Discussing the Benedict Option, Sort Of: Part 1
January 14, 2016 0 comments
Eds. note: Here, we are publishing, in several parts, a discussion between Jake Phillips and a Friend of Redeemer, Ryan McLaughlin, regarding the Benedict Option, a popular topic in the evangelical blogosphere. What is it? What does it mean? And what does it say about the proper Christian response to cultural erosion, if such erosion is even taking place? Parts that Jake wrote are in normal text -- Ryan's words are in bold.
What’s up, my favorite Catholic?
So we are here to discuss the Benedict Option, what it means, the pros and cons, and why people have been so intrigued by the concept. I think the best place to start, though, is with its namesake: St. Benedict. Knowing who St. Benedict was and what he did and believed, I think, will set the framework for knowing, then, what to make of the Benedict Option, or BenOp as all the kids are calling it. I want to give a little background, and then set you up with a question.
I think the historical context Benedict came into is important to understanding the man himself. 5th century Europe, as we know, was a bit of a mess. The Western Empire (i.e. Rome) fell, or was sacked, and most historians mark that date in the early 5th century as the beginning of the Middle Ages (I refuse to use the “Dark Ages” nomenclature). Carthage was being occupied, there was a disastrous attempt to drive the Vandals out of Africa, and the Church itself was plagued by periods of poor to nonexistent leadership. And of course, given that this was early in Church history, without some of the traditional, accepted and fundamental doctrinal agreement, there was a significant amount of doctrinal confusion. There were several Christological heresies floating about (which I’m sure you probably know more about than I do) and, probably more significantly, Pelagius had just come around and probably had the most significantly negative impact of any of the heresies from a practical standpoint.
So my question to you — who was St. Benedict? How did he interact with the world he came into? Why is he considered so significant, 1500 years later? And what do you think are the chances he was known as Benny?
So, I will proudly wear the mantle of "favorite Catholic", if we are using the word "catholic" in the original meaning of "universal" or "complete"... I've actually joined the Eastern Orthodox Church since coming back to Florida. But that's appropriate for our discussion of Benedict of Nursia, because he truly is a "catholic" saint: he lived at a time when the Church had not yet been divided into many denominations, and is recognized as a saint by both Western and Eastern Christians.
I also think it's important to say that Benedict actually lived at a time when there was relatively little doctrinal disagreement in the Church. Sure, there were heretical groups running around (aren't there always?). But he lived after the 4th Ecumenical Council, the last of the great Councils that are accepted by a lot of traditional Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican theologians (in addition to Catholics and Orthodox). Most of the great christological heresies had been effectively dealt with at this point.
That's important because Benedict isn't primarily looked up to for his doctrine, he's looked up to for his rich spiritual life. He's an example of pursuing God at all costs, even as the world around you is crumbling.
Essentially, Benedict saw the Western Empire in moral and political decay, and he figured the best thing he could do was to find a quiet place to pray and seek God. He ended up living in a cave by himself for a while, removed from the chaos of Rome. Eventually, people heard about this man who is living in a cave seeking God in prayer. A community grew around him, and long story short, Benedict ended up founding over a dozen monasteries. His vision of monasticism was very much inspired by the Desert Fathers, men of God who had lived roughly 200 years before his time. He wrote a guidebook for these monasteries, now known as "the Rule of St. Benedict", that's been a pillar of Western monasticism for a millennium and a half now.
Benedict lived right at the beginning of the Western Empire's collapse (the Eastern Roman Empire lasted for another 1,000 years, of course). The men who come after him--the Benedictine monks and nuns-- are the ones who preserved the faith as the West plunged into the Middle Ages (aka the "Dark Ages", as you and I both refuse to call them). Because of that, the Roman Catholic Church has made him the patron saint of Europe--as Pope Benedict XVI (obviously a fan of the original "Benny") argues, Benedict's whole-hearted pursuit of God provides the foundation stone of all post-classical Western Civilization. Without him, Western Europe most likely spends the last 1,500 years as a combination of paganism and resurgent Arianism (Pagarianism? resurAriaganism? I'll let you decide...)
And that's illustrative, I think, of why Benedict has been chosen as the "mascot", if you will, of the so-called "Benedict Option." I think that Rod Dreher and others see us as living in another age of moral and spiritual decay, and they want to look to the Benedictine vision for insight into passing the faith on to future generations. Not that they want us to all be monks, of course... rather, they want us to survive our own "imperial collapse" by forming communities whose primary focus is the pursuit of God. And who knows, maybe while we're passing on the faith to our children, we'll save Western Civ to boot...
OK, so here's my question for you, Jake: we're starting this conversation off by discussing a monk. And to be clear, monasticism itself isn't the heart of our discussion. But you're a Reformed guy, you come from a tradition that historically hasn't exactly been too keen on monasticism... When a bunch of Orthodox and Catholic folks start talking about the "Benedict Option", does that present an obstacle to dialogue with our Reformed brothers and sisters? Do you think that there's a need for Protestants to learn more about the great Christians of the first 1,000 years (besides Augustine, of course)? And when are you guys going to get around to reading 1 Corinthians 7:32-35? ;)
Talk to you soon,
Joined the Eastern Orthodox church, says you. One small step back towards Protestantism, says I. All kidding aside, I think the point you made was important. St. Benedict stands for the proposition that at some sort of tipping point, the proper response to “imperial decline” (and, to be clear, we mean the term, I think, in a moral sense, rather then a political one) is to be a gardener rather then a knight.
And now that we’ve buried the lede, that’s at the heart, it seems, of Rod Dreher’s championing of the concept of the “Benedict Option.” Because of the decline, even erosion, of Christian values in culture, he thinks a needed response in Christian communities is to shore up their own faith, to turn off the TV, and to ward off the popular evangelical notion of God-as-cosmic-butler. I think that’s a helpful distinction — Christianity has gotten into such an entangled relationship with politics that we’ve forgotten that politics and law don’t inform culture, they follow culture. We’ve paternalistically assumed that by imposing our will and values at a political level, that the culture will benefit — but perhaps we haven’t done the harder work of attempting to influence culture at a fundamental level, rather than dictating to culture what it is and isn’t allowed to do, whether it wants to or not.
BenOp stands for the proposition that we’ve got to refocus our priorities — but in order to do that, we have to shore up our own values and spiritual commitment. We’ve got to be gardeners rather then always trying to be a knight. And that brings me to one of your questions — does that idea, which although it isn’t calling for strict monasticism does have those overtones, turn off Reformed individuals and communities? And actually, I don’t think it does, for a couple of reasons.
First, I think the “imperial decline” that Dreher has noticed has evolved into a slow-building attack on religious liberty. Christianity in general has (at times hysterically) decried the slow erosion of religious liberty, but I think we have actually now begun to see it a little bit more substantively. And it seems that there has been some building of bonds between Catholicism and Protestantism through cultural connection, if not doctrinally. During my first internship at law school, a deeply Protestant president of the religious liberty organization spent his keynote address talking about two people — The Gipper and JP2, i.e. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Because of the pro-life issue, because of issues of religious liberty, etc., I think even something like BenOp, because it’s fundamentally about culture and not doctrine, has the potential to be intelligently and substantively discussed between Catholics and Reformed types alike.
Second, I wonder if Protestant communities, and even especially Reformed communities, aren’t nearer to Dreher’s formulation of BenOp then Catholic communities in the first place. The explosive growth of homeschooling, emphasis on doctrinal fidelity (sometimes to the detriment of cultural engagement or evangelistic fervor), and other factors have led, I think, to a growth of Protestant communities that, in some ways, look like they’ve preceded BenOp. Now, some of the problems they’ve created functions as a sort of implicit and existential criticism of BenOp, but we’ll get to that :).
I want to get to your other question (the need for a more robust understanding of Church history), but now that you’ve brought up history, I want to ask you something first. Broadly speaking, how have we gotten to mainstream acceptance of Catholicism here in America? I think because it’s such a non-issue today, some people forget how virulently anti-Catholic much of the country was not too long ago. And for a while, it had the unfortunate tendency of bigotry to be adaptable. It could be interconnected with anti-Irish sentiment when it needed to be, or it could be intersected with racism and anti-Semitism in a KKK-style anti-everybody sort of way. And yet now, one of the more influential public intellectuals and perhaps the foremost religious writer of our time is Catholic. In one generation, we’ve gone from nearly not electing JFK mostly due to his religious identification to having at least 4 major presidential candidates who self-identify as Catholic, and there hasn’t been a word written about it. (And actually, of course, we didn’t elect JFK, but I don’t want to go down a conspiratorial rabbit trail).
So my question is — how did we get here? Does it say more about Catholicism or culture at large? Does it mean anything significant that some are calling for BenOp at the moment in U.S. history where anti-Catholicism has finally been almost entirely eradicated? Or am I overstating the decline of anti-Catholicism?
To be continued...
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