The Benedict Option for a Brave New World

Last night I took my sons to a high school soccer game. One of the best teams in the state (my school) was playing an opponent from a rural county.

It was never even close.

We scored within the first minute of play, punching the ball in off a cross. It was almost unfair the way our forwards and midfielders carved up the opposing team’s defense with their speed and footwork — coming together seamlessly to find each other, and the back of the net, time and again.

By halftime the score was 4-0, and it was starting to show in the opposing team’s posture. Their shoulders were hunched. They passed the ball with an air of futility, as if waiting for it to be intercepted by our lightning-fast attack.

Trying to escape the midday sun, I happened to hear some of what the rural team’s coach had to say. He didn’t draw up complicated schematics. He didn’t explain how they were going to come back and win the game in the second half; it was clear to all that that would not be the case. As they sat together on a grassy hill, sweat pouring down their aching muscles, he simply urged them not to give up. “Don’t think ahead to the next game. If you can’t play to win, play for each other. Play so that at the end of the season you can look each other in the eye and say you did everything you could.”

This is one way to look at the Benedict Option. The battle may be lost, but the war rages on. It is later in the game than many of us had realized. We are unlikely to “win” the war for the soul of our nation’s culture, at least not anytime soon. But this is not a cause for defeatism. What we do still matters, as it carries us forward to the next season, the next generation. We can create a vibrant, dynamic counter-culture. We can come together, offering strength and encouragement, so that on the last day we may share in the final victory.

In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher acknowledges that Americans have a particular aversion to losing. We “cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind.”

But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Dreher compares modernity to a Great Flood, one that is swiftly advancing upon our Christian beliefs and institutions. The Obergefell decision was “the Waterloo of religious conservatism,” the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed over traditional Christian morality and anthropology. But this defeat has been a long time coming. The philosophical underpinnings of modern secularism stretch back to the nominalists of the Late Middle Ages, progressing under the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.

Today we see its fruits. The nuclear family has broken down. Our system of public education has become militantly secular; as a result, each generation is more secular than the last. Our churches have tried to accommodate the dominant culture rather than resist its advancing tide. In 2011, only 40% of Christian 18-to-23 year olds said their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or religion.

Rather than piling sandbags, Dreher advises, better to start building boats.

Critics claim Dreher’s assessment is too grim, but to me it rings true. I used to see America as being divided into two great hostile camps – the Left, intent on dragging our country down the road to socialism (and eventually serfdom), and the Right – boldly defending the rights of the individual. Economic concerns predominated, especially during Obama’s first term – stimulus, Obamacare, financial reform. Social issues were on the back burner.

In Obama’s second term, the culture wars returned to the front and center of American politics. As support for same-sex marriage grew to become the new “civil rights” issue, traditional Christian beliefs were condemned as hate speech. Christian business owners came under attack for refusing to toe the line. States like Indiana and North Carolina lost business over relatively modest attempts to defend religious liberty and traditional definitions of “male” and “female.” Economic growth was no longer the priority. In fact, it seemed that no defense of truth or morality could withstand the power of the almighty dollar.

Then came the 2016 Republican primary and the rise of Donald Trump. This time it didn’t seem like my side against the other side. Instead of two giant cruise ships trying to steer the country in different directions, I found myself on a life raft, in search of a more sea-worthy vessel. Who on “my side” actually cared about the moral good of the individual, the strengthening of the family, and the prospect of cultural renewal? And who just wanted the “freedom” to engage in unrestrained consumerism? Who was just eager to be back in power, to once again be on the winning side?

This is not to say that I saw politics as irrelevant or the outcome of the 2016 election as meaningless. I fault no one for supporting Trump in light of the alternative. While not an orthodox Christian himself, Trump’s victory has bought a brief respite from the attack against religious freedom, at least as it comes from the executive branch of our national government. And this, Dreher argues, is the one area of political life in which Christians must stay engaged.

