Abstract:Evangelicals have criticized Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and the idea of strategic withdrawal, with some citing Abraham Kuyper as a model of how Christians should engage the world today. This article argues that the Benedict Option and the Kuyperian tradition harmonize with (rather than contradict) each other in significant ways, including their promotion of cultural engagement in general, their recognition of the need to withdraw from the world in some sense in order to enable the Christian formation that makes robust engagement with the world possible, and their openness to a cultural transformation that is distantly future rather than imminent.
On July 12, 2017, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) hosted a panel discussion titled, “Responding to the Benedict Option.” On this occasion the panelists evaluated the book of the same name written by Rod Dreher, who is a senior editor at The American Conservative. In The Benedict Option Dreher calls for the “strategic withdrawal” of traditional Christians, who he says need to root themselves more deeply in the historic faith.1 The impetus for this recommendation is the onslaught of cultural hostility and internal decay—both in doctrine and practice—he believes the Western church faces today.2 According to Dreher, strategic withdrawal will require Christians to “leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity,” and in some sense to separate themselves from the larger culture: “If believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death.” 3
Dreher’s call for withdrawal was poorly received by many of the panelists. Joseph Capizzi—Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America—accused him of promoting an “ecclesial introversion” unbefitting of Christians, who “know we are called to engage the world”; Cherie Harder—President of the Trinity Forum—advised Christians to “show the love of Christ to our lost neighbors” rather than “heading for the hills whether metaphorically or literally”; and Alison Howard—Director of Alliance Relations at Alliance Defending Freedom—asserted that withdrawing is “not an option for believers…. If we retreat, the world will miss us. We need to be there.”4
The panelists’ characterization of the Benedict Option as a retreat from cultural engagement typifies much of the book’s critical reception. David Fitch writes in Christianity Today, “We cannot … make a choice between living in Christian community or being present in our culture,” because we cannot “extract ourselves from the world without losing who we are.” Rather, the church must be “both a faithful internal community and a faithful external presence in the world.”5 Also in Christianity Today, K. A. Ellis rejects what she takes to be the Benedict Option’s solely “inward focus” in favor of communities that are “creatively focused both inward and outward,”6 and Hannah Anderson cautions, “Retreat could actually exacerbate our individualism by disabling a key piece of our systematic: the call to actively and intentionally work for the good of our neighbor’s soul.” She exhorts Christians to instead build community “as a form of advance, not retreat.”7 In a BreakPoint feature where Christian thinkers were asked about the Benedict Option, Joshua Chatraw—Executive Director of The Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University—criticized it for having “an overly inward focus” at odds with “God’s mandate given in Genesis 2 [and] Jesus’ commission to go to the nations [as well as] the missionary pattern described in Acts.” Greg Forster—Director of the Oikonomia Network at Trinity International University—commented, “Transformation is needed, but withdrawal does not transform.”8 At The Stream—an ecumenical Christian news site—John Zmirak observes, “The separatist impulse … doesn’t solve our problems. It opens itself up to new ones.”9 Michael Brown says that while he appreciates much of what Dreher says, “I feel that now, more than ever, is the time for us to engage—meaning, engaging in personal repentance, engaging in prayer for awakening, engaging in unashamed evangelism, and engaging in confronting the culture.”10
Given these and other similar comments, the consensus among critics seems to be that the Benedict Option forsakes engagement with the world in favor of withdrawal into a private, pietistic faith. Because such total withdrawal is irreconcilable with orthodox Christianity, these critics conclude that the Benedict Option must be rejected – in effect, they appear to identify the Benedict Option with the model of cultural engagement H. Richard Niebuhr called “Christ against culture.” As defined by Niebuhr, this model “uncompromisingly affirms the sole authority of Christ over the Christian and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty…. Whatever does not belong to the commonwealth of Christ is under the rule of evil.”11 Therefore, “Political life is to be shunned,” as are philosophy and the arts.12 Apparently vindicating critics’ assessment of the Benedict Option, Niebuhr identifies the Rule of Saint Benedict and the larger monastic tradition as emblematic of the “Christ against culture” model, characterized as this tradition is by “its withdrawal from the institutions and societies of civilization, from family and state, from school and socially established church, from trade and industry.” He grants that monasticism did yield some “contributions it eventually made to culture,” but downplays them as “incidental byproducts which it did not intend. Its intention was directed to the achievement of a Christian life, apart from civilization, in obedience to the laws of Christ, and in pursuit of a perfection wholly distinct from the aims that men seek in politics and economics, in sciences and arts.”13
In contrast to this alleged model of hermetic solitude, the approach to culture favored by Benedict Option critics tends to resemble Niebuhr’s paradigm of “Christ transforming culture,” in which Christians recognize the reality that sin has tainted humanity and all of creation, yet “believe also that … culture is under God’s sovereign rule, and that the Christian must carry on cultural work in obedience to the Lord.”14 For many such critics (especially evangelicals), the epitome of this approach is Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Case in point, one of the participants at the IRD panel, Bruce Riley Ashford—Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—suggested Kuyper’s approach to culture as “an Abrahamic alternative to the Benedict Option.” In Kuyper’s view, says Ashford, “God designed the world to have different realms of cultural activity and he called those spheres.” Because God rules over all these spheres, Christians are called to represent him in each of them, “to bring healing and redirection where there has been corruption and misdirection,” be it in politics, the arts, education, or whatever else.15 Numerous commentators have likewise called for the kind of comprehensive engagement associated with Kuyper’s legacy (whether or not he is their inspiration), over and against the supposed quietism of the Benedict Option.16
As a response to this pattern of critique, I intend to argue that the Benedict Option does not conflict with the Kuyperian tradition, and moreover has some affinities with it—even if unintentionally—for the Benedict Option does not call for a retreat from conventional politics or cultural engagement more broadly, but affirms both of these things. Consequently, the Benedict Option has been widely misunderstood in two ways: first, “strategic withdrawal” does not mean unmitigated seclusion from the world, but refers to internal spiritual renewal for the purpose of reinvigorating our engagement with the world. This idea is both agreeable to the Kuyperian tradition and a helpful corrective to it. Indeed, at least one Kuyperian scholar has called for such habits of spiritual strengthening as a necessary reform to the tradition.
