No Benedict Without Benedictines

By Jeff Guhin
June 9, 2015

Liberals and communitarians both want humans to flourish. And while just about any political group is diverse, you can tell the difference between a liberal and a communitarian by how they resolve the tension between person and community, autonomy and rootedness. For most of us, even self-described communitarians like Rod Dreher, the choice is easy. When we’re forced to choose, we’d usually rather be autonomous individuals than rooted in communities. We are all liberals now.

The nature of that choice itself shows the degree to which liberalism has won. The sort of gemeinschaft for which communitarians yearn was marked by the absence of choice. People grew up amidst practices and boundaries that helped them habituate certain implicit understandings of what is good and true. We just don’t have that anymore, except to the degree that liberalism itself is what Charles Taylor calls a moral imaginary, a way of perceiving the world that comes to feel obviously and necessarily true. Even intentional submission to another’s power—described by anti-liberal leftists like Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood—is ultimately rooted in a mature adult’s autonomous decision to do so. You might choose a more serious community—as Dreher himself has done—but you do so as a liberal who could also leave that community (even if you couldn’t leave liberalism).

This discussion points to Aristotle’s conception of the habituation of moral order: through the resurgence of Aristotelian virtue ethics we have Alasdair MacIntyre’s “Benedict Option” as well as the work of Asad, alongside the many social scientific critiques of liberalism and secularism he’s influenced (including the work of Saba Mahmood). Martha Nussbaum’s work is also a part of this Aristotelian turn, and her emphasis on human capabilities seeks to find a middle way between (a) the sorts of flourishing that can only happen within communities and (b) the moral urgency modern liberals feel to help people (especially women) get out of systems they (or we) find oppressive. The problem with gemeinschaft is that it was very often quite oppressive and also very hard to escape. We thought we had solved that problem by developing this thing called liberalism.

Of course, liberalism didn’t show up just because it was a better idea than what preexisted it. There were all sorts of material and economic conditions that made liberalism seem easier and more obvious, one being an increasing awareness of diversity and difference (spurned in no small part by Europe’s religious wars). Liberals recognized that difference will continue to exist, subverting their deepest desires for a perfect society to remain alive in an adequate one.

So where does the Benedict Option fit into all this? The idea bears an interesting resemblance to something queer theorist Michael Warner has called “counterpublics.” There are affinities and possible genealogical commonalities between the Benedict Option and such leftist utopian ambitions, rooted more recently in MacIntyre's own leftist past and the early Marx’s writings on alienation. Common to both is not merely maintaining what we have lost but also actively imagining new ways we could live, new practices and cultures that could have utopian implications. Even for conservatives who want only to bring back what has been lost, all we really ever have is our imaginings of new ways we can live: we are forced to practice the old in new worlds and in the time of new days. So the question becomes to what degree communities proposed in either case interact with others, to what degree they are dependent on the largesse and patronage of those who do not share all of their beliefs, and to what degree they feel compelled to proselytize with or without (some) state power. The problem is not actually new, and neither is the solution. But, as I described earlier, liberalism is hard to shake.

Most importantly, it's just difficult to understand how a Benedict-style retreat could happen for conservative religious people in America, even to the level of Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews often live in close proximity to each other and are able to create a world that is much more coherent through common moral practices, moral vocabulary, and moral boundaries. That was more or less the case for the early Fundamentalist revolt as well. Some people (like Damon Linker) talk about a revolt of conservative Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics; but it's just not possible for any of these folks to retreat in the way that the Amish and conservative Jews retreat today or as Protestants did after Scopes (though substantial debate remains regarding why and even if there was ever actual Christian quietism).

Any of these conservative religious groups—Jews and Evangelicals, Muslims and Catholics—are simply too  integrated into society, exercising in secular gyms, working in secular offices, shopping at secular stores. Take Evangelicals for instance. Yes, there are the legendary megachurches that have Christian coffee, but that's not as common as it might be advertised. And yes there are Evangelical media—songs, movies, books, etc.—but for the vast majority of even the most devout, their media consumption is a big mixture.  The same is true for Catholics, who, by most measures, are even more integrated than Protestants. Conservative Jews and Muslims are more complicated cases, but the sociological logic is the same. These folks might want to be in the world but not of it, but it's hard for them to imagine ever really being out of it. Radical social change does happen, of course, and there are obviously examples of “Benedicts” all the time (look at all the conservative Christian homeschoolers, which I assume might increase). But it would be surprising if this movement becomes very large at all. Not least, a large retreat would cause the alliances of the religious right to break down: they'd have to because the intellectual and cultural coherence necessary for a Benedictine counterpublic is so much higher than what is necessary for a political alliance against a common enemy.

Much conservative discussion of the Benedict Option forgets that the ultimate goal for MacIntyre is a community rooted in tradition driven by practices. That's only possible with a lot of communal interactions and common living. It’s obviously possible (indeed, intended) in a Benedictine monastery. It's also possible in a kibbutz and a collective household and all sorts of other leftist ways of living. But the problem for many conservative Americans is that they don't see the necessity of this communal experience part.

So let’s say we just ignore the problems of a robust moral order, especially the possibility that someone will be born, seek refuge within, or just wake up slightly differently in an intentional community whose precise commitments dramatically limit her ability to flourish. Even with those very large brackets, we still have the institutional challenge that intentional communities require a lot more work than most even sympathetic conservatives are willing or able to give. It’s not a dichotomy of course. Folks can become more communitarian. And true Benedict options can happen too. But they need Benedictines. And in any liberal order, real Benedictines are hard to find.