The Benedict Option: The New Christian Paradigm
Good morning. Today I am traveling to New York to begin a week of media interviews and public presentations about The Benedict Option, which is to be released on Tuesday. Tonight I’ll be on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show, talking about Benedict — tune in!
I want to draw your attention to an excellent, insightful review of the book, by Damon Linker. Damon is a longtime friend, and a sometime critic of my work. I figured his commentary on The Benedict Option would be, well, critical, because Damon is on the left. But I also figured that Damon’s review would be like Russell Arben Fox’s: an intelligent critique from the left, one that grapples with the book in good faith. I was not disappointed.
Damon says that The Benedict Option
may be the most important statement of its kind since Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square, the 1984 book that Dreher’s implicitly seeks to supplant. Like Neuhaus, Dreher provides devout Christians with a gripping metaphor that both describes the present moment and sets out a course of action in response to it.
As Damon points out, Father Neuhaus’s book was written in a time when it was possible for religious and social conservatives to imagine that the United States was a religious and morally conservative country which was ruled (misruled) by a secular elite that sought to push believers out of the public square. RJN called for Christian political engagement to remoralize the public square.
That project has failed, leaving religious conservatives to figure out what to do in a post-Christian nation in which people who hold their (our) beliefs are a minority? Linker:
Dreher’s The Benedict Option is very much an expression of this bleak outlook — and it goes far beyond the United States. In his opening pages, Dreher informs his readers that “the light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West.” “There are people alive today,” he writes, “who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. … This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”
Nothing in the surprise election of President Trump, who was strongly supported by the remnants of the religious right, changes this doleful situation. In Dreher’s view, Trump’s victory “has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.” That’s because “secular nihilism has won the day.” And its triumph isn’t a product of a liberal elite imposing it on the country so much as it is a consequence of the fact that “the American people, either actively or passively, approve.”
That’s where “the Benedict Option” comes in. Having lost the culture and the country, devout Christians need to realize that looking to ordinary politics to reverse secularizing trends is futile. Instead, Christian conservatives need to practice “a new kind of Christian politics” — or an “antipolitical politics” — that follows the example of the religious order that St. Benedict of Nursia founded in the 6th century to preserve and foster Christian civilization as the Roman Empire decayed and crumbled around it.
This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.
That’s a good summary. Damon goes on to discern an important divide between my vision and the one of the late Father Neuhaus:
Their disagreement has to do with whether the loss of power was contingent and reversible (Neuhaus) or inevitable and, at least for the foreseeable future, permanent (Dreher).
Damon goes on to say that it’s an illusion to think that Christianity in past ages was as doctrinally and morally well-informed and orthodox as I portray it. He’s right about that, I think. The main difference is that however far any given society in Christendom has been from the ideal — and every one has — there was a shared understanding that there was an ideal outside of ourselves to which we must aspire. As Father Neuhaus once put it (if memory serves): We don’t judge the Bible; the Bible judges us.
Damon says that in practice, all Christians have been Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, more or less, in all times and places. “Except in one respect: sexual morality.” He writes:
A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.
This is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.
If traditional sexual morality is an absolutely necessary component in an authentic Christian life, then America may well be the post-Christian nation Dreher insists it is, with devout Christians reduced to the status of exiles within it and facing the prospect of outright persecution in the workplace and elsewhere.
He goes on to say:
Dreher’s concerns about persecution may be somewhat exaggerated, but they aren’t delusional. Now that same-sex marriage has been declared a constitutional right, the full weight of anti-discrimination law is poised to bear down on those whose faith precludes them from accepting the licitness of such arrangements.
This is one of the things I appreciate most about Damon’s review: the acknowledgement from someone on the Left that something important really is happening to dissenters. So many who celebrate the new order as a more perfect form of justice — and Damon is one of those people — are bound and determined to insist that orthodox Christians aren’t losing anything significant (and if they are, they deserve it: this is what I call the Law of Merited Impossibility). Damon Linker is not one of those whose peace of mind requires this denial, and I’m grateful for that. Some critics of the Benedict Option, and of conservative Christians in general, love to accuse us of being “obsessed” with homosexuality. But see, because of anti-discrimination law, we cannot help but pay attention to it, because it is precisely on the LGBT rights question that our rights are being taken away, or stand to be taken away.
The question of homosexuality, and the Sexual Revolution more broadly, is at the center of the grand struggle between orthodox Christianity and the forces — many of them within the church — that are trying to defeat it. I explain this more fully in the sex chapter of The Benedict Option. Excerpt:
Wendell Berry has written, “Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”
This is more important to the survival of Christianity than most of us understand. When people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.
This raises a critically important question: Is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been under way since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among the People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” Chastity—the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality—was the greatest distinction setting Christians of the early church apart from the pagan world.
The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early church’s.
In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says
the body was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.
Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.
