Benedict Option Revisited

Rod Dreher has just published The Religious Right: A Eulogy.

I have no personal experience of American religion other than a short year with an expatriate American community called the Oblates of Wisdom in Rome in 1985-86. American Roman Catholicism can be pretty aggressive (or excessive) at times, but nothing compared with the ideologies and obsessions of fundamentalist Evangelicals.

The Benedict Option is an intuition that I admire much more than the noise and hubbub of political Christianity. It is at this point that I have to admit that I have neglected C.S. Lewis for all too long, and have decided to order his books – and that will be my Christmas present from my wife. One thing that attracted me to him was his being described as reflecting Romantic notions in his work and thought. I too have to overcome the prejudice of having thought of him as some uninteresting low church type. Far from it! I’ll read his books and will write an article of what I think of all those little books. I am now convinced that my continuing theological formation needs to assimilate this element!

I discovered some very unpleasant aspects of “masculine” or “muscular” Christianity. I was too naive, being English, but I discovered a whole cult of guns, hyper-masculinity and contempt for women except as sex objects. The racism of those people defies belief! Compare them with European national socialists and they will evoke Godwin’s Law and close down the conversation. Perhaps I exaggerate in regard to those who are Christians and who are as such bound by some notion of moral teachings. I, the “milksop”, was quite taken aback at the extreme indignant reactions to my mild criticisms. Finally, there is not much I can say because of my lack of experience of what is to me another world. However, I can get a good idea from what Americans write about these tendencies.

America is becoming increasingly like secular Europe. The few who are interested in Christianity are interested for its own sake and not for that of politics. The separation of church and state was a fundamental tenet of the American Constitution, the object of admiration by Alexis de Tocqueville and other 19th century Liberals and Romantic thinkers. The religious Right and ambitions to theocracy can turn very ugly indeed as we see with American neo-conservatism and the Jihadist world. The secular state, like here in dreary Socialist France, is far from ideal from the point of view of moral issues – indeed we are at a boiling point with the political elites having come to the limit of their credibility and meaning in terms of the common good. With my experience of religious bigotry and fanaticism, we need to witness through our lives (being ourselves and free) and through beauty. It is unfortunate that other people sin, but we are not the ones to arrest them and punish them.

The electoral fever in Washington and the world media is mounting. Trump will not be a religious neo-conservative but something of a modern-day Mussolini. If he wins, we seem to be in a dialectic like the early 1920’s, with the wars in the middle-east parallel with the role of World War I. If he is a courageous man, he would root out the various secret groups of unelected elites that have undermined the democratic character of the American Constitution for a very long time. Hitler did the same thing in Germany by declaring war against Jews and Freemasons, so the idea of purging the government is a two-edged sword. He might break the stranglehold in some kind of popular revolution before coming to a sticky end. It could turn very ugly. The best thing to hope for would be an alliance between Trump and Putin – and then there will be no World War III and nuclear holocaust. We might have to stick our right arms up in the air and say Il Duce ha sempre raggione, but we wouldn’t be going up in smoke…

Clinton, indeed the Clinton family, like Hollande here in France, represents plutocracy, champagne-socialism and sleaze married to the present colonial and imperialist ambitions of the USA addicted to oil and the value of its non-existent dollar. According to some theories, Hillary Clinton will win the election but will be prevented from being inaugurated. We have the same problem in Europe, both in the European Union and the individual States. The conspiracy enthusiasts make much ado of it, to the extreme of calling people like the Rothschilds and the British Royal Family shape-shifting alien reptiles. Every truth gets covered over with such outrageous hyperbole that we all become cynical. There is something very wrong and frightening about the establishment. The same polarisation is spreading through France, Germany and those countries most affected by uncontrolled immigration of badly-behaved young men. We in Europe have had enough of establishment politics and unelected bureaucracies, and we look to something new even if there is a risk of jumping from the frying pan into the fire!

