Home/Rod Dreher/‘Despair,’ ‘Alarmism,’ & the Benedict Option

‘Despair,’ ‘Alarmism,’ & the Benedict Option

St. Benedict and his church, in the piazza of Norcia, February 2016 (Photo by Rod Dreher)

My friend the philosopher James K.A. Smith gave a talk the other day at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Faith Angle Forum. In the Q&A, the Benedict Option came up. Here’s a link to the audio clip. The Ben Op discussion comes up at shortly past the 20 minute mark.

When someone in the audience asked Jamie (as his friends call him) to comment on the Benedict Option, he asked to go off the record because he’s a friend of mine. Someone — Mike Cromartie, I’m guessing — said no, keep it on the record, because “he can handle it.”

Of course I can handle it! I thrive on honest, genuine criticism. It helps me hone my own thinking. But I think Jamie gets some basic things wrong.

Jamie begins by saying that the Benedict Option is often misunderstood, but then goes on to add to that misunderstanding. I can’t really blame him for that. Until I publish the book (Spring 2017, if you’re waiting), it’s going to be impossible to have a well-informed discussion about the Ben Op. I can’t expect a busy philosophy professor to keep up with everything I’ve written about it on this blog. But let me clear up some misperceptions.

Jamie says that the Benedict Option is “clearly catalyzed” by the Obergefell decision, “which is one of the reasons why I feel like it’s suspect. … There’s a certain reactionariness about it that I find narrow and uninteresting.”

Well, let’s stop right there. I didn’t start talking about this stuff after Obergefell. I’ve been talking about the Benedict Option for at least 10 years. It’s in my book Crunchy Cons, which came out in 2006. And I have said over and over on this blog that the Benedict Option would be urgently necessary for Christians even if there were no such thing as gay marriage. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote After Virtue in 1981, decades before there was any serious talk about same-sex marriage. The Ben Op community in Italy that I visited recently, and wrote about here, had its beginnings in the early 1990s. They’ve been going strong for a long time, and were not catalyzed by gay marriage (which only very recently — as in three weeks ago –came to Italy in the form of same-sex unions.) People who reduce the Benedict Option to a reactionary response to Obergefell are simply wrong.

In fact, Jamie was present in September 2014 when I gave this paper at a small gathering at First Things magazine. Follow the link to the version that appeared a year ago in the magazine. It’s mostly about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and the need for the Ben Op to hold on to what Christianity actually is, in a culture that is colonizing orthodox Christianity and destroying it. I wrote:

You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is definitely interested in you. Christian Smith’s research leads us to the indisputable conclusion that for at least two generations, American Christianity has mounted no sustained, substantive challenge to the ongoing cultural revolution now blessed by MTD.

True, the more vigorous, engaged sectors of American Christianity—Evangelicals and orthodox Roman Catholics—produced more Republican voters, at least for a while, but that’s not the same thing as standing athwart the cultural revolution yelling, “Stop!” In fact, insofar as those Christian voters allowed Republican ideas about freedom and the primacy of the individual to dominate their thinking about the relationship of Christ to culture, they have been part of the problem.

Smith’s research reveals that our Christian institutions—churches, schools, colleges—have collaborated in the death of Christian culture in our country. I do not accept the easy blame-shifting to institutions alone, though. Too many Christian clerics and educators, within churches as well as church institutions, have told me how much resistance they get from parents when they try to teach a more vigorous, theologically substantive form of the faith.

If by “Christianity” we mean the philosophical and cultural framework setting the broad terms for engagement in American public life, Christianity is dead, and we Christians have killed it. We have allowed our children to be catechized by the culture and have produced an anesthetizing religion suited for little more than being a chaplaincy to the liberal individualistic order.

As Michael Hanby recognizes, gay marriage has been a watershed in this regard, revealing how far we have fallen from any kind of recognizable Christian orthodoxy about what it means to be a person.

Read Michael Hanby’s paper — which my paper was a response to, and George Weigel’s paper — to understand more. Gay marriage is not the catalyst, but rather a condensed symbol of the collapse of the Christian moral order. This is not nothing! In fact, the perpetual optimism of many conservative Christians drives me crazy, because they seem to believe that Something Will Turn Up. I think, frankly, that it’s a failure of imagination.

