Evangelical Problems With The Benedict Option
You might have seen Andrew T. Walker’s positive review of The Benedict Option in the Weekly Standard. I hope you did! His review was cut by the editors for space, which meant that the part where he criticized the Ben Op didn’t make it into print. In a post today, he talks about where he stands apart from the Ben Op, though still a supporter. Excerpts, with my responses:
First, Dreher’s view of history moves only in one direction, and that direction is always bad. A reader may object that Dreher’s reading of culture is too pessimistic and that Dreher underestimates the unknowns and contingencies that history rides upon.
Well, yes, it does. Life is unpredictable. Nobody saw Soviet communism collapsing so quickly. Nobody saw Trump coming. And so forth. I think what Andrew means here is that my very broad take on the history of the past 700 years or so has been one of decline. That requires explanation, obviously. Anyone who denies the material advances since the High Middle Ages is a loony. It is also the case that there have been genuine and valuable moral advances. Give the left-wing narrative that says history is only moving in a progressive way (a narrative shared by right-wing liberals — also called Republicans — who adhere to what has been called the “Whig Theory of History”), people like me who question that narrative often feel compelled to point out the contradictions. Why was the twentieth century both the most advanced in many ways, but also the century in which two world wars happened, plus the Holocaust, plus the Stalinist horrors, and untold masses starved or otherwise murdered by Mao?
It’s more complicated for Christians, because our Scriptures tell us that we are moving forward through time to a particular end: the culmination of history with the Return of Jesus Christ. And yet, our Scriptures also tell us that things are going to get extremely bad before that blessed event.
If I’m reading Andrew correctly, he senses that my decline narrative puts the Reformation
in an unflattering position as a key event in the Great Unraveling to which the Benedict Option is a response. As a committed Southern Baptist, he understandably has a problem with this. Well, he’s right that my book treats the Reformation as a critically important historical moment in this decline narrative. But I am careful in the book not to “blame” the Reformation, along the lines of saying, “If not for the Reformation, everything would have been fine.” As I acknowledge in the book, the Reformation occurred in large part as a reaction to the corruption in the Roman church (surely this is not a controversial thesis), but also — and this was new to me until I started researching this project — most of the key theological ideas that made the Reformation possible had already emerged in Roman Catholicism before Luther was born. The point of my book is not to point fingers, but rather to help readers understand that the chaos and fragmentation we’re now living with did not start in the 1960s (as some conservatives seem to think), or 1789, or 1517, or 1054. These were all points along the path. We can’t erase history, but we do have to know how we got here if we are going to figure out how to stop the unraveling.
The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, but out of those ruins came St. Benedict and others who rebuilt, and led to the refounding of civilization. We have been declining for a long time, and may be in for a fall. Certainly the Church (churches) in the West are in precipitous decline. But I have hope that somewhere in the West — and maybe in more than one place — a new and quite different St. Benedict has been born, and that God will use that person’s fidelity, and the fidelity of those inspired by him (or her) to rebuild. Our task now is not to rebuild Western civilization or Christianity, but to keep its memory alive in our hearts and in our institutions, so that those mustard seeds will grow in the sunlight of a far-off future.
Second, classical liberal-style conservatives (like myself) will object to Dreher’s reading of the Enlightenment and its intellectual genealogies. In Dreher’s view, the liberal project is designed to fail because it rests upon a faulty anthropology of individualism and self-actualization, which, when weaponized apart from transcendent boundaries, breeds relativism. Critics will accuse Dreher of overplaying his hand here, because it bends toward viewing the Founders of America, for example, as purveyors of a licentious individualism. Given the Christian anthropology resonant during the era, my own reading of Enlightenment political philosophy views their interests more in freeing individuals and communities to live in accordance with ordered liberty free from government coercion.
I don’t think that’s quite right. I don’t believe the Founders were purveyors of licentious individualism. I think that the Enlightenment foundations of liberal democratic order cannot sustain a good and/or stable society absent the Christian religion. In fact, Tocqueville observed that American liberty depended on American religious belief. Granted, the state churches of Europe have done even worse at supporting religious belief, but that’s because when a democratic people cease to believe in religion, their religious institutions will cease to inspire loyalty. My point (it’s really MacIntyre’s) is that the Enlightenment project has failed, and it’s impossible to build a stable, thriving, resilient society without broadly shared religious beliefs. These two quotes by John Adams highlight the problem:
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
“The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Both are true, it seems to me. The political order does not support Christianity — but Christianity supports the political order. We are losing Christianity, and therefore, we are at risk of losing liberal democracy, because we are losing the capacity to govern ourselves. It may be that there is no better solution to political problems than liberal democracy. But that does not therefore solve the problems of liberal democracy.
Third, Dreher’s dance with politics is a bit choppy. To be fair, Dreher does not negate the importance of politics altogether and he still calls for active engagement in the voting booth and throughout culture, but a reader looking to wash their hands clean of the stain of politics could find ample support in Dreher’s book. The response to Religious Right excesses is not abdication from prudent politics, but a move toward it.
Post-script: After reading Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig’s thoughtful critique of the BenOp, I am prone to weaken my original critique of Dreher’s views on politics. While I still think Christians should advocate vociferously in the halls of electoral power(!!!), what I think Dreher is calling Christians to consider is that the sine qua non of Christian political witness may not, always and forever, be dedication to electoral politics proper.
Yes, this is true. Engagement in ordinary politics is necessary, but not remotely sufficient. The classical view is that disorder in the polity comes from disorder inside the souls of those who live in it. I emphasize personal and communal reform as the starting point for us, especially given that the power and authority of Christians in the public square is declining. This is not the same thing as quietism!
