The Benedict Option for a Brave New World

Last night I took my sons to a high school soccer game. One of the best teams in the state (my school) was playing an opponent from a rural county.

It was never even close.

We scored within the first minute of play, punching the ball in off a cross. It was almost unfair the way our forwards and midfielders carved up the opposing team’s defense with their speed and footwork — coming together seamlessly to find each other, and the back of the net, time and again.

By halftime the score was 4-0, and it was starting to show in the opposing team’s posture. Their shoulders were hunched. They passed the ball with an air of futility, as if waiting for it to be intercepted by our lightning-fast attack.

Trying to escape the midday sun, I happened to hear some of what the rural team’s coach had to say. He didn’t draw up complicated schematics. He didn’t explain how they were going to come back and win the game in the second half; it was clear to all that that would not be the case. As they sat together on a grassy hill, sweat pouring down their aching muscles, he simply urged them not to give up. “Don’t think ahead to the next game. If you can’t play to win, play for each other. Play so that at the end of the season you can look each other in the eye and say you did everything you could.”

This is one way to look at the Benedict Option. The battle may be lost, but the war rages on. It is later in the game than many of us had realized. We are unlikely to “win” the war for the soul of our nation’s culture, at least not anytime soon. But this is not a cause for defeatism. What we do still matters, as it carries us forward to the next season, the next generation. We can create a vibrant, dynamic counter-culture. We can come together, offering strength and encouragement, so that on the last day we may share in the final victory.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher acknowledges that Americans have a particular aversion to losing. We “cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind.”

But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Dreher compares modernity to a Great Flood, one that is swiftly advancing upon our Christian beliefs and institutions. The Obergefell decision was “the Waterloo of religious conservatism,” the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed over traditional Christian morality and anthropology. But this defeat has been a long time coming. The philosophical underpinnings of modern secularism stretch back to the nominalists of the Late Middle Ages, progressing under the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.

Today we see its fruits. The nuclear family has broken down. Our system of public education has become militantly secular; as a result, each generation is more secular than the last. Our churches have tried to accommodate the dominant culture rather than resist its advancing tide. In 2011, only 40% of Christian 18-to-23 year olds said their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or religion.

Rather than piling sandbags, Dreher advises, better to start building boats.

Critics claim Dreher’s assessment is too grim, but to me it rings true. I used to see America as being divided into two great hostile camps – the Left, intent on dragging our country down the road to socialism (and eventually serfdom), and the Right – boldly defending the rights of the individual. Economic concerns predominated, especially during Obama’s first term – stimulus, Obamacare, financial reform. Social issues were on the back burner.

In Obama’s second term, the culture wars returned to the front and center of American politics. As support for same-sex marriage grew to become the new “civil rights” issue, traditional Christian beliefs were condemned as hate speech. Christian business owners came under attack for refusing to toe the line. States like Indiana and North Carolina lost business over relatively modest attempts to defend religious liberty and traditional definitions of “male” and “female.” Economic growth was no longer the priority. In fact, it seemed that no defense of truth or morality could withstand the power of the almighty dollar.

Then came the 2016 Republican primary and the rise of Donald Trump. This time it didn’t seem like my side against the other side. Instead of two giant cruise ships trying to steer the country in different directions, I found myself on a life raft, in search of a more sea-worthy vessel. Who on “my side” actually cared about the moral good of the individual, the strengthening of the family, and the prospect of cultural renewal? And who just wanted the “freedom” to engage in unrestrained consumerism? Who was just eager to be back in power, to once again be on the winning side?

This is not to say that I saw politics as irrelevant or the outcome of the 2016 election as meaningless. I fault no one for supporting Trump in light of the alternative. While not an orthodox Christian himself, Trump’s victory has bought a brief respite from the attack against religious freedom, at least as it comes from the executive branch of our national government. And this, Dreher argues, is the one area of political life in which Christians must stay engaged.

As the nature of the modern attack became more apparent, I began to put matters of faith before matters of politics. Instead of talk radio, I started listening to EWTN. Instead of Austrian economics, I started reading books about religion and culture. I stopped following the news of the day and started educating myself on the classics. Why listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly when one has Shakespeare and Aquinas, Lewis and Chesterton? It was probably just a matter of time before I encountered Dreher’s work.

A couple years ago, I read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Having grown up as a Catholic in Southwest Virginia, I had never experienced the kind of institutional and social support for religion that Douthat describes during the postwar mid-century revival. But Douthat’s account of the decline of institutional religion resonated, especially how it has been replaced with a range of “heresies,” from nationalism to Gnosticism. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t blame the secular Left for what ails society. We need only look in the mirror.

A couple months ago, I got the chance to see Ross Douthat speak at a local college. While his work was only five years old, he began by acknowledging that its basic thesis may need modification in light of recent events. In Bad Religion, Douthat argued that though we were a “nation of heretics,” we were still a Christian nation. In this sense he was hopeful; maybe bad religion was better than no religion. But after Obergefell and Trump, it was worth considering whether we were living in a post-Christian society, as Dreher contends.

Again, this is not a cause for despair. Instead of accepting defeat, we must focus on our continued capacity for action. Watching the endless stream of cable news, we often experience a sense of hopelessness. What can I do about the Supreme Court? What can I do to stop North Korea? What can I do to fix the healthcare system?

The obvious answer: not much.

So turn off the TV, take a good, hard look at your own family, your own community, and you will find something you can do. Environmentalists have a saying: “Think globally, act locally.” As Christians, we should think other-worldly and act locally. The point is not to elect more Republicans to political office; the point is not even to ensure America’s global dominance. The point is to get into heaven, and to help lift as many of our fellow man as we can along with us.

We don’t need to save the world – Someone already did. And He left some pretty clear instructions on how we are to act in light of His sacrifice and its meaning.

We don’t all have to move to little faith-based communities and send our children to private classical or religious academies. We don’t all need to withdraw from society and live as Benedictine monks. But we can all find ways to put religion back in the center of our lives instead of letting it languish on the periphery. We can get involved in our religious communities and seek out like-minded individuals for discussion and support. We can unplug from our iphones and use the extra time to cultivate deeper prayer lives.

I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the twin classics of dystopian literature. Both describe a world in which objective reality is denied; thus, they have much to teach us about our present cultural moment. But today Huxley’s prophesy rings more true. Our lives have been taken over by technology and sex. It’s not that we don’t have access to the wisdom of the past, it’s that we simply don’t care to seek it. To quote the title of Neil Postman’s famous work, we are too busy Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman makes the following comparison:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one… In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us… What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

In Brave New World, John the Savage is so disgusted by society that he withdraws to live an isolated existence as a self-flagellating monk. He can’t go back to the “savage” reservation, where he was never really welcome, and yet neither can he accommodate himself to modernity, where “nothing costs enough.” But the pressures of the outside world are too much for him to withstand alone. He eventually meets an unfortunate, though predictable end.

We are truly living in a brave new world — a radical departure from the traditional understanding of what it means to be human, facilitated by technology. But our fate need not be that of John the Savage. In the foreword to the 1946 edition, Huxley expresses the regret that he did not give his protagonist a third choice – to live in a community of other social “misfits.” There they could have assisted each other in seeking out the good, the beautiful, and the true, in a world that had long-since abandoned such pursuits for creature comforts and radical autonomy.

Fortunately for us, we still have this choice.

What’s Really at Stake in the Bathroom Wars

On February 22nd, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, regardless of biological sex. North Carolina’s state legislature responded on March 23rd by passing a law requiring individuals to use the restroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Since then, our country has been engaged in a national debate over who should pee where. But the real debate is about much more than that, and the outcome matters more than one would think.

First, it’s not about stigmatizing transgender people, or making it easier for them to perform necessary biological functions throughout the course of their day. Yes, transgender people often struggle over the issue of which restroom to use, especially if they look like one sex but have the parts of another. But as many have noted, transgender people have been using the facility of their chosen gender for decades. It’s not like there’s a gender policeman stationed at each bathroom checking birth certificates.

Second, the debate is not primarily about sexual predators, though the safety and privacy of women and children is certainly at stake. Policies like the one recently announced by Target will make it easier for sexual predators to gain access to women and girls. Several men have already been caught trying to film women under the stall dividers. But bathrooms – both men’s and women’s – have always been places where predators could lurk, as they feature people at their most isolated and vulnerable. This is why girls pee in packs. This is why I don’t let my eight-year-old son use the men’s locker room without a male relative present.

