- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

Houellebecq & The Benedict Option

What a pleasant buongiorno this is: another column about The Benedict Option by Sandro Magister, the great Vaticanist.  [1] In fact, he hands his column over today to church historian Roberto Pertici, who discusses the Ben Op in the context of the Youth Synod underway now at the Vatican. Pertici believes that The Benedict Option is more relevant to the youth, and therefore to the future of the Church, than the official pageantries taking up this Roman autumn.

I especially love this part of Pertici’s analysis:

In his book Dreher never cites the work of Michel Houellebecq, the great and controversial French writer, but he has repeatedly stated that he considers him an interlocutor in his work. I believe that he is right: in his best novels there is more history and philosophy than in many professorial volumes (one could read in this regard the book by Louis Betty “Without God. Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror” released in 2016).

His 1998 novel “The Elementary Particles” revolves around the concept of “metaphysical mutation.” Houellebecq writes: “In the history of humanity, metaphysical mutations – meaning the radical and global transformations of the worldview adopted by the majority – are rather rare. […] As soon as it is produced, the metaphysical mutation develops until it reaches its extreme consequences, without ever encountering resistance. Imperturbable, it overturns economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments, social hierarchies. There are no forces capable of interrupting its course, neither human nor of another kind, apart from the advent of a new metaphysical mutation.”

One first example that the French author gives is that of the advent of Christianity: in those centuries “the Roman empire was at the summit of its power; perfectly organized, it dominated the known universe; its technological and military superiority was unrivaled. And yet it had no hope.”

Analogously at the end of what we call the Middle Ages: “At the advent of modern science, medieval Christianity constituted a complete system of comprehension of man and of the universe; it served as a foundation for governing the people, produced knowledge and works, decided both peace and war, organized the production and division of wealth. All that did not succeed in preventing the collapse.”

Since then there has been the gradual assertion of what the writer calls “the materialist age.” Its conclusive moment is precisely in the “sexual revolution,” the development of which in France and in the world is followed by Houellebecq, almost year by year, with a series of extremely evocative notations: in the novel, it is personified in the figure of Janine Ceccaldi, the mother of the two protagonists. Janine, born in 1928, belongs to the “dispiriting category of forerunners”: those who “have a mere role as historical accelerator – generally an accelerator of a historical decomposition – without ever being able to give a new direction to events.”

Houellebecq had already dealt with the “sexual revolution” in his 1994 debut novel “Extension du domaine de la lutte,” in English “Whatever.” This is not the place to explore its analysis, suffice it to say that for the French writer it is the extension to the sexual sphere of the unbridled competition and economic individualism typical of the pure market society. That is, there exists a parallel between uncontrolled economic liberalism and absolute sexual liberalism: both produce phenomena of absolute impoverishment, widespread forms of exclusion.

The proponents of hypermodernity are convinced that they have the world in their hands. Who knows, however, if they may be like the pagans of the late empire or the scholastic philosophers of the early modern era: that among the possible hypotheses there may be a change of paradigm, a new “metaphysical mutation.”

The readers of “The Elementary Particles” know how this happens, in what direction it develops and who is – so to speak – its promoter: it is certainly not the one desired by Dreher. But beyond the narrative plot (it must always be remembered that we are talking about a novelist and poet, not a professional historian or philosopher), it is important to register his rejection of a continuous and inexorable journey of history, of a unidirectional conception of historical development, which is instead typical of “progressivism,” including the Catholic form. Ruptures are possible, and what seems to triumph today, as has been stated, can decline.

I don’t know to what extent Dreher has been influenced by this vision, but at the foundation of “The Benedict Option” one perceives something analogous. It is not to be taken for granted that the era that began with the “metaphysical mutation” of the first centuries of the modern era and has led to the current Western dechristianization is “forever.” The complete unfolding of its consequences could lead to a new rupture: one must be ready for this moment. This is why it is important to preserve the Christian heritage intact in order to be able to present it again in a mutated world: unlike Houellebecq, the American writer maintains that this is possible. To preserve it by working together with the humanity of our time – Dreher says – not in idleness. At the bottom of his vision there does not seem to be, therefore, a disconsolate pessimism or – as has been said – the perception of a state of siege: but the reasonable hope for a revival.

