Noah & the Benedict Option
No, not that Noah. I mean my TAC colleague Noah Millman, who registered some objections to my Benedict Option blogging. I’d like to respond.
Before I say anything else, I would like to associate myself with the following comments on the Noah thread. The author is my friend and former TAC contributor Alan Jacobs:
Noah, I raised some of the same questions you do and began to sketch out my own answer here. But I think the reason you’re frustrated, and the reason the conversation has gone the way it’s gone so far, is that many Christians are profoundly and (I would say) irrationally hostile to the very idea of seeking to form intentional ethical communities. Even to think about such a thing strikes many as a “run for the hills” mentality, so they portray the idea in the most lurid light possible. So people like Rod and me who just want to begin brainstorming what a Benedict Option might look like are besieged by critics who don’t know what it would look like either but know that they hate it. So we have to spend all our time trying to explain why we think that contemplating some possible Benedict Option is a reasonable, or at least a non-crazy, thing to do. Which means that the trying out of specific ideas keeps getting deferred.
Noah: maybe it requires retreat, maybe it doesn’t — we don’t know yet!
Depends on what you mean by “retreat,” of course. When I hear Rod saying “no retreat” it’s because people have said “If you follow the Benedict Option you won’t vote any more!” — which is just stupid.
I’m all in favor of voting, and Rod is too. But the really interesting question is, on what grounds will Christians make their electoral decisions? Will those decisions be shaped by an ideology like that of David French, who thinks that American Sniper is a beautiful portrait of a wholly admirable “Christian warrior”? Or will those decisions be shaped by ideas and convictions and practices that are not quite so dependent on contemporary right-patriotic rhetoric?
We have lots of recent documentary evidence that most Christian churches in America are (a) failing to recruit significant numbers of new members and are (b) losing too many of the members they have. The latter is the particular concern for people who are interested in some form of Benedict Option. It’s pretty clear that Christians are not being strongly formed in the faith — are not having their dispositions and habits shaped in such a way that they can readily resist what appear to be more attractive messages from non-Christian cultural forces. So (again, this is my take, maybe Rod would disagree) the question is: What do we have to do to form Christians in such a way that the Christian message appears to them as it appears to us: coherent, powerful, worth building a life around?
Maybe the mainstream American culture is so corrosively corrupt that such formation can’t be done there. But maybe not — maybe there are subtler ways to be, and to teach children to be, countercultural. That’s what we need to think and talk about. You’re complaining about a lack of specificity in a conversation that’s just beginning! — or, to put it another way, you want Rod to tell you everything that’s going to be in his book before he has even started writing the book. Give those of us who are interested in the topic time to read, think, converse, and debate. It’s not easy.
This is really 90 percent of the answer I would give to Noah. As regular readers of my blog know, I spend a lot of time answering the “but what about…” people, who are sure they know precisely what I mean by the Benedict Option, even though I repeatedly say that it’s not a “head for the hills and build a compound” kind of thing (or if it is, that’s nothing I would be interested in doing). As I have repeatedly said, I have no precise idea of what this looks like, because I am pretty sure that aside from Anabaptists and some failed utopian experiments, I don’t know that we have a clear model to follow, because I don’t think we have had to live under conditions that we are now living under — conditions that will only grow more difficult for small-o orthodox Christians.
This is why I want to write a book. I want to offer a diagnosis of what’s wrong, and how we got there. Then I want to go out to report on a variety of communities who are, however incompletely, trying to respond to these disorders in ways that strike me as basically healthy. I’m talking about visiting and talking to religious people like the Catholic agrarians around the Clear Creek Monastery in eastern Oklahoma; the Orthodox laity living around the Antiochian cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska; the Presbyterian community in Moscow, Idaho; the Bruderhof in upstate New York; the Catholic community that has grown up around St. Jerome’s parish in Hyattsville, Maryland; the New Monastic community at Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, and others, including, I hope, some Latter-Day Saints, and even a Modern Orthodox Jewish community (that is, non-Hasidic).
This is not an exhaustive list, and maybe once I get the book contract settled, my editor and I will add others to it, and take some away. My goal is to go see these communities, interview people within them, find out what has worked for them, what has not, and what advice they would give to Christians seeking to live a more communally-focused, intentionally countercultural life. I can’t give you a precise description of what the Benedict Option looks like because I don’t yet myself know. Whatever I wind up with, it’s not likely to be one single
It may be helpful to say what I want these communities to do. The diagnosis, very broadly, is that we live in a post-Christian culture, the nature of which radically undermines Christian orthodoxy and practice. The philosophical assumptions that undergird secular, liberal modernity are at bottom incompatible with orthodox Christianity. As we are seeing, orthodox, Biblical Christianity (as distinct from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) cannot endure in a society in which people believe that all truth is thought to be subjective, relative, and individualistic, and religion should be infinitely plastic, so as to better meet the felt “needs” of individuals.
