Homeschooling and the Benedict Option

While reading Charlotte Allen’s nice takedown of a fearmongering Washington Post piece about homeschooling, I was reminded again how hard it can be to extinguish certain anxieties. The anti-homeschooling activists profiled by the Post have had difficult life experiences inside homeschooling. That shouldn’t be minimized or ridiculed. But, as Allen points out, the rhetoric of these anti-homeschooling crusaders far supersedes any demonstrable harm. What animates these activists is not really evidence, but dread: The dread of social units that live outside the immediate purview of the state. Again, I’m sure some of this dread comes from abuse received and seen. But I think the point of Allen’s rebuttal piece is that this dread is more ideological than existential. It’s a dread that comes from assumptions about parenting, children, education, government, etc etc. And the reason that noxious myths about homeschooling persist, especially among progressives, is that are (for the most part) downstream from worldview rather than from experience.

Realizing this made me think about the Benedict Option. Rod Dreher’s book releases soon, and it’s already causing a fair amount of debate and controversy. I haven’t read the book, though I’m familiar with Rod’s essays and blog posts on the topic. I won’t endorse the book without reading it, and I have reservations and critiques of the whole project (many of which have been eloquently voiced by Andrew Walker). But I am broadly sympathetic with Rod’s diagnosis of Western Christianity and culture. To that end, I think the fearful mystique around homeschooling can actually educate us when it comes to the debate over the Benedict Option.

It’s not hard to see a connection between the BenOp and homeschooling. To be sure, many homeschooling families choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons. But, especially for religious families, the premise of homeschooling is attractive because it offers an internal logic that is consonant with the BenOp: A strategic withdrawal from mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, public school) and a replacement that is consistent with beliefs and convictions (in this case, curriculum, especially science and the humanities). You might consider the religious, homeschooling family a laboratory-sized microcosm of the Benedict Option.

And just like some of the more gut-level suspicions of homeschooling are fueled by ideology rather than facts, I think too some of the instinctive responses I’ve seen to the BenOp are about presuppositions. Debating the Benedict Option, like debating homeschooling, is most helpful when each side agrees on some basic assumptions. You and your neighbor can both believe that parents have a fundamental right to educate their children and that such education can and should happen in a Christian context. That agreement doesn’t mean you will both homeschool, because homeschooling entails more than those presuppositions. But if you and your neighbor disagree on those two ideas–for example, if one of you believers that children belong to the public square at least as much as they belong to parents, or if one of you believes that religion is superstition that stifles learning–then an intramural debate on the merits of religious homeschooling is useless.

I think this can apply as well to the BenOp conversation. The Benedict Option presupposes that such a thing as “secular culture” actually exists and is actually opposed to the life and witness of Christians. This is not a presupposition shared by all. If you believe, for example, that human sin can be sufficiently described by concepts such as power structures and systemic injustice, then the idea of an encroaching “secular culture” doesn’t make sense. The Sexual Revolution cannot be thought of as inherently contrary to the gospel if what we mean when we say “sin” is only–or primarily–the oppression of other people’s autonomous wills. Sexual relativism does in fact end in violent rape culture, but it doesn’t begin there, and a narrative of Christian mission that cannot coherently call to repentance “victimless” sins doesn’t have a category for something like the Benedict Option.

Like homeschooling, the BenOp assumes that Christian faithfulness entails the public square but does not terminate in it. Again, this is not a persuasion that all self-described evangelicals have. If your eschatology denies the invasive character of the coming kingdom, and instead solely articulates the transformation of the current world, then it won’t make sense to prioritize fidelity to the gospel itself–fidelity to doctrine–at the risk of losing opportunities in the public square. Believing that attending to our own Christian institutions and practices is a fundamentally selfish thing to do is not unlike believing that families who homeschool prevent their children from being salt and light.

An idea like the Benedict Option makes an assortment of presuppositions about the nature of Christian faith and the mission of the church. These presuppositions may be right or they may be wrong, but they are at the foundation, either way, of something much larger than just an intramural scrimmage over a new book. I think what we are seeing, particularly in some of the more visceral responses to the BenOp, is a division over major theological and ethical questions that evangelicals have too often pretended weren’t there or weren’t “relevant” to the life of the church. To the extent that this conversation over Dreher’s ideas brings more clarity to these divisions, I think we can be grateful for it.