Defining the Benedict Options

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Advocates of the so-called “Benedict Option” have been criticized for a lack of details. What, exactly, is the Benedict Option? What would it look like in practice?

This critique has been mostly well placed; the details thus far have been underwhelming. But advocates of the Benedict Option should pause briefly before rushing in to answer these questions, for there is a more basic question that needs to be answered first. We need details, yes; but what sort of details?

One of the give-me-more-details critics of the Benedict Option is Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who has previously made the helpful suggestion that we think of the Benedict Option, not as a single option, but rather as a family, a range, of options. No Benedict Option, but rather Benedict Options. That’s the right way to think about it—Benedict Options, plural.

As a family, however, these Options must bear a certain resemblance to one another. There must be something which holds them together, some features which they share in common, some core principles. Getting clear on what those are should be our first task.

Since Rod Dreher is the coiner of the phrase “Benedict Option”, and since the phrase hasn’t been in circulation long enough to take on a life of its own, we should take his definition as canonical. In one place Dreher has described the Benedict Option as:

“…communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?

At the broadest level, then, the Benedict Option has three essential features:

  • It involves a (significant) withdrawal from the mainstream— from American life-as-usual.
  • The withdrawal is done for the sake of something— namely, the cultivation of a faithful and good life.
  • The withdrawal has communal element to it—not it the sense that it need involve a “commune”, but in the sense that it is not merely the private withdrawal of an individual.

We will approach these three elements in turn, attempting to offer as we go some recommendations as to how one should approach the task of detailing his or her preferred Benedict Option.

The Benedict Option and Withdrawl

How would one actually go about describing the withdrawal aspect of his preferred Benedict Option? One good place to start is by specifying the withdrawal in terms of institutions. The sorts of withdrawal that has been alluded to by Dreher and others has a sort of seriousness to it. It isn’t merely a change in private habits of thought or speech, or merely a change in private spiritual disciplines; this is supposed to be a significant change, an institutional change; it is a withdrawal from (some) mainstream institutions. So any description of the withdrawal aspect of the Benedict Option should start by making clear on the institutions being withdrawn from.

It won’t quite do to merely name the institutions, however. One must also say something about the extent of the withdrawal (if it helps think of it this way: there’s both a qualitative and quantitative dimension here). It would undoubtedly be an unwise Option which advocated only complete participation or complete withdrawal from each mainstream institution; the moral lines in the world don’t cut so cleanly. Any Benedict Option that wants to be taken seriously, then, will have to urge complete withdrawal from some mainstream institutions, complete participation in others, and partial withdrawal/participation from yet others.

So that’s Recommendation #1: A description of your preferred Benedict Option should specify what institutions it would have us withdraw from, and the degree to which it would have us withdraw from them. 

Life After Withdrawal

The knee-jerk reaction of many folks to the Benedict Option is one of alarm and distaste. They hear it as a sort of “huddling in the ark” as Gobry put it, as withdrawal done for the sake of withdrawal. Or they associate it with real, but unhealthy, examples of withdrawal (usually of the fundamentalist variety). On the one hand, these reactions can be frustrating. As Dreher has repeatedly (and rightly) pointed out: withdrawal needn’t be done merely for the sake of withdrawal, and the fact that some withdrawals can go very wrong doesn’t mean that there aren’t healthy forms of withdrawal. One gets the sense that a good many of these readers have made up their mind on the Benedict Option as soon as they hear the word “withdrawal” and before they’ve heard Dreher out. 

On the other hand, however, these reactions are helpful to the discussion. They remind us that withdrawals of the Benedict Option variety can go south quickly. And they remind us that withdrawal cannot be done for the sake of withdrawal itself. Stronger yet: they remind us that withdrawal can’t even be the central feature in one’s conception of a Benedict Option. The central focus of the Benedict Option must be on the sake for which the withdrawal is done.

In most cases, the motivation behind the Benedict Option has both a negative and a positive edge to it—or if you prefer, a defensive and offensive edge. In part the Benedict Option is a recognition that a great many mainstream institutions are harmful, and that a withdrawal can prevent a great deal of this harm. In this respect, the Benedict Option is a defensive maneuver.

