Dr. Anne Hendershott recently sorted through some of Pew data, helpfully noting what it does and does not reveal about the changing fortunes of Christian churches in America, and how those “revelations” differ in some places from the media spin placed on the data. In response to that data, and in particular response to the rise of same-sex marriage, some Christians are (as the psychologists would say) “catastrophizing” about their future, imagining that fresh horrors await us in only a few years, and we had better begin now on planning a sustained response together.
Few have made more hay out of these fears than the ex-Catholic writer Rod Dreher, who became Eastern Orthodox in 2006. I’ve been reading Dreher for years, and he can often be interesting. Several years ago, I interviewed him about his bookThe Little Way of Ruthie Lemming, and since then still regularly check his blog.
His latest obsession, the so-called Benedict option, is held up as an inchoate answer to the ostensible threats posed to orthodox Christianity by the rise of (inter alia) same-sex marriage and the apparent decline of Christian moral practices in the US. The “Benedict option” would seem to be a catch-all phrase for what is in essence nothing more than the practice of the Christian faith in a way that is ascetically serious, liturgically resplendent, doctrinally orthodox, and tightly knit into the fabric of local communities.
Such a “Benedict option” is an idea I have myself been thinking about off and on for twenty years—the same period of time as I have been reading Alasdair MacIntyre, on whom I wrote my Master’s thesis, and from whose landmark book After Virtue Dreher has drawn this notion of a Benedict option. There is much in the notion that bears thinking about, and Dreher has done us a service by raising some of these questions. I am, in some respects, sympathetic to such a community as Dreher, however vaguely, seems to describe it. In fact, if I could overcome my horror of autobiography and share in Dreher’s voluble and profitable talent for it, I would recount my years between 1994 and 2007 in which I lived in several such communities. But as MacIntyre has said, “in general autobiography is a treacherous form. I think it should only be written by people who are geniuses at autobiography….I think nothing is more tiresome than the kind of tedious self-preoccupation in most autobiographies” (“Interview with Alasdair MacIntyre,” Kinesis 20 : 43-44).
For all the intriguing ideas that seem to huddle under the capacious canopy of the “Benedict option,” and for all my sympathy towards it, there are three lingering doubts about it: first, there is not nearly as much here as some might think—that is, the “Benedict option” is in some ways so vague as to be a cipher suitable, one reluctantly fears, for little more than hawking another book. But in fact such a book has long since been written: Jonathan R. Wilson’s Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World: Lessons for the Church from MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Trinity Press, 1997). It is a very short book I read immediately upon publication and it contains virtually all the elements Dreher has hinted at in his promotion of the Benedict option. One would be hard-pressed to see why another book would be needed.
Second, to the extent that the “Benedict option” can be defined at all, I see very little that is new here. That is to say, there are already communities—long-established ones—that seem to be doing much of what Dreher, so far as one may discern, thinks Benedict option communities should do. On this list I include a variety of communities I have some knowledge or experience of, all of them Catholic (e.g., the Toronto Oratory, Madonna House in the Ottawa Valley, the City of the Lord in Phoenix, New Hope Farm in Iowa—and several other related Catholic Worker houses).
Third, as a scholar of MacIntyre (having written the thesis and several more recent essays on his works, and having used his books in undergraduate and graduate courses over the years), I think Dreher has extracted one phrase and ignored the strong caution that preceded it, as well as the rest of MacIntyre’s vast corpus, which offers crucial insights. I shall say no more about my first two points because I blame nobody for trying to make a living from writing, and because I abhor Catholic triumphalism just as much as Orthodox triumphalism. Let me instead deal with my third point.
It surely bears noting that apart from that closing paragraph of After Virtue that Dreher invests with so much meaning, St. Benedict is never mentioned again in MacIntyre’s subsequent work. After Virtue is part of a so-called trilogy; but neither in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988) nor in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) does anything like a Benedict option show up again; Benedict, in fact, features nowhere—not even in passing. This is also true for more recent works, including Dependent Rational Animals; Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922; and God, Philosophy, Universities. My point in citing all this literature is a simple one: MacIntyre’s Benedictine peroration to After Virtue is certainly a ringing one (one of his many memorable phrases), but we make too much of it if we see him as prescribing an entire program for religious renewal or civilizational rescue. St. Benedict and companions, as MacIntyre avers (“often not recognizing fully what they were doing”: After Virtue, 263), would never have described their enterprise in such terms.
