Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
Articles under Moral Theology
A less-than-favorable review of Dr. Peterson’s recent book Twelve Rules for Life called it a “self-help book from a culture warrior.” Were this an accurate summary, I doubt that I would have finished chapter one, much less the entire book. This description is inaccurate in two ways, both of which expose the corrosive cultural narrative (one that, I think, the Right and Left hold, for the most part, in common) that distorts what Peterson is saying. Let me deal with the idea of a “culture war” first. I propose to do this by comparing Dr. Peterson to one of the West’s most influential authors whom you’ve (probably) never read, Peter Lombard. This comparison will illuminate the reasons why I consider Dr. Peterson’s appearance on the scene to be mainly a hopeful development.
Recently I gave a talk for Theology on Tap on the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor. He recently published his second book, a kind of self-help book for millennials, especially millennial men. Hundreds of thousands of people watch his Bible study videos, in spite of the fact that he is not a typical believer. I found out about him through a Catholic friend about a year ago, and I immediately recognized his appeal to young men. Let me explain some of that in today’s blog post, which will be the first installment of an expanded version of my talk.
After a short hiatus to celebrate Thanksgiving (important, as we shall see), and to get Advent started, I’m back with more thoughts on American politics…from the vantage point of the cloister.
I asked in one of my earlier posts, “Will talking about the problem help?” Especially since the election, I have heard many Americans call for greater dialog between left and right. This seems like a plausible way forward. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are sociological reasons to be wary of whether increased talking can actually increase mutual understanding.
Let me begin with some anecdotal evidence of the hidden problem. About seven years ago, a high school friend, who has since become a proselytizing atheist, invited me to participate in an ongoing debate between Christians and atheists. The exercise was fascinating, if often extremely frustrating. The fascinating part was that no matter how much we talked, we managed agreement on only the most superficial matters. The reason? In order for either side to give an account of more important matters like politics, education, and morality, we necessarily had to bring in the fundamental disagreements. How should human biology be taught? Well, much depends on whether one has a fundamental commitment to the idea of the sanctity of human life, or if one leans toward a materialist belief that human and other animal life are more or less random assemblages of chemicals at this moment. There seems to be no way to judge which fundamental commitments are true.
At times, the superficial agreements acted as a kind of booby trap. My interest in music and in Nietzsche, for example, opened certain avenues of discussion that seemed fruitful at the start. But once we started to near bedrock again, and conflicts came out into the open, there was a strong temptation for one or both sides to accuse the other of deceit, of a set-up. “You only brought up music to trick me into becoming a Christian!”
This situation is evidence of a number of problems that can be characterized from a number of standpoints. For today, I want to focus on just one, the idea of “elaborated code.” Elaborated code is a term coined by sociologist Basil Bernstein. He studied the effect of industrialization in Great Britain in the 1960’s. Let me note right away that part of the trickle-down effect of industrialization is the breaking apart of older ways of social organization. Instead of visiting the cobbler to get shoes made, we now go to Target and buy shoes made in Taiwan. We don’t ever meet the shoemaker. He or she is not a part of our lives. Meanwhile, the old cobbler who is put out of a job making shoes now has to develop a very different set of skills to work in a factory or at Burger King. And, as we all know, job security in a globalized, industrialized economy is very weak. People change jobs regularly (another anecdote: I would estimate that about 2-3% of the persons on our list of donors change addresses each year). This constant shifting about calls for a mode of communication that is flexible and presumes that people don’t know each other very well.
Bernstein called this manner of communication elaborated code because of the frequent explanation and qualification required in this relatively new social situation. He contrasted this with “restricted code,” an unfortunate name for the kind of communication that takes place in a more stable environment. In a monastery, for example, there is relatively less need for frequent explanations of what I’m doing. But restricted code is more than just fewer words. It contains a much higher density of meaning, and restricted code often includes symbolic types of communication. For example, when a traditional family sits down to eat dinner together, it is not uncommon for the father to sit at the head of the table and the mother at the foot. Children are often arranged by age along the sides. This is a way of communicating certain roles within the family–without saying anything.
