The so-called Benedict Option is much in discussion these days, at least in certain circles. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it references the last sentence in Alisdair MacIntyre’s 1981 classic, After Virtue, in which the author suggests the need for a contemporary version of St. Benedict. This presumes, of course, that one views our own era with alarm--if not exactly a new Dark Age, then certainly a darkening one. For those, however, who still hold to the promise of Progress, this entire discussion must seem absurd, and they should not trouble themselves with notions of the Benedict Option. Rod Dreher has been writing about this for some time now, and his spot at The American Conservative website has become the clearinghouse of record for this subject. The dialogue Dreher has initiated is resonating with many, and seems to be gaining traction on both sides of the Atlantic.
Recent Dreher posts here and here are as good an introduction as any, as well as good summaries of the criticism it has engendered. If interested, one can just follow Rod’s writings (and the many links) back for quite a few months and gain a fuller appreciation for the ongoing discussion. The objections (and there are many) seem to fall into two broad categories: a) that the Benedict Option advocates a quasi-monastic withdrawal from the world, and b) that the Benedict Option remains too vague and undefined. I do not sympathize with those who posit the first criticism, for it seems that they are reacting instinctively and not really engaging with what Dreher has actually written. A strategic retreat is not the same thing as a withdrawal. The second criticism has some validity, however. Eventually, there will need to be more clarity about what the Benedict Option actually entails—some summation of the principles that unite its adherents. At present, the Option assumes whatever shape one pours into it, as my comments below illustrate.
How I envision the application of the Option probably differs from that of many others, and would certainly be at variance with how it is characterized by opponents. I just do not see large numbers of future Benedict-opters setting up farm coops or flocking to communes and/or monastic institutions—although such things will definitely be part of the mix. (It would not hurt like-minded folk, however, to begin taking a few small, if symbolic, steps away from our consumerist culture. This could begin with something as simple as tomato plants on the patio, or a few chickens in the backyard, etc.) But the simple fact of the matter is that most of us will continue to go about working in the world, much as we do now. So, there will be no absolute withdrawal, as such, or at least not one that those around us can easily detect.
What is called for, however, is a detachment from the dominant culture. I see that as a great and needed good. Far from fleeing to protective enclaves, driven by desperation or despair, Benedict-opters will stand apart from all the noise; sober, clear-eyed, and hopeful in the face of the ruin around us. For too long we have drifted along in the broad currents of our Age, all the time thinking we are somehow in command of the situation, when actually we are being swept right along with everybody and everything else, while steadily losing our grips on the precious things that matter. So, we must make our way to one shore or the other, pull ourselves out of the current, and take inventory of that which remains. At this point, it seems more a matter of saving and securing whatever can be saved. The rebuilding can come later.
It might be helpful to look at peoples throughout history who have done this very thing. In this country, we have the quirky example of the Amish, but I do not think that is the model for us. Certainly that is instinctively how opponents to the Benedict Option would jump to characterize the movement. Ours is not a rejection of contact with the modern world, but rather a refusal to believe any longer in the promises of modernity. What I have in mind are those peoples who have lived as aliens for centuries and have emerged largely intact: the Jews throughout much of history, and the Armenians in the Near East come to mind.
I am hesitant to use battlefield metaphors and/or analogies. They are too easy and too susceptible to simplistic and widespread abuse and demagoguery (i.e. “Take Our Country Back!”). Many activists still resort to this sort of thing, however. I find it sad to see them floundering and lashing-out in the old ways, thinking that political engagement and a tight grip on Americanism will turn the tide. In this context, Rod and others have used the terminology of “the battle is lost.” Yes, there is that, but I think it goes much deeper. Maybe I am too given to considering the longue duree, but I do not believe the battle was ever winnable in the first place.
One has to look no further than the paroxysms of outrage over recent legislation and/or Supreme Court decisions—the belief that our country has suddenly been sent into a moral and existential tailspin. (And let’s be clear, for many Americans, this new-found concern for our “national crisis” only took shape when they looked up from their dogged pursuit of the American Dream to notice that the country had elected its first black President.) Nostalgic longings for the Reagan era (and he was as much a part of the problem as anyone) displays historical naiveté and shortsightedness. No, our problems are deeper-rooted and we must go back to our very founding, I would think. A wise priest-friend once said to me that it was not in the nature of Americans to be Orthodox. We were discussing something very specific, but the larger point holds.
