Piazza of St. Benedict, in Norcia, before the earthquake
I was quite pleased to read my friend Conor Dugan’s generous (but not uncritical) review of The Benedict Option, which appeared last week in Catholic World Report. The thing I’m most grateful for is his detailed and accurate summary of what the book actually says — something that has been confoundingly rare in a number of reviews. Excerpts:
Dreher also suggests a more modest, but realistic politics. “The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions.” Christians must “create and support ‘parallel structures’ in which the truth can be lived in community.” Dreher denies that this is a form of retreat. Rather, 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.’”
Reading these suggestions about a new politics, immediately brought to mind a young Polish actor named Karol Wojtyla and the Rhapsodic Theater of the Word with which he performed in Nazi-occupied Poland. Risking his own life, the future saint and his acting troupe lived out a form of cultural and political resistance through acting. No one would accuse Wojtyla of having retreated from evil. Rather, he was creating a zone of freedom, generating true and authentic culture that could stand up against the bulwark of evil.
I’ve mentioned in this space before that when I asked my friend the philosopher Michael Hanby for advice at the the beginning of my writing the book, he said I should ask myself the question, “What would Wojtyla do?” Hanby cited the same case that Dugan does, and said further that Wojtyla and his circle knew that the most important thing that Christians could do under those circumstances was keep cultural memory alive — especially the memory of what it was to be a real Christian.
Yet, time and time again, critics have accused Dreher of suggesting that Christians must run for the hills, away from an impure world. These critics argue that Dreher’s solution is to create Christian enclaves, bubbles. Any halfway careful reading of The Benedict Option shows that this is simply not true. Repeatedly Dreher writes that any shoring up of the Christian community is for the sake of the world. For instance, Dreher writes:
If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have.
The point is not a fleeing from the world, but a turning to God in order to serve God and man more deeply. With approval Dreher quotes Father Benedict of Norcia as saying: “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance. It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”
On that point, Dugan does something I’ve not seen anybody do in any other reviews: ties my vision to Pope Benedict XVI’s prophetic statement (in 1969, when he was only Father Ratzinger) that the Church was going to lose wealth and power, and would experience a tremendous falling-away to a small remnant of true believers. But from that mustard seed, the Church would be reborn. Dugan:
How can this be? How can a smaller, weaker Church become this light for the world? It is precisely because of something against which Pope Benedict constantly warned. Despite scurrilous charges, Pope Benedict never called for an isolated or insular Church, a pure Church separated from the world. Indeed, the exact opposite theme permeates Benedict’s work. While the Church may be small, she must be open and attentive to the world. She must not be of the world, but she must be at the heart of the world. Take for instance then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s answer to Peter Seewald in God and the World: “The Church of the first three centuries was a small Church and nevertheless was not a sectarian community. On the contrary, she was not partitioned off; rather, she saw herself as responsible for the poor, for the sick, for everyone. All those who sought a faith in the one God, who sought a promise, found their place in her.” It was a theme that Pope Benedict returned to forcefully in a 2011 visit to Germany. Speaking to Church personnel in Freiburg, Pope Benedict laid out a vision of a Church pouring herself out for the world by setting “herself apart from her surroundings, to become in a certain sense ‘unworldly.’” By discovering the “right form of detachment from the world” which “does not, of course, mean withdrawing from the world,” the Church is freed to “mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need, to sufferers and to their carers.”
This is the model for the Church today. And this, ultimately, is what Dreher is proposing in The Benedict Option: the Church returning to her roots, giving up worldliness, so that she can more radically serve the world.
Let me address one of the criticisms Dugan makes:
In conclusion, let me offer a few criticisms and questions as a friend and admirer of Dreher. First, is a concern about the name itself of the book. The terms “option” and “strategy” in the title and subtitle undermine Dreher’s project. They concede too much to liberalism and the lie at its heart that one choice is as good as another. Further, the terms too easily allow Dreher’s critics to dismiss this as a brand or a fad. But Dreher is not simply presenting another lifestyle choice, one option among the smorgasbord of various options of how we can live out our lives. Rather, he is re-presenting the Christian way of life. (In this critics are correct that Dreher isn’t offering a new vision; he’s offering a traditional vision for living our lives in this world.) We won’t be saved by strategies.
He’s right about this, and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this critique regarding framing my program as an “option”. I should clarify that I really don’t think Christians who want their descendants to come through this crisis with their faith intact have an alternative. My hope is that by the end of the book, readers will agree that in truth, there is no choice here. I present it as an “option” with reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s framing of the choice the early Benedictines made: to quit dedicating their energies to shoring up a failing social order, and instead focus on building up smaller communities within which it would be possible to live out their faith through the dark age to come. For us traditional/conservative/orthodox Christians today, we do have a choice: we can continue living as these were more or less normal times, or we can recognize the radicalism of the age, and respond appropriately.
In fact, Christians cannot avoid the choice. To refuse the choice is to choose, whether you like it or not. The culture in which we are all immersed is so powerful that unless you are consciously and meaningfully pushing back against it, it will carry you along and transform you into its image. It already has for many, and perhaps most, American Christians.
And, if you are so inclined, buy the book. At the Wilberforce Weekend conference I attended in the Washington area this past weekend, I received a warm reception from Evangelicals. One man told me that he doesn’t agree with everything I have to say in the book, but he’s grateful that I wrote it, and he’s telling all his friends to read it, because “his is a conversation the church needs to have right now.”
I recently heard from a reader who offered some thoughts about why so many Christians resist the Benedict Option concept in an irrational way (e.g., misconstruing my argument as a way of dismissing it without actually engaging it). In particular, he talked about why there’s so much resistance to the idea that we Christians have a much diminished capacity to effect change through politics in post-Christian America.
This post is already very long, so I won’t quote any more, but I can sum up his message like this: They have no Plan B. He explained that it’s very hard for our side (conservative Christians) to imagine living in a country and a society that is not Christian, or not recoverable for Christianity. Therefore, they double down on the denial of our situation. Trump has to be seen as a tribune of Christian hope, because if not, what do we have? What do we do? Where do we go?
So they continue to “shore up the imperium” (the phrase is MacIntyre’s) because the thought of anything else terrifies them. And it genuinely can be scary. At the Wilberforce conference, the evangelist Ravi Zacharias gave a powerful address, telling the gathered audience that we have entered a time in which society is beyond mere sinfulness (a distortion of the good) and is becoming in fact “evil” — defined by Zacharias as the denial of the foundations we need to understand what sin is, and what goodness is. I agree with him. We Christians have to face facts, and respond to the world as it is, not as it used to be.