When it comes to the changing fortunes of Christianity, it is far more important to dwell not on a single line of MacIntyre but instead on his important but often overlooked 1967 book, Secularization and Moral Change. There he goes into great detail looking at the changing face of Christianity in England as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and then, having laid out all the evidence for his thesis on English secularization and the consequent changes in Christian ecclesial practice and theology, next spends considerable time noting how the situation of America is quite different, and in many respects puts into question (a favorite MacIntyrean formulation) much of what he has spent the first two-thirds of the book arguing. (One of the most admirable things about MacIntyre is his genuine openness to being corrected by others, his awareness of what he does not know, and his willingness to admit where his arguments need more work or evidence—and then to do that work to find the evidence, or else to change his mind.)
MacIntyre shows in considerable detail how the collapse of Christianity in England was the result of two processes I have not seen Dreher grapple with in any serious way: “the view that moral and social change is consequent upon the decline of religion is false, and the view therefore that such change could be arrested or could have been arrested by halting the decline of religion is also false. I have argued instead that the causes of moral and social change have lain in the same urbanization and industrialization that produce secularization” (p. 58; my emphasis).
There are two other crucial insights from MacIntyre that must be considered if anything like a Benedict option were ever to be intellectually coherent and practically sustainable. First, MacIntyre spends considerable time in recent essays on the role of sustained conflict in communities. Those of us who have some familiarity with failed attempts at Benedict-option-like communities know how profoundly pathological they can be when it comes to dealing openly, honestly, truthfully, and charitably with internal conflict.
In his essay “Toleration and the Goods of Conflict,” reprinted in the 2002 Cambridge University Press collection, Ethics and Politics (vol. 2), MacIntyre lays out key insights into how communities handle conflict and what they are prepared to tolerate, and how both conflict and tolerance are policed in the modern state when communities with rival conceptions of the good are at loggerheads. The conclusion to this essay issues in another strongly cautionary note that again Dreher would do well to contemplate. MacIntyre, after laying out how communities can sustain themselves in the face of the modern state and market, notes that local communities face formidable challenges they have scarcely begun to think about. If any such communities today are indeed going to have a chance at survival in the teeth of what, in a 1994 essay (“A Partial Reply to My Critics”) he memorably called that “dangerous and unmanageable institution” of the modern nation-state, then local communities must undertake a “rethinking even further [of] some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”
Nor do I. This is a profoundly sobering conclusion. It must necessarily give us all considerable pause. If MacIntyre—widely hailed as the greatest moral philosopher of the last half-century—is uncertain how to proceed, what effrontery would it be for the rest of us to open our mouths further? Will we not in so doing fall under the disapproving censure attributed to another philosopher, Boethius, who apparently wrote: “si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses” (usually rendered as “if you’d kept your silence, you would have stayed a philosopher” but the comedic character Sir Humphrey Appleby’s translation is unimprovable: “If you’d kept your mouth shut we might have thought you were clever”!)?
Rather than chattering about books that have not been read properly, or entering endless ecstasies about oysters and French confitures, now is the time for would-be Benedictines to consider some wise counsel I heard MacIntyre offer in 2009 when I attended the launch of his book God, Philosophy, Universities at Notre Dame, which was held in conjunction with the celebration of his 80th birthday that year. Responding to a question as to why it was that so much of his writing in the 1970s and early 1980s had not issued in the form of a book, MacIntyre noted that he didn’t have much to say then, and thought it best to keep silent—even if, as he put it in his 2006 book on Edith Stein, “falling silent is generally not something that philosophers are good at and perhaps it should be done more often.”
Stein fell silent initially because she did not then have the answers she was seeking as a philosopher who studied under Husserl and worked with Heidegger. Some—but only some—of those answers came when she converted to Catholicism. Later, in 1942, she was finally silenced by the Nazis who murdered her in Auschwitz, leaving us, MacIntyre says, with an incomplete project. And yet, as he concludes his book about her, “it is Stein’s questions that I am praising rather than her answers,” which is something I think all us can do as well.
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