BROOKS/Secular purism vs. religious
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 6:00 PM
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 of The New York Times.