Recently, Leah Libresco hosted a gathering in Washington, D.C. for Fare Forward writers and other interested parties on what has become known as “The Benedict Option.” Prior to the discussion, we collected a series of pieces that participants found interesting or helpful on the topic. That list is here, including two additions that were suggested after the list went up. Eve Tushet has written a series of reflections pivoting off of the discussion, beginning here, and other Fare Forward writers, such as Sarah Ngu, have written about the topic here. Here Rod Dreher, who coined the phrase, responds to Eve’s posts.
The gathering’s discussion focused largely on concrete pressures on their faith that the participants face in their everyday life in D.C. Not much was said about an abstract diagnosis of American, or Western, culture, or about macro strategies Christians should employ to flourish in our context. We talked instead about very particular obstacles and how we can support each other through them. Near the end of the conversation, we all listed the resources we had at our disposal that might be helpful to others. This included everything from unorthodox work schedules, which free up time at certain days or hours, to possessions like cars. I found that exercise quite helpful—I’m used to thinking of resources in terms of material possessions, so learning to see something like an odd work schedule as a resources in this sense was a good re-framing for me
This part of our discussion, with its intense focus on micro practicality, already makes it quite different from the kinds of discussions Rod Dreher or others are having. There are lots of other discussions that can be had here, of course, especially those that trace micro pressures to macro problems. If you are too busy to pray, for example, there are certain individual choices you can make to help free up prayer time—or perhaps certain ways a community could help you find some time. But there may be a limit to how much space you can make if your busyness traces to large-scale pressures—say, economic ones. How much you think micro problems have macro backgrounds will affect how you analyze the pressures that face Christians and how you think we should respond.
But this focus on practicality is important. Christians attempting to grapple with cultural trends typically fall into the trap of being too despairing or too narrow. As many have pointed out, including some of my friends, Christians can be too narrow when they pick out a small series of particular issues, usually surrounding same-sex marriage, as the unique locus of challenges that Christians face. That seems to ignore the way other cultural and economic pressures are equally as serious (and were serious before same-sex marriage ever became a matter of national debate). Christians are living in a dangerous culture, that danger is far broader and more pervasive than those who zero in primarily on sexual morality seem to suggest. We have been living in these tensions for a long time, even if we didn’t know it.
But it is apparently possible both to underestimate the breath of the challenges we face and to be too despairing about our situation. Christians are fall victim to despair in two ways. The first is when they suppose that the challenges we face are a more or less deterministic outflowing of bad theology promulgated by, say, William of Ockham. The second is when they are so taken with the unique features of contemporary society that they forget that Christians have faced similar pressures before America ever came into existence—and already developed strategies for flourishing in the face of those pressures.
The truth is that Christian history is full of models and examples for us, and mining that history is an important way forward. We don’t have to figure things out de novo, even if the particular features of our context will require adapting or modifying historical models. It would be weird to say that our situation is so different that the lives of past Christians are irrelevant to us today. Some Christians faced with decadence and laxity around the third century fled to the deserts to be hermits and monks. Jumping ahead, Catholics not totally at home in America created institutions (schools, hospitals) and lived in communities (the ghettos) that were separate but not part of any “withdrawl” in some strong sense. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin created the Catholic Worker in pursuit of their goal “to make that kind of society where it is easier for men to be good” (as friends have noted to me, “parallel institutions” very much have to be part of the discussion here). These and other things remain valid strategies for us. Which is to say that when the time comes to get practical about things, we have places to look. That’s a salve for anxiety and despair, but it also saves the discussion from endless back-and-forth that gets hung up on certain semantic or trivial differences.
This approaches identifies two levels of discussion here. In the first place, when someone needs help with finding a job or getting time to pray right now, discussing how to help him in some proximate way doesn’t need to wait on other, larger discussions, important as they are. Then there is a conversation to be had about macro responses to macro challenges, looking to history to see large-scale initiatives Christians have undertaken to flourish.
As I’ve noted, we didn’t have that second kind of conversation at this event. But there may be a connection between the practical individual support we talked offering and the big picture stuff. Change change flow in more than one direction, and big projects or movements can arise out of the context of small-scale individual discussions. If Christians do what they can, where they can, to support each other, that can help exert upward pressure towards macro flourishing in ways that will be crucial to our current challenges—but probably not unique in Christian history.
[This post has been updated to include “As many have pointed out, including some of my friends”]