The irony of an Orthodox Christian explaining orthodox Christianity incorrectly.

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), pp. 262.

I haven’t posted many book reviews, but I felt this is a book worth talking about – love or hate it – because it’s been getting a lot of traction within Christian circles (of many denominations). This is a bit unusual than my normal posts, so please bear with me.

Rod Dreher, the author of the Benedict Option, is an editor at the American Conservative and has been talking about the “Benedict Option” for quite some time.

In short, The Benedict Option makes the argument that traditional western culture, morality, and civilization (as based on Christian ideals) are in crisis and no longer exists. The solution, as Dreher puts it, is the “Benedict Option,” which advocates for orthodox (small “o”) Christians to resist by constructing local alternative forms of community.

In his words, the Benedict Option is this:

“If Christians today do not stand firm on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition – ways of thinking, speaking and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation – we will have nothing to stand on at all. If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep the sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to loose it. And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to who everything in that sacred order, like a divine map, points.” (pg. 236)

Dreher’s premise is that Christianity is fragmenting and declining because traditional Christian values are being undermined by new philosophical ideas. In chapter 2, “The Roots of the Crisis,” Dreher walks us through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the World Wars, and he explains the major philosophical changes in each period. Though he’s painting with a broad brush, one gets a good sense of the transformation of society.

So, if he feels that traditional Christianity has been undermined, what does he advocate is “traditional” or “orthodox” (small “o”) Christianity? He identifies it as “scholasticism.” He writes,

“The core teachings of Scholasticism include the principle that all things exist and have a God-given essential nature independent of human thought. This position is called ‘metaphysical realism.’ From this principle comes what Charles Taylor identifies as the three basic bulwarks upholding medieval Christian ‘imaginary’ – that is, the vision of reality accepted by all orthodox Christians from the early church through the High Middle Ages:

  • The world and everything in it is a part of harmonious whole ordered by God and filled with meaning – and all things are signs pointing to God.

  • Society is grounded in that higher reality.

  • The world is charged with spiritual force.” (pg. 26)

Dreher is himself an Orthodox Christian, but the irony is that what he describes as orthodox (small “o”) Christianity is not Orthodox (big “O”) Christianity, or even the Christianity of the early apostles.

Bear with me; I think this is an important point because Dreher’s argument is that Christians need to take action because the Christian ethos is being lost.

Dreher over-relies on an academic approach to theology called scholasticism, which is a medieval departure from the approaches used by the Church Fathers.

To explain this, I’m going to turn to the introduction written by Geroge Gabriel in Fr. John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin.

First, here’s Gabriel’s description of scholasticism, which you’ll notice isn’t far from Dreher’s description, and I think it’s worth quoting at length.

“Original Sin posed a massive dilemma for the paradigms of Augustine and the post-Augustinian theologians. After all, in Augustinian and scholastic theology, the first man’s sin had disturbed the eudaemonia or self-contented happiness of the Unmoved Mover, a philosophically conceived deity that is not moved by or toward things outside of itself, i.e., outside the Divine essence. Moreover, the Latin paradigms conclude that the first man had a naturally immortal soul and was a copy of the eternal idea or archetype of man in the essence of God. Thus, Adam came into the Garden of Eden in a state of utter perfection and happiness, enjoying the beatific vision of the Divine essence. The post-Augustinian West, therefore, saw Adam’s sin as a fall from the greatest possible height and as an offense of the greatest possible enormity against the Divine essence and the very honor of God. Necessity in the Divine nature itself, whose eudaemonia was violated, dictated certain indispensable adjudications, such as the retributive death of Adam, the imposition of the inherited guilt for Adam’s sin and, therefore, the penalty of death on the human race. The Incarnation of the Son of God was needed so His suffering and death may offer the infinite satisfaction of Divine justice, appease the wrath of the Father, restore the Divine honor, and thereby enable God to forgive men’s sins.” (pg. 9)

However, this is in contrast to how Church Fathers understood Christianity. Fr. Romanides’ book is about getting back to a patristic understanding of Christianity, especially a correct understanding of “original” sin. Gabriel, still writing in the introduction, describes this very well.

“The bedrock of [Fr. John’s] thesis is the ex nihilo creation: God created from nothing. By His uncreated energy, which his distinct from the uncreated Divine essence, He made all things from nothing preexistent. The creation ex nihilo precludes the idea that matter always existed and needed only to be shaped into all things by the hand of God. It also bars Augustine’s teaching that eternal ideas of all things preexisted in the essence of God as archetypes before creation which He was constrained to copy and bring into existence. This Neoplatonic system was banned by the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, but Thomas Acquinas later used it and named it analogia entis.” (pg. 9)

Indeed, it is true, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared anathema (“an outrage”) in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy anyone who teaches what scholasticsm teaches; that there is a “…principle that all things exist and have a God-given essential nature independent of human thought.”

The Synodikon reads, “To them who accept and transmit the vain Greek teachings that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being…Anathema.”

So, what is the orthodox and Orthodox teaching? Gabriel continues.

