The Benedict option: Believers must find new, more radical ways to practise their faith

The Benedict option: Believers must find new, more radical ways to practise their faith, by Rod Dreher.

The collapse of religion in Britain has been perhaps the most striking feature of the last generation. The sheer pace of the decline has been recorded by Damian Thompson in this magazine: church pews are emptying at the rate of 10,000 people per week. In 1983, some 40 per cent of the population declared itself Anglican. Now, it’s 17 per cent. To be a practising Christian in the West now is to belong to a minority.

How, then, should believers adapt to a society that is not just unsupportive but often hostile to their beliefs? In his influential 1981 book “After Virtue,” the Scottish moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre warned that the Enlightenment’s inability to provide a binding and authoritative source of morality to replace the Christian–Aristotelian one it discarded had left the contemporary West adrift. He likened our age to the era of the Roman Empire’s fall — a comparison that Pope Benedict XVI has also made.

The old believers, MacIntyre wrote, need to respond. … MacIntyre chose Benedict as his model because the 6th-century saint’s inventive response to a religious collapse had enormous historical ramifications. The monastic communities he founded spread quickly throughout western Europe, and over the next few centuries laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilisation in the West. What would a St Benedict for our day say now? … By some estimates, Europe is more secularised now than at any time since Constantine’s conversion in the 3rd century.

What I call The Benedict Option is a choice made by an increasing number of Christians living in the secular West: to build the resilient local communities MacIntyre calls for. You don’t have to be cloistered as monastics to learn from the structure and practices of Benedictine life. The early Benedictines were an example of what the historian Arnold Toynbee called a ‘creative minority’ — a small group within a larger society that responds creatively to a crisis in a way that serves the common good. …

It’s a novel claim: that monks are modern, not outdated relics of a medieval past. …

In the contemporary world, it also means being different. In order to be faithfully Christian now and for the foreseeable future, believers will have to become more like Orthodox Jews and Muslims in the way they live out their religion. They will have to recognise themselves as outsiders, and cease to care about conforming to the norms of secular society. …

But wait, comes the protest. Secular democracy has served the West pretty well. We are doing better in many measures of social health and wellbeing than we have in decades. What’s the problem?

It’s a fair point. What many don’t understand is the extent to which secular liberalism has fed off Christian teachings and virtues. The Enlightenment secularised Christian teachings about the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual human person. But it could not come up with a stable grounding for those teachings in reason alone. For a long time, the West has been coasting on the residue of its Christian faith. …

Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi, has called on Christians to learn from Jewish people how to be a creative minority in the contemporary world.

‘You can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith and contribute to the common good,’ he said. ‘It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the faint-hearted.’

He also argues that Jews and Christians in Britain face two common enemies. On one side, a militant secularism that wishes to eliminate religion entirely. And on the other, a fanatical form of Islam that seeks a barbaric theocracy.

hat-tip Stephen Neil