No kidding, as I was writing this post, I had a text conversation with a friend who teaches in a Christian school, and lives every single day with the younger generation. I mentioned to him what I was working on tonight, and he said, with reference to this kind of optimism, “Heads are in the sand. The Boomers went back to church, sort of, after they had kids. My generation, not so much. The next generation? Hell no. We are living at the draw down, I think. I don’t know how they can keep up their optimism.”

Me neither. Jamie said, in his remarks:

“I think if you actually have the long history in perspective — I spend most of my time reading St. Augustine in the fifth century, and nothing surprises me. Nothing surprises me today. I don’t feel that oh my God, the sky is falling because the Supreme Court decision or something like that.”

Well, hang on. There’s a reason why Obergefell — actually, the Indiana RFRA fight a few months before it — was such a Waterloo for religious and cultural conservatives. For one, read the “condensed symbol” link above. Second, read Prof. Kingsfield’s post-Indiana interview here.  The Indiana RFRA loss was huge because for the first time, Big Business took a side in the culture war — and demolished the socially conservative position. Now you cannot expect the GOP at the national level to defend religious liberty, if only because it offends the business community and the GOP donors. Again: this is not nothing! 

Second, because of the way civil rights laws work in the US, the Obergefell decision means that orthodox Christian institutions — such as the college where Jamie Smith teaches — are going to face profound challenges to their ability to function. Just last week, a coalition of 80 LGBT activist groups petitioned the NCAA to kick out Christian colleges seeking Title IX exemptions from new federal requirements granting transgender students protection. Christian colleges who don’t share the emerging orthodoxy on LGBT may well find themselves having to choose between their athletic programs and their faith. There are many other religious liberty issues that are no longer going to be theoretical.

We are talking about the freedom of religious colleges and other institutions to run themselves according to their own understanding of moral truth. In what sense is the sky not falling for those institutions? What’s more, mores are changing within churches, religious communities, and religious institutions, such that orthodox Christians are finding themselves marginalized as bigots because they adhere to the traditional belief.

This is not nothing.

Nor is it nothing that so many Millennials are discarding the faith, becoming Nones. In that same First Things colloquium Jamie and I attended, Russ Hittinger observed that there was a palpable divide in the room between older Catholics (like George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, and himself) and the younger Catholic college professors. The older ones, who had been raised on John Courtney Murray, still believed that it was possible to integrate orthodox Christianity and the American order. There seemed to be real doubt among the younger professors. If my memory serves, the source of that doubt was the profound loss of Catholic consciousness and basic knowledge among the young. They know little or nothing about what the Catholic faith teaches and expects of them. These kids have been failed by their families, by their churches, and by their schools. Sociologist Christian Smith — the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism guy — wrote a book about this, too. Here are excerpts from a review in Books & Culture:

Disagreement with the Church’s most controversial moral teachings is also common: 33 percent of young Catholics consider abortion OK for any reason, 43 percent consider homosexual sex not wrong at all (one of few numbers that has changed markedly), and more than 90 percent reject the Church’s ban on premarital sex. As the authors conclude, “whatever religious decline that may have happened must have taken place before the 1970s,” most likely during the upheaval following the Second Vatican Council and the 1968 release ofHumanae Vitae, the encyclical reiterating the Church’s longstanding ban on artificial birth control.

Since that time, Catholics’ religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don’t need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it’s OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.


Smith and his coauthors set out to analyze, not to advise, the Church, but Catholic priests, educators, and parents who care about young people’s faith can draw many lessons from their findings. First, parents and other older adults with strong ties to teens and emerging adults have enormous influence over their faith—probably more than they realize—and should act accordingly. Without close relationships to practicing Catholic adults, typically their parents, Catholic teens are extremely unlikely to remain or become devoted Catholics as young adults. In addition, having just one Catholic parent (typically the mother) is not enough. Having “a committed Catholic father seems to be a necessary [but not sufficient] condition” for young Catholics to remain actively Catholic as adults. Growing up with a devout mom and a skeptical dad may contribute to some young men’s belief that faith is something “feminine, and thus to be kept at a distance.”

Second, for young people to maintain their faith into adulthood, they must find their faith important in daily life and internalize Catholic doctrines—processes that are guided, again, by parents, other relatives, and role models. Youth group leaders and Catholic school teachers could also contribute to this formation. Third, religious practices such as attending Mass, reading the Bible, and praying regularly exert a strong influence on teens’ future religiosity. Once more, parents and other adults can model these practices themselves and urge young people to do the same.

