Submitted, as Rod Serling used to say, for your consideration:
In two recent articles, Rod Dreher leans on Charles Taylor in explaining that the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. Specifically, says Dreher (who has been watching a PBS/BBC show called "Tudor Monastery Farm"), medieval Christians lived within "a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted". We should neither minimize nor misunderstand, he insists, how different that made them from us:
It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose.
Not only that: "The medievals also sacralized time," in contrast to moderns "who are accustomed to regarding time as simple, straightforward, and linear. In fact, as Taylor points out, time was a much more complicated thing for the medievals, who believed that time was grounded in eternity, and that eternal realities ordered time."
Having established the world of differences that lies between us and our Christian ancestors, Dreher has to grapple with the obvious: the medieval world gave way to ours, and most people (though by no means all) seem not to regret that fact. How to explain the passing of Christendom and its worldview? Dreher acknowledges that the "disenchantment" of the medieval world did not happen overnight, nor was it a result simply of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the cathedral door. The ravages of the Black Death, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, technological and economic developments, and the fratricidal wars that followed the Reformation: all of these helped, in different ways, to undermine the existing Christian order.
Dreher's point in all this is to warn us against assuming either that the triumph of secularism was inevitable or that we're better off without the old enchanted worldview. This is where Charles Taylor (A SECULAR AGE) comes in:
Charles Taylor is extremely careful to say that it did not have to be this way. It is, he stresses, a self-serving anachronism to accept the standard secularist narrative that we live in "reality" now, and that reality is what you get when you strip the God delusion away from society. Had certain actors behaved differently, things might have turned out differently. The point is, "exclusive humanism" — the idea that this world is all there is, and we should seek out happiness and flourishing within it, with no reference at all to the transcendent — is itself a construal, a "take" on reality. Ours is the only civilization in history that has had this particular take, he notes.
There is no clearly demonstrable reason why the medievals were wrong to sacralize time, or to believe that they lived in an enchanted world. The key thing to take from this, though, is that we moderns live in a different plausibility structure than they did. This means that efforts to re-inhabit the medieval worldview cannot succeed, because we can’t un-learn from our experience. For Taylor, "a secular age" means not strictly an age in which religion has been walled off from the common experience. It means primarily an age in which we all know that belief in God, or unbelief in God, is a choice. The fact that belief in God is not taken for granted is what makes this a secular age. Even communities that fervently believe in God live in a secular age, because they are surrounded with evidence, as the medievals were not, that it is possible to live without strong belief, or to live with believing in God in a different way … or not at all.
If there is no way back, no way to "re-inhabit" the world that we have lost: what then can we do other than shrug and accept the "plausibility structure" (Taylor uses the term "social imaginary") of modernity?
Dreher believes there is a way forward, so long as we are willing to rethink simplistic narratives of progress and take seriously the possibility that some of what was discarded along the way might be both retrievable and invaluable:
Taylor’s work calls for epistemic humility. The way the medievals framed reality certainly made perceiving certain truths more difficult. But they were also able to see somethings more clearly than we do. The same is true of our own time. Taylor’s point is that the things that "everybody" takes for granted about how the world works — our "metaphysical dream," as Richard Weaver put it — is by no means as uncontestable as many of us think. The "immanent frame" our Western culture’s master narrative imposes on our experience of the world — that is, the intellectual structure that orders the only truths we can admit are those that emerge within a system closed to transcendence — cannot forever keep out intimations of transcendence. The history of ideas from 1500 till today suggests that the immanent frame appeals to people today because it makes us free to do whatever we will. After all, if the world is not enchanted, if matter doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, then we are free to bend it to our wills. There is a line — not a straight line, but an unbroken one — between the disenchantment of matter and the dissolution of gender categories, and transhumanism. The whole idea of "human rights" is parasitic on Christianity, and will not hold without a firm religious foundation.
Dreher urges us both to reconsider and to challenge modernity's narrative:
We ought to consider the possibility that the anti-metaphysical dream is just a story we tell ourselves to justify our own desires and preferences.1
The immanent frame liberates, but it also imprisons.2
Nobody has everything; everyone is trading certain things for others. That’s a profound truth.
There is no such place as Utopia; everything is a trade-off. To make a choice is to implicitly exclude other possibilities. But you must choose. You have only one life to live.
What makes you think that you have no choice but to live the disenchanted, disembedded life of a 21st century person? You know it’s only a story, right? That it’s not the truth, or at least not an exclusive truth.
One of the main points of the Benedict Option is to show that a more traditional, religiously rich way of life, including its restrictions, is not only plausible, but is more suited to our flourishing and our ultimate happiness — and therefore, for most people, in most cases, worth the trade-off.
It seems to me that Dreher has articulated the fundamental quarrel that he has (and he is not alone in this) with modernity. If the quarrel were only about things like same-sex marriage or transgender rights, Dreher and I would be on opposite sides; but when the larger issues are engaged (e.g. what kind of world do we inhabit, what is our status in it, and how do we determine and achieve our proper ends?), I am both sympathetic and agnostic. I think those questions need to be asked, and our various answers--our stories, that is--need to be told, and heard. It seems to me that we will all be richer when we learn to share our stories with one another, rather than insisting that only one story be told and shouting that story at the top of our lungs in an effort to drown out the others.
If the Benedict Option offers some people a better way to live out their stories, then I'm all for it.
1 In fairness, the same point could be made about the metaphysical dream.
2 In fairness, the same point could be made about the transcendent frame.