The book Christians should read instead of 'The Benedict Option'

Julián Carrón and Rod Dreher (CNS photos Gregory A. Shemitz/The Trinity Forum)  Julián Carrón and Rod Dreher (CNS photos Gregory A. Shemitz/The Trinity Forum) 

American Christianity today is beset by political gloom. This gloominess is certainly evident in this year’s best seller on faith and politics: Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which David Brooks hails as the “most important religious book of the decade.”

Inspired by the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher argues that “the modern West” is “living under [the] barbarism” of moral permissiveness, secularism and individualism. In this new “Dark Age,” public morality is all about individualistic relativism and “moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right.” Gone are the traditional virtue communities of yesteryear. Faith is in decline. In its place “barbarians” with “designer suits and smart phones” dominate democracies in the name of a “hostile secular nihilism.”

Dreher believes that Christians have been slow to recognize this fait accompli. What it demands of them is forming local communities of committed believers who preserve virtue for a future flowering of civilization. Failure to do so will “doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.”

Given Dreher’s alarming call to do “battle in the modern world,” Julián Carrón’s new book, Disarming Beauty, which asks Christians to lay down their arms and enter the public square with joy and confidence, may seem wildly naïve. Yet Carrón’s argument deserves careful consideration by Christians attracted to the Benedict Option.

In sharp contrast to Rod Dreher, Julian Carrón does not think Christians should disown contemporary society as a new “Dark Age.”

Carrón is a Catholic theologian, priest and leader of the movement Communion and Liberation (in which, full disclosure, I participate). Carrón shares similar anxieties about the modern spiritual crisis of “nihilism” (anxieties that I, incidentally, think are overblown). But, in sharp contrast to Dreher, Carrón does not think Christians should disown contemporary society as a new “Dark Age.”

This is because today’s secular democracies were partly built by Christians (in collaboration with others) and reflect a deep affirmation of their faith. Indeed, Carrón notes, the church in the first centuries was founded on the revolutionary “distinction between the two cities, between God and Caesar.” Similarly, a secular society maintains a clear and crucial distinction between the church and stately power. A genuinely open, secular public space is thus not a disadvantage to Christianity but rather an assurance against the perennial temptation to use power instead of love to spread faith—what Carrón calls the “temptation of hegemony.” This temptation, as Carrón relates, is, unfortunately, something to which Christians frequently succumb. Thus, despite real tensions and disagreements, there remains a “profound harmony between Christianity and [the] Enlightenment.”

Secularism is not the enemy of Christianity but a historic opportunity for the church to live its witness authentically and unarmed. But Carrón also makes clear that the individual freedom defended by secular democracies is not simply an inconvenience necessary for avoiding the temptation of hegemony. Rather, from the Christian perspective, “freedom is the most precious gift heaven gave to humanity.” Indeed, there is no real faith without freedom to reject that faith.

When scandalized by others’ freedom, Carrón insists that Christians should return to the model of Jesus who never forced or coerced conversion. Instead, Jesus always began from the heart or desires of the individual in front of him.

For this reason, Carrón stresses Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son whose father gives him his inheritance early so he may fully pursue his freedom and desires even to the point of complete moral dissipation. Why does the father not intervene by the use of force? Why is he not scandalized by the muck of his son’s desires?

Jesus recognized that real faith must always pass through the free desire of the human heart.

Central to the Christian claim is that every human heart has a desire for the infinite, such that every other desire remains restlessly unsatisfied until a relationship with God is formed. Jesus recognized that real faith must always pass through the free desire of the human heart. Instead of coercion, Jesus’ approach was to offer people a bigger, more engaging love.

Carrón insists that this is why the earliest Christians did not focus on saving civilization but instead desired intensely to mix with Jew or Greek, to present to “everyone a truly desirable humanity.” This means that Christians, above all people, should affirm individual freedom—allowing others to test out their desires and see if anything else will satisfy them. Indeed, Christians should even love this journey, this dramatic destiny of all God’s prodigal sons, who demand their inheritances and test their desires.

By contrast, Dreher’s book is filled with a deep ambivalence about individual freedom. Although he insists that Christians need the freedoms of the modern state to carry out their Benedict Options, he at the same time wants to denounce this state for its “inadequate” goal of “facilitating and expanding human choice.” Dreher’s project both denounces and requires the secular spaces of freedom he so distrusts.

This is very different from Carrón’s insistence that Christians should embrace the “drama of freedom.” According to Carrón, it is clear that returning to a society “based on Christian laws” is “against the very nature of Christianity.” Instead, Christians should seek to affirm and revitalize a “space of freedom” in which “nothing is imposed by anyone” and a society forms in which “each person can freely contribute to its construction, offering his own witness.”

It is difficult to imagine a position more diametrically opposed to Dreher’s belief that “following your own heart, no matter what society says, or the devastating to every kind of social stability.” Thus, although Dreher at one point hints that Carrón’s Communion and Liberation is possibly in the spirit of the Benedict Option, he is clearly wrong.

Ultimately, Carrón believes Christians should come to the modern space of freedom armed with nothing but the beauty and attractiveness of their lives. The authentic Christian “is not afraid of having to live in today’s cultural pluralism” without special legal privileges.

In spaces of individual freedom, Christians do not evangelize by withdrawing but by forming friendships. In chapter after chapter, Carrón insists that Christianity did not begin with a moral system or assent to dogmatic claims but with Jesus, who offered his companionship. Faith, in other words, begins as a relationship—as a willingness to fall in love with and accompany others. Far from embattled retraction, Christians today should see their politics as one of friendship: of being able to embrace and stay with “the Other.” And not because “the Other” is a burdensome duty but because “the Other is a good.”

