A Conversation with Doctor Cameron Thompson
Malcolm and Doctor Cameron Thompson discuss the Benedict Option, both the movement and Rod Dreher’s book of the same name. During the discussion, they draw on Doctor Cameron Thompson’s book The Original Benedict Option Guidebook and on Malcolm’s articles Rescuing St. Benedict from the Culture Warriors, and The Benedictine Monastery and the Franciscan Field Hospital.
The Culture War
Too often, Christian community is seen through the lens of the culture war. In this narrative, building community becomes, in Doctor Thompson’s words, “the back-up option”; something conservatives can fall back on if they don’t win the culture war.
A culture war framing of the Benedict Option is disastrous particularly because it obscures what St. Benedict was really doing. St. Benedict did not share the concerns of 21st century culture warriors. Rather, St. Benedict founded his monasteries because he wanted to follow Christ and help others to do so.
We don’t need to build community because the surrounding culture is hostile. We need to build community because we are Christians, and community is necessary for the Christian life. Christ founded a Church, a community, not just a bunch of gurus with a unique school of thought.
Nor is our battle against flesh and blood, but rather against evil, which runs through every human heart. If we buy into the notion of the culture war, we can be too quick to see outsiders as enemies, and too slow to see and fight against evil inclinations in our own hearts and within our communities.
Rod Dreher’s work contains two divergent narratives: the Benedict Option as culture war and the Benedict Option as Christianity fully lived out. If our community building is to be fruitful, and if we are to be faithful to the original vision of St. Benedict, we must reject the first narrative and embrace the second.
“Liberalism” and the Breakdown of Community
Community is necessary even for a good human life. As Doctor Thompson pointed out, the kind of “liberal” individualism we see in today’s world is a modern aberration. Historically, all cultures were communal. In the past, community was just natural, and Christians could build on this natural foundation. Today, when community is not natural, Christians have to become more intentional about building community.
It should be noted that when we mention “liberalism” in this episode, we aren’t talking about the Democratic Party or the “left”. Philosophically speaking, both Democratic party and the Republican party are classically liberal. Liberals take the individual and the individual’s rights as the philosophic starting point in thinking about community, rather than emphasizing society as a whole.
Liberalism breaks down communities because it focuses on individual selves. This focus is a philosophic mistake, because we only become fully selves through our relation to others. An individual can’t fully understand his or her own personhood apart from relationships to other persons and to God.
The Role of Economics in Community
One of the main reasons for the modern breakdown of community is the elimination of communal economics. For instance, in many countries the common land that would have once been managed by the community has been privatized.
As we work to restore community, it is important that we include an economic dimension. If we all live in the same area but then go our separate ways for work, we haven’t really built an integrated community. Instead, we’ve build something like an American suburb from the 1950’s.
In such a context, there was a certain amount of neighborliness, but a deep sharing of life was absent. It isn’t surprising that when many Americans think of community, this suburban model is what comes to mind for them; it is often the only kind of community that an American has experienced. During the episode, Doctor Thompson talked about his move to Italy, which gave him a clearer perspective on the lack of community in the USA.
This emphasis on local, community oriented economics is just one aspect of a deeper principle. Community needs to be rooted in the local, the particular, the real. Community may begin to develop online, but it needs to move into real life as soon as possible.
Serving Christ in Others
We are called to serve others, but we can’t do so in a patronizing, superior manner. A key aspect of Benedictine spirituality is serving Christ in others, in a concrete, practical way. Everyone around us should be seen, and served, as Christ himself. This attitude can help us to avoid seeing ourselves as the “heroes” who swoop into “save” other people. Rather, if we are serving Christ in others, we have to embrace a spirituality of humility and respectful love.
This recognition of Christ in those around us can also help us to avoid the temptation of forming a clique. Cliques form when an individual or group tries to surround themselves with others who are just like them. They feel that they are superior, and so they only want those around them who respect this perceived superiority. (Doctor Thompson warned that the formation of cliques may become more likely if we see ourselves as Christ and others as recipients of Christ’s ministry in us, rather than seeing them as Christ.) By contrast to the clique, true communities will contain diversity and disagreement. Tim Keller discussed this in an earlier episode.
