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Benedict & the Omnibus of Options

Everybody's got an option these days. Here's why we should stick with Benedict

Since people began talking about the Benedict Option, a number of apparently competing “options” have arisen.

Last summer, my TAC colleague Samuel Goldman wrote an essay on what he calls the Jeremiah Option, in which he calls on Christians to be engaged in public life even in a condition of exile, as the Hebrew captives in Babylon did.

Along the same lines, Catholic University’s Chad Pecknold posits the Dominican Option, which he characterizes (it seems to me) as like the Benedict Option, but much more evangelically engaged. I don’t see that the Benedict Option means one ceases to be evangelical, I should clarify, but only that it calls for a shoring up of Christian community, and a (one hopes) temporary shift in priorities toward building institutions and modes of resistance, and resilience. After all, you cannot out-evangelize Evangelicals, but even they are losing many of their youth to the broader culture.

Austin Ruse has mentioned the Escriva Option, after the saint who founded Opus Dei; he characterizes is as communal but robustly laity-focused. On Ruse’s account, the Opus Dei community he and his family are part of does what I envision the Benedict Option doing, and I’m thrilled that he has found it. But this proliferation of options, many of which I find myself nodding along with, and saying, “That’s helpful,” raises an obvious question: if these various options are a sensible response to the current crisis, why call my project the “Benedict” Option? What’s so special about it?

I realized yesterday in a long talk with Caleb Bernacchio (more on which later) that the term “Benedict Option,” which I’ve been using for years, refers less to the early medieval saint and more to contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s use of him in that famous last paragraph of After Virtue:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead…was the construction of 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. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point…This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless quite different — St. Benedict.

The argument I will make in my Benedict Option book is that there are specific resources in Benedictine spirituality that all of us Christians (even non-Catholics like me) can draw on to craft a “doubtless quite different” response to the cultural crisis of our quite different time. More than anything, though, the phrase “Benedict Option” is a catch-all term for those who accept MacIntyre’s critique.

And what is that critique? Broadly speaking, MacIntyre says that moral discourse is incoherent today, because the Enlightenment project of grounding moral discourse in Reason acceptable to all has failed. “Reason” is often deployed as a concept that masks will to power. We cannot have a moral community without a shared conception of the Good, one that precedes individual choice. And that is our problem today: in our time, we cannot say in any rational or binding way what is Good, because we do not share the same story. The Good devolves necessarily from what is chosen to the act of choosing itself. But how does one know what to choose? In late modernity, what the self desires is what is right — an incoherent philosophy, and an inconsistent one, but the one that dominates discourse. Modernity has degenerated into this familiar passage from Justice Anthony Kennedy:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Of course Kennedy doesn’t really believe this, because to accept this position fully would require moral anarchy. You may be confident that the kind of people who endorse this view do not extend it, for example, to Christian bakers and florists who wish to withhold their labor from a gay marriage ceremony. But as a general stance toward public and private morality, it perfectly expresses how many contemporary Americans think. If this is true — and more than a few Christians, especially the desperately non-judgmental Millennials — then Christianity cannot help but become Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (a shallow, self-centered form of the faith), which is its last stage before dissolving entirely.

MacIntyre’s argument is vastly more complex than what I’ve presented here, and I don’t believe one needs to comprehend it fully to grasp its thrust for the believing Christian: that Enlightenment liberalism, for all its virtues, has come to a dead end. Its principles are destroying, and have destroyed, the religious, social, and economic bases for a society in which the Christian concept of the Good can be realized. The Enlightenment conception of liberty atomizes everything, and posits as the Good the economically, sexually, and morally autonomous Self.

MacIntyre, on my reading, doesn’t have a real answer to this problem. In the last paragraph of After Virtue, the philosopher suggests that the only way to recover the moral life is to form island communities within the chaotic mainstream, communities where people who believe in the older virtues can live together and practice them. MacIntyre does not specify what these communities should look like, and he certainly doesn’t prescribe monasticism as the cure. After all, we need a “doubtless very different” Benedict. His St. Benedict reference should be read as a call for people of our time to recognize the severity of our condition, and the hopelessness of living virtuously over time while accepting the rules of modernity’s game. There is reason for hope, says MacIntyre, but it is to be found among those who recognize that the contemporary order is opposed to what they believe to be Good, and that maintaining the Good requires them both to quit seeing the Good as the perpetuation of that order, and to construct alternative forms of community that will enable their people to withstand long-term chaos and the inevitable breakdown of the broader order.

