Benedict Option or Constantine Project? Part 2
For part one of this dialogue please click here. This is part two. It’s been edited slightly for clarity and length.
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 two.
Reynolds: It’s very important to say that there should be no Constantine for the Constantine Project. I am averse to any single leader. But what I’m asking for people to do is set up communities where they begin to have a political alternative, a way of governing.
Dreher: One of the places I went when researching the book is Hivesville Maryland where there are some orthodox Catholics who have revitalized a dying parish school by following a classical model and a community has come together around that school. That’s going to be a viable option for a lot of people. There’s also a Catholic agrarian community out around the Benedictine abbey in Clear Creek in eastern Oklahoma. In Eagle River, Alaska there’s a suburb of Anchorage, an Eastern Orthodox community. They don’t call themselves a Benedict Option community, but everybody moved out there in the 70s to live within walking distance of the cathedral because they wanted to have an actual geographical community there. I think that the Benedict Option is going to have to be adapted to local resources, local needs, and also it’s going to probably look different for Evangelicals than, say, Orthodox and Catholics depending on our ecclesiastical traditions.
It’s not so much about ideas and worldview, although that’s part of it, as much as it is about practice—individual practice and community practice. One of the other things I learned about from the monks in Norcia is the deep value of praying in community and living in community and working in community as a way of disciplining the heart and the value of asceticism. That’s something you don’t often hear at all in the West now: the value of asceticism. That is something that everybody, all Christians in the West, are going to have to re-learn. So I think there’s a big emphasis on practice within the individual lives, family lives, and within communities. So we can inculcate the sort of virtues and habits that we’re going to need to resist the dissolution of the broader culture.
Reynolds: I guess I have a real concern here, though, in that I don’t think that it takes the actual history of the world seriously enough. Orthodox communities would not have survived in the Middle East to the extent they did if not by God’s grace. The Orthodox Czars had the political muscle to help keep them alive. And I think there’s a naivete’ to think that lay communities of people are going to be able to raise their kids with their own values without some kind of political protection the equivalent of the Russian Orthodox Czar in the Ottoman empire. It’s simply a fact that if there hadn’t been a major Orthodox power there would be a lot fewer Greek Orthodox Christians in the world today.
Dreher: True, but I don’t say that people should become politically quietuses. When I was over in Italy I saw the community at San Doradedo del Tronto that had gone en mass to a protest in Rome at the Circus Maximus to stand up for traditional marriage. I think that that’s absolutely important. But what I foresee is what happens when the culture is becoming increasingly post-Christian, what happens when the laws start to turn against us and we don’t have enough power within the political system to stand up for ourselves. Somehow we have to figure out a way to live within that. It’s not to say that we have to stop fighting politically. We have to keep fighting as long as we have the freedom to do so. My point is simply that we can’t defend ourselves strongly enough if we place all our eggs in the political basket. And I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Politics alone will save us.
It’s not so much about ideas and worldviewas much as it is about practice
Reynolds: We better find internal allies then. Maybe this is the distinction between our views. I’m thinking that I [want] to set up a community that’s based on the Benedict Option but then I’m looking for allies both here and globally to protect me (like Justinian’s long laws) from the political pressure that will come if we’re successful. Because I think we’re too big to be left alone. I don’t think that the current shadow of that hideous strength is going to let me just live in Nursia.
Dreher: No, I don’t think it will. I can get behind exactly what you’re doing. We absolutely have to have some kind of broader protection. That’s what’s happening in Italy with the San Doradedo del Tronto people. They are finding other communities like that throughout Italy to network with not only for political action but also for economic support. It’s something that we have to do and I think that there’s no reason why everything should be simply the Benedict Option. But there has to be some sort of movement, an organized movement among serious Christians to build walls behind which we can thrive. Now that’s something Evangelicals get really nervous about when I say “build walls.” They think I’m talking about retreating and not evangelizing. That’s not true.