I may well agree with particular concerns of the Right (or not). But where they see a precipitous sloughing-away of traditional values and ideals, I see as the natural progression our nation has been on all along, built as it is upon a foundation of individual rights. The unique atomized person is exalted over all, at the expense of any larger sense of community, not to mention any sense of the transcendent. And so, Americans who seriously contemplate the Benedict Option must realize that it will necessarily entail being both counter-cultural and indeed, radical. I noticed a sign outside a nearby Methodist Church that got it just.exactly.wrong: “A radical is someone with both feet firmly planted in the air.” This is the broad accomodationism of the day, and such thinking will not appeal to Benedict-opters. A radical is more likely someone who faces the world head-on, clear-eyed and with both feet planted firmly on the ground. So if they are serious about it, Benedict-opters will definitely be tagged as radical. The decision will have to go far beyond reactions to the usual red-button issues of our day, but will also require acknowledging the implicit economic implications of the decision.
The American Way of Life is--in every real sense of the word--a religion all its own. We are its willing disciples, our altar is the Free Market System, and we worship the trinity of consumerism, nationalism and democratization. A False God to be sure, but nevertheless one with its own unique rituals and sacraments. The American Dream is but a replacement religion, not a complimentary “lifestyle.” If one is contemplating the Benedict Option, I think the idea of being a “good American,” as that term is commonly understood, will have to be jettisoned. In fact, one may well have to be a decidedly bad American.
The Benedict Option is rightfully perceived as a Christian undertaking. I would think that Catholic and Orthodox believers will be better prepared, theologically and institutionally, to nuture and equip the Option. I would extend this to include some Lutheran and dissident Anglican churches, as well. That said, we must know that we have no immunity from the forces that affect everyone else around us. In coming decades our numbers will be absolutely decimated. Catholic and now Orthodox believers have often bought into the Americanist heresy every bit as much as their Protestant neighbors. So there is no room for smugness or self-satisfaction. And on a side-note, this would be a good time for Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians and church leaders to spend more time soberly assessing our commonality of purpose in light of the challenges we face, and less time on protecting jurisdictional turf.
Mainline churches have already made their bargain with the Spirit of the Age. This will not serve them well in the long run, and the familiar theme of their precipitous and inevitable decline does not need to be elaborated upon here. And so, individual Christians within many such churches—Disciples of Christ, the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and soon-to-be Methodists—might well decide to go with the Benedict Option, but it will be in spite of their church affiliation, not because of it.
The jury is still out on many Evangelicals. One occasionally hears encouraging things from their spokespeople (Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example), but I wonder if any of it is filtering down to the local congregational level. From what I see, the rank and file remains too cozily attached to American civil religion. Evangelicals will need to digest the hard truth (for them) that the flag, patriotism and valorizing “our troops” are not part of the Gospel. They have been sold a bill of goods, though they have not yet realized it, I think. Despite the very obvious commitment of many Evangelicals (and their ranks are simply too broad and varied to cover with a blanket characterization), I am left with the impression that they are still too tightly wrapped in an embrace of our American Way of Life. I hope that I am wrong on this. I recognize that I too quickly and instinctively agree with the broad-but-shallow characterization of their Protestant underpinnings. Apostolic churches do have a history of endurance and survival (but not everywhere and at all times). One simply doesn’t know what Evangelicals will do. At this point, I am not sure about how appealing a Benedict Option would be for Evangelicals. When Baptist churches start removing their American flags from their podiums, then I will start taking notice.
