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Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option

I have great respect and affection for my colleague, Rod Dreher [1]. 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 [2], 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.

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.

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "Serious, Non-Sarcastic Questions About the Benedict Option"

#1 Comment By AJ On May 23, 2015 @ 4:48 pm

5. Refuse to sing the National Anthem.

Standing for the Star Spangled Banner, reverently removing hats and placing hands over hearts constitute a kind of secular worship of the state, the modern day equivalent, it might be argued, of burning incense to the genius of Caesar.

#2 Comment By philadelphialawyer On May 23, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

Roland Paquette:

“And if it also hasn’t occurred to anyone…..

“A certain Government controlled Church forced its ‘Ethos’ onto those of other minority Religions and beliefs that eventually became so intolerable the minorities climbed on a ship and sailed away……

“MAYFLOWER I think it was called….”

Is that what happened? Or did a group of folks who were themselves intolerant of dissent, and who wished to impose their faith on the rest of Britain, and make it the official, “Government controlled Church,” came to America to set up a small scale theocracy, and then went about banishing, at best, or burning at the stake, at worst, anyone who disagreed with them. I think one their ships, although not the most important one, was called the Mayflower.

And, yeah, Puritan New England as a model did already occur to me, which is why I mentioned it in my first post! And that hardly bodes well for the contemplated enterprise!

#3 Comment By Judith Sylvester On May 24, 2015 @ 1:15 am

This is a general response to the May 21st post of philadelphialawyer.

Dreher has acknowledged that he is still thinking through the meaning, form and purpose of the Benedict Option, and plans to flesh it out in a book, hence the vague statements. The idea seems to spring from an understandable and widely shared desire to live in a world of greater civility, that is closer to God and kind people, with beautiful things, a Shaker like simplicity, fewer inane decisions, and less clutter. This world would also impose guidelines for those who want to live the imitatio Christi life, but are failing. It so happens, that this is already available now, to everyone, and can be found and lived in place. But what the Benedict Option offers is society, the presence of others who agree with you, and who do the same things you do, thus providing affirmation, (the same feature that is to be found in the dreaded Therapeutic Deism.) However, forming your own associations is ALSO freely available now. But the Benedict Option appears to additionally establish certain freedoms, subsumed under the concept of Religious Liberty, which secure one’s right to not bake cakes or sell pizzas to gay wedding receptions, and separates gays from the Scouts etc… But those rights can be acted on now. So what exactly does the Benedict Option offer? It offers the opportunity to THINK about another world that would be a lot nicer to live in than this one.

Every bit of news that I hear from everywhere else in the world right now is dreadful. The fear and anxiety about what the future holds for most people outside the United States and western Europe is hard to grasp. For a middle aged man of considerable success, with clothing, food, heat, (and AC!) a family, a home, a church, and a job, to be depicting our world as so threatening to him that he has to be the progenitor of this Benedict Option fantasy in order to ease his oppression really lacks acknowledgement of the suffering in other people’s lives, lacks an acknowledgment of his own present freedoms, and is just unattractively immature and ungrateful.

I believe that all religions lead to one God, although each religious practice is quite different in its requirements. This is not true about cults. All cults are basically the same, and the Benedict Option is no exception. Every single thing that I have read so far about this fantasy is trite and unoriginal.

ALL cults eventually control access to education. Since Dreher has expressed his admiration of the Bruderhofs, I believe he is in debt to read what some Bruderhof apostates have to say about their experience.

#4 Comment By Al On May 24, 2015 @ 4:20 pm

This is a misunderstanding of Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees. Christ did not condemn them simply because they differentiated themselves from others. He condemned them because of the reason they differentiated themselves – spiritual pride. The Bible makes this very clear.

Proponents of the Benedict Option are not motivated by spiritual arrogance. They are not motivated by a desire to show the world how much better they are than everyone else. They are motivated by a desire to protect themselves and their descendants from the harmful influences of secular culture – to preserve the Faith. St. Benedict did not flee Rome to showcase his spiritual superiority. He fled because he knew it was the only way to save his soul.

