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Desanitizing Christianity After St. Benedict and After Virtue

It has been a year or so since Rod Dreher published the much debated book The Benedict Option.[1]

St. Benedict Reconsidered

Since first hearing the term “Benedict Option” bandied about on social media, I had the impression it was based upon a reading of MacIntyre’s concluding salvo in After Virtue. Whether that reading is fruitful or pernicious I leave to the judgment of others and to that of history—though I suspect, as with most things, it is neither simply the one nor the other. It has been noted recently[2], that we can read MacIntyre’s concluding observation as either a prophecy destined to go unfulfilled or an exhortation to be heeded. In the first case, he is not unlike Cassandra of ancient Troy—given the gift of prophetic sight only to be condemned to a see and speak in a world incapable of hearing and believing.[3] If we read it in the second sense, it is closer to a call to arms, a call that has been met over the past year by proposals from figures like Dreher, Patrick Deneen[4], and Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule.[5] Again, I am not suggesting that either reading, if it is indeed a misreading, is therefore unfruitful. Nor would I discount the possibility that MacIntyre’s words may point beyond what he meant to things he did not directly intend, but which are nonetheless worthy of our consideration. That is the permanent possibility and inner vitality of writing. I would like to suggest, however, that if we have read too hastily the conclusion of After Virtue, at the very least there remains for us a meaning not yet considered. So, perhaps we might return to the thing itself?

Temporality and Sanctity

In the final paragraph of the final chapter of After Virtue, MacIntyre writes that, “we are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”[6] Caleb Bernacchio observes[7] that Dreher substitutes “new” for “another” without explanation. On the one hand, this seems to be a change that, nevertheless, preserves the meaning: surely another St. Benedict would be a new St. Benedict. On the other hand, it also could seem to suggest, paradoxically, that a new St. Benedict is, in a sense, the same St. Benedict: A Benedict who, to paraphrase Aristotle, is new for us, but not new in himself. It is perhaps the context—we ourselves—who are new, but not Benedict nor the option he represents. The ambiguity arises from the possible meanings of “newness.” Yet, is this not the heart of the matter for the contenders on all sides—the cheerers, weepers, and shadow-seers of modernity alike?

Modernity—whether it denotes a historical period or a broader qualitative category—is defined by novelty: New discoveries, new developments, new possibilities, and above all, new questions. Yet, we can only makes sense of the notion of novelty in relation to what is not new, in relation to what is past or banal or commonly understood. This persistent relating of old to new, of prior actuality to future possibility, is not merely a feature of our present historical period, but, as the philosophers say, an ontological characteristic of all human endeavor. The way that human beings are, the only way we can or know how to be is as people “spread out” in time; in whom past experience and future possibility meet in a present that is also our presence to ourselves, undeniable, but elusive.

This experience of temporality—the constant irruption of novelty in regularity, the play of presence amidst the absence of past and the absence of future—is ingredient to our subjectivity, but so too is the desire to know reality. Thus, the fact of temporality inevitably leads to the question of truth: How are we as beings for whom truth is a possible achievement, to come to possess it in time and over time? How are we to preserve and transmit it in the face of the world’s becoming and undoing and rebirth?

From this ontological perspective, the “newness” of St. Benedict, then or now, is merely a specific example of the larger and deeper question of how to come to understand what is true and how to communicate that amidst the challenge of the persistent newness of life. That this challenge must be met by a community is Rod Dreher’s point, as I read him. And with Dreher as their point of departure, debates about the so-called Benedict Option focus on what form the community should take: Is it to be a return to an original model or a contemporary rethinking of that model, or, perhaps most plausibly, is it at its best something the Christian tradition has always fostered?[8] Yet, this discussion (however fruitful) seems to overlook that fact that MacIntyre does not speak of a new Benedictine community, but rather of a new Saint Benedict. MacIntyre’s final call, whether it is a lament or a rallying cry is first and foremost a call to individuals: It is a call for individuals to become saints.

