Quick Hitter: How Enchanted Was the Medieval World, Really?

So, Rod Dreher's long promised tome on the Benedict Option--entitled The Benedict Option--has been released, and the great Elizabeth Brueing has a review/reflection that is (not surprisingly) very much worth reading.  Bruenig hits on one of the core problems with Dreher's thesis, which is whether it is truly possible, desirable, or authentically Christian to withdraw from political life in the way Dreher suggests.  That critique is an important one, and I think Bruenig is 100% correct.

But as I was reading Bruenig's review, I was struck again by how much I don't buy the basic conceptual premise that underlines all of this Benedict Option talk.  The master narrative here goes, as Bruenig well sets it out, something like this:

[T]he Christian West began to lose its way in the fourteenth century, when the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham pioneered the theory of nominalism, which held there is no inherent order or purpose encoded into the material world. This was a radical departure from the philosophy of theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, who believed God’s intention for the material world is inscribed into nature itself, and can be discerned with human powers of reason. The split divided the “enchanted world” philosopher Charles Taylor describes medieval subjects as inhabiting from the disenchanted, meaningless world we now inhabit as post-modern, liberal subjects. We look around us and try to find some sense or meaning in things and events, but agree that meaning may differ depending on the beholder; the early Medievals bore no such burden, to trust the telling of Taylor-via-Dreher: They simply knew that all of creation pointed to God.

Then came, in Dreher’s telling, a series of further unfortunate events. The Renaissance centered man over God; the Protestant Reformation shattered religious unity in Europe; the Wars of Religion ravaged the continent just as the Scientific Revolution was displacing moribund Medieval views of the cosmos. Then came the Enlightenment and the great behemoth of liberalism, which ushered in the privatization of religion and the secularization of public life. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism followed, and then the world wars, and from these bitter currents we find ourselves washed battered onto the shores of an anomic, over-theorized world where our only goal is to attain some kind of self-realization through a lot of vaguely therapeutic-sounding practices and activities. Once upon a time, people tried to attain unity with God by cleaving to his will as they bore out their vocations as fathers, wives, laborers, or lords; now, we can hop online after Ubering home from sterile office jobs to swipe right or left and then watch, I’m told, more than 380 videos of nude yoga instruction promised to “create a closer connection with the body, yourself and your surroundings.”

Here's my problem with this story---how enchanted was the world in which your regular medieval person lived, really?  I understand that, in theory, there was this wonderful conceptual harmony where everything was in its proper relationship to every other thing by virtue of being in its proper relationship to God.  I get all that; I've read folks like John Milbank.  But what about the actual experience of actual people living in that time and place?  Especially those folks who were not fortunate enough to live in monasteries or priories that afforded the time and the education to think about the analogia entis.

Forgive me for putting on my Marxist/materialist hat for a moment, but living conditions in medieval Europe were, by our standards, unimaginably awful.  And, no, not in an arguably decadent "French peasants can't get the new iPhone" sense, but on the level of inarguable basic needs.  At least 10% and perhaps as much as 25% of the European population starved to death between 1315-1317.  About a third died in the Black Death a generation later.  And it wasn't all natural disasters, either.  The Kingdom of Hungary lost perhaps as much as a quarter of its population during the Mongol invasion of 1229-1242--to put that in perspective, the Soviet Union during World War II suffered about a 10% total casualty rate, and arguably still hasn't recovered from it 75 years later.  And most people don't even know that the Mongols invaded Hungary.

I have a hard time listening to people like Dreher wringing their hands at the disenchantment of the world while refusing to acknowledge all of the objective, concrete benefits of that disenchantment that they take advantage of daily.  Modern science, which gives us the tools to not die from disease and to improve food production in a manner that wards off famine, is made possible by being able to look at the material world as a system that can be studied, pulled apart, and manipulated.  In other words, by disenchanting the material world.  That may have had bad outcomes for theology, and it may have even had bad outcomes in politics and general world view, but it had tremendously good outcomes in the day-to-day living conditions of every person on this planet.  If my choice is an enchanted world where I am one storm from starving to death, or a disenchanted world where I am not, I'll take the disenchanted world every day and twice on Sunday.  Enchantment is not worth much if I can't eat.

Now, if the project here is "let's take what is good from that older, enchanted world view and combine it with the benefits of modernity into a new, better synthesis," then I'm on board.  But any discussion that doesn't factor the overwhelming, concrete, objective benefits of modernity into its calculus is unserious.  So much of the Benedict Option and the related Radical Orthodox theological movement strikes me as the philosophical and theological equivalent of those pre-Raphaelite painters that Bruenig mentions in her piece--an attempt to create an idealized, sanitized, and ultimately false version of the medieval world as a substitute for grappling with the admitted trade-offs of our era.

Things have gotten both better and worse since 1315.  I happen to think that the scales are overwhelmingly on the side of "better," but I understand that others might weigh the plusses and minuses differently than I would.  But, in any event, there needs to be a weighing of the scales, and that weighing can only be done if there is an honest recognition of what comes on the plus side.  Otherwise, you are creating a straw man.  That's what the Benedict Option is to me.


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