A healthy community needs leadership. True Christian leadership is simply an aspect of this kind of service to others. The true leader seeks to serve those in his care to the best of his ability. Further, in a Benedictine monastery, the obedience required is not merely vertical, from the monks to the abbot. Rather, obedience is also supposed to be horizontal, between the monks, as well as being internal, the personal obedience to the commitments one has freely made.
Don’t Plant Flowers!
Those interested in the Benedict Option sometimes become too focused on “preserving” particular cultural elements. Doctor Thompson points out that this is a mistake. Instead, communities should focus on fostering the underlying spirituality from which culture can grow.
He used a wonderful analogy to explain this. At one point, he had to move an established vineyard to a new location. If he had planted flowers or grapes or leaves from his vines in the new location, they would have just rotted. Instead, he dug up the roots. He had to leave behind much of the branch structure, but he kept enough of the root and stem so that new vines could grow. Of course, the new growth wasn’t in exactly the same shape as the old growth. Nor did the new grapes that the vines eventually produced taste exactly the same, because the vines were growing in different soil and in a different climate.
Similarly, the implementation of particular cultural practices from the past shouldn’t be our focus. They’re like flowers, leaves or fruit: eye-catching, but not fundamental in the same way as roots. Instead, we should focus on planting the roots of faith lived out in community life, and from those roots a new culture will grow. It will have similarities to other cultures that have grown out of the Faith in other times and places, but will also have differences, as is the way of living things.
The Monastery as Village
The Benedictine monastic model wasn’t invented out of thin air. It was modeled after the Umbrian village or clan that St. Benedict was familiar with. The traditional village contained obedience to legitimate authorities and laws, a shared way of life, communal property, and common worship.
Doctor Thompson suggests that we should take as our model or ideal not the “intentional community” but rather the village, which is more organic and natural. When people talk about patterning life after monasticism, they are often referring to the early modern restoration of monasticism, which wasn’t always true to St. Benedict’s original vision. If we forget the roots of the monastery in the village, we may be unable to successfully draw inspiration from the monastery in patterning our own communities.
Advice for Finding Community
Doctor Thompson had several pieces of advice for those seeking community. (He prefers the term “grow” rather than “create” or “build” community.)
- Live a life of deep, personal prayer.
- Find an experienced guide.
- Look at real life, working examples.
- Try to find others who are seeking the same way of life, but even if they are not similar to yourself.
- Root yourself in a local area.
Working for the Glory of God
In conclusion, we can draw from the last essay in Doctor Thompson’s book. He describes how we each have a patch of “earth”, both literal and metaphorical, to cultivate for the glory of God. As each of us seeks to give glory to God through our lives, humanity is able to encounter the love of God. The building of community can help us to live out this “cultivation.”
Which came first, the Christian Culture or the Converted Christian? Or, more precisely, which comes first; a way of life inspired by the Gospel or a personal encounter and relationship with Christ?
At first, this seems like an easy question. Of course, an encounter with Christ has to come before an individual starts following Christ! And if an individual doesn’t love Christ, what motivation would there be to follow Christ’s commands?
Encountering Christ through Culture
It becomes more complicated, however, when we consider how most individuals encounter Christ. Jesus is no longer with us in the way he was 2000 years ago, but he left us a Church that is supposed to present him to the world. Part of our duty as members of the Mystical Body is to show Christ’s love to others, and one of the ways we do this is by building a Christian culture. That’s what the Early Christians did; they built a social way of life that was informed by the Gospel. By doing so, they made the love of Christ palpable and appealing to outsiders. They also produced a subculture where, as Peter Maurin would say, “it is easier to be good”.
