Ron Dreher’s phrase The Benedict Option comes from the Aladstair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue in which he argues that the common moral civilization has definitively collapsed. MacIntyre compares this situation to that of the Roman Empire dissolving into the Dark Ages: the former civilization is going or gone and for the foreseeable future things are only going to get worse.
In that moment of history Benedict of Nursia started his monastery. By cutting ties with the disappearing Roman world, Benedict actually preserved the best of it, and laid the foundations of the Medieval Civilization that would flourish centuries after his death.
MacIntyre argues we need a “new Benedict”, not so much a man as a movement that creates a space where humane values can flourish in spite of the encroaching darkness of barbarism.
What are the forms of this barbarism?
First, I think, is blindness to transcendent values. A surprising number of people nowadays are blind and deaf to anything spiritual, so they they interpret those values in the crassest, most suspicious way. Concepts like natural law, virtue for its own sake, objective beauty, sin and repentance, inalienable rights, piety or patriotism, are simply lost on some people. All they can manage are idiosyncratic values based on utilitarian calculations which end up changing based on the fads. (Yet they insist on those shifting values with Pharisaical passion!)
Second is the overlegaliszation of society. It seems that everything, even private matters, must be governed by law, with layers of police and bureaucrats. It is a great opportunity for bullies to criminalize every behavior of which they disapprove, and for crooks to make a living.
Third is the dissolution of family life. For most of America’s poor, the government, not the father, fills the role of provider and protector. Men support themselves not by working, but by living with a woman with children (not his own) who are on the government dole. Rich people still get married, but they tend to have few children. The ease of divorce ensures that many of those children are scarred for life. Add to that a constant push to treat the sexes as interchangeable, which leads to emotional exhaustion and cynicism among both men and women.
While the separation of sex, marriage and reproduction has brought a handful of benefits to wealthy white people, it has also brought a swarming host of social pathologies and personal anxieties for everybody else.
The collapse of education in all but a few technical fields might be a fourth area. An economy that pushes people away from skilled labor and towards unskilled or clerical work might be a fifth.
Are these forms of barbarism fatal to our society? Is there really no hope for the contemporary social arrangement and the only thing left to do is check out, salvage what was best, and say good bye to the rest? Personally I don’t know. I have a sentimental, patriotic bent, so I’d rather think not.
Some conservative Christians of an intellectual bent, like Dreher, have been talking about the forms of the “new Benedict” movement: what will it look look, what will it accomplish. In an increasingly crude, pagan, and superficial world, how are Christians to live?
Dreher himself gives examples of Catholic families who chose to live near rural monasteries, letting them plug into the patterns of the old Benedictine experience. America’s Amish community is an example of a group of people explicitly rejecting large swaths of contemporary culture because it does not suit their desire to live in simplicity. The same might be said of some groups of Orthodox Jews.
I might also propose the homeschooling movement as an example of a conscious effort by people to create a parallel culture where a more natural human flourishing is allowed than in the rather artificial and culturally impoverished one of American public schools. Homeschoolers that I’ve known generally form large networks of families that let them share resources, plan big events and make new friends.
But there is with all of these options the temptation to ghettoize: the Amish and Orthodox Jews are notorious for shunning ex-members. Most homeschoolers I’ve known are charming, but some are isolated and weird.
Any group of people that sets itself apart from the mainstream runs the risk of arrogance, self-reference, group-think, and sometimes a cult-mentality forming around a strong leader.
And any ghetto can be destroyed from the outside. The rights of homeschoolers to educate their children without state interference has been affirmed many times in many courts over the last 30 years, but that does not stop state-level teacher’s unions from launching legal efforts against parents who threaten to break their monopoly by pulling kids out of crappy public schools. The Orthodox Jews and Amish are small groups, and so their dissent can be tolerated. But what if the numbers of such people starts to grow?
If one of the signs of the new barbarians is ever growing government and a predilection for bullying, how can a Christian Benedict Option built around formal non-participation hope to survive?