Figuring Out the Benedict Option
I’m at the CiRCE conference in Charleston, SC, today, but unfortunately have to leave this afternoon, just after my Dante presentation. More people here want to talk Benedict Option than Dante, I’m finding. Based on what I’m reading and seeing online, and hearing from conversations face-to-face since Obergefell, it is hard to overestimate the sense of concern among orthodox/conservative Christians about our future in this country.
What I’m telling people is that we have a pretty good understanding of the problem we face. Michael Hanby, for instance, has a must-read essay in First Things, talking about how the Sexual Revolution, which has become entrenched in constitutional law, radically reshapes the role of orthodox Christians in American public life. Excerpt:
Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason. George Weigel articulated one of the assumptions animating protagonists on all sides of this project when in Tranquilitas Ordinis he wrote that “there is no contradiction between the truth claims of Catholicism and the American democratic experiment.” This assertion rests on some form of Murray’s familiar distinction between articles of faith and articles of peace. This view defines the state as a juridical order that exists principally for the purpose of securing public order and protecting our ability to act on our own initiative. It therefore renounces all competence in religious and ontological matters. This ostensibly modest view of government opens up space that is then filled with the Christian substance that animates civil society.
One needn’t be ungrateful for the genuine achievements of American liberalism in order to question the wisdom of this project and its guiding assumptions. First, a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act. Its supposed indifference to metaphysics conceals a metaphysics of original indifference. A thing’s relation to God, being a creature, makes no difference to its nature or intelligibility. Those are tacked on extrinsically through the free act of the agent.
Liberalism’s articles of peace thus mask tacit articles of faith in a particular eighteenth-century conception of nature and nature’s God, which also entails an eighteenth-century view of the Church. Moreover, liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge. It establishes its peculiar absolutism, not as the exhaustive dictator of everything one can and cannot do—to the contrary, liberal order persists precisely by generating an ever expanding space for the exercise of private options—but as the all-encompassing totality within which atomic social facts are permitted to appear like so many Congregationalist polities, the horizon beyond which there is no outside. Hobbes’s thought aspired to this kind of sovereignty, and Locke’s thought more effectively achieved it, but it was Rousseau who really understood it.
This is a debate worth having, for it addresses fundamental questions about the structure of being, the nature of human beings, and the relations between nature and grace, faith and reason, and the political and ecclesial orders. I am inclined toward the “radical Catholic” side of this debate, convinced that unless and until we engage in a thorough reassessment of the metaphysical and crypto-theological conceits of liberalism, we will find ourselves coopted by it, unwittingly serving its project even as we bemoan and increasingly are afflicted by its excesses.
What Hanby means in the long, thoughtful essay is that the liberal order that America stands for can no longer be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. That is, the assumptions on which it stands, and the working-out of those assumptions in the public square, forces a choice on us: do we have faith in orthodox Christianity, or in American liberalism? Are our churches prophetic witnesses, or chaplaincies to the Enlightenment?
Put into more basic terms, we have reached the end of the road for Christianity in its more-or-less orthodox forms in America, and the pressures from the liberal order to conform to its assumptions are so great that Christians today, in in the foreseeable future, are going to have to find resources for resistance over time in ways that they never have had to do. To conform to the liberal order (and by “liberal order,” I’m not talking about the Democratic Party platform, but the political and cultural order of our Enlightenment democracy), one has to embrace certain philosophical, even ontological, views that are deeply at variance with Christianity. As Hanby writes:
To understand this, let us ask: What must one take for granted in order for same-sex marriage to be intelligible? (This is not a question about the motives or beliefs—which can seem quite humane—of those who support same-sex marriage.) It is commonly argued that marriage is no longer principally about the procreation and the rearing of children but that it centers instead on the companionship of the couple and the building of a household. The courts have repeatedly accepted this reasoning. And yet, if same-sex marriage is to be truly equal to natural marriage in the eyes of society and the law, then all the rights and privileges of marriage—including those involving the procreation and rearing of children—must in principle belong to both kinds of marriage, irrespective of the motives impelling a couple toward marriage or whether, once married, they exercise these rights and privileges.
With same-sex couples this can be achieved only by technological means. And so the case for companionate marriage has been supplemented again and again by the argument that we must endorse reproductive technologies that eliminate any relevant difference between a male–female couple and a same-sex couple. This elevates these technologies from a remedy for infertility, what they principally have been, to a normative form of reproduction equivalent and perhaps even superior to natural procreation. But if there is no meaningful difference between a male–female couple conceiving a child naturally and same-sex couples conceiving children through surrogates and various technological means, then it follows that nothing of ontological significance attaches to natural motherhood and fatherhood or to having a father and a mother. These roles and relations are not fundamentally natural phenomena integral to human identity and social welfare but are mere accidents of biology overlaid with social conventions that can be replaced by functionally equivalent roles without loss. The implications are enormous: existential changes to the relation between kinship and personal identity, legal redefinitions of the relation between natural kinship and parental rights, and practical, biotechnical innovations that are only beginning to emerge into view and will be defended as necessary for a liberal society.
