Thoughts on Dreher’s Benedict Option

Over the past few days I finished reading Rod Dreher’s recent book The Benedict Option. The rough argument of this book is that in order to live a life ordered by God, Christians cannot continue to unreflectively participate in the social, cultural, political and economic institutions of modern society as these are contrary to Christianity. As a result it is the task of Christians to create parallel institutions and forms of communal life that allow them to sustain the Christian way of life as society moves in a post-Christian direction dominated by nihilistic individual freedom, consumerism, avarice and hedonism. Dreher calls this approach “the Benedict Option” and rightly points out that this shift would require Christians to sacrifice worldly success in favour of preserving their faith in many cases. The title is reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing comment in After Virtue that like St. Benedict who created a form of monastic life in the late Roman Empire to preserve virtue and learning amidst its collapse, those who are concerned to live a life of virtue will have to create new forms of communal life to foster virtue amidst the new dark ages of bureaucratic state capitalism. Dreher is not suggesting that Christians cut themselves off from modern society, but that they have to intentionally create alternative forms of life that do not fit with the ethos of our age.

Now, given that I am not a Christian this book was not written for me. Much of it is an exhortation to Christians to see the way in which modern society corrodes the virtues of charity, hope and agape that the Gospel makes primary. So why did I read it?

I read it for two related reasons. For one I spent a significant part of my undergraduate and graduate study on the works of Aristotle, and consider myself to be something of an Aristotleian, although a relatively unorthodox one. Furthermore, for me, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a powerful critique of modernity that any Aristotleian who seeks to reform modernity needs to address. In light of that I was interested in reading Dreher’s book because of the fact that it was inspired by MacIntyre’s critique of modernity and could be arguably said to reflect MacIntyre’s exhortation that modernity cannot be reformed to be made consonant with the life of virtue.

Secondly, over the past couple of years I have begun reading articles on The American Conservative, an online journal that Rod Dreher edits. I was drawn to this journal because it presents a sophisticated conservative Christian perspective of the world that is critical of many aspects of modernity that are concerning to me such as consumerism, instrumentalism and historical/cultural illiteracy, but at the same time stands opposed to my left-liberal political positions in its endorsement of a conservative Christian approach to ethics and politics.

I will give Dreher credit as his book is clearly written, and avoids being overly academic while retaining a significant degree of sophistication. Furthermore, those who already agree with Dreher about the nature of modernity and its opposition to Christian life, will find useful suggestions for how they can preserve their way of life. However, my issue with this book is that it does very little to convince those who are not already convinced of Dreher’s diagnosis of modernity and understanding of the Christian faith. This may be by design but if so, this was a mistake within the design of the work, as Dreher is very clear that he wants to bring people to an authentic Christian way of life, which means one of his goals is not merely to show Benedictines how to proceed, but to convince those who see the Benedict Option as an error and misunderstanding of modernity. Dreher has no expectation that he will change the culture at large, but he wants to help people see the light even if they are not already convinced.

1) Freedom, Authenticity, Modernity and Christianity

In The Benedict Option, Dreher asserts as opposed to argues that the modern account of freedom and authenticity are inherently nihilistic and self-centered with their focus on the satisfaction of all desires and cannot be reconciled with the notion that the Christian God sets proper limits on man’s freedom. While this is a typical cultural conservative reading of modern individualism it is peculiar that while Dreher invokes Charles Taylor’s account of the change from premodern to modern attitudes in Latin Christendom he does not make much of an effort to engage with Taylor’s defense of freedom and authenticity. For Taylor, the conservative reading of the demand for individual authenticity as nihilistic and self centered is inaccurate and problematic because it covers over the sense in which individual authenticity is about growth towards a more fully developed self. The notion of individualism and authenticity may tend to be used as a justification for satisfaction of all base desires, but the thought undergirding this notion imply a notion of particularized teleology in which each agent has the responsibility to develop to the fullest according to their unique nature. This of course removes the idea that there could be a single standard for human excellence, but it is more complex than a simple sensuous hedonism, as your life can be a failure if you just pursue your basest desires and conform rather than developing your unique essence.

Now, given that I am not a Christian I do not want to get into the debate of whether Christian faith can be reconciled with the modern conception of authenticity as I am simply not learned enough about Christian theology to have an informed opinion. But given that Taylor, is a practicing Roman Catholic who identifies himself strongly with the Christian faith and with the post romantic expressivist concept of authenticity it is not simply obvious that Dreher is warranted in asserting the irreconcilability of authenticity and Christianity. Furthermore, many of the sources of post romantic expressivist tradition which gives birth to the idea of authenticity emerge from the tradition of Christianity. In particular, Herder and Hegel come to mind as thinkers who tried to reconcile both the demand for authenticity and Christian faith. There is a debate here and one that requires those who see these poles as irreconcilable to address them.

Relatedly, Dreher draws on Phillip Rieff to argue that the culture of modernity is an anti-culture, rather than a true culture as it places no prohibitions on desire and does not have a sense of what it is good to be, that informs and drives its practises and norms. For the reasons pointed out above this seems to be an intellectually uncharitable account of modern culture that focuses on the fact that liberation from previous forms of tradition is built into the notion of authenticity, without realizing that the demand for authenticity is a standard, and one that is broadly shared. The demand that we develop ourselves by looking inside at what we really want to be and truly admire is as much a standard as the requirement of following an orthodox reading of the Gospel.

Now, Dreher does gesture towards the fact that there are other standards as he notes that many Christians in the USA are not in fact Christians, but Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. Moralistic Therapeutic Deists believe that:

1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there may be some resonance between point 3 and the demand for authenticity and individuality, the way that point 3 is formulated purposefully emphasizes the hedonistic aspect of the demand for being self-directed, rather than the fact that the pursuit of authenticity is not simply about feeling good about oneself but of achieving one’s particular excellence. The authentic life may involve feeling good about oneself, but feeling good about oneself is not enough for authenticity. We might say that in terms of authenticity original sin involves not listening to the voice of God in our hearts, but obeying the voice of worldly pleasure or acclaim. Authenticity in this regard has no necessary place for Grace in that the voice within does not necessary require God’s Grace to be heard, but still the demand for authenticity is related to Augustine spirituality and not necessarily opposed to it. It is perfectly plausible to argue that finding one’s authentic way of life requires God’s Grace even if it is possible to formulate authenticity without allusion to Grace. As a result, Dreher’s reading of modern notions of fulfillment are particularly uncharitable, and do not engage with the richness involved in these ideas as we can see by the way in which he tries to frame the demand for authenticity either as nihilistic self-seeking or the pursuit of feeling good about oneself.

2) Children and Exiting Benedictine Communities

Throughout his book Dreher discusses people who are pursuing the Benedict Option in their own lives and exhorts others to follow in their footsteps. This often involves raising children according to a specifically Classical-Christian education with the church and the faith as the centre of their lives. Now, it is certainly true that every culture inculcates their children with a specific sense of the good , and modernity is no more free of inculcating a specific set of cultural mores than Benedictine communities are. So, from this narrow perspective it is a merely a matter of which form of education and acculturation is superior. However, there are two other aspects of this issue which Dreher does not touch on in any significant depth that need to be discerned. The first pertains to the right to exit a community and the second pertains to the fact that people drawn to the Benedict Option in Dreher’s work, including Dreher himself, tend to be converts who have seen the light as opposed to people raised in Benedictine style communities. In both cases, while I would absolutely defend Dreher’s right to withdraw and live in a Benedictine community I am not sure if the good of children is being fully considered in the construction of Benedictine communities. This perspective reflects my unapologetic liberalism and I am sure Dreher would disagree, but again I think that Dreher needs to confront these objections head on, which he does not do within his book.

With regard to the right to exit, in Brian Barry’s Culture and Equality Barry makes the apt point that communities have the right to raise their children according to their own values and norms within the bounds of the law. Furthermore, while it is true that this means many children will stay in cultural communities that they disagree with and find stifling, because they do not want to sever ties with their families, the state should not try to use state coercion to ensure that these communities have more “inclusive” values. Here, Barry makes a distinction between internal costs of exiting a community, and external costs of exiting a community. Internal costs are those associated with losing contact with friends and family, excommunication; these internal costs are costs that those who leave must bare because while they are significant they are internally related to the goods and practises of the community in question.

Religious communities, as associations, have every right to excommunicate someone who fails to obey the rules of the community, and there is no requirement that they adopt the rules of behaviour to the wisdom of mainstream society. They cannot coerce the person, but they can ban them from the association. However, the challenge occurs when a community is structured in a way that leaving it does not merely mean leaving familial ties and affective ties, but in which leaving the community will deprive you of what you are entitled to as a citizen of the state. The example that Barry gives is of the Amish in Pennsylvania who have right to opt out of paying social security as employer and employees. As a result, if an Amish person decides to leave they are not entitled to social security commensurate with the time they have worked. This places an unfair burden and an external cost on exiting the community, and one that disadvantages those who have a desire to leave the community, including the young.

