Greetings from Atchison, Kansas, home of Benedictine College. Bunch of Catholics are gathered here this weekend to talk about evangelization. They honored me with an invitation to deliver a keynote address last night to kick off the event. I talked about — surprise! — The Benedict Option. I looked this morning at the schedule for today’s talks, and saw 13 separate lectures offering a reflection on an “Option”. So I reckon this is a meme. Seriously, this is delightful to me. The greatest hope I have for this book is that it seeds creative and serious discussions among Christians for how we can live more authentic, resilient Christian lives in a post-Christian (and increasingly anti-Christian) social order. Come back to this blog entry today for updates throughout the day, based on talks I hear.
I’ve never been to Benedictine College, but … wow. It is very easy for me, living inside my online silo, to become too focused on doom and gloom. So to come to a place like this little orthodox Catholic liberal arts college on the Missouri River, and to see so many young people who are faithful, happy, and … normal — well, I can’t tell you how encouraging it is. Talking to students and professors here is to realize that there really are great good places where the faith really is being lived out in community, and joyfully. I have trouble sometimes explaining to people that the Benedict Option is not only communities like, for example, the Catholic agrarians gathered around Clear Creek Abbey, but it can also take many different forms. What they’re doing at this small liberal arts Catholic college is a great example of the Benedict Option. The thickness and the richness of the traditional spiritual and intellectual life here is startling, in a very, very good way. It’s great to be able to point to one more place in the world and say, “There! What they’re doing there — go see it, and learn from it.”
And yet, understand: this is the kind of institution facing an existential threat from Washington progressives precisely because it is faithfully Christian. When the day comes that the federal government forbids federal funding, including federally-backed student loans, to colleges like these because they don’t accept the post-Christian view of sexuality and gender, these colleges will either find some way to survive, or they will disappear.
Conservative Christians have to stay involved in the political battle to defend institutions like Benedictine. But conservative Christians also had better be making alternate plans to support these institutions if we do lose the political fight. It’s coming, readers. If you are not making a Plan B to use our resources to stand up institutions like this, you are failing in your duty to your children and your Christian community. This is not alarmism; this is real. I had a conversation last night with a couple of men not affiliated with the college, but who are deeply involved in the religious liberty fight. They are not optimistic. At all.
More later. Keep checking back.
UPDATE.2: Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, after a long, penetrating reflection on T.S. Eliot and post-Christian society, says that conditions we face are probably going to get worse than even our most pessimistic people imagine. He quotes Eliot as saying that Christians who are not conscious of what’s happening are being increasingly de-Christianized without realizing it. Deneen says Christians today who expect to remain Christian have to be far, far more intentional in their Christian lives, including embracing practices.
Eliot says that Christians cannot leave the public square, however, if only out of charity for our neighbors. Deneen adds that those taking the Benedict Option had better construct our “new monasteries” amid the people who are must hurting in this new pagan culture. Our “monasteries” must also be the field hospitals that Pope Francis calls for, or they will be less than Christian.
(N.B., I agree with this, certainly. My contention — and I don’t know that Patrick disagrees — is that we cannot give the world what we do not have. The work of Robert Louis Wilken, Christian Smith, and other Christian intellectuals show that we Christians are very, very thin on the ground. The Benedict Option is not an either/or, but a both/and. That is, it’s not either withdrawal or engagement in the public square, but both withdrawal and engagement — indeed, withdrawal for the sake of more effective and transformative engagement.)
Patrick urges Christians not to abandon the elite media, academic, creative and other fields. We need faithful people there too. Consider, he said, the outsize role in academic and public life played by faithful Christian academics like Princeton’s Robbie George, or James Davison Hunter and Robert Louis Wilken (now retired) at the University of Virginia, and of the late John Senior at KU.
UPDATE.3: In a hallway conversation after Patrick’s lecture, an interlocutor said that he used to be more confident that more Christians ought to seek to be the Robbie Georges of the world. Now, he’s not as confident on this front, given the cultural realities. The interlocutor cited this passage from T.S. Eliot (written in 1939!) that Patrick quoted in his talk:
The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.