It’s interesting to note that young men entering monasteries today have very little experience of this kind of family setting, which was common in my home when I was a child. Let me give some other homely examples. When I would get into fights with my sisters, my mother would often admonish me with short sentences like, “You should know better. You are the oldest.” “Boys should never strike girls (this was not so easy for me to live by when my oldest sister would use her fingernails as a weapon; that wasn’t precisely allowed, but it had nothing like the stigma of me hitting my sister).” These short sentences communicate an entire world of values that we as a family were assumed to share. The sentences reinforced the importance of distinguishing between male and female roles, the responsibility assumed by elder siblings, and so on. This style of communication brings about agreement on social order at a very deep level.
And here is the important part: elaborated code not only presumes that we do not share agreement on social order, but that we will only be able to provide such order provisionally. The very mode of communication by elaborated code breaks apart shared agreement on social order, and trains us to “keep our options open.”
In the interest of keeping these posts relatively short, I won’t even hint at the way out of this dilemma, but I hope that it is clear that a greater sharing of ideas between left and right may not work as smoothly as we might hope. I will end by merely noting a further challenge. The political left is dominated today by persons who have been highly trained in elaborated code, not because of industrialization, but from indoctrination in the university system. This system itself has been powerfully shaped by the Prussian model of universities, a model explicitly crafted by the Prussian state to meet the needs of a newly industrialized world in the 19th century. This same model was loathed by none other than Friedrich Nietzsche. It is another sign of Nietzsche’s own insight that he withdrew from being a precocious university professor and busied himself with attempts to create a new mythology. In any case, it is not surprising that university education tends to fragment, rather than enhance, social coherence; that persons directly affected by the economic devastation wrought by globalization might be suspicious of the kind of fissile language that tends to pour forth from universities (e.g. identity politics, the recent creation of 47+ genders, etc). Economic hardship requires local cooperation, just the sort of thing enhanced by restricted code and blasted apart by elaborated code. So more talk may well have the unintended consequence of making community harder for just the persons that the political left needs to reach out to right now.
It is also no wonder that Trump supporters often cite his straight talk as a plus. I’m not sure that Trump merits that praise, but part of what is being communicated here is that Trump’s very style of speech is more closely related to the restricted code that is the glue that holds communities together.
If this isn’t your type of music, you can find the title of this post at 3:39 or so…
Some years ago, at community recreation, we watched the movie “Selma.” It happened that at the same time, we had been reading together a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and we were in the midst of reading about his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act. One young monk grew frustrated with conflicting portrayals of President Johnson. “I don’t get it!” he said at one point, “Was he good or not?”
The temptation to divide people neatly between good and evil, to separate the sheep from the goats as it were, is a perennial one. It tends to be stronger, however, in certain eras. In my opinion, this desire for black-and-white moral categories is stronger in times of social instability. Two highly influential, and more or less institutionalized versions of this dualism, are Manichaeism and Calvinism. A strong version of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, in which persons are destined either for heaven or hell, continues to exert a strong cultural influence in America, even post-Christian America. [See Joseph Bottum’s excellent book “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, to see how a peculiar brand of American Christianity morphed into today’s liberal ideals, for example.] I experienced a kind of awakening to this aspect of American culture while watching Clint Eastwood’s (violent) masterpiece “Unforgiven,” and discussing it with a devout Protestant friend. It is interesting to consider Eastwood’s own development from the unforgivable crimes of the Wild West to the redemptive death of Walt Kowalski in the more recent “Gran Torino.” Kowalski becomes a champion and defender of the Hmong families whom he had disliked and mistrusted at the beginning of the film. Was Kowalski good or evil? A lot depends on when we ask the question.
I sense a certain lingering Calvinism in the contemporary American tendency to demonize. Labels like “racist,” “misogynist,” “xenophobe,” are useful and often descriptive of actual behaviors and institutional structures. I would not deny that. But we should use caution when applying them to persons. Let me return to Lyndon Johnson.
