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Declinism & The Benedict Option

A reader passes on this interview with the declinist writer and cultural historian Morris Berman. [1]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.

Read the whole thing.  [1]

I wrote about Berman a few years ago here. [2]

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. [3]

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.  [3] 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.

58 Comments (Open | Close)

58 Comments To "Declinism & The Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By CatherineNY On July 30, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

“This has always been a popular talking point of intellectually lazy free-market capitalist types, but its, well, intellectual laziness and/or dishonesty is pretty clear when you think about it for a minute.” I thought about it for two minutes, and nope, I don’t see either the laziness or dishonesty. Human beings have organized many different kinds of societies over the millennia. The U.S. model is not perfect, but it is so far superior to that of Mexico that only the willfully blind would deny it. The “open the border and see which way the population flows” test is a practical test, which the U.S. wins pretty consistently. There are exceptions (e.g., Chinese immigrants returning to the PRC as freedoms and economic opportunities expanded there), but not many.

#2 Comment By Jesse On July 30, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

“For that matter, apartheid-era South Africa and modern day Russia were/are popular destinations for immigration as well, and I wouldn’t describe one as having a particularly well functioning social model.”

Well, those countries have or had well functioning social models for immigrants who could afford it.

#3 Comment By oakinhouston On July 30, 2018 @ 1:42 pm


“I think there are many things false and unreliable about orthodox Christianity, but I’ve got to say, I don’t think the historical accounts of the New Testament among them. The historical basis of the Christian faith isn’t “thin”, it’s on the contrary rock-solid. (The theological and moral bases are much, much weaker).”

If the historical basis is the likelihood a historical individual lived in early I Century Roman Judea, we fully agree, that there is a good likelihood he did, and that he preached more or less what the (synoptic) Gospels recount. About the actual miracles, those is more open for interpretation.

#4 Comment By Danelle Kulhmann On July 30, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

Hector St Claire—-total agreement. Dr. Berman is spot on; reality was a tough sell to the vast majority of USA-ers.

#5 Comment By David J. White On July 30, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

quote: “Christianity will be replaced. Of that there is no question. The question is what will replace it. That will not be a bad thing for the people around when it finally happens.”

As our host Rod has remarked, if you hate the Christian Right, you’re *really* going to love the post-Christian Right.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On July 30, 2018 @ 9:11 pm

I zero base the issue. My experience has been our culture which post WW 2 and before was steeped in tradition including which religion you were born into. Mine was the Catholic Religion taught to us as the only real religion. We didn’t question the rules we just followed them. Even we had misgivings . Then came the Boomer generation who question everything and organized Religion was one of the topics. Point is people have been falling away from organized religion for quite some time. I don’t think all the folks I know who have no for the organization are now bad people or have changed their morality.

#7 Comment By Dale McNamee On July 30, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is very descriptive and correct of the situation that we are in as the world grows ever more dark and evil…

Jesus also warned His disciples and future believers of the world situation just before His return…

So, is anyone surprised ?

#8 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On July 31, 2018 @ 1:04 am

Hector_St_Clare says:
As I’ve said often times before, I think war is one area where our “reading of history” is often not a great guide to the present or future. The cost-benefit ratio of international warfare is much greater today than it was in the past, because of the destructive power of modern armament (1939-1945 proved that and then the invention of nuclear weapons just increased the stakes), so I think that everything else we can expect to be wars to be much rarer going forward then they were in the past.

Imperialism will probably continue to be a thing for awhile (our moral instincts haven’t caught up to our rational self interest), and will be pursued through all sorts of coercive means short of war. That’s a really bad thing, but I don’t think war per se is going to be all that common, with the exception of civil wars. And civil wars are exactly the sort of things that cohesive, small, homogeneous “Benedict Option” statelets are meant to prevent.

I suspect that this is an argument that puts too much stock in the rationality of man. I have engaged for some time in the debate as to whether our recent lack of major wars is due to fear of nuclear retaliation/damage incurred versus the cyclical patterns of humanity as those who remember how bad war really is die off (taking either side depending on arguments marshaled). Events of the last few years (in addition to some Dostoevsky reading this evening) are pushing me further and further into the cyclical patterns camp.