How Bad Is The Benedict Option?
My TAC colleague Emile Doak went last week to a panel discussion about The Benedict Option. It was sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Emile didn’t like what he heard, and writes about it in TAC today. First, Emile identifies the panelists (I’m quoting this here because I’ll be talking about them later in this post):
Anglican Cherie Harder of the Trinity Forum, evangelical Alison Howard of the Alliance Defending Freedom, Joseph Capizzi of the Catholic University of America, Joseph Hartman of Georgetown University, and Bruce Ashford of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Despite the panel’s ecumenical nature, its members were more or less unified in their reluctance to endorse a Christian “retreat” from the public square.
Emile questions whether “retreat” is what I’m actually calling for (again, more on this later), and says:
But the visceral reaction to the mere suggestion of stepping back from the public square from many in the Christian ranks reveals the much more subtle ways in which our small-L liberal politics has effectively Americanized Christianity.
Of course, Christians have an obligation to engage in the political sphere, a point made convincingly by Alison Howard from the Alliance Defending Freedom. Howard argued that, were all Christians to take the Benedict Option, the bakers, florists, photographers, and the like who are served by ADF would have no defense against a rapidly secularizing culture.
But this contention, compelling as it is, reveals the difficulty Americans have with grappling with the heart of Dreher’s thesis. Howard’s objection presumes that there will continue to be a sizable number of bakers, florists, and photographers who will raise Christian objections to secularism throughout future generations. This implies, more broadly, that current American political culture is hospitable, or at the very least neutral, to the cultivation of orthodox Christian practice. Under this pretense, robust political engagement among Christians can make sense. The data, however, paint a foreboding forecast for Howard’s core presumption.
Read the whole thing. Emile goes on to say that none of the presenters grapple with this side of the Benedict Option critique. That’s mostly true, though Bruce Ashford — notably, the only one of the panelists who lives and works outside the Beltway — touches on it in his presentation. It doesn’t get addressed directly until the very last audience question of the nearly two-hour event, in which a student says that everybody on the panel is ignoring one of the central claims of The Benedict Option: that the church is especially feeble now, and unable to mount any real resistance to de-Christianizing trends in modernity.
That student is absolutely right — and it’s really important. More on which in a moment.
This morning, I watched a recording of the entire event online, and encourage you to do so, if you have the time. What follows is the summary of notes I took while watching. Consider this my own response to the panel.
The first speaker was CUA’s Joseph Capizzi. He questions my claim that the Indiana RFRA debacle and the Obergefell decision that followed soon after are “inflection points” in the religious and cultural life in America. What about Roe v. Wade? he asks. What about no-fault divorce? What about Jim Crow?
Let’s unpack this — and please keep in mind that these questions are answered in the book itself, should you care to read it.
First, on the Indiana RFRA decision, please go back and read this piece about my interview with “Prof. Kingsfield,” an elite law professor, written in the immediate aftermath of the state’s capitulation to corporate pressure. The meaning of Indiana was that this was the first time corporate America took sides in the culture war — and it sided dramatically, powerfully, and consequentially with pro-LGBT activists, against the cause of religious liberty. In so doing, corporate America forced a Republican legislature and a Republican governor of a solidly red state to surrender. And get this: relatively few people objected. Kingsfield reached out to me after the Indiana RFRA, seeing in me someone sympathetic to his viewpoint. He said (this is from my 2015 piece):
“I’m very worried,” he said, of events of the last week. “The constituency for religious liberty just isn’t there anymore.”
Like me, what unnerved Prof. Kingsfield is not so much the details of the Indiana law, but the way the overculture treated the law. “When a perfectly decent, pro-gay marriage religious liberty scholar like Doug Laycock, who is one of the best in the country — when what he says is distorted, you know how crazy it is.”
“Alasdair Macintyre is right,” he said. “It’s like a nuclear bomb went off, but in slow motion.” What he meant by this is that our culture has lost the ability to reason together, because too many of us want and believe radically incompatible things.
