A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Part 1, The Promise and Challange of the Ben Op

I'd like to devote six posts making the case for a progressive version of the Benedict Option.

For the uninitiated, the "Benedict Option" has been the brainchild of author and journalist Rod Dreher. Rod has been describing, defending and calling for a Benedict Option (Ben Op for short) for many years. To catch yourself up, Rod recently posted a Benedict Option Frequently Asked Questions post summarizing his thoughts over the years and his responses to various questions and criticisms of the Ben Op.

I encourage you to read Rod's FAQ post if you don't know anything about the Ben Op. But to quickly get everyone on the same page, what, briefly, is the Ben Op?

Succinctly, the Ben Op argues that Western liberalism--especially, I would argue, its neo-liberal economic manifestations--has been corrosive to the Christian faith. To survive in cultures shaped by modernity, neo-liberalism, and capitalism proponents of the Ben Op argue that Christians will need to invest in creating rich, thick and distinctive cultures that cultivate the counter-cultural virtues necessary to sustain the church and Christian spiritual formation.

In his FAQ post here is how Rod describes the Ben Op:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept [Alasdair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity in [his book After Virtue], and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
Rod is Eastern Orthodox and is a conservative Christian. Consequently, most of the discussion about the Ben Op has been among conservative Christians, from Catholic to Orthodox to evangelical.

But if you look at Rod's description--the Ben Op as resistance to Empire--there's a lot in his description that resonates with progressive Christians. For many, resistance to Empire is at the heart of the progressive Christian vision. In fact, progressive Christians would argue that this is exactly the reason that evangelical Christians, in particular, are very poor candidates for the Ben Op.

The reason for this should be obvious. Conservative evangelicals have been some of the biggest religious champions of American Empire. There are no greater advocates of global American military supremacy and free-market capitalism than evangelicals.

Let's make America great again, amiright?

In short, given their boosterism for American supremacy and exceptionalism it seems that conservative evangelicals are awkward candidates when it comes to creating Ben Op communities, communities that are, in Rod's definition, "keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the [American] empire represents."

By contrast, many progressive Christians, especially those working out of Anabaptist, new monastic or Christian anarchist backgrounds, would be very attracted Rod's definition of the Ben Op. These progressive Christians are very interested in creating communities "keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the [American] empire represents." As evidence of this, take a look at Rod's recent exchange with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the leaders of the new monasticism movement.

All that raises the suggestion that progressive evangelicals are better positioned to enact the Ben Op than are conservative evangelicals. That is the position I want to argue for in these posts.

And yet, progressive Christians have their own struggles with the corrosive effects of modernity, capitalism and liberalism. For now, let me mention a few particular struggles.

First, there is often little that is distinctive about progressive Christians when compared to secular, liberal humanists. Let me be clear, as a progressive Christian I think this is a feature rather than a bug. I tend to think that liberal humanism owes its moral vision to Western Christianity. For arguments making that case see, well, see Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Or Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. So I tend to see liberal humanists as cousins of Christianity rather than as opponents. There's a family relationship.

And yet, progressive Christians are increasingly vulnerable to the cultural amnesia symptomatic of modernity. Because of this progressive Christians are increasingly embarrassed or defensive about their faith. That, or increasingly filled with doubt about their beliefs. The ranks of progressive Christians are filled with agnostics and atheists.

All that to say, progressive Christians need a Ben Op to recover confidence in the distinctive particularities of the Christian faith. Progressive Christians need the Ben Op to affirm what is unique and distinctive about being a Christian. Morally, spiritually, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously.

Second, like all Westerners progressive Christians have been spiritually formed by modernity in ways that make it difficult for us to live in distinctively Christian ways.

To take one example, as Westerners progressive (and conservative) Christians privilege individualism over collectivism. And as any church leader will tell you, this individualism makes it very difficult for Western Christians to live as the church. Trying to do church with Western Christians is like herding cats.

And to sharpen the point, I think progressive Christians are particularly and especially bad at doing church. According to the research of Jonathan Haidt conservatives tend to value in-group solidarity more than their progressive counterparts. I think that loyalty gives conservatives a psychological and social advantage when it comes to creating Ben Op communities. And it's for that reason progressive Christians desperately need the Ben Op. Progressive Christians need to recover what it means to be the church, not abstractly, situationally and universally but intimately, intentionally, and locally.

So I have two goals for these six posts.

First, I want to argue how progressive evangelicals are better suited to implement the Ben Op than are conservative evangelicals. And yet, progressive evangelicals will face enormous challenges in implementing the Ben Op. So my second goal will be to sketch out how the Ben Op would look for progressive Christians in overcoming these obstacles.

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