Rod Dreher’s Spiritual Blind Spots

1.

I never really wrapped up my series on Rod Dreher’s Life Not by Lies. I spent a lot of time in my previous posts discussing my problems with Rod Dreher’s historical analysis, and I promised my readers a post in which I discussed my disagreements with his ideas about Christianity (and also some comments about the places where my concerns and Dreher’s overlap, which I’ll do in this post as well). I’m on much shakier ground criticizing Dreher’s ideas about Christianity than when I’m criticizing his ideas about history and politics. For one thing, I might wander into territory where I attack Dreher’s faith itself, and I don’t want to do that. In fact, I almost gave up on this post altogether. Why would I, a relatively new convert to Orthodoxy, want to waste energy criticizing the religious beliefs of another Orthodox Christian? Aren’t there better topics for me to write about? Nevertheless, my series on Dreher feels incomplete without addressing some of the spiritual blind spots I detect in his writing, so I’ll do my best to describe those blind spots here.

I only recently discovered Nathan Friend’s even-handed review of Live Not by Lies, published in January, from which I learned that Dreher is planning on adding a chapter about soft totalitarianism on the Right for the paperback edition of Live Not by Lies. Such a chapter might render some of my political criticism of the book moot, although my challenges to Dreher’s general view of the Left and of Russian history remain.

I find it difficult to separate my politico-historical critique of Dreher’s book from my spiritual critique, in large part because religion and politics are so intertwined in Dreher’s worldview (not that they should ever be wholly separate, mind you). Back in March, he posted the following tweet:

Dreher’s increasingly heated criticisms of Critical Race Theory follow the pattern of several books on social justice by right-wing Christians, including Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice and Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth, books that wildly bemoan the state of discourse in the wider society and conflate the collapse of conservative ideas about race and social order with the collapse of the Church (for some good takedowns of the recent conservative obsession with Critical Race Theory, click here and here). As I have written many times before, Dreher is susceptible to what I can only describe as a Western (Catholic-Protestant) mindset when it comes to this issue; I recognize this mindset because it’s one that I, a recent convert to Orthodoxy, share with Dreher. With our Catholic brain, we frequently conflate the state of affairs in secular society with the state of affairs in the Church, and we desire to see the values of the Church adopted by society (as a political program of the Right, this mindset is called “integralism,” although the Left is also guilty of proscribing its religious worldview onto society at large). With our Protestant brain, we hold to all kinds of doctrinal formulas that simply aren’t necessary within the Orthodox faith.

An example of Dreher’s Protestant brain occurs when he introduces Czesław Miłosz’s notion of ketman, “the Persian word for the practice of maintaining an outward appearance of Islamic orthodoxly while inwardly dissenting.” Dreher is horrified by two possible scenarios that relate to ketman: first, that Christians will go along with the “soft totalitarianism” of social justice while inwardly dissenting and, second, that Christians will quickly learn to go along with the teachings of the Church while secretly harboring doubts and heterodox beliefs.

But the problem of ketman strikes me as a uniquely Protestant problem (I’m ignoring its roots in Islam here, of course, or its relevance in Eastern Bloc societies). Naturally Catholics and Orthodox Christians concern themselves with correct belief; the word Orthodox literally means “right belief.” But to place so much emphasis on what a person believes in their deepest heart of hearts seems to me a Protestant move. Protestants, after all, concern themselves with what one believes as a Christian; Catholics and Orthodox tend to look at one’s relationships to the world and one’s actions (the fruits) to determine if one is a Christian.

Dreher worries that our beliefs will eventually manifest themselves in our actions; I think the apostolic and liturgical traditions teach us the opposite, that actions often generate belief. Look at the letters of Mother Teresa and the profound capacity, within Catholicism, for doubt. One can be genuinely Christian and believe in God without 100% certainty (I’m borrowing here a distinction between believing and knowing from religious studies scholar Diana Pasulka). Protestants, in my view, often sweat too much over the doctrinal knowledge between their ears or the social attitudes in their hearts, and don’t sweat enough about the actions of their hands. “Value truth over everything,” Dreher instructed his audience at his Schmemann lecture at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. But aren’t there things more important than truth, especially the hazy “truths” we maintain about the ever-changing, infinitely complex social sphere of life? Did the great Fathers of the Church really value truth and belief over action? (This is an open question, by the way). In all of his fretting over the power of ideas and political beliefs, Dreher seems to forget that you can be a genuine, strong, authentic Christian who follows orthodox doctrine without perfect knowledge.