As Fr. Cassian, the prior at Norcia, said to me: you have to have some kind of wall in order to live out the life in Christ. In other words to keep from being completely absorbed by the community around you. But the wall has to have doors in it so you can go in and out, so that you can speak about Christ to the world and have discourse with the world. This either/or distinction is, I think, a false one. But we do have to have some kind of structure in which to live. We have to be very careful about it because of the internet and because things are very porous in our own homes and in our own lives. We have to build up an eternal strength through prayer and scripture studies and life together. Not this sort of rigid, angry, fearful way of living. I’ve talked to too many people who came out of that and have no interest in the Benedict Option because they’re afraid it’s going to be some sort of fundamentalism. But we do have to recognize where the attack is coming from. As Flannery O’ Connor said we’ve got to push back against the world as hard as the world is pushing against you. That’s what I’m talking about.
Reynolds: Do we agree that without some equivalent of the long laws, some equivalent of Constantinople or Moscow, that these small communities are going to have a hard time surviving? Even if it’s just Sub-Saharan Africa with its burgeoning Christian community putting heat on and allowing us to license our schools.
Dreher: It sounds like what some of the conservative Anglicans are doing by going to Africa for bishops. Frankly, I don’t know how that works in terms of American law. I do know that we’re going to face an incredible crunch here in the United States very soon as far as religious liberty, to the point where our institutions, our schools, are going to have to have very strong and strict doctrinal requirements for getting in and for employing people and for even letting kids into our school. Not because we necessarily want to, but because if we don’t the State could easily be compelled by lawsuit to force us to violate our consciences. And that’s something I think that so many Christians don’t quite get yet. Men and women who are running religious schools or religious institutions, they understand this because their lawyers are talking to them about it, but I think most Christians don’t get it yet.
Reynolds: Evangelical colleges are petrified and have no plan. As we work with St. Constantine we intentionally put St. Constantine under the bishop here — the local bishop, Basil — to get the maximum legal protection. And that’s with a majority of evangelical students and faculty. We want to be an Orthodox school but that also gives us maximal legal protection.
Dreher: What I’ve discovered in my reporting is that schools and other institutions that are under more formal, heavily doctrinal churches that have clear lines of authority are going to find it easier to defend themselves in court. But we can’t be under any illusion that these court challenges aren’t coming. And I think, aside from the legal challenges, the social challenges are going to be enormous. I hear over and over again from Christian professors and high school teachers that parents are outsourcing the formation of their children to Christian schools and the kids come there with almost no formation. If they’ve had anything it’s been a sort of para-church Jesus is my boyfriend, God loves me, the world is great, kind of Christianity which does not last.
Reynolds: So I’ve spent 20 years dealing with those kids and I can tell you that the situation is more grim than you have described. You are not over-stating it. It’s worse than you are describing.
Dreher: You see this is so interesting, John Mark, because I grew up in a very loosy-goosy kind of Christianity. I longed for something with more depth and structure. That optimism about something more organized is what drives me on the Benedict Option. But I keep running across people who are sympathetic to the Benedict Option, usually evangelicals and sometime Catholics, who were homeschooled, who came out of something very rigid and they’re terrified of the Benedict Option.
Reynolds: I’m a pastor’s kid and I had nothing but good church experiences. And so whenever I ran into people who were in these bizarro-cultic type overly rigid things I thought, “man, how unlucky you were.” My dad is still alive, he’s a paradigm pastor. We were not insulated from the culture but we were not of the culture, we could read whatever we wanted but we had to discuss it. And I can say that the biggest problem is that people are going to hear abusive central leaders who want to tell us what to wear and dress and what cars to drive. And I guess, not shockingly, I totally agree with you.
Dreher: I think we’re standing on the same battlement looking out at slightly different areas of the battlefield.
Reynolds: And let me underline this: nobody should elevate themselves as emperor. We’re talking about people like Constantine who had natural authority; they were already in a position of authority. Talking about somebody who gets elected as governor of their state or who is already a magistrate in their region or area. We’re not talking about some hopped-up cult leader who crowns themselves emperor of the Romans. I have to teach the wreckage from those things.