The great bathroom debate, like the marriage debate, comes down to this – will our culture and our laws recognize the fundamental truth that men and women are different in important and immutable ways, and that this difference structures much of human society? Or will we abandon reason, tradition, and common sense in our attempt to deny the obvious and assert the opposite?

Claire Chretien recently made this argument in Lifesite News:

The battle over men accessing women’s bathrooms and vice versa has little do with bathrooms or even transgenderism, a well-known LGBT activist admitted last week.  It has everything to do with re-working society and getting rid of the “heterobinary structure” in which we live—eliminating distinctions between “male” and “female” altogether.

But these distinctions are not matters of opinion. People are born male or female. This is a scientific fact. Sex is binary. Men have XY chromosomes, male genitalia, and higher levels of testosterone. Women have XX chromosomes, female genitalia, and higher levels of estrogen.  There are very rare exceptions where an intersex person may not fit neatly into male or female categories, but these exceptions do not disprove the rule that sex is binary. Some people are born without arms, but this does not mean that arms are just an arbitrary thing that some people have and others don’t.

Your sex is assigned to you before birth, at the moment of conception. It cannot be changed. No amount of hormonal therapy or surgery can transform someone to the extent that they are indistinguishable from a person born as that sex. A man that seeks to become a woman will never bear a child. A woman that seeks to become a man will never impregnate anyone. The best that can be accomplished is a crude imitation, a farce.

During childhood, males and females must develop healthy gender identities as men and women. A biological male must figure out what it means to be a man, and a biological female must figure out what it means to be a woman. This is where “nurture” enters an equation that has previously been dominated by nature. Not all biological males like getting dirty, playing with trucks, or tackling other boys. But they must all accept their role as men so that they can become tomorrow’s fathers, uncles, and husbands. Not all biological females like playing with dolls, wearing dresses, or doing other “girly” things. But they must all accept their role as women so that they can become tomorrow’s mothers, aunts, and wives. Sexual difference is born out in numerous statistics, but where we mainly see it is in the disproportionate success of children raised by their biological mothers and fathers.

Long-term success and happiness can only be found in the truth, never in a lie. It may be initially liberating for a man to try out a new identity as a woman, or for a manly woman to quit trying to be feminine and just “be a man.” But statistics and personal testimonies show that transgender people are far more likely than just about any group to suffer from depression and to commit suicide. This heightened risk is not due to a lack of social acceptance. Even transgender people in liberal areas with tons of social support are more likely to take their own lives than a random “cis-gender” person.

Across numerous statistical measures, gender dysphoric disorder is more harmful to a person’s long-term health than alcoholism. What is the compassionate response to alcoholism? Obviously, it is not to accommodate the alcoholic by installing beer kegs in bathrooms and workplaces. A combination of counseling and support are required to help the alcoholic cease engaging in destructive behaviors and create a new identity as a non-alcoholic.

I have noticed an abundance of Facebook statuses seeming to extoll that person’s tolerance and compassion for transgender people by criticizing HB2 or voicing support for men being allowed in women’s restrooms. “I am happy to share a bathroom with a biological male who identifies as female,” many have suggested, “I would even hand her the toilet paper if she needed it.”

While the intentions of such posts may be noble, they do not consider the long-term consequences of promoting gender confusion. Many people today act like hurting someone’s feelings is the worst thing you can do to another person; thus all subjective beliefs must be validated by society as “real” lest some irreparable emotional damage occur. But what about the confusion this debate is causing children who are still in the delicate stage of developing a gender identity that fits their biological sex? What about the pain and frustration and regret that will be suffered by more boys who decide they are really girls, and more girls who decide they are really boys? As with so many other issues, we celebrate the short-term emotional satisfaction of supporting a certain policy with no regard to the long-term damage it will inevitably produce.

Gender is binary. Men and women are different. We complement each other in important ways. We are not just people, not just interchangeable individuals. We are men and women.

What happens to us when we deny this basic truth?

For starters, we forget what marriage is. We used to understand that marriage requires both sexes, a man and a woman. Sexual difference was essential to the definition of marriage. Now this understanding is gone. Marriage has been redefined as just another relationship, just two people who love each other and get sexual satisfaction from each other’s bodies (though not of the sort that creates and nourishes new life).

