I may be somewhat out of step with my fellow Reformed Christians in acknowledging a certain affinity for St. Benedict and the way of life he represents. In my youth I made the chance discovery, via the Lutherans, of the ancient Daily Office, associated with the early monasteries and prescribed in St. Benedict’s Rule. I grew to love this pattern of daily prayer, and it managed to change my life, immersing me in the Psalms and the rest of Holy Scripture, as well as in the early Christian canticles and hymns. For monks in the Benedictine tradition, daily prayer structures the entire day and the whole of their life in community. I could not help but wonder what would happen if the majority of Christian laity outside the monasteries were to take up this practice. If enough people did so, it might just change the course of history.
When I read some time ago that Rod Dreher was writing a book called The Benedict Option, I looked forward to reading it, suspecting that his vision might closely approximate my own hopes for the church's future. I was not disappointed. Dreher’s book is a bracing read, reminding us that the life in Christ is a communal life and that it often requires us to live against the grain of the larger culture. However, his tract for the times is not without defects, which I shall get to shortly.
First the positives. An Orthodox Christian, Dreher emphasizes that believers often must stand against the assumptions of the prevailing culture. Given my paternal Orthodox roots, I am pleased to read this because I recognize the perils of Christians ascribing to their ethnic nationalisms near canonical status. Advancing Romiosini or “Mother Russia” can deflect so many from their primary allegiance to God’s kingdom. Of course, as an American convert to Orthodoxy, Dreher could hardly be expected to identify with Greek or Russian irredentisms. Indeed, he brings to his adopted faith a depth of commitment he had already developed in his former communions.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture (1951) may offer a key to grasping Dreher’s agenda. In Niebuhr’s memorable typology, the “Christ against culture” position is generally associated with the anabaptists, Tolstoyans, and various sects that position themselves as communal alternatives to the larger society, based of course not on ethnic distinctives but on fidelity to the gospel. In my own tradition, I find that many of my fellow Reformed Christians too easily speak of “engaging the culture” without having a strong sense of why they are doing so or of its associated perils. But Dreher gets this. Any effort to transform culture (Niebuhr’s fifth and seemingly favored category) may do nothing of the sort if the Christian community does not first recognize the ways in which it is distinct from the culture it aspires to change.
The author emphasizes in particular the distortions of the sexual revolution and its proponents’ efforts to score a final victory over dissidents, particularly those who persist in affirming a biblical and covenantal understanding of marriage and sexuality. Sad to say, many churches have permitted the revolution to redirect the faith away from the hard path of obedience to one that simply affirms everyone without seeking to transform their affections and their lives by God’s word. It seems easier for some clergy to declare the love of God without emphasizing the need for the disciplined life as a vessel of this love. Nevertheless, proclaiming a boundlessly permissive love is not the gospel. Jesus did not die to liberate us from norms for living but to save us from the power of sin so that we might live for his glory in his good creation empowered by the Holy Spirit. Those who charge Dreher with fear-mongering and focusing too much on sex should recall that sexual libertinism, once thought a dangerous vice, has now been elevated to the hallowed status of an indefeasible human right, with little consideration for the negative consequences of so doing.
Dreher perceptively recognizes that the great falsehood we are fed by our post-Christian culture is that we belong to ourselves and that “one’s individual desires [are] the locus of authority and self-definition.” Here he comes close to the Heidelberg Catechism’s foundational claim that we are indeed not our own but belong to the God who has saved us in Jesus Christ. Small wonder, then, that he finds the Benedictine monasteries so attractive. Here members willingly embrace order, obedience, asceticism, manual labour, geographic stability, and, above all, daily prayer. Where else could one find a community whose very foundational principles contradict our culture of hedonism and egoism?
Where indeed. Of course, the vast majority of Christians cannot embrace celibacy and enter an actual Benedictine monastery. Dreher thus spends much of the remainder of his book visiting Christian communities around the world that have in some fashion exemplified the Benedictine way. These are intentional, multi-generational communities that thrive on liturgical worship, educate their own children, and embody something of a parallel polis—that is, an alternative to the modern political community, living within and alongside it but not investing too much hope in it. They do not eschew politics entirely, but they recognize that “[n]o administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries.”
