Exploring Our Options

Before the year ends, I wanted to comment on a topic that’s been thrown our […]

David Zahl / 12.10.15

Before the year ends, I wanted to comment on a topic that’s been thrown our way quite a bit in recent months: what has come to be known as “The Benedict Option”. The term, coined by prolific conservative writer/thinker Rod Dreher and since proliferated by any number of commentators, refers to a strategy for professing Christians to interact with a culture that seems to be growing more and more hostile to its primary tenets. In light of resounding culture war defeat, Rod takes St. Benedict of Nursia as a model for how Christians might live in modern America. Speaking to World Magazine this past June, he explained it this way:

A few years ago I read a book called After Virtue by a philosopher named Alasdair MacIntyre. It came out in the ’80s. He ends it by saying that we are in a moment now in the West that’s akin to the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when everything went into chaos. He said Saint Benedict of Nursia left the chaos of Rome, went into the woods to pray. Without knowing what he was doing, he founded a community of men dedicated to prayer. This became the Benedictine order of monks, and over the next centuries they kept the faith alive throughout Europe as Europe was covered in barbarian darkness. They laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society in the former Western Roman Empire.

On his own website, he explains further:

The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.

To be clear, Rod is not advocating a revival of Medieval monasticism or some kind of religious utopianism. From what I can tell–and by his own admission, all of this is still in formation–he is advocating for renewed intentionality in how Christians think of their communities given the resistance they face. Not so much a “head for the hills” mentality as a conscious development of “forms of non-monastic living in the world”. In that same interview with World Magazine he put it this way:

I say, as Christians, we have to tell ourselves, the church has to tell ourselves, our own story and shore up our own group, our own sense of ourselves right now because the culture is so overwhelming. Only then can we go out into the world and be a light to the world as we’re called to be.

You can read a lot more about it here, and it sounds like there’s a book on the horizon as well.

I first heard about the idea when our friend Matthew Sitman wrote about it for The Dish in 2014, the thrust of his response being so close to my own that an additional post over here seemed redundant. Plus, it’s not exactly our wheelhouse. Given the number of inquiries, however, and how much traction the whole thing seems to be getting, I figured a few observations might be in order.

On the one hand, I sympathize with the instinct. One of the great delusions out there is that hostility to religion is based primarily on the church’s stance on the moral issues of the day; if we therefore reinterpret or adjust our moral or ethical positions (or simply play them down), then “it’s all good.” Those factors may play a role, of course, but a guy like Bill Maher or Peter Conn doesn’t care if you’re a liberal Episcopalian or a Bible-thumping Baptist; they want to do away with God, period.

Anyone who has attended a secular wedding recently knows what I’m talking about. The couple is not looking for a more inclusive version of a religious ceremony. They want no religion! And they will embrace some pretty bizarre alternatives to get there.

In other words, it’s naive to dismiss the Benedict Option as something that is only of interest to political and cultural conservatives like Dreher. The ultimate issue is God, not marriage, or whatever’s coming down the pike next. How do we deal with hostility on that level? I give Dreher a lot of credit for attempting to formulate an answer.

Some degree of disengagement is spiritually healthy regardless of how you perceive the culture, at least if Christ is our model. And on a wider scale, limited withdrawal is preferable to continued defensiveness or mounting paranoia, which has not only proven fruitless but exacerbating. No one wants to live in an antagonistic environment.

Moreover, you don’t have to be religious to sympathize with the desire to retreat from the modern world. I’m referring primarily to the always-on, productivity-obsessed performancism that dominates so much of our cultural landscape (yes, even in religious circles). Add smartphone technology into the mix, and you have a recipe for eventual dissent, no matter where a person falls on the religious or political spectrum. Our current way of life is simply unsustainable. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing secular equivalents to the Benedict Option crop up in coming years. But that’s a different essay.

What I am trying to say is that you don’t have to self-identify as a conservative Christian to see why the Benedict Option is attractive.

