Arguing About the Benedict Option
I’m pleased to see more and more people arguing about the Benedict Option. This is important. I don’t have a hard, fixed, formulaic idea of what it is, and all this back and forth is helpful to me in thinking through it.
My thesis is this: These are not normal times for Christians in America. Our country has become post-Christian, meaning not that people don’t go to church, but that the ideals and principles of normative Christianity have ceased to guide society, and that the culture’s move away from Christianity is accelerating, even moving swiftly from post-Christianity to anti-Christianity. This is not only because of the faith’s enemies, political and otherwise, but also — even mostly — because of a host of uncritical assumptions many Christians make about what it means to be faithful. The triumphal march of gay rights may be a catalyst at the present moment, but it is by no means the biggest story here. In fact, if there were no gay marriage at all, Christianity would still be in crisis, still be at a major turning point, because of deep currents of modern thought pushing the historic faith to irrelevance.
We are entering a period in which the state and private entities (e.g., businesses, universities, media) are going to be further stigmatizing and undermining the institutions and ideas of orthodox Christianity. And the response to this by Christians and their leaders has been by and large grossly inadequate. It is no longer sufficient, I say, to fight as we always fought. Yes, we must fight for our right to practice our religion, but that will be meaningless if our children leave the faith because it has come to mean nothing to them. And leave the faith they will.
My argument is that we need to realize the radical nature of the present moment, which requires a radical response — a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead. We are not giving this to them now. We are not giving it to ourselves. We are like the rabbit in Philip Larkin’s poem Myxomatosis, who believes everything might come right again if we just sit still and wait.
We need to construct alternative forms of community in which the life of faith and virtue, as we see it, can be lived out in a healthy, sustainable manner, amid a hostile culture. We need to build some kind of walls to make a quiet space, so to speak, so that we can tell the church’s story, and our kids can hear it told. We need to have a barrier between ourselves and the village, so that the barbarism of the village doesn’t overwhelm us, and — this is crucial — so that we can be a source of light, of love, and of plain sanity to the people who are chewed up by the barbarism, and are seeking shelter and community.
In short, we have to mount some kind of strategic withdrawal so we can remember, so we can pray, so we can teach, so we can pass on what we’ve been given in a time of chaos and destruction of memory — and so we can be what the church is meant to be for the life of the world.
That’s not a bumper sticker, granted. And I don’t know what that will look like in every case. I believe there will be many Benedict Options. One thing I want to say right now — and I guess I will have to keep saying it until I am blue in the face — is that contra Owen Strachan’s apparent view, the Benedict Option is not about retiring to a mountain hobbit commune. From his piece:
Dreher’s proposal is attractive. It sounds almost dreamy, in fact. This vision of a spiritual pseudo-retirement community appeals because of its simplicity, its coziness, its preservation of the permanent things. Yes, the grand cultural vision is gone; the days of demographic dominance have faded as shadows on the mountains. But look closer at this little town, an oasis in a sea of secularity, and you will see faith, order, freedom, and thriving.
I love this vision. But here is what I fear: if current trends continue, and especially if Republicans lose in 2016, we won’t be able to enact it. The reach of our meta-government grows ever longer. The logic of the Nanny State builds on itself, after all: it solves our problems, then new problems arise (that it helps create), and finally it solves our problems once more. Big government has a bottomless appetite, and it will gobble as much of our religious liberty, sexual ethics and personal bank account as it can.
This means that we may not have this Option. The Solicitor General recently indicated, under questioning by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, that he could not guarantee that in coming days, religious institutions would be able to abide by their Bible-driven policies in offering student housing. As theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr., has noted, that was a moment for Christians to sit up and pay attention. Here be dragons.
Well, yes. As I say, we have to fight the battles we can in the public square, but if we conceive of the battle as being primarily legal or political, any victories we win will be pyrrhic. And as I have said, and will continue to say, the idea of the Benedict Option as a resort compound for traddy tourists is completely wrong. It might well be the case that people may want to buy houses around a monastery and live there (this is happening around the Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma), or around a church (as in Eagle River, Alaska), but that will not be feasible for most people. When I think of the Benedict Option, I also think of the St. Jerome Classical School in Hyattsville, Md., which is a thick community of orthodox Catholics living in community and forming the next generation. Things like that.
We can’t let a false icon of the Benedict Option — a comic book construction of the choices facing us — dissuade us from attempting practical things that are achievable in the real world, or at least possible to achieve. This is why I think that setting the Benedict Option up as a utopian scheme is a straw man that allows Christians to avoid the hard questions of how we are to live in these radical times so that our faith will survive across the generations. There is no geographical place to escape to. I live in Mayberry now, and I assure you that wherever there is mass media (film, music, TV, Internet), there are the barbarians, no matter how rural and idyllic your setting.
