Declinism & The Benedict Option
A reader passes on this interview with the declinist writer and cultural historian Morris Berman. He references a brief exchange he had with me some years ago, which he humorously misremembers:
SP: Things have changed considerably since you wrote about the “monastic option” in The Twilight of American Culture in 2000. The idea of a “Benedict Option,” also a book of the same name, is now spreading through segments of the Christian community in the United States. What did you have in mind when you first wrote about the “new monastic individual,” and has your thinking changed at all over these last two decades? Though you were speaking in secular terms, what do you make of the religious call to revaluate the culture’s obsession with individualism and materialism?
MB: About a year ago, some minister who has a following based on that call, wrote an article on his blog about how I had come to that same Benedictine conclusion from a secular point of view. He actually thought that I was a socialist, which I suppose is about 10 percent true. He was shocked that someone who was secular could be promoting this idea. I don’t think it matters very much what the spiritual glue of a community is, and I don’t think it necessarily has to be religious. I wrote about the “monastic option” of the fourth century, which was mostly Irish, and certainly was Catholic. The idea is that people disconnect from the larger culture, like the Amish or the Shakers. You pull yourself away from that culture and you create a community in which you preserve the values of Western civilization that you think are important.
I don’t know to what extent this course of action is being pursued in the United States, but I know that people write me about their own attempts to become “new monastic individuals.” You’ve largely given up on the larger culture. You realize that it’s dying, that it’s not preserving the values that are your values, and you want to cultivate those, hopefully, with like-minded individuals. All well and good.
As far as I can see, there are only two ways of escaping the destructive influence of America: one is the option just indicated, that of the new monastic individual. It’s a kind of internal migration. The other option is the one I took, which is to leave America altogether. I still think that’s the best option: just get out. If you don’t get out, then you’re living in a kind of corporate-commercial wraparound 24/7. It makes it extremely hard to live a healthy life, or even to think straight. Myself, I have to admit that I didn’t have the strength to resist the dominant culture. At first I thought I was going to be a lotus in a cesspool, but all that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. So I left, and it was the smartest, happiest, and most significant decision I made in my entire life. Like most Americans, I had been little more than a hamster running on a wheel.
I’m pretty sure Berman is talking about me, though I can’t find our correspondence. I really did think he was a socialist, but can’t remember why. And yes, I was shocked that a secularist was promoting neo-monasticism.
Berman is super-crabby and misanthropic, but I think he’s basically right:
The German historian Oswald Spengler, who wrote The Decline of the West, anticipated me by almost a hundred years. His notion was that what holds any civilization together is a central Idea with a capital I, almost like a Platonic ideal. When people stop believing in that ideal, the culture starts to fall apart. People will try to hold on to the ideal, but it’s just a hollow shell. The internal reality is that the culture is rotting from the inside. I think that pretty much describes the United States today and did when I was writing the Twilight book. We’re just dancing on the edge of the abyss, and trying not to look down.
The modern era in general is a desperate search for meaning, and Nietzsche was right when he said, “God is dead.” Once that happened, it was hard to have a religious belief system. Secular systems arose to fill that emptiness. We had communism, which finally didn’t work out; we had fascism, which rapidly didn’t work out. And then we had consumerism, which, writ large, means capitalism and imperialism–and that is now coming apart. In many ways, that collapse is the story of the 21st century. In 1990 we could look at all of those other systems and say, ha, ha, we are the victors–which is what we said when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was going to be a unipolar world, our formula was the right one. Hurray, we won! The combination of hubris and stupidity was breathtaking. It never occurred to us that the other shoe was about to fall; that the bell was now tolling for us.
I wrote about Berman a few years ago here.
I’ve been blogging a lot in the past couple of weeks about the collapse in moral authority of the Catholic system, under the weight of clerical sins and episcopal cover-ups. Hear me clearly: there is nothing in anything I’ve blogged that denies the truth claims of the Catholic Church, or that tells Catholics that they should leave their Church. As regular readers know, I left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy in 2006, and I do not believe the Catholic Church’s ecclesiological claims for itself. If you believe that Catholicism is true, then you should stay Catholic; if not, not. What I do strongly hope that Catholic readers will do in the face of this ongoing breakdown is to think hard about what the Benedict Option means to them, and then come up with a plan for themselves and their families.
And not just Catholic readers! All of us Christians — Protestants and Orthodox too — have to do this. The old forms are going to be tried severely. We are only at the beginning of the Troubles. Comforting oneself by thinking, “Oh, I’m glad we’re not like the Catholics” is not only uncharitable, but it’s a form of whistling past the graveyard. No church is going to escape unscathed.
Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of Norcia, did not specify to me in 2015 what he was talking about when he said that any Christian who wants to make it through the trials to come will have to do some form of the Benedict Option, but it’s easy to see how these violent moral earthquakes within the Catholic hierarchy could be part of this prophecy. Those whose faith is more or less nominal, or which is built on unquestioning trust in the institutional church, are not going to endure.
A lot of Catholics are really hurt and angry now. Believe me, I get that. But despair — like denial and defensiveness — is a luxury you don’t have. There are constructive things that you can do and must do to strengthen your own faith and your family’s faith in the face of a crisis that is likely to be permanent. I write about them in The Benedict Option. Again: this is not a Catholic crisis, or a Protestant crisis, or an Orthodox crisis. This is a Christian crisis, and a civilizational crisis. Be ready. Time is short.