Against the Integrated Life
Peter Meilaender

In Book IV of Paradise Lost, John Milton introduces “our first father” and “our general mother,” ancestors of the human race: “Adam, the goodliest man of men since born / His sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve” (Milton 2000, 86, 83). Together in Eden they lead a perfectly harmonious existence in which conjugal love, productive labor, and worship of God are seamlessly interwoven, their lives together one great hymn of praise. After a day spent tending the garden, they return to their bower for the evening, thanking God for his goodness before joining in the “mysteries of connubial love”:

Thus at their shady lodge arrived, both stood,
Both turned, and under open sky adored
The God that made both sky, air, earth and heav’n
Which they beheld, the moon’s resplendent globe
And starry pole: Thou also mad’st the night,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the day,
Which we in our appointed work employed
Have finished happy in our mutual help
And mutual love, the crown of all our bliss
Ordained by thee.... (Milton 2000, 92-3)

It is a delightful picture of a world not yet tainted by sin, in which men and women together join their bodies and souls, minds and hearts, in which there is no clear distinction between their family life, their daily labor, and their religious worship—a holistic vision of all human existence as perfectly integrated and whole.

Christians, of course, long for the day when that vision will be restored. In the meantime, however, this ideal of harmony can supply a tempting standard against which to measure actually existing human societies. One such critique has sparked considerable discussion over the past year: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. In a discussion ranging across politics, education, work, sex, and technology, Dreher depicts the many ways in which contemporary mainstream culture is antithetical to Christian belief and practice. He takes his cue from the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who argued, in After Virtue, that moral thinking in the modern West has become incoherent and who closed his account of our condition with this half-grim, half-hopeful assessment:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.... We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (MacIntyre 1984, 263)

Dreher turns to Benedict and his rule as an antidote to the “forces of dissolution from popular culture[, which] are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own” (Dreher 2017, 50). For contemporary Christians who are “adrift in liquid modernity,” having “lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders” (Dreher 2017, 50), the rule of St. Benedict can supply a recipe for creating anew MacIntyre’s “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained.”

Dreher’s critique of contemporary society is bracing, and it is difficult to disagree with large parts of his analysis. The scourge of pornography and a casual hookup culture have distorted many young people’s understanding of sexuality. The judicial imposition of same-sex marriage has further undermined the family, and its potential for transforming anti-discrimination law leaves Christians in many professions vulnerable to legal attack. Technology and the ubiquitous smartphone have fragmented our experience of the world and scattered our attention. Geographic mobility has eroded communities, and the distances that many of us travel from home to work or to worship challenge our families and churches alike. For several decades, many Christians have thought that they could turn the cultural tide through political activism, by electing the right representatives or appointing the right judges, but those hopes have proved largely empty. Thoughtful Christians should therefore take seriously Dreher’s contention that the only way forward is through a kind of secession from many mainstream institutions and the building of “a vibrant counterculture” (Dreher 2017, 18) existing parallel to them.

Despite my sympathy for much of Dreher’s argument, however, I find myself, in reading his book, constantly surpressing slight twinges of misgiving. These become especially urgent when Dreher’s claims grow excessively uncompromising, for example in his apparent demand that all Christian parents should either put their children into classical Christian schools or homeschool them: “Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (Dreher 2017, 155). As it happens, my wife and I (but mostly my wife!) have been homeschooling our own children for about fifteen years now, having stumbled into it somewhat by chance (rather than out of any principled commitment, religious or otherwise), and having continued because, in a variety of ways, it has seemed to work well for us. And I heartily encourage other parents to consider doing the same. But doing so cannot possibly be a moral obligation for “all Christians.” Since one parent must forego full-time employment, and because many curricular materials are expensive, homeschooling involves significant sacrifices both of time and also of money. Private Christian schools, needless to say, involve comparable sacrifices. Not all families will be in a position to make these sacrifices. Some parents may also think, not unreasonably, that there is value in having their children confront a range of fellow citizens of varying backgrounds and beliefs by attending public schools. Is homeschooling a valuable option that many Christian parents might want to pursue? Certainly. Is it morally required as a necessary part of building a new Christian counterculture? Certainly not.

