instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, May 15, 2015


If you ever come across the term "the Benedict Option," there's really only one thing you need to know about: It's nonsense.

More precisely, it's a meaningless term, a cypher. The thing it refers to is a non-thing. As such, it can mean anything. And a term that can mean anything isn't worth talking about.

"The Benedict Option" was a cypher when Rod Dreher coined the term nine or ten years ago, a contentless label generated as a placeholder for the idea he hoped would follow from his feelings on reading the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue.

Since then, Rod has written a lot about "the Benedict Option" without managing to define it in a way anyone who doesn't find what he writes convincing can comprehend. These days, although he still can't say what it is, he does insist it's hugely important to every Christian in America:

Again and again: these are not normal times. We can’t be about business as usual. The future of Christianity in America will be Benedictine — as in Benedict Option — or it won’t be at all.
That might give one pause.

And yet, a lot of people -- those, I suppose, who feel a similar harmonic resonance of fear when contemplating the future of Christianity in America-- want "the Benedict Option" to mean something. And a lot of people who don't feel the resonance assume it nevertheless must mean something, because those other people are talking so much about it.

But it remains meaningless. It has to, or it will cease to function as the label on the blueprint marked "<Plan to Save Christianity in America Goes Here>."

Whatever the future of Christianity in America might be, it won't be improved by time wasted talking about nothing.

UPDATE: I'd forgotten how far into "the St. Benedict Option" the Crunchy Con-versation of Ought Six went, and how evident it was even then that the whole thing was, not a philosophical response to the signs of the times, but an emotional response to the fears of the times.

My advice to anyone who might be interested in "new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained" is to think about them without reference to Rod Dreher or "the Benedict Option." Rod has spent the last decade searching for something that can save him from his anxieties, once he realized neither the Catholic Church nor the Republican Party could. Crunchy Conservativism, the Orthodox Church in America, small town life, reading Dante have all been tried and found wanting. He'll write his book about "the Benedict Option," with the willing assistance of devotees and fellow travelers, and when that doesn't do the trick he'll move on to something else, marooning those same devotees and fellow travelers. Don't sail with a captain who's never yet reached port.

For that matter, think about those "new forms of community" without reference to Alasdair MacIntyre. Sure, it's his words I quote, but if all you're working with is that one paragraph, you're building up a cargo cult that can't distinguish which parts of Western Monasticism are essential, which are analogical, which are suggestive, and which are irrelevant. (If, on the other hand, you're well versed in MacIntyre's thought, then you'll ignore me rather than him.)