By Jeff Mallinson –
When overwhelming temptation presents itself, what do you do? Do you run, indulge, or do you attempt some way to inflict punishment on yourself in order to do the right thing? I tried this last approach a few years back with my friend and colleague, Betsi. We both were trying to stay on track with our diet and exercise. We decided that if we didn’t meet certain benchmarks of progress, we would contribute money to our least favorite organization, a group we despised. In the end, that plan didn’t work as a motivator. What I was missing was a way to restructure my way of thinking and my daily routine.
St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) is famous for composing the monastic “rule” used by many Western orders. In some ways, he attempted to find holiness both through negative reinforcement and through positive spiritual formation. He sought beauty in the face of God, and his road was that of a self-renunciation and asceticism. He lived at the end of an era. Rome was crumbling. The so-called Dark Ages were closing in. The US is the last remaining super power. A couple other nations are close behind, but have internal economic weaknesses that threaten to trip them up in their race to wherever we’re all supposed to be heading geopolitically. In this context, folks either pay too little attention to the collapse of Rome or too much. We can’t ignore history’s lessons. Nonetheless, we must resist the tendency to assume that cultural doom is inevitable. Such assumptions tend to become self-fulfilled prophecies. In any case, there are significant similarities between Benedict’s situation and our own.
On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, Dan and I stumble around a phrase we’ve heard but, like some fragmented dream we half-remember in the morning, our recollection of the details was hazy. That phrase was “The Benedict Option.” Dan remembered it as the “Benedict Solution” which turns out to be a chemical solution used to detect the presence of glucose in urine! I had the basic gist that it referred to the basic theme of retreat from a debased culture and the creation of an alternative culture. But, having just read through Benedict’s Rule with an upper-division class, I couldn’t keep conflating this concept as it’s being used today with the actual details of this austere monastic way.
Fortunately, we’ve got a friend and sharp thinker, Jesse Nigro, who was able to set us straight. It turns out that the phrase was coined by Rod Dreher, and refers to one of my favorite ethicists, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his monumental After Virtue. On his blog, he summarizes this option:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
Ah then, now we have something to work with! MacIntyre, if you’ve listened to the show, has been formative in not only reminding us of the importance of virtue theory for times such as these, but also for noticing that, at least when it comes to the question of the good, we live in an age when we are playing with tools our ancestors built, but we no longer understand those tools nor could we craft them from scratch. That is, we live in an era of taboos without understanding the source of our taboos. We talk about right and wrong, but do so in a way that increasingly seems severed from the rest of our language or ways of thinking about reality. We’ve also more than once argued that American Christians panic that the American empire isn’t acting as Christian as we want it to, that the state isn’t doing a proper job enforcing the formative practices needed for Christian discipleship. In other words, if we look at Dreher’s quotation alone, we’ve resonated very much indeed with this sentiment, with the one exception being that Dan is a much bigger fan of the Enlightenment than most religious folks and postmodern thinkers would consider decent.
Dreher indicates that the Benedict option idea comes from a passage in After Virtue:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict. [p. 245]
The context and value of this idea is a cultural context in the US in which many of the old ways, all at once, are falling off our national tree like autumn leaves, although not as serenely as that, according to conservatives. The context is that conservative Christians are wondering what to do now that the state no longer thinks about Holy Matrimony in a manner that is in harmony with longstanding Christian practice.
So what of this option for those of us who dig virtue and the Reformation? Here, we need to be discerning. To the extent that Benedict represents the construction of a community that can habituate virtue, find support in uncertain times, and train creative leaders for an uncertain future, thoughtful and faithful Protestants should agree wholeheartedly. It’s of course time to stop sniping at a secular state and start recognizing the sicknesses within ourselves. It’s time to build a faithful, loving, gracious, and heroic alternative kingdom. Likewise, we need not resort to adding more moralism to our sermons. Rather, we need to look at the entire life of formation within our alternative kingdom. We need to strengthen the ties within our churches and strengthen our engagement with those in need around us.
Two worries remain, however. Again, these worries are probably due of my fundamental Lutheran allergy to monastic asceticism in general. The first is that it would be uncharitable to think of this Option as a sort of “If you aren’t going to play my way, I’m taking my ball home” move. I’m not saying that’s what Dreher’s after, but I fear that’s how it might become enacted in less thoughtful individuals and churches. Even then, I suppose fine. That’s America. Follow your bliss. The second worry is more profoundly theological. By summoning the ghost of Benedict, if we were to take this too far, we’d be following a path that is alluring but, ultimately, a spiritual cul-de-sac.
An oft-told story about Benedict involves his stumbling upon a beautiful woman. She ignited his libido to such an extent that he stripped and threw himself into thorn bushes. That’s one way, I suppose, to get your mind off sex: start thinking about the lacerations you’ve just inflicted upon your own body. ven if the story is apocryphal, the idea fits with the self-flogging way of a certain kind of monk. Luther tried this and was reminded of something important. The illness is not just out there. As long as we think this, we can’t get healthy. The illness is not in the beauty of the woman. Women are not coerced into sex because of what they wear. They’re not even mistreated because of our bodies. Their mistreated because the sickness is at our very core. We can’t retreat and escape it. We’ll just take the infection back to our cloisters, actual or metaphorical. What then? We should do as Dreher says: focus on positive formation within our communities. Get healthy. Learn to heal. And then, after applying some medicine to our own inner sickness, we get out into the world, without being of it. We get right into the fray. We do this with beacons, not bludgeons. Benedict preserved something, as did many monks that followed. But the best Christian heroes were those who stepped out into the marketplace of ideas, into the various vocations of this beautiful but broken life, and became worldly saints. Worldly saints don’t need to lacerate themselves. They rely on the Lacerated One who takes away the sins of our ostensibly barbaric world.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Sodoma II, “Life of Saint Benedict: Benedict is Tempted” Monteoliveto Maggiore (1505-08)
Composed while sipping Arizona Green Tea, between chapters of Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.