For a number of years now, I’ve been hearing about the Benedict Option—an idea, a movement, a prescription, a diagnosis, and now a book—put forward by the writer Rod Dreher to mark out how he believes traditional and conservative people should deal with what society has become.
I met Rod and his wife more than a decade ago after we’d corresponded a bit online. I was in Dallas with Melanie when we were still dating and Rod was living there with his family. He and his wife graciously invited us to their home and we had a great evening. He’d not yet published his earlier book Crunchy Cons, about the different kinds of political and social conservatives than we usually saw portrayed in the media, but I know he’d already begun exploring the ideas that would result in the Benedict Option.
Around the same time, Dreher had been struggling as a Catholic with the sex-abuse scandal in the Church and how to reconcile the attitudes and behavior of even those bishops we consider the “good” ones in dealing with the crisis with the divine nature of the Church. It’s a struggle that would eventually lead Rod out of the Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. In some ways, that struggle is also at the root of the Benedict Option.
So what is the Benedict Option? I think many people—in their rush to give their hot take on the book as soon as it came out— have misconstrued it as a call for Christians to abandon the world, to retreat into enclaves and cut themselves off, to turn away from evangelization and engagement, to stop trying to make the world better (or prevent it from getting worse), in order to await the day when we can re-emerge into a new world eager to receive the Gospel again.
But that’s not it at all. If you take your time reading it—as I have—you realize that there’s a lot more to the idea. For one thing, Rod is not advocating a retreat or a capitulation. Nor, as he writes, does he offer a political agenda, a spiritual how-to manual or a standard decline-and-fall lament.
From Rod’s point of view, “The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” While there are still many who believe we can turn the culture around through new law and policies and keep secularism at bay, for Rod and those like him, the cultural revolution cannot be turned back. And as Christianity, especially a traditional practice of an orthodox Christianity, slinks ever more into the minority, what are we to do?
According to the Benedict Option, we are to build new forms of community that help sustain us and enrich us and keep our beliefs and traditions alive. In some ways, it will be not unlike the traditional Hasidic Jewish communities who live and work in a world hostile to them, but who sustain a unique identity and communal life despite it.
The Benedict Option is not about politics, per se, but if politics is a concern it’s all about the local. Rod doesn’t believe Supreme Court rulings and state and federal laws allowing abortion, same-sex marriage, and indoctrination of children, and requiring us to acquiesce to the same, will ever be reversed in our lifetimes, but he does believe that by banding together in geographically small and morally united communities, we can continue to influence how our local towns and communities are run.
Now, I have not completely bought into Rod’s view that we have reached a point of no return just yet. The fact that I work for a pro-life organization actively working to pass laws that end abortion and stop assisted suicide in a blue state like Massachusetts is proof of that much. But even if you don’t believe everything has crumbled already, there’s value to the Benedict Option.
What Rod gets right is his diagnosis of the primary ailment of Western society, a loss of Christianity as the principle that unifies us.
When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders.
This is why we are so divided today. People no longer agree to disagree; we go for the jugular. People don’t just hold wrong opinions or views; they are evil and must be destroyed. Just look at the response by those were most aghast at the election of Donald Trump toward those who voted for him. They wanted apologies, at least, and blood, at worst. In the past, we had a framework for how a civil society functions. Even if we weren’t Christian, Christianity is what provided the common framework. But now we have lost the unifying principles.
The Rule of St. Benedict
The original St. Benedict, founder of monasticism, created a Rule for monasteries that has stood the test of 1,500 years and is the basis for the rule governing most monastic communities today. Because the Rule helped the monasteries survive the original so-called Dark Ages (from about 600 to 1000AD) and bring Christianity back to a full flowering in the Middle Ages, Rod sees it as a tool to help all of us organize and prepare ourselves for a new Dark Age. Throughout the book, but especially in the third chapter, Rod adapts the tenets of Benedict’s Rule to our modern life through interviews with the current Benedictine monks living in Benedict’s hometown of Norcia, Italy.
He reviews the parts of the Rule as they apply to communities of monks and then looks at them in terms of how families and communities can apply them today. He looks at the right Order of the world; The importance and value of Work; the need for Ascetism; the importance of Stability; the contribution of Community; the value of Hospitality, especially with regard to evangelization; the need for Balance between power and autonomy, self and community, monasticism and comfort, work and family life.
The remainder of the book looks at a new way of Christian politics; how to preserve and live out the Christian faith of your Church even if your leaders don’t have a clue; how to protect your family and build a community of likeminded people; what to do about education for your children (i.e. don’t put them in public schools); getting ready to be persecuted for your beliefs in your career; the culture’s obsession with disordered sex; and the effects of technology on culture.
On the last, it’s not just another warning that looking at your smartphone too much is bad for you (although that’s in there). What I found interesting was the discussion of the technological mindset of our era that believes that (a) if technology can do it, then it must be good and (b) that technological solutions to problems can always be had.
For citizens of a technocracy, if the technology exists to give you what you want, no one has a right to object. The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this.
And so if you believe in your heart that you can undo your nature and be a man when you were a woman or vice versa or something completely different, this is a symptom of the technocracy. And it’s why those of us who still hold to a classical way of thinking find you incomprehensible and why you find us so as well.
I think this section was the most thought-provoking for me, although I do not completely agree with him that churches encouraging their congregations to use social media is a problem. But his encouragement of a technological asceticism bears some consideration.
Thinking that the world mediated by technology is the real world is a fatal error. We don’t see reality then; we only see ourselves. If we do not understand this, if we don’t believe that all things exist independently of our desires, that there is a world beyond our heads, then there is no reason to pay attention, because there is nothing to contemplate. If feeling defines reality, then contemplation is useless, and so is resistance. If we live as if boredom were the root of all evil, we will not be able to fight back, and if we do not fight back, we will find that our machines have mastered us. Perhaps they already have.
The Beacon Fires of Gondor
Rod is not some survivalist stockpiling beans in 50-gallon drums in a bomb shelter. He’s not just the latest crazy doomsayer to ignore as we go about our daily lives. Arguing about whether Dreher is wrong about Western Christian civilization having passed the point of no return or is only just approaching it kind of misses the point because whether the edge of the cliff is approaching or behind us, we need to figure out for ourselves and our families what to do about it.
It’s undeniable that our culture has crumbled a great deal over the past 70 years. Heck, even five years ago could you imagine someone apologizing on the radio for using “heteronormative” analogies to explain something? It is this secular liberal deconstruction that Rod is warning us to take even more seriously than other threats to our way of life.
In these pages, I have attempted to sound the alarm for conservative Christians in the West, warning them that the greatest danger we face today does not come from aggressive left-wing politics or radical Islam, as many seem to think. … For us, the greatest danger comes from the liberal secular order itself. And our failure to understand this reinforces our cultural captivity and the seemingly unstoppable assimilation of the next generations.
Rod’s suggestion of the Benedict Option is one way forward, a way that does not entail “constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world.” It’s a small-scale idea for ordering your life, not a large-scale strategy to save the world.
“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,” he said. “It can’t be a strategy for self-improvement or for saving the church or the world.”
One thing has become clear, though. The time for business as usual is over. The culture and society have moved away from us and traditional, orthodox Christians are no longer either in control or in the majority. The question is how we survive and thrive and provide for our children’s future.