The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher • Sentinel • 2017 • 262 pages • $25
“In one sense,” David Walsh writes in The Growth of the Liberal Soul, “liberal theory and politics have always been in a state of crisis.” Lord, isn’t it true. One can find declarations of liberal crisis from almost every era of American politics; this much, liberalism has in common with Christianity. Christianity, or the fullest expression of the beliefs and practices entailed by the whole religio Christiana, has never been consistently and rightly practiced by any civilization for any length of time, nor likely by any one individual from one day to the next. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and liberalism has been incoherent and semi-farcical since its inception.
One might think this commonality would produce a natural sympathy between liberalism and Christianity, but one would be wrong. (The commonality is, in fact, that both are practiced by humans, who have yet to evince a talent for behaving the way they aspire to with any kind of consistency.) Indeed, liberalism and Christianity are in conflict; there really is an irresolvable kernel of discord between them, and in that respect Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not exactly wrong. Yet it’s not exactly right, either. But as I hope to demonstrate, some level of wrongness does not preclude value or insight, which is, incidentally, where I disagree most with Dreher, whose response to the wrongness threaded into liberalism is essentially to abandon modernity altogether.
Dreher’s Option opens with a clear and succinct report of the dispute between Christianity and liberalism, which functions as a dispute between Christianity and modernity given the latter’s overwhelming identification with liberal thought and politics (at least in the Anglophone world).
For Dreher, a writer at The American Conservative, the Christian West began to lose its way in the fourteenth century, when the English Franciscan friar William of Ockham pioneered the theory of nominalism, which held there is no inherent order or purpose encoded into the material world. This was a radical departure from the philosophy of theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, who believed God’s intention for the material world is inscribed into nature itself, and can be discerned with human powers of reason. The split divided the “enchanted world” philosopher Charles Taylor describes medieval subjects as inhabiting from the disenchanted, meaningless world we now inhabit as post-modern, liberal subjects. We look around us and try to find some sense or meaning in things and events, but agree that meaning may differ depending on the beholder; the early Medievals bore no such burden, to trust the telling of Taylor-via-Dreher: They simply knew that all of creation pointed to God.
Then came, in Dreher’s telling, a series of further unfortunate events. The Renaissance centered man over God; the Protestant Reformation shattered religious unity in Europe; the Wars of Religion ravaged the continent just as the Scientific Revolution was displacing moribund Medieval views of the cosmos. Then came the Enlightenment and the great behemoth of liberalism, which ushered in the privatization of religion and the secularization of public life. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism followed, and then the world wars, and from these bitter currents we find ourselves washed battered onto the shores of an anomic, over-theorized world where our only goal is to attain some kind of self-realization through a lot of vaguely therapeutic-sounding practices and activities. Once upon a time, people tried to attain unity with God by cleaving to his will as they bore out their vocations as fathers, wives, laborers, or lords; now, we can hop online after Ubering home from sterile office jobs to swipe right or left and then watch, I’m told, more than 380 videos of nude yoga instruction promised to “create a closer connection with the body, yourself and your surroundings.”
Suffice to say, some find the moral landscape of modernity rather impoverished, and the options for pursuing it in a liberal world frustratingly limited. One can chase what one believes to be the good life, but one cannot place moral claims on others. This is the “catch,” as it were, of liberalism: “Liberalism,” political theorist Judith Shklar wrote, “has only one overriding aim: to secure the political conditions that are necessary for the exercise of personal freedom.” Or, as Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain had it: “Obey none but yourself.”
Thus ardent Christians who believe that a life modeled after Christ’s is not best for them but simply best have little room to advance their case in public life. To do so would be to infringe upon the liberties of others, and liberalism cannot abide such a violation. (It’s no accident that the earliest liberals had a special contempt for Catholics, who are especially inclined to protest the reduction of the faith to a private sentiment.) The absence of robust religious instruction in public life, Dreher contends, has led us to a world wherein sin and vice run rampant among abundance and pleasure. “The long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning has delivered us to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection,” he writes, “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other. Unless we find it again, there is no hope of halting our dissolution.”
Option is Dreher’s attempt to grasp that golden thread. But, from there, things go awry.