Second, Dreher’s comments on the present futility of seeking to reverse the cultural forces of our time should not be understood to mean that such efforts are forever futile. Rather, he believes it will be impossible to thwart adverse cultural trends for the time being. As such, the practices of spiritual renewal and engagement that comprise the Benedict Option should be adopted because they are inherently good, and insofar as they are undertaken in the hope of influencing culture, this hope is oriented toward a distant future, when they might finally bear fruit. This position also has precedent in the Kuyperian tradition and lends it balance by emphasizing that we should not expect sweeping cultural transformation in our lifetimes.
My objective in writing this article is to clarify what The Benedict Option does and does not say, in the hope that Kuyperians and Benedict Option supporters might recognize their significant common ground. In this aim it is similar to Andrew T. Walker’s essay comparing the Benedict Option and Kuyperianism, though I intend to explore the subject in greater depth, having the benefit of writing after Dreher’s book was published.17 Of course, Kuyper is not unique in championing cultural engagement – some, for example, prefer to cite Augustine of Hippo as their inspiration in this regard.18 Nonetheless, I focus on Kuyper as a point of comparison because many evangelical critics of the Benedict Option align themselves with his public theology and uphold him as an exemplar of public engagement for Christians today.19 For this reason it is worthwhile to show that the emphases of engagement, spiritual withdrawal, and a hope for future cultural transformation come together in the Benedict Option in a way that is not at odds with the Kuyperian tradition, a fact we can only appreciate by first reviewing the substance of that tradition.
1. The Kuyperian Tradition in Brief
In the Kuyperian tradition, creation is inherently good by virtue of being made by God: “God created the heavens and the earth. He created out of nothing, he shaped what he created, and he called the work of his hands ‘good.’ At each step along the way, the [Genesis] narrative affirms the goodness of God’s handiwork.”20 After creating Adam and Eve, God then told them to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28), and Kuyperians refer to this command as the cultural mandate:
The cultural mandate is a Reformed interpretation of Genesis 1:28–30. The created order requires development, and humans serve as coworkers who carry on the work of the world. While God’s creating work is finished, the world is in a state of potentiality, requiring the work of humans (created in the divine image) to develop the earth toward the realization of this latent potential.21
Because of the fall, though, sin has infected all of creation, yet creation remains good: “The fall and its consequences do not … make God’s creation (or, by implication, human culture) inherently bad. Even though the world is still corrupted by sin, it is still materially good.”22 Despite the power of sin, common grace—understood as God’s prevention of the worst excesses of sin, as well as his empowerment of non-Christians to create genuinely good cultural artifacts—makes cultural engagement still possible.23 In the words of Vincent Bacote, “While the world has been altered and even distorted because of sin, it is not ‘lost’ in the sense that Christians must escape from rather than engage in the created order and hence the public realm…. Common grace has a constant aspect that not only sustains life but also makes possible a ‘good’ life.”24
But while the fundamental goodness of creation remains, it is still tainted by sin. For this reason, God sent Jesus “to redeem the creation, to cleanse it from the depravity that permeates the cosmos. And this redemptive operation is restorative in character. Once again, God is working to fulfill the original purposes of his creating project.”25 In Kuyper’s view, to understand that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to redeem creation as well as sinners is to recognize “the supreme Lordship of Jesus Christ over all spheres of social, political, and economic life.”26
Therefore—based on the goodness of creation, the cultural mandate, the sustaining power of common grace, and Christ’s redemption of humanity and creation—Kuyperians hold that we are called to culturally engage in all spheres of life, for “each cultural sphere has its own place in God’s plan for the creation, and each is directly under the divine rule.”27 Opportunities to acknowledge and honor God are not confined to “important” spheres such as government and the church, but rather are present in all human enterprises:
The Kingdom … encompasses the believing community in all of its complex life of participation in a variety of spheres. Wherever followers of Christ are attempting to glorify God in one or another sphere of cultural interaction, they are engaged in Kingdom activity: a Christian art guild gathered for obedience in the sphere of the arts; a Christian farmers’ group gathered for obedience in the sphere of agriculture; a Christian college or university gathered for obedience in the world of teaching and research. And so on. It is all the Kingdom.28
Indeed, says Mouw, “God cares deeply about culture and its development—so deeply that the divine desire that human beings engage in cultural activity was a central motive for God’s creating the world.”29 Bacote concurs—failing to publicly engage was not an option in Kuyper’s mind, and such engagement is therefore a duty for Christians: “We must recognize that the public theology we find in Kuyper eliminates any excuse for avoiding engagement with the public sphere. If indeed ‘every square inch’ of creation is under the sovereign God who preserves it by the power of the Spirit, then Christians must winsomely and boldly enter the various areas of public life and undertake their stewardly tasks.”30 Ashford shares this conviction that cultural engagement is not merely salutary, but incumbent on Christians: “Because God (in the beginning) values his good creation and commands humanity to produce culture, and because he promises (in the end) to give us a glorious creation replete with its own culture, we ought to live culturally in a manner consistent with God’s designs.”31
To summarize, the Kuyperian tradition emphasizes comprehensive cultural engagement (which is rooted in the goodness of creation), our divinely mandated role in this cultivation of creation, our continuing capacity to culturally engage despite the power of sin, and God’s plan to redeem creation. With this overview in mind, we can now compare the Kuyperian approach to politics and culture with that of the Benedict Option and see whether they are opposed or not.
