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A Russian Takes On The Benedict Option

Retreat is premature.

Editors’ note: The original version of Boris Mezhuev’s essay was published in the Russian magazine Intelligence + (Ум +).  Paul Grenier’s translation is based on that text but includes a few small clarifications for an American audience by Mezhuev.

In the article Party Organization and Party Literature, Lenin made the well-known pronouncement that “you cannot at one and the same time both live in society and yet be free from society.” For many years, in the USSR, this phrase was repeated like a mantra without anyone giving much thought about its meaning, and yet the time has now come to reflect on the truth of Vladimir Ilyich’s conclusion for those of us who do not share his atheistic worldview. 

The question is this: Can we live in today’s world, actively participate in its affairs, and at the same time remain Christians, or indeed faithful followers of any traditional confession?

For Russia, this issue might not seem altogether relevant just yet, as we still observe certain formal taboos and haven’t yet lifted certain prohibitions e.g., against same-sex marriages, active promotion of homosexuality in the press, things like child pornography and so forth.

Meanwhile, in the US this year quite a bit of attention has been generated by a book urging genuine Christians to abandon the struggle to salvage a dying post-Christian world; to instead withdraw to their religious communities, continuing to observe Christian norms and maintaining those prohibitions against which secular society rebels. The book is The Benedict Option, and its author, Rod Dreher, is a religious conservative who writes for The American Conservative.

It was from the book After Virtue (1981), by British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, that Dreher extracted the idea for his “Benedict Option” the book makes reference to the decision by a Christian saint of the 6th century to leave the decaying society of the fallen Roman Empire in favor of a life of withdrawal in a community of co-religionists.

St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of Catholic monasticism, carried the fire of Christianity’s truth through the “dark ages” of Europe and actually saved Western Civilization from complete decay. The Christians of the modern world, Dreher advises, should do the same.  It is impossible and senseless to struggle against the consequences of the victorious sexual revolution.  The post-Christian world is now a terrifying reality the task of believers today is to leave that world to its own devices and put as much distance as possible between its toxic fumes and Christian community.

Dreher, a Protestant by birth, later converted to Catholicism, from which he then moved, in 2006, to Eastern Orthodoxy — a choice, incidentally, that has been made by many other paleoconservatives. His turn away from Catholicism came about after discovering the strength of the so-called Pedophile Lobby which had tried to hush up the numerous scandals associated with sexual harassment of parishioners by individual priests. It must also be emphasized that, of all the regular writers at The American Conservative, Dreher is the most critical, even to the point of active hostility, toward President Donald Trump. Dreher considers Trump the perfect embodiment of both personal moral debauchery and political braggadocio. A person who promises “to make America great again” but is incapable, even outwardly, of properly controlling his own behavior.  In general, for the author of The Benedict Option, Trump presents evidence plain as day that America is doomed, and that traditional conservatism in the U.S. has let itself fall victim to false temptations.

Dreher does not skimp on making alarmist statements about the consequences of the sexual revolution. From his perspective, the victory of the LGBT community and the legalization of same-sex marriage is not just the opening of Pandora’s box, it’s more like our first direct acquaintance with what that box contained. As one can judge from his current journalistic output and he literally on a daily basis puts out a stream of articles and blog posts on The American Conservative’s website the next step towards the Omega point of the history of Western Civilization will be society’s full acceptance of the idea of “open marriage.”

On May 11 this year, in the New York Times, a thorough journalistic investigation of this very subject was carried out by a Times staff writer named Susan Dominus. In her article, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?”, Dominus argues that, in general, yes it is happier, especially in the case where it is the woman who acquires many partners: jealousy spurs the sexual appetite of the man, and the sexual life of the partners comes into a nice balance. In general, all this, of course, is as old as the world, the only new thing here is that these recommendations are appearing not on a porn site, or in a Tinto Brass fan club, but on the pages of a leading liberal American magazine and replete with the latest references to various scientific authorities.

Dreher responded with a sharply critical article of his own, “Perversion as Progress,” in which he once again urged his readers and co-religionists to leave this decaying world with its “happy marriages.” And yet, not all of his colleagues agreed with this counsel. Some even pointed to the disappointing statistics, from the perspective of supporters of “open marriage,” that most couples are not yet aiming at opening up their marriages in order to once again experience the joy of vice. In the given case, however, I doubt statistics should serve as our guide. It is clear that a secular society will move in this direction the one indicated by Dominus and Dreher unless cataclysms of some sort don’t first prevent it.

Christianity, when you come right down to it, is really not a very demanding religion. It permits believers to eat pork and drink wine except on days of fast. On lay people it does not impose particularly harsh domestic norms. In fact, the only strictly tabooed side of life in Christianity relates to sexuality. Sex is permissible only in marriage and preferably for the purpose of giving birth to children, while deviations from this norm give rise to various suspicions. For the modern world, such a stance sounds terribly depressing. There are, in fact, two types of attitudes toward Christianity. It is either, as Chesterton once said, “the glad good news” of original sin, or else it is, along with other Abrahamic religions, an apparatus for suppressing something important and necessary in sexual life, something which, apparently, is stifled by traditional marriage and is of little use for the continuation of the species.

