Christopher Dawson and the "Benedict Option"

Rod Dreher, of whom I am a big fan, suggests that in the face of coming societal persecution American Christians should take what he dubs "The Benedict Option." Essentially, this means forming small communities that to a large extent withdraw from the cultural mainstream in order to protect and cultivate a Christian way of life.

Owen Strachan has a very good reply.

I'd like to share with you a voice from 1960 that likewise calls into question whether such an option is even possible, given the erosion of civil society and the rise of the totalitarian state. Christopher Dawson, from his The Historic Reality of Christian Culture:

"No doubt in the past it has proved possible for churches and other minority groups to maintain their ethical standards against those of the dominant culture. But they paid a high price for this. In the case of the early Christians it meant a fight to the death between the Church and the pagan world, in which Christianity triumphed only after long centuries of persecution. In the case of the Jews in Europe, it has meant the life of the ghetto and the cramping and impoverishment of their culture; and in the case of the minority groups in the modern Christian world, like the Mennonites and the Quakers, it produced a somewhat parallel phenomenon in the form of sectarianism which sets the group apart from the wider national culture.

Now if it were possible to preserve the Christian standards in the life of the family and the religious group, it might well be worth paying the price, even if it meant a certain loss of social advantages. But in the highly organized life of the modern secular state it is becoming increasingly difficult for such separate groups to exist and to maintain their own way of life in a sort of religious underworld or subculture. For the modern state, whether it is democratic as in the United States, or communistic as in the U.S.S.R., or Fascist as in pre-war Italy and Germany, or nationalistic as in the new states of Asia and Africa, is no longer content to confine itself to certain limited functions like the liberal state of the nineteenth century. In fact all modern states are totalitarian in so far as they seek to embrace the spheres of economics and culture, as well as politics in the strict sense of the word. They are concerned not merely with the maintenance of public order and the defense of the people against its external enemies. They have taken on responsibility for all the different forms of communal activity which were formerly left to the individual or to independent social organizations such as the churches, and they watch over the welfare of their citizens from the cradle to the grave.

Thus the modern democratic state even in America is something quite different from the form of state envisaged by the men who formed the American Constitution. Generally speaking one can say that they were the enemies of state intervention and aimed at creating a system which would leave the community and the individual free to lead their own lives and frame their own cultural institutions. But the modern democratic state partakes of the nature of the Church. It is the educator and spiritual guide of its citizens and any influence which withdraws the citizen and especially the citizen's children from this universal guidance is felt to be undesirable, if not positively disloyal.

It is clear that such a situation is full of dangers for a Christian society. In the United States, at least, the danger is not acute at present. So long as an overwhelming majority of member of the American Congress are at least nominal church members, there is little possibility of the State adopting an actively anti-Christian policy. But the prospect for the future is more disquieting. For the more completely secularized public education becomes, and the more the State acquires an educational monopoly, as it is bound to do, considering the growing cost of education, the more the Christian element in our culture will diminish and the more complete will be the victory of secularization as the working religion, or rather counter-religion, of the American people. Even today the public school is widely regarded not as a purely educational institution in the nineteenth century sense - that is, as an elementary introduction to the literary and scientific traditions of culture - but as a moral training in citizenship, an initiation and indoctrination in the American way of life; and since the public school is essentially secular this means that only the secular aspects of American culture are recognized as valid. It is only a short step from here to the point at which the Christian way of life is condemned and outlawed as a deviation from the standard patterns of social behavior."

A "short step," indeed. Certainly the road to the present secular state of affairs involved much more than public education, although I do think that is a relevant factor. I find more interesting his point about the erosion of civil society: it is far more difficult to choose the "Benedict Option" when you don't have the cultural space in which to enact it.  Among the divine attributes the deified state pretends to possess is omnipresence. 

You will not be left alone to huddle with like-minded people. You are an enemy of humanity and society, and you will be given no quarter. By all means, gather with other Christians and strengthen your community. But this is not and cannot be an alternative to social and cultural engagement.