Benedict Option Ignores Huge Benefits Of Capitalism

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Posted: Jan 19, 2018 9:15 AM
Benedict Option Ignores Huge Benefits Of Capitalism

Dreher’s book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation was a best seller last year and very influential among Christians. It’s difficult to complain about most of what Dreher has to say in his book. It would be like opposing motherhood and apple pie. He advocates building stronger churches and communities, praying and reading the Bible more, and improving our children’s education.

The problem with this book and his earlier one, Crunchy Cons, is that his solutions have nothing at all to do with the causes of the illnesses he associates with modern Western culture. The first chapter of the Benedict Option laments the moral decline of the US as evidenced in the endorsement of homosexual marriage and the full hug of transgenderism. The second chapter traces the origins of these problems to the following:

  • Fourteenth century: The defeat of metaphysical realism by nominalism in medieval theological debates removed the linchpin linking the transcendent and the material worlds...

  • Fifteenth century: The Renaissance dawned with a new, optimist outlook on human potential and began shifting the West’s vision and social imagination from God to man...

  • Sixteenth century: The Reformation broke the religious unity of Europe...

  • Seventeenth century: ...The Scientific Revolution struck the final blow to the organic medieval model of the cosmos, replacing it with a vision of the universe as a machine...

  • Eighteenth century: The Enlightenment attempted to create a philosophical framework for living in and governing society absent religious reference...

  • Nineteenth century: The success of the Industrial Revolution pulverized the agrarian way of life, uprooted the masses from rural areas, and brought them into the cities...

  • Twentieth century: The horrors of the two world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress and in the God of Christianity...

Those topics would weigh heavily on anyone’s mind and would require a book each to discuss, but Dreher drops them immediately and introduces his solutions of greater community and personal piety. If that Evel Knieval leap of logic confuses readers, and it should, there is a diagnosis of Dreher’s schizophrenia: on the one hand, atheists (including the sentimental kind, deists) who resurrected Plato’s ancient socialism in the early 19th century claimed that mankind is born innocent and turns bad only because of oppression. By changing the economic system to socialism, the state could remove the greatest oppressor, property, and return man to his original state of innocence. On the other hand, Christianity has always taught that mankind isn’t born innocent and each individual carries within him the seeds of all kinds of evil. 

Writers like Dreher, which includes most Popes of the 20th century, try to reconcile traditional Christianity with socialism by straddling the fence. However, that fence is barbed wire. Sitting on it leads to intellectual castration, which shows in their reasoning. They blame all evils on the existing economic system and then propose personal piety as the answer. Readers are frustrated because they rightly assume the solution to societal problems is a change of the social structure, not personal piety.

Dreher’s list of suspects for the decline of Western morality shows bad history and reasoning. Here are brief comments on each:

The nominalism verses realism debate is popular with Catholic writers, but they fail to show a cause-effect relationship between the “horror” of nominalism and the decline of morality. They make a huge leap in logic. The way most of them present realism makes it sound like pantheism.

Dreher, Catholics in general, and atheists place too much emphasis on the Renaissance. They see it as a major break in European history, atheists for the better, Christians for the worse. But as Rodney Stark proves in Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, the Renaissance was neither and not much of a renewal. The myth of the Renaissance requires the myth of the Dark Ages. But Stark shows, 

"The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boosted their claim by denigrating previous centuries as – in the words of Voltaire – a time when 'barbarism, superstition, [and] ignorance covered the face of the world.' Views such as these were repeated so often and so unanimously that, until very recently, even dictionaries and encyclopedias accepted the Dark Ages as an historical fact..."

The Reformation saved Christianity in Europe because, as the child sex scandals of the past two decades have hollowed out the Catholic Church, so had the immorality of priests in the 15th century. The Reformation revived spirituality among dissenters and forced major reforms on the Catholic Church that revived it as well.

Dreher and other medievalists blame the industrial revolution for destroying community by forcing people to relocate to urban areas. But Dreher narrowly defines community as communities, or towns, while forgetting that Christians were a mobile people beginning with the persecutions in the Book of Acts in the Bible and yet they were able to establish flourishing communities everywhere they went. Dreher eulogizes agricultural life, but Christianity became popular among farmers mostly in the modern era. As Rodney Stark points out in his books, Christianity was from the beginning an urban, bourgeois religion.

The scientific and industrial revolutions were far more beneficial than harmful. Dreher never mentions the historical fact that the industrial revolution, birthed by freer markets and greater respect for commerce (capitalism), made the West thirty times wealthier than people living in the 18th century, extended life spans, cured many diseases, and produced enough food for seven times as many people to live on the planet.

Dreher contradicts himself in chapter 8 when he encourages Christians to become entrepreneurial. He doesn’t tell us what kind of economic system he would like, but his veneration of the Middle Ages and attacks on free markets make him sound very much like a follower of the ideology known at different times as guild socialism, corporatism, distributism, communitarianism, etc. Both the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton and T.S. Eliot were devotees. But that system euthanizes the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs exist only in free market capitalism.

Dreher’s complaints about greater freedom, wealth, and science reveal a deeper misunderstanding of theology. He knows that sinful people can distort God’s gifts and misuse them as he explains in his chapter on sex. So why can’t he see that we can pervert the other gifts that God has given, such as freedom, science, and wealth? God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose Him or to rebel. That doesn’t make God the author of evil. The gift is not the problem. Human sinful nature is.

Ignoring chapter two, Dreher’s book offers some good advice, though often obvious. But like some Catholic social thinkers (thankfully not the circle around Acton Institute which has inherited the robust pro-freedom Catholic tradition of the Salamanca School), he needs to decide if the society makes people bad, as atheists claim, or if people are inherently evil, as Christianity has always asserted. These are radically different views of human nature that require different solutions. 

While Dreher is deciding, he needs to jettison the bad economics and history.