Read the whole thing. [1]

Yes, that’s exactly right! I believe that the vision of The Benedict Option [2] is realistic, and therefore hopeful — much more hopeful than the deconstruction of traditional Christianity underway in Rome and elsewhere. St. Benedict did not set out to “save the West.” He only wanted to find a way to serve God faithfully in a time of great chaos and anxiety, over the collapse of the Roman system. Every good thing that followed for Western civilization from Benedict’s work came because he and his men put the search for God first. 

As Marco Sermarini, the great Benedict Option Catholic living on the Adriatic puts it in my book:

Driving through the achingly beautiful towns and fields overlooking the Adriatic, Marco pulled his SUV over on the side of a narrow country road and led me to a steeply plunging hillside. It was covered with olive trees. This was the Sermarini family olive grove. As a boy, Marco’s ninety-one-year-old father helped his own father harvest olives from these trees. Marco was raised doing the same, and now he and his own children collect olives yearly and press their oil for the family’s use.

This, I said to Marco, is stability.

He shrugged, then looked out pensively over his trees.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next in life, but in the meantime, we have to fight for the good,” he told me. “The possibility of saving the good things in the world is only that: a possibility. We have to take the chances we have to set a rock in the earth and to keep this rock steady.”

We walked back to the SUV, climbed in, and drove on. My friend continued to wax philosophical about stability in a world of change.

“Nothing we make in this life will be eternal, but we have to build them as if they will be eternal,” Marco continued. “That’s what God wants. If you promise yourself to a woman for a lifetime, that is a way of making the eternal present here in time.”

We have to go forward in confidence that the little things we do might, in time, grow into mighty works, he explained. It’s all up to God. All we can do is our very best to serve him.

Sometimes Marco lies in bed at night, worrying that his efforts, and the efforts of his little Christian community, won’t amount to much in the face of so much opposition. He is anxious that the current will be too strong to resist and will tear them apart.

“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”

Autumn olive harvest in the Sermarini family grove

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Houellebecq & The Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 11, 2018 @ 7:42 am

“St. Benedict did not set out to ‘save the West.’ He only wanted to find a way to serve God faithfully in a time of great chaos and anxiety”

That’s how I feel about the current chaos.

#2 Comment By Matt in VA On October 11, 2018 @ 9:12 am

Suffice it to say that for the French writer it is <b?the extension to the sexual sphere of the unbridled competition and economic individualism typical of the pure market society. That is, there exists a parallel between uncontrolled economic liberalism and absolute sexual liberalism: both produce phenomena of absolute impoverishment, widespread forms of exclusion.

Worship of The Market over all else is the problem.

This is why even most of the “things are very bad and getting worse” conservatives are too optimistic. There is almost no political Right in the West at all that isn’t fundamentally compromised by a felt-in-the-blood passion for bending the knee to the market. Conservatism has full-blown AIDS at this point, as Market Worship has stripped away any and all defenses against all of the smelly little orthodoxies of the moment flooding in and overwhelming the body. If you worship the market over all else, you have no resistance, no T-cells to fight whatever has the biggest marketing budget or whatever mad passion of the day holds sway among the fanatics or the masses. The blood of almost all the suburban churches are compromised, just about everybody who is middle-class and in the middle-class occupations. Remember that Andrew Sullivan article, which was titled (it really was titled this) “We Are All Sodomites Now”? Well, what might one quite reasonably and logically expect to come next?

#3 Comment By Jared On October 11, 2018 @ 9:14 am

“That is, there exists a parallel between uncontrolled economic liberalism and absolute sexual liberalism: both produce phenomena of absolute impoverishment, widespread forms of exclusion.”

It is interesting to note Dante’s Circle 7 in the Inferno resembles this statement.

#4 Comment By Matt in VA On October 11, 2018 @ 9:17 am

If one wants to see a concrete example of “materialist horror” and The Market At Work In All Its Majesty, one might check out yesterday’s NYT article about “the Wal-Mart of Heroin” in Philadelphia.