Once again the model is Christ. Carrón recounts how in the Gospels the Pharisees thought Zacchaeus needed moral correction. But Jesus instead puts his trust in a real relationship. To the great chagrin and scandal of the Pharisees, Jesus asks to eat at Zacchaeus’s house. In other words, Jesus sees Zacchaeus with all his imperfections and confusions and still loves him.

Carrón believes the great danger for Christians today lies in reducing their faith to a new “Pelagianism,” or the erroneous doctrine that the faithful save themselves through their efforts. In this light, Dreher’s call for civilizational action and virtuous withdrawal does not place sufficient trust in the essence of Christianity—namely, relationships with others.

Over and over again, Carrón seems to ask: If Christianity is true, what do Christians really have to fear?

Jacob Richardson
2 weeks ago

I did not understand what Pope Francis meant when he used to talk about modern Pelgianism, this article helped me understand a little bit.

Lisa Weber
2 weeks ago

Good article! The book sounds fascinating. The desire for power is directly opposed to a desire for holiness. When the Church concerns itself with obtaining power, it loses its ability to demonstrate holiness and to be attractive. This sounds like a book worth reading.

Thomas Severin
2 weeks ago

Just as the lives of Christians in the earliest days of the Church stood in direct contradiction to the values of the Roman empire regarding wealth, power, social status and militarism, so must the modern Christian living in the United States of America today. We live in a culture that has lost a sense of working toward the common good of all citizens, a sense of personal sacrifice for the good of the larger community and a sense of fraternal charity toward the weakest and poorest among us.
Only by living lives that bespeak a profound sense of the goodness and beauty of all persons and a love and respect for everyone despite their race, religion, ethnicity or status in life, can Christians transform a society that sorely lacks these attitudes and values. Daily living the beatitudes and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy is the most powerful witness to our belief in Christ that we as Christians can give.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 week 6 days ago

I'm getting the book. Thank you.

Samuel Rockseer
1 week 6 days ago

With all due respect to Disarming Beauty, it isn’t at all clear to me from this review that it covers the same ground as The Benedict Option or would remotely render it obsolete. Now, to be clear, I have not read Disarming Beauty, but I have read The Benedict Option. It’s entirely possible that the author is right, and Disarming Beauty does everything The Benedict Option does but better. With that being said, there are some issues addressed by The Benedict Option which are not addressed by this review and make it worth reading in addition to Disarming Beauty:
1) The role of technology in our spiritual and moral lives, particularly with respect to the dangers of both easy access to pornography and the social disconnectedness caused by modern technology.
2) How Christians, particularly in sensitive professions such as healthcare or law, can respond to the growing legal challenges and government pressure they face in every day work.
3) How the metaphysical assumptions underlying modern thought run contrary to those which underlie Catholic thought.
4) How many western Christians, even those regularly attending Church, could more accurately be described as moralistic therapeutic deists rather than orthodox Christians.
5) How federal politics, especially the historic allegiance between the Christian-right and the Republican Party, is deeply flawed (and with Disarming Beauty).

Contrary to the implication of the author, Dreher is *not* against the idea of a secular nation. Nowhere in The Benedict Option will you find a call to establish a theocratic state. Neither is Dreher against the idea of choice and freedom from compulsion. He does recognize, however, that modern western culture doesn’t exactly jive with orthodox Christianity. It is true, as the author of this article points out, that the modern secular west comes from a Christian origin; it is not clear, however, that the current iteration of this framework is anything but hostile to the Christian faith.

The author writes “[u]ltimately, Carrón believes Christians should come to the modern space of freedom armed with nothing but the beauty and attractiveness of their lives. The authentic Christian “is not afraid of having to live in today’s cultural pluralism” without special legal privileges.”

Perhaps the author would like to spend some time working in healthcare where Christian healthcare providers are regularly coerced and shamed for not full-throated celebration of abortion, euthanasia, and other wonderful medical advances. In Canada, where I write from, Catholic physicians are beginning to voluntarily retire before the relevant regulatory bodies force them to retire. Christians who advocate for conscience protection in these arenas do not advocate for “special legal privileges”; rather, they advocate for all individuals to have the freedom to act in accordance with their conscience.

Which brings me to my last point. It isn’t clear to me that winsomeness is enough to navigate public life in the west. Certainly I think the vast majority of people are willing to live-and-let-live, but the activist strain of certain special interest groups is always looking for the next battle to justify their existence. As the Stutzman case demonstrates, sometimes all the kindness in the world may not prevent government and the activist community from coming to your business and shutting you down if you don’t feel comfortable participating in this activity or that. Maybe that’s the price of being Christian — Jesus certainly promised suffering on His account — but it isn’t at all clear to me that Christians in business and healthcare shouldn’t take prudent steps to secure their livelihood and advocate for their community.

Is worldview and approach to modern life found in Disarming Beauty superior to that found in The Benedict Option. Maybe. Without having read the former I have no way to know. But there is nothing in this particular article that would lead me to believe one can dispense with The Benedict Option just yet.

Michael Ward
1 week 5 days ago

"A genuinely open, secular public space is thus not a disadvantage to Christianity..." True enough. Problem is that this open space is starting to atrophy at an accelerating pace. Failure to understand this makes this piece quite naive in my view. Couple that with the challenges/failures that Catholics are witnessing in transmitting a strongly convicted faith across recent generations and I just don't see where all the beauty is going to emerge from at a practical level...not that I'm giving up this struggle. But when tenets of the Catechism of the Church is already viewed by many cultural cognescenti as hate speech, and that notion threatens to be accepted as a public truism the day after tomorrow, its hard for me to dial into this piece's sunny optimism. Even if you don't share Dreher's pessimism some of his practical advise is telling and appropriate IMHO. In some ways Rod is right even when he's wrong. ;-)

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