This website promotes the building of Christian communities as a means of evangelization; to effectively evangelize, such communities must have a culture that is deeply informed by Christianity. Evangelization means giving good news—and our good news is a Person. Through our community way of life, as Tim Keller explained in a recent podcast episode, outsiders are able to meet Christ. So in a certain way, the Christian culture does come first. This also holds true for children being raised in the Faith; their first encounter with Christ will be through the witness of their family and community.
Culture can be Dangerous
Despite all this, there can be a certain danger in putting the cultural aspect first. For one thing, those raised in such a setting won’t necessarily have a personal encounter with Christ that results in conversion. A Christian culture (whether in a subculture or in the wider society) can actually end up acting as a sort of substitute for true discipleship. The result can be a society where everyone “goes through the motions” but where charity has gone cold. A merely cultural Christianity can be more dangerous than a secular hedonistic culture because those in a Christian culture think they already understand the Gospel message.
Don’t Blame the Culture for the Failure of the Church
While the cultural aspect is usually first in time, it shouldn’t be first in our imagination. Instead, we should focus on our personal relationship with Christ. That relationship should motivate us to build that “world in which it is easier to be good”—for others! Of course, it might be easier for us as well, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivation. If it is, we can end up blaming “the culture” or “the world” or “the church” for our problems. We might imagine that if only conditions were better, we’d be better. In reality, we bring ourselves and all of our weaknesses and failings into any new circumstances. (In a recent podcast episode with members of the Bruderhof, we discussed following Christ as the primary motivation for building community.)
Live in the Moment!
We can end up wasting a lot of time trying to provide ideal cultural conditions for ourselves and our families. If we’re always looking forward to an imagined future, we’ll miss the many comings of Christ in our daily lives. Even from a more temporal viewpoint, a focus on an imagined ideal future is a mistake. I was once lamenting the lack of community in the modern world, and a friend said to me, “Everyone lives in a community! Of course, it might be rather dysfunctional!” It is usually better to work with what we have rather than attempting to find the ideal life.
A focus on cultural influences can also make us fearful; it can erode our trust in God. Christians can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness when they find themselves in less than ideal circumstances. In a hostile cultural setting, they can feel that God has betrayed or abandoned them. We shouldn’t focus so much on the chaos in our society and Church that we forget Christ’s promises. He promised that the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church and that he will be with us till the end of time. God is a loving father and gives each of us everything that we need to achieve salvation.
“The Good Life”
Seeking ideal conditions can easily degenerate into a selfish pursuit of “The Good Life”. Christians sometimes try to justify a comfortable, aesthetic existence as being helpful for spiritual and cultural development. This mentality can blur the Christian call to aid the poor. Feeding the poor has to take primacy over art and other cultural experiences. If we find that we can’t pray in less than harmonious settings, then we should question the true strength of our relationship with Christ.
In the end, an overemphasis on the cultural aspect is Pelagian. We can end up trusting in good works or institutions or rituals to save us. The world is a broken place, and we can’t redeem it or ourselves by our own efforts. We need a Savior. While many come to Christ through an experience of Christian culture, Christ is all-powerful and can meet us anywhere. (It is just like any relationship; loving relationships can start under the strangest conditions!)
Encounter and Discipleship
The Christian life is all about discipleship, and the first disciples were some of those exceptions to the rule of cultural primacy. When Jesus called his first disciples, they weren’t part of a Christian culture, but they had an encounter with Christ and responded to it generously. The first Christian culture grew from their encounter with Christ. The early disciples were on fire with love and enthusiasm, and gave their lives to provide a witness to others so that they could meet Jesus. Similarly, we should live as witnesses, letting our love of Christ become incarnate in our lives.
A version of this essay was presented at Denver Faith and Culture in 2017
How should Christians relate to God’s creation? First and foremost, we should be thankful for it, we should be in awe of it; but our relationship with creation goes beyond that of an admiring spectator. We are part of creation, and we interact with it. We are called on to tend the garden, to rule over the beasts of the earth; in short, we are called on to practice economics.
“Economics” comes from the same Greek root word which gives us the word ecology: oikos, the home. Economics studies the provisioning of the home, the feeding of the family. Ecology studies the home God has made for us.