I was quite drawn in by Dreher’s personal accounts of these communities and his willingness to learn from their experiences. Because I have just completed thirty years of teaching at a Christian university in Canada, I was most interested in his exploration of educational initiatives undertaken by ordinary Christians against long odds. I enthusiastically agree with Dreher’s counsel here: “For serious Christian parents, education cannot be simply a matter of building their child’s transcript to boost her chance of making it into the Ivy League.” And: “The separation of learning from virtue creates a society that esteems people for their success in manipulating science, law, money, images, words, and so forth.” Dreher is right to understand education as formation of the whole person and not simply as the key to a better job.
Despite my general sympathy with what Dreher seeks to do in this book, I am less enthusiastic about other facets of his argument. Chapter 2, on the “Roots of the Crisis,” surveys Western history and draws unwarranted conclusions concerning the relationship between metaphysical realism and the late medieval nominalism of William of Ockham. Dreher contrasts the realist belief that God declares something good because it is good to the nominalist conviction that something is good because God declares it to be good. For the nominalist, “God's will … is more important than God’s intellect.” But what if the very contrast between God’s will and God’s intellect is a false one? What if God transcends this and other distinctions? For example, following Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, I, q. 9, art. 1), the scholastic philosophers famously observed that God is actus purus, or pure actuality, other beings partaking only of potentiality. But the very distinction between act and potentiality is a created distinction, which God brought into being and thus transcends.
One wonders whether the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers, with whom Dreher is in communion, might warn him away from this attempt to capture God within created categories. If so, he might have concluded that both realists and nominalists had missed something fundamental, namely, that God does not merely declare things good because they are good. Nor does he declare something good because he wants it to be good. Rather, God himself is the origin of all good things, which have no existence apart from him. Because Dreher’s account of the historical relationship between realism and nominalism is basic to his subsequent argument, it cannot be dismissed as a side issue. Moreover, it is one example of how his treatment of history dances along the surface of a number of eras, persons, and schools of thought without addressing them in sufficient depth to render them more than caricatures.
The chapter I found most frustrating was chapter 10, on “Man and the Machine,” in which Dreher treats technology. The challenges he addresses are, of course, genuine. When I find myself wondering nervously, in the driver’s seat, whether those pedestrians standing on the corner absorbed in their smart phones will actually walk into the street while I’m turning right, I know something is amiss. Not paying attention to their surroundings, they risk getting hit. At the same time, one cannot launch a broadside against technology in general without causing some unintended collateral damage. After all, we human beings are created to shape culture. The very first chapter of Genesis alludes to this in a passage Reformed Christians often call the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:26-28). Unique among God’s creatures, we do not simply adapt to our natural environment; we adapt that environment to our own needs and purposes. There has never been a time when we did not do this. One might well argue that this is precisely what makes us human. So how can human beings eschew or escape technology? Even as we rail against technology, we do so through technological means such as the printed page or the internet.
What, then, is the difference between the pencil and the iPad? Both are technological means of communication, distinguished only by their respective abilities to reach smaller or larger audiences over lesser or greater distances. Amish and Old Order Mennonites reject the technology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, limiting themselves to horses and carriages and nonelectrical lighting in their homes. Yet in so doing they have not rejected technology as such, only the more recent technological advances. What principles do they employ to enable them to discern which means are permissible and which are not? Why animal power and not the electric motor? Readers might similarly wish to know why Dreher judges newer forms of technology to deprive us of agency but not the older forms with which he appears reasonably comfortable.
Yet it seems clear, at least in some passages, that he sees technology not in structural but in what might be called directional terms. In other words, technology refers, not to the machines themselves, but to a worldview tending to instrumentalize the physical environment surrounding us, including our fellow human beings—a “technocratic mentality.” Here Dreher is closer to the mark. If God gave our first parents a cultural mandate in the first chapter of Genesis, we are painfully aware that by the third chapter that they have messed up, claiming the power to become gods. By the fourth chapter we see men building cities, herding livestock, making music, and fashioning bronze and iron implements. The development of these technologies is inextricably linked with the sin that has already deformed human life in so many ways. By chapter 11, even after God has purged the world with a flood, we see righteous Noah’s wayward descendants once again impressed with their own God-given ability to shape culture and seeking to replace him with the work of their own hands.
