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Critics of the Benedict Option

Answering a few common claims of skeptics

While I was away in Italy and France these past nine days, there has been lots of talk, much of it critical, about the Benedict Option. I think I’ll answer these critics by interviewing myself.

OK, remind us: what is the Benedict Option?

It’s my name for an inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture. The name comes from the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic of moral philosophy, After Virtue, in which he described the state of contemporary moral discourse as irresolvably chaotic — irresolvably, because we have no common source of moral behavior anymore, and have decided, as a culture, that moral truth is something one arrives at by feeling. MacIntyre, who was not a Christian when he wrote this, concluded the book as follows:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. 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—often not recognising fully what they were doing—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 [one characterized by moral incoherence and unsettlable moral disputes in the modern world], we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. 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. 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 very different—St. Benedict.

Wait, so you think Christians should go to a monastery?

No, of course not. I want to emphasize the “doubtless very different” phrase in MacIntyre’s passage, because we are not living under early medieval conditions. We need a response suited to our own time. As I read him, MacIntyre was saying that the only way to stand firm against the “barbarians” — people who live by feeling, driven by the passions, not right reason, and with no sense of restraint or obligation beyond satisfying their momentary demands — of our dominant culture is to form stronger, thicker communities based on a commitment to virtue. Again, MacIntyre was not writing as a Christian to other Christians; I am.

What I propose is that we Christians should soberly, but with a sense of urgency, discuss and act to build these communities now, because the power of secular popular culture is dissolving Christianity. Christians, especially in the United States, have been able to live for a long time as if the mainstream culture reinforced what we believe to be true. This hasn’t actually been true for a very long time, but now, nobody can possibly believe that. The Benedict Option is a call for cultural resistance through building endurance and resilience within ourselves, our families, and our communities.

You keep talking about the Benedict Option, but you never say what it is. Give us the formula.

I keep telling you that there is no formula! We are going to have to be experimental, because we have never faced a post-Christian culture. The first point is for Christians to wake up and face reality. There will be no “take back our country” moment, because we have lost, and lost decisively. We are rapidly de-Christianizing. True, we have a long way to go before we get to European rates of secularization and religious indifference, but the trajectory is the same. Rather than change the world, the world is changing the churches. The power of popular culture is overwhelming, and in ways that many Christians scarcely grasp — and this, as MacIntyre says, is part of our predicament.

The early Benedictine monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict, which directed how they were to organize their monastic communities to serve God. Benedict taught that they were to focus on prayer and work, and the common life. The five principles I have discerned from reading the Rule are:

  1. Order
  2. Stability
  3. Discipline
  4. Community
  5. Hospitality

It should go without saying that a method for living out these principles is going to look very different for lay people living in the world than for vowed religious living in single-sex communities behind monastery walls. I think whatever forms the Benedict Option takes, we have to understand that it’s going to be diverse, depending on local needs, and particular religious traditions. How Catholics live it out won’t look exactly like how Southern Baptists live it out. How urban Christians live it out won’t look exactly like how rural Christians live it out. The ultimate goal, though, is developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.

Don’t you understand that Christian self-isolation won’t work? Jesus walked not away from people, but towards them.

I’m not saying Christians should go live in a colony somewhere behind thick walls. For one, the monastic vocation is uncommon. For another, many monks and nuns, though they live monastically, do so to strengthen themselves spiritually for serving the world. And for still another, the idea that you can create utopia on earth is a false and dangerous one.

Characterizing the Benedict Option as a neo-Amish withdrawal from the world is a way of turning its claims into a cartoon so one doesn’t have to deal with them. To be clear, if one feels called to go live in an agrarian Christian community, I certainly don’t object to that in principle. But that’s neither possible nor desirable for most of us, I think — and not necessary. We should be able to adapt the Benedict Option to urban and suburban life.

It does require some sort of meaningful withdrawal, though, in part because, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “In reality, morality is always embedded in a  wider religious context in which it ‘breathes’ and finds its proper environment. Outside this environment, morality cannot breathe; it weakens and then dies.” Go back to the leading church historian Robert Louis Wilken’s 2004 essay in First Things, titled “Church As Culture,” especially these passages:

Talking to the young woman in Erfurt and listening in on the debate about the EU constitution I found myself musing on the future of Christian culture. In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.

Yes, either actively, or passively, by not resisting, or not resisting effectively. More Wilken:

Of course, one might retort that in the United States (unlike in Europe) the churches are flourishing and the number of Christians is growing. [Remember, this was 2004; I don’t know that he could or would make this claim today. — RD] Yes, there are many Christians in the U.S., but can we still claim to be a Christian society? If one uses any measure other than individual adherence (what people say if asked) or even church attendance, it is undeniable that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue. Which leads to a question: Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.

