Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist. Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole. All questions point ultimately to a single answer. If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.
The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs. There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living. For the ironists, like Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin, those purists who aim to be higher than the angels often end up lower than the beasts.
Throughout history we’ve seen a lot of purist religious faiths, from the Spanish inquisitors to the modern Islamic radicals, who believe in a single true way of living. Today we see a lot of secular purists: the students at Middlebury who want to shout down differing opinions, the legal activists who want to force Orthodox Christian bakers to work at gay weddings, against their conscience.
This movement has led many Christians to conclude that they are about to become pariahs in their own nation. One of these is my friend Rod Dreher, whose new book, “The Benedict Option,” is already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.
Rod is pretty conservative. “There can be no peace between Christianity and the sexual revolution, because they are radically opposed,” he writes.
Specifically, “LGBT activism is the tip of the spear at our throats in the culture war. The struggle over gay rights is what is threatening religious liberty, putting Christian merchants out of business, threatening the tax-exempt status and accreditation of Christian schools and colleges.”
Rod shares the fears that are now common in Orthodox Christian circles, that because of their views on LGBT issues, Orthodox Christians and Jews will soon be banned from many professions and corporations. “Blacklisting will be real,” he says. We are entering a new Dark Age. “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.”
Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.
The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.
Maybe if I shared Rod’s views on LGBT issues, I would see the level of threat and darkness he does. But I don’t see it. Over the course of history, American culture has tolerated slavery, sexual brutalism and the genocide of the Native Americans, and now we’re supposed to see 2017 as the year the Dark Ages descended?
Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything, they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between LGBT rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.
My big problem with Rod is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith.
There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.
The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.
Rod and I have different views on LGBT issues. But I think we genuinely respect each other and honor each other’s lives. To me that means the real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.