Some contemporary Christians in America already live in “thick” communities where they have a robustly articulated and practiced faith life. Most of us do not. My contention is that if we do not develop these communities, then our faith, over a generation or two, will be lost. Modernity is that corrosive of the faith’s foundations. (I’m not going to explain why that is the case in this blog post; I’m just saying that this is the rationale for the Benedict Option).
What we need to do is to develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith — this, as opposed to MTD. I call it the “Benedict Option” because of the last graf of MacIntyre’s book, but I do not want to create new monasteries for laypeople. Monks and nuns are called to be monastics, not the rest of us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with intermediate structures, or modify the structures we already have — church parishes, religious schools — to be more intentional, disciplined, and “thick”. Whatever we do, it has to be livable by ordinary people.
The Rule of St. Benedict gives us some guidance here that can be modified for the rest of us. Here are some qualities the Rule says Benedictine monasteries must have:
Stability. In most cases, monks and nuns stay in the monastery in which they make their vows, until the end of their lives. Individuals who take the Benedict Option will need to make a personal commitment to sticking it out in place, as best they can. That means, for example, giving up on the idea that you should move around for a job. Staying put and serving your community, and being formed by your community, should be a priority. Similarly, the community must develop the habits and structures to make that possible for its members.
Order. All communities must have a certain order. Authority can and often is abused, which is something to watch out for. Balance and moderation are key, just as St. Benedict taught in his rule. But the community itself must stand for something beyond itself, and must have ways of enforcing this order, as well as a way to modify the rule(s) as time passes and circumstances warrant. The point is that there must be a shared vision, and a mission to which the community is dedicated, and the order within the community constructed around that mission, including forming its members to serve that mission.
Discipline. Formation requires not just right teaching, but right practices. The community must be able to discipline itself, and must require its members to adopt certain practices that serve the mission of the community. Discipline and order require a certain sense of withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of maintaining a sense of what makes us distinct in our mission. This could manifest itself in many ways. Periods of asceticism — fasting, as well as feasting — are key. Liturgical practice — and yes, Protestants can have this too; see the Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith’s work on “embodied practices” — should be a big part of the community’s life. So should seeking holiness. Evangelization and good works are the fruits of this holiness.
Community. A social dimension is essential. We learn from each other, and support each other. Community draws us out of ourselves. Unless they are called to be eremetic monastics — a very, very rare calling — Christians cannot be Christians outside of a community.
Hospitality. Like the Benedictine monks, those living the Benedict Option will be open and welcoming to all comers, provided they want to share in the life of the community — which means living as the community lives. Benedict Option communities will not be cloisters; the cloistered life is a special calling for vowed religious. The hope is that these communities will produce light and hope for those weary of the world, and can be a solid rock for people seeking rest and stability.
But if that’s what Rod is aiming for, then why does he keep saying “I’m not saying retreat from the world!” Why not just say, “yes, we need to retreat from the world, and look inward, because it is so hard to do that in the buzz of modern life that the only way we’re going to remember how to do it is to make a radical break with life as we lead it.”
Instead, he says, repeatedly, that he’s not calling for any kind of retreat. And I take him at his word! Hence my puzzlement.
I can see the reason for the confusion, and I think it comes from the fact that so many people cannot imagine any kind of retreat from the world that’s not running away to the woods or the desert. If people feel called to that, I don’t want to stop them, but that is neither feasible nor advisable for the rest of us. So what do we do?
Something as simple as moving to the same neighborhood so you and your kids can more easily socialize with members of your community is a form of retreat. Homeschooling, or certain forms of religious schooling, are forms of retreat. We homeschool, and we don’t let our kids have unlimited access to media. Those are forms of retreat; there are others. I want to get to know people in other communities and find out what their countercultural forms of retreat are, how they maintain them, and what good they have done (and what harm). The point is simply that you cannot live in a go-along-to-get-along way in this culture, not the way it is now, and expect that you and your kids will hold on to your faith. There are no guarantees, certainly, but there are things you can do to better the odds. Your kids are going to be catechized one way or the other. No parents can do it alone. You need a community of solid, normal, non-crazy Christians who understand what’s at stake, and who are committed to living sacrificially and counterculturally.
I say “non-crazy Christians” because I know a lot of people who have experienced fundamentalism, or some form of abusive religious authoritarianism, react strongly against anything that smells like that. I don’t know how to keep that from happening, though that’s part of the book project: to find out what has worked, and what hasn’t, from people actually living this out. My general sense, though, is that from observing the homeschooling community, there are two kinds of homeschoolers: those who are overwhelmingly fearful of the outside world, and who homeschool only to retreat; and those who have a healthy fear, or at least strong skepticism, of the values of the world, and who homeschool because they are affirming higher goods. The former tend to be the kind of people who may not move to a compound in the woods, but who cocoon themselves tightly in an airless Christian ghetto. It’s like they want to protect themselves and their kids by building an exoskeleton. The latter, by contrast, believe in interacting with the world critically, and focus more on building up inner resilience in themselves and in their kids.