We need not Christianity as the affirmation of certain theological principles, but as those principles deeply imbedded in communal practices. This is something that modern culture works against, at every level, because it restricts our all-holy Choice. Wilken says that we cannot be the Church if we lose our vocabulary and the conceptual framework that makes us Christian. This is precisely the point: we have given ourselves over to a culture that is radically present-oriented, built around the beliefs that there ought to be few limits on human agency and human will. Desire is its own justification. That Christians too often have not resisted modernity and its fruits (hedonism, consumerism, individualism) accounts for the dissolution of Christianity and its reification as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (essentially, the idea that God exists to serve us and to make us feel good about ourselves). More Wilken:

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

Emphasis mine — and in this statement is the answer to the Benedict Option critics who say that we are about nothing but withdrawal. We cannot be what we Christians are called by God to be to the world without undertaking a renewal of our own inner lives. It would be like putting a potted sapling on the front porch in a hurricane, and expecting it to thrive. The Benedictines of the Cluny monastery ended up having a lot to do with the Christianization of Europe because they first built their monastery and nurtured the internal spiritual lives of its monks, and sent them out across Europe to spread the faith by establishing other monasteries. Had there been no monasteries, one wonders if the faith would have survived the storm and stress of the so-called “Dark Ages.”

In our time and place, it is clear that to keep doing what we’re doing, assuming that we can go along to get along, is going to result in the steady erosion of Christianity, especially small-o orthodox Christianity. Look at Europe. We have to try something different, something more radical.

The Benedict Option is not possible. The government will not leave traditional Christians alone. You’re living in a dream world if you think you can get away with this. 

This is a common misunderstanding of the Benedict Option. I do not claim that we should embrace political quietism. We must keep fighting, if only for our right to be left alone. My friend the Catholic law professor Bruce Frohnen writes:

As Dreher openly admits, Christians will be persecuted in a culture such as ours has become—we will lose careers, opportunities, and even our freedom if we step too far out of line with the ruling ideology. But there will be no safe place to reorganize for the future. Should we withdraw we will merely devolve into insular groups, many run by crackpots (there already are too many examples to mention) and most so cut off from one another that they will die out. The faith will not be lost, just as the cause of a Christian society will not be lost, because no cause is ever truly lost. But our duty is not to hope for better days. It is to work for better days in the here and now, including by confronting a political and legal regime increasingly hostile to our faith and way of life.

Dreher surely is correct that faith in the Republican Party has only brought disappointment. Craven congressional leaders would rather temporize with those intent on building a new regime hostile to their own way of life than give up any of their own status and prerogatives; they have shown again and again that they value the power of themselves and their own class more than the dictates of reason and conscience. He also surely is correct that the culture is now openly hostile to Christianity. And this gives us reason to take actions that many might consider to constitute a tactical retreat—e.g., those who have children in public schools should take them out and those with students in parochial schools must be prepared to fight, hard, for their education. But voting, writing, speaking, and marching must continue and increase. The press continues to ignore hundreds of thousands who march for the unborn every year. The answer must be for more of us to march and to stand in solidarity with those whom the new system seeks to ruin financially and spiritually. We may well “lose” in the short run by the standards of this world. But our children and our children´s children need to know that we fought hard, not that we retreated in the face of arrogance and injustice. For we are not fighting for victory in this world, but to witness to the nature and reality of the next.

This is true. I endorse it. There is no necessary contradiction between this and what I think of as the Benedict Option. I would distinguish the Benedict Option from the Christian status quo in a few ways, though.

First, for at least a generation, Christians have thought of themselves and their beliefs as normative in American life and culture. Liberals and secularists, the idea went, were outsiders trying to change America. Broadly speaking, Christians thought that it was sufficient to elect conservative Republicans who would appoint conservative judges, and the culture would take care of itself.

If that was ever true (I don’t think it was), it is certainly not true now. We may have to vote Republican as a matter of self-protection, and for other important reasons (e.g., pro-life), but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is sufficient, or that politics should be the main focus of our efforts. Here’s the political philosopher Claes Ryn, from a 2007 TAC essay on politics and culture:

In the following discussion, American and Western civilization will be described, for brevity’s sake, as torn between traditionalists—those who stress humanity’s dependence on the achievements of previous generations—and radicals—those who turn their backs on history and want to realize visions bearing no resemblance to actual human experience. That this is a simplified picture of our predicament hardly needs saying. Human beings do not fall into neat categories. Also, traditionalists, for example, could not hope to preserve the ancient heritage that they claim to cherish without restating and developing it in new circumstances. Indeed, at a time of profound dislocation, attempts to preserve and protect traditional insights and patterns of life may, to those who embrace dominant beliefs and practices, look like radical departures.