Now, saints here seems to include, but also to transcend a strictly religious interpretation.  When he wrote After Virtue MacIntyre was not yet a Catholic and the frame and proposals of the text do not presuppose confessional or even, perhaps, theistic commitment. So in a broader, pregnant sense to be a saint seems to mean something like: To embody the virtues necessary to meet the challenges of one’s age. In this sense, MacIntyre’s conclusion is a call for secular saints as well as sacred ones. I do not think this is to say anything more than that there can be “saints of the common good” in a sense that, again, transcends by encompassing the distinctions between sacred and secular.

The point here is to distinguish, not to dismiss. Clearly, MacIntyre calls for the cultivation of new forms of community within which the moral virtues could be successfully cultivated and practiced in ways that would be a leaven for the larger society within which they are embedded. His early Marxism and perduring Aristotelianism have cultivated in him a prodigious attentiveness to the essential need for and role of communities in any individual human life. Moreover, the distinguishing act of the original St. Benedict was to found a particular kind of community.

Nevertheless, to refer to Aristotle once again, “the beginning is more than half the whole.” Groups are not saints, individuals are. What a certain strand of the discussion around the Benedict Option misses, it seems to me, is the need for better people, not merely better rules. When the discussion envisions a form of life whose parameters are too strictly defined or too exclusive of complementary forms of life, it becomes another variant of the rule-based ethics to which After Virtue seeks to offer an alternative. In it, the legalism of both the left and the right reduplicates itself. To replace one legalism with another is still to accept the terms of a rigged system. There are many false gods to whom we might sacrifice and the possibilities for the uncritical surrender our freedom are legion.

What defines the virtuous person is not only community, but also a certain kind of creativity. Because the virtuous person cannot foresee every possible set of circumstances within which she would be called upon to act. Her virtue consists in being the kind of person who will make the right decision. But the nuances and possible forms of that decision will only become fully evident in the moment of deliberation. This is not an absolute relativism.

That we should be courageous, self-controlled, just and wise is never in question for Aristotle. However, there is a kind of contextual relativity which is, to return to our earlier observation, the admission that we always and only enact the moral virtues as people embedded in definite and changing contexts. Consistency in the moral life, moral goodness, is not a function of always doing the same thing, but rather of always doing the right thing. This is the sense in which virtuous living is a practical art—something that, even when correct, can be done more or less eloquently; with a greater or lesser degree of beauty and grace.

It is at the most concrete level of existence, personal choice and action, that these insights are pertinent. Discussions of communities, forms, and structures while concrete and necessary are still at one level of abstraction from the individual person. Of course, the individual is itself an abstraction: we are always already part of families, communities, traditions—networks of mutuality in King’s beautiful phrase. These communities condition the effective range and qualitative employment of our freedom. Yet, this should not obscure the fact that choice is always in some sense personal. The idea that something is at stake for me—indeed, that I am at stake in my decision this is what makes my actions meaningful and morally significant.

The Novelty of Creation

We might say, then, that sanctity is a response to temporality; a perennial newness in response to the world. The deep human structure constituted by permanence and change helps us grasp the way in which saints are new. As a response to the persistent novelty of world, sanctity shows a new or different profile of that response that is only visible against the screen of the world as it is given at a particular point in time.

Yet, if sanctity is a response to temporality, it is also the preserving of a truth in time. To make sense of the way in which truth can be at once old and new we must reject two equally immature “realisms”: one in which truth could do without human knowers (naïve realism) and one for which change is the only truth (absolute relativism). A better model than the false dichotomies abounding from all sides is offered by Joseph Ratzinger in the “Foreword” to the first volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy. There he describes a process of rereading by which “texts” become “Scripture by being read anew.” This is “a process by which the word unfolds its inner potentialities already somehow present like seeds, but needing the challenge of new situations, new experiences, and new sufferings, to open them up.” Here newness is characterized by growth. It is a simple image that harbors inner complexity. It presupposes something prior and given, the seed, and also a present in which the seed bears fruit and without which it could not bear fruit.

We tend to speak of the “Gospel” or “tradition” or “Christianity” in isolation from the worlds and cultures within which they have always been embedded. As if its sacred music, religious painting, or theological language were not directly (though not wholly) dependent on the sensibilities, techniques, and cultural expectations of the people it sought to serve. This is the philosophical error of taking a dependent part of a whole and treating it as if it were an independent part, i.e., a whole unto itself. In doing this, we “sanitize” Christianity by reducing it to clean and clear-cut concepts and narratives. Intellectually, we make faith portable, which, in its consequences, is not unlike the way previous political philosophers made it private. Faith becomes something that, because it can be isolated, can be picked up and tucked away at home or carried whole cloth from one age to another. But, in doing so we sand away the rough edges of life, of history, and of scripture and there with of faith’s human dimensions. Ironically, in an effort to “protect” Christianity we run risk of becoming unable to see the meaning of Incarnation—the precise nature of the humility exhibited by the Word’s taking on of worldly conditions.

Ratzinger’s image of a seed gradually coming to bear fruit helps us see the way in which, to be most fully itself, truth must develop; that the word in a sense becomes “more truthful” by becoming true again and again in new hearts and minds and communities and thereby in history.

This interdependence between scripture and culture, text and world, is tied theologically to a properly comprehensive doctrine of creation, which grasps a certain continuity of God’s self-disclosure first in the world, then in the letter, and finally in the Son. It makes clear that divine revelation is never in competition with the created world, of which human culture is one dimension, but rather deepens our understanding of it. While it is true that the disclosure of truth has always revealed simultaneously our need for conversion, it is also true that conversion, turning toward the light, is not turning away from the world, but rather turning towards it differently. It is not a rejection of the world, but rather a commitment to loving it better; to loving it more dearly and in greater truth.

This theological claim has a philosophical analogue to the extent that, philosophically speaking, text and world are inseparable as well because both have the human being as their efficient and final cause. It is we who write, we who read, and we who live. And because we write words which will find their way to readers beyond our anticipations, our words live as well. They live on after us and in a sense they live before us. The philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer would tell his students, “When you take a word in your mouth, you have not taken up some arbitrary tool which can be thrown in a corner if it does not do the job, but you are committed to a line of thought that comes from afar and reaches beyond you.” We are as often mastered by the language we use, as masters of it. This reality accounts for both the fruitfulness and the limitations of our language. This powerful insight points to the deep cultural reservoirs that make up any tradition, including the Christian and apostolic tradition. For the Christian, God does not undo creation by entering it, but participates in and elevates its deepest possibilities.

This all means, among other things, that we can spell revelation in two ways:  with a capital “R” and with a lowercase “r.” In the first case, Revelation designates the preeminent, privileged, and utterly unique self-disclosing of God by God. The lover speaking of himself to his beloved of things the beloved could not know by other means. In the second sense, revelation is a universal structure of a human world characterized by temporality—the admission that our words are born of our experiences, have the potential to accurately display those experiences, and also often transcend their original contexts to speak to others in ways we cannot always anticipate or control. For Christians, our identity as human beings to whom the world is constantly being revealed helps us understand something of the form and behavior of specifically Divine Revelation: In becoming historical it would become something living and interactive; that in becoming flesh, the word would do so among us.

With respect to our opening thematic, this suggests that whatever option we seek to give form to today will have to be, in some sense new if it is to be “holy.”

What Nietzsche Got Right

Communities defined only by distance from the public square or defined in opposition to a competing narrative are not communities that foster creativity precisely because they take their deepest points of departure from that which they oppose. Nietzsche was surely wrong to attribute ressentiment to the entirety of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, but Nietzsche was surely right to claim that ressentiment is a poor foundation for our moral intuitions and our moral theories. To see only the bad is a demonic horizon, not a Christian one, and to define oneself by what one is not is to secede the terms of the debate. True communities are defined by what they love, not what they hate.[9]

Read generously—we should always read generously before we read any other way—the Benedict Option pundits speak of what we might call a kind of social prudence that involves evaluating the changing conditions and relations of the particular social moment we are in. That is well and good. However, it can never take the place of the more immediate and more concrete contexts of specific people in specific places, which will never be perfectly congruous with any more abstract solution. It is C. S. Lewis who reminds us, “how monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”[10] It is sin that is monolithic, not sanctity. Saints are people who make the right choices. Repeatedly. As with saints, so too no two virtuous people are perfectly alike, and that specificity will always result in an ineluctable diversity. That is one reason why, for Aristotle, friendship is ingredient to the virtuous life and not a mere addendum to it. It is precisely the diversity of virtuous women and men, secular and sacred saints alike, which harbors the seeds of cultural transformation: “It is the paradox of history, that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it the most.”[11] It would make sense, then, that a society as pluralized and stratified as our own, would requires many and varied people of good will to bring about its renewal.

St. Anthony and the Pull of the City

We are too often presented with a set of false dichotomies: that we must choose between tradition and the modern world, between the old rite and the new rite, between apologetics and evangelization, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between wisdom and mercy, between an intimate and persistently mysterious experience of the personal love of God which transfigures a person’s life and whatever a given form of religion can accommodate of that—whether institutionalized or deinstitutionalized. But the defining claim of the Christian tradition is that in Christ all is made new. For the Christian, Christ redeems by transcending our human dichotomies, and he does so not by picking sides, but by reintegrating both in the freedom of the children of God.

It is perhaps not irrelevant that the tradition to which Benedict gave an essential form in the West has one of its traditional sources in St. Anthony of the Desert. Anthony is instructive because in his story the “founding” of monasticism requires a re-founding that reinscribes it within, if on the edge of, daily political and social life. While he does seek to remove himself from society in a radical way, he is repeatedly brought back by means of the visitors who seek him and by his own desire to serve the Christian community.[12] Sanctity is not a private possession, it is for others. While Anthony initially seeks the desert and in it a radically purified life in pursuit of God, he is nevertheless repeatedly brought back to the city perched on its edge ready to take flight and yet tethered to the life of worldly concern. In this, he is a model of religious life and reflection that, precisely because it remains within the parameters of what is given as human attends to them and lives them with a greater intensity. Authentic saints see more, not less. In this sense, to be a saint is the deep possibility of creation and therefore the first and fundamental option.

SEE ALSO:

The Benedictine Charism of Slow Evangelization

Featured Image: Altmünster, Saint Benedict parish church: All Saints chapel – All Saints altar [detail], 1518, photo by Wolfgang Sauber; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT.

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (NY: Sentinel, 2017)

[2] https://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/05/08/the-anti-integralist-alasdair-macintyre/

[3] Thus, Cyril O’Regan’s characterization of MacIntyre as a “weeper” in his appraisal of modernity:  http://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/03/20/the-gift-of-modernity/

[4] Patrick Deneen. Why Liberalism Failed. (New Haven: Yale, 2018)

[5] See for example his review of Deneen’s book at: https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2018/02/integration-from-within/#notes. There Vermeule claims that Why Liberalism Failed is a probing diagnosis of the modern condition, but fails at the level of prescription. It fails by being too timid in its (MacIntyrian) proposition of the cultivation of smaller organic communities that will serve to inculcate the civic and personal virtues of which we are in need. Instead, Vermeule argues liberalism must be met with an equally comprehensive worldview, “a genuinely illiberal answer.” By this, he means a kind of reintegration from within that requires illiberally-minded people to increasingly occupy positions of power within liberal institutions with the long-term goal of remaking them. Yet, the examples he gives are well positioned Old Testament individuals—Joseph, Esther, Mordechai, and Daniel. It is unclear how analogous individuals are meant to embody and communicate culture-wide a “comprehensive and substantive politics of the good.” Thus, Vermeule’s account seems to suffer from the same fallacy of composition of which he accuses Deneen, only this time instead of equating all with some, he equates some with all.

[6]  After Virtue, 263

[7] https://churchlife.nd.edu/2018/05/08/the-anti-integralist-alasdair-macintyre/

[8] http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/03/19008/

[9] Augustine, City of God, Book XIX.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

[11] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas

[12] For example, under the Diocletian persecution he travels to Alexandria in 311. This is frequent enough to be something close a “trope” in monastic stories. It is true, for example, of both Augustine and Gregory the Great  who resisted ordination—Augustine is said to have wept!—because the life of solitude and study was to be put in service of the larger and less ordered, indeed, downright messy, life of the mystical body of Christ.

Gregory P. Floyd
Gregory P. Floyd is an instructor in the Core Program at Seton Hall University. He earned his philosophy PhD from Boston College in the field of phenomenology and religion.