As the nature of the modern attack became more apparent, I began to put matters of faith before matters of politics. Instead of talk radio, I started listening to EWTN. Instead of Austrian economics, I started reading books about religion and culture. I stopped following the news of the day and started educating myself on the classics. Why listen to Limbaugh and O’Reilly when one has Shakespeare and Aquinas, Lewis and Chesterton? It was probably just a matter of time before I encountered Dreher’s work.

A couple years ago, I read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Having grown up as a Catholic in Southwest Virginia, I had never experienced the kind of institutional and social support for religion that Douthat describes during the postwar mid-century revival. But Douthat’s account of the decline of institutional religion resonated, especially how it has been replaced with a range of “heresies,” from nationalism to Gnosticism. The uncomfortable truth is that we can’t blame the secular Left for what ails society. We need only look in the mirror.

A couple months ago, I got the chance to see Ross Douthat speak at a local college. While his work was only five years old, he began by acknowledging that its basic thesis may need modification in light of recent events. In Bad Religion, Douthat argued that though we were a “nation of heretics,” we were still a Christian nation. In this sense he was hopeful; maybe bad religion was better than no religion. But after Obergefell and Trump, it was worth considering whether we were living in a post-Christian society, as Dreher contends.

Again, this is not a cause for despair. Instead of accepting defeat, we must focus on our continued capacity for action. Watching the endless stream of cable news, we often experience a sense of hopelessness. What can I do about the Supreme Court? What can I do to stop North Korea? What can I do to fix the healthcare system?

The obvious answer: not much.

So turn off the TV, take a good, hard look at your own family, your own community, and you will find something you can do. Environmentalists have a saying: “Think globally, act locally.” As Christians, we should think other-worldly and act locally. The point is not to elect more Republicans to political office; the point is not even to ensure America’s global dominance. The point is to get into heaven, and to help lift as many of our fellow man as we can along with us.

We don’t need to save the world – Someone already did. And He left some pretty clear instructions on how we are to act in light of His sacrifice and its meaning.

We don’t all have to move to little faith-based communities and send our children to private classical or religious academies. We don’t all need to withdraw from society and live as Benedictine monks. But we can all find ways to put religion back in the center of our lives instead of letting it languish on the periphery. We can get involved in our religious communities and seek out like-minded individuals for discussion and support. We can unplug from our iphones and use the extra time to cultivate deeper prayer lives.

I recently reread George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the twin classics of dystopian literature. Both describe a world in which objective reality is denied; thus, they have much to teach us about our present cultural moment. But today Huxley’s prophesy rings more true. Our lives have been taken over by technology and sex. It’s not that we don’t have access to the wisdom of the past, it’s that we simply don’t care to seek it. To quote the title of Neil Postman’s famous work, we are too busy Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman makes the following comparison:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one… In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us… What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate.

In Brave New World, John the Savage is so disgusted by society that he withdraws to live an isolated existence as a self-flagellating monk. He can’t go back to the “savage” reservation, where he was never really welcome, and yet neither can he accommodate himself to modernity, where “nothing costs enough.” But the pressures of the outside world are too much for him to withstand alone. He eventually meets an unfortunate, though predictable end.

We are truly living in a brave new world — a radical departure from the traditional understanding of what it means to be human, facilitated by technology. But our fate need not be that of John the Savage. In the foreword to the 1946 edition, Huxley expresses the regret that he did not give his protagonist a third choice – to live in a community of other social “misfits.” There they could have assisted each other in seeking out the good, the beautiful, and the true, in a world that had long-since abandoned such pursuits for creature comforts and radical autonomy.

Fortunately for us, we still have this choice.

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2 thoughts on “The Benedict Option for a Brave New World

  1. A community of misfits is an apt description for the church in an age where following God means not belonging to society. I think of Jesus healing paralytics and the blind, accompanied by a zealot and a tax collector. It’s the foolishness of God that in godless empires the peculiar nation is preserved, either by enduring the fire or crossing through water.

  2. If we think about the nature of sin, at first it feels good, sin is fun — but eventually it darkens rotting us away from the inside, emptying us of Imagio Deo. Then we think about Huxley’s Brave New World, it feels good but it hollows us out, rotting us away. Then we think about our present culture…..

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