Saints Spitting Fire
In my previous post, I attempted to describe writer Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a nebulous ideology Dreher himself unhelpfully described as “an inchoate phenomenon in which Christians adopt a more consciously countercultural stance towards our post-Christian mainstream culture”1—a definition one could be forgiven for dismissing as a curmudgeonly grumble. Still, I believe Dreher’s nascent philosophy is one worth pursuing, despite its half-formed state and its numerous critics.
Before we go further, I’d like to add some more clarity to the Benedict Option as described by Dreher. After my last post, reader Greg Herr kindly shared a list of points by Dreher I had overlooked in compiling my piece. I will share them here for the sake of recap and clarification:
The Benedict Option is a catch-all term reflecting several basic assumptions:
1) That orthodox Christianity is in fundamental conflict with the American liberal order, a conflict that is radical, and cannot be resolved;
2) That orthodox Christians are a distinct minority in the United States, and that their convictions will make them increasingly be seen not just as dissenters, but as enemies of the common good;
3) That uncritically accepting the liberal order that has now emerged means giving up on some core Christian convictions;
4) That modernity has evolved to a point at which it is unstoppably corrosive of authentic Christianity, and that those who would hold on to Christianity must clearly and decisively understand themselves in opposition to modernity;
5) That some sort of separation—conceptually, and to some degree literally (e.g., withdrawing to our own schools)—is necessary to maintain Christian faith and commitment amid the chaos of our time;
6) That the only way orthodox forms of Christianity are going to survive over the generations to come is by instantiating them in communal institutions, practices, and customs, requiring a degree of commitment that has been unfamiliar to most American Christians;
7) That this limited separation is required not to escape fully from the world (which is neither possible nor desirable for the laity), but so that the laity can be for the world what God wants us to be;
8) That Benedict Option Christians should remain politically active, working to preserve their own freedom and for the common good, but should direct most of their efforts to an inward rebuilding of the church and culture within the community, not to [attempt] to solve our dilemmas by political action;
9) That lay Christians should look to the Rule of Saint Benedict and the monastic example for inspiration in developing our responses to the situation we find ourselves in;
10) That nobody has a Benedict Option fully worked out now, but there are Christians from various traditions who have been working on it for a while, and that the rest of us can learn from their experiences;
11) That there won’t be a Benedict Option, but rather Benedict Options, plural, based on a community’s religious traditions and local conditions; that is, there is no one-size-fits-all;
12) That the lack of a clear answer to the challenge we face is no excuse to sit back and let history take its course; we are all going to have to do this, or prepare to watch our children and grandchildren assimilated into [the] Borg of relativism, hedonism, consumer capitalism, and the like.2
In summation: committed disciples of Christ are a minority in America, and the broader society’s liberal values—that is, values centered on removing all restraints on the individual, not leftism per se—are irreconcilable with our own on a fundamental level. To stand by our beliefs is to put us in opposition with the world. While readers may object to this “discovery” by pointing out that an authority no less than Scripture states this as well, the slow manifestation of this truth in our culture in recent years may be the wakeup call needed to rouse Moral Majority holdouts from their dreams of legislating the Kingdom through brute numbers. In response, Dreher recommends a limited separation (but not quietism), wherein, believers work to rebuild the church and culture within their community, reviving customs and practices (e.g., liturgy) to construct a strong foundation of belief that will weather whatever cultural storms come.
There are three main critiques I’ve encountered.3 The first is that the Benedict Option goes too far in recommending withdrawal from culture. Dreher has repeatedly denied that his philosophy calls for such a thing (see #8 above, for example). The second is largely historical, claiming either Benedict’s Rule did not “save Christianity” or that Benedict is not the right figure to name this philosophy after. The naming objection is irrelevant, however, and Dreher makes it clear we are not to literally follow in the footsteps of monastics, but to look to the Rule and the history of monasticism and its role in preserving and spreading the faith in Europe as an inspiration.
The third objection, mainly from Catholics, is essentially, “This is all well and good, but some of us are already doing this.” As a Protestant with a non-denominational, non-liturgical background that has visited churches caught up with the world all across our country, I have no response to this critique. If your church or parish is already visibly an outpost of Heaven, a light on a hill that sets it apart from the worldly machinations of its neighbors, then I say “Excellent!” There is nothing else to say, only that I hope to visit you in the future.
But for those Christians who are not Roman Catholics—an outsider tradition which has long bred mistrust amongst American Protestants—who have grown up believing that Americana and Christendom are one and the same, the writing on the wall can no longer be ignored.4 What hope is there from the political sphere? The Moral Majority never succeeded in its mission to remake America in its image; it only succeeded in creating cynicism towards religious-political activism. Today’s front-runners in the party of religious conservatives are Donald Trump, a blustering carnival barker, who, by his own admission, does not find it necessary to ask God for forgiveness; and Jeb Bush, a Catholic whose priorities align with donor interests, not the Pope’s. The majority of GOP candidates seem utterly unfamiliar with Scriptural commandments to care for the aliens among us. I would not elect a single one of them as a local church deacon, let alone to represent my values as a believer. I harbor no illusions that a candidate is concerned with what is good, beautiful, and true simply because he attends a prayer breakfast.
Growing up as an unbeliever, I mocked and reviled a Christian political establishment I saw as hypocritical and ignorant. When I became a believer, I was forced to reassess my feelings, to evaluate that establishment by my newfound faith. I evaluated it and found it wanting. I will not be the heir to the tradition of Christian politics, which often is tone-deaf and so single-minded that great injustices are ignored, or even used, to further a political goal. I will not shoulder that burden; it is only a sack of dry bones, and I will lay no claim to it. I will, instead, remain at home with my friends and families to build and strengthen our small communities, to establish waystations for travellers across the desert of American secularism. I approve the Benedict Option, not because the name is good or because it is a tried and true historical method, but because it is thus far the only proposed method of navigating our shifting culture that resonates with what I have studied in Scripture. Everything else is filtered through centuries of liberal (again, not leftist) economic and political thinking. Everything else is about success, winning, progress. Only the Benedict Option is about the preservation of beauty and truth.
A final critique that I have not named is the objection that this withdrawal is an invitation to the foes of Christianity to roll over us, to round us up and imprison us, to beat down our doors and haul us all away when we refuse to conform to society’s caprice. I think this fear is overblown, but if the outside world comes, I say, let them. We will withdraw to our communities, making them fortresses of faith, where the widow, the orphan, the alien, the sinner, and all those who labor and are heavy-laden, may find their rest; where they will be fed with the bread and water of life. We will withdraw to study and pray and worship, where we will be filled with the full measure of Christ. And if that day comes, when our enemies come howling and pounding the gates, we will throw them open wide, and wild-eyed saints brimming with the Spirit and spitting fire with their tongues will issue forth with courage for this life and confidence in the next. They will stand tall, unafraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the world will tremble in fear and awe in the presence of men and women so filled with God’s Spirit that it pours out of them, as wine overflows a cup.
Dreher’s philosophy is not an excuse to hide away from the world. It is a means to equip the faithful to shake the world’s foundations, as we have done time and time again since the resurrection of Christ. That is why I subscribe to the Benedict Option.
2. Dreher, Rod, “Figuring out the Benedict Option.” The American Conservative, July 16, 2015. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/figuring-out-the-benedict-option/
3. See my August 18th piece for links to several critics.
4. See my series from the beginning of the year, “The Future of Christianity in America.” https://conciliarpost.com/politics-current-affairs/the-future-of-christianity-in-america-part-i/