The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
by Rod Dreher
Sentinel, 2017, 288 pages, $30.99
Archbishop Eric D’Arcy, who retired as Catholic Archbishop of Hobart in 1999, was a learned and perceptive man who lectured in philosophy at Melbourne University for more than twenty years. He loved Europe, but was (only slightly) less enthusiastic about the United States, being fond of teasing his listeners by claiming that the people of the United States were as different from us as the Chinese.
The claim is preposterous, but we underestimate Australian-American differences at our peril, especially when we read a good and provocative book from the US such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Written last year, it has produced controversy, and insights aplenty. It is not primarily about Pope Francis or Vatican policies and struggles, but about how adult Christians can continue in the faith and hand it on to their children, when most of the sociological currents are hostile.
While this is of special interest to all committed Christians with an eye to the future, the changing religious or irreligious patterns of majority Australia will also have important consequences for the wider Australian community. I suspect the wider society is already suffering from collateral damage.
Dreher’s book is not like one of the Lord’s parables where the truth is often hidden within or behind an interesting or provocative story. His thesis is clear. The culture war that began with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s has now ended in defeat for Christian conservatives, and the cultural Left has no intention of living in a post-war peace. He is not enthusiastic about the way the Christian churches in the US have battled in the public square, despite the gains made with public opinion in the pro-life struggle, which are not matched in any way here in Australia. He sees the churches as largely ineffective in combating the forces of cultural decline, being content to be chaplains to a consumerist culture fast losing a proper understanding of Christianity and indeed of the Transcendent.
The review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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He took his solution from the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, best known for his 1981 work After Virtue, who proclaimed that Western civilisation, and in particular moral philosophy, had lost their moorings. MacIntyre predicted that eventually full participation in mainstream society would not be possible for those wanting to live a life of traditional virtue. MacIntyre’s book in 1981 might not have produced a revolution, but it certainly provoked great interest in Christian circles and controversy in the world of philosophy, which the author answered in two subsequent editions in 1984 and 2007.
Today there is no agreement on the source and foundations of moral thinking on issues ranging from human rights to the nature of human life, marriage and family, to sex and gender. Even the notion of truth is rejected for subjective truths and most feel that it is not at all necessary to ponder these foundational differences.
MacIntyre believes the root of the problem lies in the Enlightenment’s abandoning of Aristotle and especially his concept of teleology. Ancient Western ethics, like its medieval successor, believed that animate nature and especially human life had a proper end or purpose and therefore an essential nature. Without this central teleological content, contemporary ethical discourse retains the concepts or language, but agrees on few definitions.
MacIntyre compared our situation of more than thirty-five years ago (and if anything the confusion is deeper now) with that of the Polynesian people of the South Pacific in the nineteenth century, when King Kamehameha removed the taboos his people observed. His drive to modernise his society met almost no resistance, because over the centuries the taboos had lost their spiritual significance and had come to be seen as arbitrary, not useful for daily living.
While MacIntyre rejects Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “Ubermensch”, who constructs his own set of virtues and laws to control the “low lifes”, he believed Nietzsche accurately identified the weakness of the Enlightenment in its individualism and subjectivism, which in turn can degenerate into emotivism. Karl Marx’s writings are also important to MacIntyre and he sets out to repair the moral weaknesses of Marxism (as he sees them).
For him only classic Aristotelianism, interpreted by a new Benedict, might save Western humanity, with its metaphysical framework, where rules are based on the virtues grounded in human nature; man as he is. Societies need to recover their moral authority, founded on the virtues, so rejecting the notion that only the individual, serious or capricious, is the agent and moral arbitrator. For him morality is not just a person’s opinion, and he rejects the notion that each person is able to paint his own moral picture in the form and colours of his choosing. A society dominated by such rugged individualist egotists would quickly move to anarchy, but a “herd mentality” dominated by a sceptical deep-rooted narcissism and hostility to delayed gratification seem to be our lot in Australia.
Dreher dubbed the strategic withdrawal proposed by MacIntyre as the “Benedict Option”, named after St Benedict, who withdrew from Roman society early in the seventh century, to found what eventually became the still surviving and immense monastic Benedictine tradition. The first two Catholic archbishops of Sydney were Benedictine monks, but in Australia, unlike England, Benedictinism has not flourished and expanded.