Now that marriage has been redefined, it is only a matter of time before it is legally destroyed. People in polygamous and incestuous relationships will demand that their love be recognized as marriage. Singles will defend their “rights” by demanding that all laws privileging people in relationships are discriminatory. People will soon tire of the endless controversies and debates that result when such a core truth is abandoned. Finally, both sides will embrace a “compromise” – get the state out of the marriage business altogether. Gone will be parental rights, gone will be the rights of children, and gone will be the legal recognition of the family unit, all in an attempt to be “tolerant” and “inclusive” of the small minority threatened by the traditional understanding of marriage.

The truth is, marriage has never been especially compatible with the homosexual lifestyle, especially for gay men, who have much higher rates of promiscuity than their heterosexual peers. Even “married” gay men are likely to have multiple sexual partners and agree to open relationships. Now that the male-female component of marriage is gone, the expectation of fidelity will not be far behind. Why should married straight men be expected to be faithful to their spouses when gay men are free to explore other options?

Numerous sources can be found from gay rights activists admitting that they seek to transform or just outright destroy marriage, not simply access it as they claimed. While the transgender movement claims it only wants to broaden the definition of what it means to be a man or a woman, the end game is to abolish these labels entirely. Chretien quotes Stella Morabito, an expert on cults and propaganda who writes for The Federalist:

“What we are really talking about is the abolition of sex. And it is sex that the trans project is serving to abolish legally, under the guise of something called ‘the gender binary.’  Its endgame is a society in which everyone is legally de-sexed.  No longer legally male or female.  And once you basically redefine humanity as sexless you end up with a de-humanized society in which there can be no legal ‘mother’ or ‘father’ or ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ without permission from the State.  Government documents are already erasing the terms.  In such a society, the most intimate human relationships take a hit. The family ends up abolished… A sexless society is ultimately a totalitarian society because it erases in law the most basic human relationships, particularly the mother-child bond.”

When most people support gay marriage or trans bathroom access, they don’t understand that they are really working toward the abolition of male and female identities; they just think they’re fighting for equal rights. But others know exactly where the train is headed. Just this morning, John Sutter published an opinion piece for CNN calling for a “restroom revolution.” He starts by highlighting the plight of James Sheffield, a transgender man, who looks far too manly to be allowed in a ladies restroom without causing alarm. Sutter writes:

But you know what else is absurd? The idea that Sheffield — or anyone else — should have to choose a male or female restroom at all. And, beyond that, that any of us would feel entitled to decide someone else’s gender for them — and, consequently, where they can and can’t pee.

This isn’t a binary gender world. People don’t fit neatly into the “M” and “F” boxes. It’s time our public restrooms reflected that. The fairest way to do so is to desegregate restrooms by sex, and that means eliminating the men’s and women’s rooms in favor of “all gender” restrooms.

According to Sutter, “the only justification” of refusing to let a biological female in a men’s restroom “is bigotry and ignorance.” Forget reason or common sense; gendered bathrooms are now “absurd.” Sutter notes that several buildings have already removed gender identification from restrooms. The restroom revolution is already underway; we just haven’t noticed it yet.

While the worst may be yet to come, there is hope for those who would like to see a return to reason in our culture. Writing in 1938, the great Catholic historian Hillaire Belloc noted the anti-rational nature of what he labeled the “Modern Attack” on the Faith:

Being Atheist, it is characteristic of the advancing wave that it repudiates the human reason. Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone.

The contemporary reader will find this description all too familiar. Recall PayPal’s hasty decision to pull out of the entire state of North Carolina over HB2. The message is clear: get in line– or else. After all, when one attempts to deny objective truth, one must get everyone else onboard. If the emperor is truly to parade around in no clothes, even the voice of a child may expose the whole charade. However, Belloc offers this glimmer of hope:

Indeed, it may be remarked in passing that this may well be the cause of its final defeat; for hitherto reason has always overcome its opponents; and man is the master of the beast through reason.

In the bathroom wars as in the marriage wars, our culture may yet return to its senses, triggering a change in our laws. Even better, the triumph of reason may yet inspire a return to the Faith, allowing our society to recover its moral center.