Neither will bolster up or give political legitimacy to groups of fanatical Christians or representatives of any other religion. It seems that the religious Right is living on borrowed time. This emerges:

The best way to influence the culture for Christ is to stop trying to “influence the culture for Christ”, but rather to be deeply and thoughtfully Christian, and to allow your countercultural life to be your testimony.

I can’t fault that. We need to become Christians ourselves and live the Gospel as our way of life rather than seek to remove the freedom of others to choose between good or evil.

I am impressed by the following:

The evangelical commitment to the Bible means the possibility of the shaping of the consciences of the people, not just by the doctrines and propositions of the Scripture but also by experiencing the world through a sense of place in the biblical story. Jesus recognized the temptations of the devil not merely by opposing propositions with propositions but by seeing that he stood where Israel had stood before, in the wilderness before the tribunal of God. The recovery of the kind of catechesis that fits the whole Bible together around the centrality of Christ crucified is necessary for Christians to see that they are indeed “strangers and aliens” to every culture, but that their allegiances transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural. We need public arguments. We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing. But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word of “Thus saith the Lord.”

I can’t help thinking of some ideas of Nicholas Berdyaev regarding the contrast between prophetic and institutional Christianity. If the Benedict Option is about being successful with the nuts and bolts of founding communities, getting other people on board and in line, I have my reserves. If it about all of us taking Christianity as seriously as monks, that is somewhat closer to the mark.

American Christians are theologically ignorant, and it’s killing us.

I am sometimes amazed at the inability of some people to name Paris as the capital city of France or that England is separated from the European Continent by the English Channel and that you need a boat or the Channel Tunnel (or fly) to cross it. Lack of basic general knowledge extends to religious knowledge too. Our duty is to educate the ignorant and learn new knowledge ourselves to dissipate our own ignorance. The worst thing in the world is the ignorant bigot who refuses to admit his ignorance!

Some succinct ideas:

Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is, in fact, to be conserved.

If we lack a radical commitment to the Gospel, all we have to offer is moralism.

We must remind ourselves that we are not inquisitors but missionaries.

This may be blinding revelation to Americans, but this has been the issue in France throughout the nineteenth century and even more since the anti-clerical era prior to World War I. In France, the Revolution swept away the old order and left France in chaos. There had to be something new – in France, England, Germany, Italy, everywhere, and it had to transcend both the old regime and the bloody terror of Robespierre. Perhaps the revolution has arrived in America, and we can only pray that it will not become terror and a bloodbath! May hearts be changed, but with love and kindness, a will to educate. We can’t go back to the past. There must be something new to transcend both bigotry and wanton destruction.

When the old is swept away, we will begin afresh like in the 1820’s after the defeat of Napoleon and amidst the ruins of political ambition and pride. It was at this time when Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the American Constitution for inspiration in constructing a new democracy and a political system in which fanaticism and intolerance would play no part. Americans now need to look to their old roots as when their Fathers forged a “new world” of hope and opportunity.

I appreciate these ideas being published on the internet, so that we may all dialogue. I was made aware of this Rod Dreher article by my nephew Matthew Urwin who has studied theology and is a committed Evangelical Christian. I am thankful to see them reflecting and converging with other enlightened disciples of Christ.

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17 Responses to Benedict Option Revisited

  1. Timothy Graham says:

    CS Lewis is shot through with Romanticism, literary Romanticism. His literary criticism is his best work – The Discarded Image (an intro to medieval “worldview”) is perhaps the best, along with The Allegory of Love. The Abolition of Man is probably his best critique of modernity. I wonder what you will make of his fiction – I would guess you have read the Chronicles of Narnia at some point? but perhaps the most fertile in ideas (not maybe the best constructed story) is That Hideous Strength, the final book of the “science fiction” trilogy, although that classification does not really suit the book. It has a very interesting picture of the form that a scientific-based totalitarianism is likely to take.

