I want to note at the outset that many of Rod Dreher’s suggestions (The Benedict Option) are quite laudable and worth thinking about. This article concentrates on one particular aspect: the acquisition of virtue in the context of American suburban life. Dreher himself mentions the need for proximity and stability. These matters are even more vital than he suggests. Also, it must be said that conservative American Christianity (which seems to be Dreher’s chosen audience) is not the same thing as Christian civilization. American Christianity was itself already a form of barbarism of long standing – not productive of a “civilization.” Indeed, Charles Taylor makes it clear that secular modernity (Dreher’s and MacIntyre’s true “barbarians”) is the product of secularized Protestantism. If every secular liberal bogeyman disappeared tomorrow and left a pristine conservative America, it would soon reproduce them. They are its natural-born children. In an interview with Dreher, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary, stated: “I do not believe evangelicalism has sufficient resources for a thick enough Christianity to survive either this epoch or much beyond.” My observations should be taken by Orthodox Christians as a call to “thicken up.” For a full account of that interview use this link.
There has been a bit of a sensation surrounding Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. I can think of no book by an Orthodox writer that has had more discussion before it was published! Publishing has only altered the discussion in minor ways, since many reviewers and commenters seem to have plenty of thoughts without the bother of reading the book. It takes little more than a synopsis of his thesis to provoke a response, and the responses generally tell you more about the responders than about the book itself. I have read the book, as well as the major background books on which Dreher bases his thesis. These thoughts should be read with that in mind.
The origin of the Benedict Option (Rod’s creative title for all of this) comes from the final paragraph in Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic, After Virtue (1981). Having analyzed and detailed the collapse of modern society in terms of its ability to produce virtuous people, MacIntyre likens our time to that of post-Roman Western Europe. With the end of empire and the dominance of barbarity, small enclaves of monastics (primarily Benedictines) began what would become the seeds of civilization’s return to virtue. MacIntyre opined:
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.
It is equally important to hear what MacIntyre now says about his famous paragraph. In an interview with a publication by the Bruderhof community, Stanley Hauerwas (perhaps one of MacIntyre’s strongest philosophical allies) said:
Alasdair once told me that this is the line he most regrets ever having written! He wasn’t advocating some kind of withdrawal strategy – he was only pointing out that we can’t be compromised by the world in which we find ourselves.
The myth of fallen Rome has overshadowed modern thought almost from the beginning. It is the story of civilizational collapse, an image that seems to haunt our imagination. It “rhymes” with the world we live in, whether you favor the Left or the Right. For conservative thinkers (such as Dreher) the lesson seems clear. The barbarians have indeed been governing us for quite a while, and unless we get on with some sort of recovery plan, we will be lost in a sea of barbarians. Dreher proposes many practical intentionalities by which the Church might do the work of a new St. Benedict. But there are problems.
MacIntyre’s work that followed After Virtue, was called Whose Justice? Which Rationality? in which he discussed the phenomenon of modern fragmentation. He noted that even within a single Supreme Court decision, there are frequently multiple, mutually-contradictory models of rationality and justice. We do not (and cannot) agree with one another, for we do not even agree with ourselves. Were I writing the ecclesiological version of that book, it might be titled, Whose Theology? Which Christianity? Christianity in the contemporary world is easily as fragmented as the culture in which it lives. And were someone to suggest that we stick to just Orthodoxy, I might observe that we are far from fragmentation-free ourselves.
However, my major observation about the Benedict Option is much less theological. It is grounded in how virtue is acquired, which is why St. Benedict’s communities actually succeeded. Virtue, well presented in both MacIntyre and Hauerwas’ work, is acquired through practice, or, more precisely, through practices. Hauerwas uses the example of brick-laying. A brick mason acquires the virtue of laying brick correctly and well through his apprenticeship with a master. He learns by doing and with the patient endurance of correction and repetition. The virtues of the Christian life are similar. They may indeed be aided by the working of grace, but the manner of their acquisition remains grounded in our humanity and its practical engagement in daily life.
To a certain extent, all civilizations have virtues. No matter where you live (or how you live), you learn things that enable you to survive. If you live in a ghetto dominated by organized crime, you will likely acquire abilities to cope (or you die). They may include lying, murder, theft, etc. In a culture of ruthlessness, to be ruthless is a “virtue” of sorts. The meanest flourish.
Our modern culture requires its own version of virtues for success. We are a consumer economy, highly individualistic with a deep regard for sentiment. The landscape of our world has evolved in response to these fundamental realities. Values and practices that fall outside of that model are difficult to nurture and sustain. Human beings are largely creatures of habit. If the structures of our world support a certain form of virtue, then that is the most likely path we will follow. We do so because it is the most natural way to live.
