The Benedict Opt-Out: Why Christian Self-Isolation Won’t Work

Photo of UK's Whitby Abbey by flickr user Kevin Friery via Creative Commons

In a much talked-about Op-Ed in Time last week in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on same sex marriage, Rod Dreher wrote that Christians “really have to accept the fact that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation.” (Never mind the fact Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the soaring conclusion to the decision, is Catholic, and a former altar boy.)

In the piece, Dreher refers what he calls the “Benedict Option,” an idea he first wrote about in 2013 for the American Conservative. In the past couple of months, Dreher has evoked the Benedict Option in 17 blog posts, arguing each time, just as he did in that first essay, that America is entering a new “dark age,” brought about by “rising hedonism, waning religious observance, [the] ongoing break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural coherence.”

Saint Benedict, according to Dreher, fled Rome out of “disgust for the city’s decadence,” and went on to establish a dozen monasteries, where the Benedictines “built lives of peace, order and learning,” but also taught nearby peasants “practical skills, like farming,” while educating those same peasants in the Christian faith.

Dreher’s model of what a modern monastic community would look like is based on several small communities of traditional Catholics and Orthodox Christians (Dreher himself is a former Catholic who converted to Orthodoxy), who have left urban and even suburban life behind to pursue homesteading, homeschooling, and attempting to preserve their children’s faith. These children are “largely disconnected from mainstream American popular culture,” and, according to a parent of one of these families, their “relative isolation makes the mission of forming the children’s character easier.”

Dreher acknowledges that the long-term viability of these small communities is unknown, but what becomes clear as he revisits this topic again and again in recent months is that conservative religious reaction to mainstream culture is symptomatic of a fear of change. Public school curriculum, marriage equality and the growing acceptance of transgender individuals are just a few of the topics Dreher has connected to his arguments for conservative Christians dropping out of American culture in much of his recent writing.

Even if Christians do not embrace the Benedict Option en masse, what its premise of retreat says about the pessimistic mood in American Christianity right now is telling.

Dreher has only commented briefly in his blogs on the Pew Survey’s data about the rapidly growing number of religiously unaffiliated younger adults, saying that “Christians don’t underestimate the difficulty of the road ahead,” and that they must “prepare.” But running throughout his and other’s growing commentary on the Benedict Option is a real sense of anxiety about what will happen to the kids.

Amish communities experience a high rate of retention of young adults partially because those children grow up in isolation from secular culture. The Duggars are but one example of fundamentalist Evangelical families that have also been able to keep their children attached to religion by emphasizing a family’s religion as a structure of authority, with a strict parent at the helm. But outside of those extreme examples, a larger sense of weakening ties to institutional religions means that it is increasingly a challenge to keep children interested in faith.

The Benedict Option’s emphasis on withdrawal is Dreher’s solution.

While statistics about the number of families who homeschool for religious reasons can be hard to find, it’s clear that beyond Dreher’s own Orthodox and Catholic examples, homeschooling, homesteading and a return to agrarian lifestyles—mostly lived out in deeply isolated areas—remain a topic of interest in many Christian communities. A cursory Google search for “Christian homeschooling” or “Christian homesteading” will yield thousands of results.

But here a question arises. Dreher refers to this notion of dropping out and building small religious communities as the Benedict Option, so how much of this has to do with the form of life that Saint Benedict originally intended? Fr. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, says that “the Benedictine tradition has been quite rich and diverse from the beginning, and very early on in the middle ages monks served as missionaries and teachers.”

Ruff’s own community “came to the US in the 19th century primarily to serve immigrants as teachers and pastors, and that work almost came before their community prayer life at times.” Ruff adds that if he understands Dreher (whose work he follows and enjoys) correctly, “by the Benedict option he doesn’t mean complete isolation, but withdrawal for the sake of stronger identity to be able to engage the surrounding culture more convincingly.”

