How should Christians relate to the culture around them? That is the question raised by Rod Dreher’s article in the Spectator this week. He’s right that it’s a pretty fundamental question. If we Christians don’t know how to answer it, our message is likely to seem muddled. In common with many leading theologians of the last few decades, he claims that the answer is simple, if we are daring enough to see it. We should defy the false gods of the age, ‘the norms of secular society’. Liberal Christianity has failed to do so, and so has allowed the erosion of its sacred inheritance. We must be counter-cultural little Benedicts.
He sums up this position with admirable clarity. He is right that Alasdair MacIntyre laid much of its intellectual foundation back in 1981. Over the next decade or two, this approach gained huge academic kudos, partly because it knew how to ride the huge crashing wave of ‘postmodernism’ – it knew how to deploy fancy French theorists like Foucault. One of its strands, ‘radical orthodoxy’, was the hot new thing when I studied theology in the mid 1990s, and its reign lingers on. It dominates academic theology rather as Jeremy Corbyn dominates the Labour Party: faute de mieux.
Isn’t this just conventional religious conservatism? Pretty much, but it foregrounds a fresh-sounding, radical-sounding critique of ‘secular liberalism’. This critique partly derives from Marxist thought: some of its pioneers, including MacIntyre, were originally Marxists, and retain that creed’s hatred of bourgeois individualism. Its American advocates are a bit different: though mostly Roman Catholics, they often have a tough-guy frontier spirit rooted in Protestant dissent. Mr Dreher seems to be one of these. The appeal of this approach is obvious: it feels hard-core, disillusioned, brave, cutting-edge. It attracts many Anglicans who dread sounding woolly and well-meaning. Well, there are worse ways to sound.
So why are they wrong, these New Benedictines? They are wrong because we do not live in the sixth century or anything like it. The dominant culture around us does not resemble the barbarism of the Visigoths or Vikings, which did indeed have to be defied by starkly counter-cultural means, until Christian ideals ousted bloody pagan ones. Ah, but we inhabit a subtle barbarism of hedonistic individualism, and denial of the common good, they say. The new cultural enemy, ‘secular liberalism’, might seem benign in some ways with its talk of human rights, but this, to the New Benedictine, only confirms its insidious evil, that it dares to don the clothes of virtue. The only authentic virtue comes from shared religious values: a secular imitation is in a sense worse than nothing, due to its power to deceive.
Dreher’s argument hinges on his negative characterisation of the dominant creed of the West, which he calls ‘secular liberalism.’ He says, a few times, that it is defined by hedonistic individualism, summed up by that vulgarly titled Mark Ravenhill play. But then…hang on, what’s this? He changes tack, admitting that it is deeply influenced by ‘Christian teachings about the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person’. Eh? On one hand secular liberalism is as bad as the rape-and-pillage paganism that St Benedict defied, on the other it is a secular version of Christian morality? He sounds confused.
His confusion is understandable: it is a complicated tradition, this creed that we inhabit but for some reason seldom get round to reflecting on. I prefer the term ‘secular humanism’: it highlights the fact that Western culture contains a strong idealism about universal human flourishing, the rights of all. (And it avoids the unhelpful emotive baggage of ‘liberalism’.) I do not see this ideology as a cunning trick of the devil, but as part of God’s cunning plan. As I explain in my new book, God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values, the secular humanism of the West is firmly rooted in Christianity. It should be seen as an offshoot of Christianity. To say, as Dreher does, that is ‘parasitic’ on Christianity is one way of putting it, if an unhelpfully negative way. Rather, it should be seen as a providential development, the culmination of the separation of church and state pioneered by zealous Protestants in the seventeenth century.
We Christians should affirm this tradition that frames moral universalism in secular terms. We implicitly do so when we affirm our political culture that sidelines religion, seeking to include those of all religions and none on equal terms. In reality, tough-talkers like Dreher probably affirm such a political culture – but presumably in an anguished reluctant way, half-hating themselves for conforming to ‘the norms of secular society’.
To the New Benedictine, my positive view of secular humanism sounds like a gunshot in the foot. By seeing the good in secular humanism, aren’t I implying that it is an advance on Christianity, which can be left to fade away? Well, I am not seeing that much good in it. A nuanced view is necessary. Secular humanism is the right public ideology, and yet it is existentially inadequate; it is insubstantial, ‘thin’. It is because I find it inadequate that I am a Christian: I feel the need for more meaning, for a more coherent story, for a fuller myth if you like. I find it possible to affirm Christianity, and to affirm secular humanism as the best possible public ideology. There is some tension here, but it’s a healthy creative tension.
Of course this will sound like fence-sitting muddle to some, but if simple clarity is all that’s needed in religion, then Islamism is king. At root, the New Benedictines yearn for an Islam-shaped unity of vision. They protest that they have no interest in reviving theocracy, or ‘Christendom’, preferring the rhetoric of counter-cultural protest.
But this is disingenuous. For they idealise the medieval unity of religion, politics and culture, and bemoan the Reformation’s disruption of it. This is to disparage the emergence of modern liberal politics, in which theocracy is boldly rejected. Are they therefore dangerous enemies of our way of life? They wish. Most of the New Benedictines I have encountered are donnish types, thrilled to be defying the consensus with their ivory-tower heroism. But in a sense they are dangerous, for their radical-reactionary posturing influences mainstream religious culture and confirms liberal agnostics’ suspicion of religion.
Dreher ventures some bold pronouncements about saving Christianity and Western civilisation. Let me follow suit. The West is currently failing to articulate its core values of human rights, moral universalism. Why, in the face of lesser creeds, is it so tongue-tied, so lacking in self-confidence? Largely because of its barren civil war, in which Christianity and secular humanism are seen as opposed. Our route back to self-confidence is a new sense that our humanism is a sacred cause, rooted in Christianity.
Yes, it would take a revolution that’s hard to imagine, for secular humanists to learn some respect for the religious basis of their creed – and for religious conservatives to drop the reactionary posturing, but it’s the only revolution worth working and praying for.