Dreher’s true believers will develop creative, communal solutions to help themselves and their children hold on to their faith in what, he believes, will be an ever more hostile world. They will often live in small communities of committed believers, somewhat removed from the mainstream. He sees many Christians as clueless about what is happening. While grandparents realise that too few of their grandchildren worship regularly, most remain reluctant to accept that we have a crisis, unlike Dreher, who believes the extent of Donald Trump’s contribution is to buy a bit more time, while leaving the basic situation of decline unaltered. I suspect Dreher underestimates Trump, who has already contributed substantially with his nominees to the Supreme Court, just as he underestimates Christian resilience.
In the first half of his book Dreher defines the challenges of post-Christian America. In the second part he discusses how the Benedictine Rule can be adapted and lived by adults and families.
The book is written for theologically traditional Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers, whom he describes as “orthodox” with a small o. Dreher is not a Catholic and lives in a Greek Orthodox community with his wife and family.
Even after the Second World War young Irish-Australian Catholics still learned the poetry of John O’Brien, the pseudonym for Monsignor John Hartigan (1878–1952) parish priest of Narrandera in the Riverina. Perhaps his best-known poem was about Hanrahan, who always discoursed after Sunday Mass during the changing seasons that “we’ll all be rooned before the year is out”. They weren’t.
In fact, John O’Brien was not pessimistic, but optimistic, if a bit sentimental, despite the Depression. The free market and globalisation, the pill and religious decline were not parts of the agenda.
Dreher’s pessimism is quite different, with a Flannery O’Connor hardness and darkness; with not too much about the dawn that follows a long hard night. In the Introduction to his book Dreher informs us that Christ “did not promise that Hell would not prevail against His church in the West”.
For Dreher, “The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation and each other”. He uses a variety of metaphors to explain that the ground is moving under our feet, citing the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “solid modernity” of predictable and manageable social change which has morphed into “liquid modernity” where changes are so rapid that institutions do not have time to solidify. For him the 17 million dead of the First World War shattered what remained of an ancient Christendom, after Darwin, Marx and Freud had started a mighty wave of cultural upheaval which “cannot be stopped, only ridden”. For Dreher the future does not belong to conservative Christian political activists, who are as ineffective as White Russian exiles.
It was Sigmund Freud who replaced religion with psychology, a better help for coping with life’s challenges, he claimed, and paved the way for today’s “gospel of self-fulfilment”. Freud’s interpreter Philip Rieff describes the victory of “Psychological man” who “is born to be pleased” over “Religious man” who “was born to be saved”. Autonomy is the goal of the irreligious, possible now in many ways that were not dreamt of by the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463–94) who claimed that “We can become what we will”.
WITTINGLY or unknowingly, all Christians, whether they be lukewarm or committed, regular or “C and E” worshippers at Christmas and Easter, are influenced at their schools and universities, by the media, at work or play or in their family by these spirits of the age. Christian communities can be contraceptive, looking well but unable to produce life.
Dreher quotes a 2005 survey which claimed that most American teenagers followed a pseudo-religion MTD, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, where the Creator God is interested in us, wanting us to be good, nice and fair to each other. The goal is to be happy, to turn to God in trouble and to go to heaven. This pseudo-religion, which is destructive of biblical Christianity, was resisted more effectively by Evangelical teenagers than by Catholics or mainline Protestants.
It was the invention of the pill which unleashed the Sexual Revolution, described by Mary Eberstadt in Adam and Eve after the Pill (2012) as having social consequences, different, but similar in importance to those of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. For Dreher it is sex which “is tearing the church apart” and it is the Sexual Revolution “which has toppled the church’s authority in the broader culture”, a wider and more formidable challenge than the paedophilia crisis with all its tragedies.
When God is reduced to being a Cosmic Therapist and we strive to combat the Sexual Revolution with a middle-class moralism of being happy with oneself and nice to others, then, according to Dreher, we are bringing knives to a gunfight.