My interlocutor said that if paganism really does hold all the most valuable advertising space, then we have to consider whether or not it is more important to devote oneself to doing whatever we can to transmit the Christian tradition to the next generation, or to work to try to transform the greater culture. To be sure, not everyone has the same particular calling. If one discerns a calling to be a Christian Daniel in the academic lion’s den, then by all means one should accept that calling. I think the point of my interlocutor is that we don’t think often enough about dealing with the situation that we’re actually in. We want to fight the battle we want to fight, which is not necessarily the one we really need to be fighting.
I thought later about this principle as it plays out in some newspaper newsrooms. Very few reporters in urban newsrooms want to cover the suburbs. For ambitious reporters, the stories they want to cover are downtown, or otherwise in the city. But what if the stories that are really important — or at least many of the most important stories — are taking place in the suburbs? These places strike a lot of journalists as incredibly dull, and the stories playing out there as peripheral to “real” life. It’s worth considering that the problem is within us, and the limits of our own imagination. Is it possible that at least some of us don’t consider that our calling may be to something else because our pride and vanity blinds us to less romantic but more pressing possibilities.
I walked away from that conversation thinking about my sister Ruthie Leming, and how it was only in her death that I saw the greatness of what she was able to accomplish there, walking her little way in a small, out-of-the-way place. My own vocational calling was not the same as Ruthie’s, but in light of Ruthie’s death and her accomplishment, I had to reflect that people in my class exclude — consciously or unconsciously — the idea that we might be called not to be heroes, but rather oarsmen.
Benedict of Nursia might have had a brilliant political career ahead of him had he chosen to serve in the administration of barbarian-ruled Rome. Instead, he went to live in a cave and to seek the Lord’s will. He formed monastic communities. When he died on March 21, 547, Benedict could not have imagined how consequential his vocation would be for all of Western civilization, and indeed for the eternal life of countless souls. All Benedict wanted to do was to follow the will of the Lord. For all he knew, he would die in obscurity, his work amounting to nothing. But he was driven by the conviction that Mother Teresa articulated like this: “God has not called us to be successful, but faithful.”
(I got that Mother Teresa quote from Ryan Marr, who, in his presentation, said that the challenge of the Ben Op is sailing between the Scylla of resurrecting Christendom, and the Charybdis of hunkering down in ghettoes and awaiting the end. Which is true.)
UPDATE.4: Susan Traffas, in her presentation, said that we cannot imagine that we can withdraw from the state, because the state will not leave us alone. Unlike in the Roman Empire, we don’t have as much personal liberty.
“The new imperium wants to have everything,” she said. “Remember the change from ‘religious liberty’ to ‘religious worship’? … The first step of the new imperium is to limit us to our houses of worship, and that space will get smaller and smaller.”
She’s right, of course, but I continue to puzzle over the mistaken idea that I call for Christians to abandon politics entirely. But I do think she has a point about whether or not we Christians should abandon the American project. I incline to MacIntyre’s view that we need to focus not on “shoring up the imperium,” but on forming local communities within which the moral life can be sustained through the Dark Age to come. Does that mean abandoning America?
Perhaps it does, in the sense of believing that things aren’t going to be turned around anytime soon, if ever. But what is America? If it’s an ideal, then abandoning that ideal is defensible (I think). But America is not merely an ideal. America is Atchison, Kansas. America is Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. America is your community. We cannot abandon those places. You don’t have to believe that the American experiment is sustainable to be faithful to America, in the sense I mean.
In The Benedict Option, I write about Vaclav Benda, a mathematics professor, a believing Catholic, and a dissident suffering under Czech communism. I invite all who think that I’m advocating head-for-the-hills abandonment of the public square to meditate on this passage from the book:
A good example of what this better life could look like comes from the late mathematician and dissident Václav Benda. A faithful Catholic, Benda believed that Communism maintained its iron grip on the people by isolating them, fragmenting their natural social bonds. The Czech regime severely punished the Catholic Church, driving many believers to privatize their faith, retreating behind the walls of their homes so as not to attract attention from the authorities.
Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis”—a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order.5 Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”
At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.
Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word—along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.
