Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Benedict Option & ‘Faithful Presence Within’

What conservative critics of the Ben Op get wrong

I received over the weekend a very thoughtful e-mail from a college professor, which I reproduce below:

Like you, I too was frustrated by Claes Ryn’s piece and the general obstinacy of people in getting the Benedict Option.  The problems seem to be many:

1) A refusal to admit defeat.  A lot of the older culture warriors are like those Japanese soldiers on Pacific atolls after World War II who never heard of the atomic bombs and the Emperor’s surrender.  Moreover, they seem to think that the proper response to the utter failure of a political strategy is to double down on it and keep banging our heads against the same wall.  It won’t work.  The culture is so much further gone than they think–they can’t see the import of Memories Pizza and Indiana and Arkansas.

That’s where your point about being the true Resistance kicks in.  Havel’s anti-politics is a way to keep fighting the war.  It’s also a way to stay true to our principles, unlike the sell-outs to the current nominee, which leads to….

2) Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.  Moreover, no man can serve two masters, and it’s pretty clear that a bunch of the older culture warriors have put mammon or Caesar ahead of God.  When Ben Carson can say bald-facedly that we have to put aside our Christian principles to get the job done, or when Falwell Jr and Dobson et al can toss aside all scruple in support of Trump, they not only ignore their faith, they also cheapen it and appear hypocrites in the eyes of the world and of prospective believers.  That’s not to say that one can’t take the Eric Metaxas line that the alternative is even worse, but it is to say that one can’t sugar-coat how awful things are and how badly they pull against Christian principles.

If our choice is between losing power and losing faith, we must take losing power any day.  What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?

3) A complacency about the state of the church.  It’s bad enough that Ryn et al. are willfully blind to how bad things are out in the world and how things have failed.  They also think things are hunky-dory in the church or at least their own part of it.  Well, sorry to say, the evidence is strongly to the contrary.  Sunday-morning-only feel-good MTD is no match for our culture.  Sure, at the end of the day the Ben Op boils down to “Be the Church,” but we are so, so, so far from the world of the Tipi Loschi and the monks of Norcia yet oblivious to how poorly it is going and how much more interior work we have to do.  Your alarmism is far preferable to their complacency.  That is not just for monastics, but for all believers.

We all need to be far more intentional about our spiritual life, and far more dedicated to building community and planning for the Flood that is upon us, daubing our arks with pitch and preparing to stay afloat.

This is where I think you need to be more overt: the Ben Op is indeed a shift in emphasis, in tone, in focus, and in energy.  Sure, fight some public battles.  But check out of the culture far more, care about the politics far less, direct our time, talent, and treasures far more to religious and cultural matters than political ones.  Some inward turn is necessary, and our outward turn should be more about religious witness and missionary activity than straight politics, and our straight politics should be more about religious liberty than anything else.

I think that checking out of the culture far more than most of us do is terribly important.  People of Ryn’s age have no clue how badly their own grandchildren and nephews and nieces are being formed by it, and how that is the most immediate threat–we have met the enemy and he is us.  The law could leave us alone tomorrow and we’d still be in the deepest, gravest peril from the culture, mindset, and temptation to go along to get along.  We have to be self-conscious about being a creative minority, not a majority about to be absorbed into the Borg.

4) A blindness to the anti-religion of the Zeitgeist.  What you really have to see is that most younger people have substituted a new religion for Christianity.  MTD as you note is one way of viewing it.  But for a lot of people, SJW is itself a religion–they are not really willing to tolerate, but rather go on witch-hunts to purify themselves of heretics in their midst.  Lots of people think they are Catholic or Protestant but are really MTD or SJW.  And the subversion from within the faith is in some ways worse–traitors and infiltrators are more dangerous than uniformed combatants.

Related to this is a blindness of the scale of the problem.  Winning one presidential election wouldn’t do it.  We need to be settling in for decades, probably centuries, staying faithful and laying the groundwork for a later renaissance.  This is like the Christians hanging on under the Ottoman dhimmitude or the Jews in Bablyonian Captivity, not a few years of civil warfare.

I think it’s absolutely fascinating that the split over the Ben Op seems to correlate with age and generation.  The older generation is still refighting the last battle and can’t believe the tectonic plates have moved even in the last few years.  The younger folks, your generation and below, see how bad things are and that the pace of change accelerates.

5) Removing the logs from our own eyes. Yet another problem with the culture-war framing is that it focuses only on the threat the Left poses to traditional believers–the SJWs and MTDs.

But we are far too complacent about problems that either lean right or have no particular political valence. Materialism and worldly ambition are false gods that tempt all Americans, perhaps especially those on the right. And the dangers of social media, distraction, fast-paced and overly mobile modern life, and all-consuming technology threaten our peace, prayerfulness, and attentiveness. Excessive media consumption is a problem not only because of Hollywood indoctrination, but even more because it rots the brain into passivity and lassitude.

Yet the anti-Ben Op folks seem either to ignore or downplay the spiritual peril we are in by going with the flow. Because it doesn’t fit into a culture-war narrative as a problem of the Left, we minimize the importance of resisting these pathologies of modernity.

The Ben Op seeks to open our eyes to what seems natural and inevitable to most Americans, so we can again see clearly. We must first heal ourselves in order to have a strong foundation for helping others. In short, we forget how spiritually ill we all really are.

