I have been reading through Rod Dreher’s latest work, The Benedict Option; I have finally sat down and began to read it. And I am sure many of you are familiar with his argument, he’s been arguing it for a number of years. But if I may give a bit of precis here: Dreher is very concerned about the state of what he calls the Post-Christian society that we currently find ourselves in, particularly its narcissistic consumerism, and its political expediency, and really the big one, its normalization of sexual deviancy. And he sees these phenomena really as indicators of something much larger, that’s what he calls “The Great Flood” of secularism that has overwhelmed every aspect of social and cultural life.
And it is this assertion that secularism has in fact won, that secular assumptions and norms, beliefs and practices, basically reign unopposed in the modern Western world that serves as the foundation, indeed the justification, for the so-called Benedict Option, which he describes as a strategic withdrawal by Christians from our modern secular culture and instead seek to live in intentional communities governed by distinctively Christian practices, forming what Vaclev Havel and Vaclev Benda called a parallel polis.
Now whatever we want to make of Dreher’s recommendations, we certainly do have to address this whole notion that we are living in the midst of a secular deluge, a mass sea of secularism that pervades every aspect of our society. And this is because a number of scholars are arguing that such is emphatically not the case; we do not live in a secular society simply put. One scholar in particular who was very critical of this notion was the recently deceased Peter Berger, who argued that the US and the West as a whole are in fact not secular, but rather pluralistic; pluralism, not hardened secularism, is the dominant social paradigm governing Western societies today.
Now Berger’s assertion here is part of a growing number of scholars who see the West as entering into what they call a post-secular age and what I want to do here is explore what’s meant by this term to bring hopefully a bit more clarity on the current state of our society and where such a society is going. A real defect in Dreher’s work is that he offers no critical social theory by which to analyze our society and culture, and so we’re really left with little more than a bunch of anecdotes, such as Christians thought all they needed to do was vote Republican and we’d be good to go, to just rather emotive and intuitive understandings of society and culture.
Now the term postsecular first began to be used by scholars back in the 1960s to talk about the resilience of religion on overcoming what one scholar calls the pathologies of secularity. And these pathologies surrounded the phenomenon of alienation in the modern world; we want the comforts and conveniences of the modern age, but we detest the anonymity and loss of community that tends to come with a society based on malls and supermarkets as over against a society based on mom-and-pop shops and local customs and traditions. And the argument that some scholars were making is that the church or synagogue provides just such a mediation; you can have your modern conveniences all the while experiencing genuine community through the life of the local church or synagogue. And they called this growing realization a postsecular age, which was in effect the age after a post-Christian age.
Moreover, these scholars noticed that the fact/value dichotomy so characteristic of secular society was highly dissatisfying; secular assumptions basically demystify the world, that’s what sociologists at the turn of the century called it, demystification. In other words, modern science had supposedly uncovered the fact that the world was not governed by gods, or THE God, or by magic, or supernatural agencies, but rather by biological, chemical, and physical causal laws. And so what emerged from a secularized conception of life is what’s called a fact/value dichotomy; facts involve the biological, chemical, and physical components of nature, while values are mere human constructs that are imposed on otherwise valueless natural processes. This is known as a fact/value or nature vs. culture dichotomy. And what scholars have noticed over the last few decades is that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with this notion of disenchantment; they find a purposeless, meaningless world described in the disenchanting language and concepts of science and scientific materialism as itself banal and reductionist. And so people are more and more embracing traditional spiritual and religious values as the means of interpreting the world. In many respects, this can be seen in the modern day environmentalist movement, where terms like ‘cosmic piety’ are regularly employed to describe the ideal human and cultural harmony with nature, thus overcoming the nature/culture, fact/value divide.
And then in the 1990s, with the rise of post-modernism which radically critiqued scientific rationalism as the sole objective way of knowing, seeing it as itself a mere Western social construct, postsecularism began to see theology as a thoroughly legitimate and indeed indispensable form of human knowledge. I’m thinking here particularly of the work of British scholar John Milbank. Others such as Richard John Neuhaus turned their attention to the public square, and the propensity to privatize religion in secular societies, and these scholars were interested in how religion was more and more making a comeback in politics and the public square, particularly after the Iranian Revolution in the Middle East and the Reagan Revolution here in the States where the Christian Right played such a decisive role, and continues to.
Now there are three broad themes that come out of this scholarly literature: fist, people are disenchanted with secularism and the loss of meaning and purpose and community; secondly, there’s the growing recognition that secularism itself represents a value system that is made up of all kinds of secular myths and rituals, and this radically undermines secularism’s claim to religious neutrality. And thirdly, we’re seeing a return of religion to the public square, from a full-blown theocracy in Iran to the more subtle yet highly significant forms of Christian political activism here in the US, with faith-based welfare initiatives, and school choice programs involving the public funding of parochial and Christian schools.
Now, one of the problems that post-secular scholars run into is explaining why it is that we would go back to religion to resolve these secularizing problems. I may recognize that secularism has all kinds of contradictions and problems, but that doesn’t mean that I’m gonna go back to Judaism to resolve those contradictions and problems. Right? In other words, while we’ve identified the problem, we’ve not identified why religion is the solution.
Now, for me, in my scholarship, in my understanding of how things are working out, this is where the whole notion of retraditionalization comes in. We’re living in a time of what scholars call a ‘post-security politics’ where the very institutions and geographical arrangements that used to give us a sense of place in the world and in history and hence a sense of stability and security have largely been uprooted or eclipsed by globalization, which is the primary carrier of secularization, and again, something that Dreher basically ignores in his work. So while at one time our borders may have been a source of national security, globalizing economies basically render national borders null and void, since they’re governed by transnational corporations, and even our political and economic systems are increasingly run by standardized and translocal political agencies such as the EU or the UN or the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund or the European Court of Human Rights. And so, this globalized world order has provoked a tremendous sense of economic, national, and existential insecurities. And so, in the face of threats to a population’s sense of place and identity and security, populations tend to reassert historic identity and security markers, such as religion, custom, land, language, ethnicity, and tradition, as mechanisms of resistance against secular globalization’s anti-cultural anti-traditional dynamics.
And this, to me, is the biggest problem I see with Rod Dreher’s thesis on the nature of our current social circumstance. Far from an overwhelming secularism, many scholars are arguing that we are living in the midst of nothing less than the DE-secularization of society. The very foundations of a secular society – most especially the commitments to scientific rationalism on the one hand and personal autonomy on the other – are in many respects collapsing all over the place. The Soviet Union has now been replaced with the return of a quasi-Holy Russia and the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church in both domestic and international geopolitics; we’re seeing Poland declare Jesus Christ as Kind and Lord over their nation; we’re seeing Christianity re-written into the constitutions of Hungary in the Atlantic and Samoa in the Pacific, Eastern European nations such as Georgia have reintroduced Eastern Orthodox Christianity back into their public school curriculum; you’ve got secular Kemalism being replaced with a resurgent Islamic republic in Turkey, we’re seeing the revival of imperial Shintoism at the highest levels of the Japanese government, a revitalization of Confucian philosophy among Chinese officials, a mass Hindu nationalism sweeping India and India’s politics, and on and on and on.
And so, this is generally what’s meant by this term post-secularism: we are living at a time when the very foundations and assumptions, institutions and arrangements that comprise a secular conception of life are beginning to wane, they’re collapsing under the contradictions inherent in secularism as well as the backlash against the insecurities that secularism brings through the channels of globalization to the various worldwide cultures and societies. And so, at the very least, the notion of the post-secular does call into question the legitimacy and integrity of interpreting Western culture solely as a secular society, as is the case with the Benedict Option as advocated by Rod Dreher. And so whatever one makes of Dreher’s advocacy regarding intentional Christian living, my concern then is that the whole justification for the Benedict Option, the whole framing of the advocacy, is itself rooted in a social conception that is at best imprecise and at worst downright misleading.
For more on baptism and the Apostle Paul’s vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.