I’m tempted to say “This is your country on neoliberalism,” but that probably isn’t fair since no doubt all periods of human history and all political-economic regimes have their own major problems. Yet– this is ours, and this is one we should be looking at squarely.

#5 Comment By Mark On October 11, 2018 @ 9:23 am

Just makes me think of the paw paw trees in the forest up the road from me. Right now, they are overshadowed by the white oaks and poplars and will remain more or less dormant for decades. But storms have a way of coming and disease can bring down what almost seems eternal. Then the canopy opens up. Then comes the fruit.

#6 Comment By Woody On October 11, 2018 @ 9:38 am

The conclusion of the commencement address, June 8, 1978, of A. I. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard:

“If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.”

#7 Comment By Woody On October 11, 2018 @ 9:43 am

Just because the Solzhenitsyn address was 40 years ago and things have not yet radically changed, does not signify that he was wrong, or Houllebecq and Dreher are wrong now, just that the train wreck is occurring in slow motion. The evident descent of the US into mobocracy seen recently is yet another sign.

#8 Comment By Ira On October 11, 2018 @ 10:35 am

Last year, after visiting Italy and spending some time in Rome, I returned to Australia and had a conversation with a Catholic priest friend of mine. We talked about Italian Catholicism, and he, knowing the landscape better than I, explained to be that Italian Catholicism tends to be very focused on culture, rather than on Christ. I have heard that Anthony of Padua is one of the most prayed-to figures in Italy, pipping out Mary and even sometimes Jesus, though that may be apocryphal. This priest told me a story of meeting a friend in Italy and talking about religion and the church, and eventually asking him where he went to mass. The man replied, “Padre, sono cattolico, non fanatico!”

He didn’t go to mass. He believed in the church and tradition and such… but he didn’t actually worship. And the broad sketch I was given of the nature of the faith in Italy seemed to tally with my experience.

I mention this because, reading this post today, I cannot help but wonder if one of the reasons for the positive reception ‘The Benedict Option’ has gotten in Italy is this same priority: culture above faith, tradition above Christ.

Yesterday I mentioned in a comment reading ‘The Benedict Option’ with a fairly diverse group of committed Christians. We had some problems with it. If I could briefly summarise them, they’d be that while most of us agreed with the general thrust of the book, we found most of its specifics to be misleading, misguided, or too simple. I’ve got degrees in philosophy, classics, and theology: I was tearing my hair out at the chapter on history, complaining about misunderstandings of William of Ockham, nominalism, and so on. Another friend was a big Supreme Court and constitutional wonk, and he was able to point out some problems there. It got the point where, well, if ‘The Benedict Option’ describes any fairly technical subject, I would try to follow up on its sources, because it was usually at best grossly oversimplifying.

But one of the core things that came out of that read-through was just how – and surprisingly so – obsessed the book was with Western culture. The chapter-long shill for classical Christian education is focused remarkably on European cultural history, to the extent of recommending Christians learn classical pagan works, from Homer to Aristotle. Now I studied those works myself and I’d never denigrate their value, but that’s not teaching Christianity, traditional or otherwise: it’s teaching classical European culture. The conclusion to ‘The Benedict Option’ speaks of telling stories ‘about Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas, of Dante and Don Quixote, and Frodo and Gandalf, and all the tales that bear what it means to be men and women of the West’.

Now… Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas are not Christian at all. They are the products of pagan cultures. Dante is an engagement with Christian faith from a particular historical-cultural background, which is fantastic, but limited in scope. Don Quixote is the product of a Christian culture but itself not particularly religious (except insofar as all chivalric literature engages with Christian themes, which it does, but you take my point). And the reference to Tolkien feels rather trite. (I’d love to get into him more, and I have a million comments to make on the use of Tolkien and Lewis by BenOp-style conservatives, but not now!)

What if my cultural heritage is not Western or European. Suppose I’m an American and a pious Evangelical, but I’m of, say, Korean extraction. Odysseus means very little to me. While there is a valid search for the truth expressed in pagan Greek culture and its relevance to Christianity (cf. Paul in Athens), there is surely a similarly valid search for the truth expressed in pre-Christian Asian cultures, and that might be more interesting to me. Why should I be at all interested in this intensely Eurocentric ‘classical Christian education’?
Basically, the criticism here is that ‘The Benedict Option’ suffers a confusion in that it tends to identify Christian faith and practice with the historically contingent forms that Christian faith and practice have taken in European history.

