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Benedict Option for Progressives

<– [Note From Rod: Yes, I know that is Shane Claiborne in the main photo. I have tried to fix this a few times, and the software is not letting me. I posted “Shane Claiborne” the very first time, and it indicates on my dashboard “Shane Claiborne.” I know it is Shane Claiborne, and Shane Claiborne I know it is. He is a progressive Christian and a founder of New Monasticism. I apologize for the error, which seems to be unfixable. — RD]

A number of you have forwarded to me today this post from Richard Beck [1], the first of six he promises to do about how the Benedict Option can be embraced by progressive Christians. Excerpts:

Rod is Eastern Orthodox and is a conservative Christian. Consequently, most of the discussion about the Ben Op has been among conservative Christians, from Catholic to Orthodox to evangelical.

But if you look at Rod’s description–the Ben Op as

Richard Beck, from Experimental Theology [2]

Richard Beck, from Experimental Theology [3]

resistance to Empire–there’s a lot in his description that resonates with progressive Christians. For many, resistance to Empire is at the heart of the progressive Christian vision. In fact, progressive Christians would argue that this is exactly the reason that evangelical Christians, in particular, are very poor candidates for the Ben Op.

The reason for this should be obvious. Conservative evangelicals have been some of the biggest religious champions of American Empire. There are no greater advocates of global American military supremacy and free-market capitalism than evangelicals.

Let’s make America great again, amiright?

In short, given their boosterism for American supremacy and exceptionalism it seems that conservative evangelicals are awkward candidates when it comes to creating Ben Op communities, communities that are, in Rod’s definition, “keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the [American] empire represents.”

Ah, but this does not hold if by “Empire” we mean the cultural imperialism of America’s individualism, consumerism, anti-familism, and sexual libertinism. Empire is not only a matter of politics, military, and economics. I would contend that progressive Christianity embraces what I consider to be a form of cultural imperialism, and calls it liberation.

More Richard Beck:

And yet, progressive Christians have their own struggles with the corrosive effects of modernity, capitalism and liberalism. For now, let me mention a few particular struggles.

First, there is often little that is distinctive about progressive Christians when compared to secular, liberal humanists. Let me be clear, as a progressive Christian I think this is a feature rather than a bug. I tend to think that liberal humanism owes its moral vision to Western Christianity. For arguments making that case see, well, see Alasdair MacIntyre’sAfter Virtue. Or Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. So I tend to see liberal humanists as cousins of Christianity rather than as opponents. There’s a family relationship.

And yet, progressive Christians are increasingly vulnerable to the cultural amnesia symptomatic of modernity. Because of this progressive Christians are increasingly embarrassed or defensive about their faith. That, or increasingly filled with doubt about their beliefs. The ranks of progressive Christians are filled with agnostics and atheists.

All that to say, progressive Christians need a Ben Op to recover confidence in the distinctive particularities of the Christian faith. Progressive Christians need the Ben Op to affirm what is unique and distinctive about being a Christian. Morally, spiritually, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously.

There’s more — read the whole thing.  [1] I appreciate Richard Beck’s generous attention to the Ben Op idea, and look forward to his forthcoming posts. About the last passage I quoted, this is why I can’t see the Ben Op ever taking off among progressive Christians, aside from small groups like the New Monastics. That’s because, as Beck says, there is very little difference between secular liberals and religious liberals. The “cultural amnesia” Beck laments is not a bug of progressive Christianity, but a feature, in that progressive Christians do not feel bound by the past, by tradition, or by the exercise of doctrinal authority. How on earth can you have a Benedict Option when the very definition of modernity (of which progressive Christianity is the fullest Christian expression) is the denial that the past has any hold on us?

A few months back, I wrote about Paul Connerton’s book How Societies Remember, and the Benedict Option. [4] Excerpt:

Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.

Note well: this is a problem common to all Americans, and all Christians. There is a “conservative” version and a “liberal” version. The conservative version tends to deny that there’s a problem at all with capitalism (or 100% American values), and is mystified why the faith and its structures keep eroding, except to blame liberal immoralists. The liberal version tends to say that the “problem” is actually a solution, celebrating individualized, relativized morality but failing to recognize how throwing aside traditional moral beliefs, practices, and structures actually accelerates the dominance of capitalism — and, overseas, is the cultural wedge of American and globalist economic and political power.

Put another way, the only way individual liberty can expand is through forgetting, both by conservatives and liberals, of the past and its hold on us. We all believe in “thou shalt not”; it’s a matter of how and where to draw the lines.

Anyway, read Richard Beck. [1] This is going to get interesting.

(Readers, please only join this comments thread if you have something constructive to say, even if critical. No sniping, please.)

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69 Comments To "Benedict Option for Progressives"

#1 Comment By Jon S. On January 5, 2016 @ 10:16 am

Beck has a problem in his interpretation of MacIntyre and Taylor. What both are saying, as I read them, is that Enlightenment humanism tried to save Christian morality without having Christian metaphysics. And I think they both say that this project is a failure. Certainly MacIntyre does.

#2 Comment By SLW On January 5, 2016 @ 10:30 am

I’d love to find a progressive version of the BenOp! I think progressive and conservative BenOp communities would probably have a lot more overlap than conservatives would expect–same results, different reasons.

For example, I’d like to be a member of a community that didn’t treat our daughters’ bodies like sexual commodities. I suspect conservatives would as well (but with different rationale).

#3 Comment By Liam On January 5, 2016 @ 11:35 am

How about a Benedictine and Brandy Option?

#4 Comment By JonF On January 5, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

Re: “Empire” also brings with it culture. Ever talked to anybody from the Muslim world (for example) about what they fear and loathe about the global domination of American popular culture?

Well, it’s true that Empire brings culture in its wake, but if America was not gallivanting around the globe looking for dragons to slay and clients to fit out with short leashes none of it would matter. There are after all more than a couple nations whose cultures are a good deal more libertine than ours, yet one does not notice a great ground swell of hatred for those nations in less swinging places. The medievalist mullahs no doubt tut-tut when they hear of such things, much as their forebears did even in the Middle Ages when Christian morality was considered licentious in Islam, but that’s about it.

#5 Comment By JonF On January 5, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

Re: Theological. That’s how I read it.

Thanks. I think some posters seem to be confusing theology with politics here, assuming that anyone who is not on board with the platform of the Republican Party must be a follower of the Jesus Seminar and Bishop Spong.

#6 Comment By Pastor Brian On January 5, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

Jesus demanded “faith in damnation” as you put it. He spoke quite frequently of hell, and of the very real fact that most people were going there. (Ex Matt 7:13-14)

You are simply adding your small stream to the great cataract of unChristian theological nonsense that has been flowing since the days of Schliermacher.

#7 Comment By Irenist On January 5, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

Mars travels with Venus, and Mammon with Moloch. Just as the GOP at prayer cannot stand against Mars and Mammon, so the Democratic Party at prayer cannot stand against Venus and Moloch. Satan sends twin heresies of right hand and left: the Church catholic and orthodox has ever been precisely the Mystical Body of Christ resisting both alike.

I with progressive and conservative Evangelicals alike great success with any version of the BenOp they pursue. I have no interest in bad-mouthing their chances from the sidelines of a marathon I’m not running. I wish them well. My own Church has enough scandal and sloth to keep a Hercules busy with Augean housecleaning: we’ve neither time nor energy to waste on heckling some other denomination’s BenOps. So the “we can do it, but this other denomination can’t” part of Beck’s planned series doesn’t interest me. Let him get on with his own project, and share what good he finds.

But I do want to put in word for the mainstream Catholic perspective, that combines rooted subsidiarity, radical solidarity, and prophetic witness against the unjust wars of Empire with doctrinal orthodoxy and sexual orthopraxy. The ecology of the Earth is inseparable from the ecology of the family. Solidarity is inseparable from subsidiarity. Opposition to corporate plutocracy is inseparable from frugality, thrift, and simplicity. Opposition to a culture that treats people as disposable fodder for war abroad and as a reserve army of the unemployed at home is inseparable from opposition to treating one’s unmarried peers as a mere talent pool for frivolous flings, and to treating the unborn as disposable fodder for projects of individualist self-actualization.

