Who’s Afraid Of The Benedict Option?
Hey everybody, I’m still at the University of Notre Dame, and have been so busy I don’t have time to compose an actual post of my own. But there is lots to tell, and I’ll tell it when I can settle down. In the meantime, an interview I did with Sean Collins of spiked review was published today. We talked about The Benedict Option, and other things. Here are excerpts:
Collins: In your book you lean on Philip Rieff and his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff argued that religion was being replaced with a gospel of self-fulfillment. What impact specifically do you think the growth of this therapeutic culture has had on Christianity?
Dreher: It’s been absolutely devastating. Christian Smith of Notre Dame has written about how there is religious illiteracy in American culture, across denominations, and even across religions. It’s devastating because young people and people in general – look, I’m 50 years old and I was raised this way, too – don’t associate following a religion with living up to a certain set of standards outside of ourselves. I mean, called outside of ourselves to be sacrificial – not only sacrificial of our own desires, but in terms of our income and our time. To live up to a reality that’s outside of ourselves. So if religion no longer calls on us to make sacrifices for the greater good, to serve God, and to love our neighbour, then religion collapses into something that makes us happy. We come to believe that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves, and that’s the greatest good. I do think God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves, but that only comes through holiness, when we are doing what God asks us to do. And that usually means some form of sacrifice.
This is historic Christianity; this is Christianity as it has been lived out for nearly two thousand years. The Bible tells us that we have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ. This is a foreign gospel to the modern sensibility and most modern churches. And I think that when we lose that self-sacrificial idea of what Christianity is, we end up not worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible. We end up worshipping the self. It’s clear from research that this is where we are in American society today.
I was at a conservative evangelical college in the Midwest earlier this year, giving a talk on The Benedict Option. During the Q&A session, a young woman undergraduate stood up in the audience and asked sincerely, ‘I don’t understand why you are talking about practices and things like that. Why is that necessary to be a Christian? Why isn’t enough that we love Jesus with all our hearts, like I was raised?’ I told her, as Christians we have to do that, but it’s not as simple as that. What she’s talking about is just arranging our emotions. To love Jesus means certain things, and it does not mean other things, and this comes to us through the Bible, and our different religious traditions, and so on. But love is not simply a feeling, and if we don’t have orthodoxy – in other words, right belief – and orthopraxy – which is to say practices that integrate those beliefs into our daily lives – then our faith will become just something very ephemeral and emotional.
After the meeting, one of the professors at this college said that what that young lady said to you represents the spirituality of 99 per cent of the people on this campus. They are the products of youth culture. They’ve not been taught anything about the historic Christian faith, other than emotion, other than Jesus is your best friend, Jesus wants you to be happy. So, when they are challenged on this from the secular world, they have no answer, and they capitulate. They’ve not been given any kind of concrete grounding in catechism or doctrine, nor a way of thinking about what it means to be a religious person in a secular world. I found that quite striking, because it fits very well with what Christian Smith has found about the religious illiteracy of the American young, and how there’s no stability at all there – it’s all about emotion.
Remember, this was a conservative evangelical college. This was not a secular college or a liberal college. The problem goes very, very deep. You see why I am so alarmed by it, because the people who ought to be aware of it, and figuring out how to deal with it, are in deep denial that it’s even a problem.
Collins: You argue that the issues facing Christianity are caused as much by internal pressures as external pressures. To quote from Rieff again: ‘The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in a way that remain inwardly compelling.’ It seems that traditional values associated with the West – and not limited to Christianity, either – are not necessarily being recognised and embraced by the younger generation.
Dreher: You’re completely right. This crisis I am talking about in The Benedict Option is a crisis of the Church, but this is all part of a much broader crisis of authority in the West. I don’t know how we’re going to solve it. Across political institutions, across academia, there’s a feeling that everything is suddenly up for grabs. And I’m not sure how this going to turn out.
Collins: Saint Benedict was a 6th-century monk who responded to the collapse of Roman civilisation by founding a monastic order. Why do you think he is an example Christians should follow today?
Dreher: Benedict didn’t set out to save Roman civilisation. He could see it was falling apart around him. He just wanted to find a quiet place to pray and work on his salvation. And so he came up with the rule of Saint Benedict – something he partially borrowed from older monastic rules – which amounted to a guide to running a monastery. This ended up becoming extremely successful. When Benedict died, there were only 12 or 13 monasteries around that he had founded, but over the next couple of centuries, they spread like wildfire throughout Western Europe, which was mostly at that time governed by barbarian kings. When the monks founded these monasteries, they would not only preach the gospel to the local people, they also taught them how to pray, they taught them how to read in some cases, and they taught them the arts of living, like gardening, metallurgy, things that had been lost when Rome fell. The collapse of the Roman Empire was not simply a political collapse, it was a catastrophic cultural collapse. And because the monks preserved this wisdom within their communities – not just religious wisdom but also practical wisdom – they ended up spreading this knowledge throughout Western Europe laying the groundwork for the revival of civilisation.
We face different challenges certainly, because we live in a post-Christian era. Yet we Christians need to try to preserve that truth, that wisdom, within our communities, as well as spread it to the non-Christian world. It’s going to be different from what Saint Benedict dealt with, but both eras share a chaotic culture that is dealing with the trauma of having lost its foundations, and a culture that is in many ways hostile to what we have to say.
