The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Rod Dreher)

The Benedict Option is, as I expected, an outstanding book.  Rod Dreher has definitively shown that he is the Pope Urban of a new and dynamic movement, and this book has occasioned much commentary in the mainstream press.  Unfortunately, the main point of Dreher’s book—to make a countercultural call for individual and group Christian renewal focused on communities of believers—has been somewhat lost in a secondary point, the real and growing persecution of Christian believers in mainstream society.  This was inevitable, I suppose, because persecution is more interesting to outsiders than a call to holiness, but unfortunate, because it caricatures Dreher and tends to erode receptivity to his message.

On the other hand, I also think that Dreher tries to wholly separate those two things, when they are necessarily intertwined.  If I were forced to produce a criticism of this book, it is that Dreher is too optimistic about the continued existence of a private religious sphere in the world of, and opposed to the core beliefs of, a technologically advanced, all-intrusive Leviathan state.  He makes a few nods in the direction of this concern, but no more (though those nods are aggressively enough phrased to make the reader wonder if Dreher is merely holding his fire).  Second, if I had to produce an addition to this book, it would be that I think there is a key distinction to be made between Christianity as religion and Christianity as the mainspring of Western civilization, but that both must be renewed, for they are the warp and the weft of any decent future that Man has.  Third and finally, I think that this criticism and this addition require the same response, which will help bring Dreher’s vision to life.  Namely, the extension of Dreher’s call to, or an incorporation within Dreher’s call of, the expansive and outward-directed faith of the medieval military orders, or, for those not inclined to weaponry, the spiritual militancy of St. Ignatius (not the desiccated, impotent heterodoxy that passes for “Jesuit” today).  For in these latter days, everything old is new again, and sometimes the old answers are necessary to complete the new answers.

Oh, I can hear you saying, “What an unrealistic fool!  Dreher shows us that the wolf is at the door, and your response is to take the fight to the wolf, and to the wolf’s kin?”  Yes, to an extent, but hear me out.  After all, that approach worked for the Three Little Pigs, who, like the characters in all great fairy tales, embody timeless truths about humanity.

Dreher’s main focus is on the necessary renewal of orthodox Christianity, its rescue in the West from the morass of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  (He also notes and cites, in several places, Orthodox Judaism, though that is not his tradition and he has less to say on that topic, but presumably what he would say is not substantially different.)  This is a personal call to each of us.  He demonstrates with efficiency and without possibility of meaningful contradiction that the number of American Christians who understand, much less believe, and even less practice, orthodox Christianity, doctrines that have been held to be central requirements of Christian faith for millennia, is vanishingly small.  And in tandem he convincingly demonstrates that the modern American state (consisting not only of the government but also of the oligarchy of the powerful), which state is the armed herald both of absolute liberty and of denial of the telos of man based on the logos of God, is locked in irreconcilable conflict with orthodox Christianity.  Dreher approaches this as a religious question, which it is, and places most of his emphasis on how orthodox believers can preserve, strengthen and carry on their faith.  But, of course, this is also a civilizational question—what does it mean for our civilization that orthodox Christianity, on which it is based, is being squeezed out of existence?

Before we get to the civilizational question, first, on the Leviathan state.  “Leviathan” is really a misnomer—the term conveys size and power without an ideological component, and it is redolent of the 17th Century, of the famous image on the cover of Hobbes’s book.  Perhaps “Cthulhu state” would be a better term, after Lovecraft’s otherworldly creature of subterranean horror, multi-tentacled and capable of reaching into the souls of men.  And also unlike Hobbes’s Leviathan, in the West today the Cthulhu state has a very specific ideological vision, not merely a lust for power.  Its vision is of man as malleable and infinitely perfectible machine, rather than a created being ordered by something outside himself and containing inherent qualities and limits.

As Dreher says, what Christianity means is “the discovery of the order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of Creation and seeking to live in harmony with it.  It also implies the realization of natural limits within Creation’s givenness, as opposed to believing that nature is something we can deny or refute, according to our own desires.”  And, “Over the past six centuries, Western man has come to reject the idea that there is intrinsic purpose built into Creation, and instead come to see meaning as something extrinsic—that is, imposed from outside. . . . Poet Wendell Berry responded to techno-utopian scientism with the observation that civilization must decide whether we see persons as creatures or as machines.  If we are creatures, he argued, then we have purpose and meaning, but also limits.  If we see ourselves, and the world around us, as a machine, then we believe the Faustian myth of our own limitless power to recreate ourselves.”  Thus, since the Cthulhu state embodies this modern vision, it and Christianity necessarily are embroiled in a conflict of visions, and there can be only one victor, for the two visions are incompatible.  Christianity may co-exist with Leviathan; it cannot co-exist with Cthulhu.  There can be only one.