Dreher doesn’t put it in these terms, but it seems to me that his real complaint with liberalism is that it produces liberal subjects. It would be one thing if there were masses of orthodox Christians yearning for that simpler fourteenth-century existence yet miserably enduring life under the yoke of a liberal order enforced by those outside their ranks, but as Dreher notes, many of today’s Christians are perfectly at home in a liberal world: Liberalism has changed them, and they, in turn, have changed Christianity.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a foggy set of feel-good notions about the divine and the good life coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in 2005, has, in Dreher’s estimation, mostly supplanted Christianity in America. MTD’s rough tenets are:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
“This creed…is especially prominent among Catholic and Mainline Protestant teenagers,” he relates, “Evangelical teenagers fared measurably better but were still far from historic biblical orthodoxy.” And this isn’t a new development, in Dreher’s view: “MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults.” No surprises here: Deism became fashionable during the Enlightenment precisely because it is deeply hospitable to liberalism; because it is only a private belief about the divine, it imposes no pesky ethical requirements on its adherents. Even where Americans are Christian, then, they’re only nominally so in Dreher’s imagination.
And without their ancestral faith to guide them, these demi-Christians are as vulnerable to the libidinal indulgences of modernity as any secular person.
Yet Christianity must endure. But how?
Enter the so-called “Benedict Option,” Dreher’s riff on a sixth-century booklet of guidance for Christians living the monastic life. Authored by St. Benedict of Nursia, the Rule of Saint Benedict is one of many such rulebooks authored by Christians in search of the best monastic practices throughout the centuries. (There is, for instance, a Rule of Saint Augustine and a Rule of Saint Albert.) Why Dreher settled upon Benedict’s rule in particular isn’t exactly clear, though he does cite Pope Benedict XVI as the “second Benedict of the Benedict option,” which only adds to the puzzle given that Dreher quit the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s amidst the unfolding of the sex abuse crisis to join the Orthodox Church.
Whatever the reason, the Benedict Option is also a set of best practices, and Dreher’s Option is his own rule. Dreher provides two separate, but apparently mutually exclusive, accounts of what the Benedict Option is supposed to accomplish: “[T]he Benedict Option,” Dreher writes in his first chapter, is “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture” which requires “focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood.” Later, he advises Christians to “see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them.”
In his last chapter, however, he reflects on a conversation with a pastor who said: “The moment the Benedict Option becomes about anything other than communion with Christ and dwelling with our neighbors in love, it ceases to be Benedictine…It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.” One is then left unsure what this Benedict Option is, if not a strategy for saving the church, given that Dreher has already stated rather plainly that it is a strategy for saving the church.
Intentions aside, the concrete requirements of the Rule of Rod are rather more prosaic: form communities oriented to the worship of God; eschew sloth and take up manual labor; homeschool or school privately in the classics and Bible; support unmarried Christians in their chastity and oppose, on all fronts, pornography, fornication, and other forms of excess and vice. No Evangelical living in my hometown of Arlington, Texas would find any of these directives remotely surprising or particularly new.
The part that would shock them, however, is Dreher’s decree that they should become essentially apolitical. Dreher is convinced that Christians in America are “a powerless, despised minority,” and that traditional politics cannot serve them. “Neither party’s program is fully consistent with Christian truth,” Dreher says, rightly, as both Republicans and Democrats are just species of liberals (that is, they both cleave in subtly differing ways to high principles of liberty, personal freedom, and the individual’s primacy over the collective); therefore, instead of engaging in politics as the term is usually understood—voting, fundraising, rallying, campaigning, and so on—Dreher recommends that Christians “broaden our political vision to include culture,” in order to create counter-cultural communities that bear witness to Christian truth. “When we are truly ordered toward God,” he reminds us, “we won’t have to worry about immediate results.” His daily posts exhorting political change on The American Conservative, one assumes, must be after something other than immediate results, though it’s hard to imagine what.
Christians who engage in politics have reason to engage beyond their own interests; politics can’t save one’s soul, but it can decree that children receive health care, or that poor families be able to purchase food, or that mothers can take time off work after a birth without suffering poverty or unemployment. Building communities of virtue is fine, but withdrawing from conventional politics is difficult to parse with Christ’s command that we love our neighbors. Politics order our society on every level, from deciding property laws to housing codes to social welfare policy to war and foreign intervention. An individual Christian might comfortably abandon the whole filthy mess of it, but she can’t do so cleanly: Her neighbors still need her, and not just personally, but politically. So long as we live in a democracy, each of us has agency and a responsibility for the stewardship of our fellow citizens, and though we may not succeed in all our goals, we are obligated to try.