Like all idolaters, we have so deified our culture-forming abilities that we believe we can shape our world in ways subject only to our own desires, rather than to the norms God has built into his creation. The key distinction, then, is not between technology and nontechnological life (as if that were possible), but between obedient and disobedient culture-making. This distinction points to what is perhaps the major flaw in Dreher’s otherwise winsome effort: the lack of emphasis on creation as a normative order to which everyone, irrespective of faith, is subject. Catholics call this natural law. Following Abraham Kuyper, Reformed Christians refer to it as common grace. Still others appeal to common sense. Whatever one calls it, the reality that creation constitutes a shared theatre for our ordinary human activities serves at once to soften the divisions among different faith communities and to offer hope in the midst of what may seem like dark times. Dreher has been castigated, not always fairly, for encouraging a “new alarmism” and for stoking fear in the hearts of his fellow Christians. While such criticisms are undoubtedly overstated, a recognition that God is faithful to his creation, even in the midst of our unfaithfulness, might go some way in alleviating Dreher’s own apprehensions.
In its heyday, communism looked set to hang on for the long term, dominating a huge swath of the Eurasian continent and seeking to expand its tentacles elsewhere. One of my graduate school mentors even expressed the opinion that Marxist-Leninist régimes could rule the globe for two centuries. Yet this is to overestimate the power of an ideological illusion to reshape the world in its own image. Why? Because, no matter how powerful a particular political vision may appear to both supporters and detractors, it cannot indefinitely contradict reality with impunity. People can only “live within a lie,” as Václav Havel famously put it, for so long. Truth has a way of making its presence felt, even as some undertake to deny it. Russian communism endured for seven decades before reality finally caught up with it and sent it to the ash heap. In the former Eastern Europe, it lasted only four decades.
Modern liberalism in its various forms—including those popularly labelled “conservative”—has had centuries to shape and misshape our societies. Most notably, liberalism has sought to reconfigure as many communities as possible, including the institutional church, as mere voluntary associations. As it seeks to apply this voluntarism to marriage and family, which are not mere social constructs but are firmly anchored in God’s creation, we may see liberalism at last reaching a breaking point. Reality has a way of reasserting itself, even as people seek to deny it. Dreher is not wrong to alert us to the destructive power individualism and unbridled desire exert on the social fabric, but he would do even better to recognize that, by God’s grace, new forms of order manage to emerge out of the apparent chaos of social fragmentation. It has happened repeatedly throughout history and it will likely happen again. Yes, intentional communities may hasten that day, as did the first Benedictines, but creation itself is on their side, pulling even nonbelievers and adherents of other faiths in the right direction over the long term.
In the short term, there is ample reason for hope. Anyone paying attention to the world outside North America will recognize that the Holy Spirit is moving mightily in key regions of the globe. We have recently read that by 2030 China is likely to become the largest Christian country in the world, despite the official atheism that has dominated for the last nearly seven decades. Moreover, in a country that has been ruled by an islamist government since 1979, hundreds of thousands of Iranians are turning to Christ, something outsiders could never have anticipated a short time ago. Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, boasts a huge evangelical community that has grown ninefold since 1970, during which time the country’s population has doubled. Seen from a global perspective, the church is steadily growing in ways that may be hidden from us in the West. I would love to hear Dreher’s thoughts on these developments.
Finally, I cannot resist commenting on Dreher’s use of the word “option.” Given that so much of our culture revolves around enabling individuals to choose, full stop, I would have used a different word: perhaps “path” or “way.” The book of Acts tells us that the first Christians referred to their own faith as “The Way” (9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:14, 22), indicating thereby that the faith is not merely a collection of dogmas but an active life of obedience to the God who has saved us through his Son. To live according to The Way is not merely one option among many; it is the path that leads to life. With Dreher, I believe that the future of Christ’s church lies, not with any one denomination or communion, but with Christians across denominational lines who simply undertake to live obediently in gratitude for their salvation. Whether we describe this way as Benedictine is not the most important thing, as Dreher would likely admit. But whatever we label it, it is something to which all Christians everywhere are called.
David Koyzis is Fellow in Politics at the St. George's Centre for Biblical and Public Theology, Burlington, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.