Subcultures, Counter-Cultures, and the Benedict Option

Since the Obergefell decision, “the Benedict Option” has been gaining traction among Christian thinkers. (Please read Rod Dreher’s post here for context). As I’ve paid attention from afar, I discern that Catholics are mostly comfortable with Dreher’s proposal, while many evangelicals are nervous about it. This makes absolute historical sense, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. But let’s start by observing that there are two ways to do “cultural withdrawal.” One is to create a subculture, and the other is to create a counter-culture. And these are two very different things.

When American evangelicals hear “withdrawal,” their minds recall 1920s fundamentalism. Many evangelicals (including myself) can trace their personal family lineage back through this stream of American Christianity. Fundamentalism was indeed a strategy of “withdrawal” – aggressively so. The fundamentalists pulled out of all the institutions – seminaries, mission boards, denominations – and created their own structures. This institutional withdrawal was accompanied by a deeper and more pervasive intellectual withdrawal. The fundamentalists were driven by a strong us-them way of thinking that was content to isolate from opponents rather than engage them. This became enshrined in the fundamentalist doctrine of “biblical separation” (read Roger Olson here for more on that).

It’s no surprise that this withdrawal created an unhealthy subculture. Fundamentalists had their own books, their own Bible institutes, their own independent churches, and their own non-credal creed. And the doctrine of “biblical separation” ensured that anyone who strayed too far outside this subculture would be ostracized. Though Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry and others charted a new course in the 1950s, this “subculturish” tendency remained strong even in the new evangelicalism.

In light of this history, it makes sense that evangelicals get a little twitchy when Dreher and others start talking about “meaningful withdrawal.” We certainly don’t want to go back to fundamentalism. But we don’t have to. Both the Catholic and Jewish communities have shown that it’s possible to create a counter-culture without creating a subculture. And in my opinion, this distinction makes all the difference.

Consider the tremendous institutional influence of the Catholic and Jewish communities. In your city, as in mine, there are likely Catholic and Jewish hospitals and community centers; vibrant synagogues and parishes; a dense network of parochial schools; and at least one or two centers of higher learning. Now ponder the emphasis both of these communities place on education – specifically, the education of their own children. American Catholics and Jews have effectively created vibrant counter-cultures. Without withdrawing from the broader culture, they’ve been faithful to a tradition and passed that tradition on to their children.

This is where fundamentalism failed. It abandoned tradition – “no creed but the Bible” – and therefore it created strength of conviction without breadth of mind. Its institutions – if we can call them that – sought mainly to pass on a narrow commitment to the authority of Scripture rather than a broad knowledge of classical philosophy and literature. Even today, evangelicals tend to focus on the more narrow project of “theological education” rather than the broader project of holistic formation. (The resurgence of classical Christian education – in both its private-school and home-school forms – is a welcome departure from this tendency).

As I understand him, Dreher is calling Christians to a “meaningful withdrawal” that mirrors what our Catholic and Jewish friends have been doing well for centuries. He is proposing not a subculture, but a counter-culture. If we heed his call, it will not lead to a renewal of fundamentalism. It will instead lead to a recovering of the great intellectual and institutional impulse that lies latent within the Judeo-Christian tradition. It will mean recovering a commitment to classical education – not just for the sake of “getting our children saved,” but for the sake of training them in reasoning, discernment, and virtue. It will mean building institutions (especially schools) with a broadly cultural mission and a distinctly Christian flavor. It will mean widening our focus from “saving souls” to saving the world, in the real and tangible sense of preserving civilization. As Thomas Kidd notes, “Taking the Benedict Option… just equates to Christian discipleship in our cultural moment.”

For years I have been compelled by the logic of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue – and especially his closing paragraph, which Dreher quotes as the genesis of this “Benedict Option.” MacIntyre argues that the Enlightenment utterly failed to provide a rational, non-theistic basis for morality. Thus, we are left with two and only two possibilities: either Nietzsche was right, or Aristotle was. Either all moral claims are nothing more than thinly veiled “wills to power” (Nietzsche); or there is a true and objective Good which all humans ought to pursue (Aristotle, the classical Greek tradition, and the Bible). Justice Kennedy’s opinion is clear evidence that the intelligentsia of our culture have largely embraced the Nietzschean option. Our only hope is a meaningful withdrawal that keeps the second option – the true, good, and beautiful one – alive for the next generation.

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