2. The Benedict Option and Conventional Politics
Commentators denigrate the Benedict Option for its alleged retreat from engagement in general, but they single out its supposed abandonment of conventional politics in particular. In her criticism of the Benedict Option, K. A. Ellis says we should be “not a-political, but other-political.”32 Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig uses identical language, claiming Dreher believes Christians “should become essentially apolitical.”33 John Zmirak suggests Christians might use the Benedict Option “as a reason to ‘check out’ of fulfilling ordinary civic duties, like voting and advocating for morally crucial causes.”34 Katelyn Beaty reproves Dreher for neglecting those who might benefit from Christian political engagement:
Vulnerable people need more than charity—they need advocacy. They need not a handout but a hand up toward a life of economic and cultural flourishing. And they need traditional Christians investing in national politics, not just to protect their own rightful freedoms, but also to protect the livelihoods of those who cannot speak up for themselves…. National politics, however imperfect, messy and frustrating, are sometimes the most effective means for loving neighbors on a scalable level.35
While such critics do not necessarily identify themselves as Kuyperians, their support for continued political engagement aligns with the Kuyperian tradition’s emphasis on cultural engagement in general and conventional politics in particular. Bacote, quoting Reformed philosopher S. U. Zuidema, says this: “Because of common grace, ‘no Christian has a legitimate reason for withdrawing from the world of God’s creating…. That holds in principle for the whole world of culture, politics included.’”36 Richard Mouw agrees, writing that in Kuyper’s view conventional politics is a perfectly legitimate sphere in which Christians can work and serve.37 Similarly Ashford says that conventional politics offers Christians opportunities for “promoting the common good and looking for ways to restrain public evil.”38
This approbation of conventional politics seems antithetical to what Dreher says on the subject:
Benedict Option politics begin with recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future. This means, in part, that what Orthodox Christians can accomplish through conventional politics has narrowed considerably…. Trying to reclaim our lost influence will be a waste of energy or worse.39
He does not think America’s post-Christian trajectory could be reversed if only the right people came into power: “No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.”40 Even if we were not in such an unfavorable cultural moment, Dreher does not believe that political power exercised by Christians in a salutary fashion would have the kind of societal effect wished for: “Will the law as written by a conservative legislature and interpreted by conservative judges overwrite the law of the human heart? No, it will not. Politics is no substitute for personal holiness.”41 He thus concludes, “No matter how furious and all-consuming partisan political battles are, Christians have to keep clearly before us the fact that conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong with our society and culture.”42
Dreher appears to suggest what many critics charge, that he favors the abandonment of conventional politics. However, although he is dubious about the power of conventional politics to reverse anti-Christan cultural trends, he also says we “cannot afford to vacate the public square entirely.”43 While conventional politics cannot bring about instantaneous cultural transformation, there are still things the church can do in this realm to effect limited, but still real, goods:
The church must not shrink from its responsibility to pray for political leaders and to speak prophetically to them. Christian concern does not end with fighting abortion and with protecting religious liberty and the traditional family. For example, the new populism on the right may give traditionalist Christians the opportunity to shape a new GOP that on economic issues is about solidarity more with Main Street than Wall Street. Conservative Christians can and should continue working with liberals to combat sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like.44
As we attempt to realize these and other political objectives, Dreher says, the question guiding us should be “how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity—and when is it corrupting to be complicit?”45 In framing his approach to conventional politics as a balancing act between the extremes of excessive concern for purity on the one hand and unprincipled compromise on the other, Dreher indicates that while he has low expectations of what Christians can hope to achieve through conventional politics, he still thinks there is a place for such engagement: “The point is not that we should stop voting or being active in conventional politics. The point, rather, is that this is no longer enough.”46
To illustrate this both/and approach to politics Dreher invokes pro-life activists as an example. When the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the pro-life movement realized that:
It was not going to be possible in the short run to overturn Roe v. Wade. So it broadened its strategy. The movement retained lobbyists and activists fighting the good fight in Washington and state capitals, but at the local level, creative pro-lifers opened crisis pregnancy centers. These quickly became central to advancing the pro-life cause—and saved countless unborn lives.47
In short, Dreher retains conventional politics even as he emphasizes its limitations, a moderate stance in comparison to Christian thinkers who really do dismiss conventional politics.
