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What Do We Make of the Benedict Option?

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” seems to be picking up more and more attention, and I expect that we will see a future book from him laying out its distinctives in more detail. Perhaps the best single summary of its features can be found in an article just put out by Damon Linker. Mr. Linker is a critic of the Benedict Option, but he is something of a friendly critic. He also has the advantage of previously working for a Benedict-friendly organization, First Things, and is thus generally familiar with the socio-political idiom. Mr. Linker explains how the Benedict Option derived from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue but has expanded to fit Mr. Dreher’s brand of localistic social conservativism:

The idea was inspired by the famous concluding paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, in which the conservative philosopher wrote about waiting “for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict,” who, like the founder of Western monasticism during the waning days of the decadent and declining Roman Empire, would help to construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.”

In Dreher’s hands, this haunting image has become the Benedict Option — the idea of traditionalist Christians choosing to step back from the now-futile political projects and ambitions of the past four decades to cultivate and preserve a robustly Christian subculture within an increasingly hostile common culture. That inward turn toward community-building is the element of monasticism in the project. But its participants won’t be monks. They will be families, parishes, and churches working to protect themselves from the acids of modernity, skepticism, and freedom (understood as personal autonomy), as well as from the expansive regulatory power of the secular state.

The difficulty in filling this picture out more fully, however, arises in the fact that not even Mr. Dreher has done so. As he says here, “I don’t have a hard, fixed, formulaic idea of what it is, and all this back and forth is helpful to me in thinking through it.” He does add that he is not calling for retreat, however, and in another place, he seems to say that his understanding of the Benedict Option even allows for other allies to continue pursuing other options. Though Mr. Dreher has a gift for touching people’s convictions, many of his posts on this topic have seemed to sprawl in different directions, tugging the heart-strings while leaving the reader without many concrete strategic proposals.

One post on the Benedict Option did offer some specifics, and our friend and associate Jake Meador laid them out succinctly here. Mr. Meador writes:

He then went on to articulate a few specific points that are essential to the Benedict Option as he understands it:

Heavily embodied worship that moves one out of one’s own head and into the realm of ritual, tradition, and custom.
It needs to be disciplined and focused on training the passions.
It needs a strong pastor and a strong creed.
It needs to demand serious, steady involvement of its members and not change its practices to be “seeker-friendly.”
Finally, it must be mission-minded.

Mr. Meador then goes on to criticize this list for not actually being very distinctive:

As I read this list I couldn’t help thinking that you could almost reduce the Benedict Option to basic Christian piety and church life–catechize our young people, embody the truths of the faith in word and deed, hold firm to orthodoxy, take seriously the moral claims of the faith, don’t participate in public institutions that directly undermine the faith. These things all sound quite ordinary when you come right down to it. Indeed, I’m not sure there has been any era in the church’s history when we did not need to do these things.

I largely agree with Mr. Meador, and I do think that the Benedict Option will have to say more than it has to really emerge as its own “option.” However, I do think there are some specific features which can be distinguished from the general ones, and they are what lead many critics to believe that the Benedict Option does represent a form of neo-Anabaptism, a semi-monastic counter-polis conception of micro-communities living apart form the larger culture. This need not be “quietism,” but it does reduce to a sort of separatism which does not allow for proper translation and harmony.

For starters, the name “Benedict” sets the tone, and this was clearly MacIntyre’s intent when he first brought him up. Look back at Mr. Linker’s quote, “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.” These need not be literal monasteries, but the conception is one of the community as monastery. Using the language of “dark ages” also doesn’t help matters, and it does seem that, like it or not, the barbarians will take the city gates and the faithful will have to hole up in safe places.

More than the political worries, the problem of communitarianism looms large. After all, MacIntyre’s “virtue ethics” has become a sort of conservative inflection of post-modernism, and with Mr. Dreher’s use of James K. A. Smith and other postmodern theologians, it certainly seems as if the “embodied worship” and “ritual” are simply ways for us to play our “language game,” standing in the place of common reason and, eventually, the common good. Shouldn’t our same philosophical objections apply here? And why should we expect this to be anything other than another chapter in identity politics and the Balkanization of American political thought?

