Recently a discussion came up at the Kairos Center about the way theologians, writers, and public intellectuals brand movements or schools of thought. I raised the example of conservative pundit Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option — the idea that, as conservative Christians have essentially lost the culture war in American life, they should follow the example of St. Benedict of Nursia and withdraw into small, countercultural communities of work, prayer, and contemplation. There, as in the monasteries of the early medieval period, they can weather the storm of the “barbarian takeover” of what remains of Western Christendom, and preserve what is valuable for future (and perhaps more amenable) generations.
Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, got the idea for the Benedict Option from Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous book on virtue ethics, After Virtue, in which MacIntyre argues that modernity is waiting for a new St. Benedict. Since Dreher published his column (and later book) on the Benedict Option, the concept has become a veritable social movement — not only is it the subject of passionate debate in support of and in opposition to the idea, but it has inspired real-life examples of the type of community that Dreher envisions.1It should be noted that many scholars of monasticism and of church history disagree with Dreher’s characterization of the Benedictine tradition, of the so-called “dark ages,” and of the development of secular modernity. As a former academic medievalist, I personally can’t stand how Dreher and other traditionalist Christians often bowdlerize church history for the sake of pushing their ideological proposals. Most of their conception of the Middle Ages is just post-Romanticist wishful thinking, an escapist product of the industrialized Victorian era. I don’t believe real monasticism has much in common with Dreher’s use of it — see, for example, my previous post on the close alliance between several Christian monastic orders and Western esoteric movements. Coincidentally, soon after the conversation I was a part of that mentioned Dreher, he and his ideas were the subject of a major feature story in the New Yorker. In the article, Dreher describes the Benedict Option this way:
“I believe that politics in the Benedict Option should be localist,” he said. The idea was not to enter a monastery, exactly. But Christians should consider living in tight-knit, faith-centered communities, in the manner of Modern Orthodox Jews. They should follow rules and take vows. They should admit that the culture wars had been lost—same-sex marriage was the law of the land—and focus on their own spiritual lives. They should strive to make Christian life meaningfully different from life under high-tech, secular capitalism; they should take inspiration from Catholic dissidents under Communism, such as the Czech activist Václav Benda, who advocated the creation of a “parallel polis”—a society within a society. They should pray more often. Start their own schools. Move near their church. St. Benedict, Dreher said, didn’t try to “make Rome great again.” He tended his own garden, finding a way to live that served as “a sign of contradiction” to the declining world around him.
Furthermore, numerous alternative Christian “options” have been proposed since Dreher first conceived of the Benedict Option, using Dreher’s model but taking inspiration from other figures or traditions in church history: the Sophia Option, the Marian Option, the Dominic and Patrick Options. Then there is always the Dorothy Option (or, as we used to say back in the day, the Catholic Worker). These “options” come from multiple political and theological perspectives, but they all agree that Christian culture (however you define that) has in some way become diminished or threatened in contemporary Western society, and that Christians need to come up with a radical blueprint for our future social prospects.
As the very names of most of these “options” suggest, Rod Dreher isn’t the first Christian to propose a radical course of action in the face of a hostile culture (neither, of course, was St. Benedict). And there is one option that I think has been predictably absent from the recent discussions about what Christians are to do in the face of a violent, greed-driven, anti-Christian culture — the Rosencreuz Option.
Of course, the Rosencreuz Option refers to Christian Rosencreuz, the mythical founder of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood — the secret order whose founding documents, the Fama Fraternitatis and the Confessio, caused a furor in early modern Europe. The Rosicrucian documents suggest that the Brotherhood, led by its sage-like founder, worked to further the goal of a general and universal reformation in all aspects of human society — from politics and religion to science and the arts. As the Fama states:
After five years, there came into his [Christian Rosencreuz’s] mind again the desired reformation. Because he despaired of the help and support of others, while he himself was industrious, agile, and indefatigable, he undertook to attempt this work with a few helpers and collaborators. Accordingly, from his first monastery (for which he retained great affection) he asked for three of his brethren, namely Fr. G.V., Fr. I.A., and Fr. I.O., who were in addition better versed in the arts than was common at that time. He bound these three to him to be utterly faithful, industrious, and secretive, and to commit to writing with the utmost diligence all that he should instruct them in, so that posterity, should they be admitted by particular revelation, would not be deceived by a single syllable or letter. Thus began the Brotherhood of the R.C. …2Joscelyn Godwin, Christopher McIntosh, & Donate Pahnke McIntosh, Rosicrucian Trilogy, 20-21.
