Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Some virtues of the Benedict Option

By J. West

Recently Christians have been discussing the so-called “Benedict Option.” The idea — promoted by Rod Dreher — is that American society has never been more hostile to Christianity and its principles (including those principles that led to founding the ACNA). Thus, they argue it would be better for Christians to focus on strengthening, supporting and growing their community of believers rather than fighting an uphill (if not futile) battle with the culture.

The term comes from the final paragraph of After Virtue, a 1981 book by philosophy professor Alasdar MacIntyre.  (My men’s book club read and discussed this last week). The book traces the long history of how philosophers, theologians and popular culture treated virtue over the past 2500 years, with Aquinas and especially Aristotle being the exemplars of the pre-modern era. Virtue was part of the central nature, being and purpose of human life, rather than associated with a particular sphere or activity.

However, with the Enlightenment, modernity and post-modernity, the idea of virtue has fallen away —  because of the disconnect from absolute external standards (whether philosophical or theological) which renders incommensurable differing perspectives on virtue. Today, virtue means not inner goodness and right behavior but adherence to bureaucratic rules.

In the final paragraph of the 1981 book, MacIntyre drew parallels (with major caveats) between the end of the Roman Empire and today [emphasis added]:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.
In his prologue to the 2007 third edition, he elaborated:
In the last sentence of After Virtue I spoke of us as waiting for another St. Benedict. Benedict's greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness. The effects of Benedict's founding insights and of their institutional embodiment by those who learned from them were from the standpoint of his own age quite unpredictable. And it was my intention to suggest, when I wrote that last sentence in 1980, that ours too is a time of waiting for new and unpredictable possibilities of renewal. It is also a time for resisting as prudently and courageously and justly and temperately as possible the dominant social, economic, and political order of advanced modernity. So it was twenty-six years ago, so it is still.
This vision suggests changing the nature of church and Christian community, away from one optimized for the suburban postwar Christian America in which many of us grew up, towards one adapted for the post-Christian society of the 21st century.

One member of the task force, Fr. Lee Nelson of Christ Church Waco, has written two articles for Anglican Pastor on the applicability of the Benedict Option to Anglicanism. One article notes the Benedictine character of Anglicanism, as reflected in our prayer book and life of prayer:
One can hardly deny the Benedictine character of Anglicanism, in her Prayer Book, in her mission, or in even the unique spiritual tradition of the English people. In the Middle Ages, England was often referred to as the “land of the Benedictines,” dotted as it was with monasteries, typically tied to the cathedral cloisters, following the Rule.
In the other article, he argues that Anglican pastors need to teach and serve as spiritual directors for parish members in their life of prayer through the Daily Office. His conclusion:
Christian virtue is formed by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through vital Christian fellowship – a closeness of life which results in generations of Christians who have not only the resources, but the courage, to live lives of faithfulness in the midst of a culture which sees them as their enemies.
Another member of the task force, Bp. Stephen Scarlett of St. Matthew’s, Newport Beach, is developing and sharing the idea of churches growing the spiritual practices and beliefs of their members through shared participation in a daily Rule in the context of what he calls a Mission Community.

Together, these suggest a specific opportunity in 21st century America for Anglicanism, with its emphasis on Daily Office inspired by the Benedictine orders. More on this opportunity another time.

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