    P.S. On Lewis’s churchmanship, he does defy classification – a “high” sacramental theology but also very evangelical and seemingly a bit irritated with Anglo-Catholic liturgical “fussiness”. Something for people generally to comment on that puzzles me – I can no indication in the literary Christian giants of that generation (Tolkien et al) that they had any, but any, notion of Tradition in liturgy (vs. the rights of hierarchical authority to change things), even though they had a very heightened sense of this in the political/social/literary sphere. Why this blind spot?

    • Dale says:

      We need to remember that the liturgy wars were far different in Lewis’s day than they are now. His parish church, Holy Trinity, was what would, in that time, be called Prayer Book Catholic, with a fully vested altar with two candlesticks and altar Cross (Very similar to Fr Anthony’s chapel), a few statues, use of vestments, including white veils used in Lent.

      Today the parish is a very good copy of a novus ordo Roman Catholic church with modern altar and liturgies.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Lovely link: thanks! Canon Head, who had been the Lewises’s priest, was still there when I came to live in The Kilns in 1988. The verger, who had also known them, said when C.S. Lewis preached (I don’t know how frequently), he stood at the communion rail rather than presuming to ascend the pulpit. Lewis also had a confessor/spiritual director, Father Walter Adams of the Society of St. John the Evangelist ( a ‘Cowley Father’).

        I think Charles Williams probably had, in some sense, the liveliest notion of Tradition in liturgy, though Tolkien was very active as a boy server at the Birmingham Oratory and has interesting things to say in at least one of his published letters about liturgical practice and circumstances (though there are indeed other scattered references of interest, there, too). I don’t know enough about Barfield become Anglican.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Two interesting Tolkien liturgically-related links:

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    If you haven’t ordered, yet, could you give us a run-down of what you’re thinking of getting? I’d agree with all of Timothy Graham’s recommendations, but add English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (A.N. Wilson is really on-target about how delightful reading it is, even at the (solitary) tea-table (or aloud, in company, fro that matter – Lewis lectured a lot and tried to write for the ear). It seems to be on various Amazons (UK, French, German) for c. 15 quid/25 euro… I’ll be back with more after domestic duties are discharged…

    • I have ordered The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics containing:

      – Mere Christianity
      – The Screwtape Letters
      – The Great Divorce
      – The Problem of Pain
      – Miracles
      – A Grief Observed
      – The Abolition of Man.

      The price is reasonable from Amazon – €28.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        This sounds like a good and varied selection! I started with The Abolition of Man, which was referred to and quoted in a book I was reading – I don’t think I had ever heard of Lewis – but about that time, my grandmother drew my attention to some or other newspaper article about him and said she had enjoyed The Screwtape Letters – and that was the next, or one of the next ones, I read (I had run into a smaller sort of ‘omnibus’ paperback reprinting several books together – I’m not sure which, now) – it is so good (and The Great Divorce makes for an interesting sort of companion-piece to follow and compare and contrast with it). I’m looking forward to your ariticle(s?) on what you think of them!

        I hope you’ll end up wanting to go on to various of the others we’ve mentioned – or still others that attract you more.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Should add, the paperback economized by leaving out the bibliography, and more recent reprints have alternate title(s?): Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century… (I wonder how the excellent booklet-length intro would sell, if published separately?)

    Reflections on the Psalms and Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (also retitled in some reprints – Prayer: Letters to Malcolm) are ones I can imagine (I hope, accurately…!) you enjoying, as well as An Experiment in Criticism (I think).

    I think Till We Have Faces is not only his finest novel, but a novel for people who have never heard of Lewis – fine in its own right.

    There are all sorts of (omnibus) collections of essays, book reviews, etc. In the ‘political’ context, “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (January 1941) and the introduction he wrote for a book by a schoolmaster, reprinted as “On the transmission of Christianity”. I can also imagine you liking “Myth Became Fact” (complementary to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”, but written before that was published). And there are some great sermons, “The Weight of Glory” and “Transpositions”.