I don’t see why this entails a rejection of the Pledge of Allegiance or the wearing of some specific emblem of manner of dress. The purpose of the Benedict Option is not to enhance differences for the sake of enhancing differences. The purpose is to preserve the Christian way of life. In so doing, we will by necessity make the differences between us and the surrounding culture more visible, but that is an inevitable consequence for anyone trying to live an authentically Christian life, not the primary purpose.

One “Benedict Option” community that has done remarkably well is the thriving traditional Catholic community of St. Marys, KS. It is built around the SSPX’s largest school and college and is supported by numerous local Catholic businesses. The people there do not shun the outside world or wear any distinctive “emblems” or refuse to say the pledge of allegiance. Other than their large families and modest dress, they look like regular Americans. But they have built a community that fosters and protects Christian culture and transmits it to the young. And when those young people leave the community and go to college or move to other states, they take that culture with them.

#5 Comment By cecelia On May 27, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

Benedict did not flee Rome – he lived in Nursia,Umbria and as many young affluent Roman men of the time – he went to the countryside estate of a friend and lived with a group of other like minded men studying and praying. He ultimately found this unsatisfactory and so went to live as a hermit in a nearby cave.

Benedict did not live in a society hostile to Christian belief – the contrary is true – his religious beliefs were widely shared by the society he lived in. The faith was not endangered so I admit to being a bit confused as to why people who consider faith to be endangered in our world today would call the formation of intentional communities to “protect” the faith a “Benedict” option.

Monastic communities of the time were part and parcel of the established order – they were endowed by the elites of the day – and typically their abbots/abbesses were members of the aristocracy. These were not retreats – they were active and powerful communities who had enormous influence. Consider that Eton was originally a Benedictine monastery which educated young men as were Cambridge and Oxford. So I am again confused as to why one would refer to this as a “Benedict” Option. Perhaps a better name would clear some of the confusion?

#6 Comment By Mike Ehling On May 31, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

Creat[ing] wealthy, independent institutions from communal property doesn’t work. As soon as you have wealth, the State wants to tax it. Then you get yourself into tax-exempt status and you become an arm of the State.

For the “Benedict Option” to work, you need complete independence from the State. (Well, as complete as you can get anyway. I’m not suggesting a cult-like withdrawal from the larger society.) Why bother with a triviality like …. Refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag ….when you’re taking the benefits of tax-exempt status from the State? But as a realistic matter, how likely is it that wealthy individuals are going to provide the necessary money if they can’t take a write-off on April 15?

Charlieford doesn’t see how “a vision initially promoted by a dark ages Umbrian monk and lately floated by Scottish-nomad philosopher” can “happen here.” How about, instead of a “dark ages Umbrian monk” and a “Scottish-nomad philosopher,” we substitute a onetime Greenwich Village journalist and a French-nomad philosopher? I’m referring to Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

If you’re planning to write a book, Noah, then before you spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel you ought to take a look at Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (2006) with particular reference to the chapter on Day and the Catholic Worker. So far from promoting “organization,” Day had anarchistic leanings (though she wouldn’t use the word “anarchist” because it would have drawn the wrath of Cardinal Spellman).

In addition to the Catholic Worker, you might want to check out Atlanta’s [3], which is similar to the Catholic Worker but Reformed Church.

Medieval monasticism was feudal — just like (sorry to disappoint admirers of the Dalai Lama) Tibetan Buddhism was feudal. Whatever its noble origins, medieval monasticism developed into a major player in the political power structure. That’s exactly what will happen with the “Benedict Option” because the entire taxing and non-profit system in the modern State is designed to emasculate religious organizations, to eliminate them as challengers to State authority — and that’s exactly why the Catholic Worker refuses 501(c)(3) status.

If you’re uncomfortable with current Catholic Worker theology (though Day herself was actually quite conservative theologically), then look to create some other organization that would be more compatible to your theology, sociology, whatever. But you need to take lessons from the Catholic Worker in its repudiation of the power of the State, and that includes rejection of 501(c)(3) status. And that as a practical matter means you’ve got to adopt a system of voluntary poverty.

