Rod Dreher is once again exasperated. He is frustrated by a rumor that George Weigel hasn’t bought the tireless promotion of his ‘Benedict Option’:
A few months ago, Weigel appeared at an event in Providence, RI, to discuss the Benedict Option. I had a couple of Catholic friends in the audience that night. One said Weigel sneered at the Benedict Option, and just wanted to talk about all the good things going on in the Catholic Church now. The other, a Weigel fan, had the same reaction that Peter Wolfgang did: he said Weigel is living in a perpetual 1998.
Later in the post Dreher seems to grant that Weigel may have grounds for not buying what he is selling:
[I]n my own defense (and in partial defense of George Weigel), the challenges are so massive and protean that I don’t think it’s possible to discern a comprehensive vision of the near-future, much less formulate a battle plan… Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel failed.
What vision of the future does Dreher believe Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel failed to realize?:
“The Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel project, crudely considered, was to Christianize liberalism. It depended on both a strong, credible Christian witness (especially a Catholic one), and using political power for broadly Christian humanist ends.”
The notion that liberalism, a commitment to economic and political freedom, needs Christianization rather than liberalism being, as I have argued elsewhere, itself a tradition of Christian moral and theological reflection on the institutions, ethics, and law of early modern Europe is sorely mistaken. (See Alejandro Chafuen’s Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics or any of the volumes in the first or second series of Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law).
Dreher draws his historical misunderstandings, and his branding for the ‘Benedict Option,’ from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. MacIntyre’s mistake was best summarized by Mark Lilla in his review of Brad Gregory’s similarly flawed Unintended Reformation (On that book see Jordan Ballor and Herman Selderhuis as well):
After Virtue is catnip for grumpy souls. By blurring the lines between intellectual history and philosophical argument, MacIntyre developed a compelling just-so story about how our awful world came to be. Once upon a time the Aristotelian tradition of moral reflection, which ran continuously from antiquity through the Catholic Middle Ages, gave Europeans a coherent narrative for understanding and practicing virtue in their individual and collective lives. That tradition was destroyed by the “Enlightenment project.” (Note to students: distrust any book that uses this empty phrase.) Once the Lumières undid the work of centuries they were left to justify morality on rational grounds, which they necessarily failed to do, since morality can only be understood within a living tradition of practice. Their failure then prepared the way for acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that “cannot hope to achieve moral consensus.” MacIntyre expressed no explicit hope or desire to return to Middle Ages. Instead, his book ends with a visionary call for the creation of future moral communities based on old modes of thought, where a coherent moral life might once again be sustained. The final sentence reads: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.” …AFTER VIRTUE IS NOT an academic work of history and does not pretend to be. It is a strong work of advocacy that ends with a prayer.
This ‘just-so story’ just doesn’t hold up under any actual historical scrutiny. It would not have surprised Lord Acton that contemporary critics of liberalism who look back longingly at the Middle Ages are, in fact, unanchored to the actual past:
If the Past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the Past is the safest and the surest emancipation. And the earnest search for it is one of the signs that distinguish the four centuries of which I speak from those that went before. The Middle Ages, which possessed good writers of contemporary narrative, were careless and impatient of older fact. They became content to be deceived, to live in a twilight of fiction, under clouds of false witness, inventing according to convenience, and glad to welcome the forger and the cheat. As time went on, the atmosphere of accredited mendacity thickened, until, in the Renaissance, the art of exposing falsehood dawned upon keen Italian minds. It was then that History as we understand it began to be understood, and the illustrious dynasty of scholars arose to whom we still look both for method and material. Unlike the dreaming prehistoric world, ours knows the need and the duty to make itself master of the earlier times, and to forfeit nothing of their wisdom or their warnings, and has devoted its best energy and treasure to the sovereign purpose of detecting error and vindicating entrusted truth.
The so called “Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel project” is simply an attempt to build a free and virtuous society based on the actual and not the imagined tradition of Christian reflection on the principles of ordered liberty. It is no more a failure than the earlier “Maritain-Eliot-Lewis-Auden-Weil project” so deftly explored in Alan Jacobs’ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.
The power to know and the power to determine the shape of our future is something all Christians should realize belongs only to God, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34)
Dreher is right that the economic, social, and political problems we face are real and secularization is exacerbating them. I’m not suggesting we live in a perpetual 1998 nor do I think living in a perpetual 2006 is a difference maker. What I’m suggesting is that we stand within our tradition and not retreat into sectarianism. Standing in the old paths is difficult and often meets resistance from the world as the prophet teaches us, “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (Jer. 6:16)
As Albert Jay Nock reminds us the job of the prophet is the only real job there is,
If a prophet were not too particular about making money out of his mission or getting a dubious sort of notoriety out of it, the foregoing considerations would lead one to say that serving the Remnant looks like a good job. An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants. They ask you to give them what they want, they insist upon it, and will take nothing else; and following their whims, their irrational changes of fancy, their hot and cold fits, is a tedious business, to say nothing of the fact that what they want at any time makes very little call on one’s resources of prophesy. The Remnant, on the other hand, want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that, and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about.
Christ himself told us, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14)
I do not feel as discouraged as Dreher because ultimately I know the battle is not mine but God’s (2 Chron. 20:15). We should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things for He really is the only option worth taking (Ex. 20:3).