and in a’ Judea and Samaria, and to the far-awa’ ends o’ the yirth.”

 And whan he had said thir things, while they war lookin on, he was liftit up; and a clud happit
him oot o’ their sicht. And while they lookit, peerin intil the heavens, as he gaed up, twa men stude by them in white cleedin; wha said, “Ye men frae Galilee ! why staun ye peerin intil the lift? The same Jesus, wha has been ta’en frae you intil Heeven, sal come in like mainner as ye hae seen him gang intil Heeven.”

(From The New Testament in Braid Scots (1904) by William Wye Smith here)

Responsorial Psalm
Psalm 46 (47): 2-3, 6-9

Ding wi the loof, O a' ye folk!

Lilt ye till God wi' the sugh o' a sang !

For the Lord owre a' is himlane till be fear'd;

atowre the hail yirth, a king fu' gran'.

God has gane up wi' a sugh ;
the Lord wi' the tout o' a swesch.

Sing ye till God, sing a sang :
sing a sang till our King, sing ye.

For God himlane, o' the hail yirth is King;

fu' wyssly till him sing ye.

God owre the hethen is king;
God sits on his thron, sae weel shiftit.

(From Psalm 47, The Psalms: frae Hebrew intil Scottis P. Hately Waddell (1891) here)

Second reading
Ephesians 1:17-23

That the God o’ oor Lord Jesus Christ, the Faither o’ glorie, may gie ye a spirit o’ wisdom and revealin in his knowledge: yere inward een bein fu’ o’ licht, that ye may come to ken what the hope o’ his blythe-bidden is, what his rich inheritance o’ glorie i’ the saunts, and what the unmeasured vastness o’ his pooer toward us wha hae faith, e’en as by the up haudin o’ his micht, whilk he wrocht in Christ, raisin him frae ’mang the deid, and settin him doon amang a’ the heevenlies, at his ain richt-haun, far up aboon a’ rule, and authorise, and pooer, and dominion, and ilka name that is named, no alane i’ this warld, but eke in that that is to come: and "pat a’ things under his feet"; and gied him as heid ower a' things to the Kirk; whilk in sooth is his body, the completion o’ him wha completes a’ in a’ for himsel.

(From The New Testament in Braid Scots (1904) by William Wye Smith here)

Matthew 28:16-20

And the xj discipilis went into Galilee, into ane hill quhar Jesus had ordanit thaim. And thai saw him, and wirschipit; bot sum of tham doutit. And Jesus com nere and spak to tham, and said, Al powere in heuen and in erde is gevin to me. Tharfor ga ye and teche al folkis, baptizing tham in the name of the Fader, and of the Sonn, and of the Haligast; Teching thame to kepe al thingis quhat euir thing I haue comandit to you ; and, lo, I am with yow in al dais, til into the ending of the warlde.

(From The New Testament in Scots Murdoch Nisbet [c.1520] (1901) vol 1 here)

Saturday 13 May 2017

Mass readings in Scots: 5th Sunday in Easter (Year A)

First Reading:

Acts 6:1-7

Noo, i’ thae days, thar gat up a murmurin amang the Grecian Jews again the Hebrew anes, aboot
the weedows bein owerlookit i' the giean-oot o’ the daily breid. And the Twal’ brocht the thrang
o' the disciples thegither, and quo’ they, “It’s no bonnie that we soud lea’ the service o’ the Word o’ God, and ser’ tables. Sae, brethren, look ye oot frae ’mang yersels seeven men o’ gude name, wyss men, fu’ o’ the Spirit, that we may set ower this maitter. But we wull mainteen oorsels aye in prayer, and i’ the service o’the Word.”

And the word was weel thocht o’ o’ a’ the thrang; and they named Stephen, ane fu’ o’ faith and the Holie Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicapor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte frae Antioch. Wham they set fornent the Apostles; and whan they had prayed they set their hauns on them. And the word o’ God grew uncolie ; and the feck o’ the disciples multiply't in Jerusalem; and an unco thrang o’ the priests follow’t the faith.

(From The New Testament in Braid Scots (1904) by William Wye Smith here)
Responsorial Psalm:
Psalm 32 (33):1-2, 4-5, 18-19
1 Rejoyce in the Lord, O ye richteous;
for prayse is cumlie in the upricht.

2 Prayse the Lord wi' herp;
sing untill him wi' the psaltrie, an' ane instriment o' ten strings.

4 For the wurd o' the Lord is richt;
an' a' his warks ar dune in trouth.

5 He loes richteousniss an' juudgemint;
the yirth is fu' o' the guidniss o' the Lord. 

18 Behald, the ee o' the Lord is apon thame that feær him,
apon thame that houpe in his mercie;

19 Til free thair saul frae deæth,
an' til keep thame alæive in scanth o' fude.
(From Psalm 33, in The Book of Psalms in Lowland Scotch by Henry Scott Riddell (1857) here)

Second Reading:
1 Peter 2:4-9

And nere ye to him, that is a leving staan, and repreuit of men, bot chosen of God, and honourit; And ye you self as quick staanis be ye abone biggit in to spirituale housis, and ane haly preesthede, to offir spirituale sacrifices, acceptabile to God be Jesu Crist. For quhilk thing the scriptur sais, Lo! I sal set in Syon the heichast kirnale staan, chosen and precious; and he that sal beleue in him, sal nocht be confonndit. Tharfor honour to you that beleues; bot to men that beleues nocht, the staan quham the biggaris repreuit, this is made into the hede of the kirnale; and the staan of hurting, and staan of sclandir, to thaim that offendis to the word, nouthir beleues it, in quhilk thai ar set.