To cite a prime example, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon plainly state, “We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world.”48 While they acknowledge that there is some truth in Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, they also criticize it for having codified the ideal of a church that “neither capitulated to culture nor irresponsibly detached itself from the culture,” a church that “busied itself with making America a better place in which to live, transforming society into something of which Jesus might approve.”49 Against this beatific vision, Hauerwas and Willimon say the political role of the church is not to improve the world somehow.50 Rather, the church exerts political influence by faithfully honoring Christ in all that it does, which is its “most credible form of witness (and the most ‘effective’ thing it can do for the world).”51 Hauerwas elaborates elsewhere that his understanding of “being the church” as a political act hinges on a definition of the political more expansive than what is assumed by many Christians: “I [refuse] any reduction of politics to statecraft in order to emphasize the political character of the church as a political space in its own right.”52 For Hauerwas, language is “the heart of politics,” and we in the church can be political in this broader sense by “attending to our speech. Well-formed sermons may turn out to be the most important contribution Christians can make to a politics that has some ambition to be truthful.”53
I quote Hauerwas to underscore how Dreher’s approach to politics is dissimilar. Granted, like Hauerwas, Dreher believes the church must truly “be the church”54 in order to thrive, and his understanding of the political also goes beyond “statecraft” (more on this below). But whereas Hauerwas expands the notion of what is political so as to virtually exclude conventional politics,55 Dreher’s broad understanding of the political still includes conventional politics.56 At worst Dreher is less sanguine than many about the prospect of cultural transformation through traditional politics.
This is not grounds to criticize Dreher from a Kuyperian perspective, though, for Kuyperians themselves acknowledge the limitations of conventional politics. Mouw says of Kuyper, “In his thinking about political life, he was convinced that there are good Christian reasons for trying to accomplish some good things, even though we know that we are not likely to achieve any major victories.”57 Mouw also shares Dreher’s concern that we be engaged without becoming corrupted: “There are limits to the kinds of political compromises that Christians can agree to,” but at the same time, “Sometimes those who make much of the dangers of Constantinianism and Christendom place overly strict limits on how Christians can relate to public life.”58 We must therefore continue to be engaged in conventional politics without “forming an unhealthy—and unfaithful—alliance between the church and political power.”59 Ashford cautions against unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish through conventional politics as well:
As believers, we should be measured in what we expect from the political realm. After all, we are sinners, our politicians are sinners, and in fact we live in societies full of sinners. However, we also know that Christ Jesus will return to institute a new order in which righteousness will prevail. So we should be neither pessimists who throw up our hands in despair nor utopians who try to force the present era to be the new heavens and earth. Instead, we should be clear-eyed Christian realists, who participate patiently in the public square, seeking to bear witness to Christ and promote the common good.60
The upshot is that despite the limitations of conventional politics, “This does not mean we abandon politics. Rather, we labor dutifully, all the while knowing that our ultimate hope comes not through the right political leader but through Christ alone. Good politics won’t save us from what ails us most; neither will bad politics take away what matters most.”61
In sum, Dreher does not differ from the Kuyperian tradition in affirming conventional politics while downplaying what we can expect to accomplish thereby. Yet he also recommends we practice “a Westernized form of ‘antipolitical politics,’ to use the term coined by Czech political prisoner Václav Havel.”62 As we will now see, antipolitical politics encompasses the sort of cultural engagement that the Kuyperian tradition embodies.
3. Antipolitical Politics as Cultural Engagement
Dreher writes that the purpose of antipolitical politics is to publicly engage the world, not to retreat from it, and he distinguishes this “radical new way of doing politics” from conventional politics.63 In doing so he follows Hauerwas in defining the political as more than statecraft: “When we think about politics we imagine campaigns, elections, activism, lawmaking—all the elements of statecraft in a democracy. In the most basic philosophical sense, though, politics is the process by which we agree on how we are going to live together.”64 So while Dreher does not rule out conventional politics carried out at the state, district, or municipal level as a possibility for effective engagement, this is not necessarily what he has in mind when he speaks of antipolitical politics as a kind of localism.65 Rather, in Dreher’s adoption of Havel, antipolitical politics is antipolitical in that it defies the conventional understanding of politics—the goal is not to acquire or maintain government power. By the same token, antipolitical politics is political insofar as the political is something more than statecraft.
Dreher narrates Havel’s story of a greengrocer as an example of antipolitical politics in action:
Consider, says Havel, the greengrocer living under Communism, who puts a sign in his shop window saying, “Workers of the World, Unite!” He does it not because he believes it, necessarily. He simply doesn’t want trouble. And if he doesn’t really believe it, he hides the humiliation of his coercion by telling himself, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Fear allows the official ideology to retain power—and eventually changes the greengrocer’s beliefs. Those who “live within a lie,” says Havel, collaborate with the system and compromise their full humanity. Every act that contradicts the official ideology is a denial of the system. What if the greengrocer stops putting the sign up in his window? What if he refuses to go along to get along? “His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth”—and it’s going to cost him plenty.66
In his refusal to accede, the greengrocer has “accomplished something potentially powerful…. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.”67 Dreher says of the greengrocer’s actions, “Because they are public, [they] are inescapably political.” For Dreher, then, all public activity is political. Moreover, the political encompasses all of culture: “What kind of politics should we pursue in the Benedict Option? If we broaden our political vision to include culture, we find that opportunities for action and service are boundless.”68 Effectively, in broadening the political to include all of culture, Dreher’s call for antipolitical politics is a call for cultural engagement.
