Whitefield Academy Blog
The Benedict Option: A Review
In his 1981 work, After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre described what he took to be the besetting affliction of modern man:
[Each] of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic or bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships. Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, … we find no way open to us to do so except by directing toward others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case. The incoherence of our attitudes and our experiences arises from the incoherent conceptual schema which we have inherited.
The Scottish author George MacDonald made the same basic point when he noted, “The one principle of hell is – ‘I am my own’.”
In the American context, the principle of autonomy has been elevated to among our most cherished cultural totems. Indeed, as sociologist Christian Smith has amply demonstrated, even conservative expressions of Christianity, as now formulated, convey a spare and denuded faith to the next generation. Our children receive a tepid and individualistic Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that lacks staying power in a world of which even 75 years ago, T.S. Eliot said, “paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.”
One of the keenest diagnosticians of our present discontent is Rod Dreher, who in his recently published book, The Benedict Option, takes up the charge of novelist Flannery O’Connor who noted that in writing to an audience that is insensitive to the realities of their own condition, “you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw larger and startling figures.” Dreher’s work, while no mere Jeremiad, draws a stark picture of the challenges facing traditional Christians in America, especially as it relates to transmitting the faith to our children. In Chapters covering education (Dreher is a strong advocate for the classical Christian school), politics, sex, the Church, work, technology and more, Dreher asks his reader to consider what the Christian life might look like if reimagined using Benedict of Nursia as our guide.
The work’s title and even its cover (a beautiful photo of the Mt. St. Michel at twilight), have led some to believe that Dreher is primarily interested in a renewed monasticism. This is a mistaken reading of his project. Dreher is instead engaging with MacIntyre, who argued that at least some helpful parallels can be drawn between our day and the fall of Rome. A critical moment for the west occurred when the best and brightest abandoned the primacy of efforts to shore up the Roman imperium; shifting their focus to, “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” Benedict was a key figure in this effort and MacIntyre provocatively suggests, “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.”
Creatively playing on this theme, Dreher asks us to consider the possibility that what is most needed now it not a single new Benedict figure. Rather we require a plurality of “Benedicts” constituted in a myriad of local communities of “little o” orthodox Christians living out their lives with both sobriety and joy. What Dreher calls us to, is the exercise of something akin to Russell Kirk’s “moral imagination” — a faculty of both the heart and mind by which we, in community, come to apprehend the ways in which we might live lives of dignity before God under the peculiar circumstances of our modern age. What Dreher reminds us of, is that while no exercise of the “moral imagination” can rely purely on a recapitulation of the past, it also can’t succeed without some recourse to ancient wisdom.
In Chapter 3, which I believe to be the heart of The Benedict Option, Dreher lays out seven single word principles drawn from Benedict’s rules for the communities he founded. They are order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. What Dreher does most helpfully is invite us to think deeply and together about how these principles might be wisely applied to the lives of our families, churches, schools and other associations in which we most intimately build community and transmit values. Part of the balance of The Benedict Option itself is that it counsels hard and urgent change, while calling us to seek that change largely where we are. Not in fleeing to the hills, but in better loving the place and people that God has given us as the setting for our lives as sojourners and exiles.
In his Chapter “Education as Christian Formation”, Dreher has this to say:
For serious Christian parents, education cannot be simply a matter of building their child’s transcript to boost her chance of making it into the Ivy League. If this is the model your family follows (perhaps with a sprinkle of God on top for seasoning) you will be hard-pressed to form countercultural Christian adults capable of resisting the disorders of our time. The kind of schooling that will build a more resilient, mature faith in young Christians is one that imbues them with a sense of order, meaning and continuity. It’s one that integrates knowledge into a harmonious vision of the whole, one that unites all things that are, were, and ever will be in God.
Like much in The Benedict Option, there is a great deal to consider here, both in the premise and its outworking. But in a time when the drum beat message, “I am my own” has come to rule the day, Dreher’s book serves as a bold reminder that giving our closest attention to exactly such questions is now a matter of utmost urgency.