"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

On Disagreeing with The Benedict Option

I’m no stranger to The Benedict Option (hereafter, “BenOp”). I have been participating online and in other venues about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Dreher’s proposal for awhile, so I like to think of myself as someone well versed in all things BenOp. And, to be candid as a reviewer, I don’t arrive at this totally in the objective: Rod Dreher is someone I consider a close friend. Over the past year, especially, he has been a source of solidarity, laughter, and spiritual brotherhood. When my family decided to forgo public school and chose a classical Christian school instead (a decision we are very happy with despite all the challenges — and blessings — you’d expect), Rod was someone who was a real source of encouragement as tuition payments began to hit my bank account. I come at this as a friend and attempted-practitioner of the BenOp.

Last week, my review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option went live over at The Weekly Standard.

Because space was limited, the section of my review that offered criticism was omitted, so I’d like to do that below—with some expanded remarks since I first sent my review in. As much as I support the BenOp (and I really, really do), that doesn’t preclude areas where I think Rod’s proposal goes a little further off the path than I am comfortable with.

So, in the interest of not being a total lackey for the BenOp, here are the critiques of the BenOp that I think are legitimate.

First, Dreher’s view of history moves only in one direction, and that direction is always bad. A reader may object that Dreher’s reading of culture is too pessimistic and that Dreher underestimates the unknowns and contingencies that history rides upon.

Second, classical liberal-style conservatives (like myself) will object to Dreher’s reading of the Enlightenment and its intellectual genealogies. In Dreher’s view, the liberal project is designed to fail because it rests upon a faulty anthropology of individualism and self-actualization, which, when weaponized apart from transcendent boundaries, breeds relativism. Critics will accuse Dreher of overplaying his hand here, because it bends toward viewing the Founders of America, for example, as purveyors of a licentious individualism. Given the Christian anthropology resonant during the era, my own reading of Enlightenment political philosophy views their interests more in freeing individuals and communities to live in accordance with ordered liberty free from government coercion. A rightly ordered liberalism is about the proper use of reason to bolster virtue. Moreover, I am still not convinced that liberal democracy qua liberal democracy is, prima facie, the enemy of Christianity. I was reminded of this while doing research for my dissertation, coming across a very good journal article by David VanDrunen called “The Importance of the Penultimate: Reformed Social Thought and the Contemporary Critiques of the Liberal Society.” VanDrunen makes a provocative argument about the present era of history from a theological perspective and argues in the affirmative that the era of contestability we’re now in is what is expected from biblical eschatology.

First, then, comes the question of religious and metaphysical pluralism. This critical feature of liberalism is to many people its most fundamental flaw. I counter that it may be in fact its most fundamental strength. Religious and metaphysical pluralism is at the very least a fact, a basic reality of Western society at the present moment and for many centuries past. More than that, religious and metaphysical pluralism is what Scripture suggests we should expect in society during this interim, inchoate period between the comings of Christ. Christians live in two kingdoms, and the civil kingdom, by God’s ordination, is a mixed realm, not reserved exclusively for believers in Christ but designed for humanity as a whole in which to pursue its cultural task. The gospel of Christ has and will continue to go forward, calling sinners into the church, the spiritual kingdom, but it proceeds only amidst ongoing opposition and suffering for the Christian. Yet, in the midst of this, the common cultural task must go on. Liberalism, whether or not consciously reflecting this theological foundation, is in fact an attempt to accommodate a social system to this stubborn reality. Religious and metaphysical pluralism will not be eliminated this side of Christ’s second coming, however much we may try to wish, to preach, or to persecute it away. Liberalism, then, whatever other flaws it may have, at least has the great virtue of envisioning a way forward in cultural and social matters that attempts to deal with this reality rather than to ignore or to eliminate it. It attempts to establish a measure of social harmony and prosperity in spite of the clash of ultimate commitments among the members of society. If, in fact, God has commanded that cultural work should go forward in a religiously pluralistic setting, then it must be possible to some degree, and to deny its possibility is a lack of faith in God’s word.

So, I take issue with some (not all) of Dreher’s reading of history. It is his diagnosis of our current predicament and his prescription for the remedy that I find the most satisfying.

Third, Dreher’s dance with politics is a bit choppy. To be fair, Dreher does not negate the importance of politics altogether and he still calls for active engagement in the voting booth and throughout culture, but a reader looking to wash their hands clean of the stain of politics could find ample support in Dreher’s book. The response to Religious Right excesses is not abdication from prudent politics, but a move toward it.

Post-script: After reading Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig’s thoughtful critique of the BenOp, I am prone to weaken my original critique of Dreher’s views on politics. While I still think Christians should advocate vociferously in the halls of electoral power(!!!), what I think Dreher is calling Christians to consider is that the sine qua non of Christian political witness may not, always and forever, be dedication to electoral politics proper.

What I state in my review, I stand by:

Dreher’s proposals have been criticized as an intellectually astute form of cultural retreat. But a careful reading puts this notion to rest. Dreher’s manifesto is suffused with a forward-looking engagement with the world. Serving and preserving Western culture may, at times, require the church to stand against it, and even subvert it.

There’s one point I want to emphasize from my review — the accusations of retreat, which is where the majority of criticisms come from, and especially from evangelicals. Initially, when Dreher began writing about the BenOp, I think complaints that he was advocating for withdrawal because of his terminology may have initially been legitimate (even if he never was conceptually advocating for retreat). For example, statements like this lended confirmation to those fears: “a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens.” I criticized Dreher in other venues for what I thought was advocating for a sophisticated versions of Amish retreat. I now see, however, that that is decidedly not what Dreher is calling for.

I think Dreher’s language and phrasing has matured, as has his understanding of who his audience has grown to be, among them, conservative evangelicals. Dreher now understands that evangelicals hear that type of “retreat” language and are reminded of fundamentalist cultural retreat they’ve long since tried to spurn. It’s clear that Dreher never intended for Amish-style escape even in the beginnings of the BenOp, but I think that’s how he was interpreted and at times, used unsettling language to the ears of evangelicals.

But finally, that brings me to the close: Please, dear evangelicals co-laborers, stop calling the BenOp any form of “retreat” or “withdrawal” or seeing it as an escape from solidarity with one’s neighbors or an abdication from the public square or the common good. It simply isn’t that. If you think it is, buy it, read it, and be persuaded otherwise.