In the first chapter of The Benedict Option Dreher lays out the landscape of the West, and the United States in particular, to show the necessity of his suggestions.
In essence, the flood of secularism has overtaken the West through the breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities. These factors have been building for decades but religious conservatives were under the illusion that they could be pushed back, particularly by strengthening their case in law and politics, typically by voting for republicans.
While Dreher does not expressly say so in the book, it would seem that the rise of the post-Christian Right in the Republican party over the past couple of years demonstrates that the cause of the religious Right in the national political war is lost in roughly the same way that Obergefell demonstrated that the culture war is lost.
Returning to those three factors that have allowed secularism to overtake the West – the breakdown of the natural family, the loss of traditional moral values, and the fragmenting of communities – it has become increasingly clear that the third, the breakdown of community, leads to the first two.
The individualization of faith has led to the breakdown of traditional moral values by continually blurring the lines until nothing is clear and all that remains is relativism. With no clear moral values the takeover of the natural family was imminent, as we have seen.
While the loss of faith among the millennial generation is staggering, and is used as one of the indicators that now is the time for the Benedict Option, the fact is that the beliefs of this generation are those of their parents and much of Christianity today – mushy “kumbaya” spirituality where the goal is to be nice and feel good about oneself as a ticket to heaven, involving God only to watch from afar and solve our problems when they arise.
The term used to describe this type of faith is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), and it stands in clear contrast to the core of Christianity which teaches repentance and self-sacrifice to grow closer to God, and even places a deep value on suffering to grow closer to Christ.
As Dreher pointedly notes, “MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the self and material comfort.” It only values what feels good, leaving us to amuse ourselves to death a la Brave New World.
He also explores some of the points from Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” which was the impetus for The Benedict Option concept. In particular, Dreher examines the attitude of “emotivism” in which choosing what an individual feels is right becomes the ultimate moral guide. Emotivism breaks down a virtuous society, in which there is a shared objective moral good and a set of “practices necessary for human beings to embody those goods in community.”
A society that has moved toward subjective moral standards and broken down collective objective moral truths can no longer agree on what is virtuous, so the individual will becomes paramount. Moral standards and religiously- or culturally-based norms are abandoned, and individuals distance themselves from community and social obligations.
Dreher argues we live in this society now, and this society in which people answer only to their own will and care not about what they are destroying on their way to power and self-esteem looks a lot like barbarism. As he shrewdly notes, today’s barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears for designer suits and smartphones.
What Christian faith that is left in the West does not have much to stand on in defending a barbaric onslaught. MTD is a shallow form of religion. When it comes upon a challenge, it does not have the roots to stand and fight. In the name of being nice, it gives in. The people raised in a framework of MTD do not have sufficient experience with those practices necessary for human beings to embody the objective moral good. They might know the faith to one degree or another in their head, but they don’t “feel it in their bones.”
This brings us back to St. Benedict, who kept the faith alive by fleeing to the hills and eventually starting a network of monasteries after Rome was overtaken by barbarians. The monasteries allowed Christians to retreat behind the walls to strengthen and preserve their faith in a way that allowed them to go out and evangelize the barbarians.
In his case, St. Benedict saw that society was too far gone to save, so he built a proverbial ark to shelter the faith in until the flood receded.
Have we reached the same point? Have the waters risen so high that even the strongest rocks of faith are at risk of being carried away? As Dreher points out, “Our scientists, judges, princes, and scholars are at work demolishing faith, family, gender, and even what it means to be human.” The tyranny of human will is omnipresent in our society, and the waters are showing no sign of retreating.
What is the answer? As Dreher is clearly preparing to argue, it is time to build a new ark of some sort. Christians need to find a way to step back from the world in deep prayer and spiritual training so that they can effectively represent a real (small-o) orthodox faith when they are in the world.
Why not stand firm and continue to fight the battle in American politics and hope to take the country back? For one, it is too far gone. The politics reflect where the society has already moved, and what they are reflecting now is a nation that has moved on from Christianity in any real form.
Taking part in the current landscape of national politics will require further compromise. As the two political parties move in opposite directions they move further and further away from the middle ground in which much of Christian teaching resides. Siding with one political party means giving up on some subset of Christian belief in order to try to preserve another.
And, as the book wisely notes, the kingdom of which we are citizens is not of this world. We cannot compromise that citizenship in the name of our worldly citizenship.
While interviewing Dreher on the “Thinking in Public” podcast, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lousiville, posits that there are four stages to secularism. The first two are secular ascendance and triumphalism, which we have already seen. The third is secular aggression, in which those driven by secular impulses feel validated in silencing Christians and their influence as a human good. This is where we are now.
The fourth step, though, is secular exhaustion. The theory is that since secularism cannot deliver on its promises and cannot perpetuate itself in the absence of a religion against which to battle, it collapses.
When the current cycle of secular aggression collapses it will leave in its wake a lot of people who have been heavily damaged by the culture, and they will need a strong church to serve as a triage center, providing hope, purpose, and structure.
In some respects we may already be seeing the beginnings of the strengthening of the Church for this purpose. Looking at Church demographics and comparing them to those of a few decades ago is a discouraging practice in these times, particularly in the Catholic Church with which I am most familiar: church attendance is down, priestly vocations are down, and religious communities are shrinking and closing their doors. But, as a priest once pointed out to me, it is in some respects a pruning.
Today’s priests, though fewer, are much more effectively trained and went through a much more intense discernment process before ordination. Religious communities are falling off the map, but in many cases these communities had already assimilated to a new-age spirituality that only vaguely represented Christianity anyway. More orthodox and vibrant communities are starting to grow as their orthodoxy stands in contrast to society and becomes very appealing to young men and women seeking a real relationship with God.
Church attendance is down, but (at least in some communities) those that are attending Mass are incredibly committed and have access to resources that generations before would only have dreamed about. In addition, organizations are showing up that are doing evangelization and catechesis the right way. As an example, FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, has church attendance growing rapidly on many college campuses, and a staggering percentage of those students are plugging in to weekly Bible studies.
Today’s millennial generation didn’t grow up with a religion that had any meat to it, but they still have that innate thirst for something deeper. In some respects, they are easier to reach out to than college students were just ten or fifteen years ago, because they have no working knowledge of religion and are curious about it.
On the other hand, the problem facing Christendom today isn’t completely a shortage of good Christians. Orthodox Christianity is quickly becoming viewed as wholehearted bigotry by all of the institutions in our society, allowing them to discriminate against Christians in a widely accepted way just as Mohler’s phase of secular aggression describes.
While Benedict had to start a process to outlast centuries of barbarism, I have to wonder if the cycle that Albert Mohler described might move by in an accelerated fashion with the incredible speed of information and the short memory of today’s society. Perhaps we only need to preserve the faith for decades, rather than centuries. We will see.
In the meantime, perhaps the Benedict Option can be used to prevent a secular culture from turning a pruning of the Church into a full controlled burn of the entire Christian landscape.
While the focus of this chapter was on the crisis that has beat down our society over the past five or six decades, Dreher insinuates that the roots of the problem actually go back centuries. That is what he explores in the next chapter.