But only one side has the power. When I asked Kingsfield what most people outside elite legal and academic circles don’t understand about the way elites think, he said “there’s this radical incomprehension of religion.”
Shortly thereafter came the Obergefell decision, which constitutionally mandated same-sex marriage. As I write in the book, Obergefell does not stand on its own, but is the culmination of a long process of Sexual Revolution, which includes no-fault divorce, abortion, and so forth. The reason the traditional marriage model collapsed so quickly in the face of gay activism is because the Sexual Revolution had already prepared the heterosexual majority to accept it. That is, most people already accepted that childbearing is only incidental to the meaning of marriage; that marriage is constituted solely by the love of two people; and that it is a contract that can be dissolved. Plus, most people have become convinced that sexual desire is at the core of one’s identity. It’s not what one feels; it’s who one is.
From a traditional Christian point of view, and from the point of view of religious liberty, these are massively important developments. For one, as Kingsfield avers, the constituency for religious liberty, when it conflicts with gay-rights claims, is disappearing. In The Benedict Option, I feature the comments of a former GOP state legislative leader, and a current lobbyist for religious liberty, describing how hostile the environment to it is in statehouses — and how powerful corporate interests are. In my view, there are still a vast number of Christians who do not understand any of this (the mainstream media is certainly not going to point it out to them), and who believe that the Republican Party is a faithful ally. It’s not true, and we’re fools if we think so.
But to be fair to the Republican Party, its goal is to win elections. If defending religious liberty costs it votes and campaign contributions, then it won’t defend religious liberty. If failing to defend religious liberty doesn’t cost it anything, then why should it take the risk of being called bigots and haters, and losing campaign contributions? The point I’m trying to make is that the Indiana RFRA moment was one of those times when the tide suddenly goes out, and you see who’s wearing a bathing suit, and who isn’t.
Obergefell is significant in particular because it puts traditional Christians on the same side, constitutionally, as segregationists. That is, it writes into constitutional law the modernist belief that sexual desire is constitutive of identity, and that to deny the full expression of that desire in law is to deny the full personhood of one who has those desires. If that is true, then in law, I see no way that traditionalists can be regarded as anything other than the moral equivalent of racists. If you don’t think this is going to have a long-term impact on religious liberty, you’re a Pollyanna fantasist.
Third, one meaningful difference between Obergefell and, say, Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that upheld the “separate but equal” principle, is that Plessy was handed down in a culture that was still dominated by a general Christian worldview. It is a scandal to us today that many Christians of that time believed in segregation, but it’s important to observe that the cultural, social, and political forces that would eventually lead to Plessy‘s demise (in Brown v. Board) came out of the Christian church — especially the black church.
There is nothing like that in the churches today with regard to Obergefell, because churches either accept Obergefell as a victory for justice and moral progress, or think that it’s not that big of a deal. What Obergefell does is lock into constitutional law a view of marriage and family, and of the human person, that radically contradicts what the Bible and historic orthodox Christianity says is true. Prof. Capizzi is a Roman Catholic and a professor at the Catholic University of America. In 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal arm, issued this statement about same-sex marriage. Written by Cardinal Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II, it reads, in part:
The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself.
In light of this, I am mystified as to why Prof. Capizzi minimizes my concern about the Indiana RFRA and Obergefell as “somewhat provincial,” except perhaps in the sense that affirming them is easier professionally and socially out here in the provinces than it is in Washington, DC.
Capizzi accuses me of advocating “ecclesial introversion,” and says we don’t need that. Much later in the discussion — in answer to the final question — Capizzi dismisses the research Notre Dame’s Christian Smith has done, showing that young American Christians (and especially young American Catholics) are profoundly ignorant of basic Christian moral and theological claims. Capizzi says that faith waxes and wanes historically, so this is really not that big a deal. This is stunning. Capizzi sounds like one of those whistling-past-the-graveyard Catholic academics that Smith (himself a Catholic academic) reproves here, and, of course, at great length in this book based on his sociological research.
