Monday, July 13, 2015

Detachment, Not Withdrawal--My Take on the Benedict Option

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.  

Friday, July 03, 2015

Tribe Trumps Treatise

If you understand your own place and its intricacy and the possibility of affection and good care of it, then imaginatively you recognize that possibility for other places and other people, so that if you wish well to your own place, and you recognize that your own place is a part of the world, then this requires a well-wishing toward the whole world. 

In return you hope for the world’s well-wishing toward your place.

And this is a different impulse from the impulse of nationalism. This is what I would call patriotism: the love of a home country that’s usually much smaller than a nation. 

Wendell Berry

(Note:  Please ignore this post if you are intend to have a happy-clappy Fourth of July)

It seems I am a poor patriot, or at least in the modern understanding of the word.  Of all our civic holidays, this one leaves me the most ambivalent:  no flags flying, no fireworks, no hot dogs.  Nada.
I’m afraid mon confreres around here concluded long ago that I’ve probably read too much, traveled too far, and have consequently become--as an in-law once succinctly (and accurately) put it--“so strange.”   But really, my Fourth of July skepticism goes all the way back.
July 4th was one of the three holidays during the year when my dad would shut down the office, the others being Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  But this hardly meant that we took the day off.  Rather, it gave my dad free rein to schedule a full day of farm work.  He was no gentleman rancher, but a true Texas cowboy.  He had every intention of being a rancher, though fate and the Depression temporarily derailed that ambition.  As it turned out, Dad lived his working life not in cattle country, but within the confines of the Old South.   To the extent that he saw himself as successful professionally, it was only in that it allowed him to become what he always meant to be, a cattleman.  And so, on the Fourth, we usually had some kind of big round-up planned, or moving cattle, or penning cattle, or vaccinating cattle, or cutting cattle.  None of this took with me.  I had rather been off somewhere with my head in a book.  Why couldn’t we just leave the cows alone to eat their grass in peace?
If not that, then there was often hay on the ground during this day.  Invariably the hay-haulers would be a no-show or a partial-show, or there would be a threat of rain, meaning that everyone had to jump in and get the hay in the barn.  And we bailed a lot of hay.  I actually grew to enjoy the camaraderie with the hay-hauling, and could stack hay better than my brother.

We would come home to a large meal that my mother had been preparing all day, mostly from our own beef or chickens, and our own garden produce.  There’d be a couple of pies, a pound cake, and glory of glories—my mother’s homemade rolls.  She would’ve heaped scorn on the idea of hot dogs and chips.  My dad might bust a watermelon or, even make some homemade ice cream.  At the end of the day, we would finally lounge-around a bit, and then my dad would tell stories.  He was a natural at this sort of thing.  We listened to his tales that we had often heard many times before; of the days of his youth, or anecdotes he overheard from his elders, etc.  My mom was not much of a story-teller, but was there to insert a dose of reality if his tale-telling became too expansive.
And so, that was it:  no flag-flying and no fireworks (I faintly recall once holding a sparkler in my hand as a small child, but this sort of thing fell within that broad category that my mother characterized as “foolishness.”  The lesson stuck, because I do not ever recall buying any as an adult.)  There were no hot dogs, nor goings-on about freedom and liberty, nor references to “our troops.”  Nope, none of that.  My memory and understanding of “patriotism,” was little more than an allegiance to very particular people, and to very particular places, both experienced and in memory—our family “myth,” if you will.  Any larger understanding of Patriotism with a capital “P” probably went no farther than an appreciation for a country that allowed my people to live out their lives in the manner that they did.  I was very much at home with Wendell Berry’s definition of patriotism for three or four decades before I ever heard of the man.

I remember a conversation from almost 50 years ago between my mother and one of my favorite uncles.  He was a career Navy man and somehow he had made a casual reference to the flag, in the context of patriotism.  My mother, ever the literalist, shocked her brother-in-law by matter-of-factly stating that it was nothing more than a piece of cloth.  I was sympathetic to my uncle, of course, but it was my mother’s attitude that stuck with me.  It is has been many years since I have said the Pledge of Allegiance.  Oh, I’ll go through the motions—I’ll stand and put my hand over my heart, but the words do not come out of my mouth.  I just don’t feel right about it.  Patriotism is one thing, nationalism something altogether different.

For the last two years, I’ve been in the Republic of Georgia during their Independence Day celebrations.  I found it all great fun, this comic-opera militaristic display of bravado, with housewives foundling bazookas and children clambering about upon tanks and hum-vees parked on the city plaza.  Upon reflection, however, such nationalistic fervor is as unsettling in the Georgian context as it is here or anywhere else.

