Some Options

There has been a lot of talk about “Options” around the Christian water cooler as of late. In an earlier post, “Projects, Seeing, and Options,” I offered some remarks on Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” which, as I understand it, calls for a retreat from the world in order to preserve what is left of Christian—and by extension classical—civilization. C.C. Pecknold, a professor of theology at Catholic University of America, has written over at First Things about what he calls the “Dominican Option.” Unlike Dreher’s proposal, Pecknold’s eschews retreatism in favor of engagement built on two pillars: “the right pattern of formation and evangelistic witness.” Which will win out? Or will both amount to little more than vacuous sloganeering?

I ask those questions not to denigrate the sincere desire of Dreher and Pecknold to chart a course for 21st C. Christian living in a world which grows more hostile toward the Gospel with each passing day, but rather to begin reflecting on whether either pathway is, in the final analysis, feasible or desirable. To be honest, I don’t have the answers available to me at the moment; this is, in a significant way, “new terrain” for me. However, my first instinct is to prefer the Dominican Option for the simple fact that we are called to be the light of the world. The Benedict Option seems too quick to reach for the bushel basket. At the same time, however, the Dominican Option presupposes something which no Christian, and certainly no Catholic, can take for granted: the availability of a “right pattern of formation.”

The hard truth in today’s Church is that most of the faithful are grossly under-catechized. Catholics have, in large part, lost a proper sense of what their earthly pilgrimage is for and why the Church is not, as a certain prejudice would have it, an extremely large, transnational social-service NGO. If Catholics themselves fail to understand that above all they need Christ and the Salvation He has promised to those who take up their crosses and follow Him, what is the point of “evangelistic witness”? What are we, as Catholics, trying to convert our fellow men and women to? There are plenty of ways in pluralistic America for people to fulfill what are superficially referred to as “spiritual needs”; what does the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church have to offer them which no other (false) religion has? If American Catholics cannot answer that question and answer it boldly, then evangelistic witness is ultimately a waste of time.

Please note that despite my choice of words, I do not mean to imply that the Catholic Church should make “sales pitches” to would-be entrants (or fallen away souls) that are self-consciously in competition with what, for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists or the Muslims are “selling.” When it comes to truth, there is no competition. At the same time, though, if the Catholic Church, and specifically the Church in America, is unwilling to state, fully and forcefully, the consequences of denying her and the means to Salvation which God provides to His creation, then I dare say that aside from some marginal (and I do mean marginal) aesthetic enjoyment and soft existential comfort, Catholicism is bereft of purpose in these lands. And if that is the case, then what point is there in engaging the wider culture and reforming it along broadly Catholic lines? That engagement needs to mean more than just reforming tastes and sensibilities.

As for the Benedict Option, there may be something particularly attractive about it to contemporary American Orthodox Christians who, whether they like it or not, have been forced to settle for a ghetto existence despite being given a disproportionally high seat at the theological discussion table from time to time. While many American Orthodox like to see themselves as either opponents of or living beyond the horizon of the rapidly degenerating “West,” they do have a knack for jealously guarding what they perceive to be their unique “Byzantine” or, more broadly and ambiguously, “Eastern” patrimony. “The West,” which includes contemporary America, is an alien entity. A mindset of retreat-and-preserve comes more easily to the Orthodox than it does to most Catholics and mainline Protestants. If American Orthodox see any wellspring of renewal in the world, it lies across one ocean or another. America, along with the wider geo-political landscape of which it is a part, remains hopelessly lost.

There is much more to be said on this topic, and I shall do so in due course.

12 comments

  1. The Benedict Option seems too quick to reach for the bushel basket.

    Only if the bushel basket is full of vintage Veuve Clicquot, succulent oysters, and finely aged artisanal cheese.

    I mean, let’s not get carried away here.

  2. The one benefit of the Benedict Option is that it hopefully means we can hear less of Rod Dreher.

    This suggests the serious drawback: as an American Orthodox, I don’t want to have anything to do with the people retreating. I simply can’t imagine why this seems like a good idea. The people who do this are largely delusional in other ways, too: many deny evolution, vaccines, climate change…

    1. The one benefit of the Benedict Option is that it hopefully means we can hear less of Rod Dreher.

      Oh my dear gzt!! You are so naive. LOL. :D

      Dreher has about as much chance of truly going off the grid as Kim Kardashian does.

      But yes, we can dream, can’t we?

  3. I am of the opinion that, in a certain sense, the West has “ceased to be,” but our perceptions have not caught up yet.

    Part of this is being a victim of one’s own success. “The West” has recombined itself with other cultures in so many different ways, which have then grown in so many diverse directions, that they really don’t form a categorizable unity any more, save a level of common descent from a mother culture.

    Also to blame is the decay you cite. At some point, even with a renewal, it’s not really the same thing.

    Lastly “the East,” at least by traditional definition as those Christian cultures descending from Eastern Rome, is so destroyed and marginalized that the West more-or-less just *is.* There is *almost* no purpose to the distinction any more, in many senses.

    In sum, the West has birthed many children, and is exhausted.

    I half-agree with those who say the US is a lost cause, insofar as it will take a new combination of “indigenous and exogenous elements” (a phrase from Aidan Nichols, in a different context) to re-found a new “daughter culture” of the West.

  4. I hesitate to think of these “options.” For one thing, it sounds a lot like the neo-Reactionarysphere trying to engineer a new Christianity or new religion because Christianity “failed.”

    There is also the “Jeremiah” option, which is to preach boldly, get ignored, persist for decades, watch your audience suffer destruction and desolation, and ultimately die a martyr. Of course, that option only works if God is truly behind it.

  5. Taking Dreher’s neo-Benedict Option seriously is to make the mistake of making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The main reason he can’t ever quite manage to describe it the same way twice is simple. The only thing it really means at heart is assembling a wall of people two or three deep between him and anyone who still might give him a noogie, preferably people who believe in his muddled teachings and who depend on him for their sense of importance. And who drink the right craft beer.

    If you can’t ever figure out what flavor of Christianity is just right for you, head for the holler, set up your still, and declare your squeezings the real McCoy being preserved from the barbarians. Preferably with a crew stronger than they are bright to do the mundane tasks while you perfect the bouquet.

    1. Amen.

      As my Dreher-critical pals have recently noted, Dreher has been writing a lot recently about martyrdom, Christians versus the culture, drawing a line in the sand, and so forth.

      The problem is that Dreher wants other people to do all that stuff, while he nestles in his armchair, sipping his tea, with his books and prayer rope at his elbow, and his poor wife working her butt off in the background to secure the stability of his “Good Life.”

      1. Or the fact that this supposed leader of the preservation of western culture seriously suffers from self-loathing and has joined the Byzantine anti-western bashers makes it all, well, rather ludicrous. One suspects that his retreat has much to do with, “Let’s all pretend to be make-believe Wooskies.” Which seems to be all that has recently chosen denomination has to offer.

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