In The Benedict Option, I cite a recent paper by two of the top sociologists of religion in the field, in which they survey recent and past findings, and conclude that America can no longer be plausibly thought of as a counterexample to European religious decline and secularization. We are now uncontestably on the same path as Europe — not as far along, but headed in the same direction. You go to Europe today, and talk to Christian parents trying to raise Christian children in a heavily post-Christian culture, and you try to maintain with a straight face that there’s not anything serious to worry about here.
Lots of people wonder why I use alarmist rhetoric in the book. This is why! When people are deaf, you have to shout.
Anyway, I do say quite explicitly that the church (Catholic and otherwise) in the West has to make its primary focus rebuilding itself internally. I will never tire of quoting church historian Robert Louis Wilken on this point:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
With the partial exception of Bruce Ashford, not one of the panelists addressed this central claim of The Benedict Option. I wonder why? Seriously, I wonder why. As I write in the book, we Christians are supposed to serve the world, but we cannot give the world what we do not have.
Moving on, Cherie Harder had some complimentary things to say about the book. I should add that the Trinity Forum, of which she is the president, has been extremely open and generous to me in providing me a forum for the Ben Op. I consider Cherie a friend, and I am grateful for her constructive criticism. A real friend will speak openly and honestly with you. Certainly agreement on political, theological, and cultural matters is no requirement for friendship, at least not with me. I receive her criticism as that of a friend, and that is the spirit in which I offer my response.
I think she’s right that there are all kinds of ordinary things regarding keeping society running that we Christians cannot responsibly withdraw from. I thought that was pretty clear in my book, but maybe it wasn’t.
As a Protestant, Cherie says that I overstate matters by saying the Reformation stripped the West of Christian faith. This is a distortion of my argument. I included the Reformation in a list of events that, taken on the whole, and subsequently, got us to this de-Christianized place in Western history. The Reformation did not do this on its own, but only as part of a long process that, on my account, began around 200 years before the Reformation, within Catholic philosophical and theological circles. Of course, as I say in the book, the spectacular corruption of the Renaissance Catholic Church played a pivotal role too in bringing about the Reformation. The unhitching of believers from established Church authority might have been a good thing (I don’t think so, but let’s assume that it was), but there is simply no way to deny that it made inevitable the rapid fragmentation of Western Christianity, and set us all on a path to radical individualism, even though the Reformers could not have intended this!
My point in the book is not to say it’s all the Reformation’s fault. That is clearly untrue. But I hope that fair-minded Protestant readers will recognize that whatever the Reformation’s virtues, it played a pivotal role in ushering in modernity and classical liberalism. That used to be considered a feature, not a bug. It cannot be credibly de-emphasized now that liberalism has taken us beyond historically orthodox Christianity, even of the Reformation sort. This is the intellectual and theological legacy we all have to grapple with, not just Protestants. Most lay Catholics in the US today judge right and wrong by the verdicts rendered by their own consciences, which may or may not be meaningfully informed by the authoritative teaching of their church. Similarly, what does “Sola Scriptura” mean when you have so very many interpretations of Scripture? There are plenty of churches — including an increasing number of Evangelical churches — reinterpreting Scripture to affirm homosexual conduct and marriage. Who’s right? How does one know?
You need to read this very short, very important 2014 Tumblr post about the church and homosexuality, written by Alan Jacobs. It’s addressed to Christians who are changing their minds and affirming homosexuality. Excerpt:
And that’s the key issue, it seems to me — that’s what churches and other Christian organizations need to be thinking about. Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?
