The Benedict Option or the Constantine Project?
According to Rod Dreher an end is nigh. A flood is coming in the form of a new secular Dark Age, “There are people alive today,” he writes in his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, “who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.”
What the church needs now, Dreher argues, are Christians who will "deepen their prayer lives . . . focus on families and communities instead of on partisan politics . . . and [on] building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orothodox Christian faith can survive and prosper through the flood." Dreher's solution is the Benedict Option, a strategy based on the writing of a sixth-century monk named Benedict of Nursia that embraces "exile in place" to form a "vibrant counterculture," made up of Christians who spend "more time away from the world . . . just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people."
Meanwhile, John Mark Reynolds, the founder of The Saint Constantine School and the author of When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought, agrees that twenty-first century American Christianity is in a rough place. But rather than the Benedict Option, he proposes the Saint Constantine Project, an approach that promotes political action and cultural engagement. The Benedict Option is based on fear, Reynolds claims, while the St. Constantine Project is built on confidence.
Given that their approaches come from similar premises, it seemed only right to let them hash out their differences in a public forum. Anyone who knows Rod and John Mark knows this.
So a while back I invited them to join me for a Skype call to chat all things Benedict Option, Constantine Project, and modern Christianity. We’ll be bringing you the transcript of this conversation in three parts this week. This is part one.
It’s been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Dreher: By the “Benedict Option” I start with the famous final paragraph of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, in which he talks about the parallels between our own time and the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. MacIntyre says that there’s a time in which men and women of goodwill withdraw their consent and their efforts to shoring up the imperium and instead set out to create new communities through which the life of virtue can be lived throughout Dark Ages.
MacIntyre believes that we are in a similar dark age, just like the one that started when the Roman Empire fell in the West. And MacIntrye says that we are looking for a new and quite different St. Benedict to help us figure out how to start these communities.
St. Benedict of Nursia was the monk who founded the Benedictine religious order. He was in Rome studying after the empire had fallen and he was disgusted by the chaos and the disorder and the immorality there. So he went out into the woods to pray. He lived in a cave. And a monk took care of him. Eventually, Benedict got a reputation for sanctity and men gathered around him and he became the prior of their monastery. He wrote his famous rule, The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the most influential book in Western history behind the Bible. Over ten-thousand monasteries were founded on that rule. The Rule is a simple set of instructions, sort of a constitution for the founding of the monastic community, telling the monks how to live together, pray together, eat together, work together, and so on. He called the monastery a school for the service of the Lord. The whole purpose of their community was to serve Christ and St. Benedict was trying to figure out how they could serve Christ the best way under the conditions in which they lived. Eventually, more and more of these Benedictine communities formed throughout Western Europe. They brought the gospel to the people living under the Barbarians. And they taught them how to live. They taught them basic skills like agriculture. Eventually, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian civilization in the West.
Now I’m asking what a new St. Benedict would look like in our own time? How would he respond to the crisis of culture that we are facing today? What I propose is that we Christians—that is to say Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox who believe in the historical Christian faith—we’re going to have to find new ways to live in community so that our faith can not only endure what is to come, but also to prosper and thrive and grow. I believe that we are living in a time unlike any since the fall of Rome. Pope Benedict the XVI in the year 2012 said that too. It was his challenge to Christians today: we’ve got to get a lot more serious about our faith and find out ways to live because we are in a post-Christian civilization. That in a nutshell is the Benedict option.
Reynolds: I think that the Benedict option, without Constantine, will fail. That it has no hope, whatsoever. Let’s remind ourselves that Rome did not, in fact, fall. Rome continued for another thousand years, or most of us would not be Christian and we certainly wouldn’t have access to classical education. When Rome fell in the West, Rome was doing quite nicely in the East and experienced at least two major revivals and helped provide the seabed for the Renaissance of Western education that was to come.
What Constantine did was very important. He was trying to defend a city, Rome, that was no longer defensible. It had no natural resources, it was not in a great location, it was a historical accident that it became the center of the Mediterranean part of the civilized world, and so Constantine simply declared victory and moved the city. He moved the city to Constantinople. He changed the discussion and as, a result, there was an ability to continue secular education along with religious education without interruption except when the West interfered for about a thousand years.
And, of course, Constantinople was the Minas Tirith of the ancient world. Its long walls stood as a buttress against barbarian tribes who otherwise would have vented their wrath on the West and destroyed these embryonic civilizations. The Byzantine Commonwealth, by being able to spread out its culture to places like Romania and Bulgaria (who otherwise would have been barbaric) and Russia, provided a cushion against, for example, the Mongol invasion that otherwise may have destroyed Europe.
So what’s the Benedictine option without the Constantine option? It’s dead. The Constantine Project is to say something like this: ‘it’s absolutely true, we’ve lost control of Washington. We’ve lost control of New York City and Los Angeles. But we no longer define our culture geographically. So, we can go anywhere we want, create our own television and our own film, set up an alternative society that aggressively begins to seek to replace the external society. In other words, we don’t retreat: we change the rules and move to a place like Houston and simply declare victory and began to rebuild culture. I’ll also point out that it’s a great big world and just as Christianity is decaying a bit in places like the United States and Western Europe, it’s advancing in some form or another all over Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, China, and South Korea. One could imagine the Benedictine Option being best protected from the island city of Singapore, which becomes the new Constantinople.