Now, it is not clear if Dreher would see it as legitimate to opt out of social security or other forms of government entitlements that bestow benefits on all individual citizens of a particular state. But the demand to develop parallel institutions creates the risk of depriving children of what they are entitled to as citizens. So, Dreher needs to address this concern as it could form a significant objection to his project.

Secondarily, the fact that many members of Benedictine Communities come to these communities later in life after seeing that the life of consumerism, career ambition and modernity are unsatisfying, raises the question of whether their commitment to their faith is so strong because they have made the choice to reject modern idols and live an orthodox Christian life. If children are raised within Benedictine Communities that focus on a particular interpretation of the gospels rather than the free wheeling notion of freedom and authenticity, will they be given an equivalent opportunity to explore and come to understand what they think makes life significant as those who have joined these communities after living in the mainstream of society and finding it wanting. Again, the answer to this question are not clearly answered in The Benedict Option, but some of the language of shaping children seems to me to echo the Platonic mistake of trying not merely to portray the beauty of their communities’ way of life, but of ensuring that the community continues indefinitely without change. If Benedictine Communities go down this path and deny children the opportunity to explore other modes of thought and life in a charitable manner, but simply try to ensure that their account of Christian life continues they will be denying children the ability to take full responsibility for their lives. This reduces children to means to continuance of a way of life, and disrespects their fundamental dignity. Furthermore, this dignity is reflected in the Gospel by the notion of freewill. All need to come to God willingly, not because their pastor, father, husband or wife wants them to.

Altogether, I encourage other non-Christians to read The Benedict Option because of the honesty of its perspective and the challenge that it poses. While this book is not for us, there are valuable insights in it about the corrosive effects of modernity that any person looking for significance in their life can appreciate. However, it does leave much to be desired in its failure to charitably engage with modernity and I hope that defenders of the book and Dreher rise to the occasion to charitably engage with modernity.

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Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

Love and Recognition

Steven Kruppe and Jasmine Walker were a couple deeply in love with one another.  They were similar in all relevant ways, yet their energies and personalities complemented each other to create a perfect whole. The most peculiar, yet admirable trait, that they held in common was that each did not care what any other thought of them. Neither person was bothered by negative reputation, nor did they feel shame if they did something that “society” deemed inappropriate. Jasmine was known to fart loudly in elevators rather than hold it in, as she was unconcerned with what others thought of her, and Steven would reveal any detail of his personal life at the drop of a hat if he felt so inclined. He once shared the details of his genital warts with a cashier that was ringing up his groceries. The cashier felt deeply uncomfortable, but in Steven’s mind he was just trying to warn the youngster about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Further, the fact that Jasmine and Steven did not care about what others thought of them was not confined to strangers; rather Steven and Jasmine had agreed that within their relationship, they should not do things that they did not enjoy just to please the other. Consequently, Steven would wash the dishes, not because Jasmine would appreciate such an act, but because washing the dishes was an activity that was truly fulfilling to Steven. The same principle applied to all of Jasmine’s activities; Jasmine cleaned the toilets twice a week, not because Steven was obsessed with cleanliness and she wanted to please him, but because her authentic calling in this area of her relationship was to clean toilets. In fact she only felt whole if she cleaned toilets.

One day Steven received a diagnosis that he had terminal cancer, and that he had only a couple of months to live. Unexpectedly this diagnosis was shocking and upsetting for Steven. At first Steven just thought about all the things that he would not be able to do in his life, but then he began to have a new concern, and a concern that he had not experienced in a long time; he began to worry about how he would be remembered by Jasmine. He now had an intense desire for Jasmine to remember him as a loving, honest, courageous man who deeply cared for her.

When Steven told Jasmine the news she was devastated. After finding her soul mate she was now bound to lose him; “how could she find somebody like Steven again?” However, she was perplexed by certain changes that began to occur in Steven’s behaviour. Steven began to do things that he did not enjoy doing, that Jasmine appreciated having done. At first she saw this as a betrayal of her and Steven’s philosophy. She thought to herself that “this diagnosis must be driving Steven insane as he has betrayed the very element of his lifestyle that formed a bond between us.” But over time she began to see that Steven’s “insane” acts were enhancing their bond, and she began doing things that she did not enjoy to in order to please Steven.