The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
by Rod Dreher.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $25.
Rod Dreher has been calling for Christians to heal themselves, their churches, and their communities, for most of his adult life. One thing has changed in the ten years since publication of his first book, Crunchy Cons: He no longer holds that cultural renewal, to which he calls Christians in particular, can extend to society as a whole. As Dreher argues in his latest book, The Benedict Option, neither the United States, nor the Western Civilization of which it is a part, can be saved in the sense of returning to the norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition which produced and sustained lives of faith, family, and freedom. Our proper task, then, is to preserve and enrich cultural remnants for their own sakes—as embodiments of God’s love and as aids to those persons and communities who might yet walk in the ways of their Lord. Any resurgence or reclaiming of wider cultural influence is so far off in time that it cannot be allowed to guide our practical choices in the here and now.
Such arguments are dismissed as overwrought and defeatist by most people—whatever their party affiliation—with status and power in today’s society. The Benedict Option has not escaped such criticism. But this book is a sign and cause of hope. Dreher provides a penetrating diagnosis of our ills. As important, he outlines means by which we can follow our true nature and find joy in our lives together even as those around us lose sight of humanity and the goodness of life itself.
The Benedict Option is the product of years of thought, investigation, conversation, and at times argument. Not that Dreher himself is argumentative, far from it. But the position he has taken, like the norms he seeks to preserve, garners opposition on all sides. Why? Because it entails a refusal to either temporize with a culture that has become toxic to our real humanity or to declare even metaphorical war on those seeking to destroy the remnants of a civilization of which they know nothing, except that they have been taught to see it as “racist, sexist, and homophobic.” Dreher’s position is a delicate one in that it must balance the need to be “countercultural” with the necessity to engage with a now-dominant culture that is overtly hostile to Christians and their institutions, beliefs, and practices.
Attacks on Christians’ faith, and on the way of life it demands, are both common and obvious. Here Dreher points to regulations and lawsuits forcing people and communities to violate the norms of their faith by assisting and celebrating morally disordered actions, from same-sex marriages to the distribution of abortion-inducing drugs. Anyone who cares to look can see further moves against Christians, including, for example, calls to force pro-life physicians to refer patients to abortionists on demand. Increasingly, Christians must choose between betraying their faith and abandoning their profession. Dreher points out that “as Americans, we are unaccustomed to accepting limits on our ambitions. Yet the day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivations for our faith.”
How shall we respond? How shall we live in anti-Christian times? First, we must recognize the nature of our predicament—our relative lack of worldly power. In making this point Dreher, in discussions preliminary to this book, emphasized Christians’ loss in the culture war and the need for “strategic retreat.” The first phrase is easily misconstrued, the second unfortunate because it evokes images of a coherent enemy force that will allow us to withdraw. In fact, as Dreher himself shows, here, the “enemy” is a culture and way of life that spawns hatred, but from which we cannot fully escape. Fortunately, Dreher’s emphasis is not on mere withdrawal, but rather on actively improving our lives. We may do so, he argues, partly by stripping from it the worst of contemporary culture as embodied in electronic entertainments and mainstream educational institutions. But as important, he shows, is more constructive action in our communities. We must, in brief, work harder to find others like us, to build communities in the midst of chaos, and especially to rear our children to be virtuous, Christian adults.
Readers may note that I have not discussed the book’s title. The Benedict Option evokes monastic images frightening even to many devoutly Christian moderns. It has spawned much not-terribly-helpfulargument over the “true” nature of Benedict’s project. Best, then, to simply keep in mind that the medieval monk Saint Benedict promoted a way of life that was not so very odd as it appears in our secular age. Benedict sought, not mere isolation, but a means of serving God. And he found it in building a community devoted to virtue. What today seems misanthropic or even cultish (and, of course, may devolve into such if approached uncritically) was and can be again, simply a life lived in a community that recognizes the virtue of serving God. The medieval parish, the early modern covenantal church community, and most towns in America for most of our nation’s existence, all sought, however imperfectly, to embody a way of life that recognized God’s will, his law, and the order of his existence.
Unfortunately for us, such communities are increasingly difficult to build and maintain in the face of intrusive, hostile policies initiated by federal and lesser governments. The problem is made worse by litigious secularists who seek out remnants of Christianity in our public squares, then work to smash them in the name of “religious liberty” or, more accurately, “freedom from religion.” Given this drive to eliminate all traces of religion from public life, Christians must work to create spaces between that increasingly narrow and meaningless “private sphere” and the sphere of politics. This requires a humble view of political action less novel than many believe.
Politics is inescapable in this era of totalitarian entitlement. But, as Dreher points out, our political conduct must be focused on creating and defending as much space as possible for the communities in which we actually live our lives. This should come as no great surprise, for it is the basis of any reasonable political order. Government’s proper goal is to foster the more primary associations of family, church, and local association. Sadly, the best we can hope for today is to demilitarize the hostility toward our associations inherent to modern, social democratic secularism.
