The ”Benedict Option” now receiving so much attention is rather different from anything pursued by Benedict of Nursia. Even so, there’s a family resemblance, since both have to do with closeness to God and a better way of life in a community at least somewhat separated from the corruptions and distractions of the world.
That’s not surprising. Some such aspiration is intrinsic to Christianity, although the specifics and degree of removal vary. Christians are Christian within the Church, the Church aspires to be holy, and the Bible notes a resulting need for separation that is sometimes expressed rather sharply:
Know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? (James 4:4)
Bear not the yoke with unbelievers … Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing. (II Corinthians 6:14-17)
More generally, something of the sort is part of how almost everyone lives. Our way of life grows out of our understanding of what matters and how the world is, so we naturally try to promote cooperation and reduce misunderstanding and disputes by associating with people who have similar habits, attitudes, and beliefs.
People with similar interests form clubs. Scholars join together in colleges and universities. A large city is likely to have an Italian neighborhood, a Chinese neighborhood, and a hipster neighborhood. And the British and American press ran a number of sympathetic pieces in recent months on the plight of people who found they had neighbors who voted for Brexit or Trump. How could intelligent and sensitive human beings feel at home in such a setting? Some were thinking of moving elsewhere.
So it is entirely natural for religious groups to set themselves off in some way. That begins without special intention or effort. People find they like some things and don’t like others, so they pursue the former and avoid the latter. They think the schools are horrible and look for something else for their children. They don’t like the spectacles in the Colosseum or on TV, so they go square dancing instead.
As they do those things they naturally link up with like-minded people who feel the same and make similar choices. If they like something they join a fan club. If they decide it is the key to getting their lives in order they form a support group. The more humanly important the object of their interest, the more such choices come to determine their overall way of life and network of social connections.
As time passes standards and boundaries develop that mark such people off as a separate community. They become aware of themselves as such and develop ways of discussing common concerns and pursuing common interests. Others come to view them as a separate group, and they acquire a certain position in the world, especially in a somewhat fluid society like our own. Since most people want to avoid conflict and unpleasantness, the things they care about are likely to end up being treated with respect, at least if their numbers are substantial. (Or sometimes not, since people are contentious.)
All that is simply the natural consequence of people adopting an ideal and way of life. It’s the way, for example, that monastic communities developed out of collections of individuals who independently decided to abandon worldly ties and pursue a more holy life.
How could such things not happen? And why would anyone want to prevent them? They express the freedom, community, and autonomy everyone praises today. They’re a realization of subsidiarity, the principle of making life more participatory by carrying it on as locally as possible. If people want to celebrate diversity, as they now claim, they should celebrate when some go off to follow their bliss in company with others. That should especially be so when the community is always open for other like-minded people to join.
But if it’s all so obviously good, normal, necessary, and Christian, why does the idea of a generalized ”Benedict Option”—which basically means recognizing that Christians become more separate as the world becomes less Christian—drive some people up the wall?
To some extent it’s a matter of appearances. ”Benedict” sounds exotic and antiquarian, while ”Option” sounds optional. And Rod Dreher is also known for ”crunchy conservatism,” which sounds like a post-hippy lifestyle choice. Put it all together and it sounds—misleadingly—like a self-indulgent utopian fantasy for bored middle-class people.
More fundamentally, though, the whole proposal goes with the idea that Western life today is fundamentally misdirected: our ideals are degraded, our way of life increasingly nonfunctional, our experts ignorant of the things they most should know. Why should people who think the modern world is basically progressing in the right direction approve?
The people who lead public discussion believe that only recently have we begun to break free of the horrors of the past, for example by recognizing novel human rights. That being so, they are naturally appalled by fundamental rejection of current tendencies, especially when that rejection might affect actual social life. They find it misguided, dangerous, and presumptively ill-intentioned.
From their perspective they have a point. The Benedict Option wants strong local community that’s somehow set off from the world around it. From a progressive standpoint that’s a problem, because it means boundaries and exclusion. It wants to be traditionally Christian, so by current standards it will be sexist and homophobic. And as a community based on commitments, commonalities, and close personal connections, it’s going to be far from inclusive in other respects.
Many have said that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. That’s a stubborn tendency in even the most liberal denominations, so much so that some liberals have begun to think it’s connected to positive things about congregational life. It’s doubtful that such reflections will lead to significant rethinking of a principle that’s as fundamental as inclusiveness to current liberal thought, but they are worth pursuing nonetheless.
In concept cohesive local communities that are fundamental to the day-to-day lives of their members might be held together simply by a common faith that is equally available to all. That’s what held the earliest Christians described in Acts 2 together in a sort of primitive communism. Ideally the Benedict Option communities would possess the degree of holiness that would make something similar possible. As a practical matter, though, such a situation wouldn’t last very long, any more than it did for the early Christians. Other influences would be needed to hold communities together and keep them functional.
Monastic vows impose a discipline that can help overcome human contrariness and disagreements, but they’re not for everyone and don’t suit family life. And religious cults rely on means that seem inadvisable, such as extreme isolation and the mystique of the leader.
But what then? Aristotle tells us that human communities naturally arise out of the primordial community of the family, so what works best for most people are family ties and related connections—blood and marital relationships, ties of friendship, common history and culture, and so on.
So the renewed local communities would not be altogether inclusive or multicultural. Instead, they would tend toward some degree of what progressives would view as a more or less Christianized tribalism. If you want an extreme example of what that can mean, look at the Middle East, where they have cohesive local religious communities that are fundamental to the day-to-day lives of their members, but the tribal aspects often seem to dominate the religious ones.
The comparison isn’t pleasing, but what can be done about it? The development of liberal society, which breaks down the connections and excludes from public life the goods people live by, makes a movement toward particularity inevitable. Life must go on, man is social and religious, and if the only way he can live in a community friendly to what he cares about most is to weaken his loyalty toward the public order and turn toward something more particular and local, he will do so.