Unlike many, I do not harbor apocalyptical visions of America’s future. I think our country will go along much as it is now, only more so. The rich will get richer, popular “culture” will get even crasser, and we will continue to throw our weight around in the world. (When there are global conflicts where the only good option is to choose “none of the above” rather than any of the bad choices, we will invariably continue to choose the worst of the bad choices.) And the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about will hum right along. Income disparity will widen. There will be the gated comfortable, flush with income (if not real financial security) who will continue to build and to buy and keep the consumerist economy ginning, who will still marry and more or less stay married and who will go along with the casual cultural Christianity for a while longer, who will provide good educations to their children who will get decent jobs and marry others in similar circumstances. And then there will be those on the other end of the spectrum, what could be called Tattooed America, who will not marry, who will have not done church in generations, and who are financially vulnerable. Both extremes are more similar than they could ever imagine, having become unmoored from any real connection with the Christian faith. Neither will believe there should be any restraints on what an individual should be allowed to do. I realize that this is painting with the broadest of broad brushes, but that middle ground most everyone thought they occupied is shrinking and most are edging closer and closer to the tattooed set.
Those who step aside, the detached Benedict-opters, will realize that they have no home in either camp. And this should lead to the recognition of who exactly are our compatriots in detachment--those share commonality of purpose. We may well find that things do not neatly sort out between Christians and the Other. Our observant Muslim neighbors may be more simpatico to our view of the world than our members of our own tribe with their motorboat in the driveway, golf clubs in the garage and the pool in the backyard.
So what would the Benedict Option look like in actual practice and implementation? In true American style, I believe it would probably be quite “diverse.” It might be confined to a single home, or perhaps a close neighborhood. Some might opt for commune, farmstead or some sort of farm coop. I can see it taking root and flourishing in the heart of our cities. Monasteries would naturally be an element of the Benedict Option. And of course, it might be a parish—I will say that it should be a parish. Our suburbs will be the most sterile ground for the Option, as they are for most things of any permanence.
But Benedict-opters would probably be in the workplace along with everyone else. They would participate in the political process, though they would fully realize that there is no safe harbor in either party. The GOP will continue to use religious voters as long they will allow themselves to be so used. If you still hold to the view that political activism is a legitimate approach to our problems, then you are probably not ready for the Benedict Option. Voting will be to head-off the worst of the alternatives we face, certainly not to “effect change.”
Benedict-opters would closely oversee the education of their children, whether home-schooled or not. I know that home-schooling is an article of faith with many. It is not with me. I know that it can be done well, I just have not seen many examples of it. My concern lies more with the motivation behind home-schooling that it does with the actual teaching that takes place. All Benedict-opters will instinctively know, however, that true education will come at home.
Again, detachment does not mean withdrawal. Adherents should be noted for their open-handed generosity—to all. Our homes (and porches!) and institutions should be safe harbors of calm and civility—places of genuine, welcoming hospitality. Speaking of our homes, Benedict-opters may have to eschew our vaunted American propensity towards mobility. Perhaps we need to find a place and stick to it, allowing time for true community to build from the ground up. This mobility is a perennial problem in many parishes, with families coming, but also going. The Option will require adherents to seriously weigh community against professional advancement.
A Benedict Option household or institution will be, almost by definition, a place of learning, of the passing along of eternal verities. Opters will have to begin to think generationally again. We must build spiritually, intellectually and even physically with an eye to our grandchildren, or better yet, our great-grandchildren. As our forebears had always done, so must we. The gratification of today must be postponed for the good of our posterity. This seems jarringly Old World to our ears, but so much the better. Who knows, maybe parents will even return to becoming involved in the marriage arrangements for their children. Dowries worked for a long, long time. Maybe I am getting carried-away, but we must take the long view of things, seeing past the current darkness, all the while realizing that there will be no permanent victory this side of the grave. But life has to be lived, and it should be done so intentionally and courageously.
In the getting from here to there, Benedict-opters will no doubt begin to form webs of mutual friendship, support and connectivity. This has to be based on something more substantial than social media, but the role this plays should not be discounted. In the meantime, many online forums present sanity and clarity to those of a traditionalist bent: The American Conservative (a name not without irony, for the magazine is anything but in contemporary understanding of the word), Solidarity Hall, and Front Porch Republic come to mind. If you don't mind a little dystopianism, then James Kunstler is a good read. Exactly how do we get there? I do not know, other than for people of good will and courage to begin to make small steps in that direction.
Some have said that the Benedict Option is nothing more than the Church being the Church, and as such there is no real need for designating it otherwise. Certainly for me, a Benedict Option would be little more than traditional Christians acting and living as if they really believed it.