Evil Is Not Inevitable: The Benedict Opportunity
COMMENTARY: It is no time to retreat. It is time to advance. It is no time to wave Christians away from politics. It is a time to wave them in.
I picked up Rod Dreher’s just-released book, The Benedict Option, ready to criticize it, and I was surprised. I couldn’t do that.
Then, when I sat down to wholeheartedly recommend it, I was surprised again. I can’t do that, either.
Instead, what I want to do is propose that The Benedict Option, which has captured the imagination of both secular and religious journalists, is a great opportunity for Catholics: It is an opportunity to rediscover and promote Christian living in our time.
But I also want to issue a warning: The book could be an opportunity for a tragic error.
The Benedict Option
Dreher’s description of the “Benedict Option” begins with the story of a young St. Benedict rejecting Rome, “where promising young men seeking a place in the world went to complete their education,” and heading, instead, first to a cave and then a cloister — from whence he and his monks would save Western civilization.
Dreher associates himself with Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s proposal in After Virtue: “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. … We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”
In the past, I have contrasted the Benedict Option with the “Francis Option” — the saint whose first call was to a cave versus the saint whose first call was to build a church; the cloistered monk versus the itinerant friar. Now that I have read the book, I can’t do that.
Dreher has been blogging about his “BenOp” concept for years. Any tendency his idea had to be a “hideaway” movement is no longer there. In fact, it was never there for Benedictines, either. Early in his book, Dreher quotes a monk saying, “The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking.”
Dreher’s book — subtitled “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” — is not calling Christians to withdraw: He is calling them to rediscover themselves to become better witnesses.
“Jesus Christ promised the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church,” he writes, “but he did not promise that hell would not prevail against his Church in the West. That depends on us, and the choices we make right here, right now.”
A Practical Guide
Most of the book is made up of advice about living the Christian life, which roams from child-raising to Catholic identity in public life, from the workplace to the bedroom.
His section on liturgy is so good — simple, profound and clear — I want to read it out loud to my class at Benedictine College. His chapter on restoring a proper relationship with technology is so good that I assigned it for my students to read.
But there is plenty to quibble with in Dreher’s how-to. He is painting with a broad brush, and that is perilous.
I would rewrite his education section entirely to put the stress on Catholic higher education, which has proven to have the most lasting effect on students, for instance. And when he writes, “Pull Your Children Out of Public Schools,” I could feel the defenses rising in his audience.
But the book is a beautiful introduction to living a faithful, rooted, Christian life in our difficult times. More than that, it has all the fresh energy and insight of Rod Dreher, a traditionalist Eastern Orthodox Christian with a hipster heart, who sees old truths as revolutionary and knows beauty, truth and goodness are what ultimately attract hearts and minds.
So why can’t I recommend it wholeheartedly? Because the book’s timing couldn’t have been worse.
Only God Is Inevitable
Dreher very clearly conceived and created the book to be a how-to manual for Christians to survive a Hillary Clinton administration. When he wrote this book, it was inevitable that Hillary would win, and it was inevitable that she was going to lead us down the “road to despotism,” as Cardinal Francis George called President Barack Obama’s actions against religious liberty.
Dreher describes “The Roots of the Crisis” that is strangling the Western world in two sets of bullet points, with a tale in between that goes from William of Ockham’s separation of God and reason through Descartes’ separation of mind and body all the way to the radical autonomy and relativism of our own time.
The analysis of our dark times is unassailable, but that is part of the problem. It too easily falls into the trap of deciding that because things happened this way, they had to happen this way. From there, it is easy to imagine that the future has to happen in a certain way, too.
Dreher says history is poetry, not a syllogism; but then he treats it as a syllogism, as something inevitable: A darkness is descending as certainly as night follows day.
But after he wrote the book, something crazy happened. God decided to remind us that nothing is inevitable: The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. The Atlanta Falcons’ 25-point Super Bowl lead collapsed. La La Land’s Oscar win was revoked. And Hillary Clinton lost her race for the White House.
“Don’t be fooled,” Dreher writes. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”
I absolutely agree with Dreher that there are no political saviors — and that Trump is farther from being a savior than most. But one thing Trump did do was take all the force out of that last word: inevitable.
The ideologue lost. The progress of secularism is not inevitable. Everyone thought it was — I certainly did — but it’s not.
And why did Hillary lose? She didn’t lose because Trump is well-liked. He’s not. She didn’t lose because he had better name recognition. Her name is one of the biggest in politics.
She lost because Trump refused to kowtow to political correctness. If you have the audacity to stand up to the bullies, you can prevail. No one knew you could do that. Now we know.
And now that we know, it is no time to retreat. It is time to advance. It is no time to wave Christians away from politics. It is a time to wave them in.
But Dreher highlights Lance Kinzer, a legislator who left the political rat race in Kansas to recharge his faith and family. Dreher appreciates what he did and spells out an “anti-political politics” this way: “Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors,” and more. And it’s all very good, very practical advice.
But it isn’t Kinzer’s advice. To his credit, Dreher also shares Kinzer’s politics, which are not “anti-political” at all: Engage with lawmakers; set achievable political goals; put freedom of religion first; reach out to the media on religious liberty, and more.
Don’t retreat. Advance — or, at least, stand your ground.
I know friends in the political sphere are scared to death of Dreher’s book. Yes, the culture has gone to frightening extremes. But that means that Christians have a duty to step up — to be the yeast in the dough and the salt of the earth. We also have an opportunity to do so.
We no longer need to find a “moral majority” — only a “sane majority” who think it’s wrong to kill babies, change boys into girls and remove protections from girls’ restrooms. The sane majority is easy to find, and they are willing to rally.
Pick whatever option you want — the Holy Spirit wants many to flourish — and Dreher’s book will help you.
But pray to St. John Paul II, the pope who turned an aggressively secularist Poland into a spiritual powerhouse, that we won’t back down.
We should never back down. Nothing is inevitable if we fight with God.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas,
and author of What Pope Francis Really Said.