OK, back to the IRD forum. I’m not quite sure why Cherie characterizes my book as saying that we all need to move to Elk County, Pa., and train our kids to be Latin-reading die fitters. That’s one example I use in the book to illustrate the kind of creativity faithful Christians are going to need in the future. It’s an example of rethinking what it means to live a good and successful life. I would rather have my son be a Latin-reading die fitter and live as a faithful Christian family man (if he is called to be a husband and father) than go to a top law school and get a job with a white-shoe firm in New York or Washington … and lose his soul, or the souls of his children. We are not all called to the trades, but far, far too many middle-class Christians don’t think of them as a plausible future for our children. Besides, the broader point I make in The Benedict Option is that we are rapidly moving to a professional environment in which orthodox Christians will be effectively prevented from participating in certain professional fields because of their convictions.
This is not alarmist rhetoric. I talked to legal experts, medical professionals, and others who see it coming. What are we going to do when and if it does? Are we thinking about that? If we’re not, we’re fools.
Cherie also faults The Benedict Option for overemphasizing sexual sin, of emphasizing “sins of license” and underemphasizing “sins of oppression” — an odd criticism, as if I somehow think sexual license is worse than racism.
I admit, I didn’t see that coming. I don’t see that American culture is daily propagandizing its members with exhortations to embrace racism, and to celebrate it as liberation. I don’t see that churches are, in 2017, splitting in two because some claim racism is good, and others say it is bad. I don’t see that the issue of racism, or inequality, or poverty, or any other social ill, threatens to restrict religious liberty. At the present time, I don’t see marriages and families breaking up, or failing to be formed, because of racism. In the current issue of City Journal, Aaron Renn writes about the savaging of the social fabric in Appalachia. He writes:
Another problem is family dysfunction. Previous eras of economic hardship took place against the backdrop of a largely intact social structure and stable homes. Divorce and out-of-wedlock births are now far more widespread. As recently as 1990, only about 20 percent of Scott County births were out of wedlock. By 2002, this figure had doubled to more than 40 percent. The causes and effects of these shifts are subject to debate, but it is indisputable that legal reforms facilitated divorce and changing social mores dramatically reduced the stigma associated with out-of-wedlock births. Americans broadly want divorce and even single motherhood to remain socially acceptable choices—yet these behaviors are associated with poor life outcomes.
Scott County and places like it are dealing with the fallout. Conditions in the county now sometimes resemble stereotypes of the inner city, where parents are unfit or unable to raise their own kids. Graham observes: “One of the biggest changes is grandparents raising grandchildren, where you used to never see that—never.” These social changes occurred nationally but have hit communities like Scott hardest, leaving a sizable segment of the eligible population unemployable, regardless of how many jobs might be available. The problem in many working-class American communities today is as much social as economic.
Not “the only problem is family dysfunction,” but rather that it’s a problem — and one that is very hard to address, given that the sexual license embraced and promoted by our post-Christian culture — and even now in some of our churches — gives no solid ground on which to stand to re-form intact families.
From The Benedict Option:
On a warm evening in the late autumn, a recently retired woman sits on the front porch of her neighbor’s house, talking about the ways of the world. It is two weeks before the Trump-Clinton election, and everything seems to be going to pieces, the neighbors agree. How did our country get to this place? they wonder. Both of the women are working class by culture, born into poverty but thanks to economic and cultural changes in the mid-twentieth century, they are now entering their golden years as members of a modest middle class. America has been very good to them and their families.
Yet neither woman is confident about the future for their grandchildren. One tells the other that in the past year, she has gone to six baby showers for young women in her family and social circles. None of the expectant mothers had husbands. Some had more than one child out of wedlock. The gray-haired women know what poverty and insecurity are like, and they can’t believe that these young women would bring children into the world without fathers in the home, given how much more likely children in those situations are to be poor. And where are the fathers, anyway? What is wrong with young men these days?
I happen to know these women. This is not a made-up anecdote. This is what life is like in the provinces. There is no structural oppression that will be more burdensome on those children than not having fathers in the home. I’ve had a number of conversations with Catholic and Evangelical college professors, both before and after the publication of the book, who have told me how worried they are that students they teach will not be able to form stable families — e.g., because the young men are preoccupied with pornography, because so few of these young people have examples of stable families to emulate, and so forth.
