If, by now, you haven’t heard of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, then you likely are living the Benedict Option-hermit phase. To say that the book has generated conversation is an understatement. The Benedict Option is the fruit of Dreher’s writing and thinking—often out loud and in real time on his blog—about what Christian engagement should look like in a post-Christian and increasingly hostile world. Dreher’s premise is that “continued full participation in mainstream society” is no longer “possible” for those who desire to live a life seeking Christ. There is something about this cultural moment that requires rethinking how we as Christians engage and interact with the world. Business as usual is no longer possible.
In Dreher’s account, Christian beliefs have not just become alien but toxic. This is most acutely felt with respect to Christian anthropology and metaphysics. Dreher writes, “Christian beliefs about the sexual complementary of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice—and in a growing number of cases, punishable.” America has been hit by a tsunami, a flood that threatens to drown traditional Christianity. Dreher suggests that we stop fighting the world on its terms. “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.”
The first chapters of The Benedict Option are largely diagnostic, an assessment of where we are and how we got here. Contrary to critics of the book, Dreher’s diagnosis is not overly pessimistic or declinist (nor is it, as one virtue-signaling academic claimed, a lament for a white-Christianity that is no longer), but realistic. Indeed, while I can understand criticisms of Dreher’s proposal for how we ought to respond to the barbarism that we face, for the life of me, I cannot understand how people can reject his assessment of the world as it is now. We might not like it, but the portrait Dreher paints seems largely accurate. The confusion we face regarding sexuality and gender assails us each day. Pope Francis has spoken forcefully against gender ideology as a form of colonization. But the crisis we face isn’t ultimately about sex or freedom. Ultimately, it is a crisis of anthropology.
We’ve forgotten what nature is—the sheer givenness of nature and its intrinsic meaning and intelligibility. As Pope Benedict stated beautifully in his last Christmas address to the Curia as Pope:
[T]he attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. . . . [S]ex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society. The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.
Thus, Dreher’s book isn’t hysterical about the post-Obergefell world, but rather notes that landmark case as an obvious sign of how far we’ve strayed from a proper understanding of nature. It is a symptom of how far we’ve strayed from the intrinsic meaning of things. Implicit in Dreher’s critique—and I wish it were more explicit—is that Obergefell isn’t so much a rejection of the American Founding but, rather, like abortion on demand, a flowering of that very project—the carrying out of its logic. For a long time, Christians have made peace with American liberalism. Dreher’s point is that such peace can no longer be maintained. And, indeed, the logic of this liberalism if not addressed in some sort of radical way will grind us down and spit us out.
So what is to be done? It is to this question that Dreher addresses the bulk of his book. None of what Dreher proposes is new but he proposes it with his typical verve and ability to weave a narrative. Dreher plumbs the riches of the Christian tradition, especially the Rule of St. Benedict—St. Benedict being the inspiration for the title—for practical tips on how live a vibrant faith in what he describes, using Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase, as “liquid modernity.”
Dreher begins by laying out a rule for modern living that consists among other things of order, prayer, asceticism, work, and stability. These Benedictine pillars are a solid rock upon which a Christian can build his life in this world. I felt particularly convicted by the short section on work. Dreher quotes Fr. Basil, a Benedictine of Norcia, stating: “We are called to love. . . . Work is a concerted way of showing our love for others. In that sense, it can become very transformative—and very prayerful too.” In the long slog of billable hours, I was reminded of the redemptive aspect of this work, if I only will give it over to Christ with love. Again, this is not new, but it points to the integrated life toward which Dreher is attempting to lead his readers. Dreher has lived the fragmentation of modern life and is trying to offer a path out of that confusion and chaos.
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.
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.”
Indeed, while Dreher is sympathetic to the urge to “retreat behind defensive lines,” he rejects that path. Certainly, “reasonable boundaries” are necessary but Dreher agrees with a Benedictine month that “Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness.” In other words, as Brother Ignatius of Norcia says “you have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.” In short, the “way of Saint Benedict is not an escape from the real world but a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.”
This practical advice is eminently reasonable. It is also eminently Benedictine in the sense of Pope Emeritus Benedict, the second Benedict, after St. Benedict, who inspired Dreher’s work. Curiously, Pope Benedict is only quoted a handful of times in the book. That is a shame because Pope Benedict offers a deep theological foundation for the practical proposals that Dreher puts forward. Indeed, time and time again in reading The Benedict Option, I was brought back to Joseph Ratzinger’s/Pope Benedict’s vision for living our faith in our post-modern world.
