The Benedict Option

The conflict of the Present and the Past,
The ideal and the actual in our life,
As on a field of battle held me fast,
Where this world and the next world were at strife.

For, as the valley from its sleep awoke,
I saw the iron horses of the steam
Toss to the morning air their plumes of smoke,
And woke, as one awaketh from a dream.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Monte Cassino

Almost fifteen hundred years ago a hermit in flight from Rome — “disgusted,” wrote Longfellow, with that city’s “vice and woe” — settled on a mountain in the Abruzzis, forming a community and writing a rule that would make him the father of Western monasticism. His name was Benedict, and the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino would eventually be destroyed several times — most famously in February 1944, when Allied bombers and artillery reduced it to rubble, in the mistaken belief that the Wehrmacht was using it as a base.

The Monte Cassino abbey after the Allied attack on Feb. 15, 1944
The abbey after the Allied attack on February 15, 1944 – Bundesarchiv

Yet the Benedictine tradition has endured, and even outside of the religious order that bears his name, Benedict’s project retains a hold on the imagination of people like the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who ended After Virtue, his influential critique of modern moral philosophy, by hearkening back to the 6th century saint:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of the predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

Eight years ago, introducing his book’s third edition, MacIntyre was still waiting:

Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labour, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness…. it was my intention to suggest, when I wrote that last sentence in 1980, that ours too is a time of waiting for new and unpredictable possibilities of renewal. It is also a time for resisting as prudently and courageously and justly and temperately as possible the dominant social, economic, and political order of advanced modernity. So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.

Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming
Dreher is also the author of the acclaimed book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which tells of his coming home to a small town in Louisiana in the wake of his sister’s early death from cancer

Over the past two years, conservative blogger Rod Dreher has breathed new life into MacIntyre’s idea. He asked if American Christians troubled by what he sees as the dissolution of “historical Christian moral and theological orthodoxy” should take up “what might be called the ‘Benedict Option’: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”

Dreher acknowledged that “History gives countless examples of intentional communities that began with high ideals but foundered on human frailty.” (For example, traditionalist Catholic colleges like the one that disillusioned writer John Zmirak, leaving him convinced that withdrawal is “looking for a bushel where your light will be safe from the wind.”) But Dreher pointed to neo-monastic communities that, in his judgment, “hold on to distinctiveness without becoming rigid, intolerant, or controlling, by standing apart from the world without demonizing it.” For their members and others

who take the Benedict Option, though, its rewards are a pearl of great price. These communities offer a way for believers to thicken Christian culture in a time of moral revolution and religious dissolution. And if they’re successful over time, they may impart their wisdom to outsiders who crave light in the postmodern darkness.

Since “gay marriage has been a watershed… revealing how far we have fallen from any kind of recognizable Christian orthodoxy about what it means to be a person,” the urgency of the “BenOp” has only increased for Dreher. Here’s his February 2015 summary of it for First Things:

In our time, the Benedict Option does not offer a formula (at least not yet), but it does call for a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in the ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization, and tasked with preserving the living faith through the coming Dark Ages.

In some instances, Benedict-Option Christians may seek to found new neighborhoods centered on communal worship. I think of the traditionalist Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, or of the Orthodox community around St. John Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska. Contrary to the claims of Benedict-Option critics, neither community is utopian and separatist, shunning the outside world.

For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. Our Benedict Option will express itself within institutions—churches, schools, para-church organizations, and so forth—whose purpose is to keep orthodox Christianity alive in the hearts and minds of believers living as exiles in an ever more hostile culture. These must be institutions that fulfill Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that you have to push back as hard against the world as the world pushes against you.

Other conservatives have warmed to the idea. To cite but two whom I respect a great deal:

• Alan Jacobs suggested that Dreher’s language of “withdrawal” is distracting, since “different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.” Instead, he emphasizes the need for a “strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish” — in particular, forms of education:

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

• Then this morning Jacobs’ Baylor colleague Thomas Kidd endorsed Dreher’s proposal at The Anxious Bench:

I don’t think there’s any other option for traditional Christians but the Benedict path. Christian homes, schools, and churches have always been counter-cultural outposts. De jure and de facto forms of Christian establishments have sometimes blurred that counter-cultural reality, usually to the detriment of Christian integrity. But we Christians are now placed in a deeply oppositional position vis a vis elite American political, business, and entertainment culture. Taking the Benedict Option, in most cases, just equates to Christian discipleship in our cultural moment. None of this precludes seeking cultural and political influence, it just admits our real social location and places little hope in politics to reform the surrounding culture.

The rebuilt Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino
The monastery at Monte Cassino was rebuilt again after WWII and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964 – Creative Commons (Radovil)

I mostly want to make sure that readers are aware of this discussion. Because it’s so closely identified with conservatives, I wonder if my more progressive and moderate friends have any idea what the “Benedict Option” is or that it’s getting such traction among Christian thinkers the caliber of Kidd, Jacobs, and Dreher.

