I have tried to stay silent on the so-called Benedict Option because, as I suspected from the start, most of the debates around this topic have been reduced to semantic debates, with opponents (or “opponents”) taking it to mean “withdrawal from social life”, and with respondents angrily responding that, no, no, that’s not what it’s about, and everyone using that term as a Rorschach Test.
So here are some thoughts that may help to clarify some things and maybe make a sharper and more useful critique.
The first thing I would say is that when we talk about “the Benedict Option” we are actually talking about a spectrum of options. Critics pick out one point on the spectrum and say “Aha! Here’s what the Benedict Option is and here’s what I think about it” and then respondents point to another point on the spectrum and say “No! Look! This is what the Benedict Option is!”
I think this goes back to Rod Dreher’s landmark article on the Benedict Option. In the article, he highlights as examples of the Benedict Option, both the community around the traditional Clear Creek Benedictine monastery (Clear Creek is a little sister of Fontgombault, a French Benedictine movement to which I have devotion and fellowship), which seem to me a straightforward example of the “retreat” that critics charge the Benedict Option of endorsing, and families in suburban Alaska that lead lives that seem “normal” from a 30,000 ft. view, but with a strong communitarian and subversive edge underlying their “normal” suburban lives. And, on his blog, Rod has repeated many times that what he means by Benedict Option isn’t “retreat” but rather a strengthening of community ties between Christians, and everything that flows from that.
But this is why it makes sense to me to talk about a spectrum. And you have two extremes on the spectrum. On the one side, you have what you might call (humorously! don’t freak out!) the “David Koresh Option”: complete sectarian withdrawal, the Barbarians are flooding the Empire, and all we can do is huddle in the ark (mixing up my metaphors over here) and wait for the flood to end. And I think everyone involved in this discussion would agree that this extreme is wrong and that nobody is talking about that.
And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have: people basically living the same lives, but with more piety, and a greater emphasis of community ties between Christians, and a stronger sense of being “in the world but not of it.” And this is the language that Rod uses most often when talking about the Benedict Option.
But here’s the thing about that other end of the spectrum: if what the Benedict Option is is just Christians having more piety, and being more involved in their parish, and having a greater sense of their “dual citizenship” of Heaven and Earth–is there anybody who opposes that? Is there anyone saying Christians should be less pious, or less involved in their church, or less critical of, or complicit in the evil that surrounds them? It seems to me that if that’s what you’re talking about you’re not talking about “the Benedict Option”, you’re just talking about “Christianity.”
So I guess the question that I would like the “Benedicters” to answer is: sincerely granted that you’re not about the David Koresh Option, then what is it that you’re about that’s not just Christians being more pious, such that it makes sense to not just call for more piety, but for something more specific called “the Benedict Option”? What is on the spectrum between the David Koresh Option and what you might call the “Mere Christianity Option” that you find so interesting, and how do your interlocutors distinguish that from not just one of them, but both?
So that’s one thing.
The second thing I’d like to write about is what my impressions have been of the Benedict Option, which might help the Benedicters understand where the criticism comes from, and maybe even sharpen their argument.
The first is this: I’ve been a longtime reader of Rod’s blog, and what I saw playing out is that, if not causally, then chronologically, the emphasis on the Benedict Option played out in a sequence that began with the same-sex marriage debate. Rod’s main concern about this debate in the past few years has been that, granted that the “traditional view” has lost the debate, we should fall back to a “live and let live” pluralist commitment that allows institutions that still hold to the “traditional view” to do so without too much social and legal opprobrium. In that context, then, it’s hard to interpret “the Benedict Option” as anything but a sense that Christianity, having lost the main field of battle, has to now attempt what has to be called a strategic retreat to stronger redoubts. It might not be a “retreat” in the sense of “giving up the fight”, but it’s certainly (or at least sounds an awful lot like) a “retreat” in the sense of, as the old joke has it, “advancing in a different direction.”