That feeling of obligation has pre-modern roots; it isn’t common to all liberal subjects, who likely feel that if they want to withdraw from politics, it’s their right. Dreher doesn’t put his recommendation in terms of rights, but neither does he explain what a Christian citizen’s obligations must be. If Augustine is to be believed, the authority of civil governments to enforce laws comes from God Himself, with the goal of establishing some earthly peace and a measure of justice. In that case, it would appear that Christians, whose sense of peace and justice is formed by Christian virtues rather than liberalism, should be especially obligated to attempt to shape laws to reflect what is truly just. Withdrawal may have been a permissible option when citizens had little to no say in the laws of their governments, but we do, and a pretense of powerlessness registers as a flimsy excuse not to exercise it.
There never will be another Medieval subject. All of us in the Anglophone world see with liberal eyes and hear with liberal ears, and to some degree think with liberal minds: Indeed, the lament that we’re no longer Medieval is a comically typical liberal refrain (think of the Romantics, with their Gothic revivalism, or the pre-Raphaelites, with their knights in shining armor). The will to be Medieval subjects again is the desire to return to an age of faith, but this is not an option.
Other questions present themselves in Dreher’s Option. Is society uniquely anti-Christian now, in this moment more than others? Are we uniquely liberal, or is liberalism, actually, in some sense imperiled? As we watch the elevation to the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch, a longtime fighter for religious liberty and the rights of the faithful, is it really possible to argue that Christians are politically powerless?
Then there is the question of whether or not Dreher really hews as close to the thinking of the famous moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, whose groundbreaking 1981 book After Virtue proposed that the moral ideas issuing from Enlightenment liberalism had been corrupt and incoherent to begin with, and were always doomed to degenerate into emotivism. It was MacIntyre who wrote, in After Virtue, that the world must look to “another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” which inspired the title of the whole optional enterprise. Yet it isn’t clear that an apolitical retreat is precisely what MacIntyre had in mind; quite to the contrary, he seems to have envisioned a revitalized Christian engagement marked by a Christian consciousness of our disputes with liberalism.
Even so, critics have argued estimably against the apolitical inklings present in MacIntyre’s work. As scholar Thomas Osborne argued in a 2008 conference paper on “MacIntyre, Thomism and the Contemporary Common Good,” the establishment of small, local communities of virtuous Christians still leaves open pressing questions of justice and right. “If two fishing crews are in conflict, they should both submit to the authority of the judge. Otherwise, justice would belong to the more ruthless and stronger fishing crew,” Osborne notes. The same can be said of any bowling league, tiny missional community, or family. We have civil authorities vested with the power to use force precisely because small platoons of virtuous persons do not themselves a just order make, and failure to grapple with the question of how to order these small societies is glaring neglect.
Further, it isn’t clear why Dreher, who envies Medieval man’s eye for enchantment, would identify politics as a realm closed to grace. Father John Hughes, the late Dean of Chapel at Jesus College, Cambridge, and a brilliant Christian socialist wrote that “the dynamic tension between Church and state is a distinctively Christian achievement…Without religious concern for ultimate ends, we will become a society dominated by instrumental utilitarian ‘understanding’ rather than reason and its ideas.” Perhaps Dreher feels society has slid as far as it can in that direction, but I rather doubt it; the wise tend to note things can always get worse. And it is the duty of Christians qua Christians to oppose the erosion of liberalism into wanton, inhumane technocracy, even when it means setting out into risky waters.
Because I believe all of nature does point to God, just as the Medievals did, I can’t seal myself away from society. Society is part of our nature; politics is part of our nature. Entering the fray is fraught just like walking into the surf is; you will be pulled and pushed and yet you know, because you love God, you will break above the waves with water in your eyes to see God’s glory bright as sunlight. His name is written on the wind. It’s inescapable. It’s inscribed into the hustle and jolt of democracy, if you look closely, and believe.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Fr. John Hughes, beloved teacher and friend.