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St. Benedict and the Prophet Stanley

Stanley Hauerwas (Photo by Jim Forest/Flickr)

Jake Meador continues to be a terrific Evangelical critic and supporter of the Benedict Option. From his latest, which concerns Stanley Hauerwas and the Benedict Option:

If the BenOp is about a corrective to some specific problems that have arisen in the North American church since the post-war years, then that is all to the good. It is not hard to argue that the second half of the 20th century was a uniquely poor time in the history of the western church and a move that would take us away from that by making some very specific course corrections to deal with significant problems is all to the good.

If the BenOp simply means that we need to revisit the question of Christian education for our children and begin thinking more seriously about what practical steps can be taken to create thicker bonds of friendship within our churches in order to produce more mature, stout-hearted believers then it’s hard to see how anyone could object to it. Indeed, that simply sounds like basic Christian wisdom to me.

But if the BenOp means that we ought to expect the Christian church to always live on the margins of society and that we must create more set-apart social bodies to serve as colonies existing in perpetual opposition to a hostile world, then we are dealing with something quite different.

One final note—I would hate for anyone to think that the chief question here is simply one about societal withdrawal. That is the issue everyone wants to discuss with the BenOp, but it’s actually not a very interesting question. Christians are called to be in the world, not of it. So we will always be in the world. And Rod has been very clear on this point, even though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the lazy accusations of some of his critics. The concern is what the shape of our being in the world will be. Are we people living counter-culturally who, nonetheless, see that there really is a great harvest out there and who are hopeful about our prospects and have a plan for what happens when the harvest comes? Or are we more like Jonah, willing to preach repentance but in the back of our minds convinced that the king will never hear us? If you think it’s the former, then your take on the BenOp is likely to look quite different than it would if you believe the latter.

Read the whole thing. It’s really good, and important.

The next six months of researching and writing the Benedict Option book is going to press me hard on this question, for which I have no definitive answer now. Personally, I situate myself somewhere between the two alternatives Jake proposes, though leaning to the less Hauerwasian side of things. Here’s what I mean.

I believe that the Ben Op is a corrective to orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I believe it is also about more effective education for our young, and about thickening the bonds of faith and friendship among orthodox believers. This is, as Jake says, “basic Christian wisdom.”

Which raises the question: “If the Benedict Option is only about getting the Church to do what the Church ought to have been doing all along, why do you have to give it a name? Isn’t this just about branding?”

The answer shows why the Hauerwasian approach has appeal, though a limited one.

We can start by asking a point by a Protestant reader who sent me Jake’s link. He’s referring to the Meador paragraph saying that the Ben Op, so defined, is “basic Christian wisdom”:

That’s all true, but if Evangelicals want to make the case that they are already doing this, they need to be called out on that.

That excellent point is also true of all Christians living in the West, not just Evangelicals. One big reason we Christians have not been doing this is because we have wrongly assumed that the “civil religion” of the general culture supports us, or at least does not oppose us. Relatedly, we have radically underestimated the nature of the threat to small-o orthodox Christianity by the very structures of modernity that form us. (If you are a subscriber to the Mars Hill Audio Journal, you know all this; if you are not a subscriber, you are missing out on vitally important information). A response to the crisis that is merely about doing what we’ve always done, only more of it, is bound to be inadequate.

I call for a rediscovery of the ways of the early Benedictines for several basic reasons:

1. They were formed in the age of what the Reformed theologian Hans Boersma calls “the Great Tradition” of Christianity — meaning, in his usage, the first thousand years of Christianity, when the “Platonic-Christian” synthesis of the Church Fathers laid the groundwork for a “sacramental ontology” (to oversimplify, that means seeing God truly present in all things, not separate from His creation). Recovery of a sacramental worldview is foundational to the project of recovering from modernity’s distortions.

2. The Benedictines order their lives by regular prayer and communal ritual that form their understanding of who they are and how they relate to God and to each other.

3. The Benedictines understand themselves to be both in the world but not of it. That is, their sense of hospitality opens them to the world, but they also understand that to remain faithful to their Christian calling, they must also draw lines between themselves and the broader world. It is fine to be open to the world, but not when it compromises one’s fidelity to the community’s Rule.

4. The first Benedictines came together forsomething: to worship God in community amid particular circumstances. But we must remember too that the chaos and degeneration of Late Antique Rome was the impetus for St. Benedict to withdraw to the desert (so to speak) to pray, and ultimately to form a new kind of community. Over the centuries, the Benedictine monasteries became spiritual and communal centers for laymen as well.

5. Basic Benedictine practices leading to a more ordered and resilient Christian existence, grounded in prayer, Scripture, and common life, can be adapted to lay Christian life in a variety of traditions (Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox) and locations (city, suburb, country), and serve as a symbollein — a drawing together — of what the forces of modernity are tearing apart (diabollein) and scattering.

The working title of my forthcoming book is The Benedict Option: Resistance, Resilience, and Resurrection in a Post-Christian Age. The “Resurrection” part speaks to the un-Hauerwasian part of my sensibility. I don’t believe that the Church must always be a loser, and must always oppose whatever the world and its government says and does. The early Benedictines didn’t come together with the goal in mind of saving Western civilization by preserving within their communities knowledge, both in tradition and written, of the faith, and of the past. They just wanted to pray and to live faithful to God, and to what they had been given. The secondary effect they had, though, was to seed Western Europe with the Gospel. As Prof. Russell Hittinger told me, the Benedictine vow of stability had a huge effect on this process, because it meant that the monks who established a particular monastery weren’t going to go away, no matter what. If barbarians sacked the monastery and killed the monks, the mother house would just send more. Thus, resilience.

I am Hauerwasian in the sense that I expect the “long defeat” (Tolkien’s phrase), and I think it is important for Christians to understand that merely tweaking what we have been doing is not remotely sufficient to counter the threat (and believe me, the threat is far, far more of a Huxleyan kind than Orwellian). But I am not Hauerwasian in this sense: unlike the Prophet Stanley, I hope for the eventual restoration of a more Christian society, in time, and don’t feel obliged to spite the government at every turn. To use a phrase of Peter Leithart’s quoted in Jake Meador’s piece, I believe the Benedict Option must not “refuse to succeed.” Defeatism is not next to godliness! Yet we contemporary Christians have a distorted idea of what constitutes victory, and that’s something I want to challenge. Restoring the 1950s must not be the goal of the Benedict Option, or it will fail. It is helpful for us Christians to be thinking more in Hauerwasian terms, for the sake of shaking us out of our complacency about where we stand in relation to post-Christian American culture.

All this is still fairly sketchy for me, and I will be putting lots of meat on the bones in the coming months (which means I will be blogging far less about it here; I don’t want to write the whole book in public). I continue to learn from you all, especially from engaged critics like Jake Meador.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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