Some grammatically challenged nut commented on Noah’s site:
Rod’s a funny guy. Apparently gay marriage has sent him over the edge. I’m not the biggest LGBT sympathizer but Militarism, Mass-Consumerism and Materialism are much more insulting to my Christian ethic then two dudes loving other.
One more time: as I have repeatedly said, the Indiana fight was a signal moment for the Benedict Option because it compelled me (and many others) to realize how little devotion this country has to religious liberty when it conflicts with sexual autonomy. If there were no such thing as same-sex marriage, we would still need the Benedict Option, because the mass consumerism, materialism, moral relativism and hedonism of late modernity — and yes, even militarism — are dissolving orthodox Christianity. Same-sex marriage is a condensed symbol of the philosophical and social trends that have unseated Christianity and that are diminishing it. More practically, it is the institution that is going to form the tip of the spear that progressives, secularists, and their liberal Christian allies are going to use to push orthodox Christians to the margins of civil society, and dismantle our institutions.
Go back to the top of this post and read Alan Jacobs’s remarks. His question is also my question: What do we have to do to form Christians in such a way that the Christian message appears to them as it appears to us: coherent, powerful, worth building a life around?
I believe that the answer — the answers — are going to look rather different than conventional Christian life and practice are today, because most Christians in America have not absorbed the lesson that insofar as they are faithful to Jesus Christ, they are living as resident aliens in America. Eleven years ago, the great church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote an essay for First Things in which he voiced an opinion that sounds very familiar to a Benedict Option way of thinking. Excerpts:
Of course, one might retort that in the United States (unlike in Europe) the churches are flourishing and the number of Christians is growing. Yes, there are many Christians in the U.S., but can we still claim to be a Christian society? If one uses any measure other than individual adherence (what people say if asked) or even church attendance, it is undeniable that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue. Which leads to a question: Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.
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. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.
If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.
This is going to be very hard, and it may not succeed. But what is the alternative? Here’s an example. Look at this essay by Abigail Rine, about how the students she teaches in a gender theory course at an Evangelical college have no idea what Christian marriage is:
When I first began teaching this course, my students were certainly curious about questions of gender, sexuality, feminism—the various “hot button” issues of our cultural moment—but they were nonetheless devout, and demonstrated, more or less, a Christian orientation to these topics. It wasn’t hard to find readings that challenged students’ shared values and assumptions, considering the secular bent of contemporary gender studies.
In just five years, however, this has changed. Students now arrive in my class thoroughly versed in the language and categories of identity politics; they are reticent to disagree with anything for fear of seeming intolerant—except, of course, what they perceive to be intolerant. Like, for example, “What is Marriage?” [N.B., a natural law case for traditional marriage — RD]
My students hated it, as I suspected they would. They also seemed unable to fully understand the argument. As I tried to explain the reasoning behind the conjugal view of marriage and its attitude toward sex, I received dubious stares in response. I realized, as I listened to the discussion, that the idea of “redefining” marriage was nonsensical to them, because they had never encountered the philosophy behind the conjugal view of marriage. To them, the Christian argument against same-sex marriage is an appeal to the authority of a few disparate Bible verses, and therefore compelling only to those with a literalist hermeneutic. What the article names as a “revisionist” idea of marriage—marriage as an emotional, romantic, sexual bond between two people—does not seem “new” to my students at all, because this is the view of marriage they were raised with, albeit with a scriptural, heterosexual gloss.
While I listened to my students lambast the article, it struck me that, on one level, they were right: marriage isn’t in danger of being redefined; the redefinition began decades ago, in the wake of the sexual revolution. Once the link between sexuality and procreation was severed in our cultural imagination, marriage morphed into an exclusive romantic bond that has only an arbitrary relationship to reproduction. It is this redefinition, arguably, that has given rise to the same-sex marriage movement, rather than the other way around, and as the broader culture has shifted on this issue, so have many young evangelicals.
As I consider my own upbringing and the various “sex talks” I encountered in evangelical church settings over the past twenty years, I realize that the view of marital sex presented there was primarily revisionist. While the ideal of raising a family is ever-present in evangelical culture, discussions about sex itself focused almost exclusively on purity, as well as the intense spiritual bond that sexual intimacy brings to a married couple. Pregnancy was mentioned only in passing and often in negative terms, paraded alongside sexually transmitted diseases as a possible punishment for those who succumb to temptation. But for those who wait, ah! Pleasures abound!
There was little attempt to cultivate an attitude toward sexuality that celebrates its full telos: the bonding of the couple and the incarnation of new life.
This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.
We orthodox Christians are going to have to figure this out. I ask skeptics to keep putting the hard questions to us, but don’t expect complete answers yet. My intention is to start a serious conversation, leading to action; it is not to provide a go-and-do blueprint. And make sure that you’re asking questions in good faith, not just as a form of whistling past the graveyard.