And the very phrase “the Benedict Option” can’t help but evoke the idea of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, i.e. of a complete civilizational collapse, within which all that can be hoped is for a holy remnant to preserve what few things can be preserved and basically wait out the long winter until springtime returns. Protest though they might that this is not what they’re about, I hope at least the “Benedicters” can see why the phrase can scarcely help but evoke such a narrative. And indeed, this is exactly the parallel Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he called for a “new St Benedict”, which is what gave rise to the phrase “the Benedict Option” to begin with.
The second is this: as I wrote previously, within those metanarratives, both the “localized” “same-sex marriage” narrative, and the grand-historical “Fall of the Empire” narrative, it’s hard to construe the Benedict Option as premised on anything but a sense of defeat for Christianity, a defeat which is impossible to reverse in at least, let’s say, our children’s lifetimes. (MacIntyre: “a crucial turning point”) This is the premise that I see no reason of endorsing. I am not claiming that it’s not true. Maybe it is. But I see no reason to take that for granted. And it’s hard to construe the Benedict Option as not doing that. I prefer to “rage, rage, against the dying of the night.” Things looked pretty bleak on the evening of Good Friday too, and I really want to avoid making the same mistake. And maybe, indeed, the defeat won’t be reversed within our children’s lifetimes, but it seems to me that there is a significant risk that if we take it for granted that this is the case, we will end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy. Revivals can and do happen, sometimes under our very noses.
The second implicit premise that I detect, and I will get in trouble for saying this but I will anyway, and one that I think is not only empirically wrong but spiritually dangerous, is, frankly, a “us vs. them” mentality. Over here are the pure, the virtuous (MacIntyre again), the civilized, and then there are the impure ones over there. (Again: I am describing a sense that is being conveyed, so if you, Benedicter, respond “I never wrote that I’m holier-than-thou and everyone else is a barbarian” you’re missing the point.) And again, it seems hard to avoid that sense being conveyed with the word “Benedict”, and the associations it brings of the holy monks on the one side and the faithless barbarian hordes on the other. This is, I think, a problem with our side in the “culture wars” generally, which is a narrative whereby sexual libertinism suddenly “happened” to a virtuous society, like a storm suddenly breaking out of a clear summer sky (or barbarians streaming over the Rhine). There is obviously a sense in which that is true (the Pill, for starters, was a deus ex machina, in so many ways), after all we don’t talk of a Sexual “Revolution” for nothing. But it is not the whole story, and we will be totally unable to wage a culture war without a searching critique of where we went wrong. This variant of “Modernity” (whatever you want to call it, that’s not important here), is clearly a Christian heresy, something that grew out of Christendom, and when sheep leave the fold, it means the shepherd isn’t doing his job. Marriage wouldn’t have seemed so stultifying and suffocating to so many people if more Christians had modeled true Christian marriage. Christians would have more than absolute zero credibility talking about homosexuality if gay people hadn’t been our scapegoats for centuries, and if they gave a stronger impression that “upholding traditional marriage” means talking a lot more about heterosexual divorce and heterosexual serial monogamy and heterosexual libertinism and heterosexual contraceptivism than about homosexuality and not just making prescriptions but actually, practically, concretely, coming up with ways to help people live out a Christian life. By now (i.e., much too late) it is mostly recognized that same-sex marriage is not a cause but a symptom of a redefinition of marriage done by and for straight people with the two-fer of acceptance of the Pill and of no-fault divorce.
But my point isn’t so much about social critique or culture war strategizing. It is a spiritual point. We will not grow spiritually, indeed we will stumble, if our controlling narrative is “Barbarians came in and ruined the Empire”, rather than “Barbarians came in and ruined the Empire because we were unfaithful” (which is how the Bible always describes those sorts of events). The old self must be crucified with Christ so that the new self can be born of the Spirit.
Call it strawmanning if you like. May be it’s in my head, that when Alasdair MacIntyre draws a parallel between our current era and the Fall of the Roman Empire, I see that as drawing a parallel between our current era and the Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s very easy to deflect this critique. I hope instead that some of the Benedicters will take it seriously and prayerfully and that we can have a productive discussion.
UPDATE: Leah Libresco has an excellent response.