The Benedict Option is a New York Times Bestseller that has been described as the “most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”1 When it was published, it set off a firestorm of dialogue among Christians; you need only google “Benedict Option” to find an abundance of opinions and reviews, both glowing and critical. As a faithful Catholic (and avid reader), you might think I would immediately run out to buy a copy. But to be honest, when I first read the book’s description, I felt a little wary. My philosophy in life has always been to live my faith in the world, respecting the diversity of beliefs and hoping that the witness of my life would be ‘leaven’ to bring about positive change in the world (Mt 13:33). The Benedict Option proposes a different course of action.
Rod Dreher claims that Christians no longer have the possibility to influence society, at least not in the traditional ways to which we have been accustomed. He believes we have lost the culture wars, and that if Christianity is to survive, believers should gather together to support one another in small, intentional faith communities where they can raise their families according to orthodox Church teaching. Dreher does not regard this option as an escape from the real world. Quite the opposite. Dreher believes that the Benedict Option – the way of Saint Benedict – is “a way to see that world and dwell in it as it truly is.”2
The Reality of Living in a Post-Christian World
Dreher has been taken to task by some critics for presenting an overly pessimistic view of modern society, yet no one would deny that the past years have taken their toll on the faith community. There has been a steady decline of Christianity in the West, and today, Christians find themselves in the minority. To acknowledge that you are a Catholic in the 21st century is to open yourself up to accusations of ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance. As Dreher aptly notes, “Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.”3 I know what he means. Christians brave enough to voice their opinion in the public square are often marginalized. At best, people who do not share your world view will look at you with pity, roll their eyes, and quickly change the subject; at worst, you may find yourself on the receiving end of verbal abuse and outright hostility.
Many countries who once prided themselves on being world leaders in defending freedom of speech and religion have grown increasingly intolerant of conservative points of view. Freedom in Canada has eroded to the point where people who profess pro-life views are barred from being Liberal Party MPs,4 doctors who refuse (as a matter of conscience) to do abortions or refer patients for euthanasia risk the threat of legal prosecution,5 the legal profession is trying to prevent graduates from Trinity Western University (a private Christian college) from practicing law,6 and schools are forced to teach ‘socially acceptable’, government mandated views on religion, sexuality, and morality.7 And that’s just the tip of the iceberg …
Still, you might reasonably wonder if anything has really changed. Hasn’t the Church always lived in a hostile world? And despite that reality, isn’t the Gospel clear that our call is not to hide ourselves “under a bushel” (Mt 5:15), but to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15)?
2017 – a new Dark Age?
In Dreher’s opinion, we are entering a new Dark Age. In support of his view, he refers to the book After Virtue, in which Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre compares the present cultural climate to “the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.”8 Dreher writes, “We are governed not by faith, or by reason, or by any combination of the two. We are governed by what MacIntyre called emotivism: the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.”9
Where we once sought our happiness and fulfillment in God, our lives now revolve around the search for self and ‘self-fulfillment’. It’s a cultural mindset, claims philosopher Charles Taylor, that has captured us all.10 But when individualism is regarded as the greatest good, it is inevitable that society will begin to crumble. This reality, claims Dreher, has led to the dissolution of the Judeo-Christian culture – something which many Christians have yet to acknowledge. But all is not lost. Dreher believes we can learn from the past – specifically the example of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543) – to find hope for the future.
Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”11
The Way of St. Benedict
St. Benedict is the father of Western monasticism, and the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict was fundamental in keeping “the light of faith alive in Europe through very hard times.”12 Dreher believes that it can do the same for us today. Although the Rule was originally written for monks, it is a way of life that can be easily adapted for modern day lay Christians.
The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that we “can achieve the peace and order [we] seek only by making a place within [our] heart and within [our] daily life for the grace of God to take root.”13 Its purpose is to free us, to help us grow stronger in faith. “[The Rule],” explains Dreher, “is a proven strategy for living the Gospel in an intensely Christian way. It is an instruction manual for how to form one’s life around the service of Jesus Christ, within a strong community. It is not a collection of theological maxims but a manual of practices through which believers can structure their lives around prayer, the Word of God, and the ever-deepening awareness that, as the saint says, ‘the divine presence is everywhere’ (Proverbs 15:3).”14
The path of St. Benedict is not a call to withdraw from the world and live in complete isolation. Fr. Benedict Lefebvre, the prior of Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C, explains, “[Our] founder did seek to flee the world in imitation of the desert fathers, … but it was not out of distress or disgust at the disintegration of civilization. Rather, it was out of an intense desire for personal union with God. Even in his early years as a hermit, St. Benedict did not remain hidden long, and as soon as the local shepherds found him, he began teaching them the faith.”15 Dreher, too, acknowledges the importance of interacting with the world. He writes, “A church or other Benedict Option community must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it.”16 Choosing to live in community is not about manning the ramparts and battening down the hatches; it’s meant to offer us a positive means to deepen our relationship with God so we can be the light of the world we are called to be.