It would be unfair to seize upon this one passage and criticize Dreher on account of it. Most of his recommendations are more flexible than this, and he frequently recognizes that not all of his suggestions will suit all readers or all families. He is open to a wide range of ways that diverse believers may go about seeking to recreate meaningful forms of community. Still, there is something both predictable and vaguely unsatisfactory about the litany of cultural criticisms: we need more meaningful forms of work; we need to be more intentional about living in close proximity to family, friends, and our fellow parishioners; we need to put away our smartphones; we need to withdraw from the schools and avoid mainstream media; we need to “[p]lant a garden, and participate in a local farmer’s market” (Dreher 2017, 98), “[s]ecede culturally from the mainstream” (Dreher 2017, 98), and “reverse the seemingly unstoppable atomization of daily life” (Dreher 2017, 141). Taken individually, most of these recommendations will probably seem reasonable to the typical reader, as they do to me. Taken collectively, especially against the backdrop of that haunting ideal alternative—the monastic order guided by the Rule of Benedict—these recommendations may prompt us to wonder whether Dreher is not covertly longing for a return to an Edenic paradise, the harmonious and integrated community that will one day be restored but that is not now, for us, an appropriate goal.

Be that as it may, I am interested here not so much in Dreher specifically—who has written a good book, worth pondering—but with a certain kind of cultural criticism that I think his book represents and that may often be tempting to Christians: the yearning for a lost wholeness that modernity has destroyed. In a very different context, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of this urge in a letter to his friend and confidant Eberhard Bethge, in terms that have a certain pertinence to Dreher’s backward look to medieval monasticism. Describing the modern world’s growing tendency to account for more and more of human life without reference to God, Bonhoeffer wrote from his imprisonment:

Anxious souls will ask what room there is left for God now; and as they know of no answer to the question, they condemn the whole development that has brought them to such straits. I wrote to you before about the various emergency exits that have been contrived; and we ought to add to them the salto mortale [death-leap] back into the Middle Ages.... It’s a dream that reminds one of the song O wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück, den weiten Weg ins Kinderland. (Bonhoeffer 1997, 360)

Here Bonhoeffer quotes (or very slightly misquotes) a poem that Brahms had set to music under the title “Heimweh.” We might translate it loosely but metrically into English thus:

           Oh, if only I knew the way to return,
            The long way back to the land of my youth.

Bonhoeffer continues: “There is no such way...” (Bonhoeffer 1997, 360).

This longing for the integrated life appears in many contexts. One with which I have some familiarity is education, where we see it frequently in battles over curricula. Many Christians, and almost all of those with a traditionalist bent, believe firmly in rigidly structured core curricula, in which all students proceed through a largely “Great Books” course of study, integrating history, literature, philosophy, theology, social theory, and the arts, and sometimes even mathematics and the natural sciences as well. This is also Dreher’s ideal. Such curricula, needless to say, have a great deal to be said for them (and are, in fact, the sort of thing I enjoy teaching—at least to the right students). They function reasonably well in very small, highly intentional communities of like-minded faculty and students—institutions like a Thomas Aquinas College in California, or a Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. Almost everywhere else they degenerate into ideological battlegrounds and turf wars over guaranteed student enrollments. Most students in most places are better served by a less integrated curriculum. Even the most learned professors possess knowledge that is highly fragmentary; even those of us who do this for a living realize that achieving some satisfactory understanding of the whole is a lifelong and never completed endeavor. Students suffer no great harm—may even benefit—from having to struggle in order to fit together the various fields they are studying, combining and recombining them in different ways as they progress.

The longing for an integrated life is also clearly visible in our attitudes toward food. In this area, we encounter what we might call both “pagan” and “Christian” versions of the same phenomenon. But one need think only of the movement for more “natural” and organic foods to discern the desire for a more holistic, authentic relationship between human beings and the natural world. (One could extend this analysis, no doubt, to a consideration of environmentalism more broadly, or to attitudes toward health and wellness, where “holistic” is an inescapable buzzword.) Most people no longer know where their food comes from, no longer know the farmers who produce it, no longer—for that matter—have any idea of the genetic manipulations that plants undergo, or the conditions under which animals are raised, or what it is actually like to slaughter one of them. We are in a sense alienated from our entire food system, which has taken on an industrial and mechanized character. Christian versions of this critique tend to emphasize the importance of respect for God’s creation and of maintaining an attitude of stewardship toward the entire natural world.