Dreher has often mentioned the institution of public education and a harm that has become ubiquitous in the world of public education: illicit sexuality. To put one’s children in a public middle school or high school is to put them in a situation where they are almost certainly going to be exposed to graphic sexual images, language, and behavior, and where they will be under tremendous pressure to engage with all the above. Public education can be positively harmful.

But a withdrawal from an institution—and we’ll stick with the example of public education—may be about more than just avoiding positive harms. It might also be about laying hold of some positive goods that the institution cannot offer. Many homeschoolers withdraw from public education, not merely to defend against positive harms like the aforementioned, but to pursue avenues of study that public education does not offer. (My own parents homeschooled me in part for “defensive” reasons, and in part so I could learn a trade with my grandfather two days each week.) In a similar vein the Benedict Option should be understood as both a defensive and offensive strategy. It is done both for the sake of defending from harm and for the sake of gaining the good. Thus:

Recommendation #2: A description of your preferred Benedict Option should say something about the harms it attempts to defend against, and the goods it attempts to lay hold of. It should show why the withdrawal is worth making. It should justify itself.

This is not to say that we should search out and specify every single morally relevant consequence of a proposed withdrawal. I am merely suggesting that we make our decision to withdraw with a realistic and critical eye on life after withdrawal. I am suggesting that it won’t do merely to recognize that a mainstream institution is messed up. Your town’s public high school might have all sorts of issues, but withdrawing your kids from it is only a good move if you’re not replacing the rot with something even more rotten.

And that’s just the the thing: what you do after withdrawal is, in most cases, at least as important as the withdrawal itself. The harms a Benedict Option defends against and the goods it achieves are a product, not just of the withdrawal, but of the path taken after withdrawal. And this point leads us quickly to yet another recommendation.

Notice that when one withdraws from some mainstream institution—say public education—there isn’t just one path to take post-withdrawal. There are all sorts of different paths one might take: a mother might put her kids in a private school, or she might homeschool, or she might assist in the creation of a small educational cooperative. For any given Benedict Option, it doesn’t simply follow from a description of the withdrawal what path will be taken after withdrawal. What this means, of course, is that a Benedict Optioner will need to do more than describe the withdrawal; he will also need to describe life-after-withdrawal.

Recommendation #3: A description of your preferred Benedict Option should specify the institutional means by which it will improve upon life in the mainstream: it will specify what new institutions must be entered into and/or created (e.g., an educational co-op), and what changes need to be made to present institutions (e.g., adding new practices to the life of the home).

(Footnote: One shouldn’t think of these positive institutions as coming into play only in response to a withdrawal. A community taking the Benedict Option might, for instance, set aside time to pray together every Wednesday night. They wouldn’t be doing so to fill a hole left by some withdrawal; they would be doing so just because praying together is a really good thing.)

Life After Withdrawal, Together.

The third and final component of the Benedict Option is that of community. It is a community that is the agent of the Benedict Option. It is a community that does the withdrawing from the mainstream and a community that creates and reforms new and existing institutions and practices. The scale of the Benedict Option goes beyond the individual.

The fourth recommendation is pretty straightforward.

Recommendation #4: A description of your preferred Benedict Option should make clear the scale of the option. It should tell us how many participants are involved in the withdrawing, creating, and reforming.

The so-called “Benedict Option” has received plenty of criticism of late. In response to almost every one of these critiques, advocates of the option have pointed out that the critic failed to understand the Benedict Option— that the critic has gone after a straw man. Now there has, no doubt, been plenty of straw men to suffer in the course of this debate; a lot of these critiques have made uncharitable (and silly) assumptions. But it should be admitted that this widespread failure to understand the Benedict Option is somewhat, well, understandable. It’s understandable because advocates of the Benedict Option have done a very poor job explaining, except in the most abstract and vague terms, what exactly the option is supposed to be. They’ve been long on advocacy and short on details. 

But that shouldn’t count against the option itself. This fact isn’t a counterargument; it’s a call. The project needs to get more pointed. Details need to be explored, articulated, and debated. But before any of that can happen, it needs to be clear what sort of details need exploring, articulating, and debating. The four recommendations above are aimed at such clarity. They are not exhaustive; there is surely a lot more to a good description of a Benedict Option than this. But these ought to be some of the foundational questions that shape the conversation.

David Clark

David Clark is a farmer, teacher, husband, and father from New England.