Bot ye ar a chosen kynn, a kinglie preesthede, haly folk, a pepile of purchasing, that ye tell the virtues of him, that callit you fra mirknessis into his wondirful licht.

(From The New Testament in Scots (1520) vol. 3 by Murdoch Nisbet here)

John 14:1-12

"Dïnnae let yer hairts be sair annoyt. Pit yer trust ïn God, an lippen ïn me forbye. In ma Faither's hoose thair's monie dwallin-places. If that wusnae richt, A wudnae hae toul ye that A'm gaun tae mak a place readie fer ye, wud A noo? An whaniver A hae got a place readie fer ye, A'll cum an tak yis bak alang wi me, sae that whar A be, we'll aa be thegither. Yis ken whar A'm gaun, an yis ken tha róad tae whar A'm gaun."

Tammas turnt an saed til hïm, "Loard, we hae nae notion o whar ye'r fer, sae hoo cud we ken tha róad?" Jesus reponed, "A be tha róad, an tha truith, an tha life. Naebodie cums tae tha Faither but throu me. If ye knowed me weel, ye wud ken ma Faither as weel. Frae noo on, yis dae ken hïm an yis hae saa hïm forbye!"

Phïlip saed, "Loard, show iz tha Faither an that'll be eneuch fer iz." Jesus answert, "Dae ye no ken me Phïlip, tha mair A hae bin amang yis aa thïs time? Oniebodie lukkin at me haes saen tha Faither. Sae hoo can ye say, 'Show iz tha Faither?' Phïlip, dae ye no believe that A be ïn tha Faither an tha Faither's ïn me? Tha wurds A'm taakin til yis ir no jist ma ain. Na,  ït's tha Faither, leevin ïn me, wha's daein hïs wark. Tak ma wurd fer ït whaniver A say that A be ïn tha Faither an tha Faither ïs ïn me; or at the laist, trust me acause o tha warks yis hae saen me daein.

"Noo here's tha truith o ït, oniebodie that pits thair faith ïn me wull dae tha same warks that A dae. Ay, an he'll dae faur bïgger thïngs ner thon, fer A'm gaun tae be wi ma Faither."

(From Tha Fower Gospels  (2016) (Ulster-Scots), Ullans Press, ISBN: 978-1-905281-25-1, Amazon UK here,  Amazon US here.)


Wednesday 10 May 2017

Manent Mercerdi #9: after Macron?

I can't find anything that Manent has written specifically on the election of Macron to the French presidency, but the following excerpts from recent commentary might suggest a Manentian approach:

"The perils in question [of the project of 'significant numbers of the bien pensant [who] came to view both nations and classes as social forms to be steadily overcome' ] lay centrally in hoping for the democratic consent of the governed, while simultaneously eroding the main historical source of what Manent calls social ‘communion’. For it is principally the nation that, since the nineteenth century, has been the political focal point of identity, loyalty and accountability in Europe. Insofar as the EU has sought to shift these foci to other, supranational institutions and imperatives, it has embarked on an unprecedented project, one that is unparalleled, indeed, anywhere else in the world.

"In short, below each nation lies ‘civil society’, which remains politically and economically an insufficient object of aspiration; above each nation lies a putative ‘great, enormous European nation’, of indeterminate boundaries and without historical or cultural ballast. Between these sub- and supranational poles the EU finds itself without real moorings, refusing, as Manent puts it, to ‘define itself politically’, and hence taking on the character of ‘an imperious, indefinite, and opaque movement’."

(from 'What French philosophy can tell us about the EU, nationhood, and the decline of social democracy', Tom Angier here )

'Whereas the state can be neutral about religion and morality, society can never be neutral. In fact, the state’s neutrality, its formless character, is present precisely to protect the myriad beliefs, moral codes, and religious practices that comprise society. A secularism that preserves a flourishing society of diverse religious practice is completely different from a secularism that socially engineers a religiously neutral society. The latter would be a bland formless void, devoid of religious devotion, beauty, or character.

'The secularists who advance such a vision assume that Islam will reform by incorporating itself into France. In assuming this, they think that Islam should no longer be an objective value but rather be recognized as a subjective choice—a manifestation of individual rights rather than objective religious law. Muslims, of course, do not agree with this. For practicing Muslims, Islam is not a subjective choice. When Westerners treat it as one, they render themselves incapable of dealing with terrorism and the integration of Muslim immigrants.

'Manent argues that a radical secularist society, one that is formless because it refuses to be shaped by any religious inheritance, is incapable of inviting outsiders to join it. Just as a house must have walls for the host to invite a guest into it, so a society must have customs, ceremonies, and convictions to invite outsiders to join. But a radical secularist society has none of these things: no borders, no common customs, no ceremonies, no education about a common national life, no patriotism. Without common political life, a country has nothing to offer those coming from outside.'