Here too, I am inclined to respond with a “Yes, but...” Indeed, I have come to think of arguments like Dreher’s as what I call “Raise Your Own Chickens” arguments. Several years ago I was asked to review a book entitled The Politics of Gratitude, by Mark Mitchell. Mitchell’s book is in some ways a more scholarly version of Dreher’s: an argument in favor of small communities on a human scale, in which men and women can exercise meaningful control over their lives, practice stewardship of both the natural environment and of our common culture, and experience the worlds of work, family, and education in more authentic ways. In discussing our relationship to the natural world, Mitchell criticizes our distance from the food we eat and the processes of producing it, such as slaughtering livestock. My own reply to this was simple; as I wrote at the time,

I, for one, have absolutely no desire to slaughter even a chicken, much less anything larger, in order to put supper on the table. Nor can I persuade myself that this is a moral shortcoming on my part, or that I should view with regret the economic division of labor that has permitted these activities to be taken out of my home and located elsewhere. (Meilaender 2013)

My thoughts on the matter have not changed in the interim. To the contrary, Mitchell’s book (which is, to be fair, considerably better than this brief reference may imply) enabled me to formulate for myself a principle that I find generally reliable: any theory that culminates in the suggestion that I would be a morally better person if only I raised my own chickens, or that a society of chicken-raisers would be a morally better society, has taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Arguments like Dreher’s or Mitchell’s stand in a long tradition. They are the conservative Christian variation (there are other variations, on the left as well as the right) on an old theme: the critique of modernity as fragmented and alienating. (It is no accident, I think, that Dreher’s book begins by tracing the roots of our present discontents all the way back to late-medieval philosophy, then to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, on through the “calamitous” nineteenth century and into the wars and sexual revolution of the twentieth—modernity as a narrative of decay.) This critique probably originates in Rousseau’s Discourses, later drawing nourishment from economic criticisms of modern capitalism as well as sociological ones of rationalized and bureaucratic society. In outline, it runs something like this: In a pre- or early modern world, most people still lived in stable communities that structured their lives, providing shared norms and a sense of place in an intelligible world. Their local communities, their work, their families and kinship networks, and their religious practices all overlapped and fit neatly inside one another, creating reinforcing structures of meaning. But the accelerating processes of modernity, especially over the last three centuries, gradually broke apart this coherent world. Political authority and structures of governance grew larger, more powerful, and more centralized; the decisions shaping people’s lives came to be made far away, by unknown strangers, even as their consequences reached deeper into one’s life. Workers became more mobile, and work moved out of the home, losing its connection to family structure and the rhythms of daily life. Employers, like states, became large, faceless powers, and urbanization took more and more men and women off the land and away from their traditional customs into massive, strange, and anonymous cities. Religion became an increasingly private affair, and in a mobile and diverse world, neighbors could no longer assume a set of shared norms. People were left alienated, powerless, and lost, their lives fragmented among different spheres of family, leisure, work, faith, and citizenship (or subjecthood) that they no longer knew how to integrate. Over time these processes have accelerated and have become even more acute in the post-Cold War world, with its intense globalization and rapid technological change.

We may not be able to reverse these processes entirely. But we can take steps to counteract their effects. We can intentionally live closer to family, friends, and church. We can put away our smartphones. And we can raise our own chickens.

There is a great deal of truth in this story. It correctly describes fundamental differentiations that have gradually taken place within liberal modernity: between church and state, state and work, work and family. It goes wrong, however, in diagnosing these simply as marks of fragmentation, of a lost wholeness that we should be striving to restore. These forms of differentiation are not modernity’s weakness, they are its strength; not its sickness, but rather its health.