What is often not remarked upon in Australia is that the corrosive forces weakening the churches are also at work in the wider community, which is probably less equipped to resist. The tragedy of secondary school suicides, unknown at least to me sixty years ago, is but the tip of an iceberg of sadness and suffering. A monotheism taken seriously changes the way believers live and so do escapism or irreligion or superstition, which always fill the gap caused by the flight of genuine religion. As the Czech poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote: “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”
Dreher also laments the influence of the modern barbarians who believe they are liberated from all authoritative pasts, who are indifferent and often hostile to Western civilisation. However, in the US the barbarians have not conquered the humanities faculties as comprehensively as in Australia. Columbia University offers a course on the Western great books. The hard work of preservation, the fightback started there much earlier than in Australia, than Paul Ramsay. His foundation should make a profound contribution in a variety of ways, but the elephant in the corner, regularly ignored by antagonists and protagonists, is the massive Christian contribution, for at least 1700 years, to Western culture and achievement. There is the rub. Just as the Catholics were the only group with men and women on the ground, in the working class, who could be inspired to drive out the communists from control of the Australian unions after the Second World War, so too Western civilisation will not retain its present influence, much less expand it in Australia, without Christian cultural warriors, especially Catholics and Evangelicals. And it is the Christianity of Western civilisation which is obnoxious to the protesters.
Dreher foresees serious Christians with traditional moral belief systems being squeezed out of the professions and then excluded from public life and discussion. Christian gynaecologists are already under pressure, but the other dangers seem distant prospects, if at all, in Australia. Certainly neither humanists nor Christians should abandon “the switch points of cultural power”, such as the humanities faculties, to the forces of ignorance and intolerance who aspire to continue their “great march through the institutions”.
The differences between the US and Australia are significant despite our common language, shared democracy, respect for the law and the dominance of American entertainment.
Australia has no great mountains or great rivers or lakes. It has plenty of desert, plenty of droughts and much of the land is barren and dry. The US minus Alaska has about the same land area, but is able to sustain a population about thirteen times that of Australia.
The first British governors in Australia, like the earlier Captain James Cook, were not deeply religious, much less were the soldiers and convicts. When the Spanish visited in 1793 to examine the strength of the defences preparatory to a military attempt from Lima to take over the colony, they were scandalised to find no church building. When the first church was built it was burnt down by persons unknown.
While we have no Mayflower tradition at the start of our story, and did mistreat the Aborigines, none of the colonies had slaves, we fought no war for independence and never fought a terrible civil war. We have no Bible Belt, the Irish spread widely and never congregated as they did in Boston and New York, and we have no Hollywood.
The religious scenes in the two countries run in parallel to their geography. Australia seems to be more widely secular, is less religious and less anti-religious than the US. Political rhetoric in Australia almost never “does religion”, unlike the practice in the US, one of the most religious societies in history; a fact which helps explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
The religious terrain is flatter in Australia. So too is the political scene.
As Australia is a constitutional monarchy, headed by a governor-general, with compulsory voting at elections which are decided by preferences in the absence of a majority, constitutional forces move the majority in Australia towards the middle rather than to populism or extremes.
A confident superpower led by a succession of directly-elected executive presidents, admittedly balanced by powerful legislatures, who are the end result of a process where voters have to be encouraged to vote (sometimes by demonising the opposition), produces a culture quite different from Australia’s, where governments are less powerful, leading an easy-going population, typical of a comfortable middle-order power more interested in a royal marriage in England than the threat of Islamic extremism in Indonesia. Incidentally, it is far easier to fly from Australia to London or Los Angeles than to Jakarta.
Australia has few Hispanic or German migrants and despite the English–Irish, Protestant–Catholic antagonisms of most of our history, anti-Catholicism in Australia has been less virulent than in the US. No Catholic church in Australia has been burnt by a mob, and James Scullin was the first Catholic prime minister (from 1929 to 1932), long before John Kennedy was the first Catholic president (1961 to 1963).
For all these reasons trends are more likely to arise earlier in the US than in Australia, play out more vigorously if not violently there, and be described more vividly, “in the raw”.