Like many Christians across the world, Dreher is beholden to what I call the cult of the family. His concerns about gender and normative family relations (rooted, in his case, in a very modern, Western conception of the nuclear family) reflect the extreme importance he places on this ancient institution. “The family,” he said in his Schmemann lecture, “is, in one sense, an icon of the Holy Trinity.” Fair enough. When God ordains the institution of the family, He is very much creating a mirror of his relationship with us.

But in placing so much emphasis on the family, Dreher is missing the distinctly anti-family streak in much of Orthodox Christianity. If the family is an icon of the Trinity, it’s an imperfect icon. Look at Christ’s teachings about marriage, when the Pharisees ask him about the woman whose husband has died and must, according to Jewish law, marry her brother. Jesus posits that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no gender, that both God and the reality we will inhabit in the eschaton are both post- or non-gendered. And look at the strong monastic tradition, or the tradition of celibacy and suspicion of family espoused by St. Paul.

I have many other criticisms, which I’ll rush through in this paragraph: throughout Live Not by Lies, Dreher demonstrates the limits of the modern Christian imagination in conceiving what the Church has actually looked like in the past and what it might look like today. He decries the existence of sanctuary cities and the possibility of a “parallel polis” within the United States — but isn’t this what Christianity is supposed to look like? Isn’t the vision of a parallel society within the larger society that exudes Christian values (including feeding the poor and housing the homeless) exactly the kind of vision that many right-wing Christians (including Dreher in The Benedict Option) have laid out? Dreher seems to misunderstand Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the “dictatorship of relativism,” which Dreher conflates with social justice warriors and critical race theory (not exactly relativistic). Dreher is also too quick to infer a kind of American Zersetzung that is allegedly being practiced within all of society’s left-leaning institutions. In his vision of the contemporary United States, universities, the media, and (increasingly) corporate culture are out to wear down principled conservatives and authentic Christians and enforce a bland uniformity of thought. This is pure paranoia, plain and simple. Taking merely the example of universities: your average American political science department has a greater range of political thought than your average American neighborhood. Diversity of thought (including conservative thought that isn’t openly hostile to the civil rights of minorities) is positively encouraged in these institutions. This is Charlie Kirk-level analysis on Dreher’s part, and it just doesn’t square with reality.

And then there is the general lack of hope, the deep strain of pessimism, that runs throughout all of Dreher’s writing. It’s easy for the boys on Chapo Trap House to mock Dreher’s persecution complex, but it’s a very real problem. As a friend pointed out, Dreher may be full of faith and love, but there is little evidence of hope in his writing. Does he really believe that Christianity can be vanquished? In his writing, he certainly seems to.

2.

At this point, I want to pause and note the places where Dreher and I agree: the role of consumerism in Western society and the shape and structure of capitalism. Dreher uses the terms “surveillance capitalism” and “manufacturing consent” accurately and expresses healthy concern about the future of privacy, identity, and religion in this feverishly consumerist society. In Live Not by Lies, Dreher wrote:

The essence of modernity is to deny that there are any transcendent stories, structures, habits, or beliefs to which individuals must submit and that should bind our conduct. To be modern is to be free to choose. What is chosen does not matter; the meaning is in the choice itself. There is no sacred order, no other world, no fixed virtues and permanent truths. There is only here and now and the eternal flame of human desire. Volo ergo sum—I want, therefore I am.   

Elsewhere, Dreher is eloquent on the importance of cultural memory for maintaining one’s identity against the blank amnesia of modernity. He wrote, “Cultural memories function to legitimate the present social order…. That is why people in ‘subordinate groups’—that is, social minorities—have such a hard time holding on to their cultural memories. To keep the memories alive means fighting against the dominant order.” He continued:

It is not news to Western conservatives that ideologues in power, both in classrooms and newsrooms, manipulate collective memory to capture the future. What is much less present in the consciousness of modern people…is how the liberal democratic, capitalist way of life unintentionally does the same thing. 

I completely agree. Liberalism and capitalism do tend to conspire against the past, against tradition, against cultural memory. And cultural memory is extremely worth preserving. I’m sure Dreher and I differ on, say, the appropriateness of tearing down Confederate statues, but where he sees a repression of history, I see cultural memory in action. Either way, we both value the importance of cultural memory.

