The Augustine Option
The Christian case against everything.
“And you all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives, and you will change the times by living good lives; you will change the times, and then you’ll have nothing to grumble about.” — St. Augustine
Let me start by apologizing for the lame title. Some of you will remember the flurry of articles called “The So-and-So Option” that accompanied Rod Dreher’s 2017 book The Benedict Option. But that was nearly five years ago, and Optionmania seems to have passed. So, this post is either badly dated or positively retro. Or both.
But I did want to say something to honor The Benedict Option on its fifth birthday. Very few books have been so important to me, not only as a writer, but also as a husband, a father, a Christian. My publisher Regnery called my own book The Reactionary Mind “a tribute to The Benedict Option,” which is fair.
And I’m just one (rather obscure) member of the BenOp Generation. There’s a whole cohort of Christians who have been deeply influenced by Mr. Dreher’s writing. As a matter of fact, I’ve noticed that The Benedict Option resonates with Millennials and Zoomers far more than it does with Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers.
The difference, I think, is that many older conservatives are still basking in Reagan’s afterglow. And I don’t blame them! But we became aware of politics under Bush II and Obama. All we know is loss. And because we’re not blinded by Eighties nostalgia, we can see that the Right is getting crushed, in no small part, because we’ve invested all our money and manpower into party politics. We keep raising the stakes on a losing game. We’re driving up the cost of our (inevitable) political defeats.
We have to start thinking in terms of guerilla warfare. That means building up our “mountain strongholds,” where our families, our faith, and our way of life can survive intact while we’re fighting our uphill battle down in the jungle. That’s where the BenOp becomes indispensable. As we enter this new phase of the Culture War, The Benedict Option is our Art of War, and Mr. Dreher our Sun Tzu.
Like Mr. Dreher (and Ross Douthat, Anthony Esolen, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Malcolm Muggeridge, to name just a few) I believe we’re headed for a new Dark Age. That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to read St. Augustine’s masterpiece The City of God cover to cover.
The first thing that struck me was its eerie freshness. (If you have any doubt that “the times are wretched,” just skim chapter one. The parallels are extraordinary.) What struck me next, though, is what Augustine doesn’t say. To my surprise, the point of the book is not to excoriate those responsible for the Fall of Rome.
Actually, I’m not sure he gets around to that at all. He doesn’t blame the emperor, or the senate, or the aristocracy, or the army, or even the priests. On the contrary. He tells his (pagan) readers that embracing Christianity merely for the sake of politics would be a mistake. God “gives kingly power to the pious and the impious,” Augustine warns, “lest any emperor should become a Christian in order to merit the happiness of Constantine.”
His point, rather, is that we should waste no time fretting about the City of Man. We should keep our minds fixed only on the City of God. “For as far as the life of mortals is concerned, which is ended in a few days,” he asks, “what does it matter under whose government a dying man lives, if they who govern him do not force him to impiety and iniquity?”
“Let Him therefore be sought after,” Augustine concludes; “let Him be worshipped, and it is enough.”
This isn’t only a challenge to the pagans. It’s a challenge to everyone who claims to believe in some kind of god, and who believes man to be something more than a “trousered ape.” It’s a challenge even—or especially—Christians.
You claim there’s more to the Universe than death and taxes. Why don’t you act like it?
As the Western Empire continued to decay, it got a little easier for Europeans to accept that biblical maxim, “Put not thy trust in princes.” As the City of Man collapsed around their shoulders, men followed Augustine in turning their gaze towards the City of God. They could hardly help it.
Then something extraordinary happened: a new civilization, Christendom, rose from the ruins of Pax Romana. The Dark Ages quickly became the Bright Ages: a time of unequaled spiritual renewal. No less than Henry Adams would declare that we owe four-fifths of our greatest cultural achievements to our Medieval forebears.
We take this extraordinary turn of events for granted but, really, it’s amazing. Never before had a civilization risen, phoenix-like, from its own literal ashes.
How do we explain the Medieval Miracle? By pointing out that, in Christianity, God “has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.” Only by sinking to its lowest point, the West—Christendom—found the source of its strength. C. S. Lewis summed it up nicely:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.
It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Note very carefully what Lewis is saying. You actually have to believe the thing. It’s not enough to say, “Christianity gives a reasonable account of human nature,” or “Christendom better than what succeeded it.” You have to mean it. You have to say, “All I want is to know and love God so I can serve Him in this life and spend eternity with Him in the next. In the final analysis, nothing else matters.”
This isn’t politics dressed up as religion. This is straight-up, old-school, hundred-proof Jesus stuff. You actually have to aim for Heaven. It’s God or nothing—nothing at all.
This—the Augustine Option, as we’re calling it—is not only taught to us by Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. It’s also proved by even a cursory study of world history. It’s incontrovertible. Charles Péguy may have said it even better,
It is the mystic who is practical, and the politically minded who are not. It is we who are practical, who do something, and it is they who are not, who do nothing. It is we who accumulate and they who squander. It is we who build, lay foundations, and they who demolish. It is we who nourish, and they who are parasites. It is we who make things and men, people and races. It is they who wreck ruin.
So why don’t we act like it? Why do so many Christians accuse Mr. Dreher of being a “retreatist” or a “quietist” because he says we should devote more of our resources to achieving spiritual renewal instead of political power? (He never does say that we should disengage from politics. It’s a ludicrous charge to bring against one of the most popular political journalists in the world.)
I think I began to answer that question in a previous post on “internalized materialism”. Basically, we don’t think spiritual realities are as real as physical realities.
Of course, they’re not only real, but realer. That was obvious to 99.9 percent of human beings who lived before the year 1900. Yet today even the most fervent Christians find it difficult to believe. We profess that truth with our mouths, though it rarely penetrates our hearts.
But it’s true all right, as we’ll learn soon enough. Even if it takes a new Dark Age to make us see the light, we’ll see it.