Benedict Option: ‘Dark Mountain’ For Christians?
Via The Browser, Peter Ross of the Boston Review has an interview with Paul Kingsnorth, the co-ounder of a dystopian movement called the Dark Mountain Project. It’s not a political or religious thing; it’s a group of artists, writers, and thinkers who are focused on ecology, and who believe that civilization as we know it is unraveling, and can’t be stopped. From its website:
It might also be useful to explain what Dark Mountain is not. It is not a campaign. It is not an activist project. It does not seek to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change. Rather, it is a creative space in which people can come to terms with the unravelling of much of the world we have all taken for granted, and engage in a conversation about what the future is likely to hold, without any need for pretence or denial.
Peter Ross describes the Dark Mountain vision as the belief “that it is too late to save the world, but you can care for one small part of it, enriching both the land and your own life in the process.” Here are excerpts from the interview:
PK: My writing is also increasingly religious, or spiritual, although “spiritual” is such a horrible New Age word. I am a Zen Buddhist, but that’s not exactly a religion, it’s more a practice. As I get older, the spiritual mystery of life seems to be coming to the fore. It’s right there in Beast, which is a religious book, a quest book. It’s all the way through The Wake as well. I have a strong sense that the earth is alive. I’ve always had this. I remember reading Wordsworth when I was fifteen or sixteen and being really struck by the fact that he was talking about experiences that I had had—when you are up on a mountain and the world opens itself up to you. All the time when I was young, I felt there were mysterious things going on in nature. I believed in fairies and magic and all that. Then you grow up and put all that to one side, but it feels like it’s coming back into my writing as I get older. One of the disastrous stories our culture tells itself is that the world is a machine, and that you can cut it into bits and look at how it works. But it’s not a machine, it’s a great web of life with a strange religious mystery bubbling underneath.
Yes, exactly. For traditional Christians, the world is charged with the presence of God, who, in the Orthodox prayer, “is everywhere present and filling all things.” This is what all Christians believed until the modern period, which disenchanted the world. If Christianity is going to survive this, it has to regain the older Christian vision.
This is not some woo-woo, superstitious New Age thing. This was Christianity before the modern era. Here is a link to Episode 1 of Tudor Monastery Farm, a British reality series (in six hourlong episode, as I recall) that explores various aspects of daily life for people who worked on a monastery farm in the year 1500. In this post, I talk in detail about how the series reveals the sacramental vision that held medieval society together, and what it has to do with the Benedict Option. (That post will explain why Kingsnorth’s words above resonate, or should resonate, with traditional Christians.) I strongly recommend watching the series — it’s great to watch with kids. Not boring at all — quite the opposite, actually. Great to watch with the kids.
OK, more Kingsnorth:
PK: … One of the problems with the green movement is that it is constantly issuing deadlines: “We’ve only got five years to save the world!” I read Naomi Klein’s book on climate change a while back, and I found it ludicrous and dishonest. There’s plenty of good research in there about how the corporations are refusing to act and are covering up what needs to be done, but then she says that we have to have radical change in ten years and provides an enormous list of impossible global tasks. She’s a smart woman and she knows damn well none of that is going to happen.
PR: How did it feel when you accepted the end of the world? Relief or despair?
PK: I’d make an important distinction between “the end of the world” and the end of the way we’re living now; it’s the latter that’s ending. What do I feel about that? Kind of both. More relief, actually. There’s a common notion among activists that “taking action” must be inherently hopeful. If you’re going on demonstrations or working to stop climate change then that’s a hopeful or optimistic thing. But after a while, when people realize they are banging their heads against a brick wall, this kind of campaigning leads to despair. What I found when I said, “You know what? This isn’t going to work,” was that a great weight lifted off my shoulders. I’ve stopped pretending that the impossible is possible.
People often call me dystopian. They think, “This guy says the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do, so we should all have a party.” I like a party as much as the next man, but that’s not the point I’m making. I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, global governance. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? Dark Mountain starts with those questions.
Yes, this is very similar to the Benedict Option vision. As I write in the book:
We Christians in the West are facing our own thousand-year flood—or if you believe Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a fifteen-hundred-year flood: in 2012, the then-pontiff said that the spiritual crisis overtaking the West is the most serious since the fall of the Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century. The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America. 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. For a long time we have downplayed or ignored the signs. Now the floodwaters are upon us—and we are not prepared.
So, to restate this in a Kingsnorthian way, I’m saying we should be honest about what’s happening and not entertain fantasies about how we can turn it around with, for example, winning political power or by repackaging our evangelical message. How does that focus your mind? Where does that leave you? What do you do? The Benedict Option starts with those questions.
To be clear, Kingsnorth is focused on environmentalism and global system collapse. I am focused on Christianity in the West. But there are parallels. More:
PR: Is there a survivalist aspect to the way you are trying to live? Are you trying to learn to survive the catastrophe you predict coming?
PK: I wouldn’t call it survivalism. That conjures up images of men with guns in shacks. I’m not expecting some nuclear war or apocalyptic zombie catastrophe, but there is certainly a slow grinding collapse going on. So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.
This is important. I want my children to know traditional Orthodox Christianity, to know what the prayers are, and what they mean. To know how to do things that our Christian ancestors knew how to do. To see the world with the same vision, and not the corrupted vision of desacralized modernity. It’s an insurance policy, but it’s also just a way of living. And yes, you actually have to enjoy it — which we do!
One more bit:
PR: In an essay published the day before the U.S. election, you likened Hillary Clinton to a corrupt late Roman emperor and Donald Trump to a barbarian hammering at the gates. If you had a vote, would you have cast it for the emperor or the barbarian?
PK: I don’t think I’d have voted for either of them. I would certainly not have voted for Clinton as she was just the continuation of a dead system. I kind of like the chaos energy that Trump is bringing, but I’m not sure I could have brought myself to vote for him. I’ve waited my whole life to see what is effectively an independent candidate in the White House, a guy who is going to take on the media establishment and global free trade and the authoritarian left and stand up for the working class, and it’s just a shame that it had to be Donald Trump. Those are the things he says he is going to do, but I’m not sure he is capable, and a lot of what he stands for I dislike intensely, especially his cowboy attitude to nature.
PR: On the day that you and I confirmed this interview, Trump signed executive orders to allow construction of the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Surely you can’t favor that?
PK: Of course not. But what you see with Trump is American capitalism with its mask off. Obama talked a great game about climate change, but he never did anything. He was so charming that he could drone-bomb people every day for eight years and the media who are now calling Trump a fascist wouldn’t say anything about it. Trump is a barbarian, but barbarians are what you get when empires collapse, and the United States is obviously a collapsing empire.
Read the whole thing. I think a lot of conservative Christians, like environmentalists re: Dark Mountain, believe that to accept the Benedict Option is an act of surrender and despair. I do not, not at all. It is hopeful because it is realistic, and bases its real hope in eternity. It accepts that for whatever reasons, it is highly unlikely that we are going to stop the collapse of Christian belief in the West — so we should do what is necessary to stay faithful and steady through it, and to ride it out so as to preserve the spiritual and cultural seeds for the rebirth. Again: it’s not the end of THE world, but it’s the end of A world, and those who want to survive it and to thrive in the midst of it had better wake up and change their lives. If you read the interview, you’ll learn about how Kingsnorth and his wife live on a patch of green ground in Ireland, and homeschool their kids. They don’t sound like unhappy preppers at all.
You may disagree with all of this, and if so, read The Benedict Option and let’s have that discussion in our churches and families and small groups.