The main things we can learn from Saint Benedict are the value of community, the value of faithful practices, and the value of having an overarching sense of divine order, of sacred order, that we are conforming our lives to. This point about order is really hard for modern people to accept: the idea that there is a transcendent order to things that is not separate from the world, but immanent within it. It’s a metaphysical point. It sounds like angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it’s absolutely vital. If you visit the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, in Italy, that’s one of the first things the monks will tell you about how their lives are governed. They all recognise that their role in life is not just to follow a moral law, and not just to think holy thoughts; it is also to conform every part of their lives to the sacred order and make it present in the material world, through the work of their hands, through their prayers, through their good works. It’s a tremendous adventure, a tremendous challenge, but the Christian faith demands nothing less of us.
Look at the fathers of the Church, back in the Patristic era, or look to the medieval Church and the way medieval Christians understood themselves in relation to each other, and to the wider social order – there we can find the roots for our own recovery in the 21st century. The Church isn’t only the institution, and the Church isn’t all of the people who claim to be Christian right now in the year 2017. The Church is something that goes back 2,000 years. These people are our brothers and sisters in the faith, our fathers and mothers in the faith. We have a lot to learn from them, if we just open our eyes and get outside of this dictatorship of relativism, as Pope Benedict calls it, and this tyranny of the present moment.
Collins: How would you respond to those who say that The Benedict Option is advocating a retreat, a complete disengagement from society?
Dreher: The power of the post-Christian, and indeed anti-Christian, culture is so great that in order to hold on to the basics of the faith, Christians have to retreat in a limited way in our communities in order to form resilient disciples. This does not mean going totally Amish and shutting ourselves off from the world. But if we don’t withdraw from the world for the sake of formation, we are going to be completely useless in bringing Christian values to the wider world. If we look like the rest of the world, what difference does it make if you’re Christian?
There is a lot of fear and willful misunderstanding of this point, because people are terrified. A lot of Christians understand, in their heart of hearts, that we can’t keep going this way. They are seeing how many young people are leaving the faith entirely, and they don’t know what to do. They are afraid of having to change their lives in ways that are really hard for them. They don’t want to be seen as weird. But we’ve got to be willing to be seen as weird. Not simply for the sake of being weird, or being anti-social, but rather for the sake of standing up for what we really believe, because increasingly there’s such a divide between the way of the secular world and the way of Christ, and you cannot bridge that gap by continuing to assimilate.
This is an existential question. It’s not one only facing Christians. I’ve written on my blog about how Jews are dealing with this, in terms of inter-marriage. The problems are a little bit different for us Christians, but ultimately it’s all the same thing. The modern world says the individual is sacred, and individual choice is the real God of the Age. If that is true, then Christianity and Judaism and other revealed religions cease to exist. This is what I mean when I say the Church is falling away. Either the Church means something objectively in history, or it does not. And if it does mean something objectively in history, then we are bound to conform our own lives to this sacred order. If not, then the Church becomes whatever we want it to be, and it will completely go away in time, because it will cease to be recognisable to people who read the Bible, or the Church of centuries past.
Read the whole thing. There’s a lot more to it. I’m really grateful to Sean Collins for his questions.
It really is amazing how freaked out some people are by the Ben Op. A professor at a social gathering said to me tonight, “I think you can only explain the reaction in psychological terms.” He had been at my big speech on Thursday night, and seen the crackpot stand up and start ranting, and had heard others insist that I was demanding that Christians withdraw into enclaves — this, despite that fact that I had explicitly said no, I’m not calling for that, and explained what I was calling for. Today, in a faculty event, one professor told the group that he was against the Benedict Option, based on everything he had read about the book. But when he read the book, he realized that those who had put it down had mischaracterized my work in a serious way.
Something is scaring people silly about this book.
UPDATE:Alan Jacobs writes about this today on his blog, offering this excerpt from an e-mail he sent to a correspondent who criticized the Ben Op:
… I just don’t think the question of whether Rod is “the right messenger” for the Benedict Option is a fruitful one. Still less do I want to speculate about what he “really” wants to do or achieve. If you were to read the book, you’d see that it’s not about Rod. It’s fundamentally concerned to describe a series of experiments in Christian community which Rod has observed. Yes, Rod makes plenty of editorial comments, but the heart of the book is simply reporting. As I have said over and over again, the way for us to have a fruitful conversation about the BenOp is to look at those communities: Do any of them seem to you to be a healthy, an appropriate, an adequate Christian response to the challenges of late modernity? If so, why? If not, why not? And in either case, what can we learn from them in our own attempts to live faithfully in interesting times?
Click here to read more of Alan’s commentary on the Ben Op. He has been a friendly critic of it, and I have benefited from his insights.
To restate and perhaps amplify Alan’s point: the Benedict Option may not have the answers to the crisis we’re in, but at least I’m trying — and, more importantly, the people and communities I profile in the book at trying. If anybody’s got a better idea, let’s hear it. Seriously, let’s hear it. I’ve got skin in this game. I’ve got kids, and I want them to grow up as resilient, joyful, faithful Christians.
My sense is that a lot of these knee-jerk critics know well in their heart of hearts that things are bad, and that they, as well as the institutional church, have no idea how to meet the challenge. So they are going to pile on to the messenger. Hey, I can take it, but guess what, people? Your kids are still growing up in a hostile, post-Christian culture, and are not going to hold on to their faith if you keep doing what you’re doing now. Youth pastors and Christian educators tell me over and over that the biggest obstacle they face in ministering to and forming the kids under their authority is the denial of their parents, which typically manifests itself in parents expecting the church and/or the school to education and form their kids, without them having to do a thing, or change their lives in any way. It doesn’t work.
Let me add here that when I travel to talk about The Benedict Option, I often meet Christians who, by their example, challenge me and inspire me to do better in my own life. I’m still learning to, and will be learning for my whole life.