There is not much new under the sun.
More than sixteen hundred years ago, not long after the Roman Empire’s decriminalization of Christianity, the Western world was awash in a toxic belief system strikingly similar to today’s wokeness.
Parallels between today’s woke movement and late antiquity’s gnosticism and Manicheanism (the latter is a subset of the former) are well-described in lucid and insightful writings this year by the philosophy professor and blogger Edward Feser, and an anonymous Substack writer who uses the pseudonym “N.S. Lyons.”
Lyons, who identifies himself as “an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C.,” launched his Substack platform in April with the observation that “a new belief system, characterizing all of existence as divisible into a Manichaean struggle for power between the oppressed and their oppressors, has emerged and turned itself into a mass movement that is scrambling every aspect of traditional American political, cultural, religious, and even corporate life.”
Lyons observes that “vast new ideational, epistemological, and arguably even theological frameworks for how to understand and interact with reality have emerged and are now spreading across the world.”
Feser remarks that the new woke movement fits into the category of secularized gnosticism as the 20th-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin had described it.
The gnostic mentality in wokeness, says Feser, is “one of radical alienation from the created order. It sees that order as something to be destroyed or escaped from rather than redeemed.”
Gnostic moral practice veers between the extremes of puritanism and libertinism,” notes Feser. “On the one hand, given the Gnostic hatred of the created order and of conventional moral and social life, what the normal person takes to be permissible or even necessary to ordinary life is prissily condemned. Hence, Gnostic heretical movements over the centuries famously emphasized vegetarianism, pacifism, the purported evil of capital punishment, and similarly utopian attitudes, pitting the ‘mercy’ of a Gnosticized interpretation of Jesus against what they regarded as the sinister Old Testament God of justice. On the other hand, since the material world is taken by the Gnostic to have no value, nothing that happens within it ultimately matters, and the most licentious behavior can be excused. Hence, sexual immorality was often tolerated in practice—as long as it was not associated with marriage and procreation, which would tie us to the ordinary material and social order.
Verily, gnosticism and Manichaeism are déjà vu all over, and over, and over, and over again.
The author and blogger Rod Dreher has been ahead of the curve in observing the “soft totalitarian” threat of wokeness, since before it was a widely known expression. A few years ago, I often found his reports and warnings about “social justice warriors” to be alarmist and overly fixated on nonsense on college campuses. But it turns out that, far from being exaggerated, his concerns if anything were understated.
Lyons got it right when he wrote earlier this year that the woke “ideology seemed to emerge so suddenly, and is in its stark irrationality so alien to the modern liberal mind, that surprised observers and hapless opponents so far struggle even to settle on a name for it.”
Pessimistic in immediate political terms about traditional Christianity’s recent major defeats in the culture wars, Dreher wrote a best-selling book published in 2017, proposing what he calls The Benedict Option.
The book is largely anecdotal, not systematic. Its concept is for Christians—almost all of them laity, not clergy—to carry out an adaptation of what Benedict of Nursia did in developing Western monasticism as a repository of faith, learning, and civilization during the barbarian conquest of the Roman world. He called on Christians to answer today’s overwhelming anti-Christian onslaught by reinforcing their faith within the intimacy of their families and in the smaller gatherings of intentional communities.
Dreher’s proposition is often, and unfairly, criticized as a call to “quietism” and surrender to the victorious, deeply anti-Christian cultural Left. Dreher insists that Christians still belong in the public square, but that they need to conserve and nurture their faith and their moral and intellectual strength in retreats—not retreats in the military analogy, but spiritual retreats—from the public square.
By now it should be obvious that efforts such as the Benedict Option are needed to preserve Christianity during a time of rampant apostasy and persecution. Consider that, during the persecutions of Nero and Diocletian, some Christians discerned the vocation to go out into the public arena as martyrs (the Greek word for “witnesses”) while others had just as important a vocation to remain, praying, and procreating new generations, in the catacombs.
Recently in American Greatness, Christopher Roach became yet another of the commentators who criticized the Benedict Option as quietistic and defeatist.
I esteem both Roach and Dreher for most of their writings, generally insightful and sometimes indispensably so as they often call attention to important realities that many of us have not seen. But of course neither writer is infallible.
This prompts me to offer American Greatness readers the suggestion that the Benedict Option is necessary, but not sufficient. Another necessary model is an “Augustine Option.” — not “the” Augustine Option, but an option involving Augustine.
My idea is not purely original. More than one reviewer of Dreher’s book when it was published already proposed an Augustine Option in some shape or form.
But the woke revolution has advanced so far and so fast since 2017 that it is worth putting forward anew, and to the readers here, the relevance of Augustine of Hippo to our current situation.
Before his conversion, Augustine was not just an inhabitant of late antiquity’s Manichean milieu. He was one of its leading public intellectuals. One might even describe Augustine pre-conversion as an Ibram X. Kendi of 4th-Century Milan.
Manichaeism was a widespread religion, with its own clergy, laity, liturgy, and catechetics. Augustine was an active, believing member of the Manichaean religion. His Manichaean status enhanced his political influence.
Augustine’s life and legacy continue to bear witness to truths that can help our world survive and recover from the harrowing experience we now suffer.
My notion of an Augustine Option for our time is a hopeful one. It is simply a vision of the desirability—and indeed the likelihood—that sooner or later some of the prominent prophets of wokeism will renounce it and convert to Christianity, and that they will have an impact on public awareness and understanding.
This sort of thing happened during the second half of the 20th Century. Whittaker Chambers and Bella Dodd are two examples of influential communists who converted to Christianity and helped change both the spiritual and political conditions of the world against what seemed a Soviet juggernaut.
Augustine (A.D. 354-430) lived more than a century before Benedict (A.D. 480-547), and the former’s magisterial work was deeply influential with the latter. Before Benedict, though, there were examples of the phenomenon Dreher calls the Benedict Option.
It should be remembered that Augustine’s conversion was not brought about through means of dialectic and rhetoric, disciplines in which he was one of his era’s masters. Rather, the conversion of Augustine came about, as the great Christian thinker and leader acknowledged, because of the prayers of a humble woman who lived a sort of “Benedict Option” life as a Christian within a culture dominated by Manichaeism and other anti-Christian currents: his pious mother, Monica.
Monica called upon the Holy Spirit to move within her son’s heart and soul. The final step before Augustine’s baptism and his future as one of the greatest bishops and teachers in the history of Christianity was to spend several months with some of his closest friends in a spiritual retreat away from the everything-is-political environment of the imperial court of Milan. From August 386 until early 387, they prayed and discussed philosophy and theology together in a peaceful rural house, none other than a kind of “Benedict Option” setting.
It is worth remembering that there are limitations to even the best political rhetoric, particularly in times like ours when the source of our political rancor is largely moral, not intellectual. This nation’s survival in an era of pagan ascendancy will be largely dependent on a spiritual awakening.