It is no secret that I am a big fan of Rod Dreher and his “Benedict Option.” Covenant contributor Hannah Matis recently wrote a wonderful piece here about our need to add nuance to it. I am mulling over my own way of describing life in post-Christendom, with stabs at it here and here. If you have never heard of the Benedict Option or its variants, I would recommend you start with this. A simple search will then reveal many dozens of additional reflections. Dreher’s basic premise is that just as St. Benedict responded to the chaos of post-imperial Rome with life in Christian community, Christian community is the only defense against an increasingly hostile post-Christian world today. Dreher is heavily influenced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue (1981), noting:
MacIntyre argued that the Enlightenment’s failure to replace an expiring Christianity caused Western civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we too have been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the land.
The only way forward is to gather more closely than ever, pray a lot, welcome newcomers through our gates and behind our walls, and play a long-term game of cultural transformation.
For now, Christians have lost the culture wars. Period. Western society is too far gone (and that’s ok!). This point was driven home to me when I heard this recent interview with Dreher on Ancient Faith Radio, and I highly recommend taking the time to listen to it. He points not to Roe v. Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges as the tipping point of cultural defeat for orthodox Christians, but to a specific part of the majority opinion in another court case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This 1992 decision upheld Roe v. Wade, but the interesting thing is how the Supreme Court framed the verdict. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion invented something called the “mystery clause,” which Kennedy attached to the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. He wrote:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
I admit, this sentence horrifies me.
Recent turmoil at Yale University reveals the inevitable cultural aporia that has resulted a generation after Justice Kennedy’s opinion. It also reveals the need for the Benedict Option. In this instance, a Yale faculty member named Erika Christakis (the wife of Nicholas Christakis, the master of Silliman College, one of Yale’s undergraduate residence communities) sent an e-mail to students to engage them on the question of culturally sensitive Halloween costumes. University administrators had previously sent an e-mail reminding students to steer clear of dressing in various stereotypically offensive ways during their festivities. Christakis’s message was astute and civil to the highest degree. But it was also a gentle challenge for students to remember that they came to college to grow up.
Maybe 18-22 year-olds don’t need middle-aged academics to tell them how to feel about party attire. It was not well received. Students wanted both of the Christakis’s heads on a platter, and they may yet get them. See this video for one of many astonishing displays. The controversy showed that America’s young elite do not think of themselves as culture-makers or trail-blazers. They are children, whose top concern is feeling safe, which is shorthand for constructing themselves and their reality according to the definition Justice Kennedy provided a few years before today’s undergraduates were born. Nothing that gets in the way of the self is sacred. Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s recent article in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind” makes this strange scenario astonishingly clear. Another startling story by Jonathan Haidt, “The Yale Problem Begins in High School,” is here. Dreher comments on it here.
Yale’s Halloween costume hubbub is not specifically about Christianity; but it is about community. The wisdom of the Benedict Option for this situation is in its unwavering insistence that cultural trends are only going in one direction, and if you want safety and flourishing, the Church is your best bet. We, as Saint Benedict did, are looking out on a world that is eating itself alive. We pity it and we pray for it. We remain cheerful, equipped with the armor of light. We offer a clear alternative that demands we all grow up. We define ourselves by the light of the Gospel, and we bend our knee to the king of kings. In obedience to his gracious rule, we find both our safety and our self-worth. In the hard work of true diversity within the body of Christ, we learn humility. We strengthen what we have by common prayer and faith in action. We expect our communities to grow. And we wait.
This may not just be an “option,” but the way Christians were made to live from the start. Maybe one or two young Yalies would even find this life a compelling alternative to what they must endure on campus. Thank you, Rod Dreher, for refreshing our memories.
And Boola Boola.