Maritain & The Benedict Option
I am indebted to my friend James Matthew Wilson of Villanova for this deeply thoughtful take on The Benedict Option. He does me the undeserved honor of comparing the reception of the book to the reception, nearly a century ago, of the great Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain’s new vision of Christian politics in a secular age. As Wilson has it, Maritain recognized that the secular liberal democratic order was here to stay in the West, and tried to formulate a way for believers to live within it faithfully.
On Wilson’s account, Maritain taught that it is possible to do, but only if believers put prayer and contemplation at the center of their own lives, and work outward from there, to build a society that, while not explicitly recognizing God and the Christian truth about human nature, nevertheless honored those truths, and was set up in a way that helped people realize the Christian vision of human flourishing. Wilson:
How was it greeted? By those on the right, he was deemed a capitulator and heretic, who wanted not to bring about a “new Christendom” but an altogether “new Christianity” (a willful mistranslation of Maritain’s French). By those on the left, he was met with curious fascination rather than actual engagement.
In the end, though, Maritain’s thought became the mainstream, authoritative Catholic approach to politics in the modern age. So he won within his Church. But he lost in society, because, as Wilson writes:
Maritain tried to teach liberal democracy that the human person merited freedom and equality because he was ordered by reason to know the truth. He did not perceive that it was less out of mere ignorance than by positive decision that liberal society proposed something contrary: the person is valuable only insofar as he can impose his manufactured truth on the world by force of will and make something good for the satisfaction of his own desires. Ordination of the person to the contemplation of truth, in liberal eyes, appears positively grotesque and is deemed in any case an impediment to man’s equal-freedom to exercise his will whatever way he sees fit.
Which brings us to The Benedict Option. Wilson observes that the left and the right are replaying the reaction to Maritain back in the late 1920s. Wilson:
Just as Maritain was misunderstood at a time when real reform of the liberal order seemed necessary and likely, so has Dreher been misunderstood now, because so many of his readers misunderstand both what it means for man to be, in Aristotle’s words, a political animal, and how Dreher is suggesting we fulfill that nature in a hostile age.
I believe this is quite true. So many of the questions and arguments around the Benedict Option are really second-order questions and arguments. The real questions are: What is Christianity for? And, what is man?
Wilson again, on modernity:
Whether we approve these changes or see them as diabolical, we are part of the society in which they are taking place. Should Christians seek to shore up or gain control of the mechanisms of power of that society? Will that better enable them to practice a good way of life and pass it on to their children and grandchildren? Or is it rather the case that the liberal order has advanced so far in its secular voluntarism that we would better spend our lives entering more consciously into our religious practices, seeking to deepen and renew them all the better to resist their deformation by the corrupt fancies of our age?
Dreher’s answer to these questions is a qualified one. Because orthodox Christians are intrinsically a part of the broader society, they have no choice but to influence its institutional life as best they can, but the forces arrayed against them are rich, formidable, and bloodthirsty. The Christian right has largely failed to redirect our culture after forty years of trying; we will be fortunate now to hold the opposition at bay—and this we must do. Dreher sees, rightly, that the powerful “liquid” liberalism of our age would not be so great if Christians had more truly rallied to Maritain’s vision nearly a century ago to purify the sources of our religious devotion and to renew our political lives so that they conform to and aid our vocation to the knowledge and love of God. Because the times are less propitious now, Dreher summons us to follow the example of the Benedictines, to conceive of new “rules” or disciplines by which we may live so that our days are shaped primarily by our perception of God as our good rather than by the fluid, insidious influences of the mainstream culture.
Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is therefore not a suggestion that we withdraw from political life, but rather that we live out our political natures even more fully, variously, and consciously, by seeking to build up those moral communities that will actually help us to become, in Maritain’s words, ever more fully human.
Please read the whole thing. Wilson has articulated my point more clearly than I have: that the real business of politics is to build the social space within which we can flourish, and become who God created us to be. Because the Christian faith has become so feeble and compromised in this post-Christian era, it is at best a distraction for believers to put all their political effort into participation in the mainstream, though inevitably we will be part of that mainstream. I do not call for a withdrawal from politics as usual, but as Wilson correctly perceives, a recalibration of our idea of politics, such that we redirect our attention to the kind of politics that matters most. I use the resistance of Vaclav Benda and the Czech dissidents from communism as an example not because I believe that we are living under a version of communism, certainly, but because they show us what is not only possible, but what is mandatory, when believers find themselves disempowered (for whatever reason) and marginalized in a political and social order.
Christians in the United States (and the West generally) are not disempowered, but the trends are moving that way, in part because we ourselves have chosen to sever our roots in the Christian past, and instead have turned our faith into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, in which we worship a Jesus whose lived, died, and rose again so that we could feel great about ourselves no matter what we did. How can we expect the social and political order to be more accommodating to Christian values when we don’t even live by them in the church? When we have become the consumerist, materialist society at prayer?
James Matthew Wilson notes that he finds it regrettable that I took the name for this project from the final graf of MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Let me point out quickly that I did so simply because of the stark portrait MacIntyre painted in that paragraph: saying that the future belonged to those who realized that it was pointless to try to keep building up the institutions of a dying Roman imperial order, because in doing so they neglected to build up the smaller, local forms of community within which their belief in truth and a vision of human flourishing can be lived out. My view is that we Christians are in a similar situation today, and that the choice (the “option”) facing us is whether or not we will continue to live as if nothing were wrong (in which case we will continue to be assimilated out of existence) or whether we will resist by strengthening our own communities rooted in particular places.