From The Atlantic to TIME magazine, a 5th century saint is getting mainstream consideration. For some years now, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher has been holding up Benedict of Nursia’s witness as an alternative way forward in America’s shifting culture wars. At the same time, Red Letter Christians Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have pointed to Benedict as an inspiration for “new monastic” communities and the movement of justice-loving Christians who pray Common Prayer with them daily.
Since SCOTUS’ Obergefell decision, which legalized gay marriage earlier this year, many who are concerned about traditional family values have been drawn to what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option.” At the same time, Wilson-Hartgrove has cautioned against the manipulation of religious conviction by a divide-and-conquer political strategy.
But as Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US made clear, the gospel way that Benedict invites us to follow does not fit neatly into the left/right categories of American politics. What does faithful public witness demand in these changing times? And how might Benedict help us find our way? Dreher and Wilson-Hartgrove agreed to a dialog on the Benedict Option in our present moment.
Wilson-Hartgrove: Well, the first thing I have to say is that Benedict saved me from the Religious Right. I mean, Jesus confronted me in the distressing disguise of a homeless man when I was working on Capitol Hill as a Senate Page for Strom Thurmond. But after Jesus interrupted me, it was Benedict who showed me a way forward. I realized that he, too, had hit a dead end in Rome, just as I had in DC. The Roman Empire was coming to an end, and the old ways of negotiating Christian public witness weren’t working any more. Benedict took the gospels and some desert monastic literature to a cave and began to pray toward a new way of living. I went to the abandoned spaces of America’s inner cities and prisons to try to do the same. So the “Benedict option” has shaped my whole adult life. Next to the Bible, Benedict’s Rule has been my most treasured spiritual guide.
Dreher: As a leader in New Monasticism, you are much farther down the Benedictine road than I am. I think I should clarify what I mean by the Benedict Option. It starts with Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous concluding paragraph in “After Virtue, ” in which he prophesies and calls for a new and very different St. Benedict to offer a compelling countercultural way of living out the tradition in the chaos of modernity. I accept MacIntyre’s critique of our condition, and have been thinking, though not in a very disciplined way till now, of how Christians should respond in light of it. Maybe, then, you and I can agree on this: what Christians have been doing till now is insufficient in light of modernity’s challenges, and that we have to do something radically different. But what is that thing?
The Benedict Option, broadly considered, is a conscious stance taken as a mode of countercultural resistance by Christians living in the ruins. It requires a clear diagnosis of the problem, and a change in practices, for the sake of living out the Gospel faithfully. Your father-in-law says all this in his “Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World”; Hauerwas and Willimon also spoke to this in “Resident Aliens.” I’m drawing on both books as I think through my own idea about the Ben Op. From what I know about New Monasticism, as you and your colleagues have pioneered it, it is certainly a valid response to this challenge.
But is it the only valid response? I don’t see how it can be, simply because very few of us laypersons could live out what you are living out. It is a calling. I am a middle-aged man with children and responsibilities to my extended family, including an elderly widowed mother. People like me have to be able to live out some kind of Benedictine form of life in our own circumstances. If it is too weak to be formative, then the Benedict Option will be useless. That is a risk that any of us who know we have to change, but who cannot, for justifiable reasons, do something less radical than what New Monastics undertake must deal with.
A second, and related, issue is how do we keep the Ben Op community from becoming authoritarian, culty, and weird? I have no experience in my past with Christian fundamentalism. I was raised in a thoroughly non-demanding form of Mainline Protestantism, by parents who weren’t regular churchgoers. I know how insufficient that is for authentic Christian discipleship. But I have never had hands-on experience with fundamentalism. My wife has, and has strictly warned me to listen to those Christians who have been burned by it, and to factor their experiences and insights into my thinking about the Ben Op. I know she is right, and I have committed to doing so as I research my book. Still, the fear of fundamentalism cannot itself be a reason to reject all forms of strong, intentional Christian community.