Finally, there is this:
There’s one point I want to emphasize from my review — the accusations of retreat, which is where the majority of criticisms come from, and especially from evangelicals. Initially, when Dreher began writing about the BenOp, I think complaints that he was advocating for withdrawal because of his terminology may have initially been legitimate (even if he never was conceptually advocating for retreat). For example, statements like this lended confirmation to those fears: “a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens.” I criticized Dreher in other venues for what I thought was advocating for a sophisticated versions of Amish retreat. I now see, however, that that is decidedly not what Dreher is calling for.
I think Dreher’s language and phrasing has matured, as has his understanding of who his audience has grown to be, among them, conservative evangelicals. Dreher now understands that evangelicals hear that type of “retreat” language and are reminded of fundamentalist cultural retreat they’ve long since tried to spurn. It’s clear that Dreher never intended for Amish-style escape even in the beginnings of the BenOp, but I think that’s how he was interpreted and at times, used unsettling language to the ears of evangelicals.
But finally, that brings me to the close: Please, dear evangelicals co-laborers, stop calling the BenOp any form of “retreat” or “withdrawal” or seeing it as an escape from solidarity with one’s neighbors or an abdication from the public square or the common good. It simply isn’t that. If you think it is, buy it, read it, and be persuaded otherwise.
I want to thank Andrew for his praise and for his criticism. A writer benefits more from honest criticism than flattery. My friendship with Andrew and other Evangelicals has compelled me to see flaws in the Benedict Option concept, and to address them in both my thinking and my writing. Andrew et alia have helped me to be a better writer, a better advocate, and even a better Christian. If The Benedict Option proves helpful to Evangelicals in living more faithful Christian lives in community, you can thank Andrew T. Walker, Denny Burk, Russell Moore, Jake Meador, Matthew Lee Anderson, Alan Jacobs, and other Evangelical friends and readers of this blog. I really do mean it when I say that all of us small-o orthodox Christian are in this together, and we have to learn from each other, and help each other.
I want to highlight, and express gratitude for, Justin Lonas’s review. He’s another Evangelical friend who has helped me over the years with his encouragement and constructive criticism. Excerpt:
Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.
Again, many (most) who initially pick up Rod’s book have probably made up their minds about his work already. The criticisms are easy enough to predict. Why should we hide from the world we are called to reach? What about the Great Commission? Shouldn’t the power of the Gospel convince us to expect the unexpected? How can we stand in solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world if we would rather “head for the hills” than stand up for the faith? Don’t we have to stay engaged in the political sphere? Again, because of his long discussion of these ideas in public, Dreher has repeatedly interacted with these and others. His defenses come through in the book as thoughtful, reasoned responses, not combative rejections, or flippant dismissals.
From my own reading, there is one serious shortcoming: the solutions Dreher presents might be attainable enough for middle and upper class Americans, but do not translate well or practically for lower-income believers at home and abroad. A church that is serious about Benedict Option action has to come up with ways to include those who can least afford to be left outside. In doing so, we may just discover that the strengths they’ve already forged in poverty and oppression are invaluable to the discipleship of our communities. Even at that, only healthy, well-formed churches are ready and willing to take those steps.
I agree with this. The Benedict Option has to be an option for the poor and working class too. How do we do this? I’m not sure. But then again, I’m not sure how we do this for the middle and upper classes. All I can say is that these are our challenges, and that we have to meet them together. The inability to come up with a comprehensive universal solution at the start is no reason to decline to take up the challenge. It’s not like St. Benedict wrote his Rule, and voilà, the monastic archipelago sprung up across western Europe like mushrooms after a summer rain. Every pilgrimage begins with the first steps.
UPDATE: Reader Edward Hamilton, an Evangelical, comments:
The more I read these reviews, the more I wonder if they’ve dropped out of a parallel universe. In our current universe, the risk of evangelicals progressing into some kind of neo-Amish repudiation of American public life and culture is close to nil. Instead, virtually all the risk is on the side of evangelicals being too heavily compromised — either compromised in favor of becoming Trump-ified dupes of the Breitbart outrage-media empire, or compromised in favor of quietist accommodation on a wide variety of sexual ethics issues, or else compromised in favor of an utterly anodyne MTD ethos of mega-church growth-for-growth-sake. The evidence than any fraction of American evangelicalism is about to retreat from public life in any way that involves more self-sacrifice than so much as turning off the television for an extra hour a week is essentially negligible.
I say this as someone with plenty of roots in the Anabaptist world, and with a much higher respect for the Amish approach than either Rod or his many interlocutors. Nothing would make me happier than to life in which our biggest problem was that large swaths of American evangelicalism was being overly zealous in a well-planned project to create utopian agrarian communities based on overly naive readings of Wendell Berry novels. In that world, it would be easy to nudge that zeal back in the direction of supporting some useful rearguard defenses of religious liberty and urban witness.
Though speaking frankly, as someone with quite a few points of contact with the Amish/Mennonite/rural Anabaptist world that Andrew invokes so pejoratively — I spent a summer working on a Mennonite farm about a decade ago — I feel like this condemnation is already unfairly broad and oversimplified. Nearly everyone I’ve met from that background does a job as good or better of embodying virtues of hospitality, forgiveness, and social responsibility than the average American. God only grant that we should all be doomed to live in a world where our greatest concern would be too many evangelicals passionately emulating communities with that pool of values. I’d happily trade that for the current level of “political engagement” that I get through my local church, which mostly consists of being slipped mass-printed brochures every couple of years that explain which Republicans I’m supposed to vote for.
All of the real challenges of the regnant spiritual zeitgeist revolve around overcoming apathy, not suppressing revolutionary ardor.