“The true destiny intended for Adam and mankind, however, was not the philosophers’ idealism or eudaemonia of the Unmoved Mover but perfection as sons of God who love Him and love one another, as Christ has loved us with an outgoing love that seeks nothing in return. With one and the same love that He loves His Only-Begotten Son Who is in His bosom, God also loves the world. His love is the same uncreated energy, the same Divine life, that Adam forfeited and we are invited to participate in. God’s relations with men are direct, consisting of His uncreated energies and not of created secondary powers or graces that have no relation to the Uncreated One.” (pg. 10)

In other words, Dreher and scholasticism teach the principle that “all things exist,” or have their own ontology (being), and God creates a material world that reflects this spiritual reality. The Church Fathers teach that God creates out of nothing, and then seeks to unite this creation to himself through his uncreated energies, that is, love.

This may be a fine point, but Dreher’s argument is based on the premise that the modern “west” has lost a Christian approach to life, therefore, it is important to assess whether Dreher’s understanding of Christianity and its worldview is correct.

To help us understand where Dreher – relying on scholasticism and Augustine – went wrong, let’s turn to Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life In Death.

“As I suggest in the Preface, a lot of modern theology, despite all its variety, operates in a manner that can only be described as an old mixture of metaphysics and mythology. …such theology begins with the doctrine of God as Trinity, and then, abandoning the supposedly ‘primitive’ exegetical methods of the premodern theology, in and through which the doctrine of the Trinity was elaborated, retells the interaction between God and the world in a modern historical manner. …The move to such as approach to theology seems to begin with St. Augustine, who, having inherited the results of the fourth-century debates, rather than living through them, is the first to claim that the theophanies of the Old Testament could be manifestations of any of the three persons of the Trinity, or the Trinity itself… In short, such approach to theology undermines the very gospel itself.” (pg. 173-4)

Fr. Behr puts a corrective on this and explains a much better approach.

“The witness of the apostles and the Fathers of the fourth century following them…is simply that what we see in Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles, is what it is to be God, yet other than the God whom Christ calls upon as Father and makes known through, and is himself made known by, the Holy Spirit. It could not have been otherwise, nor could it now be, for this is how the God of Christian faith is.” (pg. 174)

In other words, all theology and approaches should start not with metaphysics, but with the cross.

I have much more to say about The Benedict Option (even some good things to say), but I’ll save that for part 2 of my review.

For now, I merely point out the irony that Dreher is lamenting that the west has lost a Christian ethos, yet that ethos he points to as Christian, is already itself misleading.

P.S. Did you like the Benedict Option, live in Dubuque, and now looking for an Orthodox community? Why not come to St. Elias? 

St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
Saturdays: Great Vespers, 4 pm
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am

Or find your nearest Orthodox Church by clicking here

Review of the Benedict Option, part 1

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5 thoughts on “Review of the Benedict Option, part 1

  1. ” chapter 2, “The Roots of the Crisis,” Dreher walks us through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the World Wars, and he explains the major philosophical changes in each period. Though he’s painting with a broad brush, one gets a good sense of the transformation of society.”

    It’s surprising that not included in this list of “major philosophical changes” is the wholesale embrace and worldwide propagation of “free markets” as the salvation of mankind.

  2. I read and re-read, but I cannot connect what Dreher said (the “three basic bulwarks”) with what the Synodikon condemns. More specifically, I cannot see that Dreher intimates “that there is a pre-existence of souls and teach that all things were not produced and did not come into existence out of non-being.”
    Am I missing something?

    1. Dreher identifies Christianity with scholasticism and “metaphysical realism.” By doing this, he has opened a can of worms. Granted “realism” is a broad term (from extreme realism with Platonic roots to moderate realism with Aristotelian roots). Because Dreher isn’t clear, it becomes a slippery slope. Whichever version you think he may be implying there are still two problems.

      1) Realism implies some sort of universal existing in a transcendent mind. In other words, this isn’t true creation out of nothing, because there’s always some sort of eternal archetype, which would vary depending on which “realism” you’re talking about. And because it isn’t a true creation out of nothing, it’s contrary to the Synodikon.

      2) It starts with a philosophical idea (scholasticism/metaphysical realism), which is not how Patristic theology begins. One should always begin with a contemplation of the cross so as not to be swayed into fitting a “true” Christian understanding into a philosophical idea. Thus, Dreher’s thesis – that we should return to a western Christian culture – already runs into problems, because he’s not starting with “pure” Christianity, but a Christianity that’s been “filtered” through philosophy.

      1. Thank you. That explanation I can understand.
        I can agree that Dreher identifies Christianity with “Scholasticism” in the three bulwarks description, but in that same quote he refers to “*God-given* essential nature independent of *human* thought.” It seems to me that a scholastic realist *might* object to that (I’m still something of a novice in the nominalism/realism discussion) as a repudiation of any eternal archetype by which God was constrained.
        To your second point I have no response.

  3. I agree with Reader John’s concerns on this point. Dreher’s point, as quoted in your review, is not embracing anathema. If anything, Dreher may have been guilty of too much charity toward scholasticism, rather than departing from an Orthodox view of Divine order immanent in Christian society.

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