Dreher, of course, draws an explicit analogy between today and the time of St. Benedict.  His reference to St. Benedict originates in Alisdair Macintyre’s call for a “another—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”  The flaw in this analogy as applied here is that in St. Benedict’s time, there was no government to notice what Benedict did.  The tottering Empire cared nothing for what happened in rural areas of the lost Italian provinces.  The only extant government of the time (other than the distant Ostrogoth overlord in Ravenna), local government, was either indifferent, or, more likely, favorable toward monks who caused no problems, enhanced the stature of the local lord, and prayed for his soul when he was dead.  For after all, the local lords, and the local population, were Christian, even if the lords were often religiously indifferent, in the manner of most men of power.

But today, all levels of the Cthulhu state care very much what we, Dreher’s proposed inheritors of the new Benedictine way, do.  Our Empire is an empire in the full and poisonous flower of decadence, violently opposed to the thought crimes of adherents of the Benedict Option, since they deny the core ideological foundation of the Empire, which in its service commands power and reach undreamt of in any past age.  Our government may not control the Mark of the Beast, withdrawing power to buy and sell, but it is not far off, for it controls whether a man may earn his daily bread, and whether his children will be snatched from him by masked men wielding guns, for teaching them that a man is a man and a woman a woman.

Dreher has a beautiful vision.  He returns again and again to scenes of the present-day monks of Norcia, and communitarian groups raising olives in sunlit groves.  Of course, these are exemplars, metaphors, for his vision of groups of normal people leading normal lives in average places, but organizing them around renewed orthodoxy and community with others of like mind.  Dreher sees challenges to this, among them that, in his view, persecution is possible, but the largest one is that renewed orthodoxy in a time of material plenty, alienating yet seductive technology, and spiritual anomie is not attractive to most.

But Dreher fails to project the future adequately.  He errs, as Orwell said of James Burnham, in predicting “the continuation of the thing that is happening.”  Not wholly, of course—he predicts, or at least hopes for, that faithful Christians will heed his call, and make a change in the arc of history.  At the same time, he predicts that powers opposed to the orthodox will continue much as they are, or perhaps become mildly worse, and that Christians should remain politically involved to limit the damage.  But they will in fact become much worse, and Dreher himself identifies that orthodox Christians today lack all traditional political power, so limiting damage is a false hope (and Dreher does quote a modern Benedictine that “the best defense is offense” and “we have to push outward, infinitely,” but he does not pursue the point).  The ideology of the Left commands no deviation from the path to atomistic individuality enforced by the iron will of the state, and no quarter for deviants.  You may be allowed to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, if you keep it to yourself.  Sooner rather than later, no matter how you humble yourself before the state, you will no longer be allowed to teach your children truths that contradict the premises of the state, or to do anything else that may preserve and maintain your vision of the good.  There can be only one.

Thus, whatever happens with Trump (and Dreher puts no faith in him, nor should he), soon enough the harpies will return on the wing, as always, to advance their vision of the world, as if Trump never was.  One step back, two steps forward, always and forever.  For them, there can be no rest from the need to impose ideological uniformity to pave the road to Utopia.  It is of no matter, to them or us, that as ever, in reality Utopia will never arrive and at the end of the road lies not a shining city but yet another sprawling delta of blood and pain.  To avoid this, reordering our lives and communities is necessary, but not sufficient.  We must dynamite the road to the chimerical Utopia, salt the earth, and leave the harpies’ corpses to rot on the lone and level sands.  Only by this act of overwatch can Dreher’s communities of virtue survive.

Second, on Western civilization, or what is more accurately called Christendom.  Dreher focuses not on civilization but on explicitly local communities and how Christians are failing to maintain and pass on their religion at the local level.  In essence, Dreher writes civilization off.  Perhaps this is correct; a Toynbee or a Spengler would say that civilizations rise and fall in rhythms not amenable to repair.  And perhaps it does not matter; one possible Christian response is that since we are assured Christianity is forever, our civilization is of no consequence, and that Christianity will be the leaven of a new civilization, if ours is doomed.  In this case, the Benedict Option, in the long term, serves primarily to form seeds that can regenerate Christianity in the new world as it arises.

But this is the counsel of defeatism.  Our culture is wholly based on Christianity.  It is the common inheritance, and the common framework, of the West.  Every moral virtue and aspiration we associate with civilization; the core values that even the minions of the Cthulhu state pay lip service to, is a Christian value.  We forget that life for any but a select few before Christianity, even in advanced civilizations such as Rome, was extremely unpleasant and based on domination of the weak (as shown in detail in Sarah Ruden’s excellent Paul Among the People).  We forget that the same is true for any other civilization before or since the rise of Christianity, except for ours (and except for the civilization of Islam, which is, after all, just a distorted vision of Christianity, containing some of its good points with an admixture of new bad points).  It is not likely that a new civilization, with a new religion (for the ideology of the Cthulhu state, being based on denial of human nature, could never survive a civilizational collapse, thus some religion will rise, which could be Christianity again, but we cannot be certain of that), will embody any of the tenets of Christianity which ennoble our civilization.  Thus, we should strive to maintain and rebuild Christendom, not just our local communities.

