Is the Benedict option a blessing or a curse? And is it an option?

In the face of the new dark age of selfish, utilitarian, therapeutic individualism that's engulfing the Western world, there's talk of what's called "the Benedict option:" essentially following the example of St. Benedict of Nursia and withdrawing into our own sanctified communities whose example will be our testimony to a culture that has lost its way.

It has its attractive side. Why should Christians continue to butt their heads against the wall of an increasingly ignorant and self-destructive culture that just isn't listening? It's tempting to simply wash our hands of a society which has redefined marriage in such a way as to make monogamy and childbearing and even nature irrelevant; which reacts to increasing information about the destructive nature of pre-marital co-habitation by making it the norm at a time when the divorce rate is already a scandal; which embraces abortion and- in some places- physician- assisted suicide as somehow life-affirming. Why not withdraw into a kind of semi-monastic bunker, and wait for 1) the example that isn't being heeded while we engage with society to suddenly become compelling when we withdraw from it; or 2) Jesus to return and sort everything out?

Gene Veith discusses whether there can be a Lutheran (or biblical) version of the Benedict Option here. I have to admit that it's tempting.

Constantine made Christianity cool. All the beautiful people became Christians when Constantine made Christianity the official religion o the Empire. Being baptized was the latest craze, and if you wanted to get ahead in politics, government, or society, it was essential.

But in a situation like that, the word "Christian" tends to quickly lose its meaning. Christianity hemorrhages commitment and, in the last analysis, content. "A little religion," C.S. Lewis's fictional demon, Screwtape, writes to his nephew and apprentice tempter, Slubgub, "is as useful for our purposes as none at all- and much more amusing." The élan of Christianity's early days vanished; its dynamism and area waned as it first became old hat, and then something people gave lip service to while sniggering at in private (or worse, self-deceptively decided was good and useful "in moderation," much to Screwtape's amusement).

And Rome fell. And things fell apart. But the thing was, Christianity never actually had taken over society. By its very nature, Christianity is a subversive movement. When it becomes fashionable- when it becomes "the Establishment-" it ceases to be truly itself.

Christianity and culture in an alliance have never made a successful marriage. And this must be said for Benedict and monasticism: they provided a way for Christianity to exist in a sense outside of and even in opposition to culture. Like the earliest Christian community, it was a company of the called out, of the committed- something which by definition the culture itself can never be. How can a society be a people called out of itself? The greater number of its members will always be nominally committed at best to a movement which places extraordinary demands on its serious followers and, in any case, is by its very nature either subversive or inert.

But monasticism fell into the same trap. The Benedict option turned out to be an option, but not a solution. The predations of the Vikings and the widespread poverty and the increasing dependence of Benedict's followers on worldly, wealthy, noble patrons corrupted even the Company of the Committed. The Cluniac Reforms and the work of Hildebrand of Savona (eventually Pope Gregory VII) both in supporting it and in successfully confronting Emperor Henry VI and the secular order over the practices of simony (the payment of money for churchly office) and lay investiture (the appointment of bishops by the secular authorities) were necessary not only to secure the independence and integrity of the Benedictine movement but of the Western Church itself.

But papal supremacy, as advocated and enforced by Gregory, was only an answer as long as those holding power in the Church were sympathetic to reform. Corruption infected the papacy, too. The record of the monastic orders varied, of course. But monasticism was hardly the way to influence society; you don't influence something by withdrawing from it. And even the example pointed to by modern advocates of the "Benedict option" remained salutary only as long as the example remained a wholesome one. Corrupt and self-indulgent monks and monasteries became matters of public scandal. And as Luther discovered, they could be less than ideal settings even for personal spiritual development and growth.

The Reformation, like the Benedictine movement, had a profound influence on society. But Protestant ecclesiastics proved no more likely than Catholic ones to retain their independence from culture and the integrity of their movement's commitment. The Anabaptist vision was, in a sense, a Protestant version of Benedict's. But its influence on culture, alas, has been negligible. The withdrawal of Protestant Fundamentalists especially in the South from the larger culture developed a distinct sub-culture in which Christian symbols and language once again became fashionable and even virtually mandatory. But American Fundamentalists proved no more immune than Constantinian bishops or Benedictine abbots or Lutheran nobles to the ravages of original sin. The society remained essentially pagan in nature and substance, even where it was Christian in theory.

It always has been, and it always will be. The Kingdom is not of this world.  But Jesus warned that the Way of the Cross was narrow, and that few would find it; that the path to destruction is broad, and will always be the path followed by the overwhelming majority. Our Lutheran commitment to the Two Kingdoms- to St. Paul's insistence that even a pagan government still carries on a legitimate and indeed vital divine function in maintaining order and defending the weak from the strong- has even among Lutherans often degenerated into a Calvinistic ambition to do the impossible and somehow "Christianize" society.