An awful lot of ‘The Benedict Option’ reads not as ‘how to be more Christian’, but ‘how to be more in tune with traditional European culture’. I am all for traditional European cultures – they are my heritage, I feel very connected to British and Celtic cultures in particular, and I would never suggest they’re not worth study – but they’re not the same thing as Christianity. It reads as though ‘The Benedict Option’, while it presents itself as being about Christianity simpliciter, is… well, not.
It’s about a particular construct of European or Western Christianity. It’s about ‘Christianity’ as filtered through Benedictines and Dante and making people read Homer and Mediterranean culture as a whole.

So I wonder: how much of this positive reception in Italy is actually related to, well, Catholicism-as-culture, as opposed to Catholicism-as-faith?

I don’t say that as an attempt to tear ‘The Benedict Option’ down. I am sincere and well-meaning. Indeed, I’m sure that Rod would agree that we must be very careful of succumbing to an idolatry-of-culture (even though I fear he will disagree with me about whether ‘The Benedict Option’ is at risk of that). But I offer this comment anyway, and make what you will of it.

#9 Comment By One Male On October 11, 2018 @ 11:19 am

This arrived in my email this morning and I believe goes nicely with what you’re saying. Life to me is a pond with many ripples with disparate source. When two distinct waves converge there signal amplifies such that a turning point manifests in the minds eye. An emanation from the all knowing, a truth, a zeitgeist shift in the winds. Today the tea leaves say the winds have changed.


#10 Comment By charles cosimano On October 11, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

Market schmarket. It’s all about power.

Just think of it all as paving the way for Cosimanian Orthodoxy in a few hundred years.

#11 Comment By John Gruskos On October 11, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

“Every good thing that followed for Western civilization from Benedict’s work came because . . .”

. . . because the Germanic warlords who overran the Roman Empire were Christians, and as such they fully supported monasticism.

#12 Comment By grumpy realist On October 11, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

I suspect the reason a lot of young-uns are using their feet to march away from Christian religious belief with disgust is because of what they see as the great one-sidedness of it all–getting harangued about sexual activity/traditional marriage while at the same time they don’t hear anything about the chaos and damage to families caused by the modern economic system and the absolute greed of too many people.

#13 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 11, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

The article Matt in VA cites [4]. It’s a very long — and hence comprehensive and balanced — article, and it covers the story very well from the significant angles.

I know Kensington. I’ve been there many times, I have friends who live there, and the efforts of Philadelphia Mayor Kenney and his staff are very widely known, debated, criticized and occasionally praised.

That last sentence is not a throwaway remark. The “drug war” in Philly has many battles to its list over the decades. I lived less than a quarter-mile from one such battle. I lived on the main street access to the local hospital. We heard gunshot echoes many nights for many weeks. Ambulance sirens woke us three or four nights per week. The battle was over another drug market, the western half of Washington Ave. Local police, FBI and DEA agents spent most of a year there. Local fallout included a drive-by murder 150 feet from our back door.

Washington Ave. is now a thriving commercial and local business corridor. The police made an effort to not just “relocate the problem”. Some will say that Kensington contradicts that effort. It might be partially true. There’s an objective comment to be made to such efforts when they are mostly or solely dependent on government action: in the end, someone will find something in them to criticize.

#14 Comment By KS On October 11, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

The benedict option is not going to be the next evolution. It is a step back into the past. You are not putting the genie back in the bottle. A genetic evolution manufactured in the lab aa houellebecq sugggests is more likely.