I do enjoy the Georgian flag, however.  This is a flag one can be enthusiastic about:  a blood red cross on a field of white, with four smaller red crosses, each located in the quadrants formed by the larger cross.  I intended to buy one while there, but my son (in an acorn-doesn’t-fall-far-from-the-tree episode) quizzed me pointedly about it.  Why was I buying a flag and what did I intend to do with it?  His larger point (retained from Scouting) is that flags are not to be treated casually.  If you are going to deal with a flag, then know that there is a tradition and protocol for doing so, and then follow it.  In this, he came down on the side of his great-uncle, rather than his grandmother.  And, as it turned out, all the flags I saw for sale on the day before Independence Day, were nowhere to be found the day after.

I can deal with most of the silliness on the Fourth.  I have earplugs if they turn up the Lee Greenwood or Toby Keith.  I guess it is the rhetoric that gets to me.  Sometimes, we actually need to stop and think about the words that come out of our mouths.  I love our history.  I really do.  I've spent a lifetime studying it.  We are truly unique in so many ways--but this is due to many factors, not the least of which is the simple accident of geography.  What it is not dependent upon, however, is any intrinsic superiority of our own.    

And that is where I part company with the civic observance of the Fourth.  We often seem incapable of praising our unique American-ness without using language that characterizes it in terms of superiority.  Unique is not the same thing as exceptional.  American Exceptionalism--the child of Wilsonian Democracy and the grandchild of Manifest Destiny--is our besetting sin.  The last time I checked, Pride was still a vice.  And we all know what it goeth before.  Let me know if you ever see a bumper sticker that says "Humble to be an American."    

In this morning's local paper (the reading of which is a bad habit that I can't seem to shake, for it is truly toxic), a columnist wrote of talking with members of her "small group" from church who had just returned from a 10-day mission trip to Russia, where they had been teaching English using the Bible.  She asked their impressions of the country and heard about how thankful they were to get back here where there were fully-stocked shelves in the stores.  The main quote, however, was that the people were hungry for "God, freedom, and anything American."  There you have it--the way we look at ourselves and at the rest of the world.  If this quote strikes you as anything other than self-serving crap, then my entire post will likely be incomprehensible. 

I also wish Americans knew more about the Revolution we celebrate.  I think someone once said something to the effect that a revolution is only a rebellion until it is successful.  And so, our “Revolution” was only such after Yorktown--before that it was a rebellion.  I am not just playing with words here.  On the Fourth, one will hear politicians and other unlearned types wax eloquently about the struggle for our “freedoms,” and “liberty,” and the sacrifices of “our troops”, etc.  Just for good measure, they may also throw in a line about fighting to be able to worship the way that we please.  It won’t matter—no one in their audiences will likely know the difference.  That is our Founding Myth.  

There are myths and then there are myths--most have an element of truth, but some are truer than others.  The hard fact of the matter, however, is this:  our rebellion cum revolution was fought over economic considerations; tax policies, if you will.  Americans did not, nor do they yet, like to pay taxes.  From the beginning, we have demonized those we oppose, so as to cast the particular war in moralistic terms.  And so, George III becomes a tyrant, an evil oppressor in our telling.  I will just say this, the "oppression" was relatively benign, and as "ruthless tyrants" go, George III is way down the list.  I am not saying that the war could have been avoided, for there was a certain inevitability about it all.  England had kept us on such a loose rein for so long that we forgot that the rope was even there.  I am simply saying that the war was not exactly what it is broadly perceived to have been.

And finally, there is the Declaration of Independence itself, a document that has quite literally changed the course of world history.  The language soars.  Jefferson had a way with the written word, to be sure.  My skepticism, however, comes right at the very first:  those “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  I no more believe in unalienable rights than I believe in the concept of progress.  They are not made true simply because Locke and Jefferson say so.  One finds no basis for them in the Christian Scriptures, which, if anything, promise suffering, death and alienation from the world.  They are indeed worthy goals for any society, but come about only after the hard work of citizenship to first create, and then secure them.

These concepts are the underpinnings of Americanism.  Traditionally, all it took to become an American was to land on these shores, buy into these ideals, and learn a bit of English. In America today, however, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can mean anything and everything. And many worry that historic understandings of the concepts behind the words have been stretched and twisted almost beyond all recognition.  One can gather much more evidence supporting the view that America is fracturing than one can to support any coalescence.  So my very real concern--taking the long view--is whether a document and the beliefs it extols are enough to create and mold "a people."  Is it enough and will it be enough in the future?  We are 239 years along—nothing much at all, taking the long view of history.  I am not an apochalypsticist, for to paraphrase Adam Smith, “there’s a lot of ruin” left in us.   At this point, it is not a matter of “will the center hold,” for there is no real center that I can detect.  Maybe the fringes will hold.  Either way, it will be interesting to see how the experiment plays out.  Unlike most Americans, however, I just know that it is neither foreordained nor assured that it will do so.  I also know that most every time, when all is said and done, that tribe trumps treatise.