This rejection of nature is manifest in the now orthodox distinction between sex, which is “merely biological,” and gender, defined as a construct either of oppressive social norms orof the free, self-defining subject—one often finds protagonists of this revolution oscillating back and forth between those polar extremes. And this sex–gender distinction, in turn, is premised upon a still more basic dualism, which bifurcates the human being into a mechanical body composed of meaningless material stuff subject to deterministic physical laws and of the free, spontaneous will that indifferently presides over it. This anthropology denies from the outset that nature and the body have any intrinsic form or finality beyond what the will gives itself in its freedom, and thus it fails to integrate human biology and sexual difference into the unity of the person. Indeed, the classical Aristotelian nature and the Christian idea of the human being as body and soul united as an indivisible and integrated whole are excluded from the outset.
Whether this is the logical outworking of the metaphysical and anthropological premises of liberalism or a radically new thing—and Hans Jonas’s analysis would suggest that these are not mutually exclusive alternatives—it marks a point of no return in American public philosophy. And it effectively brings the civic project of American Christianity to an end.
This is not to say that Christians should disengage or retreat, the usual misinterpretation of the so-called Benedict Option. There is no ground to retreat to, for the liberal order claims unlimited jurisdiction and permits no outside. We do not have the option of choosing our place within it if we wish to remain Christian. We cannot avoid the fact that this new philosophy, once it is fully instantiated, will in all likelihood deprive Christians of effective participation in the public square.Hobby Lobby notwithstanding, appeals to religious liberty, conceived as the freedom to put one’s idiosyncratic beliefs into practice with minimal state interference, are not likely to fare well over the long haul as these beliefs come to seem still more idiosyncratic, as religious practice comes into conflict with more “fundamental” rights, and as the state’s mediation of familial relations becomes ever more intrusive. And attempts to restore religious freedom to its proper philosophical place, as something like the sine qua non of freedom itself, presuppose just the view of human nature and reason that our post-Christian liberalism rejects from the outset.
I appreciate Hanby’s pointing out that people who keep saying that the Benedict Option is all about running away from society to build a compound somewhere fundamentally misunderstand it. But what is the Benedict Option?
A few people bitch and moan that because I haven’t come up with a crisp, detailed definition, that it must be smoke-and-mirrors. A friend writes this morning to me to say:
It’s important to keep in mind that the Benedict Option is a metaphor, like Naked Public Square, that’s meant to capture something about the mood among religious conservatives. A metaphor will always obscure as much as it clarifies. That’s especially true when you’re still at the point, completely in public, of working out just what the metaphor is supposed to be capturing out in the real world. If Neuhaus had been blogging in public about the Naked Public Square for years before writing the book, think of the crap he would have stirred up.
So just keep thinking and trying to work out what you mean by it.
My own 2 cents at this moment: the BO is response to the previous generation of religious conservatives putting all of their chips down on trying to fashion a public philosophy for an American civic Christianity (Hanby’s formulation), providing the country with a governing vision rooted in historic Christian norms. The BO is an alternative in that it recognizes that America as a whole doesn’t want any such governing philosophy — and so Christians are now called on to adjust to life as a moral minority in America. That means both getting the Christian house in order (morally, liturgically, culturally) and engaging the wider country in knowing awareness that most of it lies across a moral chasm from Christians. It’s much more like missionary work than it once was.
That’s really helpful, I think. The Benedict Option is a catch-all term reflecting several basic assumptions:
1) That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved;
2) That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common good;
3) That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions;
4) That modernity has evolved to a point at which it is unstoppably corrosive of authentic Christianity, and that those who would hold on to Christianity must clearly and decisively understand themselves in opposition to modernity;
5) That some sort of separation — conceptually, and to some degree literally (e.g., withdrawing to our own schools) — is necessary to maintain Christian faith and commitment amid the chaos of our time;
6) That the only way orthodox forms of Christianity are going to survive over the generations to come is by instantiating them in communal institutions, practices, and customs, requiring a degree of commitment that has been unfamiliar to most American Christians;
7) That this limited separation is required not to escape fully from the world (which is neither possible nor desirable for the laity), but so that the laity can be for the world what God wants us to be;
8) That Benedict Option Christians should remain politically active, working to preserve their own freedom and for the common good, but should direct most of their efforts to an inward rebuilding of the church and culture within the community, not to attempts to solve our dilemmas by political action;
9) That lay Christians should look to the Rule of St. Benedict and the monastic example for inspiration in developing our responses to the situation we find ourselves in;
10) That nobody has a Benedict Option fully worked out now, but there are Christians from various traditions who have been working on it for a while, and that the rest of us can learn from their experiences;
11) That there won’t be a Benedict Option, but rather Benedict Options, plural, based on a community’s religious traditions and local conditions; that is, there is no one-size-fits-all;
12) That the lack of a clear answer to the challenge we face is no excuse to sit back and let history take its course; we are all going to have to do this, or prepare to watch our children and grandchildren assimilated into Borg of relativism, hedonism, consumer capitalism, and the like.
