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.”
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof. They discuss their personal stories, the history of the Bruderhof, the connection of poverty and communal living to the Gospel, and the tension between culture and intentionality in the Christian life.
The Bruderhof (the name means “the place of brothers” in German) is a network of communities that originated in Germany in the 1920s. With the rise of Hitler the community fled, going first to England and then to Paraguay. Over time, the community grew, and now has over 3000 members in 29 different locations. They are dedicated to living out the Gospel as a group; among other things, this means that individuals in the group don’t own private property.
Love in Community
Rick pointed out that two Bible verses highlight the importance of living together as a community. In 1 John 4:20, we read “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is easy to fake love of God, but not so easy to fake loving care for brothers and sisters in Christ!
Similarly, Rick pointed out that 1 John 4:12 says “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts.” That “but” is significant. The world is supposed to see God in the way Christians love one another. How can they see this if Christians don’t live in community? Our message is not just a bunch of words, but a concrete reality: the Kingdom of God.
Why do the Bruderhof members hold everything in common? Why is communal living important? As Charles said, because it is important to God. The Bruderhof sees communal living as a way to live out Gospel poverty and to imitate Acts 2 and 4. Charles and Rick explained that if we see ourselves as one body in Christ, then we ought to hold our goods in common, just as a married couple do. Avoiding private property helps members to be detached and free to follow the Lord, and sharing material goods is a concrete expression of love. We discussed the importance of Christian unity, which can often be reduced to a philosophic or theological concept. In reality, unity should be demonstrated in daily life.
The communal economics of the Bruderhof community is also a protest against the corrupting influence of Mammon in the world, and the violence and inequality which this influence causes.
Following Jesus as the Sole Motivation
Charles stressed that he didn’t join the Bruderhof to gain community. (In fact, he pointed out that he isn’t communal by nature!) Nor did he join the Bruderhof to “live differently” or to “escape the world”. He lives in community because the Gospel tells Christians to do so. If we see community as goal in itself, or an escape from the world, or as a means toward the success of a cause, it will fail. Only the love of Christ can support us in the daily task of serving one another in a community.
Family is Sacred, but not Sufficient
In any community, there can be tension between family life and the life of the community. The Family is instituted by God, and so is sacred; a community which tries to override family life is heading for disaster. On the other hand, we see from the Gospel that family is not sufficient. Families need to be integrated into a greater whole. Charles and Rick explained that in their experience, children adapt well to community life . . . in some cases, more easily than adults!
Community Can’t Replace Commitment
Community can’t replace personal commitment, whether for children or for adults. One of the dangers of Christian community is that it can obscure the need for each individual to make a choice to follow Christ. We can’t depend on social pressure, custom, or tradition, nor can we assume that because we fit in well with a community we are following Christ fully.
Similarly, a child who grow up in the Bruderhof has to make a personal decision to remain with the community. Charles and Rick explained that parents in the Bruderhof can’t assume that their children will remain members; they may have a calling elsewhere.
A related danger is basing a community on merely human strength or virtue, or seeing community as a gathering of one’s tribe or type. This will produce a clique, not a true Christian community. We’re all flawed, but in a community we can help to strengthen and support one another.
Attachment Comes in Many Forms
The Bruderhof emphasis on a communally economic way of life helps to avoid a certain kind of attachment, but Charles and Rick pointed out that another form of attachment is a particular danger for those living in community. Members of a Christian community can become attached to their traditions and customary ways of life. Charles emphasized that he didn’t join the Bruderhof because of the Bruderhof; he joined it to follow Christ. Communities have to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, always ready to drop aspects of their culture if they are no longer a help to living the Christian life.
More Information on the Bruderhof
You can find more information about the Bruderhof at their website.