The founding myth (if indeed it be myth) of the Rosicrucian Order could not be more different from Dreher’s Benedict Option in spirit or in practice. Although both the pseudo-Benedictine communities proposed by Dreher and the Rosicrucians based their practices on a belief in God, the Rosicrucians proposed entering the world like a leaven in order to catalyze its transformation into a new society — a pansophic community based on advances in the sciences, arts, and technology, guided by a reformed Christian faith. Indeed, Valentin Andreae, the possible author or instigator of the first manifestos, greatly admired Calvinist Geneva for its dedication to building a utopian Christian community, and he drew on Geneva for his later utopian tract, Christianopolis.
Unlike the new Benedictines, who strive to “turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism,” Christian Rosencreuz expressly founded his order by leaving his cloister, and taking some of his formerly monastic brothers with him. And unlike Dreher, who draws inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, which attempts to “sanctify the simple things” by ordering all of life — sacred and profane — according to a strict rule, the Rosicrucians agreed that “none of them should profess any other thing, then to cure the sick, and that gratis,” and that “none of the posterity should be constrained to wear one certain kind of habit, but therein to follow the custom of the country” in which they live.
This latter rule is an important distinction between the Rosicrucians (and their Western esoteric descendants) and traditional monastics: the Rosicrucians are to blend in perfectly with the societies in which they live, guiding them secretly toward transformation not through creating a “counter-polis” or counterculture like the Benedictines, but through accelerating the progress of society through supporting the most modern advancements in science, technology, and the arts.3In my previous post, I described what a modern Western esoteric order working toward universal reformation in dialogue with “left accelerationism” might look like. The accelerationist tendency in left politics also rejects the “neo-primitivist localism” and the prioritizing of the “flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy” of both conservative movements like the Benedict Option and leftist movements like anarchist communes, purely horizontalist occupations, and other attempts at creating temporary autonomous zones. Unlike those who support Dreher’s Benedict Option, Rosicrucians are not to be frightened of modernity; indeed, they are to be its heralds and caretakers:
This will of course be of little use to the unthinking world. Laughter, mockery, and malicious talk are on the increase, and even the learned are so full of pride and ambition that they do not wish to come together and, out of everything that God in our age has so richly revealed to us, create a book of nature or a perfect development of all the arts. Rather, every faction among them opposes every other. Furthermore, they cling to the old teachings, esteeming the Pope, Aristotle, and Galen — indeed everything that has the appearance of a codex — more than the clear and manifest light. If men such as Aristotle and Galen were alive today they would doubtless be extremely happy to revise their doctrines. But here people are too weak for such a great work.4Rosicrucian Trilogy, 16.
Rather than withdrawing into “localist politics,” Rosicrucians strive for universality and integrality. Rather than building countercultural spaces held aloof from the modern world, Rosicrucians embed themselves into the world in order to hasten its transmutation. And rather than an inward turn toward traditionalism, Rosicrucians thrill to the newest advancements in science, religion, and philosophy.
This is the Rosicrucian heritage of Western esotericism: a drive for universal reformation in all things, a sympathy for advances in modern science and technology, a willingness to revise the “old teachings,” and the espousal of a Hermetic Christianity that includes the best of the Pagan traditions while manifesting a Christocentric love of Jesus Christ. This is the Rosencreuz Option.
|↑1||It should be noted that many scholars of monasticism and of church history disagree with Dreher’s characterization of the Benedictine tradition, of the so-called “dark ages,” and of the development of secular modernity. As a former academic medievalist, I personally can’t stand how Dreher and other traditionalist Christians often bowdlerize church history for the sake of pushing their ideological proposals. Most of their conception of the Middle Ages is just post-Romanticist wishful thinking, an escapist product of the industrialized Victorian era. I don’t believe real monasticism has much in common with Dreher’s use of it — see, for example, my previous post on the close alliance between several Christian monastic orders and Western esoteric movements.|
|↑2||Joscelyn Godwin, Christopher McIntosh, & Donate Pahnke McIntosh, Rosicrucian Trilogy, 20-21.|
|↑3||In my previous post, I described what a modern Western esoteric order working toward universal reformation in dialogue with “left accelerationism” might look like. The accelerationist tendency in left politics also rejects the “neo-primitivist localism” and the prioritizing of the “flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy” of both conservative movements like the Benedict Option and leftist movements like anarchist communes, purely horizontalist occupations, and other attempts at creating temporary autonomous zones.|
|↑4||Rosicrucian Trilogy, 16.|