Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Jeremiah Option Vs. Benedict Option

My TAC colleague Samuel Goldman penned a good piece yesterday positing the Jeremiah Option against my concept of the Benedict Option. He writes: Without being rigorously separatist, these communities do aim to be separate. Some merely avoid morally subversive cultural influences, while others seek physical distance from mainstream society in rural isolation. But a neo-Benedictine […]

My TAC colleague Samuel Goldman penned a good piece yesterday positing the Jeremiah Option against my concept of the Benedict Option. He writes:

Without being rigorously separatist, these communities do aim to be separate. Some merely avoid morally subversive cultural influences, while others seek physical distance from mainstream society in rural isolation.

But a neo-Benedictine way of life involves risks. Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life—the intertwined commodification of personal relationships, loss of meaningful work to bureaucratic management, and pornographic popular culture—yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation.

Agreed. In the Benedict Option piece I wrote, Father Marc Dunaway of the Orthodox community in Eagle River, Alaska, said to work, these communities have “to be open and generous, and to resist the urges to build walls and isolate [themselves].” And:

“If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” Father Marc Dunaway warns. “It is a tricky balance between allowing freedom and openness on the one hand, and maintaining a community identity on the other. The idea of community itself should not be allowed to become an idol. A community is a living organism that must change and grow and adapt.”

Anyway, Goldman distinguishes the Jeremiah Option from the Benedict Option this way:

The Benedict Option is not the only means of spiritual and cultural survival, however. As a Catholic, MacIntyre searches for models in the history of Western Christendom. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish history suggest a different strategy, according to which exiles plant roots within and work for the improvement of the society in which they live, even if they never fully join it.

This strategy lacks the historical drama attached to the Benedict Option. It promises no triumphant restoration of virtue, in which values preserved like treasures can be restored to their original public role. But the Jews know a lot about balancing alienation from the mainstream with participation in the broader society. Perhaps they can offer inspiration not only to Christians in the ruins of Christendom but also to a secular society that draws strength from the participation of religiously committed people and communities. Call it the Jeremiah Option.

I don’t want to quote too much from Goldman piece, because it’s excellent, and you should read the whole thing yourself. Here’s why it’s so valuable:

The comparison between the options represented by Jeremiah and by Benedict has some interest as an exercise in theologico-political theorizing. But it is much more important as a way of getting at a central problem for members of traditional religious and moral communities today. How should they conduct themselves in a society that seems increasingly hostile to their values and practices? Can they in good conscience seek the peace of a corrupt and corrupting society?

I think the distinction between the two Options is not as stark as Goldman seems to think. In fact, the main difference seems to be not about separatism — the Benedictines, recall, made a core of their identity hospitality and openness to the world (even as they remained set apart in their monasteries, and by their monastic practice). The main difference seems to be one of tone: the Jeremiah Option is optimistic and relaxed, but the Benedict Option is pessimistic and (more or less) defensive.

If I’m right, the question is, which is the more reasonable response to the challenges of modernity to traditional religious and moral communities? If we rule out total separation (as I do with the Benedict Option, both for practical and idealistic reasons), and we rule out total assimilation (as Goldman does, because that would destroy the community’s identity), then what we are arguing over is how porous the barriers should be, and why.

The Jeremiah Option, as Goldman conceives it, is more optimistic about the prospects of a community maintaining traditional religious identity in a condition of integration. I am skeptical that this is possible. He concedes that the Jewish community faces a dire threat to its identity through intermarriage and indifference to Jewish religious practice. From Jonathan Tobin’s response to last year’s Pew survey of trends in Jewish America:

 Indeed, the two elements of American Jewry that seem to be growing at the most rapid rates are the Orthodox and those who consider themselves to be Jewish in some way but have no religion, a group that makes up 22 percent of those polled. While, as Pew points out, secularism has always been part of American Jewish culture, most of those with no religion are not raising Jewish children or participating in or supporting Jewish institutions. Moreover, more than half of non-Orthodox Jews are also marrying non-Jews with the overwhelming majority of these families also giving their children no Jewish education.