It is here that most aspects of a modern “Benedict Option” flounder. An American suburb is not a European village of Late Antiquity. Every aspect of a suburb’s existence is designed to serve and nurture consumers. Hauerwas once described the modern family as a “group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of watching television.” That, of course, dates the quote. It would be more accurate today to say that it is a group of people who agree to cohabit for the purpose of sharing bandwidth.
I live on a street that includes nine homes. I know about half my neighbors by sight. We speak very seldom, though everyone is quite friendly. None of us attend the same Church, and not all attend any Church. We are Church of Christ, Lutheran, Mormon, Orthodox, Episcopal, nothing, nothing, nothing and nothing. I have only been inside three of the homes. I do not know what they eat or how they live. I am as likely to see them in a store as in their yards. We speak in passing. Two families have lived here for over 50 years; two for about 30; the rest for less than 10. I do not know what most of them do for work.
My most immediate community is structured to nurture the virtues of individualism. People learn to structure their lives to withstand loneliness. A good medical plan helps. A reliable automobile is a necessity. Those who want to flourish must be willing to relocate. The economy cares very little for geography. To be able to relocate means that children must be prepared to adapt to new schools. Extended family must be sacrificed (on my street, only three families have more than one generation in town).
Religious institutions that thrive have adapted themselves to these (and other) suburban virtues. The evangelical mega-church is, by far, the fastest growing religious phenomenon in our area (I think my Episcopal neighbor is now attending a mega-church). It is said that such Churches are popular because they require so little commitment. They flourish for the same reason as the big-box stores. Their gospel is tailored for quick consumption. “Holy Days” are generally designed to mimic cultural holidays without the dissonance of an ancient calendar.
Traditional Churches (such as the Orthodox) are also strongly marked by a suburban mentality. Sundays are well-attended, and the major feasts, with the exception of Christmas and Pascha, much less so. There is constant pressure to create “program” and various strategies to nurture piety. The integration between hearth, home and Church is quite minimal. Of course, the very structure of suburban life is constantly at war with the traditional notion of parish. I have families who travel over an hour-and-a-half to attend Church. It is only natural that their attendance is sporadic. My own family is probably the only one who lives in comfortable walking distance to the Church. I once calculated that the parish uses over 100-200 gallons of gasoline on any given Sunday.
All of this brings us to the problem of “intentional” communities, or “intentional” strategies in the Benedict Option. Americans are no stranger to intentional communities, particularly religious Americans. Our history has been replete with such communities from Plymouth to Jamestown to the Shakers, the Amana Folk, and any number of communards of the 60’s (of whom I am one). They are, on the whole, an unnatural effort to do a very natural thing. We already live in intentional communities: they are called “suburbs,” and they nurture us in the suburban “virtues.”
St. Benedict’s communities “worked,” because what grew up around them were very natural, villages and towns, integrated in the life of parish and monastery. Of necessity, the economies were small, as though E.F. Schumacher himself had served as economic advisor to St. Benedict.1 Benedict’s entire work presumes poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The villages of Benedictine Europe embodied these virtues in large measure in accordance with their circumstances.
We must understand that you cannot have a suburban version of the Benedictine Option. Place, habit, economy and a host of “unintentional” things will overwhelm every counter-intention, no matter how well-grounded in Christian teaching. Practices always do their work. The practices of suburban life are not productive of Christian virtue. They were designed to serve a different God.
Are there Christian options for healthier communities more suited to the nurture of virtue? Dreher offers a number of suggestions that are worth considering. But we will make little headway unless and until we recognize that the modern American suburban life (in its many aspects) is a moral choice. Living a half-hour away from a parish, isolated from fellow believers, may very well be the most serious moral choice we make after Holy Baptism, despite how innocuous it may seem.
Virtue is a very natural thing. It is acquired slowly, frequently without great intention, through repeated practices and habits. Those who worry about the collapse of civilization have become too lofty in their thoughts. It is the collapse of the parish that matters just now. For only in the parish will a new St. Benedict get anything done. The origin of the word, “parish,” says a lot. It is derived ultimately from paroikia (“near the house”). That pretty much says everything Benedict needs to say. I will add that Benedict never had it in mind to save or restore the Roman imperium. The American imperium should hold no particular value for Christians today. The outcome of history is the work of God, not of the Church. It is the task of the Church simply to be the Church. The consequences of that reality belong to God, not us.
Hauerwas adds this:
My hunch is that you don’t just make a community up. You discover that you need one another because you’re in danger. We need to figure out how to reclaim the disciplines that are necessary for building a communal life in a manner that indicates that we are a people who need help. We need to pray to God to help us, because we’re not quite sure anymore where we are – we’re not quite sure what the dangers are. We need all the help we can get from one another, and we need God in order to know how to be accountable to one another.
The Orthodox believe that we “cannot be saved alone.” So why do we live as though we could? Or do we imagine salvation to be a Christian living the American Dream?