I’m not suggesting that we give up the fight in the public square. We have to fight for our religious liberty. I am suggesting that we be realistic about what we can achieve, and even more strongly, that we understand the deeper stakes in this battle. We might win the fight for religious liberty, but watch the faith evaporate within our children and grandchildren’s generation because while we were busy playing the knight, the fields back home lay fallow from lack of cultivation.
Michael Hanby, one of the founders of the St. Jerome school, is a radical thinker who has his own problems with the Benedict Option, and who has an essay about them in First Things today. Excerpt:
Despite my sympathy for many of the “culture building” elements of Rod’s vision, I have a number of misgivings about the “Benedict Option,” if not as Rod intends it, then at least as it has been commonly interpreted.
First there is a tendency, owing perhaps to its MacIntyrean inspiration, to conceive of this “option” primarily in practical or political terms, that is, as a kind of “communitarian” stance within an increasingly hostile public square. This is not simply wrong. But left unqualified it would leave us with something of a “congregationalist” ecclesiology, and moreover, it is not sufficient to distinguish the “Benedict Option” as Benedictine. Preventing the former defect would require, among other things, that we think more ecclesiologically and less politically and that we regard the ecclesial order as more comprehensive than the political. Avoiding the latter would require a profound rehabilitation of a contemplative order of thought and life and a certain primacy of contemplation over action, which are all but unintelligible within our pragmatic culture. For a guide I would suggest Benedict XVI, who understood deeply that the quest for the truth of God which takes a living form in monasticism must lie at the foundation of any social order that is finally human and any political order that is truly free (See here and here).
Second, I dislike talk of a “Benedict Option” because it misleads Christians into thinking it will be up to us to choose our place within the emerging order. Whereas in reality are almost out of options, that is, unless one considers apostasy an option. Finally, insofar as a “Benedict Option” does suggest retreat, it fails in its imagination of what constitutes advance and retreat, and so it lays the accusation of retreating in the wrong place.
Liberal order thus does not merely exclude faith from the public square. Rather because it excludes faith it also excludes philosophical reason, thereby deciding all ultimate questions in advance on the basis of a liberal philosophy of nature and reason so ubiquitous as to be invisible.
To assent to the rules of engagement prescribed by liberal public reason is to accept a voluntary and arbitrary limit on how deeply one is willing to think, which then becomes an involuntary limit on how far one is able to see. Perhaps this is the source of that perennial frustration among the radicals, the refusal or the incapacity of the liberals even to acknowledge the fundamental points of contention between us: that liberal principles are ontologically indifferent or that they are even the political expression of a sound Christian anthropology. The point of those analyses and “historical genealogies” that have become an object of derision among the liberals—oddly, from those who advocate a return to Madisonian principles—is certainly not to retreat to the comfort of the library or the coffee shop; nor is it to deny the contingencies of history by suggesting that 1968 follows upon 1776 with some kind of mechanical necessity. Rather it is, first, to understand the truth of our predicament more deeply so that we may better discern how to act, and secondly, to dent the liberals’ apparently unshakeable confidence in these foundational assumptions.
Read the whole thing, and note that by “liberals,” he’s not talking Commonweal types exclusively, but also the First Things tribe — conservative Catholics and other Christians who believe that the classical liberal political order can ultimately be reconciled with orthodox Christianity.
Hanby doesn’t have an answer, as he admits, and his short essay is really about why we aren’t even asking the right questions. I wish the Hanby piece would have been four times as long so he could have unpacked these views. His January piece in FT about “the civic project of American Christianity” offers more.
This is all useful, though I’m not sure at all where to go with Hanby’s critique. I want to make it clear, though, that as I undertake this Benedict Option book, I am investigating, trying to learn what it could and should mean, and what it cannot and must not mean. I do not have all the answers, but I am committed to talking to a number of people who have thought deeply about these things, and who have tried different things, even if they have failed. And I am trying to make this practical, that is, something that families like mine can do. Despair is not an option.
It seems to me that Hanby’s short essay more or less points to Christians who still believe that we can exist as orthodox Christians within the liberal order and calls them Larkin’s rabbits, poisoned and dying but not knowing what’s happening:
Caught in the centre of a soundless field
While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
I make a sharp reply,
Then clean my stick. I’m glad I can’t explain
Just in what jaws you were to suppurate:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
More argument, please. More discussion, more debate. We have to figure this out together.