Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox writer, has written the Benedict Option. A book of counsel for fellow social conservatives, in particular those he considers small o orthodox. That counsel is partially based on responding to the shift in our society towards LGBT inclusion, the rise of the nones, and the political fragmentation of a society that no longer holds a shared understanding of the good.
I doubt that the book was written for somebody like me. I’m gay and married. One of my parishioners is an attorney who was involved in the legal effort to overturn the gay marriage ban in Oklahoma. I’m also a liberal Protestant. That does not mean that I am on the left, though that happens to be my politics.
It means that I see the tradition as capable of being reformed, re-imagined, recast in light of scientific knowledge from a range of disciplines, along with historical critical understandings of the Bible and an increasing religious diversity. It means that modernity, for me, is not *the* problem, though it does have problems, but a chastened modernity can enter into a fruitful relationship with Christian faith.
I think I could be the enemy in Rod Dreher’s book but I’m convinced that he gets a lot right, both in diagnosing some of the problems in our society but also in many of the solutions he proposes in his book the Benedict Option. That is what I want to write about in this review.
Chapter 1 is an attempt to take down modernity. While there is much to treasure in modernity, there are problems he identifies that I resonate with (45). A nominalism that identities meaning, not in the nature of the object itself but in how we assign meaning. A Renaissance which celebrates humanity as the measure, as God consciousness recedes to the background.
A mechanistic view of nature that takes hold during the Scientific Revolution. Nature is not charged with divinity, but is inert, to be molded to human desire. An Industrial Revolution which upends community and the rhythms of nature, to be replaced by the needs of production and profit. A Technological revolution based on consumption and material fulfillment. A Sexual revolution based on sexual desire and fulfillment.
Each point could be its own book. And many of the critiques have been raised by environmentalists, socialists, and since given my reading list, let me add liberal Protestants. I have not read Crunchy Con, but my guess, given how much he quotes Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher has read his environmental texts. But let me offer a few liberal Protestant books:
To Work and to Love
by Dorothee Soelle, which criticizes how work, nature, our relations with one another has been taken over by profit and consumption, a transactional account instead of one based on human relationships, the dignity of nature and human persons, to be honored in their own right, not simply as a means to an end.
, Natural Natural Christians
by Sallie McFague, which juxtaposes two ways of looking at nature. The subject object view, which sees nature, human beings, God as external to us, to be used by us for our purposes. As opposed to a subject subject view that sees nature, God, and other people as subjects, as “thous” that we develop a sensitive appreciative awareness of.
I’m reminded of Temple Grandin whose work with animals
was based on noticing the world through their perceptive. To take notice is a kind of love. Also the work Grounded
, by Diana Butler Bass, who locates God in the ordinary flux of life, in nature, in work, in our relationships. God is no longer supernatural, because that presupposes a divide between God and the world. Instead God is here and incarnational.
This has been the critique of liberal Protestantism against the supernatural. The supernatural natural divide occurs with modernity. The advantage is that it created a space for scientific research to be done without bumping into the limits of religious claims, since God was protected in another world.
But the liberal Protestant would argue that there is no need to protect God from science. That we should be able to shape our understanding of God through our engagement and understanding of the natural world. It brings God back to this world to do the work, Rod Dreher, is concerned has been lost.
This brings us to a central point in liberal Protestantism, the yes but move. I’ll employ it here: Every critique of modernity could be turned upside down to see what is, in fact, an accomplishment to be safe guarded as well as a problem to be solved.
The ability to study nature, can mean riding roughshod over it. But it also has dramatically expanded our understanding of the world, doubled life expectancy, and connected the world, more than ever before.
The assertion of the human over and against the religion of the day can be hubris, a failure to live accountable to something beyond human will and desire. But it also can provide a space that allows for human dignity. That says human life, well being cannot be suspended because of some institution or authority. I think modern democracy starts with this insight.
The Reformation upended religious authority which governed communities. But it introduced the space for choice. Peter Berger argues that choice is a good barometer for modernity, the more choice, about religion, career, life choices, the more modernity. And choice may have frayed community life and obligation, it makes community intentional. Including the Benedict Option communities Rod Dreher envisions. Those communities, avoid the possibilities of cult status, precisely because the members choose to live in community with one another.
The Industrial revolution provided the greatest amount of material needs met than in all of human history. When it failed to do so equitably, we saw the development of the labor movement, socialist parties that succeeded in the mid 20th century to build broad middle class societies with a shared prosperity.
It’s not incidental, that involvement in civic life, in churches, in voluntary associations
was at its peak then. And that the unraveling of this social democratic settlement, meant not just lower wages, people working multiple jobs to make ends meet, people moving to new communities to find work, jobs and hours that are unstable, it has also meant a dissolution
of those communities that could resist capital in this shift. The white working class, in particular, has been hit, not just by this movement, but also in the dissolving of communities from churches to unions.
The argument I want to pursue in volume 2 is: the political and economic system required to allow the Benedict Option to take off is social democracy. If conservative religious folks want a space to build alternative communities, the politics of Bernie Sanders, will be key to connect with.
Volume 3 will tackle the sexual revolution. And I want to explore what the LGBT community could teach the Benedict Option communities. I’ll close by asking if the American experiment, out of many one, is affirmed or left behind in Rod Dreher’s book.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma