The Benedict Option is where Christians ought always to have been
Having focused on what I see as the fundamental problems with Dreher’s thesis, let me take a break as I begin to move through TBO section by section to put a spotlight on the essential agreement I have with the BenOps project. In doing so, I’m going to pretty much skip over his analysis of the world as it is (in a handbasket) as well as his reading of history. Well, mostly skip over.
Reading the “signs of the times” (a papal phrase before it was a Prince album) does have a tendency to drift into identifying the data points that support my preconceived understanding of the world. Even so, I will cede the basic points that Dreher makes about faith in the world today: unbelief is on the rise, organized religion is seriously on the wane, there is a lack of shared meaning and a hyperindividualism that has taken root in American culture, and those who do profess a spiritual or religious faith tend toward a least-common-demoninator soft theism that soothes the soul without ever challenging it and, as a result, isn’t really a reflection of Christian theology at all. I can support all of these observations.
I would also say, though, that the soft theism (he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), after the sociologists Smith and Denton) he lambastes isn’t new at all; that in addition to this “Kumbaya” religion cloaked in Christianity, there is an equally unChristian theology I might term New American Pharisaism, which posits a God of judgment, salvation based on works, and a law that emanates from American culture to attach salvific value to obeying the cultural norms of 1950s (white) America as defined by the culture’s religious leaders of the day, and a profession of faith in American exceptionalism. In neither case, MTD or New Pharisaim, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ a significant element at all, and the image of Christ may be appropriated only to connect these variant theologies to a faith history (Christianity) that adherents claim faint allegiance to.
So I agree that the world is fundamentally not Christian; I differ in positing that, while people may have reported to Gallup otherwise because of confusion between Christianity, MTD and New Pharisaism, the reality is that this phenomenon is not new at all.
But I’m not a historian. Which is too bad, because I would argue that Dreher’s reading of history could use a good look by someone who knows their stuff. On its surface, I would say that identifying the beginning of the end of true faith with the triumph of philosophical realism by nominalists and the unfolding focus on the individual, “progress”, and the subsequent unwinding of culture ignores a lot, if not in history, than in theological anthropology. To say that life was better in a strict hierarchy of power only works if you figure yourself to be somewhat near the top of that hierarchy; I cannot imagine slaves or serfs would have agreed. The force Dreher identifies as the key culprit is that of individualism taken to the extreme. He may not be entirely wrong in that, but in demonizing this principle, he ignores its roots in the early Church and the Gospels, which radically asserted that everyone – children, slaves, lepers, outcasts – was valued by God and worthy of salvation. While the slow uptake on equality points to the reality that the line between God’s valuing of each individual and the equality of the individual is neither straight nor inevitable, it seems as though Dreher ignores the causal connection between the two altogether.
What Dreher implies more than emphasizes is the sense that progress is illusory; the Medieval world for which he longs has a beauty that arises from the stability and static nature it possesses. Which is fine, to a point. But the nature of history as progressing in a generally linear fashion toward a happy end? That comes from Christianity’s story of salvation history, and while it may not maintain true fidelity to that model, it’s another case of Dreher filtering out the deep relationship between the modernity he decries and the Christianity he professes. But, like I said, I’m skipping over all that to focus on the good core of BenOp.
There is a sense, in talking about BenOp, of disengagement from the world, a “take my ball and go home-ness” in which Christians are called to turn our collective backs on the world that has fallen around our ankles and hole up with our own. That is, before I read the book, what I thought the Benedict Option referred to, based on the citations it received in popular Christian political theology. If there is such a thing.
But upon reflection, I don’t take Dreher to be arguing such a reclusive position. The focus of the Benedictine life that Dreher holds up as exemplary is about being internally focused enough to support the community’s shared identity as fully Christian; that is, it is about a community of Christians supporting each other as they integrate their faith fully into all elements of their lives. But Dreher acknowledges from the outset that such a community cannot fully live the Gospel in total isolation from the world; the Good News requires energized, loving engagement with the broader world, no matter how dark your assessment of it.
In short, Dreher is calling Christians to refocus on the essentials – to be “in but not of” the world, to build up the internal community of believers so as to be an attractive and persuasive counterculture to a fallen world. And to that I can only say “Amen.” That is what the Church has been, at its best, since its earliest days. This is what the Gospels, Acts, and the documents of the earliest Church instructs us to be. More than that, I believe, is merely a temptation to fall off our calling.
As Dreher draws from the Benedictine monks in St. Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, he focuses on some primary themes from Benedict’s Rule, which really was the model “charter” for monastic orders in the West from the 6th century on: Order, Prayer, Work, Asceticism, Stability, Community, Hospitality and Balance. I don’t find a lot of fault with most of these and I have confidence that they are a formula that can lead people closer to the life God has in store for them. I would add that it would be hard for me to envision a way to godliness that doesn’t include some forms of prayer, work, asceticism (understood not as self-torture for masochism’s sake but as training the body to resist the temptation to indulge in satisfying every desire immediately), community, hospitality, and balance. You could win me over on order and stability as well; the earliest Church’s lack of order almost did it in, as you see in the apostles’ appointment of deacons, and the slow work of God does count on stability to a great degree; novelty is exciting, but for character to change requires enough stability for lessons to sink in and take root.
It’s worth noting, though, that Dreher isn’t saying that we can only accomplish these principles within monastic life. Even as I have cast him as an inflexible medievalist, it’s clear by the examples he gives that BenOp is a concept that can be lived out in the midst of the contemporary world by lay people in communities of faith within broader American (or European) communities. My only caution is that these principles leave open the opportunity for God to introduce other plans. Sticking too rigidly to the rules of the Rule, to the detriment of the underlying virtues of faith, hope and love, can motivate us, like the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to ignore the inbreaking opportunities to live the Gospel that the Spirit throws in our path. The easiest way to deny God’s mercy to another human being is to say “it’s against the rules” as those who crossed the road to avoid the robbery victim in the parable did.
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