by Matthew Sitman
For awhile now I’ve been intrigued by Rod Dreher’s advocacy of the “Benedict Option” for contemporary Christians, which looks to St. Benedict, founder of a monastic order in the wake of Rome’s collapse, as inspiration for how Christians should respond to the current cultural situation. Here’s a good summary of the Benedict Option from Rod’s essay about it late last year:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
Rod goes onto describe various communities – in places like Eagle Creek, Alaska and Clear Creek Abbey, Oklahoma – living out their faith in traditional ways, largely set apart from modern American culture. In the midst of our cultural catastrophe, the Benedict Option is a way for Christians to live virtuous lives uncorrupted by what’s around them, resisting any kind of assimilation into mainstream society.
Last week Samuel Goldman argued for an alternative, the “Jeremiah Option,” drawing on the experience of the Jews exiled in Babylon, and pitched as a corrective to Dreher’s ideas:
Without being rigorously separatist, these [Benedict Option] communities do aim to be separate. Some merely avoid morally subversive cultural influences, while others seek physical distance from mainstream society in rural isolation.
But a neo-Benedictine way of life involves risks. Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life—the intertwined commodification of personal relationships, loss of meaningful work to bureaucratic management, and pornographic popular culture—yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation.
I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.
Given the above, you won’t be surprised that I nod along when Goldman elaborates on what distinguishes the Jeremiah Option from the Benedict Option:
The Benedict Option is not the only means of spiritual and cultural survival, however. As a Catholic, MacIntyre searches for models in the history of Western Christendom. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish history suggest a different strategy, according to which exiles plant roots within and work for the improvement of the society in which they live, even if they never fully join it.
This strategy lacks the historical drama attached to the Benedict Option. It promises no triumphant restoration of virtue, in which values preserved like treasures can be restored to their original public role. But the Jews know a lot about balancing alienation from the mainstream with participation in the broader society. Perhaps they can offer inspiration not only to Christians in the ruins of Christendom but also to a secular society that draws strength from the participation of religiously committed people and communities.
Goldman gets at something important here when he notes that adherents to the Benedict Option look forward to “a triumphant restoration of virtue,” rather than the simpler and more humble desire to help the society in which they live. I certainly harbor no longings for Christendom. There’s no golden age I’m trying to restore. While not being uncritical of modern life, I’m not in rebellion against it – and thus don’t seek to escape it. I also resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense. Christianity is premised on our inability to be moral, and it’s most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together. So I’m suspicious of religious movements that value purity above all else, which, in a way, I think the Benedict Option does. Withdrawal from mainstream culture can only mean that a desire for purity has trumped the risks of engagement.
But most of all, Christianity teaches us that God is love, that God loved the world and so should we – a notion that I find difficult to square with retreating into a remote community waiting for the world to burn. I actually am hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life, and seeing the brutality, violence, and indifference to suffering all around us, I can’t help but think the message of Jesus will retain it’s power. But that hope is premised on living in the world, not apart from it, while also letting go of apocalyptic rhetoric and the acute sense of persecution so many Christians feel. One of my favorite passages comes from a letter written by the novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, where he argued that “The revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem — new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” I’m far more interested in that project, in finding ways to think and talk about Christianity, as well as live it, that avoid the well-worn tropes of American religious life, than I am in waiting out the supposed new Dark Ages.
(St. Benedict orders Saint Maurus to the rescue of Saint Placidus, by Fra Filippo Lippi, 1445, via Wikimedia Commons)