The barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, said Alasdair MacIntyre, they have already been governing us for quite some time. About the best we can hope for at this stage of history, he wrote in his influential book After Virtue, 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,” concluded MacIntyre, “but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
My friend Rod Dreher has built upon this insight by suggesting Christians consider the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.
While the Benedict Option is somewhat appealing, I’ve always found as an evangelical a sufficient reason for rejecting that approach: my people tried it; it didn’t work.
For the first half of the twentieth-century, evangelicals (who where then generally called Fundamentalists) had attempted to separate themselves from culture in order to protect their family, their faith, and their souls. But a generation before I was born, Carl F.H. Henry wrote in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) that evangelicals should take up our intellectual and cultural obligations and begin once again to engage with the broader cultural streams of society. He reminded evangelicals that we are not only called to be pilgrims, but also to be ambassadors.
Samuel Goldman—a self-professed secular Jew—recommends a similar way that
“can offer inspiration not only to Christians in the ruins of Christendom but also to a secular society that draws strength from the participation of religiously committed people and communities. Call it the Jeremiah Option.”
Goldman explains the situation the Jewish exiles in Babylon faced, and what we can learn from their example:
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
MacIntyre’s pessimism conceals what can almost be called an element of imperialism—at least when considered in historical perspective. Embedded in his hope for a new monasticism is the dream of a restoration of tradition. The monks of the dark ages had no way of knowing that they would lay the foundation of a new Europe. But MacIntyre is well aware of the role that they played in the construction of a fresh European civilization—and subtly encourages readers to hope for a repetition.
Jeremiah’s message to the captives is not devoid of grandiose hopes: the prophet assures them that they or their progeny will ultimately be redeemed. But this does not require the spiritual or cultural conversion of the Babylonians.
The comparison between the options represented by Jeremiah and by Benedict has some interest as an exercise in theologico-political theorizing. But it is much more important as a way of getting at a central problem for members of traditional religious and moral communities today. How should they conduct themselves in a society that seems increasingly hostile to their values and practices? Can they in good conscience seek the peace of a corrupt and corrupting society?
Goldman offers an intriguing alternative to the Benedict Option. I’m not sure what Alasdair MacIntyre would think about it, but I suspect Carl F.H. Henry would approve.