I am deeply grateful to the professor for these insights. Last Friday, James Davison Hunter gave a talk at the Baylor conference I attended, in which he criticized what he called “the Benedictine Option” as a mistake. I was still on the road to Waco when he spoke, and unfortunately didn’t get to hear the speech. Friends who did told me about it. At the risk of sounding nit-picky, it irritates me when people dismiss the Ben Op but don’t even get the name right. That tells me that they only have a superficial understanding of what I’m talking about.

I don’t want to make the same mistake by criticizing Prof. Hunter’s talk without having heard it. Nevertheless, I do feel that it’s fair to make a general remark, based on several accounts given to me by people who were there. Hunter — a scholar I greatly respect, and whose work has taught me a lot — criticized what he perceived to be the withdrawal element of the Ben Op, positing instead his own model of “faithful presence within” institutions of the world.

Hunter introduced that concept in his 2010 book To Change The World, which reflects on Christian prospects in a world growing ever more hostile to Christianity. Unfortunately my copy of the book is in storage, so I can’t pull it out and look at all the passages I underlined. As I recall, Hunter’s basic thesis is to acknowledge that Christianity has failed to transform the culture, and has failed in part because Christians have not grasped that elites drive cultural change. He explodes the idea that Christians can entirely transform the modern world (as it is often said among Evangelicals, “take back America for Christ”), but also denounces the “neo-Anabaptists” for wanting to create “utopian enclaves.” Hunter doesn’t offer a strong solution, because he (rightly, in my view) sees that the solution is by no means clear. It will have to be worked out by the church. He advocates maintaining a “faithful presence within” the world: that is, staying engaged with the world, but bearing witness as faithful Christians.

Now, with the qualification that I did not hear his Friday address, and may get this wrong (I invite correction from anyone who was there), I think that the Benedict Option falls somewhere between Hunter’s categories of “neo-Anabaptist” and “faithful presence within.”

There is no question that the Ben Op calls for a much greater sense of withdrawal than the church has today. The idea is not to create a “utopian enclave,” as if that kind of thing could exist, but rather to live within stronger boundaries between the church and the world, for the sake of better Christian formation, both of individuals and local communities. Most of us will continue to have a “faithful presence within” the structures of the world outside the church. The Ben Op intends to shore up the “faithful” part, because the church has failed miserably to do so. The current moment is an “apocalypse” in the strict sense of an “unveiling”: a revelation of the nakedness and powerlessness of the church before the modern world. This is simple reality.

Does that mean we withdraw from political life? No. But we have to change our emphasis. As my correspondent said in point #3 above, we have been so active in engaging the world that we have neglected to care for our own most important polis, the church. The Benedict Option would be necessary even if Republicans held the White House and Congress, and gay marriage had never come about. Back in 2004, when all of this was the case, historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote:

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.

I believe this to be true. As I see it, the Benedict Option is an affirmative response to Wilken’s insight. As you will see when the book comes out in March, the Ben Op assumes that most Christians will be trying to maintain a “faithful presence within;” the Ben Op (which is just my name for the church being what the church should be) intends to help them to just that. In order to maintain that faithful presence, they, their families, and their church communities have to withdraw from the mainstream culture far more than most of us do.

Second, the Ben Op assumes that the decision on whether or not to maintain a faithful presence within is out of our hands to a degree not fully appreciated by most Christians today. We may wish to maintain a faithful presence in the institutions of culture, but that doesn’t mean the culture wants us there, or will let us remain without crossing lines that we cannot in good conscience cross. What then? At the present moment, the literature professor, Dante scholar, and orthodox Catholic Anthony Esolen is under severe attack at his own institution, Providence College, for having recently written a couple of essays criticizing the present conception of “diversity” on his Catholic campus, and reflecting on the persecutorial phase of our culture (here’s one, and here’s the other). Protesting students and even some faculty are attempting to drive him out of the college for wrongthink. They may not succeed, not if tenure means anything, but they are likely to succeed in making his life there hell, such that he would love to shake the dust off his feet and get out of town.

But where would he go? I can think of a few colleges that would love to have him on faculty. Ten years from now, will they? Besides, what about the younger orthodox Christian scholars who, unlike Tony Esolen and James Davison Hunter, don’t have tenure? If they disclose their faith commitments, they may not be let into the institution in the first place. The Benedict Option says the church has to reckon with this present reality, which is only going to get much worse in the near future.

I think one big conceptual difference between the way I see things and the way folks like Hunter and my friend Ryan T. Anderson see things is that I am more pessimistic than they are about where we are and what can be meaningfully accomplished under current conditions. I don’t believe faithful presence within is possible without massively more formation and discipleship than churches offer now — nor do I believe that faithful presence itself will be possible in many institutions for much longer. Though they are still important to make, I don’t believe rational arguments help us much these days.

When I think of the position of orthodox Christians in this culture, I think of the monks and the nuns of Norcia, kneeling on the piazza by the statue of St. Benedict, praying in the presence of the ruins of the basilica brought down by the earthquake over the weekend. The façade is all that remains; the rest is rubble. We are left with only our faith, our memories of what was, and each other. What do we do next? How do we begin the rebuilding, a project that will take decades, maybe even centuries? That is the question before us.

Here’s a point to consider, especially in light of my correspondent’s commentary. Because earthquakes earlier this year made the basilica and the monastery unstable, the monks had the good sense to flee outside the town’s walls and set up camp in tents on the side of a nearby mountain. This is why they are alive today. If the monks had been maintaining a faithful presence within the basilica on Sunday morning when the earthquake struck, they would all be dead.



Want to join the conversation?

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

Join Now