Yes, Christ passively resisted Caesar. But Caesar’s present American Empire is just the present instantiation of the Trinity’s old Enemy, manifesting as World, Flesh, and Devil. Beck is right to want to oppose the Devil’s military-industrial complex bestriding the world like a colossus. But my hope for success lies with the Church catholic and orthodox that opposes the Devil not only as World, but as Flesh.

Calling conservative Evangelicals capitalist imperialist running dogs, or calling progressive Evangelicals heretical hippie scum, are both dated and pointless invective. Fighting Satan’s Empire isn’t about opposing either capitalist Greed or libertine Lust, murderous drone bombing or equally murderous abortion, but about opposing both.

Whatever–be it of Mars or Venus, Mammon or Moloch–stands against the Kingdom is Empire. The BenOp ought to take a countercultural stance toward the right and left heresies alike of the Devil’s present princely regime in this corrupt-fleshed world.

#8 Comment By Ben On January 5, 2016 @ 3:15 pm

Beck’s second installment deftly handles what I think makes so many people hesitant about the Ben Op.

“This moral sorting of the world into the good and the bad was at the heart of the debate between Jesus’s and the Pharisees’s rival visions of the Ben Op.

The Ben Op of the Pharisees turned inward and involved policing boundaries of moral purity. The Ben Op of Jesus, by contrast, turned outward and violated purity boundaries.”

I keep coming back to TAC to see what Gracy Olmstead, Philip Giraldi and Rod Dreher have to say, but it drives me crazy that most of the day-to-day things Rod has to say are more or less: “Look at these crazy liberals somewhere! Aren’t they disgusting and horrible?!” Obviously there are many, many leftist versions of the same kind of culture war blogs, but hey, this isn’t a comment thread on “Salon.”

The most important part of the Christianity I am a part of is the radical inclusivity Beck talks about. Catholic Workers don’t condemn their “guests” for the addiction, crime and hopelessness that infest life on the street, and churches don’t need to condemn those who disagree, either. We, collectively, can love those in pain, rather than condemn them. Even the famous “social justice warrior” types this blog loves to hate can and should be seen by Christians as children of God who are desperately casting about trying to find values they can cling to in a world that tells us that our values don’t matter and that community is a mirage.

As much as we’ve been over and over it, I just can’t get past the impression of the Ben Op as at least partly a practice of aggressive “othering”, as Beck puts it. Apparently I’m not the only one, and I appreciate Beck putting it in better words.

I don’t know if Rod is planning to respond one-by-one to Beck’s posts or as a whole, but I do look forward to the responses.

#9 Comment By Gene Callahan On January 5, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

@Charles Cosimano: It is really something to, in a single post, first praise moral relativism, and then declare: “These are good things. Power is good in and of itself and anything that increases it is to be celebrated.”

The things YOU think are good are good period, hey?

#10 Comment By Liam On January 5, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

Ben’s comment at 3:15PM is very important for Rod to mull over.

There’s an inherent tension between Christianity and any Christendom-ish project over what a strong identity entails. It’s very easy for the latter to become tribalism, outfitted in vestments, softly lit in beeswax candles and shrouded in incense (these are metaphors, just to be clear). And – even more keenly for Christianity – it’s a very short road from tribalism to predicating the offer of Love on Desert (in its other meaning of the quality of deserving/meriting reward or punishment) – and it’s easy to sort that presumptively based on tribal identity. And that’s something that’s in fundamental conflict with the core of the Paschal Mystery: for all of our individual merits, none of us merit Love. Love is gift.

While as a matter of prudence we might refrain from certain types of assistance that would chiefly enable the recipients to harm themselves, we must be very self-aware of how quickly that can get rationalized in service of other things (especially our own egos or superegos).

#11 Comment By Irenist On January 5, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

@Ben:

Beck’s portrait of the Pharisees as BenOp avant la lettre is the most thought-provoking constructive critique of the BenOp I’ve yet read. Bravo!