Was he good or not? Was he a racist? Like all of us, Johnson was complex, a mixture of good, even magnanimous impulses, along with resentments and weaknesses, especially when positions of power afforded him the license to indulge himself at the expense of, say, women who happened to be nearby. What I am saying, however, is not that we need to resign ourselves to a muddle-along world with good and bad in everyone. The mixture of the good and the bad is in part a side-effect of the fact that we are all unfinished. The dynamic and dramatic arc of a human life is what both (strong) Calvinism and Manichaeism deny. Walt Kowalski changed from being a person with suspicion and hatred toward others based on race to someone who was a friend and defender of the same persons. President Johnson also changed. As a white southerner, he did and said things, especially in his earlier life, that fit with the racist ethos of the circles in which he walked. But he also came from intense poverty, and had a feisty protectiveness for hard-luck cases that could mature into a zeal against injustice. So he also underwent a kind of conversion that made him a champion of civil rights. Other limitations, it seems he never overcame, which will be true for most of us.
Persons can also change for the worse, of course. My point here is that a label such as “racist,” when applied to specific persons, can have the effect of fixing that person in one moral location and foreclosing the possibility of growth. It reminds me of a friend I had growing up whose mother continued to accuse her of being on drugs…even though she wasn’t at first (she was highly creative and goofily energetic by temperament). Well, eventually she decided, “Why not use drugs, if I’m pegged that way anyway?” Literally damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the danger of dualism. It tends to reinforce and bring about the very evil its adherents wish to combat, in addition to blinding those who are lobbing the accusations as to the dynamism of human life.
What I’m saying should not be taken to mean that we shouldn’t name injustices and their causes for what they are. When, however, we recognize that we and others have the capacity to change, we can set about to effect this change through rational argument and action. This is a painstaking process. Impatience with the process can tempt us to fall back on the expedient of power, as I wrote on Sunday. And the difficulty we have in believing that others can change is rooted in our experience of others as irrational, about which I wrote in the same post. When we perceive someone as irrational, another temptation is to despair, for we have no hope of rationally persuading that person to change.
In “Gran Torino,” Eastwood draws on explicitly Christian language of repentance and forgiveness. So for the benefit of non-Christian readers whom I’ve been inviting to read the blog this past week, I should explain that this notion of personal change is not limited at all to Christian vocabulary. Aristotle and the classical tradition that followed him (in pagan Greece and Rome, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) understood human beings as possessing potential. Human infants are amazingly helpless compared to the offspring of other animals. But they also have greater potential. Morality is more or less a question of how we end up developing that potential, whether we become the sorts of persons that we aspire to, or fall short of this goal. As the example of Walt Kowalski suggests, we can’t know for certain how to characterize a life until it has reached its end. In the meantime, even my enemies and others who hold political opinions completely opposite of mine can change. So can I. Colonialists and slave owners of the past denied full human potential and rationality in slaves and in the colonized. But we risk doing the same when we deny rationality and potential in others.
[Disclaimer: I can only claim some expertise in the theology of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to indicate that my take on Calvinism here is focusing on a specific strand within a complex historical tradition. I hope that I have not mischaracterized Calvinist theology in general by doing so.]
On Friday, I said that I would write something about why “emotivism leads us to court political power.” What is emotivism?
It’s not simply that we act on feelings when we should use our brains. We do fall into this trap, but the reason for this is not that we are childish or bad people. There is a history to our predicament. In what follows, it is important that you keep in mind that I believe that there is also a way out of our predicament.
We’ve all experienced futility in certain types of arguments. Many friends of mine in recent weeks have expressed their belief that supporters of Donald Trump are “irrational.” We experience others as “unreasonable,” unable to give reasons for acting as they do, believing what they do. When this gap appears, fruitful discussion evaporates. What we are confronting is the outworking of incompatible principles, or at least first principles for which we have no way of judging priority. Is it worse that Donald Trump’s rhetoric fuels racism, or is it worse that Hillary Clinton favors a permissive abortion policy (a question that confronted conservative voters)? How do we make judgments between free trade, job creation, health care, and all the rest when we can’t find any kind of bedrock on which we can all agree?
This is what I mean when I say that we are incapable, at present, of having a rational discussion about politics. Persons living in places as different as rural Mississippi, Portland, and Detroit have, unsurprisingly, espoused multiple first principles, and together we have no obvious way of negotiating between their rival claims on us. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out (actually pointed out, already back in 1981), the situation is even worse than that. The problem with first principles is that by definition, we can’t give reasons for holding them. Don’t we reason from first principles and not to them? But if so how does it come about that we seem to know what they are? And how in the world can I argue with someone who holds first principles that seem wrong to me?
