Friday, March 17, 2017

The Benedict Option: Then and Now

This coming Tuesday is the traditional day for remembering Saint Benedict, who died in 547. (Paul VI's calendar transferred his feast from March 21 to July 11.) Benedict is the patron of Western Monasticism and a patron saint of Europe, deservedly so. He is in the news again now, however, mainly thanks to Rod Dreher's new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The book develops a theme that Dreher has been arguing, at least ever since his encounter with Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, which famously ended by recalling Saint Benedict's monastic response to the collapse of Roman civilization as a model for a renewed relationship with our contemporary culture as Western Christian civilization continues to collapse.

In honor of the imminence of Saint Benedict's traditional day and conscious of contemporary political and cultural chaos, I read Dreher's new book this week. The Benedict Option is obviously not a call to everyone to drop everything and become a Benedictine, but it does propose salutary lessons from Saint Benedict's Rule and the Benedictine way of life. Benedict's Rule, Dreher rightly recognizes, proposed a way of life "for the ordinary and weak, to help them grow stronger in faith." That is what makes it perennially relevant - not just for monks who live a celibate community life vowed to stabilitas loci and conversio morum. All people in whatever state of life who desire to live a morally and religiously serious life can draw from the deep well of Benedictine wisdom, suitably adapted to the distinct circumstances of the varied vocations and states of life Christians are called to live in the world.

True to the historical analogy underlying his argument, Dreher begins with a somewhat apocalyptic analysis of contemporary civilization and how it got to where it is today.  All such analyses - even the best one ever, Saint Augustine's The City of God - necessarily generalize and somewhat oversimplify. That said, Dreher does present a coherent and cogent account of our "long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning" to today's "place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection."

So - to quote Chernyshevsky and Lenin - what is to be done?

Born in 1967, Dreher was raised a Methodist. He became a Roman Catholic in 1993, but then abandoned Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006. This gives him a wealth of knowledge of different forms of Christian religious experience to draw upon, which he does in a somewhat eclectic way. He is also a political and social conservative and writes from that particular perspective. Indeed, it seems to be his discovery of the ineffectiveness and (dare one suggest?) moral bankruptcy of conservative American religion's self-induced subordination to the Republican party that constitutes much of the background for this reexamination of the mode of Christian engagement with the world. He diagnoses the politicized conservative American Christianity that has been so evident now for decades as "content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it meant to be Christian."

Thus, he warns, for example, against an unbalanced obsession with religious liberty. "If protecting religious liberty requires us to compromise the moral beliefs that define us as Christians, then any victories we achieve will be hollow."

And Dreher actually recognizes that there are real Christians who are not in sympathy with the agenda of the Religious Right. "For another," he notes, "the church is not merely politically conservative white people at prayer, Many Hispanics and other Christians of color, as well as all who, for whatever reasons, did not vote for the divisive Trump, do not thereby cease to be Christian." 

It is not that Dreher abandons the agenda of the Religious Right, but rather that he recognizes how the pursuit of political power has not only failed to accomplish its stated religious goals  but in the process also has helped to undermine religion even further. And, applying the brilliantly prescient insights of Philip Rieff (whose 1966 The Triumph of the Therapeutic remains the classic go-to text to start studying this phenomenon), he examines and challenges contemporary American Christianity's deterioration into therapy. "The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything," he observes, "even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves."

But The Benedict Option is not just a critique of contemporary society but a road map for an alternative, which - not unlike Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, but from a more explicitly religious premise and with a more explicitly religious end in view - is rooted in non-governmental initiatives undertaken by families and intentional local communities. "The best witness Christians can offer to post-Christian America is simply to be the church, as fiercely and creatively a minority as we can manage." But this he recognizes will require - among Christians themselves and within their churches - a real re-creation of a lost Christian culture.

Se he calls, for example, for a serious re-engagement with the liturgy - an obvious if somewhat easy call coming from someone who is Eastern Orthodox and a challenge to less liturgically oriented Christian communities. There is a lot of wisdom also in what he has to say about that challenge of technology. And he has a lot to say about Christian education - education as Christian formation. "For generations," Dreher nots, "the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth without putting up much of a fight." While I would certainly part company with him in his sympathy for home-schooling - a practice I have never understood and feel no attraction to at all - I was intrigued by his treatment of "Classical Christian Schools," which represent a voluntarist return to the traditional goal of classical education. Surely one of the greatest of our contemporary culture's self-inflicted wounds has been the virtual disappearance of classical education. Any movement that revives classical education among even a small subset of young people deserves some support. As with medieval monks incidentally salvaging classical culture while primarily focused on saving their souls, a serious recommitment to classical education would represent yet another Christian contribution to boosting human civilization.

