David Brooks on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Or, The Ironist Us Vs. the Purist Them

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David Brooks has responded in the New York Times to Rod Dreher’s just-out, “already-the-most-discussed-and-most-important-religious-book-of-the-decade” The Benedict Option. His response is not negative so much as graciously dismissive. He does this by labeling Dreher a “purist.”

Brooks’ critique sets “purists” like Dreher against “ironists” like Niebuhr (and, apparently, Brooks); and at first he had me assuming I’d land clearly in Dreher’s category, conservative Protestant that I am.

But the way he describes ironism had some theological appeal, too:

Ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.

This all seemed to fit me, too, given my belief not just in creation but in fall—at least until he said,

[For ironists] there is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.

Whereas I think there is such a system, found in the Bible—though this system is more for the individual than for the society. I distinguish the two not because the Bible has nothing to say to society as a whole (it does; if Moab and Ammon can be judged guilty of oppression in Isaiah, there must be standards available by which nations can be judged innocent of oppression), but because the Bible never holds out hope that there will be societies in which all people are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, in which all people have the new heart of the New Covenant. How can a society full of rebels against God possibly be successful? And, sadly, human rebellion isn’t limited to unbelievers. Even now, New Covenant members still have our horrid flesh. I know I’ve got mine. We can’t be relied upon to create heaven on earth either.

I can’t follow Brooks’ ironism as far as he takes it:

The real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

The sexual revolution most certainly is an enemy, and an incredibly destructive one. And though I hope I’m a humble enough ironist to see plenty of mystery out there, my difficulty is not with accepting that we see through a glass darkly, it’s accepting the particular list of things Brooks thinks we won’t see clearly until the eschaton. He repeatedly mentions “LGBT issues” as a matter over which he disagrees with Dreher. And though even there I don’t pretend to have perfectly solid answers to all questions (how do nature and nurture relate in the formation of homosexual desire, do the “eunuchs from birth” Jesus spoke of include celibate homosexuals), I do have a few solid enough answers—divinely revealed answers—to guide public policy. One is that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a reality, a given, not an ad hoc social construct. I can’t compromise this point for the common good when the common good relies on it.

If I’m a purist, I’m one that is resigned to empirical pluralism and more than prepared to work in good ironistic fashion with other groups for the common good—and to await pure perfection only in the New Earth. But it’s meaningless for me to work for that common good now unless I get to retain my biblically informed vision of what that good entails.

Brooks thinks,

Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between L.G.B.T. rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.

And I hope he’s right. I think he may be. But one reason I think Dreher may win me over—I began reading The Benedict Option moments after it became available in the Kindle store—is the ironically sad blindness of the NY Times commenters.

“cljuniper” from Denver said,

[I] agree with Brooks that purism is the real enemy. In my view, any religion that creates an “us and them” mentality is likely more cost than benefit to humanity.

Thank you, Stanley Fish and John Frame and St. Paul, for giving me tools to see what’s going on in a sentence like that. Do you see it? cljuniper critiques an “us and them” mentality by naming an enemy—by establishing a new us-and-them.

cljuniper lands squarely in the trap her liberal secularism has made for her by calling what her enemy does a “harm,” by assuming that her definition of “harm” is uncontestable and obvious and neutral and beneficent and “progressive”:

What people like Dreher don’t get is that the progressive community that accepts and embraces human diversity are all about religious and personal freedom and we aren’t about to come hunting for Christians—we are about not judging people by their flavor of religion or lifestyle preferences unless they are hurting others. We are not “authoritarian liberals” whereas the Christian Right and the Right generally is full of “authoritarian conservatives”…who want government to tell us how to live.

Come on in, Fish. We need you. Ah, thank you for stopping by.

Fish says,

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

The fact is that every religion—even secularism and progressivism, which are faiths, make no mistake about it—feels the natural impulse to order all of life, including society, by its principles.

Despite cljuniper’s apparent belief in the benignity and live-and-let-livety of her progressivism, Rod Dreher and many others have detected a distinct uptick in progressive authoritarianism, from the well-publicized attacks on Christian wedding cake bakers and florists, to the HHS Mandate that the Little Sisters of the Poor provide abortifacient contraceptive coverage, to the Middlebury students shouting down Charles Murray by calling him anti-gay when he isn’t. What can Rod, an expert culture-watcher say, except that he has his ear to the cultural ground and believes that the times they are a-changin’? Brooks—admittedly an expert culture watcher himself—disagrees. But I’m leaning heavily Dreher’s direction. I just don’t see how the commenters at the New York Times can repeatedly call me and Rod Dreher, and all orthodox Christians “bigots” without threatening social cohesion. What used to be called “disagreement” is now called “hate”—and how is compromise possible with an irrational being such as a hater, someone who clearly doesn’t “respect existence”? Secularist progressives are playing the morality card, they are claiming the cultural high ground. They are appropriating the mantle of the civil rights movement. Even some of their own have complained about their illiberality.

Them are not completely evil (being made in God’s image and all), and cultural accommodation may be possible in the short term, but us have good reasons to contemplate the Benedict Option. I read with avid interest.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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