Modernity: An Age of Disordered Love

Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux

At the recommendation of a friend, I recently read the book “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World.” The author Rod Dreher argues that in the culture war between orthodox (small o) Christians and modern secular culture, Christians have already lost and that they should exercise “The Benedict Option” in order to faithfully live out their Christian values as minorities. He draws inspiration from Saint Benedict, who during the Middle Ages, retreated from what he saw as the decay of Christian civilization. Saint Benedict formed twelve monastic communities that were credited for unifying and saving Christian culture. He had to separate himself from the world to save it.

Dreher wrote this book for orthodox Christians as a warning and guide. I am not a Christian, so I was often uncomfortable with some of the language and ideas he had. However, many of his criticisms of modern secular culture were spot on. The most compelling idea he brings up is that many of the good things about modernity have become “disordered loves,” a love for something that pulls us away from the divine instead of towards it.

The source of all disorder is loving finite things more than the infinite God. Even loving good things, like family and country, can be a source of damnation if one loves them more than one loves God and seeks fulfillment in those things rather than in the Creator of those things.

– Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Disordered love is what happens when you have too much of a good thing. The tricky thing with disordered loves is that they are difficult to identify before they become disordered. 

Individual freedom is good, but can lead to isolation and selfishness. It’s great to go out in the world and have the freedom, income, and time to do what you’d like, but the endless options create anxiety and you are always thinking about yourself, rarely others.

Professional success is good, but can turn into careerism. Those first few promotions feel great and others will openly praise your success, leading you to seek out this positive affirmation even further until you realize that you’ve achieved professional success at the expense of a balanced life.

Technology is good, but can permanently distract us. When you first get an iPhone you are giddy at the idea of how easy it is to get driving directions or look up a useful piece of information or resolve a debate about the actor who was in that movie 20 years ago. But soon enough you can’t stand in the grocery store line without getting bored or have dinner with a friend without looking at your twitter feed.

Disordered loves sneak up on you. You think you’re doing well and then you notice that you feel empty and unfulfilled.

Dreher does not recommend becoming a monk, but he does believe that to exercise the Benedict option requires significant separation from modern secular life. It’s important to have edge-case examples of counter-cultural living in order to make clear what is good (or bad in the cases of weird cults) and apply the lessons of the good to our own lives. For example, the Amish live what we consider to be austere lives and yet it seems to work for them. It makes us wonder what the trade-offs of technology are. We get instant communication and entertainment, but is it at the expensive of real relationships and community?

Though I do not want to go that far, I wonder if there are ways to incorporate the wisdom of Saint Benedict and other ancient traditions so that we do not fall victim to disordered loves.  Not everyone is called to be a monk, but monks make us wonder if the way we think and live are conducive to human flourishing. The 100% Benedict option is probably not for most of us, but I’m certain that most of us could benefit from living a life that adheres to the principles of ancient wisdom traditions.

Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally.

-Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 27:28


Image via The Ancient Spanish Monastery