In that order, man has a purpose. He is meant for something, to achieve certain ends. When Paul warned the Christians of Corinth that having sex with a prostitute meant that they were joining Jesus Christ to that prostitute, he was not speaking metaphorically. Because we belong to Christ as a unity of body, mind, and soul, how we use the body and the mind sexually is a very big deal.
Anything we do that falls short of perfect harmony with the will of God is sin. Sin is not merely rule breaking but failing to live in accord with the structure of reality itself.
For a more profound meditation on how the Sexual Revolution overturns Christian ontology and anthropology, I strongly urge you to read Michael Hanby’s essay about “the civic project of American Christianity.” It informally declares the end of the Neuhaus project. In the present reality, Hanby writes, maintaining an authentically Christian vision:
will require disciplined reflection, and this labor is daunting enough. Yet it will also require a countercultural way of life, a deep faith in the goodness of God and in the intelligibility of creation, and real hope in the transcendent vantage, beyond our immanent success or failure, opened up by the Resurrection. It will take a great deal of courage and not a little imagination to risk failure, powerlessness, and cultural and political irrelevance—to be, in Pope Francis’s words, a less “worldly” Church—for the sake of the truth.
This is the Benedict Option. And though Damon Linker thinks that these events mark progress, he also sees the tragedy here for orthodox Christians. Linker:
Christianity in all of its manifold forms and expressions isn’t about to disappear, but comprehensive Christianity — a holistic vision of God and humanity, sexuality and sin, marriage and procreation — has been dethroned. Those of us who see a necessary moral advance in this revolution should be capable of acknowledging that it also entails a significant loss.
Read the entire piece. I don’t want to put words in Damon’s mouth, but I read his essay as saying that if orthodox Christians are alarmed by what’s happening, then they really do have something to be alarmed about. Christianity as it has been understood for most of its history is over, at least in the West.
But that does not mean orthodox Christians can surrender! It means that we have to fight as the resistance in different ways. One of the things we have to resist are voices within the church trying to deny the gravity of the current situation. If you are an orthodox Christian who is not alarmed, then you are not paying attention.
And you probably haven’t been paying attention for a while, to be honest. I’m really grateful to Jake Meador for making this point: there is nothing new about cultural alarmism in our time. Jake writes:
Virtually nothing that any of these guys [Chaput, Esolen, Dreher, all of whom Smith slams] are saying is new and, given how long it has been said and how accurate previous generations have been in their predictions, it’s difficult to dismiss this talk as alarmism
I have read all four of the books in question, if we include Rusty Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, which we should. In the cases of Esolen, Reno, and Dreher particularly, I have followed their work for a number of years. This is the basic idea behind all four books: “We are living in the last days of western liberalism, a way of understanding the world that treats all human beings as detached individuals free to define themselves in whatever ways they see fit and in whatever ways capital can enable and facilitate. As the system fails, its great shortcomings are becoming ever more apparent. As a result of this, the actions society must take to prop up the system are becoming more extreme and the dangers to the church and to civil society more generally are growing accordingly.”
But here’s the thing: Thoughtful Christians have been critiquing this sort of individualism and the systems and structures that support it for decades. None of what Esolen, Reno, Dreher, and Chaput is saying is new. They are simply observing the same problems in a later stage of development and their warnings have been adjusted accordingly. But the problems they are seeing are quite old and the church has been talking about them for many years.
Read the whole thing. He quotes from T.S. Eliot, Christopher Dawson, J. Gresham Machen, Pope John Paul II, C.S. Lewis, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.
Jake is also correct in saying that Tony Esolen and I invite charges of alarmism with the harsh rhetoric we use. I say without apology: my rhetoric is alarming — because I believe there is much to be alarmed about, and the church is not taking it seriously.
Napp Nazworth, commenting on progressive Episcopalian Rachel Held Evans’s trite dismissal of the Benedict Option, tweeted:
— Napp Nazworth (@NappNazworth) March 9, 2017
He understands perfectly. With the notable exception of the chapter on work, The Benedict Option is primarily about the church’s desperate need to strengthen itself from within. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a much greater threat to the church right now than the state. It’s not even close. When and if the state does become a much greater threat — and I believe it’s a matter of when, not if — then our failure to have become a lot more serious about our faith is going to doom us. But hear me: even if things stayed exactly as they are right now with regard to the law, Christianity would still be in existential trouble in the West, for the reasons I write about in the book. And if there were no such thing as same-sex marriage, the argument for the Ben Op would scarcely change.
The extent to which the church goes the Rachel Held Evans assimilationist route, it will not survive. That message is far more central to The Benedict Option than the idea that we will suffer persecution of any sort (though we will). Anybody who reads the book will see this. I hope you will be one of its readers. I don’t expect everybody to agree with everything in it. But I hope that those who do read it and take it seriously will bring their creative minds and voices to the project of building what MacIntyre called “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”
Don’t forget: the early Benedictines evangelized too, but unlike so many of us contemporary Christians, they did so from a strong spiritual and communal base. They knew who they were, and Whose they were, and were able to sound a certain trumpet in an uncertain world. So must we be.