A Benedict Option Omnibus
Readers, as I’ve said, there has been a tsunami of Benedict Option commentary lately, most of it coming while I was on vacation last week. I’m about to go on a working vacation again next week, and posting will be light. I have a lot of work to do this weekend to prepare for next week’s CIRCE conference in Charleston, so I would like to do a document dump, so to speak, of some of the Benedict Option postings from others that I found interesting. This is going to be very long, so don’t feel obliged to read it all. But if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that you like. There’s some really good stuff in here.
Reader Richao asks some questions that have been on my mind:
What mystifies me about many of Rod’s critics is this: It’s clear that they don’t want us traditional Christians as active participants in the public square – any hints that we’re attempting anything in that direction get us accused of seeking to impose theocracy – but when Rod instead articulates response to this that involves a measured withdrawal and increased attention to the stewardship of our own institutions and families, people complain that it’s nothing more than a petulant desire to take our toys and go home. And here I was thinking that that’s precisely what they want us to do! Why can’t they make up their d–n minds? Other than becoming just like you, other than converting us to holding your enlightened views, how would you suggest that we engage – or not – with culture and politics?
Another question: What so frightens Rod’s critics about a peaceful minority in a changing culture seeking to shore up its traditional beliefs and practices? What Rod is describing will necessarily be a minority movement even among traditional Christians, who are already a minority in the United States. Many of the commenters like to obscure this fact by noting that a large majority of the US population identifies as Christian, but this is simple obfuscation, given the increasing division among those who call themselves Christian, whether it terms of belief or practice.
I suspect if we were a bit more exotic, Rod’s critics would be cheering us on. Last I checked, protecting the rights and preserving the traditions and beliefs of minority groups – whether Tibetans or indigenous or immigrant groups in any number of countries, whether subject to direct government repression or threatened by modernization – was a matter of deep concern to compassionate folks across the political spectrum, but particularly on the left (except, of course, for Christian victims of persecution, who appear to be useful to the left only when pointing out to Western Christians that We Have Nothing to Complain About).
So what gives? Rod is trying to articulate an approach to engagement with modern American culture that will allow us dissenters the ability to preserve values and practices and institutions that we hold dear in the midst of rapid and massive social change. Why does this upset you so? It can’t be the ridiculousness of our religious beliefs, can it? After all, many indigenous peoples live apart from the surrounding culture in part to inculcate in their children religious beliefs that are at least as outlandish as ours, and you don’t object to that, do you? Is it because you think we’re all white, and White People Don’t (Can’t?) Act Like That? Or is it because our national culture is so awesome that you find it facially absurd that we want to withdraw ourselves from it? (Because what does it avail a child if she loves the works of Shakespeare but recognizes neither the glory of One Direction nor the joys of twerking, amen?)
Yes, we understand that keeping our kids in the fold will be hard. But what minority group finds it easy to pass on their beliefs and practices to the next generation? I doubt that many of you would tell the Tibetans – or even immigrants in this country – to give it up their ridiculous religious views or culturally uncomfortable approach to child-rearing and conform to the dominant culture already. In those cases, you might even find it a bit heroic that parents are instilling enough ethnic / religious / cultural pride in their children to empower them to stand up to the dominant culture, even if it costs them in terms of social standing and economic measures of success. But Rod suggests something similar, and the response is utter disbelief, mockery, and (frankly) what appears to be a bit of fear. In other words, the response to Rod’s suggestion is the response of majorities in every nation to non-compliant minorities in their midst – the only difference being that Rod’s critics can see this fear in the reaction of, say, rural Californians to bilingual education in California public schools (I mean, it’s obvious that rural Californians are racists that fear and loathe minorities and immigrants and want to rip up the beautiful tapestry of diversity that is life in modern America, right?), but not in yourselves (I mean, it’s obvious if those wacky traditionalists had any brains, they’d value what you value and they’d be raising their kids to value what you value, because any deviation from those values is a blot on our common culture, right?).
At bottom, I suspect the difference in attitudes is largely a judgment of what kind of life is worth living. Rod’s critics think there’s value in a Native American community maintaining its cultural traditions, in an immigrant community maintaining its linguistic traditions, and in religious minorities (some longstanding, others – such as Muslim immigrants to Europe – relatively recent) maintaining distinct religious traditions. On the other hand, they think the beliefs and practices of traditional Christians valueless. That’s within their rights. But they could do us the favor of having the courage to say so, and then of saying no more, for, if they find our beliefs and practices ridiculous, what more is there for us to say to each other in a conversation devoted to figuring out how to carry these beliefs and practices forward?
All very good points. I would say that 95 percent of this is driven by hatred of orthodox Christianity, straight up. Look at this from Sally Kohn, who a short time ago was singing the gospel of civil discourse, but now? This:
Will anti-gay Christians be politically and socially ostracized? I sure hope so.
What about “anti-gay” Orthodox Jews and Muslims? To post that question is to be naive. This is about hating orthodox Christianity.