I personally think that a no less effective, exceptionally painful, and in the short term practically irreparable way of eliminating the human race or individual nations would be a decline into barbarism, the abandonment of reason and learning, the loss of traditions and memory. The ruling regime—partly intentionally, partly thanks to its essentially nihilistic nature—has done everything it can to achieve that goal. The aim of independent citizens’ movements that try to create a parallel polis must be precisely the opposite: we must not be discouraged by previous failures, and we must consider the area of schooling and education as one of our main priorities.
From this perspective, the parallel polis is not about building a gated community for Christians but rather about establishing (or reestablishing) common practices and common institutions that can reverse the isolation and fragmentation of contemporary society. (In this we hear Brother Ignatius of Norcia’s call to have “borders”— formal lines behind which we live to nurture our faith and culture—but to “push outwards, infinitely.”) Benda wrote that the parallel polis’s ultimate political goals are “to return to truth and justice, to a meaningful order of values, [and] to value once more the inalienability of human dignity and the necessity for a sense of human community in mutual love and responsibility.”
In other words, dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them. That’s a grand vision, but Benda knew that most people weren’t interested in standing up for abstract causes that appealed only to intellectuals. He advocated practical actions that ordinary Czechs could do in their daily lives.
If we Christians living in a post-Christian nation are going to prepare the world for a better, more humane, more just politics, we have to start with the pre-political basics, and with political actions that are about serving the common good, though not necessarily about elections and laws. This means we have to be creative minorities.
Prof. Traffas said that we cannot abandon the public square, in part because we cannot abandon others outside the Christian community to a bad regime. Well, to be clear, and contra about a thousand million people who claim otherwise, I don’t believe that we can or should totally abandon the public square. We have to fight as hard as we can. But what happens when we lose? What then? Benda and the dissidents had no realistic chance of overthrowing Communism. But they also did not believe they had the right either to assimilate or to hide out in their own bunkers. How did they bear witness to the truth in a meaningful way when ordinary politics was closed off to them?
Obviously we are not restricted as those under Communism were. But when there is little to no prospect that we can get a hearing in our political and legal system — and I think this is increasingly going to be the case — what do we do then? We can’t surrender, but continuing to fight the last war is a waste of time and effort.
Consider the battle for traditional marriage. We lost that one. Obergefell sealed the deal — and Obergefell is a popular decision! If Obergefell had been decided the other way — that is, had the Court said that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage — all that would have meant is that it would have been a matter for states to decide. In that alternative universe, most states today would have gay marriage, voted in democratically by their legislatures. And ten, twenty years from now, there would be no states without same-sex marriage. That’s because we Christian traditionalists have lost the culture. The people may be suffering under a bad regime in this sense, but it’s a regime of which they approve.
So what now? I think it’s a waste of time even to think about overturning Obergefell, or even reversing same-sex marriage laws. By far the greater challenge facing Christians today is explaining to ourselves the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Biblical model of marriage and sexuality, and passing it on to our children. We have same-sex marriage, and we have seen it embraced by so many of our fellow Americans, because it makes sense in the moral world they’ve come to inhabit. The battle for same-sex marriage was won in the 1960s and 1970s. If there were no such thing as gay people, would marriage culture in America today really be something of which Christians should be proud? Law and politics can only do so much. Same-sex marriage is a very big deal, but the crisis of fatherlessness, of broken families, and so forth is a much bigger deal. These phenomena are connected, in that they all start with a flawed anthropology, a non-Christian anthropology that entails seeing the individual and sexual desire in a post-Christian (un-Christian) way.
How do we counter that? It’s got to be countered in our families, in our churches, and in our own communities. We are losing our own. And if we lose our own, there will be no one left to bear witness to the truth of the Christian vision at some point in the future when the broader society is willing to hear it.
Someone in the audience said: Alasdair MacIntyre was not writing about retreat and separation. He was writing about the incommensurability of moral language in our time. Why are you invoking him?
Answer from me: I’m not trying to exegete MacIntyre in my project. I’m just using his general diagnosis as a way to think about our current crisis. Though I am obviously indebted to MacIntyre, it’s not called the Alasdair MacIntyre Option. I’m trying to figure out how we can form those communities and institutions within which our tradition can be lived out in this new Dark Age.
“We live today in the Church Militant, but the Church Militant, like any military, needs a good boot camp,” said someone in the audience. “It seems to me that the Benedict Option is about boot camp for the Church Militant.”
I love that.