Living in obedience to God with increasingly hostile law and society continues to be an unresolved and severe problem for Christians in the contemporary West. The need to remember God’s Word and be faithful disciples of Christ, resisting the pressure and allurement of the world to acquiesce in sin has elicited social commentator Rod Dreher’s proposed “Benedict Option,” which he discussed in conjunction with the publication of his book by the same name at a presentation of the Trinity Forum at the National Press Club on March 15.
Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum, began by noting that Christians themselves have largely accepted contemporary cultural norms. In order to regain our integrity as disciples of Christ, should we partially retreat from the world into our own communities?
Dreher responded that advocates of the Benedict Option are not being “alarmist.” One is failing to pay attention if one is not alarmed. “A world is coming to an end,” he said. That world is the Western civilization which was made by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and the fragments of that tradition that survive in the wider society cannot be expected to last much longer. As a result, the “West is facing the greatest spiritual crisis since the collapse of Rome” and “signs of spiritual depletion” have become impossible to ignore. For the better part of the twentieth century, America served as a “counterexample” to the progressive secularization of Europe, but this is no longer the case. In the early twenty-first century, Christianity is “flat on its back in Europe,” with America following in its wake. Dreher pointed out that one in three 18-29 years olds claim no religious affiliation – they are “nones.” Many of the remaining young people adhere to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which makes individual happiness the supreme value. Dreher said that MTD has become the American civil religion, but it is not Christian. By 2011, only 40% said that their personal moral beliefs were rooted in the Bible. Western societies have effectively become collections of “atomistic individuals.”
Dreher believes that the Cold War delayed individualism. Without the need to present a united front to a hostile superpower, the pace of social change has quickened, and social cohesion has been stripped away. This can be seen in the different adjectives used to refer desirable qualities in society. In the past, desirable qualities might have been characterized as “solid,” today they would be more likely to be characterized as “flexible.” Thus Dreher drew a contrast between “solid modernity” and “liquid modernity.” In today’s fluid world, there is “no solid ground anymore,” and “no allegiance beyond the self.”
Dreher believes that this situation will get worse, and that believers should “build and occupy an ark.” It “will allow Christians to transit” the “flood to a new world.” Inspiration for the project of such an ark is of course the Rule of Saint Benedict, which founded Western monasticism. This played a key role in saving Western civilization, as the monks of monasteries following Benedict’s rule were “arks carrying faith,” and peasants gathered around the monasteries. Today, Dreher believes, following British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, that the “Enlightenment unraveled authority of traditional Christianity,” destroying Judeo-Christian civilization, so that new communities adhering to Christian faith and morals are needed.
The fact that Western societies are not materially devastated by barbarian invasion, and in fact possess unparalleled affluence “obscures social collapse,” Dreher maintains. The modern equivalent of monasteries should be a fortress against the modern world. Christians must “embed” themselves in these communities against the world, and there must be a “strategic separatism” from the world, spending “more time away from the world.” This will allow a “thickening of our relationships with each other.” Dreher pointed out that Daniel’s three friends resisted disobeying God even on pain of death, but Christians today are “failing badly” at faithfulness. He held that even if the disastrous gutting of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act and mandating of same sex marriage had not happened, we would still need the Benedict Option. Christians have become too encultured by Western post-Christian society, and “recovery will take centuries.”
Dreher conceded that the defense of religious liberty is vital for the Benedict Option. Indeed, it seems to this writer that American Christians have had something essentially like the Benedict Option for the better part of the twentieth century, with Christian universities and colleges, primary and secondary schools, charities, hospitals, and publishing and broadcasting organizations. This is all now threatened by antidiscrimination law and policy, which treats Christian exclusivism and sexual morality as oppressive. Indeed, the private life of churches and families are threatened by lawsuits and state efforts at child protection which proceed from secularist, egalitarian presuppositions. But as a call to maintain or – for many Western Christians – return to faithfulness, the Benedict Option is well taken.