Among the things common to all religions is that they all impose taboos on female promiscuity, and on same-sex sex, but it is Christianity that adds that a person is obliged not only externally, but also internally, to be free from attraction to what is prohibited by the tradition. Of course, it is very difficult to achieve this in a world where, out of commercial interests mainly, instincts of every imaginable description have been emancipated. It is easy to sympathize with Dreher, who, seeing no other way out for Christians, recommends self-isolation in closed communities of like-minded people.

Here’s what’s strange, though. It turns out that the “Benedict Option,” in the context of Dreher’s book, operates something like a self-contained metaphor that doesn’t actually require realization in the real world. After all, Dreher is not writing instructions on how to lead a monastic life. He does not demand from his readers that they actually remove to settlements populated only by the faithful, places where neither television nor the Internet will be available any more. It is obvious, to the contrary, that he himself peruses the Internet, and even those newspapers and magazines where they write about love that is “free and pure.” The Benedict Option is nothing more than a person’s self-alienation from the affairs of the surrounding society, a refusal to strive for victory within this society. It is something more like heroic pessimism in the spirit of Max Weber: the world is dying, so let us be the courageous witnesses of its last days, not sharing in hopes for its miraculous salvation. In the aesthetic sense, this position is even very appealing. And yet it provokes questions along ethical lines.

First, is what Dreher talking about here relevant only to the West, or does all of this equally apply to other civilizations? How invulnerable to the threat of “sexual liberation” will remain Russia, China, the Islamic world? Differing answers to these questions will give rise to different options for action different at any rate from the option to which Dreher points. It’s another matter that these actions may not, in themselves, be acceptable to him as a citizen of the U.S. and a member of Western culture but then it becomes a question of making another choice that would also be interesting to discuss: should one remain politically loyal to one’s state even after you notice that it’s well on its way to hell? Personally, I would answer that, if the loyalty still remains even in such a case, then we’re not quite ripe yet for talking about the Benedict Option. It means we are still members of this political community, still accepting political responsibility for it, and its freedom even from more moral, or at any rate less corrupted, foreigners.  

After all, if we considered some other civilization to be more religious and less decadent than our own, shouldn’t we then support increased migration to our country from (for example) places in Latin American and in the Muslim world where the religious worldview still retains its influence?  If, to the contrary, we reject such an approach and make our stand based purely on considerations of ethno-cultural identity  it means our worries have yet to cross the Rubicon separating history from eschatology.

Secondly, Dreher’s position amounts to religious libertarianism as regards his relation to society. Instead of fighting for the dominance of our faith in the public sphere, we are only trying to achieve corporate independence from the pressures of the secular state. Alas, I think this position is strategically untenable. In any case, the legal pressure of the state in relation to religious bodies will exist, and, I must say, this pressure in itself is neither good nor bad. There are different sorts of religious communities, and society cannot always tolerate their internal rules. It is difficult, perhaps impossible to draw the exact dividing line between fair and unfair forms of intolerance. In one religious community, let’s say, all women could be subject to regular beatings on the principle that all of them are known to be sinners by nature. In another religious community women could be forbidden from entering into extramarital affairs, but if they do, they are threatened with divorce and exclusion from their community.

In the first case, Dreher no doubt will agree that the state should intervene and punish the fanatics abusing women. But sooner or later a state that has been abandoned by Christians, and thus left to the whims of “original sin,” will consider the actions of the second religious community to be equally fanatical. Will Dreher find enough lawyers to make him capable of proving the opposite? It seems to me that religious libertarianism is an illusory solution to the ills of postmodern society. For the present, the Benedict Option remains in any case premature.

Alas, for Christians today there are only two options: either this time all metaphors aside to truly enter the monastery, or else continue the fight to save one’s society and preserve, as far as possible, whatever remains within it of tradition. Lenin, it turns out, was right. To live in society and yet be free from society is impossible. One can try to improve it, or if not improve it, then at the least preserve everything best of what remains like the activists in Arkhnadzor, who are trying to save Moscow’s old mansions, though perfectly aware, of course, that the beauty of ancient Moscow has been hopelessly lost.

Which leads us to another problem – will the moral catastrophe brought on by secular civilization truly resemble an invasion by the Goths or Huns? Is secularization in its final act really a scene of devastation and disintegration? In fact, we do not know this there is no guarantee that the future world will be horrible in the literal sense of the word, that those who are there will have to experience sadness and discomfort. We see so many examples, in our mass culture, of the reverse being true that the old conservative fears are gradually departing from the world. In the end, after all, it was much more pleasant to live inside the Matrix than in the “desert of the real.” Secular humanity is not so blind today; to the contrary, the shortsighted ones are those who continue to see in the future only horrors. Secular humanity is moving towards some kind of flickering light; Christians know that this is not the Light that shines in the darkness, but if Christians leave this world, who then will be left to point that out?

If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.

To my mind, it is in this well-known fragment from the Gospel of Matthew that we find our best answer to the book by an American religious conservative and his call for retreat from frontline positions that are not yet fully overrun.

Paul Grenier translated this piece by Boris Mezhuev, professor of history of Russian philosophy at Moscow State University. He is the editor-in-chief of Politanalitika, a publication of the Institute of Socio-economic and Political Research, and the author, among other works on Russian politics and geo-politics, of Perestroika-2: The Experience of Repetition (Moscow, 2014).




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