How to talk about the Benedict Option (Prolegomena)

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?