This is an enormous crisis. It doesn’t negate other crises, not at all. Economic inequality, for example, and structural barriers to social mobility is a huge one, and hard to solve. But I cannot think of a single crisis we face that is more important — and one that the church, by its nature, ought to be in a position to meet. But it isn’t acting like it. Why not?
Cherie says that my catastrophist’s tone is “overwrought and unhelpful,” because it’s simply not true to say that today, we have it worse than at any other time. She then cites a variety of social indicators that show we’re in much better shape than even back in the 1970s.
That’s certainly true, with regard to the statistics she cites. Plus, do we really want to argue that 2017 is worse than 1817, when millions of blacks were in bondage? Worse than 1917, when World War I was raging?
I think that kind of critique is too literalist. Why would an intellectual as brilliant and as theologically aware as Joseph Ratzinger liken our time to the fall of the Roman Empire? He says it’s because our civilization has lost its vital energy. It doesn’t stand for anything anymore. To take a MacIntyrean stance — as I do in the book — the dissolution we see around us comes from the loss of a shared view of the Good, or even confidence that such a thing exists. My argument is that our peace, prosperity, and social order is a façade. All it takes is a serious earthquake or two for it to come tumbling down.
There is no such thing as a Golden Age. Every age faces its own sins and challenges. Today, we may think that we’ve conquered the worst sins of our past, but you can be certain that a hundred years from now, our descendants will fault us for not being horrified by some great evil in our midst. The point I make in The Benedict Option is that at least in the past, we had a generally agreed-upon moral framework for judging good and evil, and that meant we had a basis from which to understand it and to fight it. That basis was explicitly Christianity, or in the post-Enlightenment years, secular liberal values derived clearly from Christianity.
We have been in a period of transition away from that, and we are accelerating our distance from it. The signs of the times are clear in this regard. We Christians talk about influencing the world for the better, but increasingly, we can’t even successfully pass on the faith to our children. Why is that? This is a far more important crisis than whether or not Christians are effective advocates in the public square.
Finally, Cherie said that I shouldn’t call people “barbarians” because that’s unkind, and we can’t love our neighbors if we think of them as barbarians. Oh, it’s worse than that: I think of us modern Christians as de facto barbarians! Here’s the context in which I use the term. From The Benedict Option:
MacIntyre said that a society that governed itself according to emotivist principles would look a lot like the modern West, in which the liberation of the individual’s will is thought to be the greatest good. A virtuous society, by contrast, is one that shares belief in objective moral goods and the practices necessary for human beings to embody those goods in community.
To live “after virtue,” then, is to dwell in a society that not only can no longer agree on what constitutes virtuous belief and conduct but also doubts that virtue exists. In a post-virtue society, individuals hold maximal freedom of thought and action, and society itself becomes “a collection of strangers, each pursuing his or her own interests under minimal constraints.”
Achieving this kind of society requires
- abandoning objective moral standards;
- refusing to accept any religiously or culturally binding narrative originating outside oneself, except as chosen;
- repudiating memory of the past as irrelevant; and
- distancing oneself from community as well as any unchosen social obligations
This state of mind approximates the condition known as barbarism. When we think of barbarians, we imagine wild, rapacious tribesmen rampaging through cities, heedlessly destroying the structures and institutions of civilization, simply because they can. Barbarians are governed only by their will to power, and neither know nor care a thing about what they are annihilating.By that standard, despite our wealth and technological sophistication, we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it. Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes— they are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human. Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones.
Insofar as we let the culture catechize us, and not the precepts of the historic Christian faith, the barbarians are us, even if we profess Christ and go to church on Sunday.
Joe Hartman is another friend of mine on the panel. It was he who introduced me to the concept of “liquid modernity,” which is important in the Benedict Option. I thank him in the acknowledgements. I received his criticisms in the panel as also coming from a friend.