In order to engage, says Dreher, we should “create and support ‘parallel structures’ in which the truth can be lived in community.”69 Crucially, Dreher does not think such communities are merely a beacon to be seen by the rest of the world, as evidenced by his invocation of the Catholic Czech dissident Václav Benda: “At serious risk to himself and his family … Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square.”70 Dreher also quotes Havel on this point, saying that if Christian countercultural communities did not “reach out to help others,” this too would amount to living within a lie.71 In short, Dreher’s cultural vision is for Christian communities to “live in the truth,” not in isolation, but in a way that is publicly engaged with the world. A couple examples of such engagement he discusses in the book are evangelism and hospitality.
In Dreher’s chapter on church renewal he recommends the recovery of historic theological tradition, liturgical worship, ascetic practices such as fasting and habitual prayer, and church discipline.72 As good as these things are, though, he does not commend them solely for their own sake – in his view they should also lead to a reinvigorated evangelism: “When churches are properly ordered toward Christ through liturgy, with life maintained through asceticism and discipline, the result is a beauty in sharp contrast to the world. As times get uglier, the church will become brighter and brighter, drawing people to its light. As this happens, we Christians should not be afraid to consider beauty and goodness our best evangelistic tools.”73 Such evangelistic beauty and goodness can be displayed not only in a healthy church, but in all forms of engagement with the world: “For Christians, [pointing to God as the source of all goodness and beauty] might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art. Mostly, though, it will mean showing love to others through building and sustaining genuine friendships and through the example of service to the poor, the weak, and the hungry. As Brother Ignatius of Norcia reminds us, everything is evangelical.”74
In this same spirit of outreach, hospitality is another practice Dreher lifts up as “a central principle of the Benedictine life.”75 As he puts it, “According to the Rule, we must never turn away someone who needs our love. A church or other Benedict Option community must be open to the world, to share the bounty of God’s love with those who lack it.”76 Dreher later recalls the hospitality of his own parents’ household, which inspired him and his wife to “[share] our blessings with others and [receive] in turn the blessing of their company.”77
Evangelism and hospitality obviously do not exhaust the possibilities for engagement, but I am not trying to show that Dreher discusses every possible way Christians can engage the world—my point is merely that it is inaccurate to say the Benedict Option is at odds with the Kuyperian tradition on this score. Antipolitical politics as defined by Dreher is simply another term for engaging the world beyond the realm of conventional politics—though not exclusive of it—in a way that is comparable with the Kuyperian tradition. Dreher may not arrive at his views of engagement by invoking common grace or the universal lordship of Christ, but I believe the conclusions he reaches are consonant with Kuyperianism.78
It could be objected that my argument depends on selectively highlighting a few key parts of the book while ignoring inconvenient passages. The excerpt I quoted in this article’s introduction—believers must “be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally”79—is only one such passage. Others include the following: “Believers … will have to be somewhat cut off from mainstream society for the sake of holding on to the truth”; “The public square has been lost”; and, “Nobody but the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right believes that this cultural revolution can be turned back.”80 But perhaps the passage most likely to be quoted as confirming the Benedict Option’s defeatist and isolationist bent is this one: “Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to…stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again?”81 Dreher’s question can seem irreconcilable with his statements in support of engagement, and in light of passages such as those cited above, one might ask: how can a project characterized by “strategic withdrawal” be compared with the Kuyperian tradition, which eschews withdrawal?
I answer that when the essence of an idea is to be captured in a two-word summary, there is a lot riding on how those two words are understood. As such, if we do not rightly understand what Dreher means when he speaks of strategic withdrawal we will miss the true import of the Benedict Option. To conclude that strategic withdrawal consists of ceasing to engage with the world altogether is perhaps understandable, given some of Dreher’s more dire rhetoric, but ultimately facile, as his unambiguous support for evangelism and hospitality does not permit this simplistic interpretation. What, then, does Dreher have in mind when he speaks of strategic withdrawal? We can gain insight into this question by considering how one scholar within the Kuyperian tradition has issued his own call for withdrawal.
5. Withdrawal in the Kuyperian Tradition
In Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition Craig Bartholomew affirms the goodness and necessity of cultural engagement: “The Christian responsibility is to engage in [cultural] spheres in such a way that they become healthier and directed rightly so that they flourish in the best sense of the word.”82 But he also points out that in our efforts to change the world there is a risk the world will instead change us: “The great danger of the Kuyperian is accommodation to the culture of the day, and I fear that this is well under way, at least in North America.”83 Therefore, Bartholomew says, maintaining strong cultural engagement entails withdrawal: “Withdrawal from the mainstream is often necessary, but only and always to reengage more powerfully and more constructively. The church in its institutional and organic sense is missional through and through, and mission is rendered ineffective when Christians withdraw without constantly remaining engaged with their culture.”84 Bartholomew’s point is that withdrawal must always be accompanied by continued engagement, but the explicit corollary is that robust engagement hinges on withdrawal of some kind. Yet when Bartholomew speaks of withdrawal he clearly is not thinking of forsaking engagement with the world, for in the same breath that he says withdrawal is often necessary he immediately adds that such withdrawal is always to be for the sake of reengaging more powerfully and constructively. So what is the nature of this withdrawal?