The answer is that we don’t argue, for the most part. We pretend to argue, but what we are usually doing is trying to manipulate other people into changing their first principles, or at least into giving way and letting us follow our principles. This hidden power play of manipulation was already noticed by a much earlier philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He made the very strong claim that what appears to be moral reasoning in our public and private lives is really the expression of a desire for power. We then dress up this “Will to Power” with a respectable front of reasoned argument. In other words, when I say something like, “we should raise taxes on the wealthy and redistribute the money to the poor,” it is not completely off the wall to ask what my real motives are. Am I resentful of rich people, and want to see them taken down a notch? Will some of this money come to me? Do I get to enjoy feelings of moral superiority for apparently altruistic aims? Do I want the gratitude of poor people, so that they won’t be a potential nuisance for me? I could go on.
I’m not sure that I was aware of the extent to which Nietzsche was right until I entered the monastery, oddly enough. I’ve always liked Nietzsche, or perhaps felt that he was the primary thinker who needed to be answered if we were to have anything like a flourishing civil order. And to be honest about it, I suspected other people of emotivism, but assumed that my arguments and first principles were unassailable. Monastic life is about conversion, and one of the more surprising aspects of my own conversion (and if it’s real conversion, much of what we discover will come as a surprise, welcome or unwelcome), is the realization that I’m more a part of the emotivist problem than I wanted to admit.
So what have I done about it? Answering that will have to wait for now. Here, I want to finish off the modest point at the heart of this post.
If we have no way (yet) to resolve our moral disagreements rationally, and if our attempts to do so turn out to be assertions of power rather than reason, an important consequence follows. If, in a debate, we recognize that we lack the power to silence opposition and push through our moral agenda, we will try to enlist a more powerful third party who can do this for us. The very interesting sociologist Jonathan Haidt notices this very trend in the campus culture of microagresssion and victimization. Various strategies include organizing protests, public shaming on social media, and so on. But the election of a president is the big prize. He or she has the most power of all, and I suspect that one of the reasons that we have, over the past century, continually added to the power of the presidency, is that we’ve sensed at some level that we need a strong person to enforce policies that we can’t agree on as a people. Note that a major factor in this drift is the original sin of the American republic, that of slavery. We solved the problem of slavery by force, the force of the presidency no less. In contemporary life, when we have a president who shares our first principles, we tend to have a certain sense that good will has a chance of prevailing in the world, and when the president is someone who does share our first principles, history seems to be against us, evil prevailing, and so on. At some level we sense that it depends on power. “Q.e.d.” quoth Nietzsche from the grave.
The presidency is not the only example. Catholics are tempted by the same kind of whiplash. Conservatives who felt that we were finally righting the ship under Pope Benedict XVI feel like we are quite suddenly and astonishingly weak under Pope Francis. Liberals who despaired of seeing the fruits of Vatican II realized because of the traditionalist leaning of the same Pope Benedict XVI, suddenly find blossoming of goodness and love everywhere under the same Pope Francis. The apparent rapport of the two of them doesn’t seem to affect this perception, which should lead us to believe that something other than a Manichean struggle between good and evil is going on, or at least that we have not characterized the struggle between good and evil properly, as one that goes through our own hearts and not through the conservative/liberal divide that we have inherited from the French Revolution. In the Catholic case, this over-reliance on the Holy Father is especially irritating to me, given that one of the best ideas, in my opinion, to come from the Council is that of subsidiarity. This means learning to solve problems at a local level without constantly appealing to higher-up third parties. To some extent, this implicates the project of Benedictine monasticism, properly understood.
1) The problem of morality as a thing.
2) Will talking about it help? Or not?
3) Nietzsche (almost) right again: truth as relationship.
