In 2002, the sociologist James Davison Hunter gave an extraordinary talk to Church leaders. Most Christians, he said, think of culture as the values in individual hearts and minds, and imagine therefore that changing culture is the task of evangelising individual hearts and minds. Hunter called this view of culture “pervasive” and completely wrong. “If one is serious about changing the world,” he said, “the first step is to discard this view of culture and how cultures change, for every strategy based upon it will fail – not most strategies, but all strategies.”
Culture, instead, is a form of capital, a kind of power. But what sort of power? “It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be taken seriously,” Hunter said. “It ends as the power to define reality itself. It is the power to name things.”
A culture war is a struggle over who has the power to name what is real. For generations in America there was a central source of information in the body politic for naming what was real, at least at the level of simple fact. Over time it became clearer and clearer that the Left could use its influence over these elite information streams to deprive the conservative movement of the capacity to make changes. Republicans lived in fear of being branded a bigot, a hater or a racist, and so the circle of what counts as bigotry, hatred and racism expanded to include more of the Left’s social agenda (particularly, but not exclusively, around gay issues).
It was an effective weapon and it worked, until Trump refused to be cowed by this narrative and still won.
She goes on to talk about how Benedict XVI spoke in his Regensburg Address about how science and reason cannot stand alone. They require grounding in faith to become themselves most fully — and, in turn, faith has to be grounded in reason, in the concept of the Logos running through all of creation. When this connection is sundered, says Benedict XVI, paraphrased by Gallagher:
Both faith and reason are corrupted and community consequently becomes far more difficult to create and sustain.
“To change the world is, at some point, to take power seriously,” said James Davison Hunter. “But the power we need to take seriously is not power in a conventional sense. … Rather, it is the power to define reality in ways that sustain benevolence and justice.”
Without a shared faith in objective truth, and a way to reach a rough consensus on what it is, where shall we get that power? How shall we do without it? Democracy dies in darkness.
Alasdair MacIntyre, in the foreword to the 2007 edition of After Virtue, writes that after the first edition (1981), he came to realize that Aquinas understood things better than Aristotle, and that the virtue tradition cannot be sustained without a metaphysical basis. (For more on this, take a look at MacIntyre’s 1993 NYTimes review of Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. Murdoch was not a believer, but she contends that morality does not make sense outside of a metaphysical commitment — that is, an axiomatic, Platonic conviction that there is an ideal realm of the Good outside of the material world.
To put it bluntly: we cannot be good without God, because we cannot know what the Good is without believing that it exists and is guaranteed by the transcendent realm. This god does not have to be a being; in ancient Chinese thought, the Tao serves as the metaphysical grounding for morals. The point is that there has to be a shared, communal conception of the good for moral reasoning to have authority and meaning.
We have lost that in modernity, says MacIntyre. Here’s a helpful short film (3:38) outlining his case in After Virtue:
To repeat: MacIntyre later said that his reflections after publishing this book caused him to realize the need for metaphysics. He became a Christian, and a Thomist.
So, what does all of this have to do with us? The Benedict Option is built on the conviction that the faith of the Bible reveals to us the nature of reality — not in the sense of being a science textbook, but rather it tells us How Things Are, including What We Are For. It is also built on the conviction that Christian thought, for a number of reasons, has become dangerously fragmented and atomized in late modernity, such that its truth claims are being vacated, even by those who profess to believe them. This is what is revealed to us chiefly through Christian Smith’s research on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: that what goes by the name “Christianity” in the West is Christian in name only, and has increasingly little in common with Christianity as it has been traditionally understood by Christians — Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.
The Benedict Option is a call to active remembrance, and active remembrance in community, which is the only way the traditions that sustained our ancestors in the faith can be revived and passed on in the face of liquid modernity. Our situation is so dire that we must now wage a heroic battle to maintain the power to define reality even among ourselves and our own communities. That is to say, to keep our eyes on the Good, as it has been revealed in Scripture and handed down to us in Tradition, requires unprecedented individual and communal effort by 21st century Christians. If we do not draw strong distinctions; if we do not catechize ourselves, our children, and our church communities in the traditional Christian worldview and practices that imprint it on our hearts; and if we do not do so in a spirit of love — then we will disappear, dissolved into the chaos of liquid modernity. It is already happening — indeed, has already happened to much of the church in the West.
The Benedict Option is a way of fighting for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as revealed to us in the Christian tradition. It is a way of defending Christian identity in a time of scattering, and even persecution. We are going to see ourselves losing political and cultural power, but the real power of the powerless is the power to define reality, to define truth, and to live out that truth in the face of lies. It is a stance of conscience. The worst defeat is not to lose cultural or political power. The worst defeat, for Christians, is to lose Jesus Christ through compromise with the post-Christian world. That’s what I’ve written The Benedict Option to prevent. From the book, this reflection on the inspiration provided by Vaclav Havel and the Czech dissidents:
Havel, who died in 2011, preached what he called “antipolitical politics,” the essence of which he described as “living in truth.” His most famous and thorough statement of this was a long 1978 essay titled “The Power of the Powerless,” which electrified the Eastern European resistance movements when it first appeared. It is a remarkable document, one that bears careful study and reflection by orthodox Christians in the West today.
Consider, says Havel, the greengrocer living under Communism, who puts a sign in his shop window saying, “Workers of the World, Unite!” He does it not because he believes it, necessarily. He simply doesn’t want trouble. And if he doesn’t really believe it, he hides the humiliation of his coercion by telling himself, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Fear allows the official ideology to retain power—and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who “live within a lie,” says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity.
Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”— and it’s going to cost him plenty.
He will lose his job and his position in society. His kids may not be allowed to go to the college they want to, or to any college at all. People will bully him or ostracize him. But by bearing witness to the truth, he has accomplished something potentially powerful:
He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.
Because they are public, the greengrocer’s deeds are inescapably political. He bears witness to the truth of his convictions by being willing to suffer for them. He becomes a threat to the system—but he has preserved his humanity. And that, says Havel, is a far more important accomplishment than whether this party or that politician holds power (a fact that became painfully clear during the debasing 2016 U.S. presidential campaign).
“A better system will not automatically ensure a better life,” Havel goes on. “In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.” (emphasis mine).
Here’s the point: if Christians want to maintain a “faithful presence” in the world today — as we must — then they are going to have to do the Benedict Option.