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Can the Benedict Option be Secularized and Saved?

Alasdair MacIntyre called for “a new, and very different St Benedict.” Rod Dreher takes this quite literally presenting Benedict’s Rule as something like a Platonic idea to serve as a guidepost in our secular age. But this idea is paradoxical: to make the Rule available to average people living outside of the monastery walls it must be secularized.

Benedict’s Rule outlines a mode of life that unifies all of its disparate spheres, of work, community, and education, among others. But modern life lacks this unity and for many people it is unattainable primarily because they lack the resources, i.e., employment, leisure time, financing, healthcare, skills, etc., needed to meet their needs or the needs of their family members. As such, adapting the Rule to modern life requires engaging in a wide range of secular activities, including everything from social entrepreneurship, local political organizing, and political action at the national level designed to ensure that families and local communities have the resources that they need

Although Dreher’s The Benedict Option offers a number of important suggestions – about education, religious liberty, and the formation of community within churches and parishes – readers are left to grapple with many of the most important questions. For instance, how can someone who is chronically unemployed or underemployed live the Benedict Option? What relevance does the Rule have to someone working multiple jobs to make ends meet, with little-to-no free time? Or to the person who has been forced to relocate multiple times to find work? How important are current debates about religious liberty to someone who lacks health insurance? These questions, and others like them, seem to be at least as relevant to any attempt to outline a form of life that gives glory to God as those that are raised by The Benedict Option.

The Benedict Option Lived

In the beginning of the book, Dreher offers, what might be termed, a conservative Christian reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Where MacIntyre made passing reference to Saint Benedict, Dreher – through a reading of the Rule and a detailed portrait of life in the Benedictine Monastery in Norcia – offers a powerful vision of communal life centered upon shared goods and cooperative social relations. In doing this he gives flesh to MacIntyre’s brief reference, illustrating the qualities that MacIntyre must have appreciated in the Benedictines, qualities that make for a striking contrast with today’s atomistic social relations.

Dreher goes beyond MacIntyre, arguing that what matters today is the preservation of Christianity in the face of the contemporary secularism. But it seems incredible to suggest that preserving or establishing a Christian culture – even if only within the confines a Benedict Option community – could somehow avoid considering such basic questions about human needs. As Irenaeus said, gloria Dei est vivens homo – typically paraphrased as the Glory of God is man fully alive. What is lacking in The Benedict Option, and what is needed, is a holistic vision of human flourishing that contextualize Dreher’s concerns with secularism. Otherwise Benedict’s Rule will only be relevant to those who are relatively well-off.

Dreher discuses “anti-political” politics and religious liberty at length. This account hesitantly points toward a post-communitarian politics. What I mean by this is that it points toward a type of politics that treats the state as a bureaucratic institution to be configured in whatever manner best promotes the common good of local communities and associations. In doing this, Dreher moves closer to MacIntyre’s own position on the state, which is often mistakenly equated with quietism (see Elizabeth Bruenig for a recent example of this mistake). Instead MacIntyre has favored a range of federal and state-level political programs, things like universal basic income, school vouchers, congressional reform, and legislation to support those with disabilities.

Where MacIntyre acknowledges that local communities depend upon public goods provided by the state, Dreher focuses myopically on one public good, religious liberty. One wonders, how much does religious liberty really matter to someone who is unemployed and lacking healthcare? Dreher ought to expand his vision; Benedict Option communities require a robust state and federal politics aimed at securing all of the conditions needed for local communities to thrive.

While Dreher’s discussion of education raises serious concerns that cannot be ignored by any parent, it is unclear how Dreher’s proposals – the founding of classical schools or homeschooling – can be implemented by the vast majority of people, who are lacking time and financial resources for either suggestion. Again this points to a broader, more radical vision of local community where these needs can be better addressed as well as toward political efforts.

The Benedict Option Applied

Similarly, there are two primary questions concerning work that must be addressed by anyone attempting to implement Benedict’s Rule in secular life. The first is how can unemployment and underemployment be overcome. The second concerns the question of how work in the secular world can approximate the Benedictine ideal, where work is an expression of one’s commitment to God and community, where the former and the latter are intermingled in work and not separated. Both of these questions point toward political engagement to ensure sensible economic policies as well as more radical efforts, such as social entrepreneurship and the formation of local cooperatives, to meet communal employment needs and promote meaningful work. Since economic relationships have profound effects on community structure, these questions cannot be avoided.