But it can't be done. The emperor whom Paul called "God's minister" in Romans 13 was Nero- along with Diocletian, the greatest persecutor of the Church of all the Roman emperors! Whatever our reservations about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden, whoever sits in the Oval Office will also be God's minister in His Kingdom of the Left hand (the realm of law and compulsion, as distinct from the realm of the Gospel and the gratitude-motivated obedience only found in the Church).

But the problem is that God's minister in the Kingdom of the Left isn't doing his job. C.S. Lewis talked about what he called the Tao- the remarkable consensus among the world's religions and philosophies about what constitutes civilly virtuous behavior on the basis of nature. Roman Catholic theology has always been big on natural law; St. Paul points out in Romans that the Law is not only discernible in nature, but imprinted on the human heart, distorted though it may be by sin.

But the distinctive character of the present falling away is precisely its rebellion against nature and common sense themselves. Is the institution of marriage in trouble? We respond by redefining marriage to include on one hand gay males- among whom long-term monogamy is almost unknown- and lesbians, who are notorious or the instability of their relationships. From cohabitation and its well-established subversion of marriage to promiscuity and HIV to abortion and its subversion of our regard for the sanctity of human life and the human person, it almost seems that the surest way for anything to become fashionable and accepted by society today is for it to be patently destructive of human health and happiness!

Very little that is unprecedented in the current decline of our society except perhaps for its consistent and characteristic perversity. Advocates of the "Benedict option" suggest that the example of committed Christians living a communal life studiously apart from the mainstream of society. Perhaps they're right. But can moral example really help people who have abandoned the very common sense upon which societal virtue- Christian and even pagan- has always been based?

Is the Benedict option an option? Sure. Is it the solution? I doubt it very much. At times like these, Christians have always speculated that they were living in the End Times. Like most Lutherans, I'm in the habit of chuckling at such apocalyptic expectations. Every generation of Christians since the very first has been convinced that it would be the last one and that Christ would return in judgment any day. We're still here.

But whether it's Christ's return or by some other means, one thing, I think, is certain: if this present darkness is to be overcome, it will be by God's doing, and not by ours. To say that withdrawal into our own communities and associations is an option is one thing. But if we take that option, we will be relying on our own example to do what only God's Word can.

"Proclaim the Gospel at all times," St. Francis said in one of his theologically less fortunate moments. "If necessary, use words." The thing is, you have to use words- or rather, the Word- because the Gospel is the Word. One cannot model the forgiveness of sins; one can only proclaim it. And it is the forgiveness of sins that is distinctive about the Christian witness. Without the Gospel in its narrow sense- the proclamation of God's undeserved love and forgiveness for sinners- the Gospel in its broad sense- the Christian proclamation- is not only no longer distinctively Christian.

Society will not be saved by the example of communities of nice or even compassionate people. I'm still thinking about whether the establishment of more-or-less autonomous communities for the sake of the catechesis of the young and the nurturing of the spiritual lives of believers themselves might not be a good and useful thing.

But if this culture is ever going to be turned around, it's going to be by the Word of God spoken and not simply modeled by committed Christians living not apart from those we're trying to reach, but among them.

I've alluded twice to C.S Lewis in this very long post. I'll conclude by doing it a third time. One of the places in which I disagree with Lewis is in his rejection of conscientious objection. Yet I have to admit the force of his argument that a far more powerful witness would be given by an airman shot for refusing to bomb civilians than by a conscientious objector changing bedpans in order to avoid it.

When we hurt, we want to withdraw. It's human nature. And the mockery and ostracism we experience from this society hurts. But we're called to hurt. The Cross hurts. It's supposed to. And it's the Cross- not our example- which is the wisdom and power of God, the foolishness which overcomes the wisdom of the world, and he weakness which overcomes its strength.

I continue to think about the "Benedict option" and its implications. But this I firmly believe: Jesus redeemed the world by becoming a part of it, and not by running away from it. And if we, His Body, are to continue His redemptive work in the world for which He died, it will be by taking up our cross and following Him, and not by running away.

Jesus gave us His marching orders in the Great Commission, and they didn't include desertion in the face of the enemy. He told us to make disciples, and by very specific means: by baptizing and teaching.

These are both hard things to do in isolation from those in whose midst God has placed us as salt and leaven.


SteveH said…
Excellent post, Bob. Cleared up a lot of circular thinking I go through on this matter. The phrase, "the forgiveness of sins can't be modeled, it has to be proclaimed" kind of jumped out at me.
Thank you, Steve.

Dealing with the realization that we're living in First Century Rome (or at least Fourth Century Italy) is tough for people brought up to believe in progress rather than social atrophy. But alas, atrophy is what we have, and we'd better figure out how to respond to it.

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