Surely there has never been a richer and more deeply faithful model of Christian faith and practice than that offered by the leaders of the Church in Roman Cappadocia in the fourth and fifth centuries. Think of Basil the Great, exhorting the rich of Caesarea to “empty their barns” to feed the poor, building hospitals for the sick, upholding Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians, teaching young Christians the right uses of pagan literature. And Basil was only one among many great ones, even in his own neighborhood: His sister Macrina, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were all titans of faith and charity, and built a thoroughgoing Christian culture the likes of which the Church has rarely if ever seen.
In 1974, when the great bishop-theologian Lesslie Newbigin retired from his decades of labor in the Church of South India, he and his wife decided to make their way back to their native England by whatever kind of transportation was locally available, taking their time, seeing parts of the world that most Europeans never think of: from Chennai to Birmingham by bus. Newbigin would later write in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, that everywhere they went, even in the most unlikely places, they found Christian communities—with one exception. “Cappadocia, once the nursery of Christian theology, was the only place in our whole trip where we had to have our Sunday worship by ourselves, for there was no other Christian to be found.”
If the complete destruction of a powerful and beautiful Christian culture could happen in Cappadocia, it can happen anywhere, and to acknowledge that possibility is mere realism, not a refusal of Christian hope. One refuses Christian hope by denying that Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, not by saying that Christianity can disappear from a particular place at a particular time.
Therefore, to argue, as many have, that the argument Rod Dreher makes in The Benedict Option is despairing, and hopeless, and a failure to trust in the Lord Jesus, is a category error. It takes a set of sociological and historical judgments and treats them as though they were metaphysical assertions. Anyone in Roman Cappadocia who had said that the culture Basil and his colleagues had built was not bound to last until the Lord returns would not have been deficient in Christian hope. Rather, he or she would have been offering a useful reminder of the vagaries of history, to which even the most faithful Christians are subject. Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong historically and prudentially, not metaphysically.
So the whole debate over The Benedict Option needs to be brought down out of the absolutist clouds and grounded in more historical particularities. However, and alas, this is something that neither Dreher nor his opponents seem inclined to do. Almost every party to this dispute seems to be painting with the broadest brushes they can get their hands on. Thus Dreher: “It is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.” All of them? Without exception? No room for familial discernment and prudential judgment? And from the other side, here’s the verdict of one of Dreher’s more thoughtful critics, Elizabeth Bruenig: “Building communities of virtue is fine, but withdrawing from conventional politics is difficult to parse with Christ’s command that we love our neighbors.” We can’t love our neighbor without voting? The hospice-care worker who is too busy and tired to get to the polling place is deficient in charity? Such an argument would seem to delegitimate most monastic ways of life, which makes it an odd position for a Catholic of some traditionalist sympathies, like Bruenig, to make.
Bruenig’s position flows from her deployment of one massive categorical assumption: that we (that is, all of us who participate in this debate) are “liberal subjects” in a democratic order. Dreher’s position flows from his deployment of an even larger categorical assumption: that we are all residents of “the West” during its final decline. Each of these governing categories is far, far too coarse to have either diagnostic or prescriptive value. I want to suggest a model for thinking about the matters raised by Dreher’s book that is less sweeping in its assumptions than the ones supporters and critics of the Benedict Option alike tend to employ.
I begin with St. Paul’s long discourse in 1 Corinthians 12 about the many members of Body of Christ and their complex interrelationship. These members have widely varying functions, but every member should be treated by the others as having value and dignity. Indeed, the Apostle says, those members whom the world thinks of as having the least dignity should be considered by the rest of the body as having the greatest. And no member may under any circumstances say to any other, “I have no need of you.” St. Paul’s argument here has long been foundational to the Church’s understanding of, for instance, the via activa and via contemplativa. By the standards of the world, contemplatives are useless, unproductive, and indifferent to “real-life concerns,” which is precisely why the Church, when it is healthy-minded, values them so highly. And the material resources generated by those who are active in the world make it possible for contemplatives to live as they do, a boon for which contemplatives at their best are always grateful. At the highest level of Christian devotion, these people who live radically different lives practice what Charles Williams called the Way of Exchange: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.”
I think this principle can and should be applied not just at the level of individual choice but in broader social and communal categories as well. Christian parents who teach their children at home should be grateful that other Christian parents are helping their children to bear witness in public schools. Indeed, these members of the Body should make a point of praying for and encouraging each other: The parents and children alike can learn from, and be enriched by, one another’s experiences. This can only happen if each side—if we must think in terms of sides; better perhaps to continue to speak of members, organs—if each member assumes the integrity of the others. Those parents whose children attend public schools must resist the temptation to scorn homeschoolers as fearfully insular; homeschoolers must resist the temptation to belittle public-school parents as worldly and indifferent to their children’s spiritual welfare. Similarly, those who are engaged for distinctively Christian reasons in political activism should be grateful for those who may never have voted in their lives but who pray daily for the peace and flourishing of the city, and who should return the gratitude.
