[Editor’s note: This piece by Crux contributor Deacon Steven Greydanus responds to a July 10 column by Fr. Jeffrey F. Kirby, also a Crux contributor, arguing for a “David Option” in Catholicism. At the end, Kirby replies to the observations by Greydanus.]
The term “Benedict Option” — named for Saint Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century founder of Western monasticism, whose feast the Church celebrated on Monday— was popularized some seven years ago by Rod Dreher, though it seems to have been coined a dozen years ago by John M. Owen IV, and the origins of the concept go back at least to 1981 to Alisdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.
The gist of the idea articulated by MacIntyre is that postmodernity has descended into a stage of cultural and moral darkness, and that what is needed today is something analogous to what St. Benedict offered sixth-century Christians amid the dark age following the fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the classical world: a way of renewal that seeks not to reinvigorate the dominant culture, but to offer an alternative.
For many Christians, including Dreher, the Benedict Option implies some sort of Christian withdrawal from the mainstream culture, analogous to the Benedictine withdrawal into monastic communities.
Skeptics have raised questions about what exactly a Benedict Option is, whether it’s a good idea, how it’s different from what many Christian communities have done for decades, and whether it makes any sense at all — while Dreher and others have sought to address these questions and push back on the critics.
To this growing list of “options,” Crux contributor Father Jeffrey F. Kirby recently proposed a “David Option,” taking as his inspiration the image of young David confronting Goliath:
The young King David did not succumb to fear and did not seclude himself in the Israelite camp. He engaged the Philistine. David was dressed simply, without armor or regular weaponry. He was empowered by a sense of righteousness and justice, and artfully struck the head of Goliath with simple stones from the earth claiming victory over the giant.
David’s actions, ennobled by his innocence and goodness, merited him a moral authority not only in Israel but among the nations.
Drawing from this example of the Israelite leader, the David Option is a challenge and opportunity for the Church in the contemporary world. In imitation of the shepherd-king, it calls the Church to simplicity, having neither ornate, royal attire or defensive armor.
It summons the Church to stay focused on holiness and to engage the world with a genuine spirit of justice and goodness, not ideology, power lust, or political agenda.
Developing his analogy, Kirby proposes that the Church must consciously avoid following Goliath and choose to follow David. “Following Goliath,” for Kirby, is suggested by a Church culture that lacks mercy and servant leadership, that values external markers of power and prestige.
Following David means relinquishing power and privilege, and “using reason and goodness to engage the world and fight the dark giants of today.”
There are some important ideas here. Some of Kirby’s emphases seem to overlap with what one might expect from advocates of a “Francis Option” (which naturally invokes Pope Francis as well as St. Francis, just as the Benedict Option suggests Pope Benedict XVI as well as St. Benedict).
Beyond that, the positive engagement element of Kirby’s vision (which perhaps resonates with the preaching aspect of the “Dominic Option”) suggests to me the “affirmative Catholicism” of Bishop Robert Barron’s media ministry, typified by his magnificent 10-part documentary “Catholicism.”
That said, subsuming all of these ideas under the rubric of a “David Option” seems to me to press the “option” language past the breaking point, and to overlook important aspects of the problems faced by the Church in the world today.
One of these things is not like the other
David — the son of Jesse of Bethlehem who became king of Israel and progenitor of the Davidic monarchy about a thousand years before Jesus — is not an analogous figure to St. Benedict, or for that matter to St. Francis or St. Dominic. There is no historical way of life, no distinctive spirituality or charism, associated with David, as there is with Benedict and the others.
People are talking about a “Benedict Option” because St. Benedict founded a way of life, a community characterized by a particular spirituality with a distinctive emphasis rooted in Benedict’s vision and charism.
The same is true of Francis and Dominic. Augustine did not found, but nevertheless inspired, the Augustinian order, through a body of spiritual writings unsurpassed in the ancient world in their intellectual and spiritual vigor, scope, and influence.
David is one of the ancient world’s most vivid and celebrated figures, and was certainly a leader of great charisma and vision. The fabled incident in which he slew Goliath, coming to prominence and establishing himself in Saul’s eyes as a rival to the throne, is a preeminent part of his legend, but his life and legacy are far more complicated than that one incident.
For example, it could hardly be argued that David did not care about external trappings of power and prestige. Early in his reign he made a point of conquering the prominent Canaanite city of Jerusalem, where he built for himself a great palace and made plans to build a similarly magnificent temple for the ark of the covenant, thus unifying Israel’s temporal and spiritual powers.
That doesn’t necessarily suggest Kirby’s notion of a Church that “relinquishes its power and no longer seeks mere externals or control in the social order.”
What a “Benedict Option” (or any of the other proposed “options”) might mean today for those of us who are not Benedictines or members of the other communities may be open to debate, but at least we have the visions of the founders incarnated in the communities they founded to look to for inspiration.
