Sustainable v. unsustainable culture

Patrick J. Deenen paints a portrait of the “unsustainable” vision of contemporary liberalism. This is not so much an endorsement of an oppositional “conservative vision,” but it is a debunking of so much of what we consider progressive about our culture.

For most people of the West, the idea of a time and way of life after liberalism is as plausible as the idea of living on Mars. Yet liberalism is a bold political and social experiment that is far from certain to succeed. Its very apparent strengths rest upon a large number of pre-, non-, and even antiliberal institutions and resources that it has not replenished, and in recent years has actively sought to undermine. This “drawing down” on its preliberal inheritance is not contingent or accidental but in fact an inherent feature of liberalism.

Thus the liberal experiment contradicts itself, and a liberal society will inevitably become “postliberal.” The postliberal condition can retain many aspects that are regarded as liberalism’s triumphs—equal dignity of persons, in particular—while envisioning an alternative understanding of the human person, human community, politics, and the relationship of the cities of Man to the city of God. Envisioning a condition after liberalism calls us not to restore something that once was but to consider something that might yet be; it is a project not of nostalgia but of vision, imagination, and construction.

Many of what are considered liberalism’s signal features—particularly political arrangements such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism—are to be found in medieval thought. Inviolable human dignity, constitutional limits upon central power, and equality under law are part of a preliberal legacy.

The strictly political arrangements of modern constitutionalism do not per se constitute a liberal regime. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a pair of deeper anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature. These two revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society constitute “liberalism” inasmuch as they introduce a radically new definition of “liberty.”

Liberalism introduces a particular cast to its preliberal inheritance mainly by ceasing to account for the implications of choices made by individuals upon community, society, and future generations. Liberalism did not introduce the idea of choice. It dismissed the idea that there are wrong or bad choices, and thereby rejected the accompanying social structures and institutions that were ordered to restrain the temptation toward self-centered calculation. …

Ironically, the more complete the securing of a sphere of autonomy, the more encompassing and comprehensive the state must become. Liberty, so defined, requires in the first instance liberation from all forms of associations and relationships—from the family, church, and schools to the village and neighborhood and the community broadly defined—that exerted strong control over behavior largely through informal and habituated expectations and norms.

“…the more complete the securing of a sphere of autonomy, the more encompassing and comprehensive the state must become.” If this is true, where does it leave us? Deenen suggests we reopen the door to a more authentic federalism.

Conscientious believers

“A lot of the recent religious freedom debate has taken place in terms of conscience. … That’s important, but it’s also important to maintain the social and institutional space within which Christians can be formed,” he continued. “Conscientious believers aren’t hatched; they’re formed. They’re formed in communities, and we’ve got to get religious freedom protections so those communities won’t be homogenized by the state.”

How do nondiscrimination laws threaten institutions? The best known example is the possibility raised by some liberal commenters that the government could take away the federal tax exemption from churches. Experts said, however, that is not likely to be politically possible. The greater risk is a cutoff of federal funding, both direct and indirect—student loans, vouchers, etc.—to schools that violate federal antidiscrimination law. And if an educational institution loses its accreditation, the value of its diplomas plummets. Graduates of these religious colleges could be barred from law schools and medical schools.

“Most people don’t understand that the government has at its disposal the incredible power of licensing and accreditation rules and public-funding conditions,” the Lawyer said. “The government is able to compel compliance with its norms not only by making you comply with them but by making you an offer that you can’t refuse.”

One reason we grant tax exemptions is because we understand that “the power to tax is also the power to destroy.” What Rod Dreher’s speaking to here isn’t just the value of protecting the cultural space (or cultural nests) that tax exemption helps make possible, but also the ways that state power has developed to coerce and incentivize its own values through its accreditation and regulatory powers.

We might be nearing the point where we need “state exemptions” for corporations, rather than simply “tax exemptions.” In other words, exemptions from the state’s ability to do anything other than recognize the existence of an organization.

I’m hopeful that technology will strip the state of its role in accreditation in terms of both work and school places.

More on cultural nests

There’s been more substantial writing lately on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option concept for Christian communities. I’ve written previously on the topic from my own perspective, relating to Christian naïveté, what we might learn from American Indian communities “cultural nests,” and traits for Catholic cultural nests.

