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David Brooks On The Benedict Option

He calls it 'the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade'
short ben op bloggable cover

Good morning. I was in a car driving from New York City to DC, through snow, slush, and ice. I was supposed to be in Manhattan last night and today, but with the blizzard coming, they ended up hiring a car to drive me to Washington to make doubleplus sure I didn’t miss my Trinity Forum event here on Wednesday night (you can still register here). Got here at 4 am and crashed.[/caption]

Let me draw your attention to a nice piece that my friend David Brooks did on The Benedict Option on today. He calls the book “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That’s good. But he did not like the book, which is not a big surprise. [UPDATE: Actually David *did* like the book, as he emphasized to me in a subsequent e-mail. I regret the error of misinterpretation. — RD] I’d like to address his arguments below.

Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.

The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.

Maybe if I shared Rod’s views on L.G.B.T. issues, I would see the level of threat and darkness he does. But I don’t see it. Over the course of history, American culture has tolerated slavery, sexual brutalism and the genocide of the Native Americans, and now we’re supposed to see 2017 as the year the Dark Ages descended?

But that’s not what my book says! The “Dark Age” is an allusion to the remarks of both Alasdair MacIntyre and Pope Benedict XVI, who likened our own time to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Neither one of them was talking about same-sex marriage. They were talking about the spiritual acedia and social fragmentation overtaking the West. Same-sex marriage is a part of the whole, but is by no means the whole. I thought I was pretty clear about that in The Benedict Option. For Christians, as I attempted to say in the book, the potential for persecution is real, but the far greater threat now is the loss of the faith — and that is not something outsiders are doing to us, but that we are doing to ourselves. 

If the church were in better shape, I would still find the loss of traditional marriage and the dissolution of the family (think Charles Murray’s work, and others) to be important. But the weakness of the church at the present moment, which is amply documented in The Benedict Option, is the book’s central concern. Given that weakness, we remain especially vulnerable to various forces in this post-Christian — and at times anti-Christian — culture.

More Brooks:

Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between L.G.B.T. rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.

Well, yes, in the best of all possible worlds, that would be so. But that’s not the world we live in. ACLU lawyers, gay activists, and others have shown no interest in giving religious institutions that don’t kowtow to the new sexual orthodoxy any breathing room. I have no doubt that there are gays and liberals who would be willing to do this, but they aren’t the ones driving this train: the sore winners are. I don’t think Brooks fully grasps the situation these dissenting Christian institutions face. Just yesterday, for example, a Christian college professor named Heather Peterson wrote that she and her colleagues discuss not if they are going to lose their accreditation over LGBT, but when. These conversations are happening all over Christian academia — and that’s just one area. Christians having these conversations know that they cannot depend on LGBT activists, their allies, and the courts to suddenly develop respect for pluralism, and leave them alone. “Most Americans” aren’t “hellbent on destroying religious institutions,” it is true. But it’s simply naive to believe that the ones who are aren’t the determinative factor in our future.

If Andrew Sullivan were running the show here, I wouldn’t worry so much. He’s not, though.

Anyway, let me repeat: the thrust of the book is not about persecution, but about the loss of Christianity. It’s not a book about how to resist Robespierre as much as it is a book about how to keep your kids and your church from turning into Rachel Held Evans, which would be a precursor to losing the faith entirely.

More Brooks:

My big problem with Rod is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith.

There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.

Well, yeah, I expect most of the readers of The Benedict Option will not be heading for the hills, but will instead continue to live, as I do, in the messy world. We are not all called to be monks or nuns. But the research data are crystal-clear: the Christian faith is declining in a couple of measures. For one, among the Millennials — that is to say, in the next generation — the collapse in religious belief is at a level never before measured in the US. As David Voas and Mark Chaves have shown, are now on the same downward slope first traveled by Europe.

For another, as Christian Smith and his colleagues have amply documented, the content of American Christian belief has degraded sharply from any kind of historical Christian orthodoxy, such that those younger adults who profess Christianity in fact hold to a belief system that is only superficially related to the religion of the Bible, as it has been historically understood. These folks may “have faith in their faith,” but that’s not the same thing as having faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Having faith in faith is the stance of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. To be a serious Christian (or Jew, Muslim, etc.) requires more. Much more.

Brooks again:

The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.

I’m afraid I don’t understand this point. I think he’s saying that we need to have faith in faith. I don’t agree. I believe we need to have faith in Jesus Christ. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that they are “in contact with a transcendent ideal” too, but that weak sauce approach to faith — whatever its form (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) — is not going to withstand the corrosive qualities of modernity. It is not withstanding it.

To be a serious Christian in a post-Christian culture requires one to know what a serious Christian is, and what a serious Christian is not — and then to act accordingly. The Modern Orthodox Jewish friends I have are not hived away into enclaves where they can commune with their simple lives. They live lives of order so that they can be fully, authentically Jewish when they go out into the complex world. I want the same for Christians. I don’t believe that pluralism demands that we water down our beliefs for the sake of comity. True pluralism finds a way for us to coexist even though we have incompatible belief systems.

But if we cannot agree, then so much the worse for pluralism. God doesn’t ask us to be good pluralists. He commands us to be holy. Loving one’s neighbor in a post-Christian nation will require developing pluralistic, tolerant instincts, but in the end, believers have to be faithful to what they have been given, no matter what it costs them. The Benedict Option says, “It’s going to cost you, and cost you a lot. You had better get ready for it.”

The Benedict Option also says, “Even if you don’t personally pay a price for your orthodox Christian faith, you could lose your faith all the same if you don’t develop the practices to embody it and hold on to it in a culture that finds what you believe to be offensive and wrong.”


Rod and I have different views on L.G.B.T. issues. But I think we genuinely respect each other and honor each other’s lives. To me that means the real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

Of course we respect and honor each other. Nothing in this response to David’s column should be read as anything other than respectful disagreement, offered in a spirit of gratitude for his column about my book. But I will close by saying that I don’t grasp David’s point here. In it, I hear an echo of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous remarks in the Casey decision:

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.

That belief is the enemy of true religion. I don’t believe that living in truth requires ordering your life according to a twenty-point program, or anything like that. But it does require believing that there is a transcendent truth with which we must harmonize our lives, then adopting practices that embody submission to that truth. I believe that this transcendent truth, this logos, is a person, Jesus Christ. That particular idea has particular consequences. The Benedict Option is about how to respond as a believer in Jesus Christ amid a culture that once professed belief in him, but no longer does.

In the end, I suppose that people who believe that the Ben Op is too harsh and separatist have to make a case for why a gentler, more winsome, sweet-mystery-of-life approach to living out Christianity is going to do a better job of preserving the faith than a more robust, demanding approach will. Because the faith is declining, both in numbers and in content. This is undeniable.

UPDATE: Reader Edward Hamilton:

I’m a scientist, and persuaded by evidence-based and empirical arguments. Advocates of an abstract preference for optimism (Brooks here, as with James K.A. Smith earlier) need to contend with the complication that the genuinely pluralistic future of their hopes has already been tested under the most favorable possible conditions, and has failed.

The academic world has a centuries-old philosophical pre-commitment to the idea of free inquiry. It has a deep awareness of the way in which ideas have changed over time, due to its constant engagement with intellectual history. It constantly cycles through a community of new members (new students, and new faculty) in a way that should resist calcification into a rigid orthodoxy. Finally, these constantly changing communities are assembled out of of highly intelligent people who profess to dislike dogmatism.

As a whole, would you say academic world looks like the kind of mutually-respectful demilitarized zone that Brooks sees as a plausible alternative to the gloomier Benedict-Option-necessitating future? If not, why would you expect the broader world (with its stark red-blue geographic divides, ascendent fake-news media, and meme-driven electronic social networks) to turn out any better result?

You can play the same thought experiment with religious communities specifically. The most fertile garden for a Brooks-like pluralistic future for religion would presumably arise in a Christian tradition that emphasizes shared worship practice (liturgy, hymnody) over doctrine, has a long history of preferring reason over dogma, and is dominated by a well-educated membership that can engage its own confessional history critically. That describes the 50s-era Protestant mainline almost perfectly, I’d say.

Would you say that prestigious mainline churches like the Episcopal Church USA have turned into model communities for how liberals and conservatives can coexist indefinitely with irenicism and polite disagreement? If not, then when would you expect better results from faiths and denominations that have demanded of their members and enforced consensus on praxis and doctrinal purity rather than a broader ethos of Brooks-like reasonableness?

Or to borrow an ancient metaphor: If they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?

UPDATE.2: Actually David *did* like the book, as he emphasized to me in a subsequent e-mail. I regret the error of misinterpretation.