Problems With The Benedict Option
Longtime readers know that I’ve been fascinated for a while with what I call the Benedict Option, or the idea that small-o orthodox Christians should consider reacting to the post-Christian world by creating small, stable communities within which we can live out faith and virtue together. I think this is a normal thing, and not just a Christian thing, though the track record of intentional communities is not great. I’ve just read two reports that illustrate the challenges these Benedict Option communities face.
The first is a NYT report from Paraguay, in which we learn that a separatist German colony formed for racist reasons in the late 19th century has become thoroughly assimilated. Excerpt:
While there are still a few blond-haired children running around, after generations of intermarriage, many of the town’s 4,300 residents have German surnames but are indiscernible from other Paraguayans. Nueva Germania’s dominant language is Guaraní, the indigenous language widely spoken in Paraguay; even those families who still hew to old ways, speaking German at home, mix it with high-pitched, nasal Guaraní and some Spanish.
Describing a towering tree in the yard of her farm with few branches around its trunk, making it daunting to climb, Ms. Fischer, the descendant of Nueva Germania’s pioneers, called it simply “ka’i kyhyjeha,” an indigenous term roughly translating as “monkey’s fear.” “Guaraní and German are so different from each other,” she said, “but they mix well for us.”
It appears from the report that the utopian settlement failed rather quickly, but the Germans who remained got on with their lives, and have now become thoroughly assimilated. While we can all be very glad indeed that an Aryan supremacist colony failed, it’s interesting in a broad sense to see how an idealistic community cannot survive the inability of its founders to overcome practical obstacles to self-sustenance.
The second piece is this fascinating report in The Atlantic about the Old Believers, a schismatic 17th century Russian Orthodox sect that was horribly persecuted for its beliefs (see the life of the Old Believer priest Avvakum, for example) by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist government, such that many of them fled Russia over the centuries. One clan eventually found refuge in the United States:
This time, when the Kalugin family decided to move again, it was not to escape religious persecution, but for better economic opportunities. In the middle of the Cold War, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy offered them asylum. Some Old Believers settled in New Jersey, but many ended up in Woodburn, Oregon, hoping to find a place to permanently call home.
“My brother was telling me just recently that in the first day…in Oregon, there was work already available for them,” Father Nikolai says. “Him and Dad went and worked. They got paid the same day in cash. And they went and they bought a sack of flour, a sack of potatoes. And Dad says, yep, we can live here. We can make a living here.”
But after only a few years, the elders began to fear that the younger generation was becoming too Americanized, drinking too much and hanging out with the wrong crowd. “Some of my family ended up working in the forest, logging and planting trees, and working for different companies,” says Akati Kalugin. “Then we all realized that it’s not going to last long [in Oregon] because the city started growing too fast. Older folks realized they have to go somewhere more remote.”
With help from the Tolstoy Foundation, five families continued their migration up to a small piece of land just outside of Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula. They lived in tents the first few months, while everyone pitched in to build the first few homes and buildings. In the beginning, the community tried to live a subsistence lifestyle, harvesting their own vegetables. There was a gate to the community that reinforced the self-isolation they were seeking.
But even that wasn’t enough, in time. A schism developed within the Alaskan community. More:
The new priest and his followers built a traditional onion-domed church across the street from the more humble priestless church in Nikolaevsk, where those suspicious of the blasphemous ordaining continued to congregate. In 1985, the priestless church burned to the ground, leaving nothing but a mound of ash.
Akati Kalugin, who belongs to the priestless group, grows so animated every time he talks about the incident, that he begins to lose his already slippery grasp of English. “They said that the fire started from attic, from electrical. Guess what? They don’t have any electrical in the church. How in the hell does it start? There was no electrical? So that’s the question mark: who start the fire?”
After the fire, several families moved away from Nikolaevsk to form new priestless villages in even more isolated parts of the Kenai Peninsula. The only road to Kachemak Selo, is a steep switchback that is covered in ice in the winter and slippery with mud in the summer. “It used to be that they coming in by the boat or helicopter, when they start out this village here,” Kalugin says. Once safely down the switchback, Kachemak Selo is still about half a mile down a beach that is pushed up against a mountain. In the winter, mattress-sized pieces of clear ice, tinted with neon blue, wash up on the beach, littering the entrance to Kachemak Selo with more obstacles.
Though Kachemak Selo and Nikolaevsk have theological disagreements today, they have been through the same struggles, trying to preserve the Old Belief and traditional Russian way of life. The unifying challenge for both is to hold on to their traditions they carried across the globe.
But even at the end of the line, in Alaska, when there is nowhere else to go, American culture and modernization are still seeping in. It seems that no matter how far they run, they can’t escape the future.
That’s a great line, and a tragic one. You cannot conquer time. It seems to me that the lesson from the Old Believers’ odyssey is that a traditional community that doesn’t have a way to deal with the passage of time and human frailty in a flexible way is a community that will break under pressure. Read the whole thing.
It’s all so complex. A community that has no idea where it comes from, culturally, and that doesn’t develop some sort of stance to hold on to its identity will lose it in the fast-moving currents of modernity. But one that tries to stand against those currents, instead of figuring out who to surf them, will also lose what matters most to them.