All economic activities start with the gift of the land given to us by God, because economics consists in the application of labor, human effort, to the land. Similarly, all economic activity should end in the giving of gifts, the tribute of worship to God and the gift of food and shelter to family and neighbor.
In our efforts to redeem society, we must realize the primacy of economics. Leisure is first in intention, but economics is the first in order of actuality. If we are not able to feed and clothe ourselves, we will not be able to produce art or liturgy or politics. Similarly, if a society’s economic order is unjust and works against human dignity, the culture of leisure in that society will become degraded.
Today, our economic system is brutal, unsustainable, and unjust. Simply by participating in our economy we are supporting injustice, the enslavement of the poor and the destruction of the environment. This injustice will undermine all our cultural efforts, which will become just another trendy hobby of the rich. In the end, we will have built a “good life” that would have been familiar in the ancient world; leisure and culture for the upper class, slavery for the others. If we can not restore a right relationship to the land, none of our other attempts at societal renewal will bear fruit.
There are many ways a society can organize its economic relationship to the land, ranging from the clan solidarity of hunting tribes to the vast slave empires of antiquity, and these various forms largely determine the type of culture a given society will produce.
I purpose that in our quest for a just economy we can learn from one form in particular, that of the peasant.
Today the word carries connotations of poverty and backwardness, but all it truly means is production for consumption instead of for trade. It is a simplification of economics in which an individual family or small group of families controls all the economic factors; land, labor, capital, and consumption. Cutting down a tree to heat one’s house is an example of peasant economics. So long as the primary focus is on self-provisioning, it is still peasant production. The adjective “peasant” says nothing as such about technology use or wealth.
I’d hasten to add that many goods can not be produced this way, and no healthy society can consist solely of peasant production. Primary goods, such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as the tools to produce these, can and have been provided by peasant villages. There is a bit of a blurry line here, I admit; there was division of labor in a peasant village. A blacksmith may shoe his own horse, but will spend much of his time shoeing horses for others. However, the blacksmith is part of the village; he will live his whole life with the other villagers. Just so, there was some division of labor in most peasant families. But the focus was on the self provisioning of the unit. In this way, the village can be seen as the literal and functional extension of the family. Secondary goods, such as computers, television sets, smart phones, and fluorescent lights can not be produced in a peasant fashion, not solely because of their complexity but because of the economies of scale necessary to their manufacture. Secondary goods, however, are not essential to life, and can’t be allowed to dominate the economic order to the detriment of primary goods.
We are called to live lives of Christian poverty, though not of destitution. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, God knows we have need of “all these things”; the primary goods of food, clothing and shelter. But as Luke’s Gospel warns us: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.” And as Matthew’s Gospel warns us, our wealth can make entrance to heaven as difficult as the passage of a camel through a needle. If we are to be followers of Christ who came to earth poor and humble, we must shun unnecessary wealth. Some secondary goods are necessary for a full life, but when we live in a society where the bulk of our income is spent on secondary goods, we can guess we have made a mistake. A life spent seeking for comfort and fashion instead of sufficiency is not a Christian life.
In fact, because we spend so much on secondary goods our primary goods are shoddy and unsustainable. In the USA we spend less than ten percent of our income on food, and then wonder why farmers can’t make a living and our soil is eroding away. Italians spend 30 percent of their income on food, because they still realize the food is important. If we want a right relationship with the land we must stop spending our lives in a hunt for secondary consumer goods.
It also should be noted that I’m not advocating the rejection of any technology that can’t be produced by a peasant village; I am advocating relegating such technology to its proper place in society. Also, the Gospel condemnation of wealth is a hard saying. It will take a long journey of Faith to arrive at Christian poverty. But when we find ourselves living much more comfortably and wielding much more power than the rich of Christ’s time, we must begin to ask some hard questions. I don’t have all the answers; each Christian must discern with much prayer their proper relationship to wealth.