    A useful sight to browse to help inform your ordering decisions is:

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Further to Timothy Graham’s note on The Abolition of Man (which Lewis somewhere calls something like almost his favourite of his books – or was it, ‘best’?), I just read a post by the academic political philosopher, Professor Steven Hayward, passing along an interesting paragraph to which his friend Clifford Angel Bates, at the University of Warsaw, drew his attention it is taken from page 143 of the transcript of Leo Strauss’s 1962 class on Rousseau at the University of Chicago:

    “May I mention one point? We don’t have time to read it here: there is a book, or rather a series of lectures by C.S. Lewis, the English author, The Abolition of Man, which is worth reading from every point of view. It is his criticism of social science positivism or [right]. And he calls these men here, in the first lecture, ‘men without chests,’ meaning they admit bodily desires, and they admit reasoning, in a way: namely, how to get the objects of bodily desires. The other things, the values, as they are called, are merely subjective. In other words, there is a lower part of the body, stomach and below, and there is a brain; but there is nothing in between. There is no heart. This is not a bad description of this view of man. I recommend it to your reading. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1959.”

    He links the source and discusses it in the context of Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s new book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (which I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere, recently):

    Tangentially, that admirer of The Abolition of Man, George Grant (a conscientious objector who did his alternative service work in London very much amidst the bombing, and enjoyed the Socratic Club of which Lewis was President when he returned to Oxford after the war) was also a great reader of Strauss. (I have not really begun to catch up properly on Strauss or various ‘Straussians’, but it seems, shall we say, ‘a complicated business’ where extra wariness is called for to reap real rewards (he said mysteriously)…)

  5. Timothy Graham says:

    David – I’d quite forgotten to mention Till We Have Faces, a phoenix of a book, one of a kind – and the sermons. The World’s Last Night is one of my favourites. Was there ever an author who was a master of so many genres? I was once utterly immersed in Lewis & he is still my point of departure in many ways. The reasons are largely autobiographical, but his work was my soul’s springtime when I discovered him in my late teens.

    Perhaps particularly relevant to the Benedictine Option, That Hideous Strength has an example of a “community” of the kind that Dreher might be feeling for.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Yes, he is wonderfully varied! (I’ve finally caught up with the selections of his poetry printed in the 1960s, and thoroughly enjoyed them – in various ways – too: though a lot more has now been published, to look forward to,,,)

      Your using the word ‘autobiographical’ reminds me to mention Surprised by Joy.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Yes, St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength is perhaps a good example of a sort of Benedictine Option – and, I’ve been thinking lately, in less urgently ‘apocalyptic’ circumstances than the novel (though a returning German bomber once dumped its leftovers on the wooded hill behind them), that the Lewis homestead at The Kilns was, in its way, too. Dale mentions above Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry, which was something like a none-too-long walk down a country lane away, then, while The Kilns itself was farm-like and still rather on the edge of things (though a neighbouring street was soon added on one side – and the Robert Goble family ended up near neighbours on the other side, after the war!), and it had varied family-like small community aspects to it, down the years, with Maureen Moore like a younger sister to the lewis brothers, then children evacuated during the war (there’s a lovely, vivid interview linked from the Wikipedia “June Flewett” article), and someone else who had nowhere else to turn living (I think for years) in a little house on the grounds, with, all along, varied (old student friend) visitors (like Martin Lings, playing the Magic Flute overture on their piano), then Joy, David, and Douglas, and those boys grown and away.

  6. The Anti-Gnostic says:

    The Benedict Option strikes me as juvenescent. Modern Christians imagine it is 33 AD again, and they can role-play in their enclaves, imagining themselves like St. Paul speaking truth to Herod Agrippa. It’s also a graceful way to deal with the fact that Christianity has been chased out of the public square by modernity and secularism.

    Speaking of, I don’t think there’s any support for secular democracy in the Church’s theology. As in none, zero, zilch. I’m open to being proved wrong.

