Do Ideas Have Historical Consequences? A Defense of The Benedict Option Chapter 2

In Chapter 2 of The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of some of the factors that have contributed to the West’s spiritual decline. In his historical narrative there were five landmark events that played a pivotal role in this process. He summarizes these as follows:

“In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality [he is talking about Nominalism vs. Realism here.]

The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century

The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy

The Industrial Revolution (ca 1760-1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

The Sexual Revolution (1960-present).”

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Nicholas Carr on the Decline of Deep Thinking

In the video below, Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Carr shares evidence from brain science about what happens when our devices (particularly the smartphones) infuse into our lives perpetual distractibility, multitasking and split attentiveness. He shows that what science is finding (and you can see footnotes to the actual peer-reviewed studies in Carr’s book The Shallows) is that there is a trade-off whereby certain cognitive functions become diminished.

That much isn’t surprising, but what I found really interesting is which cognitive functions are compromised.

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The ‘Christian Perspective’

From my article ‘The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars (Nominalism 7)

“Often the Christian perspective on culture comes to amount to little more than colonizing isolated issues, which are assessed in terms of a divine will that has already been abstracted from any larger sense of teleological and ontological order. Failure to recognize an inner-logic within the world (including human nature) often leaves evangelical spokespersons unable to point to the normativity of Christian moral order, or the fittingness of God’s commands within any scheme larger than, and antecedent to, mere will. A result of this functional nominalism is that Christian contributions to the public discourse can become largely unintelligible to those in different ideological communities. Worse still, such unintelligibility is seen to be inevitable and unavoidable, thus disincentivizing Christians from exploring new and creative ways to communicate.”

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The Connection Between Reading, Imagination and Communication Skills

From my article “Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (3)“:

A study conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory. found that attentive readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in the narrative as if it were really happening. This type of imaginative engagement with other people—in this case, fictional people—enriches the readers’ experience of the world outside the book. This is because the patient attentiveness required to read a literary novel, a play or a long poem requires us to exercise some of the same mental muscles that are employed when we are attentive to real people.

In both fiction and healthy relationships, we need to be able to extend ourselves into the thoughts and feelings of others, no matter how different those thoughts and feelings may be from our own. We also need a capacity to accept complexity and tolerate ambiguity. This requires the same type of imaginative attentiveness that reading literary fiction can help us to cultivate. This should become clearer after a brief rabbit-trial about communication.

For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys.

To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up.

Rod Dreher on How to Refuse Defeat

From How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, by Rod Dreher:

“Life is fragile and uncertain. Sooner or later, you will experience a great loss in life, when suffering reveals that the world is not the place you think it is, and that your dreams will not come true after all. What then?

Don’t blame others for what happened to you, even if it might well be their fault. This is a dead end. And don’t settle for stoic acceptance of your fate. Merely bearing up under strain is noble, but it’s wasting an opportunity for transformation. You have the power to turn your burden into a blessing.

What if this pain, this heartbreak, this failure, was given to you to help you find your true self? Make adversity work for you by launching a quest inside your own heart. Find the dragons hiding there, slay them, and bring back the treasure that will help you live well.

Why Being Modest is More Exciting than Being Immodest

Over the last few years I have published a number of articles about modesty in which I have attempted to situate Christian teaching about modesty within a context of affirmation rather than negation. In some of these articles I have argued that parents should not allow their children to watch movies which include nudity or sexual content, and even that parents and young people alike should observe standards of modesty while at the beach or swimming, regardless of the behaviour of others.

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Multitasking: the more you practice it, the worse you become

Most of the time, of course, we do grow more skilled at the things we practice, whether it’s learning to play the violin or speak French. But studies show that multitasking falls into the weird category of behaviors that go against this norm: the more you practice it the worse you become. In 2009, researchers at Stanford found that those who multitask frequently and believed that it boosted their performance were actually worse at multitasking than those who preferred not to multitask. Indeed, when measured by the same established cognitive control dimensions, the group who frequently practiced multitasking performed worse than the group of light multitaskers. This is sobering: if you multitask a lot and think you’re good at it, there is a statistical likelihood is that you are actually a very bad multitasker. The study also found that multitasking makes a person “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.”

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Worldview Education, Technology and the Value of Boredom

This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.

One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.

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Beauty and the Sacramental Vision

From my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts‘:

“Being able to just be in the presence of beauty is central to coming to know God and to participate in the sacramental life. As students come to appreciate beauty for its own sake—independent of utilitarian goals—their souls are prepared to receive God at a deep, pre-cognitive level.”

Confessions of a Recovering Gnostic

Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, the doctrine of resurrection functioned as a kind of footnote in my thinking while my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.

My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective which deemphasized the importance of the physical world. Some of my earliest writings had argued that during the Old Testament the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world but in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (i.e., non-physical). What happened in the material world is unimportant to God; the best we can hope to do is prepare for the next. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.

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