I really like what a couple of Mormon bloggers have written recently about the Ben Op from their point of view. This one points out that the Ben Op will have to look different from an LDS point of view than from a mainstream Christian point of view. And Patrick Henry has a comprehensive post looking at various Benedict Options in history, including their strengths and weaknesses.
How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.
These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.
I think this take from an Orthodox Christian friend of mine is one of the smartest and most helpful things yet written on the Benedict Option. He says being faithful to Christ may require us to be “bad Americans.” Excerpt:
The objections (and there are many) seem to fall into two broad categories: a) that the Benedict Option advocates a quasi-monastic withdrawal from the world, and b) that the Benedict Option remains too vague and undefined. I do not sympathize with those who posit the first criticism, for it seems that they are reacting instinctively and not really engaging with what Dreher has actually written. A strategic retreat is not the same thing as a withdrawal. The second criticism has some validity, however. Eventually, there will need to be more clarity about what the Benedict Option actually entails—some summation of the principles that unite its adherents. At present, the Option assumes whatever shape one pours into it, as my comments below illustrate.
How I envision the application of the Option probably differs from that of many others, and would certainly be at variance with how it is characterized by opponents. I just do not see large numbers of future Benedict-opters setting up farm coops or flocking to communes and/or monastic institutions—although such things will definitely be part of the mix. (It would not hurt like-minded folk, however, to begin taking a few small, if symbolic, steps away from our consumerist culture. This could begin with something as simple as tomato plants on the patio, or a few chickens in the backyard, etc.) But the simple fact of the matter is that most of us will continue to go about working in the world, much as we do now. So, there will be no absolute withdrawal, as such, or at least not one that those around us can easily detect.
What is called for, however, is a detachment from the dominant culture. I see that as a great and needed good. Far from fleeing to protective enclaves, driven by desperation or despair, Benedict-opters will stand apart from all the noise; sober, clear-eyed, and hopeful in the face of the ruin around us. For too long we have drifted along in the broad currents of our Age, all the time thinking we are somehow in command of the situation, when actually we are being swept right along with everybody and everything else, while steadily losing our grips on the precious things that matter. So, we must make our way to one shore or the other, pull ourselves out of the current, and take inventory of that which remains. At this point, it seems more a matter of saving and securing whatever can be saved. The rebuilding can come later.
It might be helpful to look at peoples throughout history who have done this very thing. In this country, we have the quirky example of the Amish, but I do not think that is the model for us. Certainly that is instinctively how opponents to the Benedict Option would jump to characterize the movement. Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity. What I have in mind are those peoples who have lived as aliens for centuries and have emerged largely intact: the Jews throughout much of history, and the Armenians in the Near East come to mind.
I am hesitant to use battlefield metaphors and/or analogies. They are too easy and too susceptible to simplistic and widespread abuse and demagoguery (i.e. “Take Our Country Back!”). Many activists still resort to this sort of thing, however. I find it sad to see them floundering and lashing-out in the old ways, thinking that political engagement and a tight grip on Americanism will turn the tide. In this context, Rod and others have used the terminology of “the battle is lost.” Yes, there is that, but I think it goes much deeper. Maybe I am too given to considering the longue duree, but I do not believe the battle was ever winnable in the first place.
One has to look no further than the paroxysms of outrage over recent legislation and/or Supreme Court decisions—the belief that our country has suddenly been sent into a moral and existential tailspin. (And let’s be clear, for many Americans, this new-found concern for our “national crisis” only took shape when they looked up from their dogged pursuit of the American Dream to notice that the country had elected its first black President.) Nostalgic longings for the Reagan era (and he was as much a part of the problem as anyone) displays historical naiveté and shortsightedness. No, our problems are deeper-rooted and we must go back to our very founding, I would think. A wise priest-friend once said to me that it was not in the nature of Americans to be Orthodox. We were discussing something very specific, but the larger point holds.