Indeed, one of the first “political” statements that we have seen among Benedict-friendly thinkers is to argue that ministers ought not to participate in civil marriages, creating two different jurisdictions for marriage in church and state respectively. But this solves nothing, as we have said on this site before, and it simply creates a sort of religious ghetto for churches to exist while the other, real, political work goes on without it. The laity will be forced to live in both worlds and play by both worlds’ rules. New laws will affect them, especially in their public vocations, and they will not be able to simply withdraw. Do we believe that this bifurcated existence will be enduring and therefore normative, or do we envision a still-future change? Are we waiting for societal collapse, or are we planning for a very long-term takeover? If the latter, then we should talk about how, and we have historical precedent beyond the Dark Ages, namely the options presented at the Reformation.

Additionally, I can’t help but feel that the Benedict Option has already been tried by the so-called “Fundamentalists” of the 20th century. As the story goes, these Fundamentalists pulled out of public American life in the early part of the 20th century, for many of the same reasons, but because of perceived infidelity among the mainline churches as well. But the Fundamentalists did eventually come back out of the community-monastery and enter into the public square, thus becoming “Evangelicals.” Was their mistake in ever returning? How are these options different?

Now, there are good points about The Benedict Option, and we at TCI shouldn’t pretend that we don’t practically share many of the same features. We too insist on the influence of religion and even religiously-influenced intentional communities. Catechesis and the discipline of the passions is essential, and this will have to affect our consumptive habits as well. And yet we cannot allow this to devolve into clericalism where the clergy or theologians transition from experts to practical managers. We do not need a Christian Ummah, however local or benevolent, and thus we do not need a Christian Imamah, however cosmopolitan. What we do need is a sort of “both/and” approach, where we do have intentional Christian communities founded upon properly-instructed and revitalized marriages and families, as well as public structures which protect and endorse, in some degree, the conditions necessary for their flourishing. The problem is that this second condition, in the context of modern pluralism, will require some means of public persuasion and common intelligibility. So far, the Benedict Option has been built upon a commitment to the futility of such a pursuit.

In fact, we should consider one of the things which the Fundamentalists shared with the stricter Jewish and Catholic communities, the parochial school. These schools were essential instruments for preserving the community’s heritage and values, thus preserving the community itself. And yet, as we have recently seen, such schools cannot exist without running into the various laws and regulations of public entities and agencies. Tax burdens can be imposed, and they very likely will if there is not a strong public voice to the contrary. Not even literal castle walls will be enough in the modern political world, and so some measure of persuasive public politics will be necessary.

Can the Protestant doctrine of vocation assist us here, especially the vocation of the politician and magistrate? Not every Christian ought to pursue it, and it certainly ought not be the main focus of our worship assemblies (as it has mostly not been, even in the “culture war”), and yet we very much should spend the resources to put men into positions to both legislate and litigate in such a way that glorifies God and advances the conditions necessary for church and family to pursue their callings, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “in rest and quietness.”

Now I have rambled, and I see that I’ve asked more questions than I have answered. Thus we do come around to meeting Mr. Dreher, specifically on the point that the conversation is important and needs to continue. But the fact that continued conversation with informed perspectives from multiple points of view is the best way forward for us also teaches us something about the larger picture. Despite the distractions and competing motivations, nothing substitutes for well-reasoned argument.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 replies on “What Do We Make of the Benedict Option?”

It might be helpful to say “some” fundamentalists came back and became evangelicals. Then, one can look at the fundamentalists that stayed away and ask if their children really are weathering the storm of modernity and secularism. The answer is probably a resounding “no.”

The Benedict Option as presented needs to be generational to be successful, yet Benedictines don’t have any kind of example for how that works. The moastaries lasted as adults converted with each generation.

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