This sense of opting out is being discussed at the moment in an idea called ‘The Benedict Option’. When I first heard the term I thought it referred to Pope Benedict and was some kind of traditional Catholic group who were not too enamoured of Pope Francis’ approach and wanted to turn the clock back to a seemingly more traditional pontificate. But no, the Benedict in the Benedict Option is actually St Benedict, the father of monasticism. The idea is put forward in a book of that name, written by Rod Dreher, an American Eastern Orthodox Christian. It’s considered by some to be the most- talked about book of 2017 – at least among religious conservatives. I’ve not actually read the book but reviews and commentaries suggest the idea is that if Christianity is to renew itself and contribute to the transformation of society Christians should withdraw from public and political involvement to concentrate on living a deeply spiritual and focused religious life. In this they are following in the tradition of monastics who separated themselves from the world to concentrate on living the Christian gospel more radically than was possible if they were involved in so called worldly matters.
This desire to live a religious life more fully and completely is found in nearly all the major world religions. Hinduism has its saddhus, Buddhism its monks and nuns, Islam its Sufi brotherhoods, Christianity its monastics, both men and women. All of these religions have their saints who have refused to conform to the expectations of the society in which they lived and opted out to concentrate fully on their love for God and neighbour. This was often difficult for women whose position in society was restricted by the patriarchal context in which they lived. There are many stories of women saints in all of these religions who refused marriage to commit themselves fully to prayer, often at the cost of being rejected by their families or thought of as mad. There’s no doubt that this kind of life is a genuine calling for some and often monasteries, ashrams, holy men and women attract others who seek them out for spiritual counselling and guidance. But it’s not for everyone.
Dreher is not advocating this kind of physical withdrawal. Rather it’s a psychological withdrawal that does not engage politically, nor get caught up in the current mores of a society that is immoral and materialistic. He wants Christians to be truly counter –cultural. There’s a lot to be said for this though it could be debated what that actually means. I can’t think of any religious person who would not applaud or agree that society would benefit from believers who are true to the best in their faiths and who live a life of love and service. Society would certainly benefit if believers countered the greed and materialism of the age by living a life of simplicity with a concern for justice and equality. Society would surely benefit if believers were open to the wisdom and goodness in others and took positive steps towards reconciliation and peacemaking. What I don’t like is the idea of withdrawing from political and social engagement – suggesting the world is bad, that ‘we’ are good, that this is the only way to live out the Christian life today. It smacks too much of dualism for my liking. This sense of dividing the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ suggests the kind of superiority that in the past has led to division and even violence. It suggests the world is bad and religion/ spirituality is good as though God is not to be found in all things. It speaks of fear and suspicion, rather than love and hope.
It’s Dreher’s sense of withdrawal that has caused some controversy and debate. His call for Christian communities to renew themselves and deepen their prayer and spirituality is a good and challenging one. Christians, like other believers, need their centres, parishes, communities where their faith can be nourished and sustained, where they can reflect on the meaning of the Gospel and be energised to put it into practice in a world which is becoming increasingly secular but is not necessarily bad because of that. It’s important I think that believers dialogue with the society in which they live. We cannot separate ourselves from our culture. We need to engage with it in humility and show the true nature of a religion that in the past has been so identified with oppression and conformity but can be so transformative when lived out in love, compassion and service.