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Saving Christianity through the Benedict Option

The idea of the select few isolating themselves from what they perceive as an enfeebled, morally weakened or ailing community, seems like a disappointingly minimalist social programme.

lead Totila e San Benedetto, by Spinello Aretino, San Miniato al Monte, Firenze. Wkicommons. Some rights reserved.Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most influential contemporary philosophers. His publications invariably attract an intense interest and the scrutiny of professional philosophers. He is known especially for his books After Virtue (1981), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), Three Rival Version of Moral Inquiry (1999), Dependent Rational Animals (1999), as well as multiple provocative and inspiring papers. His latest work, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity (2016) is already stirring lively debates.

The lengthy series of books he published, known among admirers and foes alike as the “Interminably Long History of Ethics” (a pun on his earlier Short History of Ethics, 1966), is strongly informed by two major influences, Karl Marx’s philosophy and Thomist Aristotelianism. Judged by scholarly standards in the western academic world, any allegiance between Thomism and Marxism is something rather out of the ordinary. This is fully recognized by MacIntyre himself who commented that the only thing Marxists and Thomists have in common is their shared belief that Thomism and Marxism have nothing in common. Nonetheless, he continues to pursue a perspective that, as he claims, would be capable of accommodating both of these traditions within one Weltanschauung.

The Benedict Option

Recently MacIntyre’s name has reverberated outside his profession. This is owing not to his latest book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, but to something that has become known as “The Benedict Option”. The idea is being propagated by American writer Rod Dreher, a radical conservative and relatively recent convert to Catholicism. His book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation [1], published in the wake of the presidential election which brought conservative Christian politicians into the US Government, has become an American bestseller overnight.

The concept, popularised by Dreher takes its name from St. Benedict, the sixth century monk of the Italian city of Nursia, today Norcia, who, discouraged by the worldly and corrupt life in Rome, gave up his studies there and lived as a hermit. Gradually, having acquired a considerable following, he built a number of monasteries, including Montecassino, where he drew up the famous Benedictine Rule and where he resided until his death. His example was widely followed by Christians who managed in this way to salvage their faith through the age of paganism, and bring it later into world dominance.

MacIntyre’s role in the promulgation of the religious and political project of the Benedict option, though significant, is wholly unintended. It all started from the concluding lines of his powerful work After Virtue, where he wrote:

“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.” [2]

Even though MacIntyre later admitted that this is the line he most regrets ever having written[3],  his call for a new form of community capable of sustaining virtues, civility and moral life has become the most popular of all his contentions. This paragraph has been quite frequently interpreted as a sign of MacIntyre’s nostalgic defence of small-scale, local forms of self-rule[4]. Irrespective of the meaning intended by the author, and of the adequacy of its most notorious interpretation, there are several important problems with this assertion which are directly related to the conception of human moral agency in MacIntyre’a moral philosophy. A reflection on the possible meanings of the Benedict Option therefore enables us to reveal several important internal tensions in MacIntyre’s moral philosophy.

The withdrawal option

To begin with, faced by the overpowering barbarism of modern culture, the MacIntyrean idea of taking St. Benedict as the model for the continued cultivation of a civilised life might lead us to expect no more than a programme for safeguarding such values in small secluded communities, deliberately shielding themselves from the harmful influences of the external world.

In view of the sweeping and harsh critique of the whole contemporary emotivist culture provided by MacIntyre throughout the works which followed After Virtue, the Benedict Option is quite understandable. According to Dreher, seeking shelter through forming small communities has become unavoidable and inevitable for contemporary Catholics for whom a fruitful debate with the dominant culture has become impossible[5]. Interestingly, similar views may also be attributed to some extent to MacIntyre, who persuasively exposed the mutual incomprehension of arguments formulated in contemporary moral debate, and the impossibility of finding a common language for them through, and within, post-Enlightenment moral philosophy.

At the same time the withdrawal option suggested by this ominous assertion does not square well with the MacIntyrean idea of the agonistic nature of the transformation of communities. His view of the transformative processes going on within each community in confrontation and rivalry with other communities, strongly implies the need for the robust attitude of its members towards the future of their community. Any withdrawal from the commotion of real life directly clashes with the idea of individuals who, in so far as they do care about their own community and traditions, are actively seeking ways to remedy those weaknesses of their community revealed through confrontation with rivals [6]. From this point of view the idea of the select few isolating themselves from what they perceive as an enfeebled, morally weakened or ailing community, does seem like a disappointingly minimalist social programme.

Ivory towers

More than this: the Benedict Option seems to enjoin one to desert one’s community through taking shelter in an ivory tower or otherwise hiding from degenerate humanity in order to cultivate endangered virtues.

It would effectively mean defecting from the internal debate about what is to become of their community, and shunning one’s responsibility for getting involved instead in a struggle through which a new way of communal life might emerge.

The Benedict Option is thus tantamount to a not very virtuous or heroic escapism. For this reason also, despite frequent references to Karl Marx, it would be difficult to call this programme revolutionary. The aim of the practical call at stake here is not so much about saving humanity through a select minority, but rather the reverse: it is about saving the greatest moral, spiritual and intellectual human achievements from a humanity which has slid into barbarism.

Dangers for Christianity

Two points have to be stressed at this juncture. First, that the above approach is in stark contrast with MacIntyre’s interest in the agonism of communities, which prompts him to stress the need for internal debate and self-questioning on the part of any community faced by external challenges. Second, that the idea of a rescue strategy in the form of the Benedict Option now begins to make sense, since Christianity, which not long ago successfully sought and formed alliances between its own altars and the throne of public power, is nowadays, with the exception of a very few countries, weakened to the extent that it is no longer perceived by the political powers as a sufficiently attractive partner.