That’s not the case with young David.
The Church today isn’t — and can’t be — young David
The story of David and Goliath is an archetypal underdog story; indeed, the very phrase “David and Goliath” is a well-established idiom for a scrappy young upstart squaring off against a seemingly invincible adversary.
The language of David and Goliath might be appropriate, for example, for the early church confronting the iron-handed might of the Roman empire.
Applied to the Church of the 21st century, David and Goliath imagery seems misguided, to say the least. The Church’s prestige and power are certainly far diminished from its height — and may well diminish further, at least in the West — but this does not remotely make the Church a scrappy underdog.
The Catholic Church remains the largest religious organization in the world. Even if the Church’s leaders all followed Kirby’s vision in caring more for the poor, sick and unwed mothers than for chancery buildings, vestments, and church ornamentation, the Church still has chancery buildings, vestments, and ornamented churches.
Too many of those buildings may be empty or mostly empty, but that doesn’t evoke a shepherd boy’s youthful vigor and energy. Quite the contrary.
The emphasis on young David seems to ignore the fact that even David didn’t stay young for long. For example, church history has no shortage of shameful Uriah and Bathsheba episodes along with giant-slaying episodes.
Psalm 51, David’s psalm of repentance after sinning with Bathsheba and killing Uriah, is as important to the Church’s way forward as pastoral Psalm 23 or any of David’s psalms of triumph.
Who or what is Goliath?
Just as the Church is not young David, it is unclear precisely what the “goliaths of our age” or “dark giants” in Kirby’s vision might be. If the “Benedict Option” implies withdrawing from mainstream culture, the term “David Option” might be thought to imply boldly engaging or confronting the mainstream culture.
Yet whatever problems the mainstream culture might have, it is far from a wholly evil enemy to be slain and decapitated.
To his credit, Kirby moderates his imagery as he applies it: “Symbolically, the David Option compels the Church to use ‘stones’ in the ‘head’ of the goliaths of our age; namely, to use reason and respectful arguments as a means for the intellectual conversion of culture.”
Even so, “stones in the head” seems an odd image for “respectful arguments.” If our goal is to convert the culture, we may want a guiding image other than David and Goliath.
There is room in Christian spirituality for militaristic imagery. Saint Paul uses it, after all, notably in his extended “armor of God” metaphor in Ephesians 6. Relied on too exclusively, though, it can be problematic. (As an aside, Catholic writer and blogger Mark Shea coined the term “Herreid’s Law” — named for a mutual friend who noted the fondness of kooky Catholic guys on the Internet for knight/crusader/paladin imagery — regarding the predictive power of reliance on this kind of imagery for kookiness.)
None of this is to say that there are no lessons in the life of David, or even in the story of David and Goliath, for the Church today. A robust vision for the life of the Church in the 21st century will not, though, get far explaining itself in terms of this image.
The “Benedict Option” and perhaps others will continue to be discussed and debated as Catholics and other Christians look for new models for Christian life in our post-everything world. David may offer us inspiration, but the search for “options” must lead us elsewhere.
* * *
Response by Father Jeffrey F. Kirby
I’m grateful for the counterpoints of Deacon Greydanus to my recent column on the “David Option.” I’d like to respectfully offer a few thoughts as a response to his points.
First, I was surprised how literally Greydanus took my use of the imagery of David.
Obviously, my account relied on an allegorical use of the biblical figure of the ancient king, and the column specified that the David Option was relying specifically on the account of David before Goliath. It does not intend to use the entire life (and sins) of David to build up a way of life.
In fact, in response to Greydanus’ criticism that there was no “way of life” or “particular spirituality… vision and charism” associated with King David, I would respond in the affirmative, and indicate that the David Option wasn’t looking for such things, nor does it need them.
Rather than a counter-option to a fully developed “way of life,” the David Option was more an option in terms of method, of how the Church could approach the contemporary world. In fact, the overly developed concepts of the Benedict Option, with its way of life and structured spirituality, come across as self-enclosed, cumbersome, and overly passive.
The David Option provides a method that is more active, engaging, and hopeful in terms of dealing with the world and presenting moral truth and fighting for goodness.
The Benedict Option appears to leave the Church as a remnant. The David Option argues that the Church must be in the midst of the human family, especially when there are dark giants like secularism. And, yes, secularism is a giant that must be “slain and decapitated,” as it robs the human person of his spiritual, transcendental nature.
Lastly, Greydanus doubts that if the Church were to exercise the David Option that a youthful, strong Church would emerge. He cites the loss of prestige as an example.
But this is not the David Option. Losing power, grieving over it, and laboring for its return is certainly a far cry from what was proposed. The David Option is a willful, spiritual removal of power and prestige, so that the Church is unencumbered, gains some moral credibility by its authentic simplicity, and seeks to argue and fight for justice and goodness in the world today.