Tipi Loschi (“shady types,” or “the usual suspects”) is a lay Christian community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. In this 2015 video, their leader, Marco Sermarini, talks about their school, the Scuola Libera G. K. Chesterton.
So what are the options?
But is living in small communities the only way to preserve the faith? Dreher believes that the battle for Christianity has already been lost – that the cultural revolution cannot be turned back and strategic withdrawal is the best course of action. His vision for the ‘BenOp’ movement is that small, close-knit communities will become places where those who desire to live an authentic Christian life can find the love and support they need to live out the faith and preserve it for future generations. “The new order is not a problem to be solved,” he writes, “but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood.”17
“In the Benedict Option,” he writes, “we are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity. We are not looking to create heaven on earth; we are simply looking for a way to be strong in faith through a time of great testing. The Rule, with its vision of an ordered life centered around Christ and the practices it prescribes to deepen our conversion, can help us achieve that goal.”18
I’m convinced that it is essential to have the support of a strong, authentic Christian community to live out our faith in the modern world. We need to encourage one another and help each other along the way. We need the support of orthodox priests, and we need to frequently receive the Sacraments. I’m blessed to be part of a community of strong, faith filled friends, and perhaps this is the reason I still have hope that Christians can make a difference in the world. While our influence might seem insignificant compared to what it once was, historically, the faith has always flourished in times of persecution. But regardless of your point of view, Rod Dreher has certainly given us a lot to think about.
- Sharon van der Sloot
1 David Brooks, “The Benedict Option” The New York Times (March 14, 2017); available from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/opinion/the-benedict-option.html?_r=0; Internet; accessed 27 April 2017.
2 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017); Kindle edition, 77.
3 Dreher, The Benedict Option, 3.
4 See articles such as http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/anti-abortion-candidates-need-not-apply-in-2015-justin-trudeau-says-1.2634877, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-politics/justin-trudeau-clarifies-that-anti-abortion-liberal-incumbents-would-be-forced-to-vote-pro-choice, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/future-liberal-mps-must-be-pro-choice-trudeau-says/article18530161/, and http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2014/05/29/the-liberal-drive-to-exclude-pro-lifers-from-public-life-in-canada/.
5 See articles such as http://www.catholicregister.org/item/19833-ontario-doctors-must-refer-for-abortions-says-college-of-physicians, http://www.nationalnewswatch.com/2017/04/04/ontario-must-amend-its-assisted-dying-legislation-to-recognize-conscience-rights/#.WQDvXFK-JsO and http://www.consciencelaws.org/repression/repression036.aspx.
6 See articles such as “Trinity Western law school fight heading to Supreme Court of Canada,” CBC News (Feb. 23, 2017); available from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/trinity-western-law-school-supreme-court-canada-1.3995664; Internet; accessed 2 May 2017. “The law societies argued the covenant discriminates against people in the LGBTQ community who want to enter the legal profession.”
7 See articles such as http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-489285/Foster-child-taken-away-Christian-couple-refuse-teach-homosexuality.html), https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/education-minister-catholic-schools-will-be-required-to-teach-new-sex-ed-pr, http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/flash-points-in-the-sex-ed-curricula-across-canada, and https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/exclusive-homeschooling-families-cant-teach-homosexuality-a-sin-in-class-sa.
8 Dreher, The Benedict Option, 16.
10 Cf. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 14. Quoted in Dreher, The Benedict Option, 43.
11 Dreher, The Benedict Option, 48-49.
12 Ibid., 49.
13 Ibid., 51.
14 Ibid., 52.
15 John D. O’Brien, S.J., “The Boundless Hope Option,” Convivium Magazine; available from https://convivium.ca/articles/the-boundless-hope-option-1; Internet; accessed 2 May 2017.
16 Ibid., 71.
17 Dreher, The Benedict Option, 17-18.
18 Dreher, The Benedict Option, 53.