According to Dreher, there are several dangers which Christianity has to face today: militant secularism that wishes to eliminate religion entirely, together with the accompanying sexual revolution which undermines traditional forms of family, and a fanatical form of Islam that seeks a barbaric theocracy[7]. In other words, he blames the external world for the enfeebled condition of Christianity. What strikes one in Dreher’s advocacy of the Benedict Option is that he does not apply himself to diagnosing internal reasons for the current weaknesses of Christianity. Instead he supports his arguments by invoking the authority of Pope Benedict who in his public statements repeatedly referred to Arnold Toynbee’s conception of “creative minorities”[8].

The concept of creative minorities has indeed played an important role in the design, and in the message, of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Shortly before his ascent to the papal throne, cardinal Ratzinger represented the Roman Catholic Church as an embattled ship on the stormy seas. As Pope, he claimed for example that “normally it is the creative minorities that determine the future, and in this sense the Catholic Church must understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality”[9].

Invoking papal authority may serve well as a way of canonising the Benedict Option. There are, however, significant doubts as to whether the concept of creative minorities will bring with it the requisite support for the Benedict Option. The idea of creative minorities played a key role in Toynbee’s explanation of the dynamics of civilisations[10]. He deployed it most especially in his explanation of the causes behind the breakdown of civilisations. By focusing his attention on “nonmaterial” reasons for the demise of civilisations, Toynbee stressed the “loss of creative power in the souls of the creative individuals, or the creative minorities, who have been the leaders of any given civilization at any given stage in the history of its growth; and we have seen that this failure of vitality on the leaders’ side divests them of their magic power to influence and attract the uncreative masses. Where there is no creation, there is also no mimesis”[11].

He subsequently illustrated his diagnosis by examples assembled under the title of “Nemesis of Creativity”[12]. In explaining the fall of civilisations Toynbee discussed the role of an elite leadership and stressed the perils of the creative minority “'resting on one’s oars’”, lulled into inactivity by the pernicious self-satisfaction arising from their former successes[13]. As a result of a number of social and psychological mechanisms, Toynbee demonstrated that a creative minority may turn into a merely dominant minority, stifling one’s own development, but also imposing a “sergeant drill” on the subdued majority, which, supressed, eventually rises against it and initiates the fall of this degenerate civilisation.

The dynamics of social and political forms

Paradoxically, then, Toynbee’s idea of creative minorities degenerating into dominant minorities should be read as an incentive to seek not so much for external reasons for the weakening of Christianity, but on the contrary for internal ones. Toynbee’s idea should thus serve as a support not for the escapist and nostalgic Benedict Option but rather as a call for a thorough internal reform. This is something, it must be stressed, not achieved by Pope Benedict. Precisely in line with the now popularised Benedict Option, by abdicating the papal throne he chose to withdraw himself from the internal challenges of the Church he briefly led, rather than to face them.

Finally, what has become known as the Benedict Option, despite its novel and intriguing name, is not something completely novel or unknown to western culture. On the contrary, one can argue that, as a matter of historical fact, the small communities postulated by MacIntyre, or Dreher, or Pope Benedict, have always been formed by intellectuals, artistss – people of culture and spirituality who in their narrow circles strove to cultivate both moral virtues and the virtues of intellectual refinement.

Their robustness and creativity, having attracted a popular following, sometimes activated a robust though emulated creativity on the part of larger communities, thus becoming germs for new forms of cultures and even civilisations, only to be discarded and deserted later on in view of their inadequacy as demonstrated by internal or external challenges. Toynbee suggests also that the new ideas which supplanted and replaced former ones were usually met by a similar fate, and so on and on.

To sum up, in view of Toynbee’s view of the dynamics of social and political forms and the role he attributed to creative minorities, an insistence on salvaging Christianity by following – once again – in the footsteps of St. Benedict should be deeply reconsidered. History may indeed repeat itself. But maybe it would not have to if we paid closer attention to what it has been saying to us all along.

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Sentinel, New York 2017.

[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 263.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Community is Dangerous”; An Interview with Peter Mommsen, in: The Plough, March 4, 2016. One has to stress, however, that he did not erase it from subsequent editions of his book.

[4] Cf. e.g. Jason Blakeley, review of What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century? Philosophical Essays in Honor of Alasdair MacIntyre. Fran O’Rourke (ed.), University of Notre Dame Press 2013, in: Philosophy in Review XXXIV (2014), no. 6, p. 329.

[5] “Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation”, see: Emma Green, “The Christian Retreat From Public Life”, The Atlantic, February 22, 2017.

[6] MacIntyre, “Relativism, Power, and Philosophy”, in: After Philosophy. End or Transformation?. pp. 385-411.

[7] Rod Dreher, “The Benedict option. Believers must find new, more radical ways to practise their faith”, in: The Spectator, April 15, 2017.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Benedict option”, The Spectator, April 15, 2017; quite similar idea has been mentioned by Samuel Gregg, “Benedict’s creative minority”, Sept. 22, 2010.

[9]De-Christianized Europe. Church as a 'Creative Minority’”; Interview with Pope Benedict by Sandro Magister, Catholic Online, 10/2/2009.

[10] Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, Vol. IV, Fifth Impression, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1951.

[11] Ibid., p. 5.

[12] Ibid., p. 245ff.

[13] Ibid., p. 261.

About the author

Adam J Chmielewski is professor of philosophy in the Institute of Philosophy, University of Wrocław, Poland. His books include Popper's Philosophy: A Critical Analysis (1995); Open Society or Community? (2001); and Psychopathology of Political Life (2009). He is also the author of the successful bid of the city of Wroclaw for the title of the European Capital of Culture 2016

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