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Hauerwas Vs. The Benedict Option

'Community is dangerous,' says the eminent theologian

Good interview in Plough magazine with Stanley Hauerwas. This caught my eye:

You’ve written extensively about how the church should respond to the “end of Christendom” – the fact that we no longer live in a culture whose ground rules stem from Christianity. What about the “Benedict Option” proposed by the writer Rod Dreher? He argues that Christians should respond to secularization by following the example of the early monastics, withdrawing from a heathen civilization to build alternative communities where Christian virtues can be nourished and passed on. Is he right?

This Benedict Option idea comes from the last line of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, in which he observes that the barbarians have been ruling us for some time and that our future is “no doubt to have a Benedict, no doubt a very different Benedict.” Here’s the problem: Alasdair once told me that this is the line he most regrets ever having written! He wasn’t advocating some kind of withdrawal strategy – he was only pointing out that we can’t be compromised by the world in which we find ourselves. I don’t think your community, the Bruderhof, takes a withdrawal strategy, for instance.

I sometimes say that I wouldn’t mind withdrawing, but we’re surrounded – there’s no place to withdraw to! Maybe the Benedict Option should be rethought in terms of the vow of stability and what it might look like in congregations. We would tell prospective members: “When you join our church, you don’t get to decide by yourself when and where you will move. If your company wants to send you to a new town, you first need to ask the church whether it’s a good idea.”

That kind of accountability to one another is only possible in a community where there is mutual commitment – where there is a church discipline.

Right. My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates that we are a people who need help. We need to pray to God to help us, because we’re not quite sure anymore where we are – we’re not quite sure what the dangers are. We need all the help we can get from one another, and we need God in order to know how to be accountable to one another.

What do you mean that we can’t just make community up?

First, community for community’s sake is not a good idea. Sartre is right: hell is other people! Community by itself cannot overwhelm the loneliness of our lives. I think we are a culture that produces extreme loneliness. Loneliness creates a hunger – and hunger is the right word, indicating as it does the physical character of the desire and need to touch another human being.

But such desperate loneliness is very dangerous. Look at NFL football. Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome. I used to give a lecture in my basic Christian Ethics class that I called “The Fascism of College Basketball.” You take alienated upper-middle-class kids who are extremely unsure of who they are – and suddenly they are Duke Basketball. I call it Duke Basketball Fascism because fascism has a deep commitment to turning the modern nation-state into a community. But to make the modern state into a kind of community – for the state to become the primary source of identity through loose talk about community – is very dangerous. It is not community for its own sake that we seek. Rather, we should try to be a definite kind of community.

Alasdair MacIntyre, for one, resists being called a communitarian – he fears that in this place and time such calls are bound to lead to nationalistic movements. Those who hunger for community should never forget Nuremberg.

Read the whole thing. Please.

I sent the following response by e-mail to Hauerwas:

I was pleased to see that you addressed my Benedict Option idea in your interview with Peter Mommsen. Pleased most especially because I am more or less modeling the book I’m now writing on the Ben Op (as it has come to be called in shorthand, the “B.O.” being obviously unsuitable) on “Resident Aliens,” which I am quoting generously.

My suspicion is that there is less distance between your views and mine than you may think. I want to clarify that in my own thinking about the Benedict Option, I am not advocating an Amish-style withdrawal from the world (though I respect those who feel called to it, and wish them well). That will not be the path for most of us, nor, in my view, should it be. I am calling for more of a conscious “exile in place” for the church — that is, for the kind of Christians I call small-o orthodox Christians. Some people may need to physically move for this kind of community, but in most cases (I think) it will be a matter of deepening one’s commitments to one’s own tradition and the church community in which it is embodied, and in thickening the bonds among the community’s members. This requires a clear understanding that our first loyalty is to the Church, not to American empire. I know that you need no convincing on this point, but my tribe, broadly speaking, of conservatives really does. I quit being a Republican a decade ago, though I still identify as a conservative. Nobody in our national politics speaks for me; I’m more or less a right-wing Russian Orthodox version of Wendell Berry, minus the hardcore agrarianism (I grew up in the country in south Louisiana, and once again live there; I think there’s way too much idealization of agrarianism among suburban and city folk).

In most cases, the Benedict Option will involve orthodox Christians (as I define them) taking it in their own churches, and establishing institutions like new schools, e.g., the classical Christian school movement. I fully agree with you about the danger of idolizing community for its own sake. In my 2015 book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” I wrote about how reading the Commedia awakened me to the idolization of family and place to which I had become captive, owing to growing up in the Deep South with a good but overbearing father. I had to repent deeply of that, and intend in the book to write about the dangers of idolizing community, church, family, or anything.

Anyway, what I’m trying to do is find a defensible and sustainable middle ground between total withdrawal and total surrender to the atomizing forces in our economic, political, and religious life. I am anti-utopian by nature, but living in a small town — St. Francisville, La. — after having lived in DC, NYC, Dallas, and Philadelphia, I’m seeing the same acedia and social breakdown here that I saw in the big cities. People are struggling to know what to do. I have kids of my own, and I am not content to sit back and accept what the Empire has planned for them. I want to encourage and cultivate faithful Christian resistance.

I asked him for an interview for the book. No response yet.

It will be a very good thing when the book finally comes out next year, and I can argue with people over things I actually believe and propose, not what they think I believe and propose, or that someone told them I believe and propose. I don’t really blame Hauerwas or anybody else who doesn’t read me regularly for not getting the nuances of all this. Still, it’s frustrating. Hauerwas says “maybe the Benedict Option should be rethought,” but nobody has set down the thinking concretely yet! I’m already halfway on the road to Nuremberg, and I haven’t even finished the book…

Hey readers, I am traveling today to Baltimore for a conference. You will see new posts publishing here throughout the day. That’s because I wrote them yesterday and scheduled them to go up while I’m away from the keys. Please be patient with my approving comments. I’ll do it as quickly and as efficiently as I can, but there will be delays.



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