In the days following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and with both houses of Congress in the hands of a Republican party keen to limit immigration and abolish President Obama’s healthcare system, there were no shortage of voices online calling for a withdrawal from civic life.
“I’m just going to sit the next few years out,” was a typical decree, “I’m just going to ignore Trump, and read, and paint, and look after my garden, and spend time with my friends. This won’t last forever.”
True as far as it goes, perhaps, and surely a healthier reaction than the aggression that’s marked some of those on the fringes of anti-Trump protests, but one has to wonder whether such a withdrawal might constitute an abdication of our duties to each other. How would our Muslim and Latino brothers and sisters be served by our turning our backs on their troubles in favour of making sure our lawn looks tidy?
It’s not for nothing, after all, that the Greek word for someone who looks after their private life while shirking their public obligations has come down to us as ‘idiot’.
All of which makes timely the publication of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, a book which has sparked vigorous debate on the Catholic – and broader Christian – internet.
The Benedict Option takes its name from the famous closing lines of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic 1981 study of moral philosophy which alluded to how, faced with the chaos of Rome’s collapsing civilization in the 6th Century, St Benedict of Nursia left the city and founded a series of monasteries, notably the great monastery of Monte Cassino, with these becoming the seedbeds of a new and rejuvenated civilization.
“This time,” MacIntyre wrote, “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.”
Dreher’s book builds on The Rule of St Benedict in calling for a Christian disentanglement from America’s culture wars, believing the Churches to have lost and to have harmed themselves in the process. It calls for a renewed focus on a range of values necessary to Christian living in a post-Christian world, this focus, in turn, leading to the development and building of practices and institutions to reverse our world’s tendencies towards fragmentation and isolation.
Reaction to this proposal has varied, with, for instance, James T. Keane at americamagazine.org asking “What would Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan say about the Benedict Option?” Their answer, he suspects, would be fairly straightforward: “However long one might need to go away and rest awhile…the vocation of most Christians is to participate in the saving work of God, not just in prayer but in other forms of direct action and life ‘in the world’.”
Also at americamagazine.org, Patrick Gilger is at pains to point out where – in his view – this “problematic, infuriating, beautiful, necessary book” hits the mark, highlighting the value of Dreher’s emphasis on Christian practice to the effect that to build Christian persons – to create saints – “what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it”.
Among other thought-provoking takes on the book are Elizabeth Breunig’s democracyjournal.org piece ‘City of Rod’, and those by Gerald Russello at isi.org, the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Scott Aniol at religiousaffections.org, Justin Lonas at jrynalonas.wordpress.com and Jake Meador at mereorthodoxy.com.
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput perhaps puts it best at firstthings.com, urging people, even those with limited time and limited funds, to read Dreher’s book, praising it for its willingness to name problems truthfully and point a way forward, hailing it as a classic modern instance of what he calls ‘Christian realism’.