The Benedict option
Believers must find new, more radical ways to practise their faith
Hannah Roberts, an English Catholic friend, was once telling me about her family’s long history in Yorkshire. She spoke with yearning of what she had back home and how painful it is to live so far away. I wondered aloud why she and her American husband had emigrated to the United States from that idyllic landscape, the homeland she loved. ‘Because we wanted our children to have a chance to grow up Catholic,’ she said.
It’s not that she feared losing them to the Church of England — it’s that she feared them losing Christianity itself. She and her husband Chris, an academic theologian, are now raising their four young children in Philadelphia, a city with a historically large Catholic presence. Even so, Philadelphia is no safe haven, as the Robertses freely acknowledge. Christianity is declining sharply in the north-east of the United States, one of the nation’s least religious regions. The most recent studies confirm that the country is, at last, firmly on the same trail of decline blazed by the churches of Europe.
Rod Dreher and Matthew Parris go head-to-head on the future of Christianity:
The collapse of religion in Britain has been perhaps the most striking feature of the last generation. The sheer pace of the decline has been recorded by Damian Thompson in this magazine: church pews are emptying at the rate of 10,000 people per week. In 1983, some 40 per cent of the population declared itself Anglican. Now, it’s 17 per cent. To be a practising Christian in the West now is to belong to a minority.
How, then, should believers adapt to a society that is not just unsupportive but often hostile to their beliefs? In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, the Scottish moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre warned that the Enlightenment’s inability to provide a binding and authoritative source of morality to replace the Christian–Aristotelian one it discarded had left the contemporary West adrift. He likened our age to the era of the Roman Empire’s fall — a comparison that Pope Benedict XVI has also made.
The old believers, MacIntyre wrote, need to respond. Which means to stop trying to ‘shore up the imperium,’ and instead build ‘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’. MacIntyre famously concluded by saying that we in the West await ‘another — doubtless very different — St Benedict’.
MacIntyre chose Benedict as his model because the 6th-century saint’s inventive response to a religious collapse had enormous historical ramifications. The monastic communities he founded spread quickly throughout western Europe, and over the next few centuries laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilisation in the West. What would a St Benedict for our day say now? What would best ensure Christianity’s resilience and long-term survival? Christians do have to go back quite a long way to find a similar situation: by some estimates, Europe is more secularised now than at any time since Constantine’s conversion in the 3rd century.
What I call The Benedict Option is a choice made by an increasing number of Christians living in the secular West: to build the resilient local communities MacIntyre calls for. You don’t have to be cloistered as monastics to learn from the structure and practices of Benedictine life. The early Benedictines were an example of what the historian Arnold Toynbee called a ‘creative minority’ — a small group within a larger society that responds creatively to a crisis in a way that serves the common good.
Pope Benedict XVI was clear-eyed about the grim predicament facing European Christianity. Drawing on Toynbee’s analysis, he called on the Catholic flock to ‘understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality’.
It’s a novel claim: that monks are modern, not outdated relics of a medieval past. But Father Martin Bernhard, a young American Benedictine in Norcia, stakes it with confidence. ‘People say, “Oh, you’re just trying to turn back the clock,”’ he told me. ‘That makes no sense. If you’re doing something right now, it means you’re doing it right now. It’s new, and it’s alive! And that’s a very powerful thing.’
Yes, but in the contemporary world, it also means being different. In order to be faithfully Christian now and for the foreseeable future, believers will have to become more like Orthodox Jews and Muslims in the way they live out their religion. They will have to recognise themselves as outsiders, and cease to care about conforming to the norms of secular society. They will have to live with far more spiritual discipline regarding prayer, worship, study, work, and asceticism, radically re-ordering their lives around the faith. This will look somewhat different depending on their particular tradition — Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox — but it will have to be taken on with rigour.
Some Christians will have to cut ties. Earlier this year, the Revd Dr Gavin Ashenden left the Church of England having previously been a chaplain to the Queen. ‘I’m not sure I see much point in a church that just wants to be accepted as a sort of not-too-irritating chaplain to a secular and hedonistic culture, which is what it seems to be becoming,’ he said.
The last straw for Ashenden was the Church’s milksop reaction to a Quran reading at St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow — a recitation that explicitly said that Jesus was not the son of God. Europe and the UK face a tremendous threat from radical Islam. Whatever else might be said of radical Islam, one cannot deny that its followers know what they believe, and are not ashamed of it.
But wait, comes the protest. Secular democracy has served the West pretty well. We are doing better in many measures of social health and wellbeing than we have in decades. What’s the problem?
It’s a fair point. What many don’t understand is the extent to which secular liberalism has fed off Christian teachings and virtues. The Enlightenment secularised Christian teachings about the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual human person. But it could not come up with a stable grounding for those teachings in reason alone. For a long time, the West has been coasting on the residue of its Christian faith. But without basing our morality in transcendent values, how will we recognise threats to our humanity in the future (from, say, genetic manipulation), much less resist them?
Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi, has called on Christians to learn from Jewish people how to be a creative minority in the contemporary world.
‘You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith and contribute to the common good,’ he said. ‘It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the faint-hearted.’
He also argues that Jews and Christians in Britain face two common enemies. On one side, a militant secularism that wishes to eliminate religion entirely. And on the other, a fanatical form of Islam that seeks a barbaric theocracy. It is a strange paradox and characteristic of our time: Christians will have to turn to modern Orthodox Jews, such as Lord Sacks, to learn how to live more faithfully as Christians.
The kind of faith that survives catastrophe is one that can perceive victory even in apparent defeat. This is the message of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish people. It is the message of Christianity: the Saviour’s death is not the final word. It is the message that the believing Christian remnant in the West can make incarnate in their daily lives, in concrete and sacrificial ways.
This is no grim, white-knuckle counsel. Not to anyone who has met the Tipi Loschi, a merry confederacy of Italian Catholic families living in San Benedetto del Tronto, a small city on the Adriatic coast. They are counter-culturally orthodox in their Catholicism, but not angry. They draw inspiration from two English Catholics they regard as heroes: G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. -Tolkien. The community school is called Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, and the Tipi Loschi fancy themselves as ‘hobbits in the shire’.
These are Christians who are not deceived about the long odds facing Christianity in the West. They are filled with light, hope and joy. I asked Marco Sermarini, the middle-aged lawyer who heads the group, to divulge their secret. ‘We invented nothing,’ he said. ‘We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.’
If a small flock of Italians perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic can rummage through the old curiosity shop of western Christianity and found a local Christian community on the writings of St Benedict, Chesterton, and Tolkien, who’s to say that the dusty crates in Christian Britain’s treasury don’t contain the seeds of that faith’s resurrection? As Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man: ‘Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.’
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