Bartholomew’s definition of withdrawal is found in his discussion of Christian spirituality, which he considers “the great need of the Kuyperian tradition if it is to be retrieved today and to begin to fulfill its potential.”85 By Christian spirituality Bartholomew means “the sort of practices that over years profoundly form the individual into the likeness of Christ,” such as “the ongoing practice of prayer,” “committed participation in a local church, deep engagement with Scripture, small group community, and engagement with oneself.”86 For Bartholomew, the key feature of such spiritual practices is that they are sustained over a long period of time:
Spirituality is a practice, a “long obedience in the same direction,” and it is normally passed on as an oral tradition. It involves depth transformation over a lifetime, and its practices, rightly, generally remain hidden…. Spirituality is about daily, ongoing, hidden practices that create the space for the Spirit to change and transform us from the inside out, so that more and more we become like the Christ-light that we seek to shine into a dark and needy world.87
Bartholomew calls these ongoing spiritual practices that transform us over time the “journey in,” and it is on the foundation of the journey in that we become able to remain firm in our faith even as we engage the world. Robust engagement with the world thus requires spiritual withdrawal, a point Bartholomew stresses repeatedly: “I find the language of the journey in and the journey out most helpful. You cannot have the one without the other; the candle needs to burn at both ends. The call to journey out itself emerges from a deep encounter with Christ, the journey in, and can only be sustained in the same way,” and, “Amid our journey into the world, we will constantly need to recenter ourselves in Christ, even as we journey out. As we seek to spread the fragrance of Christ in his world, we will need to be formed to be like Christ.”88
The principle of grounding cultural engagement in spiritual withdrawal can be traced to Kuyper’s own thought, particularly his views on education:
[Kuyper] invokes the example of Jesus and his disciples. In order to form his disciples, Jesus did not send them to the academy of the Pharisees or Sadducees! Yes, they needed to be sent out into the world, but only once they were properly formed and ready. It is the same with children and education. Children are called to fight the good fight of faith, and one cannot do that if one remains isolated from the culture. But it is essential that one be properly prepared first.89
This principle is not confined to children, but applies to all Christians: “The journey out into the world—which the Kuyperian tradition evokes so powerfully—only emerges out of and is sustained by the journey in, as Kuyper stresses in his meditations.”90 Unfortunately, Bartholomew writes, the principle of spiritual withdrawal is absent from the Kuyperian tradition today and needs to be recovered: “What we urgently need is a theology of spirituality and a tradition of practices grounded in that theology. As I have noted in this book, there are important resources in Kuyper … for Christian spirituality, but generally neither they nor appropriate practices have been prominent in the tradition as it has developed.”91 The Benedict Option can serve as an additional resource in this regard, for the principle of spiritual withdrawal as a prerequisite to robust cultural engagement lies at the heart of Dreher’s project.
6. Withdrawal in the Benedict Option
As we have seen, Dreher’s call for strategic withdrawal has been roundly criticized by those who take it to be a euphemism for cultural surrender. In truth, however, the withdrawal he speaks of in The Benedict Option is akin to Bartholomew’s spiritual withdrawal. Those who seize on Dreher’s use of the word “withdrawal” and say that the Benedict Option is about retreating from the world distort his argument, for in speaking of withdrawal he seeks not to abandon the world, but to foster spiritual renewal within the church so that its witness to the world might be revitalized. This logic of spiritually withdrawing for the sake of the world is lost if we isolate excerpts where Dreher says the church needs to be separate and consider them apart from the rest of the book. Maintaining the church’s integrity is an essential part of Dreher’s vision, but he does not stop there—he makes clear that the goal is not merely self-preservation, but self-preservation for the sake of the world:
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.92
Here and throughout the book Dreher invokes the parable of salt and light (Matt 5:13–16) as an illustration of his vision for the Benedict Option: “If the salt is not to lose its savor, we have to act,” and, quoting a Benedictine monk he met while writing the book, “‘We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world.’”93 This parable is typically cited as a call to engage, and rightly so, but inextricably bound up with the call to be a light to the world is the imperative to retain our saltiness while doing so, lest we be “thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt 5:13b ESV).94 The point is well made by New Testament scholar R. T. France in his commentary on Matthew:
Salt has its effect only because, and for as long as, it has a distinctive saltiness…. But, on the other hand, it is only those who are involved with other people who will be seen to be different and so attract persecution…. Disciples, therefore, must be both distinctive and involved. Neither the indistinguishably assimilated nor the inaccessible hermit will fulfill the mandate of these challenging verses.95
Dreher’s entire project is informed by this biblical call to maintain our saltiness so we can take our light out into the world, and his concern that we undergo internal spiritual renewal for the sake of the world mirrors Bartholomew’s call for Christian spirituality. Indeed, many of the concrete practices Dreher recommends are identical to Bartholomew’s own suggestions, such as regular prayer and fasting, family worship and Scripture reading, and committed church membership.96
In encouraging such practices Dreher counsels against exactly the sort of fearful retreat many commentators accuse him of advocating:
The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius, at age fifty-one, warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness. It is prudent to draw reasonable boundaries, but we have to take care not to be like the unfaithful servant in the Parable of the Talents, who was punished by his master for his poor, fearful stewardship of the master’s property.97
Far from saying we should head for the hills, Dreher approvingly cites monks such as Brother Ignatius (mentioned above) and Father Benedict, who believes that, “Rather than erring on the side of caution … Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise.”98 Dreher invokes this Benedictine example precisely because the monastic tradition was built on spiritual practices that helped its members to better engage the world rather than neglect it, as Bartholomew acknowledges: “We tend to think of monasticism as radical withdrawal from the world, and indeed it has sometimes been so. But as Bosch notes in his Transforming Mission, it was the monks in the monasteries who transformed Europe and helped it to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire.”99 Given these considerations, it is untenable to hold that the strategic withdrawal Dreher speaks of constitutes an abandonment of cultural engagement. Rather, as with Bartholomew, the withdrawal he recommends is a spiritual withdrawal, the purpose of which is to reinvigorate our engagement with the world. Dreher expressed this logic most succinctly when he was asked in an interview whether the Benedict Option is withdrawal or renewal: “It’s both. It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal.”100 Again, this principle of withdrawal for the sake of renewal resonates with the Kuyperian tradition and can help curb that tradition’s tendency to emphasize engagement at the expense of internal formation.