Dreher and I also agree on the importance of solidarity. In his Schmemann lecture, Dreher said:

Totalitarianism triumphs when everyone feels divided against everyone else. One thing I learned from interviewing Christian dissidents is the importance of small communities. That was the big lesson of the underground church. In Bratislava, I visited a hidden room underneath a Bratislava house. This room was accessible only via a secret tunnel. It’s where the underground church produced samizdat gospels and catechisms. They worked there for ten years without ever being discovered by the secret police. Jan Simulčik, a historian who had been part of that operation as a college student, explained to me as we stood in that room why solidarity was so important to the underground church. He said: “When you were with your friends in these communities, you had freedom. You knew that when you went outside, there was totalitarianism. It controlled everything and oppressed you. People like me who wanted knowledge and freedom, and wanted to know more about our faith, depended on these small communities.”

But Dreher’s conception of solidarity is positively mad. In Live Not by Lies, Dreher praises Christian dissidents from eastern Europe for engaging and forming communities with almost everyone and anyone; even atheist Marxists who opposed the Communist regime were valued members of these underground communities, and Dreher writes admiringly of this attitude. But on his blog, Dreher is unwilling to engage with progressive (to say nothing of Marxist) Christians in his own country. He wrote, “I say at one point that there is no point in engaging in ‘dialogue’ with the Orthodox progressives. As theological and moral conservatives in Mainline Protestant churches have learned, ‘dialogue’ to that side is a tactic used to wear down conservatives in power. Once the left has taken power, the dialogue ends.”

So the brave Christians of the Eastern Bloc could form solidarity with avowed Marxists, but contemporary Christians in the United States cannot discuss honest disagreements over doctrine? In Live Not by Lies, Dreher wrote, ““Some conservatives think that SJWs should be countered with superior arguments and if conservatives stick with liberal proceduralism they will prevail. This is a fundamental error that blinds conservatives to the radical nature of the threat.” In the Schmemann lecture, Dreher engaged in some Marxist babble language to justify his opposition to dialogue: “Yes, we Orthodox can and should talk about how best to present the traditional teaching in the modern post-Christian world, but about the truth and the binding authority of this teaching, there can be no dialogue if by ‘dialogue’ one means a dialectical process that results in a synthesis of both parts. The synthesis of truth and falsehood is still falsehood.” So the problem with progressiveness, the thing that makes progressives beyond the pale of good-faith dialogue, is that their process of dialectical argument is structurally anti-Christian? Because something something truth and falsehood?

Elsewhere, Dreher is clearer about his reasons for objecting to progressive dialogue: progressive Christians (he calls them renovationists) are too stuck on the wrong side of social issues. “When the renovationists take power,” he said at St. Vladimir’s, “the dialogue ends, because, as they will say, one does not dialogue about basic human rights, or whatever misleading label they slap on their heretical beliefs.” He then went on to make the claim that homosexuality is the major issue tearing Western churches apart because not because of the dialectic reasoning of homosexual advocates but because of the question at the heart of the debate is the nature of man himself: here, Dreher made his “the family is an icon of the Trinity” claim. So as with most issues he addresses, Dreher’s objection to progressivism is not structural, not bound to some problem inherent in dialectical reasoning; it’s bound up with his deep conviction that homosexuality is deviant and that gender and family norms are absolutely central to the Christian faith.

I believe good-faith Christians can engage in dialogue around these issues. Dreher does not. He seems to believe that the gulf between Eastern Bloc underground Christians and dissident Marxists is smaller than the gulf between modern conservative and modern progressive Christians. This is, in my view, a very sad vision of the Church.

A recurring theme for Dreher is the hatred he imagines the Left has for its opponents: “[social justice] masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing.” Needless to say, this has not been my experience of social justice types, even when I’ve dissented among them. Yes, the more extreme SJWs will shut down a reasonable dialogue because such-and-such preposition about the autonomy of the individual is “a form of violence” against communities of color or some such nonsense. But is the most extreme rhetoric of a typical integrationist any less chilling?

In closing, I want to emphasize that nobody can doubt the authenticity of Dreher’s faith. I’m not one of those who was shocked by St. Vladimir’s decision to platform Dreher or who called for the cancellation of his lecture. I’d welcome the chance to interview Dreher and, frankly, I’d have many questions and concerns for him that are pretty far removed from the issues raised in Live Not by Lies. I’m interested in his everyday faith, in his everyday struggles, and in his relationship to the secular sphere as it exists now (as opposed to his imagined totalitarian future). But for now, unless he reaches out, this will be my last word on Dreher for a while.

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