Benedict Option & Doom Dissertation

Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, Son of Alphaeus

Benedict_Square.jpgJAMES K. A. Smith, a presenter at our Eighth Day Symposium earlier this year, receives our monthly e-newsletter. He emailed me after the most recent issue for a brief word of praise and encouragement.

After reviewing our October calendar, Smith also emailed Rod Dreher, another presenter at both our past 2015 and our coming 2016 symposium. The next day Dreher posted this on his blog at The American Conservative:

James K. A. Smith, on examining the latest offerings at Wichita’s Eighth Day Institute, says, “Seriously, isn’t this like Mission Control of the Benedict Option?” I cannot disagree. It is astonishing that a place like this exists at all. Actual people can go to these events.

I’m humbled. And I’m proud.

From the very beginning, my work at Eighth Day Institute has been intimately tied to my dissertation. Or, it’s probably the other way around. Either way, I don’t see any point in studying or writing if it doesn’t somehow connect with life on the ground.

The same applies for theology. There is no reason to engage in theology if it doesn’t relate to life in the real world. I chose my supervisor, Fr. Andrew Louth, precisely for this reason. His integration of theology and spirituality is apparent in most all of his writing, even in his most academic publications. Plus, he’s an Orthodox priest. In the Evagrian sense—“The one who truly prays is a true theologian.”—he therefore qualifies as a true theologian, or at least one on his way. He’s not just an academic; he’s a scholar whose work is born out of a life of prayer. And that’s the kind of theologian I want to become.

(For Fr. Andrew’s most explicit articulation on this subject, read his short booklet titled “Theology and Spirituality”. If you’re more ambitious, read Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on Theology; Eighth Day Press reprinted it and I think it’s one of the most important books of the 20th century. The are both available at Eighth Day Books.)

I’ve been working on my dissertation for too long. I’ve passed my deadline. And I’ve made life really difficult for my family over the last ten years. My wife and children are amazing human beings to have put up with me. Really, you have no idea. And my wife would say that is an understatement.

So, to force myself to finally finish the dissertation, for the sake of my family’s sanity and to appease all those people who are begging me to finish just so they can call me Dr. Doom, I scheduled four dissertation lectures for this fall. The idea is to create public deadlines for me. Thank God, it’s working.

So what is my thesis? It is nothing more than an attempt to work out the mission of Eighth Day Institute. That is to say, how can we renew our culture? Or, in the actual language of the dissertation: how can the Church transform the culture of our secular age? And, related to this question, how can Christians live in a secular age and not become infected by the poison in the air? In other words, how shall we then live in the world and not be of the world? It really is, then, essentially a fleshing out of the Benedict Option.

Conceived and proposed by Dreher, the Benedict Option has received international attention. The web is full of blog posts about it, with some making counter-proposals such as the Jeremiah Option or the Dominican Option. I have started printing off all of the posts I can find. I now have a six-inch stack of articles sitting on one of my desks. And Dreher is being summoned to conference after conference to discuss it, including our own annual symposium on January 14-16.

But what is the Benedict Option? Dreher has been writing about the idea as long ago as 2006 in his book Crunchy Cons, but I first encountered it in a great collection of essays published in 2011 on Wendell Berry: The Human Vision of Wendell Berry. Dreher’s excellent piece, which likens Berry to a “Latter-Day Saint Benedict,” cites the now-famous concluding paragraph in Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which says we are waiting for another Benedict to help us construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” And then Dreher provides what I think is the heart of the Benedict Option, which also happens to be the heart of my dissertation. 

Keeping in mind Berry’s critical insight that we have disordered politics because we have disordered souls—we should strive within the limits of our own particular situations to construct new forms of community to repair and redeem the moral imagination distorted by modern life. We should begin to think of our homes as domestic monasteries and to cultivate thoughtfulness and purposefulness in the way we go about our daily lives. Withdrawing from practices that cloud our minds and alienate us from essential wisdom is the first step toward healing. In this sense, turning off the television is a giant step toward healthy political reform.

Notice that Dreher does not say, “withdraw from the cities.” His call is instead to withdraw from clouding and alienating practices. Sounds like Scripture to me: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Heb. 12.1). But the distinction Dreher makes is important.

From the beginning, Dreher has been clear about what it does not mean. Just as Berry doesn’t call everyone to leave the cities and head for the countryside, the Benedict Option is not a call for everyone to flee the cities for monasteries. But for whatever reason—people simply don’t actually read him, or maybe they just skim his writing—he has had to repeatedly defend this aspect. Just this past week he had this to say on his blog:

I appreciate the opportunity to clarify, once again, that I’m not in favor of creating “sealed-off Christian communities.” I don’t think that’s either possible or desirable. Rather, when I think of the Benedict Option, I think of creating stronger, thicker communities within which traditional Christian life can thrive. That will require some separation from the wider world, and the creation of de facto barriers. A Catholic school, for example, that wanted to form Catholic children according to orthodox Catholic teaching may want to exclude non-Catholic students, and to expect parents to participate more directly in their children’s education than is usual with parochial schools. But the way I see it, if we Christians are to be salt and light to the world, we have to first learn to be real Christians, not Moralistic Therapeutic Deists with a Christian-ish gloss.

That will require rebuilding a thick Christian culture in which we and future generations can be formed. To the extent that secular modernity dissolves and assimilates Christian belief and practice, we must stand against it, creating the institutions within which we can build resilience, and developing the personal and communal habits that build resilience.

And that is my dissertation in a nutshell! I’m trying to answer the questions that emerge from the requirements of Dreher’s timely proposal: How can Christians learn to be real Christians? How do we rebuild a thick Christian culture? How shall we stand against a secular age? How do we create institutions and develop personal and communal habits that build resilience?

Let me tease you with a two-word answer. It’s my answer, an answer I’m trying to flesh out in Eighth Day Institute and to write in a dissertation: liturgical catechesis. Come to my third and fourth Table Talks to learn what I mean. Or become an Eighth Day Member to receive digital access to them.

As to Eighth Day Institute being like a Mission Control of the Benedict Option, I’ve never thought of us in those terms. But I have been thinking about cultural renewal for a long time. And over the last couple of months I have been developing an idea that might actually put some flesh onto Smith’s suggestion. But I’m going to leave it at that, as a concluding teaser for a future post.

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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