What is “The Benedict Option”?
Over the past couple years, there’s been an increasing discussion in the Christian blogosphere over the “The Benedict Option,” an idea proposed by The American Conservative editor Rod Dreher as a response to the perceived end of Christianity as a Western cultural force. What is the Benedict Option, and why do we need it? In today’s post, I’ll explore answers to these questions. While I have my own opinion on the matter, my aim here is not to persuade but to attempt to describe a concept that is much-debated and somewhat difficult to pin down.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and perhaps not even then, what with Wi-Fi and 4G these days), you’re likely aware that there has been a seismic shift in American cultural sensibilities over these last few years. For some, the first real whiff of this sea change came with the debacle over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (remember that?), but it was the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges that brought reality crashing down for conservatives. Now, whatever your feelings on these matters, it must be admitted that the IRFRA outcry and the Obergefell decision are dramatic changes from the traditional Christian ethic many assumed underpinned our culture.
There is a strong feeling in the religious conservative realm that America has veered irrevocably into a threatening secularism. Dreher certainly believes so, though he feels the shift in attitudes of same-sex marriage are only symptomatic of a greater “hollowing out” of American faith:
“As I have said, if same-sex marriage were not an issue, and if the Republicans were running all branches of government, the Benedict Option would still be necessary for small-o orthodox Christians, because the logic and progression of secular modernity has hollowed out the Christian faith from within. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as sociologist Christian Smith has written, is the de facto faith of most American teenagers—and, let us be honest, of most Americans. It is a counterfeit form of Christianity, the form of the faith that secular modernity produces.”1
As Dreher sees it, the solution to this secularization is not a full-scale cultural war, but a “strategic retreat,”2 a refocusing of the efforts of Christians away from Quixotic crusades against liberalism and secularism and to the cultivation of family, community, and the soul. To Dreher, the culture is already lost. What remains now is to hunker down and preserve the authentic Christian faith through coming years of modernity’s new paganism. He explains,
“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, even as Europe was covered in barbarian darkness. They laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society in the former Western Roman Empire.
MacIntyre says, “We’re waiting for a new and doubtless very different Saint Benedict to bring those who want to live the moral life together in community to survive through this current darkness.” I’ve been talking about this for years, but it’s starting to get real now because, with the progression of same-sex marriage and gay rights, we have seen a strong erosion of religious liberty. A lot of Christians think of this as simply a matter of law and politics. It’s not. We have lost the culture.”3
Dreher adopts MacIntyre’s interpretation of Benedict-as-preserver and presents the Benedict Option:
“What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what [men] must do to be the church.”4
Admittedly, it’s not a very detailed explanation, and it’s sometimes easier to describe the Benedict Option in terms of what it is not. It is not total disengagement from culture, and it is not cloistering ourselves away from the outside world.5 It is, however, prioritizing the spiritual and intellectual health of our places, wherever they are, above butting heads with opponents to the faith. One observer compares the Benedict Option with the instructions a flight attendant gives during the pre-flight safety briefing:
“What do they always tell you before the plane takes off? Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. When Christians stride confidently out to change the world without having first taken care to be fully shaped and formed by the Christian account of things, they (a) have very little that’s distinctive to offer others and (b) are themselves easily swayed by thoroughly non-Christian ways of thinking and acting, with results we have recently had thoroughly documented for us.”6
The particulars of the Benedict Option are somewhat vague at this point. What would it entail in a practical sense? What does it look like to live the Benedict Option in day-to-day life? Dreher himself offers no answers, writing, “I keep telling you that there is no formula! We are going to have to be experimental, because we have never faced a post-Christian culture. The first point is for Christians to wake up and face reality.”7 Unless Dreher sets out to write something akin to Benedict’s Rule—a guide for monastics that’s been in use for nearly fifteen hundred years—it will fall to individuals and communities to figure out an implementation of the Benedict Option.
While Dreher’s philosophy has its fans (myself included), it is not without its detractors. Dylan Pahman challenges the historicity of MacIntyre’s portrayal of Benedict-as-preserver, arguing Dreher’s Benedict Option won’t work because in reality there never was a Benedict Option that worked as MacIntyre describes.8 David Mills argues that rather than withdraw from culture, Christians must stand and fight until the bitter end, even when we believe there is no possibility of winning.9 John Zmirak scorns the idea that Christians should pursue inclusion in ideological communities instead of wandering wherever the free market drives them.10 Bruce Frohnen believes the ruthlessness of secular society will eventually destroy a community that withdraws in the Benedict Option, and that the only real option is to continue to speak out against and protest its advances.11
For his part, Dreher has repeatedly insisted that the Benedict Option is not the sort of political quietism his opponents describe; civic participation is not in any sense forbidden, or even especially discouraged.
The Benedict Option, as I said in the beginning, is a little hard to pin down. There’s no constitution, no manifesto, no rulebook. I have over a dozen blog posts written by Dreher discussing aspects of the Benedict Option open in my browser right now, and that is hardly all of them. In essence, it is a reordering of our priorities. It is about creating a community of well-developed disciples, with firm spiritual and intellectual foundations, who are equipped to navigate a culture that will see a Christian as an oddity, a buffoon, or even a threat. It is a philosophy that puts the preservation of the faith in a community environment above fruitless entanglements with a hostile world.
Next time, I plan to discuss my personal thoughts on the matter of the Benedict Option.
1. Dreher, Rod, “The Benedict Option & Antipolitical Politics.” The American Conservative, May 19, 2015. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-benedict-option-antipolitical-politics/
2. Rod Dreher in Warren Cole Smith, “Rod Dreher explains ‘The Benedict Option’.” WORLD, June 3, 2015. http://www.worldmag.com/2015/06/rod_dreher_explains_the_benedict_option/
4. Dreher, Rod, “The Accidental Benedict Option.” The American Conservative, April 19, 2015. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/accidental-benedict-option/
5. Rod Dreher in Warren Cole Smith.
6. Jacobs, Alan, “First Things First.” More Than 95 Theses, May 13, 2015. http://ayjay.tumblr.com/post/118897334198/first-things-first
7. Dreher, Rod “Critics of the Benedict Option.” The American Conservative. July 8, 2015. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/critics-of-the-benedict-option/
8. Pahman, Dylan, “The Benedict Option Doesn’t Exist.” Ethika Politika. February 19, 2014. https://ethikapolitika.org/2014/02/19/benedict-option-doesnt-exist/
9. Mills, David, “The Culture War: Stand Up and Fight.” Aleteia, April 29, 2015. http://www.aleteia.org/en/society/article/the-culture-war-stand-up-and-fight-5274114113667072?page=2
10. Zmirak, John “The Benedict Option Isn’t One.” Intercollegiate Review. July 20, 2015. http://www.intercollegiatereview.com/index.php/2015/07/20/the-benedict-option-isnt-one/
11. Frohen, Bruce “There Is No Benedict Option.” Nomocracy in Politics. July 1, 2015. http://nomocracyinpolitics.com/2015/07/01/there-is-no-benedict-option-by-bruce-frohnen/