Alan Jacobs has an excellent short post on what the Benedict Option could and should be, drawing from the example in Matthew Crawford’s latest book of an organ-makers’ workshop. Alan points out that the artisans profiled by Crawford had to withdraw into a community they created to practice their art. Alan:
But the passage from Crawford encourages us to ask: What do the critics of the (nascent) BenOp mean by “the world”? And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that for them “the world” is inside the Beltway, and in the New York Timesand Washington Post, and on Politico and HuffPost, and the tweetstreams of politicians and policy wonks, and on our biggest TV networks. But I would like to suggest that the building of a healthy society might depend on people who are willing to say that those vast public edifices — some made of stone, some of pixels — are not the world, that the world lies much closer to hand.
To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.” It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.
Alan quotes from an Auden poem some lines that really ought to be at the front of the Benedict Option book:
Let us leave rebellions to the choleric
who enjoy them: to serve as a paradigm
now of what a plausible Future might be
is what we’re here for.
These lines exquisitely articulate the sensibility I think of when I think of the Benedict Option. Do I advocate resistance through public action, including political action, on behalf of religious freedom, at least? Yes. I am not a quietist. But that is not and cannot be the primary motivation for the Benedict Option. For one thing, we are not likely to win. For another, the more important work is to resist by serving as a paradigm of a plausible present and a plausible future. If we lost power in this country — as we largely have — that would be bad, but tolerable. If traditionally religious people substantially lost our freedom in this country, it would be a catastrophe, but not remotely the worst catastrophe from a Christian point of view. If we even lost our lives, that would be a far worse catastrophe, but still not the worst. Losing the faith by apostasizing — now that is the worst possible catastrophe for serious Christians, and it is precisely that fate the Benedict Option seeks to prevent.
To prevent it, we orthodox Christians are going to have become far more serious, committed, and innovative in the face of the world as it is, and as it is rapidly coming to be. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to do this. I think we can and should learn from the past, and learn from what others among us are doing in the present. This is the most realistic way we can resist: by teaching ourselves, our kids, and the world what we are for, not just what we are against, and learning how to live that out joyfully, in our internal exile.
Most of us cannot become monks. We are members of the laity and we have to provide for our families, but that does not mean that we cannot live in a quasi-communal state where we can help one another. This communal state will vary depending on the area you live and the infrastructure in place. This will become essential when people lose jobs for their faith or struggle to make ends meet. This is the call to live in authentic Christian love and community, not as separate people who just happen to come to Mass together each Sunday. Priests and laity need to be involved. In fact, priests will need to take a direct role as spiritual leaders of these communities. Yes, priest are already stretched thin, but as the Church moves to the fringes, the unfortunate by-product will be more people falling away from the Faith. The Church will get smaller for a time.
Many of the people who have already begun living the Benedict Option live in close proximity to their church or even a monastery where they can pray, attend the Liturgy, and live where a religious community is established. Some become Oblates or Lay members, but many do not. Lay Orders are no guarantee of this community either. There must be an intentional establishment and way of life within these communities. A life that is devoted to prayer, work, humility, evangelization, and holiness in a community, rather than solely as individuals or families.
What is certain is that people will need to band together in ways they have never considered before in our lifetime.
Today, like in Roman times, the faith spreads as a result of the encounter with people who live in an unexpected, but attractive way — not as a result of political or military action. The power of the Christian announcement is something capable of renewing man and allowing him to rediscover a fullness of life, independent of favorable or adverse circumstances.
The first converts to Christianity encountered a new humanity that led them to “test everything” from their traditions and “keep what is good.” As a consequence of this radical shift in mindset, they influenced societies and countries, molding their values and norms. However, in the absence of a Christian life where men and women continuously conceive of themselves in relationship with the Father, these norms and values will appear oppressive. Particularly, since the people will no longer see these morals as connected to their personal fulfillment. This is precisely what we are witnessing today.
Therefore, we should not look at the current situation in apocalyptic terms — but as an invitation to examine ourselves critically. If the norms of our society once rooted in Christian tradition are changing, it is because we are proposing a Christianity that has been reduced to another lifestyle choice — where fighting to assert moral values seems to have taken precedence over encountering and following people whose lives are unimaginably purposeful. The legalization of same sex marriage by the Supreme Court shouldn’t be misunderstood as a call to action in defense of Christian values, but a call to conversion, a call to rediscover the method by which Christ conquers the human heart and carries the historically proven capacity to build civilizations.
Father Medina seems to understand that we are not going to reconvert society through propositional and political argument, but by the power of the lives we lead. Where I disagree with him, though I think this is not a serious disagreement, is that conversion is not retreat. It is retreat, though not a fearful one, but a joyful one, a leaving of one world for a better one. I have friends in the CL movement, and in Opus Dei, and though they are all “in the world,” they draw strength to be faithful Christians in the world in part through the faithful orthodox Christian communities of which they are a part. I think of the Catholic movements CL and Opus Dei as examples of the Benedict Option spirit — not something for everybody, and not even for all Catholics, but a way of living out fidelity to orthodox Catholicism joyfully and in community, such that it gives them the grounding in faith and community that they need to thrive in a world that grows ever hostile to their beliefs.
