BenOpt-Out July 14, 2015

I’d like to get ahead of the crowd and opt out of the Benedict Option.

I’m referring to Rod Dreher’s proposal that Christians adopt a “more consciously countercultural stance toward our post-Christian mainstream culture.” In agreement with After Virtue author Alisdair McIntyre, Dreher believes that a new dark age has dawned in the West. Just as St. Benedict helped preserve the Christian heritage after Rome’s fall by regulating and propagating monastic life, so 21st-century Christians should, in McIntyre’s words, invest in new “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained.“

Before I lodge my protest, a caveat is in order. Dreher’s vision has barely begun to mature into the planning stage. Dreher himself has gone out of his way not to over-define it, to keep it loose and adaptable. Benedict Option communities could take almost any form, and it’s fun to watch different thinkers invest the concept with their private dreams and personal styles. Eve Tushnet writes of “embedding people in a sort of mosaic, a pattern that sticks together.” Fr. Dwight Longenecker imagines himself leading “an elite fighting force.” I see no reason to doubt that both will reach their goals.

But no matter where they take root or what conventions are developed to govern them, Benedict Option communities will all, in Dreher’s words, be “stronger” and “thicker” than the ones that currently exist. They will all be “based on a commitment to virtue.” Those qualities will make them, them. And I regret to say that every single one causes me to recoil.

To say that I’m not a people person would be an understatement, but then, branding myself a misanthrope would be flat-out libelous. In the abstract, at a safe distance, in small doses, I like people just fine. I fret over the state of humanity constantly and try, in my little ways, not to hasten it toward its doom. But having to spend more than an hour in the company of more than one or two individual specimens makes me feel more like a cornered animal than I can easily express.

An example will have to do. A few years ago, I was dating a brilliant, gentle-spirited woman who was close friends with the entire Metro Phoenix telephone directory. Every Friday, she and a tiny sampling of 10 or 12 would gather at a wine bar in Mesa. These friends of hers weren’t bad people; on the contrary, they were about as nice and wholesome a bunch of young professionals as you could hope to meet. Nevertheless, having to share space and air with them while their chatter filled my ears felt like being stuffed inside a gas mask after wolfing down a tuna sandwich.

During the first few such evenings, I did my best to play the attentive cavalier, holding my sweetie’s hand and offering my heartiest available smile whenever our eyes met. To every remark addressed my way by a stranger, however, I’d curl back my lip and snarl – something, apparently, I do pretty well for a guy who stands five-eight and weighs in at a buck fifty. After a while, I took to excusing myself, almost as soon as our party was seated, to chain-smoke in the parking lot. Only then could it be said that a good time was had by all.

This is not up to the BenOpt standard. Recounting a brainstorming session for BenOpt candidates, Eve Tushnet quotes Leah Libresco as suggesting guests ask themselves: “What am I doing by myself that I could be doing with other people? And can I do it in public?” In the breezy tyranny of those two questions, I hear the voices of old summer-camp counselors who insisted on inserting games of Frisbee golf into every bloc of downtime; of old sales managers who couldn’t let a week go by without a contest or a visit from a motivational speaker. If other-directedness is to become the cornerstone of virtue, then I reject it.

And for those low on virtue, BenOpt communities sound like pretty chilly places. When Dreher protests the current widespread assumption that “there ought to be few limits on human agency and human will” and a scarcity of “restraint or obligation,” I can hear the flagellum whistle. He may be both too nice a guy and too canny a salesman of his own ideas to say so explicitly, but he’s really talking about maintaining order through punishment, or through the threat of it. For some people, fear is a powerful incentive. All it’s ever done is make me resentful and rebellious (in a sneaky way, of course).

Dreher vents a lot of impatience with “people who live by feeling” and a culture that encourages them. In my own case, he’s right – I do take my feelings pretty seriously. They lie behind most of my objections. And, though I don’t give them the final say in everything I do, I wouldn’t care to enmesh myself with people who defaulted to a suspicious view of them. That wouldn’t feel right.

It well may be that I’m unable to transcend the age I was born into and the culture I inherited – worse luck for me, since that age has passed and the culture is changing. Today’s left has evolved out of its cuddly relativist phase and is now imposing its own moral imperatives, which are plenty stern. (Cuddly relativists don’t threaten to tax churches or order that Confederate generals be dug from their graves.) The age is as dark for me as it is for Dreher. Yet I’d still prefer to go to the pillory for being Christian than for not being a good enough Christian. In the first fate, there’s honor; the second is nothing but a pain in the neck.

Speaking of necks, I don’t mean to play the gadfly here. Dreher hasn’t claimed that BenOpt communities are for everyone. Neither has anyone else. Whoever wants to thicken his or her community ties has my blessing and prayers, for whatever they’re worth. But these days, post-Obergefell, enthusiasm is swelling into a bubble, and BenOpt apologists are clearly picturing themselves at the center of tomorrow’s Church. My goal is simply to remind everyone – both the BenOpters and the other folks who find their vision off-putting – that it won’t be completely impossible to loiter on the periphery, among the relics of lost liberal comforts, without renouncing the Kingdom of Heaven.

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