If only because it calls Christians to repent of their idolatry of political, economic, and social power, to address other logs in their own eyes (e.g., in their marriages and families), and to be more attentive to the importance of Christian formation, I’m happy to see the Benedict Option get a wide hearing.

But even if they agree with Dreher’s underlying critique of contemporary culture as being increasingly toxic to orthodox Christianity, I’d encourage readers to get clear answers to at least two questions before getting too excited about the Benedict Option:

To what extent — and in what specific respects — does living out the Benedict Option mean withdrawing from the world?

Understandably, Dreher wants to refocus attention on Christian life together. But what that means for engagement beyond such communities seems impossible to pin down.

Observing that “the thrust of Jesus of Nazareth’s message cuts against” a “conscious and scrupulous separation” from the world, Dreher’s fellow American Conservative Noah Millman wants

to hear, from someone who is a Christian (not a Jew, like me), what the Benedict Option actually means. If there’s a distinctively small-o orthodox Christian approach to this problem that differs from the approach taken by numerous religious groups in the past – because this is emphatically not a new problem – then I’d like to know what that distinctive approach is.

In his response to Millman, Dreher reiterates that the BenOp is “not a ‘head for the hills and build a compound’ kind of thing,” but admits that he has “no precise idea of what this looks like.” (So part of writing his book on the Option will entail visits to intentional communities in different religious traditions.)

While he basically seems to support the Benedict Option, Jacobs asks a related question: “…time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of ‘withdrawal’ is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?”

How central are liturgy and catechesis?

Smith, Desiring the KingdomI’m Lutheran enough to appreciate the value of what James K. A. Smith would call “thick practices,” but I’ll never value them as highly as a Catholic convert to Eastern Orthodoxy like Dreher. (Or an Anglican like Jacobs.) For I’m Pietist enough to suspect that liturgy and catechesis are as likely to erect “dumb idols” and yield “dead orthodoxy” as to bring about renewal. Dreher wants BenOp communities to be “based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice).” For someone who understands Christianity to be a “religion of the heart,” it’s striking that orthopathy (right feeling) doesn’t make the list.

Perhaps there’s a low-church evangelical version of what Dreher advocates, but it also struck me that Kidd, a Southern Baptist as well as a “‘paleo’ evangelical,” did not mention Dreher’s argument that BenOp communities ought to have worship that is “liturgical… ritualistic… disciplined, and ascetically oriented” and “a strong pastor, a strong creed, and enforce it.” Instead, Kidd focused on the “small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life.”

What do you think? Is the Benedict Option appealing?

5 thoughts on “The Benedict Option

  1. Thanks for the good post, Chris. The questions you raised at the end are really important ones. I’m probably less concerned about the second one than you are, not because it is not a potential danger but because I think that danger is there with low church approaches to Christian discipleship just as it is with high church use of liturgy and catechesis.

    My bigger concern aligns closely with your first question. Thinking of it in terms of scripture, it seems to me the tension is between how we balance Christ’s prayer that we not be taken out of the world, but protected from the evil one (to paraphrase John 17:15) with the concern Dreher, Jacobs and Kidd are raising which seems to suggest that if we are “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]” (Romans 12:2) we will need more separation from the world than we currently have. The examples of how this might work that Dreher gave are somewhat useful, but it is difficult to see how this could be a model for Christians more broadly. It will be interesting to see how he tackles this as he continues to develop these ideas. I do think Jacobs’ focus is helpful, e.g. “I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.”

    In short, I completely concur that this is one of those arguments that is worth reflecting on even if we ultimately disagree. And I’m still on the fence…

      1. Thanks for linking the Jacobs article, Chris. Definitely an interesting read!

    1. The concerns with “practicality” (i.e. the logistics of time and money) are only operative as long as the BO is seen as a choice within a market of alternatives. As with Benedict, if the question ever becomes more than academic, it will probably be due to some prolonged change in the socioeconomic order that reduces the choices severely (e.g. civilization vs. barbarism) so that the BO takes on the necessity of a default option for people who would rather die than accept the alternative.

      I’m impressed Jacobs is holding a torch for high German classical humanism, albeit mediated through a Catholic frame. It’s the right stuff, but it’s like rooting for the Cubs or the Vikings. 🙂

  2. Is Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” model a version of the same thing — without the withdrawal? I’ve not noticed Rod ever making that connection or seeming to appreciate the extent to which there have always been (mostly Protestant) versions of this in North America. I also think his sentence — “For most of us, though, that degree of commitment isn’t possible, even if it were desirable” — is inaccurate, and everything following it is wishful thinking. The truth is, “For most of us, that degree of commitment isn’t desirable.” And that’s OK. What survives, survives.

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