The division of human life into separate spheres, governed by their own distinct principles, has been among the most important achievements of liberal modernity. The political theorist Michael Walzer has described this phenomenon nicely in an essay on “Liberalism and the Art of Separation”:

I suggest that we think of liberalism as a certain way of drawing the map of the social and political world. The old, preliberal map showed a largely undifferentiated land mass, with rivers and mountains, cities and towns, but no borders.... Society was conceived as an organic and integrated whole. It might be viewed under the aspect of religion, or politics, or economy, or family, but all these interpenetrated one another and constituted a single reality. Church and state, church-state and university, civil society and political community, dynasty and government, office and property, public life and private life, home and shop: each pair was, mysteriously or unmysteriously, two-in-one, inseparable. Confronting this world, liberal theorists preached and practiced an art of separation. They drew lines, marked off different realms, and created the sociopolitical map with which we are still familiar. The most famous line is the “wall” between church and state, but there are many others. Liberalism is a world of walls, and each one creates a new liberty. (Walzer 1984, 315)

Walzer rightly describes this “art of separation” as an extension or elaboration by analogy of that initial distinction between church and state—a distinction with which few Christians today will want to quarrel. It spawns others in turn. Just as that initial distinction creates religious liberty, for example, so too “the line that liberals drew between the old church-state (or state-church) and the universities creates academic freedom, leaving professors as free to profess as believers are to believe” (Walzer 1984, 315).

Walzer briefly sketches several more such separations or differentiations. The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities...: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281). Lewis was not describing the spheres of society—family, work, church, state, and so on—but his point is analogous to Walzer’s. As he writes in the preface to The Great Divorce, “life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection” (Lewis 2001, viii). A new, richer, and redeemed form of community will one day arise—can arise—only as the outcome of that increasing process of differentiation.

Indeed, Christians are especially well placed to understand the characteristic forms of modernity not simply as examples of fragmentation and loss but rather of differentiation and enrichment, as a process in which the various spheres of society gradually become more and more themselves and less and less something else. I suspect that various Christian traditions make this argument in their own ways. The Catholic thinker Michael Novak, for example, analyzed democratic capitalism in terms of a tripartite distinction among political, economic, and moral-cultural aspects of society. Among Reformed thinkers, there appears to be renewed interest in Abraham Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty. But perhaps no theological tradition is better capable of illuminating modern processes of social differentiation than Lutheranism.

The claim that Christians necessarily live out the tensions of competing claims—that we inhabit two kingdoms simultaneously—is the very cornerstone of Luther’s social thought. His most famous statement of this idea is in the 1523 essay “On Temporal Authority.” There Luther struggles with the problem of political coercion, seeking to harmonize scriptural passages such as the command to “turn the other cheek” with Paul’s injunction in Romans to be subject to the governing authorities. True Christians, Luther argues, do of their own accord all that is required of them and therefore need neither law nor government. But such true Christians are few and far between (if indeed they are to be found at all), and God has therefore instituted earthly government to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. And Christians, although they neither need the law themselves nor call upon it in their own defense, uphold and support government out of love for their neighbors, who do require its protection. In this way, Luther argues, we navigate the demands of both realms:

In this way two propositions are brought into harmony with one another: at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly. You suffer evil and injustice, and yet at the same time you punish evil and injustice; you do not resist evil, and yet at the same time, you do resist it. In the one case, you consider yourself and what is yours; in the other, you consider your neighbor and what is his. In what concerns you and yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian; in what concerns the person or property of others, you govern yourself according to love and tolerate no injustice toward your neighbor. (Luther 1962, 96)

One could hardly ask for a more pointed description of the need to live one’s life according to the different requirements of distinct perspectives simultaneously. When I teach this essay, I like to drive home its practical implications by making sure that my students do not miss my favorite sentence: “Therefore, if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position, that the essential government authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish” (Luther 1962, 95). My well-meaning students are typically eager to lead lives of Christian service. Some of them expect that law school—“constables, judges”—could be a way of doing this. But not even the most career-oriented among them are likely to have asked themselves whether they are “qualified” for the position of hangman, or should serve the Lord in that line of work.

This suggests in turn another of Walzer’s separations, the creation of a distinct sphere of work or vocation. Luther elsewhere develops his two kingdoms doctrine in a way that anticipates this as well as the potentially broader spectrum of differentiated spheres that Walzer describes. In 1532 he preached a series of sermons on the gospel of Matthew, parts of which were copied down and published as a Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Here he develops the idea that each person fills a variety of “offices.” “I have often said,” Luther comments, “that we must sharply differentiate between these two, the office and the person. The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher. Here we have two different persons in the one man” (Luther 1956, 23). Luther argues that because we fill a variety of roles and stand in different relations to different people, we must fulfill multiple and distinct sets of duties:

[E]very human being on earth has two persons: one person for himself, with obligations to no one except to God; and in addition a secular person, according to which he has obligations to other people. In this life we have to have social relations with one another. Take a husband or the head of a household, for example, with his wife and his children. Although he is a Christian, this does not mean that he has to stand for it if the members of his family raise a rumpus or cause trouble in the house. Rather he must resist wrongdoing and punish it, to make them behave properly. (Luther 1956, 171)

As a husband and father, I have obligations to love, cherish, and be faithful to my wife and children, to maintain, together with my wife, the good order and discipline of the household, and to provide for the religious education of my children. In the same fashion, I also fill other offices with their own corresponding duties. As a citizen, I must support the governing authorities, uphold the rule of law, and assist my fellow citizens in need. As a professor, I must help my students learn, expose them to important works and thinkers in my discipline, and help them develop their intellects. As a member of my parish, I have duties to support it financially and in other ways according to my talents—perhaps by caring for the church grounds or teaching Sunday school or singing in the choir. “There is no getting around it,” says Luther, “a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort….[For] now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect” (Luther 1956, 109).

When Walzer describes liberalism’s many “separations,” he is describing a world in which the various offices we fill have become increasingly numerous and differentiated, with the various principles or duties that attach to them increasingly distinct and clear. In a sense, of course, one can live out all these offices in the form of an integrated life. They are all part of God’s plan for us, the avenues by which he enables us to serve our neighbors. In filling all our various offices, we are always seeking to serve Christ and the neighbor. For now, however, the possibility of their ultimate integration is more a promise than a lived reality, and we are as likely to experience their tension as their harmony. This is simply the form taken by the Christian life in a fallen world. In the meantime, this fragmentation within the self that we may feel as we seek to fill our different offices is not simply a tragedy to be lamented or escaped. As Walzer points out, the multiplication and differentiation of our roles is also a check on the inappropriate exercise of power by one office over another—each wall creates a new liberty. Moreover, our diverse offices help realize a world in which everything becomes more and more itself—in which the father is ever more a father, the citizen ever more a citizen, the neighbor ever more a neighbor, the professor ever more a teacher, the worker ever more a plumber, a mail carrier, an insurance agent, a dentist.

We may not quite want to say, paraphrasing Socrates, that the integrated life is not worth living. But neither should we be overly concerned when we fail—as we will—to achieve it. For us who inhabit the temporal meantime between Christ’s first coming and his future return, living an integrated life is a misguided ambition. Nor should this really surprise us. The Christian is called, not to realize any particular form of social order—not even one shaped by the Rule of St. Benedict—but simply to a life of faithfulness. For some that may mean homeschooling their children; for others not. For some it may mean turning off their smartphones; for others not. For some it may mean intentionally choosing to live close to family or within walking distance of one’s church; for others not. For some it may even mean raising their own chickens. For others—I am confident—it will not. Our task is to fill our offices faithfully, to play the part assigned us. As Lewis writes in “The World’s Last Night”:

[W]e keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows.... That it has a meaning, we may be sure, but we cannot see it. When it is over, we may be told. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played. The playing it well is what matters infinitely. (Lewis 2012, 105-6)

If we do that, we may rest assured that the scattered fragments of our lives will be gathered up and fitted into place within a coherent whole. Then, at last—but not before—we will lead an integrated life.



Peter Meilaender is professor of political science at Houghton College.


 Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel, 2017.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce: A Dream. New York: HarperOne, 2001.

———. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. New York: Scribner, 2003.

———. “The World’s Last Night.” In The World’s Last Night and Other Essays. Boston and New York: Mariner Books. 93-113, 2012.

Luther, Martin. The Sermon on the Mount. In Luther’s Works, vol. 21. Ed. Jaroslav  Pelikan. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1-294, 1956.

———.“Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed.” In Luther’s Works, vol. 45. Ed. Walther I. Brandt. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 75-129, 1962.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Meilaender, Peter C. Review of Mitchell, The Politics of Gratitude. Online in Voegelin View, https://voegelinview.com/ever-humble-review/ (accessed 4/9/18), 2013.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Mitchell, Mark T. The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place and Community in a Global Age. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012.

Walzer, Michael. “Liberalism and the Art of Separation.” Political Theory 12.3 (Aug). 315-330, 1984.

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