Rod Dreher, conservative writer and commentator, addressed a Faith and Law gathering on Capitol Hill on Oct. 9 regarding his proposal of the “Benedict option,” which is his answer to the failure of Christians to recover Western and American culture following the social revolutions of the 1960s. It attempts to follow the strategy of St. Benedict of Nursia, who developed monasticism in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and involves a measure of withdrawal by Christians from the world into intentional Christian communities.
Dreher holds that Christians now find themselves in a similar situation. The Judeo-Christian past, he said, is now in a “civilizational struggle.” There is no common authority; hence the culture war. He noted that British moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said that civilizational dissolution is quite possible. In this situation, “local forms of civility” are needed. There is now a lack of convictions in society, and we are waiting for a “St. Benedict” to appear. Benedict’s rule, Dreher noted, involved instructions to “live and pray fully united to Christ in community.” It involved no plan for the future, but did involve quiet, patient obedience and waiting. It involves moral reformation. It was out of these monastic communities that much of the heart of post-Roman, Christian Europe developed. The monasteries established by the Benedictines become larger communities, in some cases cities. Benedictine communities aimed, however, at seeking their own salvation, not that of the world. This effort ended up civilizing and Christianizing Europe.
Today we are faced with a civilizational disaster, Dreher asserted. It is a comfortable collapse, but a collapse nonetheless. Now a new Benedictine rule is needed to teach Christians how to order their lives. We need practice for resilient and faithful Christian communities. No longer can we identify Christianity with the American Empire. We must examine and purge ourselves for a new mission and community, forming new Christians for Christ’s service. Dreher noted that St. Benedict prescribed prayer and work, but work is not as important as prayer. It is through these new communities, the new Christian “village,” that future Christians will learn who they are and what it means to be Christians. But these new communities need stability, and mass communication and technology undermines community. The world of the mass media also undermines boundaries, and communities must have boundaries. Outsiders must not be allowed to disrupt communal life. Dreher here noted a serious problem with his proposal, that the need for boundaries and security requires religious freedom, which is currently under attack in the West in almost all its aspects, other than the performance of religious ceremonies.
The need for religious freedom may limit what is possible for any new Benedictine communities of the future, but it cannot limit our commitment to Christ or the attitude of faith and hope for the future that sincere conviction necessarily engenders. We must not be fearful but joyful and confident, Dreher said. Not retreat, but “thicker bonds among believers,” are needed. We also need “a life of balance,” with not too much extremism. We must withhold ourselves from the world to build ourselves up. He noted that Pope Benedict XVI said that “the Christian life speaks without words.”
Dreher reiterated that we need law which is compatible with our communities so they can thrive. Protecting religious freedom is thus an “absolute priority.” He said that the public must be made aware of the current threat to Christian institutions, and as well as the threat to Christian professionals posed by professional licensing requirements which are incompatible with obedience to Christ. We must fight battles for religious freedom now to give us time to build the “ark.” While homosexual liberation and its legal consequences present the most severe challenge to Christians and Christian communities, it is in fact just one aspect of the modernity which is threatening faithful Christians. The “disorder in hearts and homes and communities” is another which is very evident. Dreher said he is not optimistic about the immediate future, but hopeful. He noted that Pope Benedict XVI predicted persecution of the church, but later renewal. In Dreher’s vision, Christians will model the future. Like Saint Thomas More, we must be our country’s “good servants, but first of all, God’s.” He noted that St. Benedict’s original community at Nursia was reopened in the year 2000, after being closed for almost 200 years. He pointed out that the Very Rev. Cassian Folsom, who founded the new Benedictine community, has said that only Christians are the ones who take some form of the “Benedict option.” In the end, this option proposes that when people want God again, they will find Him in Christian communities.
Near the end of his presentation, Dreher responded to questions and offered recommendations of what future Christian communities will need. He said that community members should live in walking distance of the center of their communities, and noted that 55 percent of Pastor Mark Dever’s Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. lives in walking distance of their church. Discussing the challenges to which the “Benedict option” responds, Dreher said that secularism, atheism, and materialism are the worst enemies of the Christian faith. Against this, “small ‘o’ orthodox Christians” believe in objective truth that we can know. This objective truth is supernatural. But we must serve as well as have intellectual faith, and intentional Christian communities give an opportunity for this.
While opinions may differ on how far Christians should withdraw from the world, it would seem hard to argue with relatively small Christian communities that are intensely committed to revealed truth, tightly knit, having members amendable to church discipline, and quietly but faithfully present in society as a response to an increasingly hostile state and society. It would seem unlikely that the kind of intolerance of religious belief and practice now seen in the West will develop to the point that such communities become impossible above ground (as they would have been, for instance, in the former Soviet Union), and the state reasonably will not want the trouble required to seriously interfere in their communal life. Small to mid-size, unanimously orthodox churches may have the best prospects, but other intentional Christian communities would have a realistic possibility of carrying forward the Christian revelation and heritage into a darkening future, secure in the confident hope that Christ will prevail in the end.Google+