Rod Dreher’s Spiritual Blind Spots

1.

I never really wrapped up my series on Rod Dreher’s Live 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 that I’d discuss my disagreements with his ideas about Christianity, and also some comments about how my concerns and Dreher’s overlap, which I’ll offer in this post. 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 account 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 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 brains, 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 imposed on 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 brains, we hold to all kinds of doctrinal formulas that simply aren’t necessary within the Orthodox faith.

Aside: I know that Orthodox Christianity does not advocate separation of church and state, to such an extent that the emperors of eastern Rome and Russia frequently acted as pseudo-popes. But I’d argue that Orthodox Christian tradition and Orthodox doctrine emphasize cooperation between church and state, not direct rule by the Church.

An example of Dreher’s Catholic-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. The first possibility is that Christians will go along with the “soft totalitarianism” of social justice while inwardly dissenting, something Dreher doesn’t want. He doesn’t want Christians cowering due to social pressure (something I don’t think anyone wants). The second possibility is that Christians will actually accept soft totalitarianism, that they will publicly accept the teachings of their churches while secretly harboring doubts and heterodox beliefs.

But the problem of ketman strikes me as a uniquely Protestant problem. 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 like a concern unique to Protestnatism. Protestants, after all, worry a lot about what person believes; Catholics and Orthodox tend to look at one’s actions (the fruits of the Spirit) to determine if one is a Christian.

Again, Catholics and Orthodox do care about correct belief. They don’t recite the creed for nothing. But Protestants really get their undies in a bundle over a person’s deep-seated beliefs. Catholics and Orthodox leave more room for doubt in the Christian life.

Dreher worries that our deep-seated beliefs will eventually manifest themselves in our actions. I believe that 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 a genuine 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 political beliefs 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 whether or not we fully understand the 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 knowledge of absolute truth and certainty over action? (This is an open question for me, by the way). Isn’t confessing the truths of Christianity, and acting on them, more important than certainty?

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 reflect the extreme importance he places on the family. And the family is indeed an ancient, Biblical institution. But historically, and throughout Christian history, the family extends beyond the nuclear family. Family is both a real and an allegoric category, one that includes obligations to brothers, sisters, and other extended family members. As many scholars have pointed out, our conception of the “traditional family” is rooted in a very modern and Western conception of the isolated nuclear family. The traditional family, historically and in Christian history, is not isolated. We have obligations to our extended family, and extended family provides support and protection to the nuclear family. We are also instructed to include the Church in our conception of family and familial obligations.

“The family,” argued Dreher in his Schmemann lecture, “is, in one sense, an icon of the Holy Trinity.” Fair enough. When God ordained the institution of the family, He was very much creating a mirror of his relationship with us. But in placing so much emphasis on the family, Dreher is missing the degree to which Orthodox Christianity relies on a non-familial spirituality. 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 are no husbands and wives, that the reality we will inhabit in the eschaton are both post- or non-gendered, at least in the biological sense (spiritual and allegorical gender is another matter). And look at the strong monastic tradition, or the tradition of celibacy, or the suspicion of family sometimes espoused by St. Paul. He taught husbands to love their wives and wives to obey their husbands, but he also, in an aside, argued that it’s better to do without wives and husbands altogether and focus on one’s relationship with God.

I have many other criticisms of Dreher, which I’ll rush through in the next three paragraphs: throughout Live Not by Lies, he demonstrates the limits of the modern Christian imagination about what the Church has actually looked like in the past and what it might look like today. I agree with him about those limits. But later, he decries the existence of sanctuary cities and the possibility of a “parallel polis” within the United States — but isn’t this many traditionally Christian nations looked like? Isn’t this what Christianity is supposed to look like? Isn’t the vision of a parallel society within secular society, a parallel society that exudes Christian values (including feeding the poor and housing the homeless), exactly the kind of vision that many conservative Christians (including Dreher in The Benedict Option) have laid out in their opposition to government social programs? 

