In “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” the former Catholic, now Orthodox, writer and columnist Rod Dreher calls for a unifying retreat from the vicissitudes of the modern age. Christians today need to rally, he claims, via “strategic withdrawal” from the opulence and corruption of secular culture. While not entirely novel, the idea has its merits and, as a political movement, has found some success in recent years.
The “Benedict Option,” as a movement, is significantly inspired by the conclusions drawn in “After Virtue,” written by Alasdair MacIntyre, the acclaimed Scottish American philosopher. In a keynote on the common good, MacIntyre, responding to this movement as a political reality, qualifies that his goal was not to inspire a mass exodus from social order, but was instead to “suggest that we have been waiting for a new St. Benedict.” In other words, “I was suggesting we need a new kind of engagement with the social order, not any kind of withdrawal from it.”
These two authors exemplify the tension we experience today, I believe. On the one hand, the technological age has ushered in a new era of incredible innovation and advancement in healthcare, education, transportation, etc. On the other hand, the technological age has been grounded in a particularly strong reaction against traditional religious practice, the stability of the family and a creeping secularism in various avenues of our life. Feeling this tension, each individual is tasked with making a discernment of engagement or withdrawal; more often than not, we think ourselves capable of a selective existence, engaging with what has merit and withdrawing from what we consider vicious. But life is not so simple, and we can easily find ourselves too invested in what the world offers — to our detriment — and believing that we can maintain the proper balance. Fearing this imbalance, we can instead choose the charged response of total withdrawal and abandon the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations.
At the end of “After Virtue,” MacIntyre reminds us, “This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.” Tempted by withdrawal and fearing engagement with a culture that has become so obviously absent of God, what is one to do? It seems we are all finding ourselves waiting for a new St. Benedict.
MacIntyre notes that St. Benedict’s engagement with the social order was brilliantly simple. In founding a monastic community beyond the confines of the wall, the public square began to naturally surround the enclosure. The monks had to grow their own food — they were all farmers — but they could trade with nearby villagers, and so they did. And because they were in such proximity to these villages and exchanged goods, they also began to educate the children of the village. This symbiotic relationship between the monastic community and the local community provides a blueprint for the Christian seeking to virtuously engage with the world.
The keystone required to address the fading reality of the local community is engagement. But such engagement seems entirely foreign to our modern experience. There is no longer a “public square,” which for ages has functioned as the focal point for commerce, culture and community. Moreover, our lives are no longer so clearly defined by opportunities for local engagement, like bowling leagues and knitting circles. Even sports, which used to exclusively serve a local community, have given way to “travel teams” and “select” rosters.
In dismantling our sense of local community, one of the greatest culprits has been ecommerce, specifically shopping on Amazon. In the past, Saturday morning errands might have taken one to their local hardware store, farmers market and department store. Today, with the ease of online shopping, by just a few clicks of a computer mouse, these items can arrive at our door within days. It’s easy, it’s simple. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?
Precisely because such behavior from the consumer — of which I am guilty, dear reader — completely separates the villager from the village. We are no longer members of a local community; instead, we become cutoff from and altogether absent from an experience of local engagement. If we want to respond to the challenge from MacIntyre, to become the “new St. Benedict” — one capable of easing that tension of being in the world, but not of the world — there must be some sacrifice. Yes, it is easier to order hardware parts from Amazon, but the extra effort it takes to frequent our local shops and stores means participating in that same symbiotic relationship illustrated so beautifully by monastic communities centuries ago.
We are not going to resolve this tension overnight. But engaging in our local community, even in the smallest measure, goes a long way in building up a culture of real, inspired encounter that can serve as a foundation for the seeds of the Gospel to take root in the lives of those we meet. So, ask yourself: Should we shop on Amazon?