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Mosaic picture of the disciples in a boat with fishing nets

Signs of the Times

It Is Time for the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher

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  • Bertski

    Well, let's give credit to all the numerous denominations, which might fulfill “here is Christ, no, here is Christ.” Then a mess, population confused by many doctrines, where it's too much to sort out. Secondly exploitation of the war and Iraq and Afghanistan, which once we're called gallant people of Afghanistan. Now they're terrorists. But serves as fuel to attack God. Then we have the prophecy of things h aging to become becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah. Which violence becomes prevalent, as in the days of Noah. Which it isn't all that bad, but we don't need to neglect it as there's many that idolize violence. As in machoism, which contrast to self protection and other healthy benefits. Where violence can be be verbal and emotional too, what's called revilers. Then marriage and divorce, it's interesting. But someone somewhere has always claimed the end was near for at least a couple hundred years and people enjoy crisis. It's interesting. The tower of Babel was said to be destroyed for certain reasons, where there's a reversal of the Babylonian affects today, where Russia, the U.S. & other countries already have a space station which is much higher than the tower of Babel I'd guess. You tell me. I'm curious. 1054 the church divided as Israel and Judah did. Another 57 years will be its' 1000 th anniversary. Waters are polluted. Artificial food is prevalent. As my grandmother mentioned there'd be a pill a person can take for all nutritional needs, it's here.

  • Oswin Haas

    "What I am claiming is that a world is coming to an end, and that if Christians don’t take radical action now, the faith that made Western civilization will not survive for long into its post-Christian phase." Was the "Western civilization" really made by the Christian faith? Saying that we are entering now into a "post"-Christian phase means that the time before was Christian. Is that really the case? Were the last 100 years of the "West" Christian, with 2 world wars, with the massive destruction of nature, with the Holocaust, with Hiroshima, etc.? Were the 400 years before 1900 Christian, with the genocide of countless peoples in the whole world, with the enslavement of almost all peoples in Africa, Asia, America and Australia, with countless wars in and outside Europe, with the brutal "Christianization" of the world by "the sword", etc.? Was it better in the "Middle Ages" or during Roman times? No. In the last 500 years the "Western" civilization" turned out to be the most aggressive and most imperial of all times. It conquered the whole world. This is definitely NOT in the spirit of Jesus Christ. This is NOT Christian. The "Western" culture as a whole has never been Christian. What has to be done is to make the "West" FINALLY Christian! The "West" is one of these many "Egypts" or "Babylons" that appeared in human history. So was the Roman Empire, not only until Constantin I but till its very end, when it claimed already to be Christian. Jesus wanted the Jews and all the other peoples of his Roman times to "repent ... and believe in the gospel." (Marc 1:15) "Repent" means mainly to turn away completely from the Roman "Egypt" and live the exact opposite. The opposite of what? Of "mammon". It is the "mammon" what all "Egypts" are about. This is what the EARLY Christians did. And this is also what WE have to do. We have to leave the "Egypt" of the "West" and live in the entire response to God: to our neighbors, to our deep non-"I"-self, to nature, to the Holy Spirit ...

On March 16 of this year, hundreds gathered at the Union League Club in midtown Manhattan for a public conversation about the future of Christianity in the West. The occasion was the launch of Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option, a New York Times bestseller dubbed by David Brooks as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” The event, co-hosted by Plough, First Things, and the American Conservative, brought together a varied group for a lively panel discussion.

In the face of an increasingly hostile culture, how should Christians approach participation in public life? What kinds of communities can foster true discipleship? How can we raise our children to follow Jesus? These are some of the questions raised by the book and addressed by the panelists. 

Dreher began by laying out the ideas in the book and addressing common criticisms. Other panelists responded, including Ross Douthat of the New York Times, Michael Wear, a former Obama White House staffer, Jacqueline C. Rivers of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, and Randall Gauger, a Bruderhof bishop. Here, we present excerpts from that conversation.

Media organizations from The Federalist to the New Yorker covered the event. And the conversation hasn’t stopped: see the item titled “City and Kingdom New York” to learn about a new initiative co-sponsored by Plough that aims to continue to address these crucial issues.

You may have seen recently some criticism of me and the Benedict Option for being “alarmist.” The critics are right: I am alarmist about the state of our culture, our civilization, and the condition of the church within it. If you are a faithful Christian and are not alarmed, I think you are failing to read the signs of the times.

I do not claim that the world is coming to an end. No man knows the day or the hour. What I am claiming is that a world is coming to an end, and that if Christians don’t take radical action now, the faith that made Western civilization will not survive for long into its post-Christian phase.

A few years ago, a noted public intellectual said that “it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.” The intellectual went on to lament the collapse of the spiritual forces that sustain us.