Of course, so much of this depends upon a willingness to stake out a real area of difference, even while remaining engaged in other ways with the current culture. He cites the familiar example of Orthodox Jewish communities.  But the challenges should not be underestimated. After all, the Catholicism in which I grew up, while certainly not as sectarian as Orthodox Judaism, let alone such obvious examples of sectarian separatism as the Amish, was certainly somewhat sectarian. We lived in what is nowadays sometimes dismissively referred to as a "Catholic ghetto," about which - in contrast to its contemporary cultured despisers - there remains, I believe, still much to be said in praise of. Still, it was the very success of the "Catholic ghetto" that led to Catholics' widespread success in becoming more effectively engaged with contemporary society - and in the process not only destroyed the "Catholic ghetto," but led inexorably to the Church's somewhat weakened contemporary condition. Going back is never easy. And the material price to be paid for going back is usually more than most will ever be willing to pay!

Dreher does helpfully argue against seeking conflict for the sake of conflict. "Claiming religious persecution unnecessarily will not help the cause. Instead it will provide the secular left with grounds for claiming that all concern for religious liberty is a sham." Even so, he does perpetuate the alarmist view that sees all sorts of professions as increasingly threatening territory for Christians - what I sometimes call the supposed "bakers and florists" problem.  But in fact this is largely a political problem, created by a particular political agenda. Despite Dreher's curious claim to the contrary, from a biblical and religious point of view participating in the wedding of a divorced person with a previous spouse still living is just as problematic as a same-sex wedding. Any Christian bakers and florists who had no problems in the past serving the former category of customers should experience no more problems in the present with the latter. Doing one's job and serving the public in a non-discriminatory way is not automatically collaboration and an abandonment of one's fundamental religious beliefs, but it may represent an abandonment of a certain culture war political agenda!

Dreher himself quotes a Christian who works in a major company, "The more scared and paranoid we are, the harder it is to make connections and relationships with people who need Jesus."

All of which highlights three fundamental difficulties with the Benedictine analogy.  The first has to do with the historical and contemporary fact (of which Dreher is well aware) of the porous nature of any monastery's separation from the world. After all, whatever Saint Benedict's original intentions, his Order was responsible in large part for the preservation of civilization as well as for much of Europe's evangelization. Then and now, the actual relationship between a monastery and its secular environment  has varied with the circumstances and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Likewise, no matter how intentionally Christians set about to build a vibrant Christian subculture within their local communities, they cannot escape engagement with the wider world. Nor, in fact, are they entitled to, since the essence of the Church's mission remains to evangelize the world - however limited the possibilities for that may be in practice in any concrete political or social circumstance. The challenge has always been simultaneously to build up the life of the Church within the community while reaching out to the world beyond. Neither can be accomplished without the other. "Indeed," as Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote in 1886, "simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it."

A second difficulty has to do with the historical analogy itself. Saint Benedict lived in a world in which not only was the culture collapsing but so were the civil structures necessary for society to function, structures which were themselves weak or virtually non-existent. We may moan about dysfunction and gridlock in Washington, but the structure of the modern State still stands strong, and the power of the modern State is in fact so much greater than that of the State in virtually any previous period of history. I agree that now - as in earlier times - true renewal will come not from the State but from authentic families, schools, and intentional religious communities. But, whatever the relationship between today's State and families, schools, and intentional religious communities, it will be quite different from what it was in Benedict's time. The modern State will inevitably make demands upon them which they cannot easily escape and which will, for better or for worse, condition their actual autonomy to an extent that was not the case in the past. 

Finally, while I applaud Dreher's detachment from the politicized agenda of the Religious Right, I do not believe contemporary Christians can ever completely abandon their nostalgia for Christendom, for the simple reason that it actually existed for more than a millennium. Benedict and his contemporaries did not have that powerful memory. We do, and it will always haunt us with the realization that, if it was once possible for religion and society, in their institutional forms as Church and State, to nourish each other, then at least in theory it might be possible for them to do so someday again. As a result, the temptation to turn to politics to accomplish that will never be all that far away, both for Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left.

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