In exchange for relocalizing our production and eliminating surplus secondary goods, what will we gain? A better quality of primary goods has already been touched on. Beyond that, simplified peasant economics frees us in many ways, from dependence on markets, from ecological destruction, from the support of empire, and from the financialized imagination.
Among these, the most obvious is freedom from markets. Alternative market farming is currently trendy, and small scale farmers are often locked into an intensive process of providing fancy salads for urbanites. This type of farmer faces competition from “Walmart Organic” with minimum standards and slave worked fields in Mexico or China. The competition has conditioned the customer to expect cheap food, which is only made possible by vast mechanization, government subsidy, debt, ecological destruction and social exploitation. If we eat our own crops and build our own furniture, we can meet our own needs without reference to market values.
Looking farther afield from our individual plots or farms, we should take note of Uncle Sam. Potatoes grown and eaten on the peasant plot are duty free. If we sell our potatoes or tomatoes, taxation will take a cut before we buy our bread and beef. Do we support what our government uses our tax dollars for? From local town councils funding shoddy development to the Pentagon buying million dollar bombs, our taxes fund waste, evil and destruction.
Between the sale of the turnips and the purchase of the bread, our money will presumably sit in a bank. What is the bank up to with our money? Who are they funding? Bureaucrats and other parasites are only too willing to suck the wealth out of our local communities. The less liquid it is, the less they will be able to get. Potatoes grown and consumed on a peasant plot are revolutionary; they threaten the established order while building the new. They free us from the support of empire and exploitation, because they are not financialized or monetized.
At a deeper level, that is exactly the point. Monetization itself is the enemy. In theory the farmer on his combine or the CEO at his desk are providing for their families, just as is the turnip grower. But it is much easier for us to realize this in the third case. Money’s purpose is to abstract; it is artificial and corrupting, becoming an end of its own. It has always been a tool of managers, bureaucrats, and imperialists, given their inability to directly interact with the local, particular, and real.
Proponents of the globalized market economy claim that individual vice or virtue, the quality of the product produced, and its effect on society are irrelevant to the common good. In fact, they do not scruple to base a vision of the common good on the selfishness of individuals, claiming that our evil is magically turned to good by the all powerful hand. But if we let our minds run idle, without direction and intentionality, evil creeps in. Similarly, when our economic life lacks intentionality, evil inhabits it. In fairy tales a snuffed candle may end a life, or a shattered crystal may break a spell. And in our modern economy, such a trivial thing as buying a new shirt may kill another half a world away, or destroy a home we’ve never seen. The Bible says that love of money is the root of all evil. Why love of money, and not of, say, turnips? Because money is pure, abstracted power. We can have an unlimited desire for profit. The love of any real thing, while it can become evil if it is not properly ordered, still involves an outward turning towards something other than self. The love of money, in contrast, easily becomes a love of power and security for oneself, even if one tries to use that power for good.
In contrast, inhabitants of other cultures did not feel this profit motive. Instead, they were motivated by more local and concrete concerns; family, local society, religion. They could, and did, misuse these local relations; but the lines were more clear cut. Greed was not admired as it is today, because the greed of one impacted those around him, not those half a continent away. By avoiding the use of currency, we can strike a huge blow in the favor of reality, sanity, and meaning in our lives. We can “reincarnate” our relationships by dealing in the local and particular instead of the abstract and far away.
As St. John Paul II said, faith that is not inculturated is not truly Faith. There can be no point at which we draw a line: “Faith Stops Here”. Our faith must be central to our economic life. We exist for the glory of God. All else must be subordinated to this. All our work and art and craft should exist to praise him; to support his worship directly, or to feed and clothe ourselves that we may continue to praise him, or to raise up the next generation to praise him here when we have joined the great song of praise in heaven. One can offer even the most futile tasks to God: but weak mortals that we are, we need all the reminding that we can get. And so our goal must be to reconnect the broken cycles of our lives so that every economic act may flow to its proper end of love; love of our families, love of our friends, love of our homeland, and ultimately love of the God in whose image we are made. Human life was broken in a garden, and restored in another. To restore our society, body and soul, we must return to our gardens.