That public intellectual was Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. When the heir of a global throne that has been in existence for nearly two thousand years says that the West is facing its greatest spiritual crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire, attention must be paid.

What are the signs of the times, then? After all, the West is living in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, though I hardly need to point out the sense of mounting political crisis throughout our civilization. But signs of our spiritual depletion are impossible to deny – and if we are spiritually depleted, and morally exhausted, our peace and prosperity will not last long.

I won’t recite a litany of statistics, but I do want to focus on a few that are of particular interest to Christians:

  1. The Christian faith is flat on its back in secular Europe. The United States has long been thought a counterexample to the secularization thesis. That is no longer tenable. Writing last year in the American Journal of Sociology, scholars David Voas and Mark Chaves say the data now show that the United States is on the same downward path to disbelief pioneered by our European cousins.

  2. According to data from the Pew Research Center, one in three 18–29-year-olds have put religion aside, if they ever picked it up in the first place.

  3. Those younger Americans who remain affiliated in some capacity with churches have been formed by a pseudo-religion that resembles Christianity in name only. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues call this “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). MTD uses the language and conceptual vocabulary of historical, biblical Christianity, but in fact it teaches a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-light philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that ­worships the self. Smith and his research ­colleagues found that MTD is the de facto religion of most young Americans today.

  4. In findings published in 2011, Smith found that among 18–23-year-old Christians surveyed, only 40 percent said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility.

  5. An astonishing 61 percent of these so-called emerging adults said they have no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Christian Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass-consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”

The Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined a phrase that perfectly captures the revolutionary spirit of our time and place: “liquid modernity.”

Modernity, as we know, is characterized by a conscious break with the authority of the past and its institutions. For Bauman, “solid ­modernity” describes the first phase of modernity, in which the pace of change had quickened, but was still slow enough for people to adjust. Things still seemed, well, solid.

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Watch Rod Dreher giving this speech

But now we have moved into liquid modernity, a time in which the pace of change is so rapid that nothing – no new institutions, no new habits or customs – has time to solidify. In liquid modernity, Bauman said, the most successful person is the one who has no allegiances beyond himself and his self-interest. He can change loyalties and beliefs at will, to suit his own preferences. There is no solid ground anymore.

From a Christian perspective, I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible. All the familiar landmarks of our faith are being submerged and swept away. The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks in which we can ride out and, by God’s grace, make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we find dry land again and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.

What is the Benedict Option, and what does it have to do with this dire scenario I paint? The term comes from the famous final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue. In that book, the philosopher explained how Enlightenment modernity overthrew the old source of moral order, the one rooted in Christianity and classical philosophy, but could not produce an authoritative replacement for it. The West has been unraveling for some time now, and is reaching a point of reckoning. Liberalism is not sufficient to do the necessary work of binding society together and giving its members purpose.

In his book’s conclusion, MacIntyre too compared our present time to Rome’s collapse, although he indicated that our wealth obscures our inner fragility from our eyes. In post-imperial times, he said, some men and women of virtue quit trying to shore up the existing social order and instead focused on building new forms of community within which they could live out their moral traditions amid civilization’s ruins. MacIntyre famously said that today, we await “a new – and doubtless very different – Saint Benedict.”

Benedict of Nursia is known today as the founder of Western monasticism and as a patron saint of Europe. He was born in the year 480, four years after the last Roman emperor abdicated, and was sent as a pious young man down to the city of Rome to complete his education. What he saw there disgusted him. Benedict lit out for the forest to pray and fast and seek God’s will for his life. Eventually he founded twelve monasteries governed by a kind of monastic constitution called The Rule of Saint Benedict.

The Rule is a thin, plain pamphlet for the running of a monastery, which he called a “school for the Lord’s service.” It is not a book of spiritual secrets. It is a book that sets out an order for living, for the sake of training monastics in the spiritual life. You would never guess from reading it that this little book played a key role in saving Western civilization.

After Benedict died, monasticism exploded. Monks moved all over barbarian-ruled Europe. They brought the faith to unchurched people. They taught them how to pray, but also how to grow and make things – skills that had been lost in Rome’s collapse. In their rituals and in their libraries, the monks kept alive the cultural memory of Christian Rome. Because the monks took a vow of stability – a sacred promise to remain in the monastery where they took their vows until the end of their lives – peasants gathered around the monasteries as citadels of light and order in a very dark and chaotic time.

In this way, the Benedictine monasteries were arks carrying the faith across the stormy waters that obliterated Roman civilization. It all happened not because Saint Benedict of Nursia set out to “make Rome great again,” but because he sought to figure out how to best serve the Lord in community during a terrible crisis. Everything else followed from that.