The problem here is not just the absolute numbers of those Jews drifting away. It is the survey results that make it clear that an increasingly large number of Jews have notions of Jewish identity that are based on values not likely to promote future generations of Jewish life on these shores.

For example, “leading an ethical or moral life” or “working for justice or equality”—elements that 69 percent and 56 percent of Jews say is what it means to be Jewish—are integral to Judaism. But they are beliefs that are also integral to other faiths and even compatible with being non-religious. Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew. Remembering the Holocaust—a point embraced by 73 percent of those surveyed—is also important. But as vital a lesson as the Holocaust is, it is not a positive vision of Jewish life that can serve as a paradigm for the future. Ideas such as being part of a community or observing Jewish law have far less support, but it is those notions upon which a community is built. For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future.

The culture of modernity, at least of modern America, can absorb anything. I know little or nothing about the conditions of the Hebrew exiles in Babylon, but I wonder to what extent they were permitted to join Babylonian society. Were they forcibly ghettoized? Had they forsaken Yahweh and begun to worship Chaldean gods, would they have been given total access to Babylonian society, and been as everyone else there? These questions are important. Something allowed the Hebrew exiles to maintain their religious and communal identity amid a society of unbelievers into which they were integrated. Whatever it was, it seems to be absent in contemporary America, except among the Orthodox Jews, some of whom are separatist, but all of whom, it seems to me, strongly affirm a set of religious beliefs and practices that are countercultural in this particular time and place.

Goldman writes of the Hebrew exiles that God’s instructions to them, via the Prophet Jeremiah, was to live in peace with their Babylonian captors, and to work for the good of all:

The emphasis on securing peace through ordinary life does not absolve the exiles of their responsibility to remain holy. But theirs is to be a holiness based on upright life rather than the independence of a homogeneous community.

This is the key point, though: how do you know what constitutes an upright life? Upright as judged by which standards? Is it possible to know those standards if you assimilate with the alien culture around you? How will you know what “holiness” is if the lines between your community and the broader community dissolve?

Look at yesterday’s post about sex, Christianity, and same-sex marriage. The survey results indicate that churchgoing Christians who accept SSM are almost indistinguishable from the average American in terms of what they consider acceptable sexual behavior — behavior that is antithetical to historical and Scriptural Christian norms. Whether this is something to be lamented or celebrated is entirely beside the point. The point is that as the broader culture changes radically on the meaning of sex, many Christians are radically changing theology to accommodate it. For trads like me, the concern is not so much that more Christians will be having sex that is illicit from a Christian point of view; Christians have always struggled to live out their faith in this way. The concern is that Christians will lose a sense of holiness with regard to the way we conduct ourselves in our intimate lives, will lose a sense of sin. If we assimilate to the broader culture’s values on this key issue, the fear is that we will rapidly lose our sense of what it means to think and to live as a Christian.

Similarly with Jews and Judaism in modernity. It is becoming clear that in our time, if you are not consciously and vigorously countercultural in your Judaism, modernity is going to flatten you — not by persecution, but by inculcating lassitude and indifference. Same deal with Christianity. As Flannery O’Connor said:

Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.

“The cross,” meaning more broadly (and ecumenically), real sacrifice.

This is why I think the Benedict Option is a more reasonable response to the conditions under which traditional Jews and Christians live today than Goldman’s Jeremiah Option, even though the two share a lot in common. Both address general strategies through which moral and religious traditionalists try to live in a broader culture that is more or less hostile to their beliefs and commitments. Both have the same goal: maintaining the integrity of the tradition and the vitality of the community in a condition of exile. The relatively open, relaxed Jeremiah Option makes more sense if the community has a fairly robust identity and internal cohesiveness that is not seriously threatened by the outside. The more defensive and rigid Benedict Option makes more sense if the community faces a more serious threat to its identity and internal cohesiveness.

I am persuaded that the trend lines of Jewish and Christian belief in modern America make Benedict your man, not Jeremiah. Let’s hear what you think.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now