This realistic assessment is not cause for despair. Rather, it supports a call for a more fully Christian politics. Dreher points with approval to pro-life activists who have refused to limit their activities to the (hostile) legislative and judicial spheres. Wise pro-lifers open crisis centers and reach out to victims of abortion (including mothers recovering from abortion) and otherwise work to build communities dedicated to welcoming new life. In this vein, Dreher argues, all Christians must take positive action, rebuilding communities by starting church and school groups, joining the volunteer fire department, teaching kids music and scripture, playing games, feasting with neighbors, and more generally leading good lives in a myriad small communities centered on church, family, and neighborhood. “If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.” [Emphasis in original]
Dreher’s reference to habits of the heart evokes Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the promise and danger of American culture. Our intermediary institutions protected us from tyranny by inculcating virtue in the citizens. But the pull of individualism already had separated people from one another, empowering a centralizing state. As Tocqueville feared, over time we have abandoned our neighbors and handed over to the state responsibility for our physical and psychological well-being. The result is an unhinged culture, succumbing to toxic self-indulgence and ideological opiates. Associations still may be formed, but not within this terminal host. Persons and families mustform associations on their own, hoping a new culture will develop over time out of their virtuous interactions.
Much of Dreher’s argument is quite practical. He reports on the lives of those living in exemplary, functioning communities. He describes the psychological impact of pornography and how to avoid it, especially for our children. He provides simple but essential advice: remove your children, immediately, from the toxic, anti-Christian public schools; be careful and watchful that your Christian schools take seriously their duty to form strong, Christian hearts and minds; if you homeschool do not take for granted that you can eliminate negative social forces from your children’s lives; and do not ever believe that you can simply withdraw from the outside world—the culture will engage with you even if you try not to engage with it, so engage when and how you can be at your strongest.
It would be wrong to say that this is merely a new kind of “how to” book. Dreher is fully aware of thespiritual and philosophical roots of our contemporary predicament. The excesses of the Enlightenment, built upon the mistaken, prideful notion that we can create rather than find truth and meaning, replaced virtue with an empty, self-referential reason that rejects the true ground and order of our existence. The natural-law understanding of God as the source of an ordered universe of which we are free-willed but limited parts, with our own natures and proper goals, has been all but eliminated from public and private consciousness.
The new paradigm, the self-created “reality” Dreher terms “liquid modernity.” It is a pseudo-existence in which we manipulate the world around us, but never can hold onto anything because everything constantly changes, without any perceptible reason. Technological habits and devices make this existence seem real, but it is fundamentally illusory and so cannot form the basis for sustainable life. It has produced a literal culture of death in which abortion and euthanasia are embraced, along with our rapidly declining populations (when immigration is factored out, both Europe and the United States are losing population at rates alarming to those who value life itself). Culturally, we have killed off our own vital spark, leaving us empty choice-makers, joylessly pursuing joy, until our calculus of pleasure and pain dictates our demise.
Life was not always thus. As Dreher points out:
Medieval man did not see himself as fundamentally separate from the natural order; rather, the alienation he felt was an effect of the Fall, a catastrophe that, as he understood it, made it difficult for humans to see Creation as it really is. His task was to join himself to the love of God and harmonize his own steps with the great cosmic dance. Truth was guaranteed by the existence of God, whose Logos, the divine principle of order, was made fully manifest in Jesus Christ but is present to some degree in all Creation.
This natural-law understanding remains with us even in this disordered time, because it is true. But it no longer does, or can for the foreseeable future, guide the conduct of our society because that society is committed to a selfish emotivism that masquerades as rationalism. Thus, those who wish to lead truly reasonable, meaningful lives must do so in opposition to prevailing assumptions and trends.
Obviously, the church should be the primary institution providing guidance and patterns of conduct in accord with our true nature. Unfortunately, as Dreher points out, too many in the pulpit know little of their own history or the grounds of their own faith. Instead of spiritual guidance, the faithful receive the bromides of self-esteem and reassurances that all truths are subject to “updating” to make them compatible with our wants and sins of the moment. Thus, churches, like schools and universities, have become nothing more than loci of ideology and the platitudes of the self-help group; they ignore their essential work of forming minds, characters, and souls in accordance with the truths of our nature and history. “Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a culture built on a cult of desire, one that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions, as we self-directed individuals choose.”
Our time is one of fundamental disorder. And we cannot bring order to society until we bring it to ourselves and those around us. Order in society is an outgrowth of order in the soul, which comes from ordering ourselves according to the deeper, more fundamental order of being, of reality itself. In this light, the inevitable burdens of life on the periphery of a hostile, inhumane culture should hold less fear for us than it does. Already, many of us have had our life-chances severely limited by this culture, in which what is best in us is termed hateful bigotry. It is time, then, to cease pretending that we can make common cause with those who hate us, or that we can win some kind of war with them. We must treat them as our Christian forebears treated the powerful pagans of their time, with pity, love, and a healthy dose of caution. We must live among them, but we can no longer afford to believe that we are of them, lest we lose our own souls in the process. This is no message of despair, but a call to virtue we must heed in our daily lives, daring to be martyrs only when specifically called on to do so, and otherwise to build up the church by bringing God’s order to our own lives, and the lives of those we cherish.
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law.