There is a paradox at the heart of Pope Benedict’s work that many misunderstand. He has spoken of a smaller, weaker, but perhaps more faithful Church. For instance, in the late 1960s he was already predicting “a Church that has lost much,” that would “become small” and would “have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” This isn’t a winnowing to be wished for, but a reality expected as a bureaucratic Church loses its saltiness. At the same time, the future Pope saw a potential fruitfulness in this smaller Church. First, the Church “will find her essence afresh” and “recognize her true center.” This will liberate the Church. A “great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.” And in a world that sounds much like the world we now live in, Ratzinger writes that men and women “will find themselves unspeakably lonely” and will experience the “whole horror of their poverty.” But in this desolate, lonely world, will be the Church. These men and women “will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”
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 ‘unworldy.’” 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.
Dreher is most forceful when he writes regarding the form this detachment from the world should take in the spheres of education and technology. With respect to the former, Dreher writes:
Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is. In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals—whatever those goals might be. The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.
This, however, is a flawed logic. “In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal of the soul is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity. To prepare for eternal life, we must join ourselves to Christ and strive to live in harmony with the divine will.” A true education must educate the whole person toward this end. It must be ordered to wisdom, truth, goodness, and beauty. Unfortunately, as one of Dreher’s subjects states, “[e]ven many Christian parents who do not accept the political correctness of today’s schools have completely bought into the utilitarian concept of education.” One need only think of the Catholic schools—and the parents who support them—that chase after the latest fads such as the common core and iPads in every classroom but where religion is merely a dollop added on for flavor. Dreher wants to rouse us from our slumber and embrace true formation for our children.
With respect to technology, Dreher pushes back on the common but insidious idea—prominent in Christian circles—that technology is merely a neutral tool. As the thinking goes, an iPad is neutral—morally and anthropologically—but it can be used for good or evil. This is a pernicious lie. Dreher quotes Michael Hanby cogently arguing that “before technology becomes an instrument, it is fundamentally a way of regarding the world that contains within itself an understanding of being, nature, and truth.” But all technology has a logic. As David L. Schindler taught me, a cell phone has an interior logic or telos. It is a device created to allow one to speak while doing other things, while not being fully present to others. It is ordered to that goal or end. With a cell phone, I can drive a two ton vehicle in Michigan while conversing with someone in Timbuktu. Yet, by the very nature of the thing, I am probably neither speaking well to my conversation partner nor carefully watching out for the pedestrians by whom I am driving.
Dreher’s point is that we need to be more thoughtful and discerning about technology and realize that it works upon us as much as we use it for our ends. (Note: saying that is not the same thing as rejecting penicillin or the cell phone. It is to suggest that we engage them with more thought and intentionally.) Dreher forcefully concludes that to “the extent the church invites the technological mindset to take up residence within it, the conditions for Christianity will cease to exist.” This is a searing call to conscience for individual Christians and the Church more generally.
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. Indeed, in reading Dreher’s book I recalled St. John Paul II’s words at the close of the Great Jubilee Year 2000:
We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new program”. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This program for all times is our program for the Third Millennium.
If one engages Dreher’s text, one sees that this is exactly what he is saying. Near the end of The Benedict Option Dreher writes:
The Benedict Option is not a technique for reversing the losses, political and otherwise, that Christians have suffered. Nor is it a formula for turning back the clock to an imagined golden age. Still less is it a plan for constructing communities of the pure, cut off from the real world.
To the contrary, the Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life. It is a way of seeing the world and of living in the world that undermines modernity’s big lie: that humans are nothing more than ghosts in a machine, and we are free to adjust its settings in any way we like.
Second, while The Benedict Option talks about the problems with liberal democracy, the critique could be more radical. In some sense, it is unfair to tag Dreher’s book with this criticism as it is more a practical manual on how to undertake practices to counteract the acidic nature of liberalism. Still given that this book is aimed broadly at Christians, many of whom have long accepted the idea of the fundamental compatibility of the American project and Christianity, I think Dreher could have been more forceful on this point.
Third, Dreher’s book falls into the Mere Christianity approach to Christianity. He is speaking broadly to those in the church rather than the Church. There is nothing wrong with speaking to Christians generally. But as I read The Benedict Option I was left asking the question whether the traditional practices and methods Dreher proposes in response to secular post-modernity can simply be grafted onto the various traditions and churches without the Eucharist. Indeed, can Benedictine Christianity exist without the Church? Can a Benedictine Christianity exist without the sacraments, without a traditional liturgy—something the Roman Catholic Church dearly needs to reclaim and which it can learn much from the East—and without the rich philosophical and theological anthropology of the Catholic Church—something our Orthodox brethren could learn from the West? I don’t think it can.
Those criticisms and questions aside, I cannot recommend Dreher’s book highly enough. It is a great starting point for the hard and necessary work we need to do to seek God in all things. We must embrace the practices Dreher proposes in order to allow Christ’s light to flow through us and help to restore all His creation back to Him.