However, I think it’s telling that Beck opposes the “radical hospitality” of the Benedictines, or Catholic Workers, or Christ Himself, to the exultantly self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18:9-12. What’s telling is Beck’s omission of Luke 18:13-14, in which the tax collector went home justified because he humbled himself, beating his breast and saying “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Radical hospitality for the sinner cannot include relativism about sin, nor does it substitute for our own repentance of sins. Insular Pharisaism is a danger the BenOp has to guard against. But it won’t do to reject the zealotry of the Jewish “trads” of Antiquity only to fall into the accommodationist relativist semi-pagan Hellenism of the “progressives” of Jewish Antiquity: the early Church of Paul’s era moved beyond the Old Law, but not beyond frank condemnation of sin.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 5, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

Unitarians, originally, were Unitarian Baptists, that is Baptists who did not find the concept of God as Trinity to be either Biblically or theologically sound, or to make any sense in the context of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One could make a good case that their merger with the Universalists was a bad move. But the Unitarians out west tended to talk and think more like universalists than the Unitarians back in New England and the eastern fringes of the midwest, like Ohio.

#13 Comment By CatherineNY On January 5, 2016 @ 6:51 pm

@Eamus Catuli, I see what you are saying here, but I’m afraid that I don’t think you are right: ‘When progressives, and I’m guessing someone like Beck, refers critically to “free-market capitalism,” they’re not talking about the mere possibility of running a business or owning private property. What they have in mind is banksterism, the hundreds of millions in annual bonuses for people who do nothing more productive all day than move numbers around on computer screens, and the destruction of public services (which are another means of freeing people) so that, in the hallowed name of the “free market,” the already very well-off can have their carried-interest loopholes, their ultra-low tax rates, their eighth house and their second yacht — because anything less (as our GOP friends constantly insist) is “an oppressive economic system” by their definition. It’s the free market as Golden Calf, as the received doctrine of the political right, and is itself oppressive inasmuch as it leaves rich and poor alike equally free to sleep under bridges. Ask Pope Francis what he thinks about free-market capitalism in that sense.’ There are plenty of people on the left, in the US and elsewhere, who are hostile to the basic ideas behind a free market. They hate property rights. You could talk to some of my brave (and poor) free market friends in developing countries run by socialist kleptocratic goons, and they could tell you more. I don’t think Pope Francis is to be numbered among these enemies of economic freedom. I think he, quite properly, focuses on warning us against the banksterism and other forms of economic sin you mention. Capitalism itself is not a unified system like communism or fascism. There is no particular nationalistic or ideological or cultural belief that is necessarily attached to capitalism. It is a way of generating economic activity, and it is the one that has worked best to improve the living standards of the greatest number of people. The Chinese have figured this out, after a very dire experiment with a different way of organizing things. You can use the wealth generated by capitalism in any way you want — build a cathedral, endow a hospital, buy yourself a lot of cars. If you are worried about people doing the wrong stuff with that wealth, focus on making sure that they know they story of the Rich Young Man. Don’t assume that changing the economic system will suddenly make them religious.

#14 Comment By Eamus Catuli On January 5, 2016 @ 9:49 pm

@CatherineNY:

There is no particular nationalistic or ideological or cultural belief that is necessarily attached to capitalism. It is a way of generating economic activity, and it is the one that has worked best to improve the living standards of the greatest number of people.

I don’t disagree with this; I was just telling you what I believe Beck had in mind, based on my experience listening to and reading many left critics and critiques over the years, and how therefore I think you were misunderstanding him. When he refers negatively to “free-market capitalism” he’s not calling for the US to be a socialist kleptocracy, he’s referring to the collection of policies that GOP politicians defend under that banner. They’re misapplying the phrase, of course, but that’s what they call defending to the death the big-money players, their ultra-low tax rates and their alleged rights not to be regulated, to spend unlimited amounts buying politicians and legislation favorable to themselves, and basically to be laws unto themselves. Beck is just speaking within the established terms of contemporary American political debate.