Of modern-day Benedictines, Ruff says, the definition of this withdrawal is not universal, since

“their opinions range from liberal progressivism on one side, which is open to dialogue with contemporary society and would like the church to be reformed as a result, to conservative traditionalism on the other side that thinks things went too far after Vatican II and we need more Latin chant and Catholic identity, and everything in between! It’s an interesting mix – and it’s ever been thus in terms of diversity of opinion.”

Dreher, who is in his late forties, may also have a different idea of what religious withdrawal would look like, and why people would choose it, than a younger person would. Emily,* a graduate student in theology, grew up in a religious group that “has some culture-suspecting, fundamentalist tendencies.” She converted to Catholicism in her late teens, but even after her conversion, she says that it is still hard to resist ideas about religion as a form of social withdrawal “because of how much of my life was characterized by it.”

In college, when a friend joked that she was “grumpy and misanthropic enough that I would probably enjoy the experience [of monastic life], Emily “realized that he was right. My immediate reaction was that maybe a cloistered community was something that I should consider as a vocation.”

Emily communicated with a cloistered order of Dominican women, but ultimately decided against that form of life. She was working in an intercultural ministerial context, and found that a diversity of “human cultures and means of interaction with one another, even in a purely non-religious way, were incredibly important for developing relationships.” She adds that “for any true injustices that I did see around me that really were against Christianity, it seemed that the best way I knew was not to avoid them and pretend those injustices would disappear.”

For Emily, cloistered life also seemed antithetical to her readings of the Gospels, which do include a few passages about Christ praying alone, but ultimately, for her, “the very idea of the incarnation was a kenotic self-emptying for the sake of encounter with others, despite whatever problems might accompany that.” Today, she says, she sees a necessity for people to withdraw to “liturgies and prayer communities” to help maintain faith in difficult circumstances, but, like an increasing number of younger Americans, she often finds friendship and spiritual kinship among “those who aren’t Catholic or even religious in any way.”

The homeschooling parents I spoke to had a range of reasons for choosing to educate their own children. Most cited a poor quality of education in their local public schools, but others echoed some of Dreher’s ideas about withdrawal as a reaction to what feels like a shift toward the secular in public space. One Catholic parent says that while she feels God has called her to take the formation of her children’s “minds and hearts” seriously, she is still open to sending them to school eventually.

She adds, however, that when secular education “cannot speak of God, wonder about Him, see His Hand in the world, in history, in our individual lives, something beautiful in us is silenced, and really, censored.” A product of public education herself, she admits that many of her teachers did “make room for possibilities” about religion, but that increasingly, “in some places this is no longer the case, and a certain tyrannical way of presenting things is coming into place.”

It is unclear whether the Benedict Option will help parents to keep their children faithful. Given the statistical number of Nones among Millennials and Gen X and the seemingly unpreventable increase in those numbers, these children, like Emily, or the children of many homeschooling parents, will eventually encounter peers who are not religiously affiliated. Given the way technology works, they will also inevitably find a way to expose themselves to popular culture.

And the question remains of the Benedict Option what exactly a parent should do if their family has withdrawn from “the world” and still turns out to have a gay child, a gay neighbor—or even a gay priest.

Perhaps what Dreher and his supporters are missing out on is the fact that Christianity, like our ideas about marriage, is not static, but may evolve along with our humanity. And that evolution may not only include a new openness to relationships, but also to Christians’ relationships with the growing number of Nones.

Christians who self-isolate will miss out on the opportunity to know, learn from, and perhaps even to love some of the Americans who have thought the hardest and longest about religion and its role in their lives. Jesus, after all, did not lead his disciples away from the people and their questions, and their messy, real lives, and doubts. He walked toward the people, not away from them.

 

*Last name withheld at subject’s request

  • Jim Reed

    Christianity is working to solve the problem, but what exactly is the problem? I think we need to remember the Bush administration. When he was elected, Christianity seemed really strong, and ready to use their strength in political ways. Then what happened? Life happened, and it turned out Christians were the segment of the American population that most supported the concept of torture, and those Christians who believed in Jesus the most deeply were the ones who really supported torture, and of course any wars that went along with it. I guess Christianity would now like to forget what happened in the Bush years and try to figure out why society has decayed so much and become so evil that they are now turning on Christianity.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    What a Drama Queen Rod Dreher is. The only difficulties Christians are having is difficulty using law to control, constrain, and coerce other people to conform to Christian desires.

    Christians have no problems, no threats, no limitations on practicing or espousing their faith and their beliefs. The institution of marriage is unchanged, except that the number of marriages can expand by a few percentage points.

    Love is not a scarce commodity. There is plenty to go around. The value of my marriage is not diluted one bit by the recent expansion of marriage rights to include full equality for all couples.

    I guess as a professional worrier, Dreher is just doing his job. Worrying about imaginary dangers is probably the oldest profession on earth.

  • apotropoxy

    Dreher’s Benedictine Option contained this thought from moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: “…the (BO shows) that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained”
    __________________

    This dynamic is always at play in large societies. Just a generation ago the hippy movement with its peace, love, drugs and rock and roll challenged the orthodoxy of ‘The Greatest Generation’ and the reaction against it remains strong within the GOP even today. The accumulation of disgust over human bondage finally forced the end of chattel slavery here. Christianity had its own BO moment with the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800’s.

    If Christians want to remain relevant in this and every other developed country, it had best understand why religion itself is evaporating.

  • 4 WIW

    As our western culture becomes darker and more perverted it will take on more and more attributes of the ancient world during the time of the early Christian church. While it is sad to see the demise of Christian culture in the western world, it was inevitable. In fact it has been ordained by God and is now becoming reality. This great falling away is a prelude to the return of Christ. What Christians have to do is trust God, study the nature of the early church and emulate the attitudes and actions of first-century Christians. Jesus said that His followers were to be in the world but not of the world.

  • lambodog

    What the author did not mention about the Amish is that retention in the community is enforced by requiring shunning of those young or older members who leave.

  • Jim Reed

    Early Christians believed incorrectly the world was about to end. They are not the right example to follow.

  • Jim Reed

    What would it even mean for Christians to remain relevant? We are in the process of leaving them behind.

  • Jim Reed

    The hollow church on cloudy day picture is great.

  • Whiskyjack

    History is a fascinating subject. One of its many fascinating aspects is the delusional capacity for every generation of Christians to interpret world events as predictions of the imminent return of Jesus, undeterred by its two-thousand year failure.

  • 4 WIW

    I agree with your comments in general, in fact I recently taught a class at my church on 1 & 2 Thessalonians during which I said that we should not formalize our view of eschatology based solely on current events. Having said that, I do believe that world events are rushing toward a scenario that will be fulfilling of end-times prophecies. What we cannot be sure of is are we looking at years, decades or centuries before Christ’s return. To blow off the possible meaning of world events today, might mean missing the return of the Messiah. Many who should have known better missed it the first time, let’s not be among those who miss it the second time.

  • apotropoxy

    I think they need to shed their belief in magical beings and remember why their earliest moral message had so much resonance among the dispossessed masses. To do that, they will need to jettison the self-hatred that reflects itself in their apocalypse fantasy. “Original Sin” is their original sin.

  • 4 WIW

    Early Christians believed in the immanency of Christ’s return, a concept which is still valid. However, my reference to emulating early Christians was not about their views on Christ’s return, but on their unwavering commitment to carrying out the great commission (Matt. 28). As we are seeing in the world today, Christians in the Middle East are choosing martyrdom as opposed to recanting and becoming Muslims. This is the kind of faith that western Christians need. When the time comes, I’m sure God will provide.

  • Jim Reed

    A million years from now I can’t imagine people will still be waiting for Jesus. So at some time, they will have to stop waiting. It should be much sooner because we are right now in the process of leaving earth and expanding in the solar system. When we are established beyond earth, the whole end times Jesus returning concept will become obsolete and people will have to face the fact that there is no point to the belief.

  • 4 WIW

    Man cannot put himself in a place where God cannot reach him. God’s finger-prints are all over His creation. As Jesus said, let him who has ears to hear – hear. Another verse of scripture that verifies there is nothing new under the sun is: A fool says in his heart, there is no God.

  • Jim Reed

    Doesn’t that leave you with just the golden rule, and if that is the case, wouldn’t it be better to drop the Christianity part and just believe in the golden rule?

  • Jim Reed

    None of that means anything.

  • apotropoxy

    They can keep the name.

  • Eric

    Yep, exactly. Poor ol’ Dreher is suffering from privilege distress. And another reason no one should take him and his entitled, whiny white self seriously. Let’s pretend for half a second that his historical analogy makes sense. Let’s also pretend that his apocalyptic wet dream also makes sense. Are we really supposed to believe that “civilization” will be saved by a bunch of fundies who reject critical thinking, immunization, climate change, and most forms of social equality? Yeah, good luck with that.

    Look, I’m all for Christians forming distinct communities marked by distinct practices–while remaining engaged with a world they don’t seek to control. I just don’t understand why a certain segment continue to insist that literalism, sexism, homophobia, fear, and unthinking obedience to authority are marks of real Christians.

  • Jim Reed

    That won’t work. It will just lead back to the same place, and we will be here again.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    I noticed one religious group is reviving one of the time honored traditions. ISIS has executed some women for practicing sorcery.

    The darkest aspects of our age are associated with the preservation of religious fear, superstition, and barbarity. Meanwhile, the gradual enlightenment of our societies, whether we are talking about the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, or other advances of human liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are all associated with religious believers relaxing their ancient prejudices founded upon archaic scriptures in order to avoid falling behind human moral progress. Any careful examination of history makes this obvious.

    I can hardly think of anything more perverted than the hatred, fear, and persecution religious people have reserved for two women or two men loving one another. It takes a dirty mind to see that as perverted.

    It requires some knowledge of biology to actually understand life. And with that understanding comes greater acceptance of reality. Wishing reality to be other than it is because of a priori assumptions based on abstract religious desire has never been a successful strategy. Time and time again, religion has learned it must adapt to the real world because it can’t by force of will make the real world what religion wants it to be.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    There are lots of books that say lots of things. Before you accuse others of being deaf to the truth, you should consider the possibility for once that you are the one here without eyes and ears. Jesus also said “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then
    shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

    Jesus said many intelligent things. None of that means the Bible is an infallible font of wisdom. There is no surprise that somebody living in the relative ignorance of the Bronze Age might think “A fool says in his heart, there is no God” qualifies as unambiguous wisdom.

    The problem is that the word “God” has no precise meaning and is a subject of endless equivocation. So what you must specify in order to communicate any real information is what kind of God possessing what specific properties, what fingerprints in what aspects of nature, how do you identify these fingerprints and on what do you base the claim that such traces were in fact made by the type of God you specify rather than by some other mechanism.

    If you could do that, that would be a small start to move beyond pure speculation and fantasy.

  • 4 WIW

    I am compelled to respond that Jesus died for your rebelliousness. I pray that God’s Holy Spirit will open your heart to the truth of His redemptive love.

  • Craptacular

    “…during which I said that we should not formalize our view of eschatology based solely on current events. Having said that, I do believe that world events are rushing toward a scenario that will be fulfilling of
    end-times prophecies.” – 4WIW

    Of course you do. Just like every other christian in every other age, as was previously pointed out. So you can continue to tell us how different it is now, or accept that you really have no new data, nor has there been new data for about 2000 years. All the religious have are 2000 years’ worth of attempting to fit the data into preconceived notions and ignoring the data that don’t fit.

    “To blow off the possible meaning of world events today, might mean missing the return of the messiah.” – 4WIW

    This is Pascal’s Wager, which really only provides a reason to do what you have already decided to do (yes, it’s circular)…because if you are reading the wrong book, you will be no better off than those of us who didn’t read your book, so your point is moot.

  • Craptacular

    “I am compelled to respond that Jesus died for your rebelliousness.” – 4WIW

    This is the part of the religious that scares me the most. Your belief that your compulsions have a divine source and so must be acted on leaves no room for discussion or compromise. And, by the way, keep your proselytizing to yourself, this is not the right forum.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    I’m touched by your concern. As I see it, Jesus died for his own rebelliousness, and since the Holy Spirit is imaginary, you might as well hope the bluebird of happiness lands on my shoulder. It will have precisely the same effect, namely, none at all.

  • Jim Reed

    That last part I have to wonder about. Don’t we accomplish a lot more when people are proselytizing?

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    Yes, and also 4wiw completely evaded responding to the content of my post by resorting to sanctimony. This is how spiritualists, fortune tellers, psychics, and various and sundry other supernatural hucksters play the game. The squishy metaphysical escape clause that is infinitely malleable and the clouds of nonsense they spew give them an octopus-like elusiveness.

  • 4 WIW

    Wow, looks like I touched a nerve!! Interesting comment site. Any amount of vitriol can be published but a sincere comment reflecting good will gets censored. I guess this is a place where it is true that “No good deed goes unpunished.” Please don’t waste your electrons responding, I won’t be checking back.

  • 4 WIW

    To paraphrase a portion of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to isolate and a time to infiltrate. Throughout the last 2000 years, Christians have faced times of persecution and times of peace as the broader culture adopted more of the Christian ethic, i.e. caring communities that valued integrity, hard work, family, respect for authority and human life and so on. We are living in a time when the broader culture is throwing off all of these fine attributes. Thus our culture is becoming vulgar, dishonest, disrespectful of authority, destructive of family and pro-death. Those who value the attributes of the Christian ethic will be blessed, those who don’t – not so much.

  • ‘Til Tuesday

    “The secret to life is realizing you are not in control” – I don’t know where I heard that, but it remains true for both the religious and not. Conservative Christians are desperately trying to be in control, and they’re finding out it’s impossible. You can’t control people, you can’t control things, and you can’t can’t control ideas and thinking.

    If the Rod Dreher’s of this world would just relax, treat others with the kindness and fairness they want for themselves, and learn to enjoy the ride through life, and STOP trying to control everything and everyone, life can be pretty damn fun.

  • Jim Reed

    The Conservative Christian point of view is God is in control, and this world ultimately belongs to God. Because of the lack of any evidence of that, they have to be dedicated to somehow manufacturing some evidence so that people can believe. That turns out to be an all consuming and never ending responsibility, so they can never relax.

  • Jim Reed

    The one problem that caring Christian communities can never seem to deal with is the problem of vanity.

  • Craptacular

    “Any amount of vitriol can be published but a sincere comment reflecting good will gets censored.” – 4WIW

    The presumption that what you offered is “good will” to the intended audience exposes the very religious privilege we are discussing here! You see discussion as vitriol and your compulsive proselytizing as something “good,” as if it mattered to the conversation at hand.

    “Please don’t waste your electrons responding, I won’t be checking back.” – 4WIW

    Ah yes, running away from ideas that make you uncomfortable. Go ahead and stick your head back in the sand…

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    I was wondering what happened to that comment. I thought you deleted it yourself. It’s very hard for me to believe it was censored.

    We so often see Christians pretending to be persecuted that I’m naturally suspicious that what we have here is the equivalent of a soccer player taking a dive and pretending to be fouled. In a religion focused upon the murder and torture of its savior, it’s not surprising that many followers would have persecution complexes and relish the role of being punished for the sake of their religion, at least in the perceptions of others if not in fact. This is basic human psychology, from which religious believers are not exempted.

    But if you didn’t delete it yourself and it was in fact censorship by an
    administrator, I have to apologize for my accusation and support you by saying that would be very unjustified censorship by this site. Even though it was a passive aggressive use of prayer, the language was innocuous and it shouldn’t have been censored.

    But if you are serious about following the teachings of Jesus, you should carefully read and absorb Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St. Matthew, in which Jesus very clearly outlines the hypocrisy involved in public uses of prayer.

  • 4 WIW

    You must be a fan of the King Jame version of the Bible in which the writer of Ecclesiastes says that “all is vanity.”

  • 4 WIW

    The road to Hell is “damned fun.”

  • Jim Reed

    I threw it away.

  • Erasmus

    Literally the plot of Anathem