The Benedict Option

6 02 2019

I have mulled over doing a review of this book that I recently read, and I am still not sure I can do it justice. The difficulty that I am finding is addressing the complexity and nuance of Dreher’s description of the problem of the contemporary conservative Christian malaise. The book draws inspiration from the last line of Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, wherein he contrasts the violent revolutionary Trotsky to the humble quiet movement of the monastic founder, St. Benedict. Dreher visits monastic communities as well as quasi-monastic lay communities that are trying to live a devout traditional life in the midst of the maelstrom of change that is 21st century society. Dreher, both in this book and on his widely-read blog, continues to document the perceived persecution of conservative Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) who refuse to go along with the liberal sexual politics of the modern era, among other changes.

Though some (especially progressive) voices might state that Dreher is being paranoid and trying to conserve the power of “white Christian patriarchy” with his fake persecution complex, I don’t think there is any doubt that the powers-that-be have (perhaps unexpectedly) taken the side of the “woke” Left in embracing radical sexual and racial politics. The answer why they would do so has less to do with conspiracies concerning “cultural Marxism” and the infiltration of the academy and more to do with the marketplace. Along with the greater flow of capital, goods, and people comes a necessary “tolerance” of difference, as long as it makes money. In order to have this tolerance, you may even have to lose money in the short run. In the long run, however, “live and let live” will be the law of commerce. As long as you don’t get in the way of buying and selling goods and services (and yourself as a brand), you should be allowed to do whatever you want, claim to be whatever you want to be, believe whatever you want etc. All of these are even chances to create more products, more innovation, and so on and so forth.

But what happens if you have beliefs that don’t conform to the sentiment of the general populace, and what if those beliefs mean that you can’t do certain things that the wider society expects you to do (bake a cake for a gay couple, perform an abortion, teach children that marriage isn’t just between a man and a woman, etc.)? That is the crux of the problem, and the reason for the conservative Christian crisis of conscience. Dreher to his credit finds that, in terms of the broader society, Christians have lost the debate and all there is left to do is withdraw. How you do that and the pitfalls involved is what fills the rest of the pages of his book. From homeschooling to homesteading to withdrawing into intentional communities, Dreher gets into the concrete details of a new conservative quasi-monastic movement forming at the edges of modern society.

Without giving away too much, I have to admit that I have some experience with the topic of Dreher’s book. I “dropped out” of the world earlier this century and was in a traditionalist Catholic milieu that did a lot of things that Dreher advocates. I saw many families that had “returned to the land,” some who went deep into the forest only to emerge occasionally for this or that reason, and I even helped teach homeschooling children. And under certain circumstances, I could see myself “dropping out” again. Part of me, however, sees many difficulties that Dreher doesn’t necessarily highlight. At the end of the day, people should do whatever they want, but they should do it with their eyes open.

From the book and his blog, I get the feeling that Dreher doesn’t really want to admit that a return to a “traditional” society at any scale would entail an ethos that is too mean and draconian even for the most conservative of contemporary Christians. I suppose not being too far removed from traditional rural Mexico (generationally speaking), I understand that, in order to live in a close-knit society, shaming and shunning are often the glue that keeps normal people from veering off too far from the norm. As far as I can tell, this is also the case with such communities as the Amish, traditionalists Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and other marginal religious communities. People are only as loyal to the community as their options. For all of the talk of “intentional communities,” sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. That is the downfall of many communes, ashrams, and other formations that seek autonomy from the broader society. If you don’t prescribe rules and punishments for people who don’t follow them, how are you going to bring in the harvest, raise the barn, keep the family together, and so on a so forth? I am not even talking about stoning adulteresses or caning children, but ultimately if a community isn’t bound together materially under a strict division of labor, it has no incentive to stay together.

I am certainly not saying that Dreher is selling a bait and switch return to medieval patriarchy (and I am not saying it’s a bad thing even if he did). But the most important pillar of the Rule of St. Benedict that he praises so enthusiastically is the rule of obedience. All of us who have experience with the monastic life know this rule all too well. So any inclination to romantically praise it let alone envision it as a blueprint for a future lay society (albeit on a small scale) is severely curtailed for us. It’s all well and good to discuss scattered Christians here and there talking about intentional communities and leading quasi-monastic lives, but what happens when the rubber hits the road, you actually get some power and numbers, and you have to go off and do the Benedict Option? Do you have the nerve to govern, shame, shun, and punish if necessary? And which of those activities led “traditional” families and societies to give up on “oppressive” Christianity in the first place?

That comes back to my main problem with conservative Christian discourse in the last fifty years. For all of the claims of persecution and moral societal collapse, there is precious little self-reflection concerning the Christians’ own role in creating this “crisis of civilization”. To illustrate this, I will tell the story of an old friend who I will call “Bob”, or rather, “Hippy Bob”. Bob once rolled up to the “Benedict option” space I was living at (I am being intentionally vague) in a grey van with a thick beard, a nose flute and a picture of Krishna in the front seat. He ended up staying on and helping in the traditionalist Catholic religious house in various capacities. Hippy Bob’s story was extremely typical: raised in an Italian Catholic family in New Jersey or New York (I don’t remember) with eight children, went to Catholic school where he was regularly beaten by nuns, ended up rebelling and leading a hedonistic life etc. And none of his seven brothers or sisters stayed in the Church.

My wonder at Hippy Bob wasn’t necessarily about how all of his family lapsed, but how miraculous it was that he returned in the first place. At the same religious house, one of the priests characterized the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council as a towering cathedral made out of cardboard: for all of its intimidating presence, it was completely hollow on the inside. This explains why things collapsed as quickly as they did. Perhaps people weren’t “holier” or even more “moral”: by and large, they may have just been better at “faking it”. All of these close-knit pious communities, well-catechized and cohesive, gone in one generation. Indeed, the other day I was thinking about how the two white Hindu converts I have known the best in my life were both older gentleman from Catholic families (one of whom was told to tone down the Eastern spirituality stuff by a priest who said he should keep on his path and just hide it from the parents. Such was the 1960’s, I guess).

To the conservative Christians I then ask: what makes you think you’re just not going to fall into the same trap that led you to your situation in the first place? What are you going to do differently this time, be nicer? Are you of a better substance than your drunken and brawling Catholic / Orthodox / Baptist etc. ancestors, more moral and tolerant? Color me skeptical. Sometimes I think these people just want to have their cake and eat it too. Have all of the trappings of conservative religiosity (orthodox doctrine, reverent liturgy, black and white morality) but none of the violence and bigotry that went along with these. So next time you wonder why the “woke Left” is painting you as a monster, maybe have a bit more self-reflection and honesty about the not-so-distant past, and maybe realize that there is more work to be done in contemplating why your beliefs have such a bad reputation.

I am still not saying that people shouldn’t drop out of society for all of the reasons Dreher cites. His cautions against the dangers of social media and technology particularly resonated with me. I think we will need to create small face-to-face communities to keep some sanity. But there is a reason I don’t consider myself a conservative and sometimes consider myself more of a Neoplatonist than a Christian. The collapse of Christendom means that we should probably take decades to examine in our doctrines and history as to why the collapse took place. In what ways are our “enemies” continuing aspects of the Christian message that we have neglected, even if in a distorted manner? Can we preserve Christian sexual morality and not be bigots about it? Can you really love the sinner but hate the sin? I understand that Dreher and other conservative Christians fear losing their children to “the world”. I am just asking, perhaps just to be a contrarian, if the enemy is already within the gates, in the very genetic fiber of the beliefs that we have long held dear. This isn’t an easy question to answer, but I believe it is a necessary if arduous task to do so.

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