Several persons have contacted me and asked me to share some thoughts on the election and its meaning and aftermath. What are our responsibilities as Americans, as Christians and Catholics? If anything, Tuesday’s results and the response of those who opposed Mr. Trump have crystallized in my mind certain ideas in moral philosophy that the brothers and I have been hammering out together for many years. I have found it difficult to convey these ideas in other fora, especially on-line discussions such as take place on Facebook. Our ideas tend to get distorted by the typical political and cultural narratives that pervade the internet and other media. Last year, I began to write out a systematic outline on this blog, but I think it’s worth going through the exercise again, with newer insights from Nietzsche, Max Scheler, James Alison, and William Cavanaugh. Not only that, but much of our work turns out to be applicable to the present political situation.
But this first post is meant to establish the context for everything else that is to be said, lest the rest of what I write appear as an irresponsible escape into navel-gazing.
We are still a nation of laws
…or at least we have always aspired to be. When political rhetoric of any kind is used as an excuse to perpetrate bodily harm or issue threats, this should be met not only with disapproval but with the full force of the laws against such behavior. Those of us who denounce violence will make our own insistence on this point more credible by our own principled respect for the law. There are multiple reports of violent incidents that are being connected to the election results. Most of what appears in the media (and, plausibly, most of what has actually taken place) is violence directed against persons such as Muslims and Mexicans, whose religious and ethnic identities are bound up not only in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical gestures, but in his stated policies. Some of the violence has been against Trump supporters. All violence is out of bounds and deserves the condemnation of every American.
Christian discipleship is authenticated by love of enemies
This past political campaign was demoralizing in its constant ratcheting up of the language of demonization. This happened on both sides, and neither side seems to see its own demonization for what it is. This makes civil discourse impossible. Or, perhaps the gradual breakdown of civil discourse has left us with no way of engaging in truly rational discussions (see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, chapter 2). Without the possibility of rational argument, the temptation is to resort to demonizing those who disagree. In many cases, we have no way of making common cause, even with those inclined to agree with us, without scapegoating someone (this Girardian insight has been inverted and made into a conscious political tool by Saul Alinsky). Christians cannot settle for this state of affairs, and certainly ought not to demonize those who hold divergent ideas from our own. Pope Saint John Paul II, while an archbishop in Poland, used the strategy of holding the communist regime to account for the gap between their official rhetoric and the actual state of affairs. Václav Havel followed a similar strategy in the former Czechoslovakia.
The simplest way of stating this is that we are commanded to love our enemies and not to meet violence with violence.
Christian social thought is grounded in love of neighbor
Who is my neighbor? The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump was an indication of a widespread sense in communities blue and red that the general drift of American politics has been at the expense of a great many Americans. Trump’s hope to “make America great again,” and Sanders’s “political revolution,” need to be seen in the long-range context of a failed war in Iraq, the ongoing symbiotic relationship between the federal government and defense contractors, banks, et al, 5.5 million home foreclosures, with virtually no repercussions for those responsible for this widespread suffering. The Washington and media elites are widely understood to belong to a utopian (i.e. “no-place”) globalist class that has forgotten the responsibility they have for their fellow Americans. Instead of seeing fellow Americans as neighbors with a common cause, elites unthinkingly deride the suffering as the irresponsible “47 percent” or lob them into the bucket of deplorables.
Again, I will have much more to say about how we got here, and what sort of strategies are needed to recover a sense of solidarity between Americans. In various ways, the healing follows from the principle of love of neighbor. The priest and the Levite, political insiders and beneficiaries of political power, were afraid to show compassion to the man left for dead on the way to Jericho. Perhaps we need to become outsiders, like the Samaritan, in order to see the suffering in front of us for what it is. Through the strengthening of local networks of concern, we can bring to bear a properly political pressure to bear upon government leaders, most of whom, after all, are chosen by us and work for us.
Love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemies. These are the measure of Christian witness, which is needed now.
Next: Why emotivism leads us to court political power.
I wrote several days ago something to the effect that “things are worse in the Church than people think.” This sentiment is worth qualifying and examining.
Mainly, I’d like to distinguish what I mean from what Rod Dreher means when he writes similar things. As I understand him, he sees Christian institutions under imminent attack from secularizing forces. He fears that Christians are oblivious to the seriousness of the threat. In my experience, Christians are plenty aware that demographics trends and political developments do not bode well for the Church in the immediate future. What he perhaps is responding to is the fact that few Christians make this their first concern. I don’t think that this is necessarily complacency in many cases. To explain this, let me say something about institutions.
