It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead –- often not recognizing fully what they were doing –- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, 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. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, pp. 244-245.)
This was written 34 years ago, 20 years before 9/11. It is the charter for Rod Dreher's recent talk of a Benedict Option. Excerpts from an eponymous article of his:
Why are medieval monks relevant to our time? Because, says the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, they show that it is possible to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.
For MacIntyre, we too are living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe, one that is concealed by our liberty and prosperity. In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, which is losing its young in dramatic numbers. Those who remain within churches often succumb to a potent form of feel-good relativism that sociologists have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is dissolving historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.
A recent Pew survey found that Jews in America are in an even more advanced state of assimilation to secular modernity. The only Jews successfully resisting are the Orthodox, many of whom live in communities meaningfully separate and by traditions distinct from the world.
Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?
The broader topic here is that of voluntary withdrawal from a morally corrupt society and its morally corrupt institutions. There are various options. One could join a monastic order and live in community. This is the monastic cenobitic option. There is also the monastic eremitic option: one lives as a hermit within a religious context subject to its rules and having taken vows. Both the cenobitic and the eremitic options can be made less rigorous in various ways. One could attach oneself as an oblate to a monastery visiting it from time to time and participating in its communal prayers and other activities (Ora, labora, et lectio are the three 'legs' of the Benedictine 'stool.'). This could also be done in an eremitic way. (From the Greek eremos, desert.)
Spiritual withdrawal is of course greatly aided by physical withdrawal from cities into deserts and other remote locales; but one could voluntarily withdraw from a morally corrupt society while living in the midst of it in, say, Manhattan. (I cannot, however, advise setting up as the resident monk in a bordello in Pahrump, Nevada.)
What of the Maverick Option? As I have been living it since 1991 it does not involve drastic physical isolation: I live on the edge of a major metropolitan area which is also the edge of a rugged wilderness area. Ready access to raw nature (as opposed to, say, Manhattan's Central Park) may not be absolutely essential for spiritual development, but it is extremely conducive to it (in tandem with other things of course). Nature, experienced alone, removes one from the levelling effects of the social. (Henry David Thoreau: "I have no walks to throw away on company." That sounds misanthropic and perhaps from Henry David's mouth it was; but it can be given a positive reading.) It would be the height of folly to suppose that man's sociality is wholly negative; but its corrupting side cannot be denied. Encounter with nature in solitude pulls one out of one's social comfort zone in such a way that the ultimate questions obtrude themselves with full force. In society, they can strike one like jokes from a Woody Allen movie; in solitude, in the desert, they are serious. Nature is not God; but the solitary encounter with it, by breaking the spell of the social, can orient us toward Nature's God.
I will have more to say of the Maverick Option, its nature and pitfalls, in a later post.
There is also the Jeremiah Option:
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
We need to catalog and examine all the options. A man once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. He was the wisest of mortals.