#15 Comment By REJ On October 11, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

A true Christian society won’t end up in the kind of material and moral decadence that goes before virtually every fall of a great empire. But, it is the sinful impulse to be worldly that seems to prevent humanity from figuring this out despite so much evidence for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Get a little comfort and security and God gets forgotten in our pride at being the masters of our fate. The Amish have been much smarter than the rest of us about this but even they are suffering ill effects now due to the loss of the isolation afforded them by family farming and being exposed to the ‘world’ because of the need to take jobs. The world has simply intruded on their lives due to the economics of greed they had no part of. I don’t think that problem will ever be solved this side of heaven. It is the very nature of our original sin and we seem doomed to keep repeating it.

#16 Comment By l’autre J On October 11, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

I believe that the vision of The Benedict Option is realistic, and therefore hopeful — much more hopeful than the deconstruction of traditional Christianity underway in Rome and elsewhere.

But the central conceit of the book is that there is still a sufficient epistemological foundation for trad Christianity to survive and continue indefinitely. That is absolutely more idealistic than realistic in 2018.

I believe that is why your book gets so much reluctance and rejection across much of the spectrum of American Christianity. Couched in pseudoreasons, of course.

#17 Comment By JonF On October 11, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

John Gruskos, It is by no means true that the Germanic invaders were all Christians. Some were, some weren’t, and of those that were many were Arians.

#18 Comment By Mark B. On October 11, 2018 @ 9:48 pm

@ Matt in VA

“Worship of The Market over all else is the problem”.

I could not agree more with you. Before, people consumed products over what they were. Now they consume identities, beliefs and feelings woven around products.

They have no identity-core themselves anymore, they have a void that is filled by the market.

And the market tells them that you have the duty to be young forever, always happy and having fun, stress-free, succesfull and liked.

Why are drugs becoming mainstream? Why is there an insane tattoo and obesity epidemic? Why are depression, abxiety and loneliness rising everywhere, together with Instagram accounts? Why are so many people shouting they have the right to everything?

The Market is in the people, that is indeed the fundamental problem. In that sense, the Market is a demon.

#19 Comment By Mark Tardiff On October 12, 2018 @ 6:31 am

Houellebecq probably thinks that Christianity has had its day and is finished. However, a Christian knows the Resurrection, and knows that God can raise the dead, so he certainly is not going to rule out that the next “metaphysical mutation” may see a return of Christianity as a cultural force. Chesterton held that Christianity has historically “died” and come to life again about five times. If we Christians can preserve the spark of faith, eventually those tried of wandering in the darkness will find their way again to the light.

#20 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 12, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

John Gruskos, It is by no means true that the Germanic invaders were all Christians. Some were, some weren’t, and of those that were many were Arians.

Pat little truisms, that add up to no refutation. That Christianity remained a dominant presence in western Europe was indeed because the dominant rulers either were, and remained, or were converted to, Christianity. Arians ARE Christian, and the work of Arian missionaries paved the way for whatever Christianity emerged. Generally, it is true that non-Arian Christian kings subdued Arian kingdoms, if only because an invitation to holy war was a good excuse to expand and consolidate their own power. And Christian Germans, notably Charlemagne, slaughtered any remaining non-Christian Germans. But if devout and determined non-Christians had conquered Europe, and been hostile to Christianity, Benedict wouldn’t have been even a blip in European history. Its true that he had a Christian context in which to work.

#21 Comment By Jonf On October 12, 2018 @ 4:58 pm

Siarlys, and if the Roman Empire hadn’t fallen in the West, or if Justinian’s reconquest had succeeded we would also see Benedict as a much lesser figure. Something important to note though about that period of history especially the era after Benedict’s death when population was collapsing by leaps and bounds and even Constantinople nearly went under: those Germanic kings barely ruled their own baliwicks; they lacked the sort of totalitarian power needed to suppress Christianity or anything else. Even the Roman emperors in better days had lacked that power. Moreover they became dependent on churchmen to keep such power as they did have. As the Ottoman sultans also knew, when you are ruling a much larger subject people it’s much easier to do so through an elite class of the subjects themselves.

#22 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 13, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

So JonF, history is complex and swirls in currents and eddies difficult to reduce to a blog post. And the net conclusion is…?

#23 Comment By Ralf On October 19, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

Dear Mr. Dreher, I am pretty convinced you will like what Mr. Remi Brague said in this interview in 2004 in the for some years now sadly deceased journal 30giorni (30days):