I have just completed Chapter 2 of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, ‘The Roots of the Crisis’. The crisis is primarily defined in this book as the abandonment of Christianity and Christian virtue and Christian ‘values’ and ideas in the modern world, culminating most visibly in the triumphs of the sexual revolution, from licit pre-marital sex to abortion to gay marriage to the transgender lobby.
Dreher finds the roots of the problem in William Ockham’s ‘nominalism’ — the idea that nothing has intrinsic value, but rather that its value is entirely imposed by God. That is, nothing is actually good except because God says so. This includes God. The nature or essence of a thing is ultimately meaningless without God naming it so (hence nominalism).
He follows Ockham with a potted history of western intellectual life from the Late Middle Ages to today. The narrative is the one I’m already familiar with from David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and elsewhere (here’s my review of Hart). Basically, autonomy of the will and of the individual, with man as the measure of all things starts rolling in the Renaissance and picks up speed as history progresses.
For the discussion up to 1914, I prefer Hart’s analysis, because he sagely observes the subsuming of all things, including religion, by the state during the Renaissance and Reformation as an important step in the process. Religion is a function of the supreme state. Thus, there is no external reality to judge the state’s actions. This, I believe, is crucial when we try to consider what the role of the state is in our lives in the modern period.
After 1914 we have WWI and the rupturing of western society. The already-present liberalism of the elites infected everyone, basically. What matters now, after seeing the horror of alleged Christians on the battlefields of Europe, is making and keeping the pure, autonomous self happy.
This is the triumph of voluntarism — again, better discussed by Hart. In Hart’s book, we are reminded of the classical and Christian idea that freedom resides in our ability to live according to our own nature. This is even a famous saying of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Simply willing, simply being ‘free’ to do as you choose is not necessarily true freedom. Rather, willing in accordance with your true nature, in accordance with the good or the beautiful or with God — this is true freedom. All other alleged freedoms are simply slavery to your passions or your circumstances or your upbringing or your parents. You just don’t realise it.
Now, there is scope for a certain amount of voluntarism in making the law. Immorality and crime are not the same thing. Nonetheless, to make it not only a question for the law but the highest good of society that we are able and free to will whatever we choose, and that anyone who would dare tell us whether what we will is actually good or not is a villain — well, that’s a problem.
Writing this last paragraph, I cannot help but think of the time that after one of the Kardashians appeared nude somewhere, Pink called her out and said that she should be setting a better example in a world where women are objectified and body-shamed. Someone else whose name escapes me said that Pink shouldn’t have done that — not because Kardashian was in the right but because no grown woman has the right to tell another grown woman what to do. There are no moral standards.
As I say, this is what Dreher is driving at, but I don’t feel he always expresses it as clearly as Hart. Certainly not with the magnificent style possessed by Hart, even when Hart is not skewering his enemies with rhetoric that would make St Athanasius or Jerome proud.