I think I’ve addressed most of them in previous answers. I would just emphasize again that Obergefell was a major tipping point in that it marks the point at which the U.S. constitutional order became explicitly hostile to traditional Christianity, and to the Biblical model of sexuality, the family, and even the human person. It will be the basis on which religious liberty is taken from traditional Christians in the decades to come. And it is a signpost on the de-Christianization of America.
Yet I must emphasize here what I have stated many times in the past: if Obergefell had never happened, if there were no such thing as same-sex marriage, we would still need the Benedict Option. MacIntyre wrote After Virtue in 1981, after all. The diagnosis I make in my own book does not assume by any means that everything was fine until gay marriage, or that everything was fine until the Sexual Revolution. Bruce Ashford was the only one on the panel who discerned the core reason for the Benedict Option. I’ll get to that in a moment.
“The goal of the Christian life is to surrender our lives to Christ,” said Joe on the panel, not the achievement of virtue. OK, but what does it mean to “surrender our lives to Christ”? What are the fruits of that surrender? I have talked to more than a few Christians who seem to believe that faith is only a matter of one’s internal disposition. That as long as you have “accepted Jesus as your personal savior,” or in some other sense feel confident about one’s intentions toward God, that all is well. I was once at a meeting of Christians talking about the meaning of Obergefell, and one exasperated woman said, “When can we stop talking about gay marriage and get back to talking about Jesus.” This is a disembodied, ahistorical, unscriptural, gnostic way of thinking of faith. Christianity separated from virtue as the fruits of humility, repentance, and faith, is nothing but emotivism.
I agree with Joe that we live in a secular liberal society that is heavily informed by Christian values. The Enlightenment was more or less a secularization of Christian values. What I would say to Joe, though, is that we can’t defend the good things of liberalism on their own terms. They have to be grounded in metaphysics — which is the very thing that contemporary liberalism denies.
I was most puzzled by the remarks of Alison Howard, a spokeswoman for Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the most important religious liberty advocacy groups. As I’ve said here on this blog, the work ADF does is absolutely vital to the survival of religious liberty in America. In The Benedict Option, I focus intensely on religious liberty, mentioning the phrase at least 17 times, by my count. Excerpt:
Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty.
Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values. What’s more, Christians who don’t act decisively within the embattled zone of freedom we have now are wasting precious time—time that may run out faster than we think.
Weirdly, Howard talks as if I believe that Christians should quit fighting for religious liberty. I cannot believe that she read the book that I wrote. She brings up Barronnelle Stutzman, as if the Benedict Option would leave her high and dry. In fact, I interviewed Barronnelle as part of my research for the book, and I wrote this in the book:
A Christian family might be forced to sell or close a business rather than submit to state dictates. The Stormans family of Washington state faced this decision after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring its pharmacy to sell pills the family considers abortifacient. Depending on the ultimate outcome of her legal fight, florist Barronelle Stutzman, who declined for conscience reasons to arrange flowers for a gay wedding, faces the same choice.
When that price needs to be paid, Benedict Option Christians should be ready to support one another economically—through offering jobs, patronizing businesses, professional networking, and so forth. This will not be a cure-all; the conversion of the public square into a politicized zone will be too far-reaching for orthodox Christian networks to employ or otherwise financially support all their economic refugees. But we will be able to help some.
Quite frankly, I’m ticked that Howard would give her listeners the impression that I encourage Christians to abandon people like the Stutzmans. On Friday, the Stutzmans asked the US Supreme Court to hear their case. They really could lose everything they own, this poor couple, if the Court refuses to hear their case, or rules agains them. The Benedict Option doesn’t say, “don’t fight this,” but rather, “If the Stutzmans lose, what then? What does the church do for them? What does it say to the rest of us about our futures? How are we going to cope with it?”
