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    Mosaic detail of The Great Catch

    Even If He’s Wrong

    Ross Douthat on the Benedict Option

    By Ross Douthat

    July 11, 2017

    I feel like I have been on panels having arguments about the Benedict Option for as long as I have been a journalist. So it is wonderful to actually have a book to tell people to go buy and argue about and disagree with.

    I should say that usually when I have been on those panels, there is a debate like the one that Rod alluded to in his remarks, where somebody says, “Well, this is all very well and good, but you surely can’t be arguing that we should just head for the hills.” Then Rod tears his beard and rips off his glasses and says, “I’m not saying we should head for the hills!” And it goes on from there. 

    I won’t play the role of that interlocutor. But I’ll go half way and say that my take on The Benedict Option is that Rod is right even if he is wrong.

    By which I mean that – you know, this was a very, very gloomy portrait that Rod just painted of the future of Christianity in the West and particularly in the United States. Those of you who occasionally read our parish newspaper know that I am not noted for my sunny optimism. Yet even I occasionally, listening to Rod, reading his blog, and reading the pages of this very fine book, do sometimes creak my eyebrow up a little bit and say, “Well, is it really so bad as all that?”

    I think there are some reasons to be doubtful. I generally have less confidence about all predictions about the future than I did since the startling rise of Donald Trump over the last eighteen months, including especially my own predictions about politics; but extending also to extrapolations of present trends into the future. In that sense, I think we are at a place in the story of American Christianity where we see through a glass darkly. We can’t know for certain if what we are seeing when we look at the trends that Rod describes is a collapse just of cultural Christianity; a collapse in people’s identification with a faith that they never really held to begin with. That sort of collapse would have some important effects on the life of the church, but it wouldn’t lead to, let’s say, a Netherlands- or Belgium-style collapse for American Christianity (meaning no offense to the five remaining Christians in the Netherlands and Belgium).

    We should be trying to build (or rebuild) resilient communities.

    But we don’t know if that is the scenario we are looking at or if we are looking at something more complete and sweepingly disastrous, as Rod suggests. And there are a lot of things that make our situation and our future even more unknowable than usual. For instance, we are about ten or fifteen or twenty years, depending on how you time it, into the great internet experiment, which may only be accelerating. Rod writes a great deal about that in his book – very eloquently and, I think, persuasively. But there is at bottom a sort of unknowability about what the internet is doing to social life, what it is doing to religious life, what it is doing to childhood and adolescence. All these are things that will become clear to us over the next twenty or thirty or two hundred years, but aren’t clear right now.

    The same is true of the interaction between religious life and our unexpectedly unsettled politics in the West. The same is true of the interaction between religious life and advances in various other forms of technology: biotechnology and so on.

    So there is a long list of reasons why I’m just not certain if Rod is right about where we are going overall. But I also don’t think it necessarily matters that much, because I think where we are right now is clearly a place where many of the things he calls for, the cultural practices that he advocates, are necessary and useful and important, no matter what happens in ten or twenty or thirty years.

    Mosaic detail from The Great Catch

    We wouldn’t be at this moment in our politics and our common culture if we weren’t living in a more fragmented, individualistic, and post-communitarian landscape than almost any generation in American history. We are living in an increasingly post-Tocquevillian United States, you might say – in the sense that many of the things that Tocqueville described as distinctive about the United States that he visited in the early nineteenth century and that remained distinctive about this country down until the 1960s and arguably even until the 1990s and 2000s – a basic resilience of local community, local religious life; a denominational competition as a spur to bottom-up social order – those things that we have taken for granted are fragmenting and falling apart.

    In that landscape, that situation, we should be trying to build (or rebuild) resilient communities – resilient Christian communities, resilient religious communities, resilient communities, period. (Even if you are part of the Society for Secular Humanism you can have your own version of the Benedict Option if you really want it – or maybe not. We can argue about that later.) Building resilient communities may not be the answer; there may be other things we need, but it is an incredibly important answer to the challenges of our time.

    And that includes even some of the touch of extremism in Rod’s advocacy, which I think should hit home for people.

    We don’t exactly have a surplus of monks in the United States.

    Here I’ll mildly break New York Times rules and talk about one of my fellow columnists’ columns. David Brooks, my dear friend and Rod’s, wrote a column about Rod’s book where he said something to the effect of, “It sure seems like there are a lot of monks in this book.” One response that I have to that is the one that I wrote in my own column, which was basically to say, “Well, yes; but the message of Rod’s book isn’t that everyone should become a monk. It’s that everyone, from where they are, perhaps, should take one step in a more monastic direction.” And I do think that is one important way to read The Benedict Option. To say, “Don’t assume that you need to personally revolutionize the liturgy in your parish. Don’t assume that you need to pull your kids out of whatever school they are in immediately and build an organic farm and so on. Assume that you need to take one step for now, one step towards a more Benedictine way of life.”

    That’s one response. But I’ll finish by saying the thing that occurred to me after writing that column, which was that we don’t exactly have a surplus of monks in the United States, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing if lots of people read Rod’s book, which is indeed filled with monks, and said, “Hey, maybe there’s a vocation there for me to think about.”

    But my wife has forbidden me to become a monk, so that more extreme step is for someone else.

    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 RossDouthat2 Ross Douthat

    Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, most recently The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

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