#15 Comment By CatherineNY On January 6, 2016 @ 8:25 am

@Eamus Catuli, thanks for this new post. As for this: “defending to the death the big-money players, their ultra-low tax rates and their alleged rights not to be regulated, to spend unlimited amounts buying politicians and legislation favorable to themselves, and basically to be laws unto themselves” — I hate all this too, so there really is some common ground with progressives! I just finished watching all three seasons of “Borgen,” the brilliant Danish political drama. It is available on DVD in the US. I got seasons two and three from my local library. What it shows is that one thing I generally dislike about European politics — the multiple small parties, and the strange coalitions — can actually sometimes lead to results superior to those in our own binary system. Right now, we have two parties who are dedicated to endless war, and who are corrupted by big money from bad players. Mixing things up a bit, a la Europe, might do some good. On the other hand, Europe has economic and cultural problems I would not want to live with. Thank goodness we have this blog to discuss things on.

#16 Comment By Eamus Catuli On January 6, 2016 @ 11:13 am

@CatherineNY, I’ve heard other good things about Borgen and have been meaning to get to it, so thanks for the reminder. As it happens, I have a good friend of 30 years who spent 18 of those years serving as a Labour member of the British House of Commons. I worked on his election campaigns and, one summer, in his Parliamentary office. He and I have sometimes debated the relative virtues of parliamentary versus US-style political systems. Intriguingly, he usually defends the US system, on balance, whereas I prefer parliamentary systems (which, granted, work a bit differently in the UK than on the Continent, or at least have up until now). I think there’s more accountability when one party or coalition can actually enact its agenda, for good or ill, and then let the people judge, as opposed to this mashup the US system gives us where the ultimate policy outcomes are often no party’s or politician’s actual intention and everybody can point fingers endlessly at everybody else.

Whether the ultimate outcomes are better, overall, is hard to say, because there are cultural differences that make US and European politics different and that would still exist even if they somehow switched political systems. Anyway, I will be interested to see how Borgen addresses all this.

#17 Comment By Ben On January 6, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

Irenist, I am very much on board with both your commentary about the idols/devils we worship and the importance of recognizing sin. Thank you for adding that important point.

I do think that the area of recognizing sin and encouraging repentance is a major, major area of contention among contemporary Christians. As an example, many people in my congregation are in committed, long-term homosexual relationships, which represent possibly the most severe apostasy Ben Op folks seem to fear. We are part of a larger denomination, so those folks aren’t as accepted as they could be, but we regularly butt heads with the hierarchy over who is allowed to preach, who can be married in our church, etc. On the other hand, we have deeply dug in our heels at times against anything even approaching gambling, because the working poor in our community are so routinely taken advantage of by those priests of Mammon, casino operators. Obviously not the same concerns as some other churches.

The fight about gambling in particular has helped me to realize something important: sinners don’t need to be told they’re sinning. We know we are sinning. Sin feels wrong and unfulfilling and like a waste of the gift God gave us, life. Most of us know when we are turning our backs on God, and the Church needs to be there to support us to we make a change, not to track us down and scream at us to repent. That humility and openness characterizes the community I’m now a part of, but it might repulse some other Christians. I’d venture a guess that most of the adherents of the Ben Op would point to our congregation as exemplary of one of the major problems with American Christianity.

So I’d like to propose that we, collectively, strive to think of a Benedict Option not as a chance to enforce our ideas of the Right Rules (literally, orthodoxy) within a community, but as a chance to create communities where we feel free to receive the gift of grace and repent of our sins.

It’s much more difficult to accept the Holy Spirit at work and seek to be a part of it than it is to draft a list of rules, but that is what our Lord modeled for us. I could go on and on about this (and regularly do, every Sunday before worship), but I hope this is somewhat helpful to understand why many liberal Christians are wary of forming up under the umbrella of “small-o orthodoxy.”

#18 Comment By CatherineNY On January 6, 2016 @ 2:15 pm

By the way, here are some statistics that just popped up on my Facebook page that support my point about global free trade and free markets generally raising standards of living all over the place: [5]

Now we’ve just got to stop trying to kill one another.

#19 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 6, 2016 @ 9:18 pm

Both photos are still captioned “Richard Beck.”

[NFR: And it still remains true, as I explained the other day, that for some reason, I can’t fix it. The repairs don’t take. Let’s move on, shall we? — RD]