Dreher seems to misunderstand Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching on the “dictatorship of relativism,” which Dreher conflates with social justice warriors and critical race theorists (who, with their often extreme diktats, are not exactly relativistic). Dreher also believes that an American Zersetzung exists, that Leftists wage psychological warfare against ordinary people, and that this warefare has crept into all of American society’s 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. They seek to enforce a bland uniformity of thought. In my experience, this is paranoia, plain and simple. Let’s take the example of universities: your average American political science department has a greater range of political thought than your average American neighborhood, from Marxists to Keynesians to Hayekians, from socialists to social democrats to libertarians. Diversity of thought (including conservative thought that isn’t openly hostile to the civil rights of minorities) is positively encouraged in these institutions. English departments are, I admit, much more uniform, but English departments are also disappearing at a rapid rate. 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 to me, 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. I agree with Dreher about the corrosive role of consumerism in Western society, and about the perverse shape and structure of modern 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 (forgive the psychiatric metaphor) absolutely bipolar. In Live Not by Lies, Dreher praises Christian dissidents from eastern Europe for engaging with and forming communities with almost everyone and anyone. Even atheistic Marxists who opposed the Communist regime were valued members of these underground communities, and Dreher writes admiringly of this fact. But on his blog, Dreher is unwilling to engage with progressive Christians in his own country. He once wrote, “[T]here 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 and social policy? 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 described some kind of Marxist babble language about dialectics 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…why? Something something truth and falsehood. Nevermind that dialecticians—be they Marxist or Hegelian, leftist or conservative—are fundamentally concerned with truth and falsehood.

Elsewhere, Dreher is clearer about his reasons for objecting to progressive dialogue: progressive Christians (he calls them renovationists) are stuck on the wrong side of contemporary 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 homosexual advocates dialectical reasoning (which is heretical for Dreher), but because the question at the heart of the debate is literally 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 a corruption of “human nature,” and that gender and family norms are absolutely central to the Christian faith. (Dreher’s emphasis on “human nature” is rooted in Aristotelian-Catholic thought, which teaches that human nature has a purpose—to love God, ultimately—and that deviations from human nature corrupt our purpose. Orthodox Christianity, as I understand it, teaches us that human nature is something we transcend to become like God.)

I believe that genuine Christians can engage in good-faith dialogue about these issues, be they gender issues or race issues or whatever, with anyone. Dreher does not. He literally argues that the gulf between underground Christians in the Eastern Bloc and dissident Marxists in the Eastern Bloc was smaller than the current gulf between modern conservative Christians 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 that the Left has for its opponents. He writes: “[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 with social justice types, even when I have vocally opposed their views (and I frequently do). Yes, the more extreme SJWs will shut down a reasonable dialogue with me because my “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 invite Dreher or who called for the cancellation of his lecture. Dreher should invited almost anywhere to offer his perspective. I’d welcome the chance to interview Dreher and, frankly, I’d have many questions 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, in his personal history, in his views on conservatism as a movement, and in his relationship to the secular sphere as it exists now (as opposed to his imagined totalitarian future).

But for now, unless he contacts me (unlikely, although he is very generous with his time so who knows), this will be my last word on Dreher for a while.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this incredibly in-depth and insightful review. I haven’t read Live Not By Lies — I’m not sure yet if I will — but I keep stumbling across Dreher’s “soft totalitarianism” concept, and I’ve been curious about it’s influence in responses to the pandemic within American Orthodox and Catholic circles. If you’re interested in Dreher’s everyday faith, I recommend How Dante Saved My Life. It’s a beautiful account of his personal spiritual journey to reconciliation with his family of origin.

    Like

  2. Glad you are condensing Dreher for me, whom I simply haven’t had the time to consume in massive quantities. He seems more prolific than ever. Giving lectures at St. Vlad’s? Wow, that sure tells us where they’re heading. The bottom line is that Dreher and company (you know of whom I speak, they’re featured everywhere in Orthodox circles) are all politically motivated, that’s their chief objective. The touchstones of abortion and homosexuality have been the rallying cries for years now, and you are a pariah if you say that they’re not important. That’s what happened to Fredericka Matthews Green in the last few years. She tried to gently say in one of her podcasts that she just didn’t believe that all of the energy fighting gay marriage was really productive. Well she turned around shortly after, and did a complete about-face. She obviously had been taken to the woodshed and had to change her position–she basically said, for the same of not scandalizing my brothers/sisters I won’t say that anymore.
    On another note, interestingly Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick wrote a blog this past week or so on “woke Puritanism” which is echoing your statements about “belief” not being the way to easy virtue. The piece is a pretty clunky read, but see what you think. He, I believe, is very sympathetic to Dreher, and other Orthodox like him, because of political leanings.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Madeleine Nantze Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.