Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option
I have great respect and affection for my colleague, Rod Dreher. But I have to admit, I am very frustrated by his latest obsession, because I don’t understand what it means.
I’m talking about the so-called “Benedict Option.” I know where the phrase comes from. It’s a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, which I read with interest several years ago. I don’t remember the book well enough to give a fully accurate summary, but the heart of it was a critique of the modern condition from an Aristotelian (filtered a bit through Hegelian historicism) perspective.
In his view, modernity denies its denizens the spiritual embeddedness, the sense of moral place that pre-modern societies had, because pre-modern societies had, and embodied or expressed, particular ethos – and an ethos can only be expressed socially. One way of putting this is that any given society before modernity had a social conception of virtue, whereas modernity is limited to rights-based rule-making because we have disclaimed any social consensus on virtue or the good. (MacIntyre also discusses pre-modern turns away from a social understanding of virtue toward something more individualist; Stoicism and Epicureanism are examples he highlights.)
I actually kind of agree with this critique of modern liberalism, but I also have no illusions about the social or political consequences of the predominant alternatives to that liberalism that the yearning for some kind of “integrated” or “meaningful” mode of life have inspired in modern times (both romantic nationalism and Marxism come immediately to mind). Which is why I’ve argued (in this space and elsewhere) that we need a language of “liberal virtue” that would marry Aristotle to Mill, so we could see that those virtues are also socially embedded and require cultivation.
Be that as it may, my understanding of what MacIntyre was talking about when he looked forward to a “very different St. Benedict” somewhere in the future was the emergence of ethical communities – that is, communities that embodied an ethos with concomitant understandings of virtue. Presumably, their size and influence would spread over time, until eventually they became the dominant culture (though I don’t know that MacIntyre was particularly interested in prophecy of that sort). The point is, it seems to me that any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.
I’m told that a key inspiration for the Benedict Option is early medieval monasticism. Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”
These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.
That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the concept is being pitched non-denominationally. Dreher is a big-O Orthodox Christian, but he’s writing to an audience that is mostly not – mostly, I suspect, Catholic and to some extent Protestant. But I still think there’s lots of room to be more concrete about what kinds of things he might be advocating.
Let me give a few examples of the sorts of things I might expect a Benedict Option Christian to do, or not to do, that I would not necessarily expect of someone of similar conservative religious views and orthodox beliefs who had not embraced this view. I will try to be as specific as possible, with the understanding that I’m not trying to tell Dreher or anybody else what he’s about, but that I am trying to say: this is the level of specificity I expect.
- Take your kids out of public school. This is maybe too obvious, but I’m not sure I’ve heard it articulated as bluntly as that. If you believe that the most important task facing Christian communities is to raise the next generation protected from the threat of the larger culture, then the most obvious thing to do is to take the kids out of public school and either educate them yourselves or in schools organized by your religion’s authorities. That choice should – again, according to the logic of the Benedict Option as I understand it – become more than a choice; it should become a social expectation. It is that aspect, the notion that you would be expected to educate your children parochially, that would mark a break from the way even conservative Christians have historically thought about schooling in America (at least since the advent of public education), and more in line with how Orthodox Jews today approach the subject.
- Create wealthy, independent institutions from communal property. Not all property, obviously – but I would expect a conscious effort to create communal institutions that have some real economic heft and that are constituted to serve the interests of the Benedict Option community. A quasi-monastic community that depended on contributions for its annual budget wouldn’t have the independence of the medieval monasteries. Nor would a quasi-monastic community that depended on outright hucksterism to keep itself afloat. It takes wealth and industry to build the kind of institutional independence I’m talking about. The Mormons are probably the world-beating models to look to for this.
- Adopt distinctive emblems or dress to identity co-adherents. One of the distinctive things, to me, about modern Christianity – and not just Protestantism – is its aversion to these kinds of rules. But they are ubiquitous in the religious world generally. Sikh men grow their hair and cover it with a turban, carry a dagger, and wear a metal ring around the arm. Mormon men wear temple garments under their regular clothes. Orthodox Jewish men wear a four-cornered garment with fringes and cover their heads. The signifiers can get extremely elaborate: in the Hasidic Jewish world, the precise way a man ties his gartel can tell you what sub-sect he belongs to. The point is that these signifiers have social significance. They are not individual, personal expressions of belief – they are individual, personal expressions of affiliation, which tell other individuals that this individual is one of them.
- Refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The pledge of allegiance is an oath – of fealty – to an emblem of a secular state and nation – asserting that nation to be under divine auspices and to be indivisible. The Benedict Option, if it means anything, seems to me to command rejection of every part of that: to refuse to swear fealty to any secular entity, and to refuse to sacralize the United States of America, or proclaim its indivisibility. Refusing to swear allegiance does not mean refusing to be good citizens, refusing to vote or to fight or in any way to withdraw from participation in the life of the community. It’s just that: refusing to swear allegiance. It’s a formal declaration of what it seems to me the Benedict Option is all about, in terms of what it recognizes about the nature of the United States of America and about the primacy of the allegiance to the Christian God. Formalities like these are precisely the kind of thing I’d expect someone serious about the Benedict Option to care about, deeply.
You get the idea. If you have given up on the idea that this is a fundamentally Christian society, but you want to live in such a society, you have to actually build it, and build it separately from the larger society. You need institutions. You need rules. You need social expectations.
One problem I see is that the thrust of Jesus of Nazareth’s message cuts against all of the above. It’s very a Pharisaical approach to the world, in fact, not a withdrawal from or a rejection of the world but a conscious and scrupulous separation in certain specific ways so that you don’t forget who you are – and that you are not like others. And much of Jesus’s most-pointed preaching is about how you’re never going to get into heaven that way.
That’s why I want to hear, from someone who is a Christian (not a Jew, like me), what the Benedict Option actually means. If there’s a distinctively small-o orthodox Christian approach to this problem that differs from the approach taken by numerous religious groups in the past – because this is emphatically not a new problem – then I’d like to know what that distinctive approach is.
But one thing I am sure of: whatever the Benedict Option is, if it’s inspired by MacIntyre’s book, then it must be expressed socially. It cannot be a matter of simply changing hearts; it cannot be a purely abstract theological project. Because one of MacIntyre’s central points is that what modernity is missing is the ethical dimension of community, and the ethos of a community can only be expressed socially.