After we understand that Dreher’s withdrawal is a spiritual withdrawal for the sake of the world, there remains one puzzling question: if Dreher thinks we should “stop fighting the flood” of cultural hostility toward Christianity, and if the public square is lost to us—such that we can still act in it, but with little hope for success—to what end do we engage the world? The Kuyperian tradition holds that though we might accomplish little, we should engage nonetheless because to do so is inherently good and we might yet accomplish some good things. Dreher agrees that engagement is good in itself, but goes further by saying that our prospects for cultural transformation are limited at present and will remain so long into the future. As such, our renewed attention to internal spiritual formation is not geared toward the present alone, but also toward a distant future, when the larger culture might be more receptive to the hope we offer.
7. The Benedictine Long Game
Although Dreher supports continued Christian engagement rooted in spiritual practices, he does not think such engagement will have any large-scale effects in the near future. Christians should recognize, he says, that “the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with.”101 He dismisses the idea that the Benedict Option will precipitate a dramatic turnabout in our cultural fortunes: “We are not trying to repeal seven hundred years of history, as if that were possible. Nor are we trying to save the West. We are only trying to build a Christian way of life that stands as an island of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity.”102 Moreover, “The Benedict Option is not a technique for reversing the losses, political and otherwise, that Christians have suffered.”103 Nevertheless, the spiritual habits and practices of the Benedict Option are worthwhile, even though they “may not turn our nation around.”104 In other words, these habits and practices are intrinsically good irrespective of what they yield, and when we understand this “we won’t have to worry about immediate results—and that’s a good thing.”105
The Kuyperian tradition similarly holds that while God commands us to culturally engage this does not mean we are guaranteed success in our endeavors, yet we are nevertheless called to do such work because it is good in itself. Mouw captures this position well:
The Kuyperian motive for involvement in public life is not to win the battle for righteousness in the here-and-now. None of us is the Messiah. The world has already been given one supremely excellent Messiah, and he has guaranteed that in the final reckoning everything will be made right. In the meantime, though, we must take advantage of every opportunity available to us to do whatever we can to promote his cause — knowing all the time that the final victory will happen only when the Lord decides that it is ready to happen.106
Bacote also says we should have tempered hope. While Kuyperianism “yields a cautious hope for cultivating a ‘better’ future,” we must also “resist triumphalism.”107 Ashford, too, counsels humility in what we can expect from our cultural engagement, while still affirming the goodness and necessity of such engagement: “We realize that we will never ‘win’ by transforming our culture in such a way that it glorifies Christ comprehensively or enduringly. God never promises victory until Christ returns and secures the victory for himself. But he does command us to obey him and bear witness to him by doing everything within our powers to direct our cultural activities toward Christ.”108 Bartholomew, like Bacote, warns against triumphalism in our cultural engagement:
[The Kuyperian vision] sometimes manifests as a kind of messianic activism and triumphalism, anticipating that we will shortly usher in the kingdom of God. This kind of hubris is very damaging and to be avoided at all costs. At their best, the Reformed and the Kuyperian traditions have a wonderful sense of God’s sovereignty, which places our limited and broken-at-best efforts in a healthy, creaturely perspective.109
A spirit of tempered expectations is thus evident in both the Kuyperian tradition and the Benedict Option, but Dreher’s skepticism about our present prospects for significant cultural change is more pronounced. He thus looks toward the distant future as a time when our efforts might reach fruition.
To reiterate, Dreher believes that “Western society is post-Christian and … absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.”110 Here and elsewhere in the book Dreher indicates that he sees the Benedict Option as a long-term strategy, not something that will redeem the culture in a decade or even a generation: “The Benedict Option is a call to undertaking the long and patient work of reclaiming the real world from the artifice, alienation, and atomization of modern life”; it is a “long resistance” designed to “outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation” for the sake of “future generations.”111 What we do might have little effect now, but as Dreher recounts his friend Marco Sermarini saying, “The little things we do might, in time, grow into mighty works.”112
It is this resolution to practice spiritually rooted engagement—meager though the present fruits of such engagement may be—for the sake of a distant future that makes Dreher’s project Benedictine, and it is this legacy of Benedict that he lifts up as an example for us to follow:
Rome’s fall left behind a staggering degree of material poverty, the result of both the disintegration of Rome’s complex trade network and the loss of intellectual and technical sophistication. In these miserable conditions, the church was often the strongest—and perhaps the only—government people had. Within the broad embrace of the church, monasticism provided much-needed help and hope to the peasantry, and thanks to Benedict, a renewed focus on spiritual life led many men and women to leave the world and devote themselves wholly to God within the walls of monasteries under the Rule. These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things. Over the next few centuries, they prepared the devastated societies of post-Roman Europe for the rebirth of civilization.113
Note that even as these men and women submitted themselves to a “renewed focus on spiritual life” they continued to serve the world, and over a period of centuries (not years or decades) their efforts contributed to “the rebirth of civilization.” This is Dreher’s vision for the Benedict Option in a nutshell: we root ourselves in prayer and other spiritual practices in order to ground our cultural engagement today, which, though it may yield little now, might eventually produce more in the distant future.