I’ll come back to that last section in a second. Let me say that while the worst stories about falling away from faith I hear come from Catholics, I have heard similar things said by professors at Evangelical colleges, though the collapse does not seem to be as profound. I could be wrong, and I welcome correction if I am. I would remind you, though, that the initial MTD findings of Smith and his colleague Melinda Lundquist Denton found that MTD is the baseline religion of all American teenagers — even Evangelicals, though Evangelical teens were significantly more orthodox than Mainline Protestants or Catholics. And that MTD study came out in 2005, based on research that had been completed earlier that decade. That was over 10 years ago. I am unaware of any research showing that the trends it documented have been arrested. According to 2015 Pew data, 51 percent of Millennial Evangelicals accept same-sex marriage — a fact that means a lot in terms of what this says about their view of 1) the authority of Scripture, 2) what marriage is, 3) what sex is for, and most profoundly, 4) what it means to be a person.

This is not nothing.

Jamie describes the Ben Op, accurately, as being

“about prioritizing an intentionality — within Christian communities, in this case –to be much more intentional about formation, and so on, and less confident that they will be able to steer, shape, and dominate wider culture. … It’s actually a refusal of the culture wars, as well.”

True. We’ve lost the culture war. Time to figure out how to live and thrive under occupation without being assimilated.

Jamie also says:

“It also comes off as alarmist and despairing in ways I find completely unhelpful.”

Well, I’d like to know more about this conclusion. Why is he not alarmed? And very much to the contrary of “despairing,” I think the Benedict Option offers realistic hope for us Christians. It’s the end of a world for us, but not the end of the world. Anybody who thinks the Ben Op is despairing should go spend time with the Ben Op folks in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. They are completely undeceived about the nature of the times, the challenges facing orthodox Christians, and the necessity of a radical response. But they are happy — joyful, even — and confidently countercultural.

We need to be like them!

I can’t read Jamie’s mind, so I’m genuinely interested in learning why the Ben Op is “completely unhelpful.” Unhelpful to what? How is it unhelpful?

He continues:

“What Rod is advocating as this new thing we should be doing just sounds like what the church was always supposed to be doing. It comes a little bit across as here’s the next great thing, but it’s only because we failed to do what we’re supposed to be doing.”

I agree, and have written exactly that thing on this site. The Ben Op is about the church re-learning how to be the church in a time of chaos and collapse. Jamie talks about how reading Augustine, who was writing amid the slow-motion collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and the sense of deep order and certainty that went with it, keeps him from being too surprised by what’s happening today. Augustine died in the year 430. Benedict of Nursia was born in 485, after the Empire had formally, and finally, fallen (476). The Rule of St. Benedict was Benedict’s plan for how monks — not laypeople, monks — should live faithfully, come what may. To make the point clear: Benedict responded to the collapse that Augustine witnessed, and because Benedict responded as he did — by writing his Rule, and by seeding communities that, over the centuries to come, preserved the faith and evangelized throughout western Europe — Benedict’s fidelity made the Christianization, and re-Christianization, of Europe possible.

The faith in the West didn’t survive on its own, post-Augustine. It survived because men and women did some things and not other things. It’s that way with us too. Doing the thing that stand a chance to make us resilient begins with a recognition of how serious the situation is. In Norcia a couple of weeks ago, Father Cassian, the prior of the monastery, told me that we in the West are very much like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. We don’t recognize how much trouble we’re in, and it’s going to destroy us precisely because our quietism is irrational in the face of the challenge.

Though it was meant for monks, there is a lot of spiritual wisdom in the Rule that we lay Christians — Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox — can draw from it. One of the key insights — and this is where it overlaps with Jamie Smith’s work — is on the critical importance of practices in forming the Christian conscience, especially amid a broader culture whose practices and ways of construing the world are counter-Christian. The Benedict Option project, as I see it, is about building (or revitalizing) communities and structures of hope in which Christians can be formed in the orthodox faith in a culture whose communities and structures are increasingly antithetical to the practice of that faith, or even its remembrance. We can only remember who we are and what we must do if we do so in community. That is one of the lessons of the Rule. I refer you once again to the seminal 2004 First Things essay by church historian Robert Louis Wilken, in which he describes the church as a culture that forms its people. Wilken says:

In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.