I may well agree with particular concerns of the Right (or not). But where they see a precipitous sloughing-away of traditional values and ideals, I see as the natural progression our nation has been on all along, built as it is upon a foundation of individual rights. The unique atomized person is exalted over all, at the expense of any larger sense of community, not to mention any sense of the transcendent. And so, Americans who seriously contemplate the Benedict Option must realize that it will necessarily entail being both counter-cultural and indeed, radical. I noticed a sign outside a nearby Methodist Church that got it just.exactly.wrong: “A radical is someone with both feet firmly planted in the air.” This is the broad accomodationism of the day, and such thinking will not appeal to Benedict-opters. A radical is more likely someone who faces the world head-on, clear-eyed and with both feet planted firmly on the ground. So if they are serious about it, Benedict-opters will definitely be tagged as radical. The decision will have to go far beyond reactions to the usual red-button issues of our day, but will also require acknowledging the implicit economic implications of the decision.
The American Way of Life is–in every real sense of the word–a religion all its own. We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization. A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments. The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.” If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned. In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.
The Benedict Option is rightfully perceived as a Christian undertaking. I would think that Catholic and Orthodox believers will be better prepared, theologically and institutionally, to nuture and equip the Option. I would extend this to include some Lutheran and dissident Anglican churches, as well. That said, we must know that we have no immunity from the forces that affect everyone else around us. In coming decades our numbers will be absolutely decimated. Catholic and now Orthodox believers have often bought into the Americanist heresy every bit as much as their Protestant neighbors. So there is no room for smugness or self-satisfaction. And on a side-note, this would be a good time for Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians and church leaders to spend more time soberly assessing our commonality of purpose in light of the challenges we face, and less time on protecting jurisdictional turf.
Mainline churches have already made their bargain with the Spirit of the Age. This will not serve them well in the long run, and the familiar theme of their precipitous and inevitable decline does not need to be elaborated upon here. And so, individual Christians within many such churches—Disciples of Christ, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and soon-to-be Methodists—might well decide to go with the Benedict Option, but it will be in spite of their church affiliation, not because of it.
The jury is still out on many Evangelicals. One occasionally hears encouraging things from their spokespeople (Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example), but I wonder if any of it is filtering down to the local congregational level. From what I see, the rank and file remains too cozily attached to American civil religion. Evangelicals will need to digest the hard truth (for them) that the flag, patriotism and valorizing “our troops” are not part of the Gospel. They have been sold a bill of goods, though they have not yet realized it, I think. Despite the very obvious commitment of many Evangelicals (and their ranks are simply too broad and varied to cover with a blanket characterization), I am left with the impression that they are still too tightly wrapped in an embrace of our American Way of Life. I hope that I am wrong on this. I recognize that I too quickly and instinctively agree with the broad-but-shallow characterization of their Protestant underpinnings. Apostolic churches do have a history of endurance and survival (but not everywhere and at all times). One simply doesn’t know what Evangelicals will do. At this point, I am not sure about how appealing a Benedict Option would be for Evangelicals. When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice.
Unlike many, I do not harbor apocalyptical visions of America’s future. I think our country will go along much as it is now, only more so. The rich will get richer, popular “culture” will get even crasser, and we will continue to throw our weight around in the world. (When there are global conflicts where the only good option is to choose “none of the above” rather than any of the bad choices, we will invariably continue to choose the worst of the bad choices.) And the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about will hum right along. Income disparity will widen. There will be the gated comfortable, flush with income (if not real financial security) who will continue to build and to buy and keep the consumerist economy ginning, who will still marry and more or less stay married and who will go along with the casual cultural Christianity for a while longer, who will provide good educations to their children who will get decent jobs and marry others in similar circumstances. And then there will be those on the other end of the spectrum, what could be called Tattooed America, who will not marry, who will have not done church in generations, and who are financially vulnerable. Both extremes are more similar than they could ever imagine, having become unmoored from any real connection with the Christian faith. Neither will believe there should be any restraints on what an individual should be allowed to do. I realize that this is painting with the broadest of broad brushes, but that middle ground most everyone thought they occupied is shrinking and most are edging closer and closer to the tattooed set.
Those who step aside, the detached Benedict-opters, will realize that they have no home in either camp. And this should lead to the recognition of who exactly are our compatriots in detachment–those share commonality of purpose. We may well find that things do not neatly sort out between Christians and the Other. Our observant Muslim neighbors may be more simpatico to our view of the world than our members of our own tribe with their motorboat in the driveway, golf clubs in the garage and the pool in the backyard.
So what would the Benedict Option look like in actual practice and implementation?
Read the whole thing to find out what the blogger thinks. It’s well worth it. Seriously, this is one of the best things yet.
I’m reading all of this stuff, thinking, talking to you, and trying to formulate all this into a book that will both frame and inspire conversation and action going forward. I can tell you this, though: seems to me that the Benedict Option book will be more about getting orthodox Christians to asking the right questions for the time, and to collaborating together to work out the answers. We’re not going to be able to stick to a straight path if we don’t understand how far we’ve diverged, and why. And we’re not going to be able to do this without each other.
OK, I’m off to talk about Dante, then headed to the airport, and home. Y’all be good.