DREHER is right that profound and hostile forces are damaging religion, but I prefer to take him with a pinch of salt and claim the underlying religious landscape here is better seen in black-and-white than in technicolour; duller and possibly bleaker. In many parts of the US the Catholic church-going rate is much higher than ours. Australia has no Bible Belt and never had the capacity for a Christian Moral Majority movement. In the US, 250 Catholic tertiary colleges and universities flourish (although the Catholicism is often attenuated), while Australia has two Catholic universities and a college. On the other hand Christian schools in Australia, partially funded by governments, educate nearly 1,300,000 students, about 33 per cent of all young Australians. Only 8 per cent of US children are in religiously affiliated schools, which receive no government funding. About 190,000 attend Catholic schools, where the numbers continue to decline.
Dreher is right on many points, and the destructive trends in the US are at work here similarly, but not always in the same ways. The Sexual Revolution is at the heart of much personal confusion and suffering, a major cause for lapsing from regular worship and sometimes for disaffiliating, especially among the young.
The beautiful Christian teaching on the centrality of love—that sexual discipline safeguards abundance, that love-making is essentially linked, directly and indirectly, to new life and therefore to men and women and is not primarily for personal pleasure and self-expression—is readily dismissed, sometimes furiously, sometimes easily. People are reluctant to confront the implication that they are doing the wrong thing. The Christian answer lies in good models of fidelity and humanity, more children, lasting marriages and gospel values.
Dreher is also convinced that “Catholic lite” or Christian lite in any major denomination accelerates the decline. This is well established in formerly Catholic countries like Belgium, Holland and Quebec and runs counter to the intuitions of many even benevolent outsiders, who feel that if the churches were more liberal, more accommodating on sex, life and marriage issues and less mysterious, then their numbers would rebound. The opposite is the case. A passion for social justice does not give an exemption from regular prayer and worship, from following the Ten Commandments in the Christian dispensation.
I cannot follow the Benedict Option on a couple of major points. The thesis underestimates the enduring effects of popular religion, of regular simple prayer and devotion, of feasts and festivals ranging from a local feast to World Youth Day. Christianity must continue to be offered to the sinful and the searching, to those who are damaged and confused, to those who are only partly converted. A helping hand is always welcome. Pope Francis is right that the church must act as a field hospital, although it is also more than a primitive hospital. Most Australian churches still do not do much on social media or television and radio. It is on social media especially that the curious will come to explore religious answers. After pornography, religion is one of the most visited topics on the internet.
As the social forces against Christian living have intensified, sociological defences have to be strengthened and these might be best found in smaller communities of worshipping families; but such groupings should be first of all in the cities and towns as they were in the early Christian centuries, in the New Testament times (when this is financially possible). The hermits only fled to the desert from about the end of the third century, initially in Egypt, while the monasteries came even later. Believers who move to Wagga or Wodonga or Ballarat to found supportive communities are to be congratulated. Rural Australia, still largely Anglo, is now more irreligious than the cities and needs life-giving Christian oases. But the cities remain as the most important battlegrounds in the clash between good and evil, faith and fear.
I also believe that Dreher underestimates the good political work of democratic persuasion performed in the United States, despite the long list of losses on abortion and same-sex marriage. The changes the pro-life movement has achieved in the US are remarkable, where 56 per cent of Americans now consider abortion to be morally wrong, and 76 per cent want to limit legal abortion to the first three months of pregnancy. The pro-life forces there have also worked effectively for the appointment of pro-life judges. There is no parallel for this in Australia.
In a democracy Christians are also voters who participate in choosing those who govern and, where free speech is allowed, the first necessity is to keep speaking and voting. In both countries the majority of people are Christians and they have the capacity to defend their religious freedoms. In Australia, Christian and other forces were unable to prevent the legalisation of same-sex marriage (although Australia was the last Anglophone country to change), but I believe there is a majority vote to protect religious freedom and to preserve funding for Christian schools which teach Christian doctrine and for Christian hospitals which respect life, initially and finally. Political leaders who know the Australian tribes realise these claims are probably true, but those with a tin ear sometimes cannot recognise the music. Despite the paedophilia crisis, the Catholic vote was not extinguished.
While it is no surprise to see Christians supporting the separation of church and state, there is an irony when Christians are in the forefront defending free speech against a bizarre coalition who must not be offended. But this is an important contribution both for the churches and for the nation.
No changes are complete and no changes are permanent, but Dreher has made an important contribution in reinforcing the conviction that for Christians a new game has begun.
Cardinal Pell, formerly Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney, is the head of the Secretariat for the Economy in the Vatican