St. Benedict, for MacIntyre, is only cited as a symbol of a visionary personality who responded creatively to the crisis of his own time, and without really knowing what he was doing, constructed a form of community that ended up not only surviving the so-called Dark Ages, but ended up serving the greater good over the centuries. It should be pointed out that Benedict did not set out saying, “I’m going to build a monastic order with the goal of saving Christianity from the social and political chaos coming after Rome’s collapse in the West.” He just went out to the woods with the goal of serving God, and gathered around him a like-minded community that wanted to do the same thing. His famous Rule was a guidebook to helping others within his community, and those who would follow him, build the institutions and structures that would help them achieve that goal together.

Again, I believe — and will write — that there are profound lessons that we lay Christians can draw on in our quite different historical circumstances. But that is a secondary meaning of the term “Benedict Option.” (A tertiary meaning is a reference to Pope Benedict XVI, whose diagnosis of our condition is acute, and whose call for Christians to be a “creative minority” within post-Christian civilization is one I endorse). The main meaning of “Benedict Option” has to do with accepting MacIntyre’s critique, and believing that our hope, as Christians living in the post-Christian West, depends on accepting the radical implications of MacIntyre’s diagnosis, and engaging ourselves in the project of building the practices and institutions that will enable ourselves and our descendants to endure and to flourish.

Under the “Benedict Option” concept, then, I can see people like the Catholic agrarians of Clear Creek, Oklahoma, making a decision to live rurally. I can also see people like the Catholics of St. Jerome school in Hyattsville, Maryland, making the decision to reinvigorate a dying parish school, making it into a rigorously and joyfully Catholic community institution. What Opus Dei’s communities do makes sense to me under the Benedict Option, as I conceive of it. The point is not to physically withdraw from the public square — we will more likely find, as Jake Meador points out, that we are pushed out of it as the price of fidelity to the truth — but to focus inwardly on building thicker bonds among our communities, and (again) the habits, customs, practices, and institutions that are capable of withstanding secular liberalism.

A critically important point for American religious conservatives: in MacIntyre’s view, liberalism is not simply what people on the Left espouse, but also what the mainstream Right espouses. Religious conservatives who take the Benedict Option are those who have come to understand that core principles of the GOP, as with the Democratic Party, are incompatible with, and even opposed to, what traditional Christians conceive as the Good. Voting Republican may be a prudent necessity (e.g., to protect religious liberty) but it is only that. Twenty years from now, on the issues that matter most to religious conservatives, the Republican Party will be indistinguishable from today’s Democratic Party. Why? Because the culture is liberal and fast liberalizing.

As Caleb Bernacchio put it to me in conversation yesterday, had the Supreme Court ruled the other way in Obergefell, and said there is not a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, it would not have changed much. There would still be a strong movement for same-sex marriage, and we would eventually have it nationally through legislative means, as opposed to judicial fiat. The principles necessary to believe in SSM would still be powerfully active in our culture, continuing the ongoing dissolution of the Christian meaning of sex, marriage, and gender. This is why I think Marvin Olasky’s concept of the Daniel Option may be necessary, but it’s insufficient. Religious conservatives absolutely have to fight for our right to be left alone, but we cannot keep doing what we’ve been doing for 30 or 40 years, and thinking it’s going to work. We won the politics from 1980 until 2008 (Clinton would not have been possible without a dramatic conservative political shift), but we lost the culture. And so we will keep losing the politics, at least on the issues that concern religious conservatives like Marvin and me.

So, keep voting Republican if you like — I think it’s going to be necessary to have a ghost of a chance at protecting religious liberty — but do not be fooled into believing that all will be well if only we have more Republicans in office. The Republicans may be able to protect religious liberty, but they also promote policies (e.g., economic globalization) that undermine strong communities and stable families.

One more thing, then I’ve got to work on something else. As we were finishing our conversation yesterday, I told Caleb that a well-known professor I’m friends with said that in thinking our way through the Benedict Option, we shouldn’t feel so bound to MacIntyre, because he has not offered any detailed prescription for how to cure what he diagnoses. But his diagnosis is acute and accurate. Caleb, who is a student of MacIntyre’s thought, more or less agreed, and said at this early stage in working out what the Benedict Option can mean to small-o orthodox Christians within our own communities, the great value of MacIntyre is not that he gives us the right answers, but that he makes us ask the right questions — questions that the liberal order, in both its left and right wing versions, dissuades us from asking.

So, we are going to see a proliferation of “options,” and that’s okay by me. Just remember that even though I’m going to make in my book a specifically Benedictine case for the Benedict Option, the term itself is a catch-all for responses based on accepting MacIntyre’s judgment on the dead end of modern moral discourse, and on a determination to act radically to build social and other structures capable of sheltering, preserving, and growing the Christian faith as the broader culture grows more hostile to orthodox Christianity. Call it what you want, but that’s what we share.



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