He goes on to say about the early Christians in the Roman catacombs (keep in mind that Wilken is one of the nation’s top historians of the early Church):

Significantly, Christian culture first takes material shape in connection with caring for and remembering the dead. Memory, especially of the faithful departed, is a defining mark of Christian identity. The living joined their prayers with the saints’ prayers, which, according to the book of Revelation, were “golden bowls full of incense.” In organizing the community to construct a burial place and in decorating it with pictures depicting biblical stories, Christians were fashioning a communal public identity that would endure over the generations. As the Apostles’ Creed has it (in its earliest meaning), “I believe in communion with the saints.” Their aim was not to communicate the gospel to an alien culture but to nurture the Church’s inner life.

This is where we are today: in desperate need of nurturing the Church’s inner life. In fact, Wilken says:

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

This is where we are fast heading today. I simply do not understand the failure of Christians to be alarmed by what’s happening, and the speed with which it’s happening.

Here’s a short passage from that essay in which Wilken brings up Augustine:

In his magisterial Saint Augustin et la fin de la culture antique, historian Henri Marrou describes the grammatical and rhetorical milieu in which Augustine was educated in the Roman Empire of the late fourth century; he reports that in Augustine’s day educated Christians were the beneficiaries of an educational system that had been in place for hundreds of years. When Augustine wrote his treatise On Christian Doctrine (an essay on interpreting and expounding the Scriptures), he could assume that his readers knew Latin grammar and the standard rhetorical techniques.

But a hundred years later such knowledge could no longer be taken for granted. [Emphasis mine — RD] Few cities could any longer meet the expense of paying teachers and maintaining schools. Beginning in the sixth century a number of distinguished educators emerged in the Church, persons such as Boethius, Cassiodorus, Benedict of Nursia, Isidore of Seville, and the Venerable Bede. Their task was not, as Augustine’s had been, to transform what had been received; it was, rather, to preserve and transmit what was being forgotten or to translate what could no longer be read. [Emphasis mine — RD].

There is the difference. At the First Things meeting at which Jamie and I were among the few non-Catholics in attendance, the gap between the older Catholics and the younger ones centered around the effect of the post-1960s collapse in American Catholic life. Young Catholics today can no longer remember what it is to be authentically Catholic, and cannot even “read” the past to grasp how far they’ve diverged from orthodoxy. And it is the same with the rest of us Christians in these post-Christian times.

Jamie told the EPPC audience that it’s odd for him to hear me keep saying that I draw on his work to articulate the Benedict Option — I do; his forthcoming book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is fantastic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for people interested in the Ben Op — because the Benedict Option “comes with a grumpy alarmist despair that I don’t want to be associated with.”

OK, that’s fine. Don’t associate Jamie Smith with the Benedict Option. Don’t misread me here: I don’t say that in a bitter tone, but rather in an informational one. It’s not fair to hold him responsible for how I interpret his work. There will no doubt be people who take my Benedict Option book, when it comes out, and put it to use in ways that I don’t want to be associated with. It’s an occupational hazard when you deal with ideas in the public square. I want only to add that “hope” is not the same thing as optimism. When I was in Norcia, at the Benedictine monastery, last month, I remember one conversation with a monk who spoke of martyrdom with a smile on his face. He was trying to convey to me the conviction that to die in Christ is gain — and every single day of the monk’s life is dying to self so that he may live in Christ. That is authentic Christian hope. It is not optimism. Optimism, frankly, is bullsh*t in these times. We need something more durable. We need hope.

Jamie concludes his remarks on the Benedict Option with a humorous reference to that forthcoming book of mine:

“Well, that will be one book blurb I won’t be writing.”

Ha! Maybe not. I know now not to ask. But let me state again, for the record, that I have no hard feelings against Jamie for speaking his mind. Mike Cromartie was right: I can certainly take criticism, and indeed I welcome it, as long as it’s honest, and given in good faith. It’s the only way to get better. I feel passionately about the Benedict Option, and want it to be as clear and as helpful as I can make it. It would be extremely helpful going forward if we could put aside this completely groundless belief that the Ben Op is all about, or even mostly about, gay marriage.

One thing I’m definitely going to do: let the most joyful among the Ben Oppers speak for me. People like Marco Sermarini, and Leah Libresco. Italians, for the win!

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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