The failure to address fundamental questions about how the Rule is to be implemented in secular life is illustrated in a chapter titled “The Idea of a Christian Village.” Here Dreher first considers the Tipi Loschi, a large Catholic intentional community in Italy that runs a school and several cooperatives. Immediately following this he discusses Leah Libresco’s efforts to organize “Benedict Option events,” which we grasp, are Christian social gatherings. The contrast between these two types of “Benedict Option” is striking and illustrative of the ambiguity that runs through the book.

The problem is not Libresco’s events; rather it is the fact that it is hard to see how such events could possibly be illustrative of the Benedict Option. And if they are, the danger is that Dreher’s radical vision of Christian community will become something as modest as dinner and a (Christian) movie. If Benedict’s Rule offers political insights for contemporary Christians, we need to understand how one can move from first staging social gatherings, to later more radically implementing the Rule in way that promotes the common good of local communities.

Zizek argues that in modernity,

Religion has two possible roles: therapeutic or critical. It either helps individuals to function better in the existing order, or it tries to assert itself as a critical agency articulating what is wrong with this order as such, a space for the voices of discontent.

Deher clearly rejects the therapeutic view of religion, employing the notion of moralistic therapeutic deism to describe the self-centered ‘”theology” increasingly prominent among young people in the United States. Just as clearly, he views orthodox Christianity as offering a radical critique of contemporary culture and politics. But behind the ambiguous nature of the Benedict Option – encompassing both intentional communities and Christian social gatherings – and the failure to address the most difficult questions surrounding the preservation of communities, a bigger danger lurks. Ultimately, The Benediction Option may serve a primarily therapeutic role, reassuring readers, primarily conservative Christians, that they are part of the in-group that fully recognizes the bankruptcy of the secular world, all the while having little practical impact.

Concluding Thoughts

I will leave the rest of the book to readers and merely note one final conclusion. In The Benedict Option, Dreher speaks frequently of “small ‘o’ orthodoxy” but it is clear that this is synonymous with a very distinctive conservative approach to the Christian tradition. It seems beyond dispute that many people who are committed to orthodoxy fall outside the scope of the intended audience of The Benedict Option. Progressive Christianity is dismissed with little thought or discrimination but surely the matter is more complicated than this. Are we really to believe that all Progressive Christians were (or are) heretics? And if they are not, how do they relate to the Benedict Option?

Moving forward Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option, paradoxically, need to learn how the Benedict Option can become more secular, since communities are necessarily secular in many of their functions. This will involve answering questions concerning the goals of a post-communitarian politics, the needs of communities that are currently unmet, and, it seems beyond dispute, learning from Progressive Christians about how to engage with (and how not to engage with) the secular world.

Finally, the biggest gap in The Benedict Option is the lack of engagement with Pope Francis, who Dreher seems to view as a subversive figure who is a threat to orthodoxy. This is unfortunate, since Francis is quite clearly attempting to address many of the problems concerning work, economics, and community that are not adequately addressed in The Benedict Option. Dreher’s vision would be significantly stronger if he critically engaged with Francis, and other perspectives similar to that of the Argentine pope’s.

Despite these criticisms, Dreher has done us all great service by enabling us to more critically understand contemporary culture, and especially its corrosive impact on traditional Christian beliefs and practices. He has also illustrated how the Rule of St Benedict offers an important guide in efforts to overcome the atomization of life that is all too prevalent in the contemporary world. I look forward to further developments in the discussion surrounding the Benedict Option.

 

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  • John Shepherd

    Yes. I feel something of the same frustration after reading the book and even hearing Dreher talk in public about The Benedict Option. I totally agree with what Dreher is saying and even with his basic prescription. However, I was hoping that in the book he would devote more time to describing some of the specific models that he feels are representative of his concept of a Benedict Option “community”. I was disappointed at this lack of detail.

    I understand why Dreher would want to avoid getting prescriptive about The Benedict Option (he’s getting enough flak as it is!) but you raise some very good points. Who has the time or money to travel around the country (or world!) and study how other communities “do it”?! On the other hand there are enough examples already of people who are “doing it” that I have to believe that it IS possible, somehow.

  • Mike McKeating

    I terms of the lack of concrete examples, I think he should have looked at and discussed some of the Covenant Communities in this country, such as the Mother of God in Gaithersburg, MD., the Community of God’s Love in Steubenville, OH, the Word of God in Ann Arbor, MI, the City of the Lord i Phoenix, AZ, and others. Also, internationally, the Emmanuel Community in France, the Community of the Beatitudes in France, the Sion Community in England, etc. There are a plethora of communities that have been trying to do this for several decades now. I would like to see a discussion of how close they are to the Benedict Option, and how they are doing.