It all goes back to the way an Evangelical friend framed the question: “What’s your Plan B?” That is, what is the plan for when politics and law fails to protect us? How do we remain faithful under those circumstances?
Religious liberty is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end, which is living a life of fidelity. Only a small part of The Benedict Option focuses on politics and political engagement. Mostly it’s about how to live a countercultural Christian life. Religious liberty does us no good if we don’t use it.
Howard goes on to say that she does not believe Christians are permitted to “withdraw or disengage.”
“Rod Dreher says he did not mean to encourage that. I don’t know,” she says to laughter, indicating that she doesn’t believe me. She goes on to say (starting at 1:09:30) that her biggest “contempt” for The Benedict Option is that it encourages readers to believe that if we withdraw, “we will be left alone.”
The most charitable thing I can say to this is that Alison Howard manifestly did not read the book. If she had read the book, she could not have made that kind of false statement. If she did read the book, and still made that kind of statement, I am once again gobsmacked at how anyone can draw such a false conclusion from my words.
It is wholly false, and I invite you either to buy the book, or borrow it from your local library, and read it for yourself. You may disagree with some of it, most of it, or all of it. But at least you will know with what you are disagreeing.
Finally, my friend Bruce Ashford clearly did read the book, and to my way of thinking, understands the heart of it clearly. He says that what The Benedict Option really addresses is the loss of “sacred order.” He says:
I think the heart of what [Dreher is] saying here is that he’s saying: Listen, you have thrown yourself into political activism for the past 30 years, and it has failed you. You have lost, and it is over. Don’t just redouble on the political activism. Take most of those energies — not all of them, don’t withdraw entirely — take most of those energies and put them towards strengthening local churches, local associations, families. So, less federal and state and more local; less political activism, and more church.
Weirdly enough, as the last of the five panelists, Ashford is the first one to say anything about “anti-political politics,” the politics I advocate, which takes up a big part of the book’s chapter on politics. None of the previous speakers even addressed this!
Bruce posits a Kuyperian alternative to the Ben Op, saying that we ought to have more church and more politics — a both/and, not either/or. He gives a short explanation of the Kuyperian concept of “sphere sovereignty,” which seems to me perfectly compatible with the Benedict Option. I hesitate to go further than that, because it’s likely that I don’t understand something about sphere sovereignty. But it makes sense to me. I especially resonate with what Bruce said about Abraham Kuyper’s teaching depending on the idea that there was a “normative order” to Creation. This is exactly what is lost in modernity — the idea that there is a sacred order manifest in the created world.
Bruce says that nothing is forever lost, and that we have to keep fighting for the regeneration of the created order. I agree with that too. The point of the Benedict Option, then, is to keep alive the vision of sacred order proposed by historic Christian orthodoxy (or, as the contemporary Reformed theologian Hans Boersma puts it, the “Great Tradition” of the church of the first millennium). We are failing to catechize, to form, to disciple, and to retain our own young people. We cannot hope to be for the world what God commands us to be if we lose this vision. And don’t doubt for a second that we are losing it.
During the Q&A period, someone in the audience asked if the Benedict Option, by positing that the West is in decline, implicitly agrees with Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”.
Well, let me take this opportunity to explicitly say that Nietzsche is right, in a particular sense. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” wrote Nietzsche. As you can read in this explanation of Nietzsche’s statement, the philosopher was an atheist who did not believe that there was a God to kill in the first place. He was saying that the Enlightenment destroyed the plausibility of belief in God, but the ramifications of that had not yet dawned on the West.
“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident,” wrote Nietzsche. “Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.”
Indeed. And by removing a central pin upholding the Christian anthropological vision, we will find that the whole thing will collapse. Nietzsche again:
What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. . . . For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe.
Joe Hartman says this remains a prophecy, that he personally is not convinced that we are in decline. I say that we are well into living out that prophecy, and that it is going to get worse. The most important thing to do is to think about how to endure what is coming faithfully, and then act.