(from 'Vive la Résistance!' in the Washington Free Beacon, by Ian Lindquist here)

'Now, with the rise of Islamic immigration, France faces the ultimate test of its own new political ideals: the growing strength of a minority that rejects diversity, rejects the supremacy of the individual, and therefore rejects the very ideology that allowed the minority to grow.
The only solution, Manent argues, is for France to insist that Muslims accept a role as French citizens, as participants in a common enterprise. But that cannot be if native French citizens do not first acknowledge their role as citizens rather than autonomous individuals.

'What is the difference between citizens and individuals? Citizens recognize their duties along with their rights. Small children will always behave as individuals. In a healthy society their parents behave as citizens—because there is no better way to train people in the habits of accepting responsibility than giving them the care of their own children.'

(from Phil Lawler, 'Apres moi le deluge', Catholic Culture, here)

Friday 5 May 2017

The Benedict Option: Prolegomena to any future blogpost that will be able to present itself as a review

I've been putting off tackling The Benedict Option . It's been sitting next to my bed since publication and frankly I'm a little scared at having to read and then comment on it. Anyway, procrastination away! After having finished this post, I shall tackle it and report thereon.

This resolution is in part to do with a Twitter discussion that's been going on for a little while in the Catholic UK blogosphere about the new Catholic Education Service's guidance on LGBTQIIAA+ matters. (Countercultural Father here and Joseph Shaw here give a flavour of the report and the debate.) I simply don't have enough detailed expertise in either English education or the legal/regulatory framework on such matters to get too involved in this. The pressure to adopt the Time for Inclusive Education framework will undoubtedly hit us in Scotland with similar issues shortly. But I did leap in with an expression of sympathy for the dilemma faced by the Catholic Education Service: how to deal with a cultural (and legal etc) environment that frames the discussion and sets out questions to be answered in a way that does not sit easily with Catholic understandings of anthropology, and where that discussion seems to be entirely controlled by LGBTQIIAA+ pressure groups such as Stonewall.

This issue seems to me to be very much at the centre of Dreher's concerns: how an authentically Christian life can be lived out in an environment which is becoming hostile to Christianity. (That doesn't necessarily mean persecution, but it does mean (eg) that expressions of the sinfulness of homosexual sex are no longer 'acceptable' and even in some environments legal.) His solution -well, to be considered!- but the essence is clearly some sort of strategic withdrawal into a more thoroughgoingly Christian space than that offered by a secularising society.

Anyhow, I'm a great believer in Collingwood's idea that you should approach an (archaeological) investigation with questions to be answered rather than just digging around at random. Accordingly, I set out below some of the issues I'm going into this investigation with to see if I can sort them out.

1. Modesty of ambition. One of the reasons I've been so reluctant to tackle the book is that I worry there'll be nothing new there. At various times, I've read quite deeply in the literature surrounding secularisation theory and Stanley Hauerwas so I'm familiar with the difficulties that Christians face in modernity and suggestions about how they should form authentically Christian communities. Dreher's work is short (less than 75000 words I believe) and written by a journalist. So I want to find out: what does it offer that's new? (My suspicion is that it's going to provide some interesting insights into some modern ways of concretely living out Christianity. But it has also provided a 'buzz' around this important issue, and that's a good thing I suspect: we need to be thinking about this more.)

2. Specificity of tradition. Dreher is Orthodox, but the book seems to cover 'mere Christianity' without much worry about denominational differences. I want to see whether this helps or hinders his message. (My suspicion here is that we need to dig deeply into our specific traditions. Catholicism isn't Orthodoxy and neither are Evangelical Protestantism. I would expect the problems and solutions facing each tradition to be different.)

3. Outreach to the non-saints. My main worry is the apparent focus on the gathered saints (or at least saints in making). Catholicism has been a religion of saints doing their best to save a lot of sinners despite themselves. I want to find out: how does Dreher suggest that the 'Benedict' communities reach out to people who are not focused on being saints, but who might just get dragged to purgatory with the grace of sacraments?

4. Finally, inter-community structures and practices. Three things that have really had an impact on my religious life are EWTN, the internet and the Catechism. None of these seem easily into the model of a Benedictine community which is at the heart of the analogy. So I want to know: does Dreher's analysis do justice to the ways in which part of the response to the fluidity of modernity is, to borrow from Evola, 'to ride the tiger' rather than run away from it?

As a final point, part of my reluctance is that I want to like the book and I'm afraid I won't. Inasmuch as one can like a public persona, I do like Rod Dreher: he seems like an honest man trying to do honest things. That's difficult to reconcile with the need in the American religious market to become a personal brand; but although I worry that I should probably be spending the time I'm going to spend on the Benedict Option on Duns Scotus and Suarez, he does seem to be trying to deal with an important issue with integrity, and I want to be able to respect and indeed praise him for that.

No doubt other things will emerge. But that's what I'm aiming to get at just now. Wish me luck: I'm going in....