And yet, as with all human strategies, I wonder if the BenOp calls to the sinner in us just as much as the saint. Meaning, to the extent that it’s consciously engineered, it can be a means of control/law rather than faithfulness, (self-)preservation rather than (self-)sacrifice. Some would say there’s something seductive, maybe even romantic, about living in resistance to the powers and principalities of this world, diminished, perhaps, but ultimately right. Justified! I’d be lying if I didn’t detect a whiff of inflated anthropology (and an ecclesiology this low-church Protestant could never share), especially as far as Christians are concerned. Alas, the drive for self-justification is equally potent in the Christian as the non-; we bring our sin with us into whatever communities we join. The enemy stares back at us from the mirror just as much as the television screen.

One more qualification before I get to my ultimate reservation, though.

The Benedict Option is going to appeal first and foremost to those who share MacIntyre’s near-apocalyptic assessment of Western life (“living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe”, “a possible Dark Age ahead”). As problematic as much of modern life is, I see far too much wonderful stuff out there to embrace such a view. From Nick Lowe and Los Straitjacket’s Quality Holiday Revue to the new season of Fargo, I simply like elements in the culture too much, and I don’t think that makes me an “assimilationist”. There is much to be gleaned from unexpected sources, and much to be lost in keeping the world at a remove. Even if we were reliable judges of God’s presence in the world (which we’re not), you cannot shield yourself from the harmful without losing some of the helpful–or reinforcing notions that cause believers to splinter internally. Sitman expressed it this way:

I’ve never quite… understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task. I reject both optimism and despair about modern life.

In other words, one has to be suspicious of any view of history or ourselves that would place us at a particular apex or nadir. Don’t all generations think that their problems are the ones that will do civilization in? The temptation to understand ourselves as the ones at the axis, the heroes of the story, is strong. Again, that’s not to say that the antipathy toward Christianity isn’t real or growing, simply that it may be somewhat overestimated, especially given how the Internet works and the increasing insularity of the Academy.

Lastly, though, how a person approaches this hostility will depend on how they understand Christianity itself. What is the primary purpose of our religion? The salvation of souls or the transformation of the world? Forgiveness or conduct? Is the Christian faith fundamentally a message of absolution or is it primarily a way of life? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but different Christians understand the relation, or chronology, of the two differently.

One place these differences make themselves known is in the discussion of what it means to witness, or to use the current buzzword, “missiology”. How intertwined are the message and the messenger(s)? Rod states his view clearly when he writes: 

The Benedict Option is about discipleship, which is itself an indirect form of evangelism. Pagans converted to the early Church not simply because of the words the first Christians spoke, but because of the witness of the kinds of lives they lived. It has to be that way with us too. Pope Benedict XVI said something important in this respect. He said that the best apologetic arguments for the truth of the Christian faith are the art that the Church has produced as a form of witness, and the lives of its saints.

Obviously I don’t begrudge anyone holding a view that countless Christians have endorsed throughout the centuries. Especially since many of those “best apologetic arguments” have arisen in times of disfavor or persecution, and even martyrdom. There is something undeniably compelling about an integrated community of believers, and it’s usually their humility rather than their purity, their organic origins and lack of intentionality as such.

Yet I do see things differently. The psychology of the sinner (this sinner at least) is such that we cannot resist leveraging our virtues–communal or personal–for credit. That is, the more emphasis we put on our own lives/communities as a basis for Christian witness, the more tempting it will be to shift the object of that witness from Christ to Christian. Thus, when we or our community fractures, the witness collapses alongside.

Of course, it is not as though I have some smart alternative option to outline here. Instead, I question the need for one. Not because threats do not exist, but because the What of Christianity cannot be separated from the Who, namely, who is Christianity for? Cue Sitman:

I… resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense [italics DZ]. Christianity is premised on our inability to be moral, and its most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together.

Meaning, Christ came not for the righteous, but the sinner–including those who would seek to snuff him and his message out. I dare say that’s where he is still found today; his church, to paraphrase William Temple, exists for the benefit of those who are not a part of it. Prioritizing the survival of the faithful, even in the name of future evangelism, risks the sanctity of what, or who, Christians are being faithful to in the first place: the Christ who let down his defenses for the sake of those who have run out of options. The son of God who forgives not only those persecute him, but those who would deign to preserve him as well.