The Benedict Option, Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

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.

‘Sins are to be regarded with hatred, not men’ (musings on Cadfael and Leo the Great)

I recently read the Brother Cadfael mystery novel The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters. Set at Christmastide 1141, in this novel, the people of the Foregate — the parish area just outside the abbey of Sts Peter and Paul and the town of Shrewsbury — get a new priest after their old priest, Father Adam, passed away. Fr Adam had been a kind and indulgent man, aware of the weakness of the human spirit and always ready to welcome a penitent sinner.

The new priest, Father Ailnoth, was an entirely different species of priest. Ailnoth had hitherto been a bishop’s clerk and knew little of the ways of parish life, the faults and foibles of ordinary people, their sins large and small. In his first few weeks, he strikes young boys with his staff for playing ball games against the wall of his house; he refuses to baptise a sickly infant on the spot because he is in the middle of praying the office — the infant dies, and he refuses to bury it in the churchyard because it was unbaptised (!!); he alleges that a man in his service was villein, not free; he drives away from him a young woman of the Foregate who slept with a lot of men, but would inevitably feel compunction for a spell and repent before, eventually, turning to the company of whatever man next asked. She, in fact, was found drowned after he refused to hear her confession. Oh, Ailnoth also accused the baker of his measure being short.

In sum, a strong and unbending man of mighty will with little care for the dignity of others. A man with a sense of his own virtue so strong it blotted out his compassion on those weaker than him.

Vainglory, according to Cassian, Evagrius, and Climacus, is a sin reserved for the virtuous.

It can harden the heart, as it did Father Ailnoth.

Father Ailnoth reminded me of a historical event that Leo the Great discusses in letter 167.

This letter was sent to Rusticus, Bishop of Narbonne, in the second half of the 450s, and is most read and recopied for the series of questions the Roman Bishop answers for his Gallic colleague. In the preface of the epistle, however, Leo address some more specific concerns of Rusticus’. The first of these had to do with two Narbonnais presbyters who had been tried by local ecclesiastical and secular men of rank, and found guilty for being overzealous in their duties of reproving sinners (in this case, adulterers). Leo encourages Rusticus not to be too hard on them, ‘since they have of their own accord removed themselves from the disputes they had begun’. He reminds his Gallic colleague that spiritual medicine should be applied to heal, writing:

you should act mildly with those who in their zeal for chaste behaviour seem to have exceeded the limit in vengeance. One should not let the Devil, who has deceived adulterers, rejoice in the punishers of adultery.

All of this unseemly business has left Bishop Rusticus wishing to retire. Leo proceeds to reprove him for this desire, and in the midst of this he puts forth one of his pithy statements, one that has always stuck with me:

Odio habeantur peccata, non homines.

That is:

Sins are to held in hatred, not men.

You could say ‘people’ or ‘human persons’ for ‘homines’, but ‘men’ is so nice and short, it keeps the saying pithy. Besides, etymologically ‘man’ has the same gender inclusive overtones as ‘homo, hominis’.

Father Ailnoth with his own unbending vision of virtue seems to have forgotten this adage of Leo’s (which was certainly known in England by 1141 through Lanfranc’s canonical collection of the 1070s). To the modern ear, Leo may often sound harsh and unbending, but I believe that he is flexible as a pastor — he will not bend on what he believes the truth is, but the penitent sinner or heretic is always welcome back into the catholic fold if he or she gives proof of a true change of heart and/or mind.

Father Ailnoth was not so flexible.

We should keep these examples in mind as we go into the world today and interact with a culture that in many areas does not live up to traditional, biblical standards of morality and ethics — whether we speak of such standards from a more ‘right’ or more ‘left’ position.