The identification of moral conservatives in the twenty-first century with historical periods that predate the experience of twentieth century totalitarianism reveals a fundamental blind-spot in contemporary conservatism. Conjuring up political constellations of the 1920s to 40s as analogies for contemporary struggles between conservatives and progressives willfully ignores the ‘lesson’ of totalitarianism. Nothing exemplifies this forgetfulness better than the recent closure of Memorial, the NGO dedicated to the critical memory of Stalinism, by Russian authorities.
On the pages of Public Orthodoxy, Aram G. Sarkisian recently pointed out the odd affinity which some American Orthodox cultivate vis-à-vis the time of the American Civil War and how ultraconservative Orthodox groups appropriate an eighteenth-century story to fit a twisted and ahistorical agenda of the twenty-first. The identification with past epochs it nothing unique to American Orthodox. In my own studies of moral conservatism in Russia and the US, I have also encountered this identification with the past, in particular with the period of the 1920s to 40s.
The January 2021 Schmemann Lecture delivered by Mr. Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor of The American Conservative, has provoked bewilderment and objections especially among former students of Father Alexander. Was Dreher—neither an academic nor a theologian but a polemical journalist who proclaims it pointless to “dialogue” with Orthodox progressives—the appropriate person to deliver a lecture named in honor of the late archpriest? Not, certainly, if one compares the scholarly and ecclesial standing of Dreher to previous Schmemann lecturers. Does the warm, even apparently tight embrace of Dreher by the current President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, signify an already accomplished “culture war” transmogrification of the seminary and portend further hardline, divisively ideological efforts to reorient the whole OCA? The answer to the first question seemed evident enough to provoke a letter of protest from a number of anxious alumni to the seminary’s board of trustees. But a plausible answer to the second question requires considerably more effort—an informed and judicious reading of many ecclesiastical signs, a dangerous task that few OCA clerics would be equipped or eager to undertake publicly. The recently provoked band of objectors seems confronted by a debilitating choice: naively continuing by impotent complaints to close the barn door after the horses have fled, or bravely and equanimously—but perhaps foolhardily (as many will surely think)—enlisting themselves among those who speak the neuralgic truth because it is the truth. Are there many people who want to listen much less act upon the latter?
Gregory Thompson, a Protestant pastor, who is himself an academically trained theologian, has written an extensive and trenchant critique of Dreher’s most recent book: see Comment, “Return of the Cold Warrior: Reflections on Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies,” December 3rd 2020. Dreher’s book, the proximate source of his Schmemann Lecture, rhetorically targets the “soft totalitarianism” menacing American culture: in Thompson’s description, the “progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition” Thompson, however, details what he considers to be four egregiously ruinous errors in Dreher’s “Cold War,” fearful political theology. It is: (1) a morally black and white, Manichean account of history; (2) an ideological division of persons into godless progressivist villains and godly conservative victims; (3) an instrumental and tendentious use of people identified as allies; and (4) a self-confirming projection of Dreher’s own politicized religiosity but a reductively escapist account of the Church’s mission. All of these themes can be found in his recent Schmemann lecture.
From the opening pages of Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), the assumption is that the lies which most threaten to engulf Christians today are those coming from the cultural and political Left. Political correctness, cancel culture, anti-racist kinds of training, gender theory, the “cult of social justice”—all treated by Dreher as comprising together a single system of lies—are what he says Christians must remain vigilant against and refuse to participate in. To help strengthen them in this resistance Dreher commends to his primarily North American readers the examples of remarkable 20th century Christian dissidents of Eastern Europe who stood up against totalitarian regimes. Some are familiar figures like Alexander Soltzenhitzyn (from whose 1974 essay addressing the Russian people comes the admonition to “live not by lies”), Václav Havel, and Karol Wojtyla. Others are less familiar, among them Croatian Jesuit priest Tomislav Poglajen Kolaković, Russian Orthodox dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov, Russian Baptist pastor Yuri Sipko, and Czech Catholic mathematician and human rights activist Václav Benda. Dreher offers moving accounts of these and other heroic figures and extracts considerable wisdom from their writings and from the recollections of those he has interviewed who knew them.
Much has been written in the last couple of years concerning the “Benedict Option.” People have found inspiration in it as well as a great deal to criticize about both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book. The historicity and theology of the book are questionable. The dire picture painted is difficult not to dismiss when every Orthodox Church echoes with Christ is Risen from the dead, by death trampling down death. However, what is perhaps needed is not another criticism or debate about the “Benedict Option.” Instead, the time has come to explore another “Option.” This Option is rooted in the Gospel and found in the 2nd-century letter to Diognetus as well as the novels of Dostoyevsky. In contemporary times, it has been incarnated by a diversity of people that include Mother Maria Skobtsova and St. Porphyrios. This is the Kavasilas Option. Continue Reading…