The Problem of Irony
I recently had the pleasure of reading Leah Libresco’s fine new book Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. Despite the title, the book has very little to do with large-scale questions of Western civilization or the future of Christianity in a secularizing age. Instead, it’s something far simpler and more refreshing: a straightforward how-to guide for building “thick” Christian community with one’s friends and neighbors.
It’s clear from the book that Libresco (whom I had the pleasure of meeting while in law school) is highly gifted at the art of hospitality. Practical suggestions, insights, and recommendations pop off the page—one might host a debate, watch a film, join together for morning or evening liturgical prayer, or build community through virtually any other means. It’s a wonderfully inspiring (and attainable!) ideal, and certainly made me wish I was plugged into more such gatherings. (Or, when viewed from a different angle, it convicted me that I should be doing more to organize them!)
For instance, a few months ago I spent a week in Los Angeles attending seminars and intensive discussions hosted by the Claremont Institute. While the program was billed as an investigation of American founding legal and political principles, it quickly became clear that foundational issues were on the table. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised at this, but in D.C. such conversations usually just devolve into crudely tribal arguments.) Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, Strauss, and countless others dominated the discourse, providing a lens through which moments in American history—such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates over slavery and equality—could be understood as parts of a far greater tradition. Naturally, this led to some late nights of arguments about architecture, urban planning, integralism, and so forth. Everyone there wasn’t Christian—or even theist—but everyone was committed to the kind of substantive, “thick” dialogue within which real understanding develops. All in all, it was one of the best weeks I’ve had in years.
That’s the kind of environment I crave, and it’s what Libresco’s book focuses on developing—spaces to discuss, with sincerity and openness, the most important questions human beings will face. In that spirit, this fall I’ve been trying to gather with a few friends to discuss Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark book After Virtue, and those meetups have been highlights of my weeks.
But when I think about asking my good friends—the ones I go to movies and bars and plays with on a regular basis, most of whom are Christians—to meet up and build such a space, I feel profoundly awkward. And I’ve often wondered why.
I think, at least in part, it’s due to the fact that I and most of my good friends attended a Christian liberal arts college that sought to be the very community I long for so much. Now, I strongly believe in the importance of formative institutions in young people’s lives. I want my future children—God willing—to attend Christian schools, be active in the church, and take their faith seriously. But something about our experience has made it challenging, in this very particular post-graduation context, to cultivate deep community.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Every semester, our school hosts a “Faith and Reason Lecture.” The fall lecture is delivered by a school professor; the spring lecture by an outside speaker (past presenters I remember included Anthony Esolen and Allan Carlson). Under normal circumstances, I’d jump at the chance to go to some of these lectures (a recent one bore the title “(Re)constructing Meaning: The Nature of Words and Participating Being,” which is right up my alley). And by “go to some of these lectures,” I really do mean get my butt off the couch and sit in a big room to hear someone present their thoughts.
But as a student, this was not my reaction. Something about the context—mandatory event, everyone has to wear a suit and tie, everyone has to sit and discuss the lecture in small groups afterwards—contributed to my mulish attitude about the whole thing. (It didn’t help that pompous students would use the question-and-answer period to show off their vocabularies by delivering the most longwinded, important-sounding questions imaginable.) Half the time, we had no idea what larger intellectual currents in society had led the speaker to deliver their remarks. I didn’t appreciate the point of the thing, and as a result, the whole proceeding became drenched in irony. “F&R lectures” were events we attended perfunctorily, because we had no choice.
Understand this: I don’t think the school did anything wrong here. I wish I could go back in time and retake half the classes I sat through as a sophomore and freshman! I’d certainly get a lot more out of them now. But I was too focused on mechanistically racking up good grades to pause and contemplate—to read books that weren’t assigned, to spend a few hours reflecting on Big Questions, and so on. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I learned to regurgitate certain phrases and concepts (“telos,” “sublime,” “truth, goodness, and beauty,” “human flourishing”) without full understanding, because I knew that doing so correlated with high marks. I wasn’t exactly being insincere, because I did believe there was some truth to what I was saying—rather, I was being facile, declining to engage deeply because I thought I was above doing so.
Because almost everyone else I knew was doing the same thing, I generally stopped talking about these topics in my private life. Doing so “off the clock” felt fundamentally ironic—as if somehow I’d lost my ability to speak about these issues authentically. And so I soon learned that it’s quite possible to silo off one’s personal faith from one’s willingness to talk about and apply its insights in a community context.
Against that backdrop, I don’t know how to reopen a space for authentic conversations about these issues. Perhaps I should simply be grateful that so many of my close friends—notwithstanding our shared Problem of Irony—do indeed share my deepest faith commitments. But I also know that “thick” community spaces do matter—that they’re the seedbeds within which we learn from each other, show love to each other, and grow with each other. And I miss them where they’re not present.
From a somewhat broader perspective, this sort of irony-inoculation effect poses an interesting challenge to Christian institutions. Maybe, to really be meaningful to their participants, communities have to be formed against a backdrop of differentiation, disagreement, or opposition. They can’t be formed by default or by consensus. (This would mean, by implication, that most talk about “campus community” at a college or university is pure hokum.) And so, paradoxically, a secularizing culture may actually be the greatest force encouraging the formation of meaningful communities: when discussions of “ultimate concern” aren’t the default, one craves them so much more. To be sure, such a sentiment—the notion that genuine faith commitment requires some degree of exposure to the alternative—is certainly provocative. But perhaps it’s the only real way to ward off a self-immolating ironic cynicism, the acid that ultimately corrodes our capacity for true community.
I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels this way. Perhaps that means that the Ironic Detachment Phase is something naturally transcended as one grows older. Perhaps after a few years of “normal” life in the modern world, we can all look back and truly appreciate the insights we overlooked as young people.
I hope so, at least.