Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation, (Dreher) Chapter 2, "The Roots of the Crisis" (III)

Dreher begins with a story of two middle-aged or older women, lamenting the loss of previously-held sexual mores; namely, that they know so many young women having children out of wedlock. Indeed, although that crisis has hit minority communities even harder, it is interesting that he cites Charles Murray's recent sociological survey of White America, Coming Apart. It's at this point that the chapter becomes interesting, because what follows is a brief survey of Western civilization. Dreher is not after a jeremiad here, but an exploration of ideas. Ideas--or better said, philosophies--have consequences, and our author wants us to look at them. Dreher says that five movements built upon each other, and in a sense conspired together, to bring our societies to this moment:

1. The loss of metaphysical realism, or the classical theory of epistemology. It's very possible to get into the weeds here, but following the lead of the Greek philosophers, we believed that reality as we know it was ordered and knowable, that human beings were able to observe reality and abstract the essences of things. The purpose of a philosophy of knowing is to understand reality, and build upon it. Into the 14th century, Dreher says, people believed that God was very active in the world. That is, it was "sacramental," as Dreher calls it, a sort of theater for the miraculous. Even the natural sciences saw their fundamental purpose as an elucidation of the work of Providence. When this basic approach to knowledge was lost or set aside, the results were disastrous. One fundamental aspect of this classical account of knowing is a very close relationship between the knower, and the thing known. In addition, there remains a link between universals and particulars.

2. The Protestant Reformation. The rejection of the authority of the Catholic Church came with a new religious epistemology, or method of discerning revealed truth in Christ. The consequent loss of consensus, and the sheer proliferation of competing ecclesiastical authorities, cut into any consensus that could be relied upon. Advocates will say of course that a consensus that is false isn't worth its supposed benefits. Meanwhile, in this account, the new philosophy that replaced the classical epistemology was called, "nominalism." One of the results of nominalism is to sever the link between universals and particulars. In a sense, as I understand it, it's as if the universals do not exist. If I am looking at a particular tree, I cannot abstract that which belongs to the concept "tree"; I cannot say that this tree shares anything by the very fact of being a tree with any other tree. We call them "trees" because we've decided so, not because the universal "tree" actually exists. I'm going to rely on Dr. Cross to clean up any errors in my account here, but suffice to say, nominalism is so stupid that I'm baffled that anyone would defend it. It's a standard Catholic claim to say that Protestant theology relies on nominalism, and your mileage may vary.

Also, I find it snarkily amusing that Dreher can't really push this point too far, because the first Protestants in vast numbers were the Orthodox. Sad, and possibly offensive, but true. It's at this point also that his lamenting the general loss of religious authority can do everything, except recommend a return to the Catholic Church. You will note again that his audience is all Christians, so when he says "church" in this work, he's conceiving of the universal Church as invisible. "Back to the sources!" is only as strong as his weakest link, and that's Protestant ecclesiology. Unstated and sort of implied is somehow that the East escaped these disasters, and that's more than debatable. Anyway, let's move on.

3. The Enlightenment. This movement in the 18th century replaced the Christian religion with "Reason," says Dreher. What's happening philosophically is a truncation of what counts as true knowledge to the empirical. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a major figure here, for our purposes, mainly introducing a starting-point of skepticism into a working epistemology. Notice also it's the exact opposite of the classical account. Indeed, Descartes thought we should doubt our own senses, rather than extrapolate from them to higher things. He may be the father of modern philosophy. Frankly, he's lucky I don't blame him for everything. I will add in capitalism and democracy as fruits of the Enlightenment, and if you catch me on the wrong day, (most of them) I won't see either one as good.

4. The Industrial Revolution. This mostly 19th century phenomenon accelerated the movement to cities and away from farming villages. In addition of course, great technological advances were happening at the same time. Many commentators will argue (to some extent Dreher among them) that all these causes are linked in some way or another.

5. The Sexual Revolution. Dreher marks this beginning in 1960, with the advent of widely available hormonal contraception. This of course fully and finally severed the link between procreation and pleasure, and in the Catholic phrasing, made pleasure the primary end of sex. A whole host of disasters are the direct result of this revolution: divorce, adultery, abortion, sexual violence, etc. In short, Pope St. Paul VI was absolutely right, and I doubt Dreher disagrees.

In the end, this is a common traditional Christian recounting of the West. Dreher concedes that it's an intellectually-driven account of historical causation. I'm not inclined to quibble with this basic account.