Rod Dreher

Andrew Sullivan remarks on my two recent posts about tradition and postmodernity (first one here, second one here). Excerpt:

Welcome to the modern world, Rod. The kind of unthinking cohesion of the past, sustained by elite control of the media and by ancient accommodation to a world before contraception, advances in longevity, and the technological revolution, is indeed gone. We are all subcultures now. This is hard, bewildering for many, too much for some. The reason why Rod is worth reading is that he is not in denial about this – just a mild form of despair. But that the only intelligent response for a traditionalist is retreat into a faux traditionalism tells you something about the problem. It is insoluble. It is our reality. And conservatives adjust to reality; they do not assault it.

I think there are a few things wrong with this response. It’s long, so I’ve moved it past the jump.

1. I don’t think Andrew really got my point in these posts. I was despairing over the shattering of the Western cultural tradition, but also proposing a way to find cohesive meaning in the ruins by pointing out a paradox: that technology, among other factors, has not only exacerbated the effects of the shattering, but has also made it more possible for we postmodernists who live among the shards to reclaim what the modernists cast aside. Ken Myers argues (see post two) that the down side of the shattering is far, far more weighty than any benefits. My response is that even if that’s true — and I think it is — we who lament the dissolution of the Western tradition are not without resources to resist and to reclaim — resources that weren’t available to most of us during the decisive decade of the Sixties, and the decades that immediately followed.
2. What is “faux traditionalism”? How does it differ from the real thing? Are the young Brooklyn hipsters who are reviving traditionalist foodways a bunch of poseurs? Is the twentysomething Catholic who finds the Tridentine mass to be a thing of great value, and who begins to attend that traditional liturgy cast aside in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a fake? How would one know such a thing? I suppose one aspect of so-called faux traditionalism would be nostalgia for a past that never existed. But by no means can you dismiss all people who favor reviving dead or dying traditions deluded nostalgists — though doing so is often a powerful rhetorical device. You know, you can’t turn back the clock. Of course you can. I mean, you can’t unlearn what you already know, but it is often possible to restore things according to some past ideal thought to be better than the current state of affairs. If conservatives accomodate themselves to reality, and don’t assault it, how can you explain the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, two of the most transformative politicians of the 20th century?
“You can’t turn back the clock” is too often a quasi-metaphysical defense against a proposed cultural, legal or policy change thought to be insufficiently progressive. And it is a modernist truism espoused by people who thing history proceeds in a linear direction, in the direction of secular liberalism and the broader values of Modernism. These days, to be a traditionalist in architecture is to be anti-Modernist — indeed, to reclaim what is most valuable and humane from past eras, when people saw things more clearly than we do today. To believe that the way things are now in every sense represents the pinnacle of human liberty and advancement is a presentist delusion.
3. “And conservatives adjust to reality; they do not assault it.” Huh? It is true that conservatives by temperament are supposedly more realistic than idealistic liberals, but one’s concept of “reality” is a politically and culturally loaded term. Take gay marriage, for example — something I bring up not to have an argument over it, but only because it is particularly important to Andrew. For Andrew and his allies, “reality” means that same-sex attraction is natural and immutable, and the conservative approach is to reconcile society with this reality by recognizing same-sex marriage. But there are many people around the world — indeed, I would say most people — for whom the idea of two people of the same sex marrying is complete unreality, play-acting of the first order. In both cases, you’d have people agreeing on the reality of same-sex attraction, but they disagree strongly on the nature of marriage. From a morally conservative/traditionalist point of view, the campaign for gay marriage is a full-frontal assault on reality, and there will ultimately be serious repercussions for a society that adopts it. For Andrew Sullivan and his allies, it is a matter of basic justice, and changing the laws and culture to harmonize them with what they see as reality. One is reminded of the first line in Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences”:

Every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.

What he means by “metaphysical dream” is the deep unconscious idea about the way the world works. I blogged about the meaning of “metaphysical dream” here a few years ago, and highlighted the work of the Australian philosopher John Carroll. Carroll is a secularist and an unbeliever who nevertheless sees that Western culture has shattered, and that this portends nothing good for us. He tries to resurrect Jesus, so to speak, as an existential (not divine) hero. As I wrote then, quoting Carroll’s essay:

We cannot live without mythos, without answers to the three big questions. As indigenous Australians put it in relation to their own quite different mythos, the Dreaming, if you lose contact with the founding archetypal stories you wither and die. It is only the conjoining of an individual’s story with the Dreaming parallel that inspires life, transforming it out of profane ordinary time and its banal routines. Jesus is the core of the Western Dreaming.

As I commented at the time:

You can feel Carroll’s urgency here, and his conviction. Yet it is the conviction of a secular materialist heroically trying to resurrect Jesus the Ideal Man, because he grasps that absent cult, culture fails. If we stop dreaming, our culture dies. His heroic attempt cannot but fail, however brilliant, because at the end of the day, if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, his story is merely interesting. And that’s not enough to bind a conscience, or a culture.

I still believe that. What we are living through now is the aftermath of Christendom, by which I mean Christian civilization in the West. It is not the end of the world, but it is the end of a world. The reality that Ken Myers and I despair of, and that Andrew seems to celebrate, is the end of the idea of a moral hierarchy transcending and undergirding our daily experience. We despair of the death of the idea that Truth is something you discover and conform yourself to, rather than something you construct to suit your own desires and felt needs. I could be wrong, and welcome correction if I am, but I suspect that if you removed sex and sexuality from the discussion, Andrew, insofar as he is truly a conservative, would agree with much of this analysis. But it can’t be done, not honestly, because to cast aside Christian sexual ethics as irrelevant to Christianity is like removing the cornerstone of a building and expecting it not to fall. And this fact reveals something about the nature of our disagreement here.
I must admit that there are times when I realize that despite my misgivings and doubts about modernity, I am more liberal in the cultural sense than I realize. I am reading right now galleys of a forthcoming book of church history. It’s impossible for me to deny that it was a very good thing indeed that the Church had its wings clipped in the 19th century; had I lived at the time in Europe, I probably would have been quite liberal, even as a Christian. The abuse of power of Churchmen was appalling (Edgardo Mortara, anyone?), though the anti-clericalists were as bad or worse. To identify oneself as a “traditionalist” requires explanation, and (alas) explaining away. A 21st century traditionalist is in some important ways a 19th century liberal, it seems to me. Anyway, I would rather live in the postmodern messiness we have now than under the hegemony of modernism and its expression in industrial mass culture, because there is more hope for traditionalists. Look at the Hasidic Jews who emigrated to America. Their leaders in the old country warned them that they’d be lost in the land of pluralism and liberty — meaning that they’d be assimilated, and lose themselves. In fact, they have not only survived, they’ve thrived, because this country grants them the room to be countercultural. That’s the kind of hope I’m looking for for me and my tribe. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got.


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