A third issue — and I think this is something that you and I will likely disagree on — has to do with which tradition we wish to live out in our Ben Op community. For people like me, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, the Ben Op community will have marks that differ from that of a Roman Catholic, or an Evangelical Protestant, and so on. I can agree with the “12 Marks of a New Monasticism, ” but this one is a big point of separation: “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.” Where is the Church? What is the Church? Mind you, I would not say that Red Letter Christians aren’t Christians, so please don’t get the wrong idea! I am saying, though, that our ecclesiology is radically different, and that makes a difference in the way we read the Bible … which, of course, makes a big difference in how we understand what it means to submit to the Church.
Wilson-Hartgrove: Your three questions—each of which is important—stem together, I think, from understanding Benedict as an option for public witness. I should say that I’ve been influenced by MacIntyre to think about him this way, too. But when I listen to the Rule, I also have to admit that this is not his main concern. Benedict isn’t thinking primarily about how to bear witness; he’s thinking about how to grow in the gospel life. This distinction shapes how I think about each of your questions.
Is the monastic way for everyone? No, Benedict never imagined it to be. His organizational vision is limited. He thought, specifically, about how to help a community of a dozen or so people to grow in the way of Jesus. Historians say Benedict saved Western civilization, and I think they’re right. But I don’t think that’s what he was trying to do. Just as Jesus didn’t save the world by showing us how to fix the religious and governmental institutions of his day. Jesus showed us a better way to live. Benedict invites us to learn that way in a specific form of community.
We have 1600 years of experience to show us how the church can learn from monasticism without saying everyone has to live the same way. A monastic vocation is a gift, and in many practical ways it’s only possible because a broader community supports it. I know this from experience. The 16 or so folks who share life at Rutba House are supported in dozens of ways by individuals, local churches, and an international network of others who are living into a new monasticism. We couldn’t do this on our own, which means we also don’t do it for our own sake. We are called to this life for the church and for the world. Whatever we learn, we are called to share.
This essential relationship with a broader community of fellow Christians and neighbors is, I think, the most important response to your second concern. Anytime people take religious claims seriously, there’s a danger. The worst things people do to one another are done in the name of what’s right—and “God” can justify a multitude of sins. The biggest danger of fundamentalism—be it Southern Baptist or Sunni extremist—is lack of accountability. Any monastic expression needs to be accountable to people outside of the community’s family system. At Rutba House, our members are also members of local churches. We’ve also asked neighbors who know our life to conduct occasional community health check ups. The only way to see what we can’t see about ourselves is to ask others to help.
Which brings us to your third concern—one that we all share. After so many splits and divisions in church history, where does authority lie? Who, in particular, is an individual or community submitting to if they commit to submit to “the Church”? I concede that “new monastics” haven’t figured this out, but I’m not sure that you solve the problem by joining the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church. What we have, however we shake it, is a tradition that has become fragmented into many, many parts. Sure, some streams can claim apostolic succession. I respect that. But I was born and raised Baptist by people who claim direct access to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I respect that too, however much it has been abused.
For me, the most important commitment of any religious movement—monastic or otherwise—must be to not further fracture a deeply divided Church. We can’t pretend there’s any simple way to overcome the wounds of history. But we can choose not to perpetuate the free market logic of America’s church shopping that marches on toward a religious smorgasbord of individually tailored faiths. We can commit to join the congregations that exist in the places where we are and pray with them and Jesus that “we may be One as I and the Father are One.”
But we do not do this in a vacuum. At the moment in America, we are trying to follow the way of Jesus (with the help of Benedict) in the face of economic and political powers that tell us we cannot be “Christian” without some common enemy. Some say it’s the Muslims we have to hate in order to know who we are. Some say it’s the liberals. Others that it’s the gays. My concern about the enthusiasm with which some have adopted your “Ben Op” is that it could easily be manipulated to perpetuate this other-ing. Maybe this is part of what your wife is getting at when she warns against fundamentalism. I mean, in a world where the powers thrive via a divide-and-conquer strategy, nothing could be more dangerous than circling our wagons and retreating with those who share our bias about the world (be it “liberal” or “conservative”).
So how can we learn from Benedict and Jesus a way toward unity rather than further division?
Read Part 2 of this conversation.