In short, the Benedict Option describes the necessity and means for orthodox Christians to rejuvenate their communities of faith, starting on as local and personal  level as possible, ideally within the context of a meaningfully Christian family life. One of Dreher’s recent contributions to this conversation:

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.

Jefferson’s concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is being taken to its most extreme, which now suggests that the Establishment Clause prohibits not only the establishment of an official state religion, but also the presence of Christianity or other religions in the public square. Its effect is that faith is now seen as a pleasant, emotionally soothing personal belief, rather than one that should be present (let alone meaningfully impact) public life.

Yet the stories of the struggle for social justice in America from the founding to abolition to civil rights to the present is rife with leaders whose public lives are driven by their personal morality and religious conviction. The germ of every public law sprouts within our moral consciousness.

This is part of the background for understanding why Dreher cites St. Benedict’s insight that “the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.” The sort of integrated life Leah Libresco describes isn’t only possible, but desirable:

Living supported by the Dominicans does more for me than cultivating piety on my own or even being involved in my church. The brothers (and the sisters studying at their school) offer infusions both of knowledge and of joy for us. They open up the faith so we can study in in greater detail, not just in order to amass more knowledge, but so that we can delight in beauty. They also clear out space for us to experience this delight. And they serve as a Schelling Point where we can find people we can share philia bonds with (“You, too? I thought I was the only one!”). I even went so far as to recommend to one Catholic friend (currently in law school) that he might want to prioritize finding a summer job in DC, so he could have the experience of being in such a rich and lively Catholic community, so he could decide if he wanted to prioritize living here, or someplace like it, when he did longer-term career planning.

The Benedict Option I wanted my eventually-esquired friend to try out was the experience of having some places in his life where Catholicism was an assumption, a community where asking if people wanted to pray Night Office on the way back from a bar wasn’t an unusual request, and there were ready helpers to lead us “further up and further in!”

If I were giving a very short answer to PEG’s question, I would say the Benedict Option isn’t about just working on being more pious (whether alone or in community) but about rearranging your life and community so there are spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does.

Traits for Catholic cultural nests

Last month I wrote about American Indian “cultural nests” and how a similar idea known as the “Benedict Option” could work for American Catholic communities.

The conviction driving Rod Dreher, most vocal proponent of the idea is that “Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become ‘nests’ will not be recognizably Christian within this century.”

I tend to agree with this. There’s a great pressure for anything mission-driven to become accommodating to the idea of mission-creep. Sometimes it’s because the leaders think it’s a necessary path toward growth. Sometimes it just happens because there wasn’t a plan.  And sometimes accommodation happens because of cultural pressure.

There’s an enormous cultural pressure today not only for Christians but for any faith communities not to be terribly provocative in their ideas. To be cultural decoration rather than metaphysically or morally remarkable.

Anyway, Dreher recently offered up a sort of “first draft” for the sort of traits that Christian cultural nests would need to have.

Cultural nests

Rod Dreher reflected recently on American Indian “cultural nests,” or ways to transmit the cultural knowledge of threatened languages and the attendant meaning of those languages to new generations. Dreher frames this by citing the nest as both an incubator and a refuge from predation, which in this case is the force of wider American/English language culture:

The idea is simple but profound: the natural cultural forces around us are destroying these languages, and with them cultures, even cosmologies. The only way to save them is to pass them on to the next generations, and the only way to do that is to study them intensely a sanctuary/incubator setting, and then to put what you learn there into use in daily life.

Reading this, I thought this is the Benedict Option for languages. These speakers of dying languages and their children are not running for the hills to hide out, but they are creating communal institutions within which precious but severely threatened knowledge can be passed on, even as the younger generations live and work in the world. The elders know their children will be assimilated to a certain degree within the broader world, but they are trying as hard as they can to give them the knowledge and the love to hold on to their traditions and inheritance.

Dreher draws a parallel between the value of cultural nests for cultural knowledge like language and the Benedict Option, a concept within Christianity that he’s written about before. Borrowing from this link to describe it: “How to live life as a whole. Not a life of worldly success so much as one of human success.”

Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become “nests” will not be recognizably Christian within this century. I’m convinced of that. Hence the Benedict Option.

American culture, and dominant cultures generally, often find themselves influenced and sometimes even transformed in surprising and unexpected ways through the life of a coherent minority. I think cultural nests are a significant thing for Christians to consider, and they’re already in existence in an obvious way through secular things like college towns. There are plenty of models.