Dreher: You know I think that there’s probably less conflict between our visions than you might think. I should say that the Benedict option is probably more modest in scope. I don’t have a grand plan for retaking the West. Neither did St. Benedict. He just wanted to figure out how he could best serve Christ in community where he was. Maybe I should give an example of the Benedict option in practice and we can talk about that and see how much this fits into your Constantine option.
I just got back from about 10 days in Italy. I went to the monastery in Norcia, built over the house where St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica, were born in 485. I spent about a week there with the monks. Most of them were Americans, and they restarted the monastery after it was closed for almost 200 years. It had been closed by the Napoleonic laws. It’s a really holy place; even though I’m Eastern Orthodox they welcomed me with open arms and spent a lot of time with me talking about their lives.
Fr. Cassian Folsom, the prior of the monastery, told me that the Benedict option made sense to him. And he said that anybody who doesn’t do something like that is not going to make it through the times ahead, the times of trial. He pointed to a community in a seaside town about 90 minutes over the mountains from the monastery, a little town called San Doradedo del Tronto, right on the Adriatic at the confluence of the Adriatic Sea and the Tronto River. They’re all lay Catholics, about a hundred and thirty of them, and they have a close spiritual relationship with the monastery. They go there for spiritual direction. I spent some time with the founder, a lawyer named Marco Sermarini; he’s the head of the Italian G.K. Chesterton society and he introduced me to others in the community. And it’s absolutely incredible what they have done. They decided that they did not want their kids to lose the faith and be absorbed in this sort of ongoing secularism that’s even infecting Italy. So they started a school called the Scola G.K. Chesterton where they’re teaching classical education following the model that Stratford Caldecott prescribed. They started a couple of co-operatives: one’s called the Hobbit co-operative because they see themselves as trying to recreate the Shire. They’ve reclaimed a space on a hilltop overlooking the Adriatic and turned it into kind of clubhouse for the group where they have mass and Bible study. They have sports, they’re growing things, they cleared a briar patch and now have a beautiful garden growing there, they have animals.
In short, what they’ve done is they’ve made a community for themselves and these people have not retreated to some sort of compound. They all live and work normal jobs in the city. They go to their normal Catholic parishes except for when they go to the monastery. This is exactly the vision I have for the Benedict Option in the United States, where we’re conscious of living in community, conscious of being counter-cultural Christians, but we’re open to the world. They welcome the world in but they’re not going to change their teaching or the way they pray together or have meals together and so on to accommodate people who don’t share their basic beliefs. How would that fit into your Constantine Option?
Reynolds: Well I think that is a very good thing. And someone who is like I am should be involved in something like that. And that’s why here in Houston we’re starting a K-16 school (a K-12 classical and then a college program) to try and pull out of the consumer-driven, evil, celebrity educational culture that has come to exist even in Christian circles. If we are going to help keep Christendom alive we have to keep small communities alive. Christendom will survive through actual small communities in which we live and are accountable to each other.
So I guess my point is two-fold. First of all, we are enormously wealthy and there are millions of us in the West. As we begin to retreat, we’ll end up doing well by doing good, if that makes sense. When we cut off half the empire, the diseased part of the empire (and this is no longer geography, it’s cultural) we’ll start to thrive. We’ll have more kids than the rest of the culture. There are so many of us that we better think through a kind of imperium, a kind of Christendom because we’re not the Amish. The Amish have survived for a hundred and fifty to two-hundred years in the United States because up till now they’ve been numerically insignificant. Their problem is that because they’ve been successful they’re too cut off, but their population is booming and they’re running into problems. I guess my difficulty is I just think there are too many of us and we’re too wealthy to be ignored. So we’re going to have to have some kind of political (and I use that in the broadest sense of the term) plan.
Dreher: Well, you know I don’t suppose I can really argue with that. But it’s not a matter of having lost New York and Washington and California. It’s a matter of having lost our own small towns. For example, even in our small town here a lot of the parents give their kids smartphones and one of our friends who homeschools took her kids out of the local school when her fifth-grade son came home and said that his classmates were watching hardcore porn on their smartphones. They weren’t doing this at school. But they were still doing it. I have found over and over again that even people who are church-going, conservative folks really have no idea how powerful the culture is in undermining the values they say they believe in as Christians. I think that we have to realize that the battlefield is not between Houston and Washington, it’s going on in our own communities and in our own homes.
Reynolds: I actually agree with that and that’s why I keep stressing it’s non-geographic. I pick on a place like Houston because if you quote the Bible or you say you’re going to church or you’re talking about traditional morality you’re still taken seriously enough to get some traction. Nobody has an immediate desire to shut you up or run over you. I guess my point would be something like this: if we don’t have a more expansive approach our neighbors will become so corrupted that they will become barbarians and we won’t survive.