You might remember this e-mail I published from an anonymous person who had just been hired as a staffer (not faculty) at a small liberal arts Christian college. The person, an orthodox Christian, wrote at the time:
My traditional Biblical stance on sexual morality was publicly known to the college as it was considering my application, and that earned me a lengthy pre-hire conversation with my manager. Making sure I can work well with people who disagree, making me aware of the conversation on campus, that sort of thing. All very positive. I learned in passing that my manager also discussed my views with the president and the provost before offering me the job, although I don’t know what exactly the conversations entailed. