Charlie's Blog: Options



. . .we have to mount some kind of strategic withdrawal. . .

Sometimes, it helps to quote someone out of context to truly understand them. Naturally, they will respond that they were quoted out of context because all those words somehow put the idea in its proper place. But simple ideas don't really need explanation. The explanation comes when that simple idea is the wrong idea. The additional words are there to try and magically turn that wrong into a right. Rod Dreher has the wrong idea.

The Benedict Option is the hottest thing in the Catholic and conservative blogosphere. It has gained an attraction and a fascination among people who are tempted to withdraw from society and from civic engagement. I can understand that temptation because it is difficult, frustrating, and exhausting fighting it out day after day in the public arena for something that mere days ago was common sense but has now fallen out of politically correct fashion. I am in agreement with Dreher that the USA is a post-Christian society. I do not doubt this in the least. But this realization begs the question. What now? Dreher's answer is the Benedict Option, a strategic withdrawal by Christians to regroup and refocus. I quote Dreher in context now:
My thesis is this: These are not normal times for Christians in America. Our country has become post-Christian, meaning not that people don’t go to church, but that the ideals and principles of normative Christianity have ceased to guide society, and that the culture’s move away from Christianity is accelerating, even moving swiftly from post-Christianity to anti-Christianity. This is not only because of the faith’s enemies, political and otherwise, but also — even mostly — because of a host of uncritical assumptions many Christians make about what it means to be faithful. The triumphal march of gay rights may be a catalyst at the present moment, but it is by no means the biggest story here. In fact, if there were no gay marriage at all, Christianity would still be in crisis, still be at a major turning point, because of deep currents of modern thought pushing the historic faith to irrelevance.
We are entering a period in which the state and private entities (e.g., businesses, universities, media) are going to be further stigmatizing and undermining the institutions and ideas of orthodox Christianity. And the response to this by Christians and their leaders has been by and large grossly inadequate. It is no longer sufficient, I say, to fight as we always fought. Yes, we must fight for our right to practice our religion, but that will be meaningless if our children leave the faith because it has come to mean nothing to them. And leave the faith they will.
My argument is that we need to realize the radical nature of the present moment, which requires a radical response — a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead. We are not giving this to them now. We are not giving it to ourselves. We are like the rabbit in Philip Larkin’s poem Myxomatosis, who believes everything might come right again if we just sit still and wait.
We need to construct alternative forms of community in which the life of faith and virtue, as we see it, can be lived out in a healthy, sustainable manner, amid a hostile culture. We need to build some kind of walls to make a quiet space, so to speak, so that we can tell the church’s story, and our kids can hear it told. We need to have a barrier between ourselves and the village, so that the barbarism of the village doesn’t overwhelm us, and — this is crucial — so that we can be a source of light, of love, and of plain sanity to the people who are chewed up by the barbarism, and are seeking shelter and community.
In short, we have to mount some kind of strategic withdrawal so we can remember, so we can pray, so we can teach, so we can pass on what we’ve been given in a time of chaos and destruction of memory — and so we can be what the church is meant to be for the life of the world.  
Arguing About the Benedict Option
Now, Dreher spends a great deal arguing about this idea. This is because he is writing a book about the idea, and he insists on talking about a book he hasn't finished writing or gotten published. Naturally, critics of the idea are accused of misrepresentation or straw man arguments. But you can't complain about misrepresentation until you at least have a presentation. What Dreher possesses with this idea is a speculation. He is thinking out loud, so I must respond to those things he has actually written and uttered.

My understanding of the Benedict Option is that Christians should withdraw from secular society and become more of what we already are. Dreher derives this idea from Alasdair MacIntyre's book, After Virtue, which coined the term "Benedict Option" but never elucidated it. If MacIntyre had done this, Dreher wouldn't be writing a book about it. He is attempting to fill in the blank that MacIntyre left. I have not read the book and probably won't. But I have read the Bible, and this verse springs readily to mind:
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.  
Christians are to be the salt of the earth. Salt in antiquity was a preservative. It was what kept food from rotting in the pre-refrigeration era. It also flavored food, but the salt in Jesus's day was not the pure table salt that we know but a mix of salt and other minerals. Sometimes, that "salt" would become damp, and the actual salt would leech out leaving the minerals behind. It looked like salt, but it was flavorless and useless. You couldn't and wouldn't put the "saltiness" back in this mixture, so it got tossed out. It was worthless. The lesson in this? Be worth your salt.

The light of the world part is also important because Jesus gives to His church a mission to be distinct from the world but also visible to the world. This light would be an attraction to those in the darkness and show them the way out of that darkness into the light of God's love. Subsequent history shows that Christianity has been the light in the darkness of this world and established Western Civilization, the greatest in human history. That civilization is now under attack as the darkness tries to swallow the light as if such a thing could ever be possible.

It is helpful to point out that the Church has been here before and in various countries and societies. This is nothing new. Even Jesus said that He was sending out lambs to wolves. Our present troubles aren't that big of a deal in light of things like the French Revolution, Lepanto, the Crusades, the Spanish Revolution, the Cristero War in Mexico, or Soviet Communism. Until the guillotine, the scaffold, and the firing squads come out, we are riding pretty easy especially in light of what ISIS and China are doing to Christians.

My belief is that Dreher has the salt portion of our Bible quote in mind but has neglected the light portion. His model for strategic withdrawal is Benedictine Monasticism which carried Christian culture like Noah's Ark through the dark ages of barbarism to emerge once more when the floodwaters of paganism receded. Without a doubt, Christendom owes a debt to Benedict and other religious who preserved the faith to flower again in a later time. But are we really in such a barbaric time today? We haven't even reached the level of the Recusant period in the UK when Catholicism was outlawed.

How did we get here? That is the important question. It is important to point out that the world has always been messed up. This is the default setting for life under the sun. Left to itself, human society automatically descends into chaos and barbarism. The world hates God in general and Jesus Christ in particular. The Roman Empire was the most hostile environment imaginable to establish the Christian religion, yet this is where Our Lord chose to put His feet on the ground and establish His kingdom. And He conquered. It is hard to believe it, but this is what happened.

The world has not changed. It is the same as it has always been. What has changed is the Church especially the Roman Catholic Church. The simple fact is that Christianity as a whole and Catholicism especially has lost its saltiness. Christians no longer act as preservatives, so the rot has overtaken the bloated corpse of this evil world. A better book to read on this issue is not anything from the keyboard of Rod Dreher but Ross Douthat's superb Bad Religion that argues that the Christians in the USA have become a community of heretics. If anything, a hostile world is necessary to purify the Church through persecution and not vice versa. Any reading of the Old Testament or church history shows that time and time again, God uses the scourge of a hostile world to purify His kingdom on earth. Today, the Roman Catholic Church with its heresies, nominalism, sex abuse scandals, and the like is in deep need of purification.

At this point, it is important to note that Rod Dreher is a schismatic. He converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism. I do not present this as an ad hominem attack but to point out what I consider to be the real genesis of this Benedict Option. Dreher converted to Catholicism from Methodism, and he was an enthusiastic Catholic. I think this enthusiasm persists today because of Dreher's constant fascination with All Things Catholic. But Dreher hit a crisis when the sex abuse scandal broke in the Catholic Church. I can understand his heartbreak over this crisis. Imagine converting to the Church in the light of this scandal. That was my story. For Dreher, he did not want to cease being a Christian, but he didn't want to stay in the Catholic Church and endure this trial. This is when he decided upon the Benedict Option. Dreher didn't call it that and would consider his decision to leave Catholicism and my tethering it to the Benedict Option to be a non sequitur. But the two are the same when I give the Benedict Option its actual name which is "Quit and Split."

People love Quit and Split. Marriage on the rocks? Quit and split. Job got you down? Quit and split. Don't like the boring music or the annoying pastor at your traditional church or parish? Quit and split. On and on, When things get rough, you quit and split. The Quit and Split Option is very appealing because it is the easy path out of a rough patch. This is the lure of the Benedict Option because it is the backdoor out of a bar fight you know is going to get ugly.

Dreher employed the Quit and Split Option for his problem, so it stands to reason that he would find it an answer to be applied more widely to a Christian community that suddenly finds itself in an increasingly post-Christian world. This option comes not from deep seated Christian conviction but a technological and media saturated world that tells you to change the channel or Google something else if you don't like what you see. The problem is that some things just aren't optional. One of those things is ceasing to be Catholic. Once you recognize the Catholic Church as possessing the One True Faith, you are obligated to get in it and stay in it forever. This includes when it is mired in apostasy, scandal, and the like. There are no Orthodox or Lutheran Options on this. Remain Catholic or be damned. Here is St. Augustine on the matter:
No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.
I cannot read these words and not see Rod Dreher in my mind. Dreher left Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy. By doing this, he was able to enjoy almost all of the benefits of Catholicism without any of the negatives. He didn't have to make apologies for perverted priests or sit through some less than reverential Masses. In making this move, Dreher showed that he was still Protestant at heart. When I became Catholic, I knew exactly what I was getting into. I was getting into something I would never have the option to leave. I am now and will always remain Catholic or suffer the consequences of eternal damnation.

I am not the judge of the state of Rod Dreher's soul. That is a matter between him and the Almighty. But the Quit and Split Option is one that I can and must address. It is doubtful that forming an intentional Christian community will have the same consequences as schism from the One True Faith and may actually be a help to those who enter these communities. Such a move may save their souls, and I can say they already have. This is because this option has always been around since the beginning of the Church and even before if you include John the Baptist and the Essenes. We know this as religious life and demands things like celibacy, poverty, and obedience. We don't have to contemplate the Benedict Option because it is already being done by Benedictines, Carmelites, Trappists, and the like.

The novelty of Dreher's Benedict Option is as a religious life option for those in the lay vocation. The problem with this is that laypersons are laypersons. They are not religious. The Catholic Church recognizes three vocations--lay, priestly, and religious. A person can be both a priest and a religious. But you can't also be a layperson. No such creature exists. Dreher offers us a hybrid of fish and mammal. He suggests being both in the world and also not in the world. This doesn't work.

Now, there are movements that look like what Dreher is talking about. This would be Catholic private schools and colleges, Catholic homeschoolers, and Catholic homesteaders. These efforts are not so much withdrawals as competitive alternatives to the debased culture. Mom and dad might send their sons and daughters to the Catholic parochial school, but they still make their livings in the regular world. None of these things are new but have been regular parts of Catholic family life for quite some time. These are not strategic withdrawals so much as strategic alternatives. What makes them so difficult is when those same Christian families have to pay taxes to support a corrupt system they no longer use.

So, what exactly is Dreher asking people to do? Are Christians supposed to become survival preppers and escape to the hills and await the Pagan Zombie Apocalypse? Or, do they move to a state and take over like libertarians with the Free State Project in New Hampshire or Mormons in Utah? Or do we become like the Amish? Perhaps he will clear this up in his forthcoming book. I doubt it.

The simple fact is that laypersons are in the world. This is not going to change unless they elect for religious life and maybe a cloistered convent. It also assumes that the world will let you be should you elect for a strategic withdrawal. Finally, what would this withdrawal actually accomplish?

From what I can gather, the Benedict Option is simply deciding not to vote or engage in political and cultural life. You are still going to live in the same place and do the same things. The difference is that you are going to shut your mouth and become invisible. Basically, you are going to take that light you have that makes you different from the world and put it under a basket. Unfortunately, this is not an option as our Lord expects us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You are not allowed to Quit and Split. You have to take up your cross on this and carry it.

The real option for Christians and for Catholics is what Austin Ruse calls the Escriva Option after Saint Josemaria Escriva. Basically, this option is about being salty instead of invisible. It attacks what is the real problem which is the fact that Catholics aren't so Catholic. Escriva believed in the Universal Call to Holiness which has always been there but was diminished over the ages by clericalism. Laypersons are supposed to be saints, and the movement of Opus Dei which Escriva founded has this mission as its purpose. Opus Dei is not a political organization nor is it a religious order like the Dominicans or the Benedictines. It simply seeks to turn ordinary believers into extraordinary saints through simple devotion to our Lord, our Lady, the Holy Father, and the norms as prescribed by Escriva. There are varying levels of commitment to the Work as befitting a person's availability from celibate numeraries to supernumeraries with families to cooperators who simply pray and give financial support to the Work. One does not have to be a member of Opus Dei to enjoy its benefits and many people already enjoy those benefits without knowing the source. I think the Escriva Option is the way out for the problems in the Catholic Church. We need saints especially lay saints.

As for the political side of things, Father James Schall offers the Aristotelian Option which is a rejection of the Benedict Option which he equates to the "Epicurean Option." Here is how Schall puts it:
In the light of these considerations, is there yet another option that we might call “the Aristotelian Option”? Aristotle lived in a sophisticated but turbulent age. He observed wars, corrupt and demagogic politicians. He knew the passions of the great majority in any society. He knew how tyrants rose out of the unlimited freedom of democratic citizens who had no principle of order in their own souls.
Yet he taught that the good man did have responsibilities in society.  He defined man as a “political animal”.  Man found his greatest dignity and fulfillment when he participated courageously in affairs of state. For Aristotle that meant serving in the government of Athens or fighting in its army. He did not think that a rational being ought to retreat from engagement in public life. But he was realistic enough to acknowledge that good regimes do fail and there is an order to their failure. He also could envision, with a change in the souls of the citizens, a return to good order. But immediately, Aristotle is most helpful for us today in his description of what happens in democracies in which the souls of the citizens are not ruled by anything but their own desires. He saw how quickly tyrants would arise within such regimes and impose their own arbitrary rule. 
Bede the Venerable, the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote An Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the year 730AD, had harsh words for British Christians who failed in their duty to convert the Saxons, Angles and Jute invaders from the Continent: “Among other most wicked actions … which their own historian, Gildas, mournfully takes notice of, they added this - that they never preached the faith to the Saxons, or English, who dwelt amongst them.” But the context of conversion today is not that of pagan tribes who were open to Christianity. In 12 centuries, very, very few Muslims have been converted, while whole nations once Christian are now Muslim. The imposition of understandings of human life directly contrary to the natural law is now almost the norm of public life in the West. Christians are being driven out of public life if they do not change their views and accept the politics of the state.
Basically, Schall says what Plato said.  "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." Neither the Christian faith nor worldly wisdom tell us to withdraw from civic engagement. Such a withdrawal is an abdication of duty and common sense. The reason such madness is happening now is precisely because that withdrawal has already taken place. Dreher would obviously argue that he is not throwing in the towel on this fight, yet if no towel hits the canvas, we can safely conclude the fight is ended when the fighter has taken off the gloves and left the ring.

Quit and Split. At the end of it all, this is what Dreher is telling us to do. As such, Dreher is a sort of heretic in ignorant collusion with the world. We can salve our consciences with the assurance that we will come back to the fight again when things are more favorable, but this overlooks one glaring fact. It has never been favorable for the Church in the world. The storm is always raging, and the winds and the rain never stop even when you Quit and Split. They only stop when you surrender and become like the world that hates you because it hated Him first.