    Also, American neo-conservatism is strongly Judaic. Another group with out-sized influence: Mormons.

    • I’m not sure what is implied in this comment. My experience of phenomena like Continuing Anglican churches, traditionalist Roman Catholics, etc. is their geographical dispersion. Before the internet and blogs, we communicating with each other would never have heard of each other. On a local level, it is indeed hopeless. Only a few “cultural Catholics” attend the once-a-month Mass at the village church and I’m fine with the village folk as long as I don’t talk about religion or look like a priest. I will buy a copy of Rod Dreher’s upcoming book on the Benedict Option, but I fear, as you do, that the idea is illusory outside Benedictine monasteries.

      The writing on the wall in the political world suggest a “paradigm shift” away from Liberal and Conservative establishment politics to neo-nationalism and populism, a new form of the phenomenon following World War I. It isn’t only the US with Clinton vs Trump but in Europe too with Brexit, Le Pen and similar movements in Germany, Italy and – Russia. In the old days, the “enemy” was the other country. This time, the enemy is ourselves and our establishment.

      We are certainly called as Christians to make decisions: take it more seriously or give it up. Decide what we believe in: nihilist materialism or a more spiritual and all-encompassing view of life… How do we make our own souls more “fertile” for the seed of the Gospel?

      Have I missed anything?

  7. J.D. says:

    I’m starting to think that big institutional Christianity is a thing of the past if the so called Benedict Option actually makes a difference. Small like minded Christians of wildly different traditions and with different liturgical and theological sensibilities will live on the hinterlands and inspire one another through example and perhaps online networking, and all without practically any help or support from the various corrupted hierarchies of any institutional Church. What this may eventually lead to is anyone’s guess though.

    We live in interesting and exciting times! In some ways us gathering here now to discuss all this IS the Benedict Option in seed form.

    As for Lewis, I would agree that his Abolition of Man is a tiny powerhouse. It’s by no means easy reading despite its less than 100 pages, but well worth the effort.

    • I have been reading some articles on the upcoming American election (yes, I know you’re all sick to the gills with it). The “paradigm shift” is common to the US and Europe. Also, we too do not wish to be fried in a nuclear holocaust, and want to see an end to the “situation” in Syria, Irak, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Clinton represents the self-serving establishment that perpetuates the reputation of lying politicians and “sottogoverno” private interests like banks and big business. The problem with the Establishment is that it is corrupt and no longer upholds the common good or the impartiality of law – what Rousseau and Hobbes called the “social contract”. Trump represents the results of social networking that does a lot to discredit the media and politically correct propaganda, the populist authoritarian figure with apparently no idea about “statesmanship”. We had something of that in France with Sarkozy for whom people voted because they were afraid to go for the Front National and the unknown of being ruled outside the traditional left and right. Next year, here in France, it will be the discredited François Hollande or Le Pen, unless some compromise candidate comes up.

      You mention social networking. I use Facebook with reserve and for about 10 minutes a day maximum. I have never used Twitter. I find both incredibly shallow and incapable of transmitting anything of depth. Shallowness is extremely dangerous and clearly the limit of any form of democracy. Nevertheless, it is challenging establishment corruption and lies.

      Large churches like Rome and the Anglican Communion, together with most of the European Lutheran churches still try to represent the spiritual arm of the Establishment.

      Our job, if there is to be any form of Benedict Option, is to do it via an improved form of “social networking”. I would say 90% blog and 10% Facebook to keep one’s presence in the minds of our “friends”, and they will share things with their “friends”, and bring people to read the blog articles where things can be expressed in greater depth so as to be better understood.

      This is precisely my ministry as a priest. I say Mass and Office for all my readers, and you are all in my prayers. You all pray wherever you live, and many of you find the Sacraments and the liturgy in one church or another near your home. I love the informality of it, since this is what prevents us from becoming corrupt ourselves.

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