I’m ready to wrap up this exercise, and I have no doubt you are too. I hadn’t intended to close by offering an outline of what alternative I would offer to Dreher’s framework, but it seems only fitting, having spent way too many words taking shots at his concept that I at least try to offer what I would propose instead.
One thing I hadn’t much noticed was that Dreher’s work goes from top down, from a subsidiarity perspective, starting with the broadest lens of culture, then politics, then the church, then villages (getting smaller) and education, the family focused (work and love). He closes with tech, which on the one hand seems to widen the lens again, but it’s also the ultimate isolator, the most individualized.
This direction makes sense, because at its heart The Benedict Option is a reaction to cultural and political forces that steer him toward this response. And, as I have said ad nauseum, I’m not as driven by those same forces, even though I admit that to a degree they are real.
In fact, I acknowledge especially that the focus on radical individuality in Dreher’s analysis as a flaw in our culture is spot-on, so war I’d offer as an alternative doesn’t start at the individual level. I don’t mean to imply that there is no individuality, that we have no personal agency, or that we are wholly socially determined beings. But I would say that we can’t find our purpose and fulfillment nor even be really understood without a social context. We are genetically, evolutionarily wired to be social creatures in community. Or, theologically, we reflect the reality of a Trinitiarian God who is community in Godself. Yes, we are individuals, but we are individuals made whole, made free, made real only in community.
That community starts with the family, and while the nuclear family is of relatively recent vintage, and even romantic love a somewhat new expression in family life, I;d start at the level of the vocation to marriage. Just today I came across a couple of essays that reflect a broader theme that commitment, vulnerability, true relationship have been filtered out of modern sexuality; that dating has been fully transactionalized to the detriment of the old-fashioned ideal of love and marriage. Certainly, as Dreher would point out, there are oodles of stats to back that up. It’s not just that Millennials are delaying marriage and child-rearing; it’s that romance has been replaced by a “swipe-left, swipe-right” consumerism that speeds up the process to the point that selecting a partner for romance is even more market-like and even less mystical. So I would start by saying, if the Church is going to change its course and rebuild the fervor for God on which it was founded, it ought consider doing so by reinvesting in helping people develop stable, committed, loving relationships as perhaps the surest pathway to holiness.
And this is where the countercultural nature that Dreher embraces comes in. Strong marriages and strong families exist most abundantly in communities of support. There was a time when extended families made up that community. And there was a time when neighbors created a primary circle of friendship that provided mutual reinforcement. If the Industrial Revolution upset the extended family as close support and the suburbanization of America upset the close-knit neighborhoods of older cities, the evolution of our economy and especially technology to offer an increasing number of people the ability to work from anywhere offers the opportunity to establish functional intentional communities of support. If American cities are also able to tackle the significant inequities not only in employment and income but also in transportation and housing, we can create an environment where those sorts of intentional communities of support need not be reserved for the wealthy creative class. And, while these communities serve a critical function of more closely connecting families sharing a common faith and a deep and broad agreement about the purpose of life, these principles of mutual support and solidarity at a hyperlocal level aren’t tied to creeds. Tight-knit intentional communities of faith can thrive in larger relationships with other such communities driven by other creeds (and perhaps by no creed at all).
So couples build families in relationship with other families in neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods make communities – cities and towns, in which education can focus on the whole person – on developing the virtues and character needed to be a good neighbor, family member, citizen, and economic actor.
Economics, more than politics or religion, has been the tail that wagged the dog these last centuries. There is a nascent recognition that, yes, socialism hasn’t been successful but capitalism hasn’t done all that well by many, especially if you view poverty in relative terms and not solely in absolute ones. This is not my area of expertise, at all, but I am vaguely aware of an economic school of distributism that in a small way is reflected in the ethos of all those “buy local” movements. If communities can create structures in which neighbors are able to support each other, yes, by buying locally, but also by supporting businesses that operate under policies that integrate them within the communities they serve and profit the people who work for them, there may be, if not an opportunity to build an Edenic economy, at least a chance to slow the centrifugal forces that modern global economies exert, pulling communities and families apart.
As for the church, building from families to communities of intentional support yield a different model of Church if not a different theology. Reflecting a Trinitarian God of relationship that preaches a Gospel of Love that inspired an early church that served as an extreme example of a community of intentional support (as they sold all they had and held goods in common), a Church that starts not with the top of a priestly hierarchy but with the community of families lends itself to the synodal nature of the Second Vatican Council (which seems to be belatedly emerging thanks to Pope Francis). If holiness is found within family and community, priests play important roles as guides, leaders and supports; but they aren’t a caste of holies set apart, which is a tacit understanding of too many faith communities.
So what of politics? I think oddly enough that working bottom up may yield some similar themes to those Dreher opened his Benedict Option with. Local matters more, which he also said, as each community of neighbors makes its own way in its unique situation (and in a more participatory way). The state and national political role of these faithful families would, it seems to me, tend toward championing a national political system that empowers each community to pursue its common ends (Catholics call this subsidiarity). I would add that it might also encourage the appropriate use of larger governmental structures to ensure that some communities aren’t victimized by disadvantage so that all can prosper (embracing what Catholics call solidarity).
That’s what I have to offers as an alternative to the Benedict Option, at least in the barest outline form. As I said at the outset, Dreher’s book is worth you reading, certainly way more than this. I just sketched out an outline on the electronic equivalent of the back of a napkin; Dreher has invested years in conversation and study. Whether you find his assessment and vision compelling, or you find my critiques more persuasive, I hope you’ll note that we share more in common in our proposals than we hold in contrast, even if we read the signs of the times with different eyes, casting back to different centuries for inspiration.