#7 Comment By philadlephialawyer On June 1, 2015 @ 10:31 am

Mike Ehling:

“And that as a practical matter means you’ve got to adopt a system of voluntary poverty.”

With all due respect, that is the last thing that Mr. Dreher has in mind. And not only him, but the folks most likely to be interested in his “Option.” Moreover, anyone, right now, can live a life of service, devote himself to the poor, to community building and so on, and thus be voluntarily poor, without having to be part of some “Option.”

As for Open Door Atlanta, according to your link, this is what they do:

“We serve breakfasts and soup-kitchen lunches, provide showers and changes of clothes, staff a free medical clinic, conduct worship services and meetings for the clarification of thought, and provide a prison ministry, including monthly trips for families to visit loved ones at the Hardwick Prisons in central Georgia. We also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, homeless and prisoners through non-violent protests, grassroots organizing and the publication of our monthly newspaper.”

In other words, they are outward, not inward, looking, in both their service work and their advocacy. That is precisely the opposite of what the “Option” is allegedly all about. Yes, there is some talk of a “hospitality” component to the Option, but that is more in line with the “you can spend a night and have a meal in the monastery as you travel” variety than it is a lifetime devoted to running soup kitchens, shower facilities, medical clinics, etc, for the poor and homeless in society at large. And the “Option” is supposed to be primarily focused on the life of the community that it encompasses. And, in that way, it is like a traditional monastery. It might have some service component, but that is not the main thrust of it. And, least of all, is it supposed to be about politicking in the community at large.

ODA, as far as I can see, is a Protestant version of the Social Gospel in action. And, believe me, that is not at all what Mr. Dreher has in mind.

So, your very example proves there is no need for any “Option,” if what it is all about is being poor and helping people. Really, being poor and helping people is always available, to anyone, whether they actually join a group or not. Open Door Atlanta, besides the folks who live on premises, also has volunteers who do the service and advocacy work “part time,” as it were. Well, a person could devote himself to that, and work for himself the minimum necessary, and help fulfill all of the aims of the group, without living apart, and without any kind of “Option.”

#8 Comment By Mike Ehling On June 1, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

philadlephialawyer:

Adopting voluntary poverty may be the very last thing that the Benedict Option has in mind — but the Benedict Option is unworkable without voluntary poverty. The problem is, any Benedict Option that prizes organizational wealth immediately runs into the 501(c)(3) issue, which means that the government can use tax-exempt status to control what the organization says and does.

#9 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 2, 2015 @ 9:19 am

ME:

Saying an idea is “unworkable” unless it becomes something those who propose it have no intention of it becoming really means the idea itself is unworkable. I don’t know whether you are correct or not about the tax exempt status and 501(c)(3) and so on, but I do know that Mr Dreher has no interest whatsoever in a glorified Little Sisters of the Poor type organization. The whole point of his “Option” is to set up a thriving community, a literal “counter culture,” not to establish yet another charity group that sidelines in political activism for poor folks. And certainly not to require poverty among its members, either.

#10 Comment By Jeff Mayhugh On June 2, 2015 @ 1:09 pm

The Benedict option does not need such development as given above. All it means is that we need to be faithful to Christ no matter how society persecutes us.

Matthew 5:11-12 – “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

#11 Comment By Brooklyn Grange On June 4, 2015 @ 10:10 pm

Living as a Christ did, via the Benedict Option or otherwise, does not in any way require a social organization, dress code, rules for behavior or group affiliation. Quite the contrary.

I could explain it to you in a few sentences, but, as I’m sure Moses Miamonides would understand very well, I would, in doing so, deny you forever the possibility of revelation.

I can, however, offer you one hint: Christ died alone on the cross.

Finally, as near as I can tell from Mr. Dreher’s writing and peripatetic Christianity, he’s no closer than are you to understanding Christ’s message.