Recall that in Christ and Culture Niebuhr downplayed the cultural contributions of the monastic (particularly the Benedictine) tradition because they were unintended, “incidental byproducts.”114 In the Benedict Option, however, it is precisely such long-term cultural renewal that Dreher hopes for, and in this hope he defies Niebuhr’s categories of engagement: the Benedict Option is “against” culture in that it focuses on internal spiritual renewal and seeks to exclude from Christian communities all elements of culture that will negate our ability to robustly engage the world—that is, our saltiness—yet it still seeks to “transform” culture by shining our light here and now, albeit such transformation (if it ever occurs) will take place over a considerable period of time. To borrow from Hauerwas and Willimon’s critique of Niebuhr, Dreher—unlike Niebuhr—does not believe that Christians must be either “a world-affirming ‘church’ or [a] world-denying ‘sect.’”115
Although an emphasis on looking toward the distant future for our cultural endeavors to reach fruition is not typically found in the Kuyperian tradition, at least one scholar has recognized the consonance that exists between the tradition and this Benedictine mindset. In A Free Church, a Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology, John Bolt devotes the final section of the book to “synthesizing Benedict and Kuyper … remembering that both figures were first of all not concerned with saving civilization but with obedience to their Lord.”116 Bolt observes that the Kuyperian approach to culture “presumes the Benedictine practice of creating alternative institutions; it encourages not a retreat from public life but a transforming presence in it through nurturing … associational life.”117 Crucially, Bolt goes on to add that we should not expect this transformation to occur immediately or even in our lifetimes, saying, “Prudence and patience are called for rather than celebrative triumphalism…. Though it is difficult for pragmatic Americans to think in long-range terms, much less to act in accord with them, American Christians need to learn to think in terms of millennia, not in the short-range periods of single presidential or congressional electoral terms.”118 This synthesis of Benedict and Kuyper—rooting ourselves in substantive spiritual practices and alternative institutions so we can robustly engage today, but with an eye toward the distant future—is remarkably similar to what Dreher proposes in the Benedict Option. Bolt closes with these words: “What evangelicals in America need today above all is … the millennial perspective of hope.”119 I would venture to say the Benedict Option rightly understood—looking toward a distant future as we work in the present—is defined by this sort of hope.
I have suggested that the Benedict Option—even if unintentionally—complements and corrects the Kuyperian tradition in some respects. Another book that does something similar is James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, in which Smith says he wants to reform Reformed public theology specifically: “While my proposals for reforming Reformed public theology will involve critique, those criticisms are offered in the spirit of reform, with the goal of faithfully extending and revising this tradition.”120 Smith’s vision for reform notably contains many ideas found in Dreher: he defines the political more broadly than statecraft—“The political is not synonymous with, or reducible to, the realm of ‘government,’ even if there is significant overlap”—and urges us to conceive of activities like evangelism as “key components of the church’s political witness.”121 Insofar as politics is statecraft, he recommends we assume a stance of “calculated ambivalence and circumspection tempered by ad hoc evaluations about selective collaborations for the common good” rather than uncritically embracing conventional politics.122 He also emphasizes the importance of being rooted in the spiritual practices of the church so that we can better engage the world:
Being centered in the formative disciplines of the heavenly polis, we are then sent to labor in the contested terrain of creation in the saeculum. This isn’t about permission; it is about preparation. It’s not about sequestering the church from the messiness of “engagement”; it’s about intentionality with respect to the church’s formation for engagement.123
But despite these points of commonality, Smith writes off “the so-called Benedict Option” as an example of a deleterious mindset found among some Christian thinkers today, which is characterized by “simplistic demonization of ‘the state’ per se and withdrawals from the common life of nation-state politics.”124 He also repeatedly and unfavorably alludes to the strategy of “withdrawal” and “retreat.”125
I mention Smith as a final illustration of why I felt the need to write this article. His project of reforming Reformed public theology harmonizes with the Benedict Option in many ways, not least the emphasis on formation for the sake of engagement, yet he misconstrues the Benedict Option as being fundamentally opposed to a proper public engagement,126 following many others in misapprehending Dreher’s withdrawal as a retreat from the world. We who agree that the church will flourish only if it grounds itself anew in substantive spiritual practices—not in order to grow in sterile piety, but for the sake of better engaging the world—should rather consider ourselves allies in the effort to promote and sustain robust Christian discipleship. Other questions we might disagree on are not unimportant, such as how much we can expect to accomplish in the present, or whether contemporary liberalism’s shortcomings are contingent or inherent.127 Indeed, in deciding how best to live as Christians today it would be helpful to discuss whether liberalism, even though it has historically been shaped and undergirded so extensively by Christianity,128 can survive if the role of orthodox Christianity in public life continues to shrink despite strenuous efforts to sustain that role.129 Yet we should put such debates in perspective by remembering our common commitment—shared by self-identified Kuyperians, Benedict Option supporters, and others—that in all circumstances we have a duty to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer 29:7), and to maintain our saltiness so that our light to the world can shine truly.