Alasdair MacIntyre, whose famous St. Benedict quote is the inspiration for Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” is a man whose comprehensive thinking on modernity, morality, and faith deserves as much attention as one can afford. He spends almost an entire chapter on institutions in his seminal book After Virtue. Institutions are important, but should always be secondary to practices. An institution like a chess club brings together persons interested in playing chess and fostering its proper enjoyment. The club itself is not a substitute for the actual practice of playing chess. We all know that institutions tend to have their own internal logic that can often interfere with the practices they are meant to foster and protect. Therefore institutions can only function well and in proper subordination to practices if the members are virtuous. And, as MacIntyre makes clear elsewhere, virtues are learned in practices, not in the bylaws of institutions.
In my opinion, most Christians are aware that longstanding institutions are endangered. And I would agree that many of us Christians are not spending lots of time worrying about it. Ambivalence in this regard has two sources. The first is a recognition that our current institutional arrangements are often unable to surface the right kinds of virtuous leadership, and so tend to be self-defeating. The response of American bishops to the sexual abuse scandal demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate) that the institutional arrangement (meaning the current structure and operating modes) of the bishops’ conference is faulty. This is to be distinguished from the theological necessity of the episcopacy or even the virtue of individual members. Bishops could choose to organize themselves differently, but this would require hard thinking about the precise practices that the bishops’ conference is meant to foster and protect. The Council documents that encouraged the formation of these institutions are somewhat vague on this point and were, perhaps, slightly naive about how institutions can corrupt practices.
The second source of ambivalence stems from the typical Christian concentration on real practices. This is to say that the average Christian is more concerned about the practice of virtue at ground level than the institutional backing that supposedly is undergirding it. Another way to look at this is to say that Christians are already developing their own local, ad hoc institutions (which is what the Benedict Option is supposed to encourage). The collapse of larger structures that provide tax shelter for a religious soup kitchen may or may not impact the soup kitchen itself. But Christians will, in one way or another, find a way to feed the hungry. It’s what we do. And I see so much of this in my everyday life, even from the relative obscurity of the cloister, that it seems ungrateful to fret about difficulties to come, even while I do see the need to prepare for them. I’d rather point to the exercise of faith around me and encourage the Christians I know to continue the work of virtue than worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and may or may not in fact happen. This work is being done by the laity, a visible fruit of the teaching of Vatican II.
Last of all, the mention of virtue brings me at last to explain what I mean when I say that things are worse than people might think. What I mean by this is that our Western culture, especially in America, has been somewhat less-than-fully-Christian for many generations now, and that reviving a genuine, thoroughgoing practice of Christian virtue is a lot more difficult than the average person might think. This is something I can vouch for firsthand. I am a cradle Catholic who has mostly practiced by faith all my life. And yet, I am continually amazed at how far I have to go to be genuinely holy. Now, putting it that way illustrates that this is not pessimism or frustrating, or even necessarily cause for great fear. If you read the lives of the saints, you will discover that most saints had this same experience (which does not make me a saint, by the way). Love of a transcendent God means, in the words of Fr. Michael Casey, being perpetually out of one’s depth. Where I think there is some naivete is in our American optimism that “most people are basically good.” This is a nice, generous sentiment. But it does not help us to gain a lot of energy in the spiritual battle, in which we must first notice that in every heart there are large swaths of unevangelized heathendom. These are, of course, open to hearing the Good News! Which makes them, in their way, “good,” if broken and in need of healing. This healing is what we must first be about, and only if this happens will institutional reform follow in any meaningful way. In the short term, this may mean the tottering and elimination of many institutions. Some may be sad to see them go. But the long-term needs of the Faith may require this purification.
In my previous post, I noted that behind the Rule of Saint Benedict, there lies hidden the influence of the Desert Fathers. Benedict recommends that the monk eager for advanced pursuits in monastic spirituality should read the “Institutes” and the “Conferences.” Universal tradition as well as common sense asserts that he is referring to St. John Cassian, who spent nearly two decades in the Egyptian desert learning the monastic life. You can find indices to Cassian’s two most important works, the Institutes and the Conferences at the Order of Saint Benedict website.