So we must renew this civilization, or face an eon of darkness.  No civilization but ours has ever tolerated Christianity, for that religion fundamentally undermines the power of any state that does not respect the telos of man, and that undermining cannot be tolerated except by a civilization in which the rulers are themselves civilized by Christianity.  Again, as Dreher says, “[H]owever far any given society in Christendom has been from the ideal—and every one has—there was a shared understanding that there was an ideal outside of ourselves to which we must aspire.”  Christendom is the last, best hope of mankind; it is unique, not just another civilization.  Our future if we do not renew this civilization is likely to be similar to the far future depicted in the epic science fiction cycle of Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, mid-20th Century US diplomat to China,  godson of Sun Yat-Sen and confidant of Chiang Kai-Shek).  His stories take place thousands of years in the future, when the worlds of humans are run by the Instrumentality of Mankind, an oppressive, yet not evil, oligarchy which forbids the export of religion.  Nonetheless, the Lords of the Instrumentality face the survival and slow spread of Christianity, religion of the oppressed half-human Underpeople, known as the Old Strong Religion with its tokens of the God Nailed High.  Such is the long-term fate of Christianity in a civilization that is not itself Christian.  It is not nothing, but it is not enough.  Therefore, we cannot be indifferent to the fate of this, our, civilization.

I have above offered two points in response to Dreher’s carefully tailored recommendations for Christian renewal.  Both of my points came with vague prescription of some form of unspecified resistance, which on the surface seems wildly unrealistic, to stand against the might of a powerful state and the currents of civilizational history.  But perhaps we are not just waiting for a new, and doubtless very different, St. Benedict.  Perhaps we are also waiting for a new and very different St. Francis, an unforeseeable and unknown quantity, a man (or woman) who arises unexpectedly to lead us and to fight the future.  After all, we are assured that nothing is impossible with God.  If we truly believe that, it is our responsibility to do what is necessary to make straight the way, that we may have clean earth for our children, and our children’s children.  And to wait, armed with the necessary spiritual and physical weapons, for the time to present itself.

Fine words, but as they said in Hobbes’s time, fine words butter no parsnips.   So what does this mean in practice, beyond Dreher’s own prescriptions, which, as far as outward direction, center on largely passive witness?  That is hard to say at this moment, for we also should not make the error of merely predicting the continuation of the thing that is happening.  It certainly means being aggressively uncompromising, for any compromise is merely seen as weakness and taken as the new starting line for further attacks against us.  And it means, for every action, a reaction.  But it means more.  It means aggressive proselytization of the heathen, perhaps with a new set of Jesuits, with the heathen as our neighbors, not primitive tribes in the jungle or the educated mandarins of an alien civilization.  In a future time, it may mean defending against, or even prophylactically instigating, violence when and where violence is proffered to us, either by the overweening state or as a result of the fragmentation of the state’s authority.  Without thorns to repel those who would do it and its people harm, if the Benedict Option gains traction, it will be attacked and destroyed.  In that time, we would need a new and very different set of Templars.

But if, as Dreher says, orthodox Christians are a tiny minority who must band together more tightly for survival, what possible chance does aggressive action have?  Perhaps so, yet orthodox Christians have always been a minority; they just need to always be enough to offer the true path to those who have ears to hear, and to form the framework of a civilization in which most people try, to a greater or lesser degree, to adhere to the tenets of Christianity, often failing, but structuring their world around it.  The reality is, as the Jesuits once knew, that sending messengers to the heathen, even if some of the messengers are killed, brings people to Christ in a way that mere lived example and passive witness does not.  Nobody is rushing to join the Amish and they have no influence on the larger world, for they offer nothing but their example, hidden largely away.  The truth is out there, but it must be advertised, as when a lion roars.

Who can say what the future holds?  It is a great error to divine the precise outlines of the future and then to base one’s action upon the vision.  Not only will the vision never exactly match the future, but when the two diverge, the impulse is to try to force reality into the vision, which can only cause harm.  Rather, we should make ready for the uncertain future, both through following Dreher’s wise prescriptions, and by realizing that on the basis of what we thereby create, supplemented as necessary with the tools of evangelization and of war, each used as an embassy or a spear, we also make possible the maintenance and renewal of all things.


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