Father Lee Nelson, a pastor and church planter in the Anglican Church of North America, one of the traditionalist breakaway churches from the Episcopal Church, sees classical Anglicanism as an incarnation of the Benedict Option. Excerpt:
The hope of Alasdair MacIntyre at the end of After Virtue is that new Benedictines would construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.” The Benedictine Rule is certainly a starting point for chartering these kinds of communities. Benedict sought to teach those first brothers how to live in community, to cling to their brethren, in a sense, as the means to their own sanctification. As Anglicans, we believe that this can be translated beyond the monastery, particularly to the parish church. But, what happens when Christian community is forced to subsist outside the congregational forms of Christendom? What happens when Christians meet, spontaneously or out of necessity, as naturally in a living room as in a parish church? What happens, when, as is becoming normal today, Christians demand a common life beyond what the parish church can provide?
What is needed is a charter for extra-parochial communities of prayer, life-giving fellowship, and solidarity in the midst of marginalization, a charter for a new rule of life – not for the individual, but for whole multi-generational groupings of Benedictine Option Christians. We need communities oriented towards the pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, communities in which virtue can flourish. Let me put all my cards on the table. I believe that Anglicanism offers just such a charter. We have forms for daily prayer and common intercession, forms for confession, and litanies for ourselves and for the world. We have an emphasis upon the domestic church and family catechesis. We have in our DNA a way for families to join together in their neighborhoods for evening prayer and cookouts, for students to come together for morning prayer and intercession for one another, for baptismal promises to become enfleshed in sacrifice for the sake of our brothers and sisters. In one of the great ironies of Anglicanism, what was intended for the chapel works best in the home! What was intended for the parish church comes to life outside her four walls! Thanks be to God, for we have a goodly heritage.
Dreher’s proposal is complex, but he essentially calls for Christians in pursuit of the moral life to engage in a meaningful withdrawal from secular culture.
While some have termed this the new monasticism, Dreher isn’t necessarily advocating for physical boundaries. But in order to remain a beacon in the rapidly descending cultural darkness, Christians must retreat and rebuild with the ultimate goal of “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.”
To his critics, Dreher’s approach is the pinnacle of pessimism, an acceptance of defeat and little better than surrender. Jesus, some argue, lived among his transgressors.
But as the Pew study on religion reveals, Christianity is suffering from a generational thinning. The faith is diluted as it is passed on to younger people who are deeply attached to the all-too-attractive spoils of modernity.
In a sense, Christians are as guilty as the secularists for not resisting the pull of the temporal world. The Benedict Option is less about setting a moral example for secular culture than it is about reconstituting Christian values and reestablishing religious discipline within communities of believers.
Such a focus will better equip Christians to suffer future persecution that many believe inevitable.
The idea of persecution, soft or hard, strikes many secularists and liberal Christians as absurd. We saw on this blog yesterday from one progressivist reader the rationale they will use to justify what they will do: don’t be silly, nobody is targeting you as Christians; we just expect you to obey the law, and not to be bigots.
And finally, this from a reader in the DC area:
I thought you might enjoy a little analogy to some BenOp discussions:
A: Americans should get more exercise.
B: So what exercise program should they follow?
A: Well, that depends on a lot of factors.
B: So basically you are making an empty claim.
A: I don’t think so. People do need exercise. But not everyone needs exactly the same exercise.
B: Why do you think everyone should become an Olympic athlete?
A: I don’t.
B: You should stop saying everyone should become an Olympic athlete. At the very least, you should first define exercise in a completely unambiguous way.
A: I don’t think it’s possible or necessary for me to do that.
B: So you refuse to respond to criticism!
At a certain point, one begins to wonder whether B is being sincere. There are important questions that need to be raised about the BenOp, but B isn’t contributing to that at all.
You are right about that. The Benedict Option discussion has become so big now that I have decided no longer to publish comments that take random potshots, or that say things like, “I still don’t know what you are talking about” and “So you want to take your football and go home, is that it?” There are plenty of posts archived on this blog in which we talk at length about what we think the Benedict Option is, or might be. If anybody cares to read them, they have the ability to look them up. I’m not wasting any more time answering questions and criticisms I’ve dealt with many times before, or answering questions and criticisms that I don’t think are serious or constructive. By all means criticize; it will help me and readers think more clearly about the Benedict Option. But don’t come here to post the same old stuff and expect me to approve of the comment. I leave you with the words of my spiritual adviser in such matters.
UPDATE: As some of you will already have learned this morning, I really am done posting the same old trolling crap on the Benedict Option from the same people. If you have something critical to say, I welcome it, as long as it’s constructive. But do not waste your time saying the same gripey thing that you’ve said a thousand times, because I’m not going to approve the comment. I’m using this ongoing Benedict Option conversation on this blog to help me think through the book I’m going to write on it. Constructive criticism helps me. Bitching and moaning just bores me.