What I wish to emphasize here, and in keeping with my aim to write brief and manageable posts, is one key connection between these two books and the two-fold path to spiritual maturity. I wrote last time that Saint Benedict is primarily concerned with the correction of behavior in his Rule for monks, but that he also acknowledges, in quiet ways, that beyond the cultivation of virtue and the elimination of vice, there is the further contemplative aspect of monastic (and Christian) life, what Benedict calls “wisdom of doctrine.” The Institutes correspond to the “active” life of conversion, and the Conferences are concerned with the “contemplative” life of adepts.
The first stage of spiritual growth, the correction of behavior, is therefore the primary concern of Cassian’s Institutes. Note that Cassian does not give us what we would consider “morality.” Rather, he is interested in teaching the times of prayer, the style of dress for monks, and the organization of communal life. This is exactly parallel to Saint Benedict’s Rule. The connection is not just one of a common culture. The Rule of the Master, an Italian monastic rule from the generation before Benedict, and Benedict’s primary source, cribs from Cassian’s Institutes, so that we can say that St. Benedict’s Rule is a kind of grandchild to the Institutes. Cassian goes somewhat beyond communal organization, and spends the last eight books of the Institutes on the eight vices and how to identify the thought patterns that go with them. So again, we are not so much in the realm of morality as moderns understand it. Cassian is interested in psychology, how our thoughts influence our behavior.
This emphasis on psychology is the link between the active and contemplative stages of Christian spiritual growth. Before we can properly understand doctrine, we must first work against behaviors that are not consonant with Christian doctrine, but then we must also go after the thought patterns that underlie wrongful behavior. This cleansing of the mind of wrongful thinking allows us to receive true “theology,” knowledge of God. This is the focus of Cassian’s Conferences.
In the next several short posts, I hope to walk with you through the two stages with more attention to the particular battles with behaviors and thoughts, along with recommended reading in monastic spirituality.
Saint Benedict composed his Rule for Monks some time around 540 A.D. Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism, had been drastically reduced in the previous 150 years from its high point at the end of the fourth century. Saint Benedict makes explicit reference to the “desert” only once, when describing the anchorites in the first chapter, on the kinds of monks. Since his Rule is written, however, not for anchorites but for “cenobites,” monks who live in communities, we might imagine that this off-hand reference to the desert is a mere nod in the direction of Egypt, without any further thread of connection to the ancient tradition.
There are important hints that Benedict knew the Egyptian tradition well and incorporated it seamlessly into his own proto-European style of monasticism. Finding these clues requires a bit of excavation. The place I would like to begin is in a perhaps unlikely spot, in chapter 64, On the Constituting of an Abbot. The abbot, Saint Benedict tells us, should be chosen “vitae…merito et sapientiae doctrina,” for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine. This sounds common sensible enough, but in fact it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about the spiritual quest in Christian monasticism. It also justifies Fr. Terence Kardong’s contention that the abbot is to be the “perfect” monk.
Merit of life corresponds to the presence of virtue and absence of vice. It is the first step in monastic conversion, a change of outward behavior. One learns to act…as a monk acts. When monks promise “conversion of life” (conversatio morum) according to the formula invented by Saint Benedict in chapter 58, they are promising to change their way of living. This is not a matter of mere “morals” but is implicated in all kinds of habits, preferences, and in personal comportment. This is the minimum observance “for beginners” [RB 73]. For those who are striving for greater advancement, however, as Benedict goes on to show us in chapter 73, there is the inward transformation of doctrine, new habits of thought about the cosmos and insight into God’s ways. It is not enough for the abbot to be worthy by his exterior actions; he must also have the interior virtues that allow him to give spiritual counsel and make wise decisions about the community’s welfare. It is noteworthy that one of the primary sources of doctrine, according to RB 73, is St. John Cassian, the primary link between European and Egyptian monasticism.
In future posts, I hope to demonstrate Saint Benedict’s direct dependence on the Egyptian desert fathers for this two-fold description of monastic spirituality. What the great monastic theologian Evagrius (354-399 A.D.) described as the practical (or “active”) life followed by the theoretical ( or “contemplative”) life is the best way of understanding Benedict’s emphasis on merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.