In The Benedict Option, I write about my visits to the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, as Saint Benedict’s hometown is known today. I interviewed the monks about how their core values and practices can be applied to everyday Christian life outside the monastery. Prayer, work, hospitality, asceticism, stability, community – in Benedictine daily life, all these things work together in balance to lead the monks towards a sense of life-giving order, suffused by a sense of the sacredness of life.

Father Cassian Folsom, who was at the time the prior, or leader, of the Norcia monastery, told me that the monastery, with its life of Christ-focused prayer, is a sign of contradiction to the modern world:

The guardrails have disappeared, and the world risks careening off a cliff, but we are so captured by the lights and motion of modern life that we don’t recognize the danger. The forces of dissolution from popular culture are too great for individuals or families to resist on their own. We need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith.

What does this look like for ordinary Christians – Catholic and otherwise – who are called to live in the world? Does the Benedict Option call for Christians to head for the hills and build high walls to keep the impurity of the world at bay?

If we don’t change our way of living, we will not survive as the church.

Not at all! We have to evangelize, or we fail the great commission. We have to serve our neighbors, or we fail to serve our Lord. Put all thoughts of total withdrawal out of your mind. That is not what the Benedict Option calls for.

But it does call for a strategic separation from the everyday world. What do I mean by that? I mean that we have to erect some walls, so to speak, between ourselves and the world for the sake of our own spiritual formation in discipleship. In this hedonistic, post-Christian society, the dissipating force of outside culture is overwhelming. We cannot expect to go out into it and keep our candle lit any more than we could leave the church building in a gale-force wind and do so.

Here’s the paradox of the Benedict Option: if the church is going to be the blessing for the world that God means for it to be, then it is going to have to spend more time away from the world deepening its commitment to God, to scripture, to tradition, and to each other. We cannot give to the world what we do not have. We should engage with the world, but not at the expense of our fidelity and our sense of ourselves as a people set apart. We must somehow walk a path between the Christian fundamentalists who reject everything about the world and the accomodationists who love the world so much that they rationalize idol-worship for the sake of preserving their privileges. “Engaging the culture” must never become an excuse to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar. Winsomeness must never be a veil concealing our cowardice from ourselves.

There must have been something about the daily lives of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Babylon that trained them spiritually so that when they were put to the ultimate test, they passed. It must be that way with us, too. We are failing at this today, and failing badly. The numbers I cited earlier tell a tale of Christian infidelity. If we don’t change our way of living, we will not survive as the church. We will be assimilated. There is no middle way.

The greater problem right now is the erosion of authentic Christianity by individualism, hedonism, and consumerism.

Do I worry about persecution? To an extent, yes. You cannot talk to law professors, doctors, educators, and others who follow the religious liberty debate and remain sanguine about the future. Pastors and parents who do not prepare those under their authority for that kind of future are failing in their duty. But as I see it, the greater problem right now is the steady erosion of authentic Christianity by the relentlessness of individualism, hedonism, and consumerism. And we also must face the fact that in some quarters on the right, we are seeing the rise of an ungodly racism.

If we are going to stay true to our faith, we are going to have to listen to voices from outside the here and now – authoritative voices from the Christian past, especially the premodern era. How else are we going to be able to tell the difference between those who speak comforting lies that we want to hear and those who, like Jeremiah, preach the prophetic word of God? We must beware of religious leaders who are content to be chaplains to the contemporary cultural order. That way is death.

Marco Sermarini is an Italian Catholic layman and community leader who is one of the new and very different Saint Benedicts of our time. When I visited his thriving, joyfully orthodox Catholic community in Italy, I asked him how they did it. He said to me: “We invented nothing. We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”

Modernity is a time of forced forgetting. The Benedict Option is, in a sense, a project of preserving the memory of what it is to be Christian. Hope is memory plus desire. If we remember who we are and desire to make those memories live again, we have every reason to hope. But we cannot ignore the warning that Father Cassian of Norcia gave me when I visited. The monk told me that if Christian families and communities in the West do not do some form of the Benedict Option, “they’re not going to make it.”


Find out how the panelists responded:

Ross Douthat: Dreher is right even if he’s wrong.

Michael Wear: The Benedict Option does not tell the full story.

Jacqueline Rivers: We need the original Benedict Option.

Randall Gauger: It’s not an “option,” but a calling.


Images on this page: The Great Catch Mosaic (detail) © 2001 John August Swanson / Eyekons. Courtesy of Concordia University Irvine

Mosaic detail from The Great Catch
Contributed By rod dreher Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative and the author of several books including the forthcoming title The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, to be released by Penguin in March 2017.

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