What I have just sketched is the mutual charity—grounded in the recognition that the Body of Christ is so complex that it will inevitably have many members pursuing many different primary goods—which in turn provides the only proper foundation for addressing, as we must, the larger questions of balance in the life of the church. For it is certainly possible, indeed likely, that at any given moment, and in any given place, some of the body’s members will be hypertrophied as others suffer atrophy. These conditions are locally variable, and the accuracy with which sound judgments can be made will decrease dramatically with distance—a vital fact rarely acknowledged by those who prescribe how others should raise their children, or how deeply those others should be involved in electoral politics. This local variability also makes it difficult to speak of the condition of “the West” in terms that will help any given Christian better understand the demands and decisions that he or she must face each waking day. Despite the best homogenizing efforts of technocratic modernity, “the West” is not the same in Paris, France and Paris, Texas, or in Athens, Greece and Athens, Georgia.
None of these observations should be construed as a counsel of relativism. Some Christians do behave unwisely, raise their children badly, fail to invest as fully as they should in their communities, and so on. But sound judgments are hard to make from a distance. When my son attended public school, some people told my wife and me that we were unwise to let this happen; when we started teaching him at home, other people shook their heads in disapproval at our change of course. Only those who knew us well understand our reasons for both decisions. We would all be wise to spend considerable time comparing notes with one another before we pronounce any confident verdicts.
The sociologist James Davison Hunter has rightly said that Christians in general should strive for “faithful presence” in the public world, and there are, sad to say, multiple ways to fail at this task. One can spend so much time focusing on one’s faithfulness that one forgets to be present, or be sufficiently content with mere presence that one forgets the challenge of genuine faithfulness. It is also possible to conceive of “presence” too narrowly: again, I would contend that the hermit who prays ceaselessly for peace and justice is present in the world to an extent that few of the rest of us will ever achieve. But that said, and all my other caveats registered, I suspect that if American Christians have a general inclination, it is towards thinking that presence itself is sufficient, which causes us to neglect the difficult disciplines of genuine Christian faithfulness. This is certainly what the work of Christian Smith and his sociological colleagues—on which Dreher relies heavily—suggests.
And that is reason enough to applaud Dreher’s presentation of the Benedict Option, because his portraits of intentional communities of disciplined Christian faith, thought, and practice provide a useful mirror in which the rest of us can better discern the lineaments of our own lives. A similar challenge comes to us through Charles Marsh’s 2005 book The Beloved Community, which presents equally intentional and equally Christian communities, though ones motivated largely by the desperate need in this country for racial reconciliation. To look at such bold endeavors in communal focus, purpose, and integrity is to risk being shamed by their witness.
If we are willing to take that risk, we might learn a few things, not all of them consoling, about ourselves and our practices of faith. And our own daily habits are where the rubber meets the road, not in abstractions about liberal subjects and the decline of the West. Reducing the scope of the questions Dreher raises to the ambit of the local and personal could have the additional positive effect of lowering the stakes of the debate, which, in part because it has been conducted at the level of competing world-historical metanarratives, has far too often been reduced to charges and counter-charges of bad faith and unworthy motivation. (Hannah Arendt commented in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the self-perceived superiority of the Communist revolutionary elite “consists in their ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.” If you don’t see the True Path of History, then the only question is what mental or moral deficiency blinds you to the obvious. Too many comments on The Benedict Option, pro and con, have consisted of similar declarations about other people’s purposes, leaving matters of fact by the wayside.)
So my chief counsel, when considering the proposals made in The Benedict Option, is to think locally and act locally, too, with the understanding that if other people’s motives may be impure, so too, surely, are your own. Even if you are properly and firmly confident that in the end all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, you probably have certain temperamental inclinations that will make it difficult for you to assess your own condition accurately.
The theological virtue of hope—situated, as Thomas Aquinas taught, midway between the vices of despair and presumption—has its everyday and practical counterpart, too, which should not be confused with it but which has a similar emotional tone. It is possible to despair unnecessarily over local conditions, to fail to discern possibilities that are actually there; and it is possible to be presumptuous about them as well, assuming that nothing really bad can happen. (Surely there were Cappadocian Christians who were guilty of that.) Which of those tendencies you are prone to is something you can know only through self-examination, but self-examination in the company of other Christians who are sufficiently different that they can see things about yourself that you can’t. This mutual teaching and learning is part of the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, the body that is also an intricately interconnected ecosystem of communities and practices.
In the meantime, if you are a Christian who is called to life “in the midst,” in the world, you would do well to find ways to turn regularly inward, towards the traditional ways and means of the Christian faith by which you may regularly renew yourself, lest you end up being not just in the world but also of it. And if you are called to a “community of virtue,” you would do well to find ways to face outward, towards mission, towards the saeculum for the salvation of whose people Christ came. An intentional Christian community is not a sacrament, but is like the sacraments insofar as it hopes to be an outward and visible sign of an inner and invisible grace. To that degree that hope is realized such a community exists, or should exist, in the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.” And it can have that quasi-sacramental efficacy only if it knows itself to be related by Blood to those still fully in the world, who will, if they know what they’re about, reflect from time to time on those oddball groups of believers who just may be learning something of great value that is mostly hidden from the rest of us.
Alan Jacobs is distinguished professor of the humanities at Baylor University.