The power that may be ultimately decisive in setting society’s direction is found in what will strike many as an unlikely place, in the arts and humanities broadly understood: in the arts—from dramatists, novelists, and movie-makers to composers and painters —and in academic disciplines—from philosophy, history, and English to politics and psychology. In these fields, trendsetters have long been chipping away at the moral and spiritual core of what can loosely be called traditional Western civilization. Hence the basic orientation of our society. Putatively conservative political victories here and there have made little difference to the fundamental trends of Western society.


Contemporary Western society exhibits deep tensions between what remains of traditional civilization and the spreading counter-culture, which by now has its own traditions. These are tensions not just among people but within particular persons who harbor incompatible dreams and have neurotically divided minds and imaginations. In a crunch, the anti-traditional elites can play upon and mobilize radical prejudices that have gained a foothold within many a self-described conservative.

Conservative intellectuals and activists often have an open or thinly veiled contempt for the arts and humanities. The disdain is only partly due to their thinking that this is where the Left hangs out. Many professed conservatives denigrate the humanities primarily because they believe that they have little practical importance, have little to do with “the real world.” To turn society right, you need to win more elections. They have difficulty understanding why purported political victories are repeatedly nullified, though the values and beliefs of the American people continue to slide in a radical direction.

The greater the conservative neglect of the arts and humanities, the greater the grip of the anti-traditional forces. Conservatives have excused their inattention by telling themselves that the radical dominance of the humanities does not really matter in the long run. Who cares about flaky professors, writers, composers, poets, and artists? What matters is politics and economics. These “realists” do not understand that increasingly politicians and businessmen, as well as the general population, resonate with the sentiments of these “flakes.” Inattention to and disinterest in the humanities reveal a failure to understand what really makes human beings tick. They are themselves signs of precipitous cultural decline.

Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.

What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.

While the so-called Right worried about so-called practical matters, the Left took control of activities that could help refashion society’s imagination. The Left understood the power of directing the mind. Those who wished to dismantle traditional civilization thought and acted strategically and reaped extraordinary advantages. Having managed to dominate the artistic and intellectual life of Western society, they have had little difficulty keeping supposedly conservative political forces on the defensive, even when the latter ostensibly controlled the government. The countercultural forces have kept the Western world at war with itself.

Many conservatives seem to believe that artists and intellectuals are naturally and almost inevitably on the Left. If that were so, all efforts to renew traditional civilization would be condemned to failure. But there is nothing inevitable about the radical dominance of the mind and the imagination; these trends since the Enlightenment are in some respects an historical aberration. The radical mindset was created over many years by committed people. People of equal commitment and creativity could dismantle it over many years by unmasking and replacing it with a deeper, more realistic view of life. Radicalism advanced first and foremost by means of a march through the culture. A renewal of American and Western traditions, if one is still possible, could be effected only by another march through the culture. Such a development would require a surge of inspiration springing not from the political and economic periphery but from the moral-spiritual depths.   

This is what I’m talking about with the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option does not call for either culture or politics. It calls for both culture and politics, but with a much, much heavier emphasis on culture. We can win the politics and still lose the culture — this is exactly what conservatives have done. And if we lose the culture, we will eventually lose the politics too.

In the long run, we’re all dead. No Benedict Option can withstand the determined opposition of the all-powerful modern state. The French Revolution destroyed the great monastery at Cluny, and dispersed its monks. The first lesson of the Middle Ages is never to place your faith in the things that pass. But think of what the Cluniacs achieved in the centuries they were given. And consider that the most powerful, most anti-Christian state in history — the Soviet Union — which undertook persecution to a level that even the Jacobins did not reach, failed to exterminate the Christian faith among the Russian people. They killed most of it, but they did not succeed in killing it entirely. How did Christianity survive atheist materialism in power in Russia? How might it survive consumerist materialism in the West? How should the strategy that allowed Christianity to withstand 1984 inform the strategy that is needed for it so survive Brave New World? How must they differ?

These are questions that Christians urgently need to face right now. As Russell Moore has been saying, we are not living in the New Jerusalem, but as exiles in Babylon. The sooner we figure that out, the better prepared we will be to face the present, and a darker future. As reader James C., with whom I walked through the ruins of Cluny on Sunday, puts it, “If there is no escape, there is always endurance.”

Wait, so you’re saying that all Christians should go to a monastery? Don’t you know what Christian self-isolation won’t work?

Oh Lord, deliver me…