The cloister of Fontevraud Abbey in France
Fear, desperation and pessimism make a dangerous cocktail. American journalist Rod Dreher seems to have imbibed this potion. “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other,” he writes. “Unless we find it again, there is no hope of halting our dissolution.”
He outlines his survival strategy in a New York Times best-seller, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. It has been widely reviewed in secular newspapers and magazines like the Think Progress, the National Review, Atlantic, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post – to say nothing of Christian blogs. So Dreher’s solution is an intriguing one – but is it the right one?
There is no doubt about the truth of much of his analysis. Dreher notes that many of today’s Christians are perfectly at home in a liberal world: Liberalism has changed them, and they, in turn, have changed their Christianity. We have only to think of the Podesta-Hillary Clinton emails plotting the subversion of the Catholic faithful. Clinton lost the election, but for Dreher the respite is only temporary.
“We are on the brink of entire areas of commercial and professional life being off-limits to believers whose consciences will not allow them to burn incense to the gods of our age,” he predicts. Fewer and fewer public spaces will be open to faithful. Young Christians who dream of becoming doctors or lawyers may have to abandon their ambitions.
His pessimism about our future political and cultural life is rooted in the conviction that “we in the modern West are living under barbarism, though we do not recognize it.” This is a world in which “Our scientists, our judges, our princes, our scholars, and our scribes … are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human.” It’s scary stuff.
But I would argue that Dreher has good intentions, but the flight from the world which he advocates is misguided. Ever since Cain killed Abel, mankind has grappled with evil. And, by and large, we have coped. There have been highs and lows, but the overall picture is one of progress.
For the rationalist there is one reason for this – mankind’s ingenuity. For men and women of faith, it is the hand of providence. For Christians, the love and mercy of a Divine Father whose Son redeemed us is the foundation of all our hope for the future. It is a lack of emphasis on hope and a failure to see how it has unfolded in two millennia that are the weaknesses of the Benedict Option.
First, Dreher misreads the history of early Christianity. The early Christians took seriously Christ’s command “Go forth and teach all men” and they did it “In spite of dungeon, fire and sword”. They did it in an Empire ruled by Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. They nurtured their faith within own communities but without separating themselves from their neighbours. They protected themselves with their Faith and the exercise of virtue. There was no flight from the world, in spite of the hostility of the surrounding culture.
In fact, one of the earliest explanations of Christianity, the 2nd Century Epistle to Diognetus, says: “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle…. In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”
Second, he misinterprets monasticism. The early monks who lived in the desert of Egypt did not flee from Alexandria because the secular world was incompatible with Christian life. They simply saw it as their personal vocation, a way which would also fortify and sustain the faith and holiness of all mankind.
Benedict of Nursia was stellar among these monks. While Benedict (480-543), a young Italian nobleman, was appalled by the lax behaviour of his contemporaries, there is no evidence that he regarded his own response to God’s grace as a template for all right-thinking Christians. But Dreher’s option seems to be just that.
St Benedict’s vocation to the religious state was not a rejection of the world or a solution to the corruption of his age. It was a response to a calling to a life of prayer and contemplation of a very special kind. It was a shining light to mankind, not a torch which all were asked to bear.
Third, Dreher misreads modernity. Not everything about it is evil. Amongst its positive features are esteem for everyday life and the elevation of ordinary things to a level of splendour. It took many centuries to reassert the universal vocation to holiness. It might be a pity if the Benedict Option set at nought the work of the Holy Spirit which over the last century has revived the early Christians’ conviction that they were the soul of the world.
A tireless advocate of this was a 20th century priest dubbed by John Paul II the “saint of ordinary life,” Josemaría Escrivá. “Your ordinary contact with God takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. There you have your daily encounter with Christ. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind,” he wrote in one of his homilies, “Passionately Loving the World”.
Fourth, the ideal Christian is not a monk and need not live like a monk. In his New York Times column, David Brooks complains about this. “The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities….”
While Dreher insists that “We’re not called to be monks. Monks are called to be monks,” it is hard to separate his formula from a way modelled on the religious life. “What we have to do is have a limited retreat from the world … into our own institutions and communities,” he says. Well, it may be limited – but it’s still a retreat.
Fifth, by retreating, Dreher eschews politics. We must recognise, he says, that “politics will not save us.” In the context of his own country, he has no time for Christians who have sought defenders and champions in the Republican Party, including President Trump. “Neither party’s program is fully consistent with Christian truth,” he argues. But only to be satisfied with a party of such consistency is surely to long for a kind of theocracy. It also seems to ignore the needs of people who depend on political institutions, the administration of justice, and many more things to enable them to flourish. Doesn’t Christian solidarity demand that we stay engaged in the public square?
The contradictions inherent in all this are suggested in a conversation which Dreher had with a pastor who said: “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbours in love, it ceases to be Benedictine … It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” St Benedict’s option was a divine vocation. The Benedict Option is a human solution to a perceived cultural, political and social crisis. They are very different.
The final difficulty with Dreher’s solution to challenges faced by Christians is that it is not fully Christian. Many of his suggestions echo Orthodox Jewish life, like daily prayers, restrictions on diet and work, and extensive educational networks. Bethanay Mandel, an Orthodox Jew, notes this as a fascinating component of the book. She writes: “The communal makeup of the Orthodox Jewish community was built not in response to cultural upheaval, but from a desire to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people … Yet the Orthodox Jewish experience provides an exact blueprint for what Dreher is proposing American Christians undertake.”
“We Christians have a lot to learn from Modern Orthodox Jews,” Dreher acknowledged in one interview. “They have had to live in a way that’s powerfully counter-cultural in American life and rooted in thick community and ancient traditions. And yet, they manage to do it.”
But Christians are supposed to do more than preserve continuity; they are supposed to spread the Gospel. Evangelising is essential for Christians, as the final words of the Gospel of Mark remind us: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Where is the spirit of evangelism in The Benedict Option?
No, The Benedict Option is not the definitive Christian response to secularism. Like the madness of the world’s experiment with Communism (RIP 1917-1989), contemporary cultural aberrations bear within them the seeds of their own destruction. They just represent more deceit from an eternal Enemy whose ultimate defeat is certain, however dark things may seem at the moment. As the Victorian poet wrote, “In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look, the land is bright!”
But we must accept the challenge and we must stay the course.
Michael Kirke writes from Dublin.