This may be the main point of the Benedict option, for both Christian individuals and organizations to think first of their commitments as disciples of Christ, rather than thoughtlessly accepting changes in law and culture. Dreher pointed out that it is far more important to be a faithful Christian than a good American, and pastors are failing if they are not preparing their people for persecution. The political history of America since the 1960s has been that social conservative aligned Republicans kept winning elections and Christians kept losing the culture. The worst problem in this, Dreher said, is that “we are still losing people.” He noted that Father Cassian Folsom, the founding prior of the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy, has said that without some form of the Benedict Option, “we’ll not make it.”
In response to Dreher’s presentation, political commentator Kirsten Powers asked why today is a breaking point for committed Christians. She said that traditional society had many oppressions. White Christians are no longer in charge of culture. Whatever new communities may be formed, most Christians should not withdraw from the world; withdrawal is selfish when society needs community. Conservative Christians need to realize that it may be something that they have historically favored, namely the free market, which contributes to consumerism and individualism.
Peter Wehner, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that Dreher is “true believer.” He is challenging for people who have not transformed their lives in light of the gospel. An important point that Wehner sees in the Benedict Option is that Christians should be separate in heart from America. We should have sense that we are citizens of another city. Such Christians have the greatest impact on the world. Wehner agreed that religious liberty is in some sense a sine qua non of Christian community. Overt Christian communities of whatever kind cannot exist if the state does not permit them to exist. But in addition to this most practical reason why politics cannot be ignored, the nature of Christian commitment means that Christians cannot truly disengage from the world. Politics is about the human condition, and the human condition must be addressed by whatever Christian communities there are in light of what Christ has said. In spite of the disastrous outcome of late twentieth century political engagement in America, we are commanded to make disciples of all nations. The orthodox Christian doctrine of sexuality must be defended. Pornography is a serious social evil to be combated. Sexual morality was the great distinctive of ancient Christianity that set Christians off from pagans. We need to carefully guard our eyes in this hyper-sexualized world. Finally, Wehner noted that some things in the wider world are improving. It might be noted that there is less poverty.
Harder asked if today is worse for Christians than the past, and if so, what is worse?
Dreher responded that there has never been a golden age, and there is no “common standard” today by which to judge our behavior and repent. On this point, it seems to this writer that there must be an authority if we are to challenge the nihilism of the post-Christian West. There are varying Christian traditions, but the Bible was universally recognized by pre-Enlightenment Christianity as a perfect rule. But as Dreher pointed out, Christianity doesn’t have the same authority that it had for centuries. There is now no higher standard in the wider world than our own will. This will mean that we will do terrible things, Dreher said. Among other consequences, while the working class was once Christian, it is now prone to extremism.
Harder asked if the Benedict option is an unacceptably defensive posture for Christians. Could it be characterized as Pharisaical?
Dreher responded that we need more asceticism and spiritual formation if we are to be truly Christian in the world. Christ withdrew from the world for prayer. The Benedict Option “is a call for the church to be the church.” Dreher feels that because of spiritual accommodation young people come to Christian colleges completely unformed spiritually
Wehner agreed that we must have our “affections won over by Jesus.” Every life has a story to it, and “much is going on in the shadows.” In line with the Benedict Option’s call to authentic discipleship without compromise, Christianity involves suffering as a way of sanctification.
The Benedict Option raises the question of how we can create a language of dissent. Wehner said Vlaclav Havel and the Czech dissidents are models for American Christians. They built up a “parallel polis.” Religious liberty lawyers say we are much closer to persecution than is commonly realized. In line with Havel, Christians should emphasize that politics should be “living in truth.”
Truth, especially final truth, is, of course, exactly what is being attacked in the contemporary world. Yet people cannot live without it. Reasonably the breakneck speed of cultural change will eventually lead to a cultural exhaustion, and – as happened with the cultural revolutions attempted in communist countries – the need to accommodate reality in some degree will lead to a questioning of the realism of revolutionary objectives, however science and technology advance. The need to accommodate human nature and the right of conscience can then be pressed. But the Benedict Option reminds Christians that we are always to be faithful to the commands of Christ and the apostles, however society changes.Google+