Benedict Options

It is the season for considering the proposal of the Benedict Option. Everybody is talking about it except Westminster Seminary. I asked somebody who knows, who keeps an eye on what others are saying within and without, and the word is that they’re not interested at WTS. It is one of the things I’ve found to admire about presuppositionalists: they do not care about the ferment of the wider world because they believe the wider world is mad. It means you don’t have to be conscious of the currents. On the other hand, all that counts is their current, which is the problem.

Anyway, Benedict Options are being placed on the table, and there are currents swirling around it. I gather what I do without research, in this case, because I have other researches to occupy me at this time. It comes by the illative sense, and you must take it as such.

What is the Benedict Option? It is based on an alarm about the state of civilization. Western Civilization is over, we need to quit worrying about rescuing the world from what is coming, we need instead to make sure we keep what we have: Christianity. The situation principally requires we become concerned with survival.

The appeal of such an option is the appeal of prudence. Conservative books of doom have been telling us for ages that Western Civilization is over. People who know how complex a thing civilization is, how fragile ours has become, recognize that things will not continue to be as they are. Civilizations have collapsed in the past, and we have read of the carnage.

That which makes it not quite appealing is the element of predicting the future. I admire John Lukacs for this: he can talk of doom and frankly point out bad conditions, but he refuses to predict the future. One simply cannot know what tomorrow will be, no matter how much one knows. False—even if they are conservative—prophets have to redefine what has happened today to fit yesterday’s prediction. It never quite matches up. Nor is that business uncommon. Is what will happen next all that obvious? Rod Dreher—the man advocating a Benedict Option—admits he did not see Trump coming, but is nevertheless sure calamity is in store. (And if you read the news today, calamity is in store. My money is nevertheless still on Trump.)

No doubt calamity is in store. History is a series of calamities, of natural and of human agency. I have no doubt the postmodern condition is crumbling away and will no longer obtain, and we may even look back on it as a better age. All good things must come to an end. Byzantium ended, Hellenism ended, the Roman Republic ended, Christendom endeth, Periclean Athens ended, England that was is no more, and so will the USA be, and is.

The Benedict Option calls for bunkers of the mind: Christians giving priority to Christian rather than American institutions. Because of this, the transformationalists are a bit worked up, as you can imagine. They are not the only ones, but you can see what is being sorted and why it is confusing. Christianity has an obligation, in their minds, to transform our society. It is not simply a matter of providing good Christian witness, it is a matter, for them, of excluding a vital part of that Christian witness: the social.

A taxonomy was recently suggested in one of the more illuminating comments at the Internet Roach Motel. I was reading it because it mentioned the PCUSA, which is the denomination Princeton Seminary aligns with. It offered these four positions:

1 – the gospel is all this-worldly. Let us make a difference here and now.

2 – the gospel is half this-worldly and half other-worldly. Let us hold both firmly.

3 – the gospel is mostly other-worldly but with crucial this-worldly implications. Let us not leave these out. And here, I may add, is the bulk of Christian sympathy, though it is probably moving upward on this list rather than downward.

4 – the gospel is radically other-worldly, this-worldly implications matter, but in comparison with what is other-worldly concerns, these implications are ephemeral.

The Benedict Option challenges the first and second. It challenges the first option because it is not a theologically radical option. It affirms that this world is not our home in a way that an exclusively or nearly exclusively this-worldly gospel never can. It challenges the second as well, establishing a priority where one is not desired. And you have to bear in mind that the reality is probably that these positions are better seen as a spectrum, so something of the third position is in some way challenged as well.

Because I wonder if fundamentalists (who I would suppose are in the lower regions that I myself inhabit) find the Benedict Option all that novel. I say that since the debating going on strikes me as very much like the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. How far gone are the institutions? When do we pull out? If we stay, will we keep anything at all? What is our identity and how do we maintain it? I think that with the Benedict Option Christians are debating identity, or neglecting to debate identity, again. If that were clear, then the question would come into focus which the Benedict Option seeks to answer: how to we interact with the world, given who we are? And my sense is that the confusion around the issue has to do with an incoherent answer to the prior question of identity. I think all that is mixing about right now is a sorting of those who are clearer about identity being pulled toward each other. These last are already focused on the question of how we interact, to the extent that they are clear about identity. But I have to wonder if most are.

That, for what it is worth, is what I make of it.

One penultimate observation: here is a good opportunity for scholars of that early 20th century phenomenon to offer advice, it seems to me. Not to use history to predict the future, but to use the kinds of complete or at least realistic considerations that one can sometimes obtain from remembering the past to inform our present moment.

Ultimate, dangling, and not as important observation: all my sympathies are with the last. Hence: Platonism, being a low-church Baptist, and probably the temperament of one who was shaped in circles of premillennial outlook which is not, regarding this-worldly’s order, sanguine. I am not now a premillennialist, but one doesn’t just shed these forming influences easily, they are part of one’s identity and for that reason cherished. I actually think how seriously you take what is other-worldly will relativize what is this-worldly, with the result that this world can be important enough; it is not a zero-sum game, but rather one of proportions: the greater the one, the greater it will make the other, for all that it is small in comparison.


One thought on “Benedict Options

  1. I mentioned the “Benedict Option” in a class I taught Wednesday night on Church History. I referenced the following recent articles that might be of interest to your readers considering the debate incited by Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017):

    Patrick J. Deneen, “Moral Minority” (APR 2017), on First Things at [accessed 18 MAR 2017].
    Note: This is a free article. No subscription or purchase is required.

    R. Reno, “Getting Augustine Wrong,” First Things (APR 2017), pp. 3-7; on First Things at [accessed 22 MAR 2017].
    Note: Subscription or purchase is required to read the full article.

    James K. A. Smith, “The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call?” (16 MAR 2017), on Comment at [accessed 18 MAR 2017].

    See also:

    James K.A. Smith, “The new alarmism: How some Christians are stoking fear rather than hope” (10 MAR 2017), on The Washington Post at [accessed 22 MAR 2017]. This article by Smith was responded to (in no uncertain terms) by the senior editor of First Things, Mark Bauerlein, “A Cheap Shot On Chaput, Esolen, Dreher” (14 MAR 2017), on First Things at [accessed 22 MAR 2017].

    Katelyn Beaty, “Christians have lost the culture wars. Should they withdraw from the mainstream?” (2 MAR 2017), on The Washington Post at [accessed 22 MAR 2017].

    Beyond these The New York Times, National Review, World, The Federalist, The American Conservative, Albert Mohler, and more may be consulted!

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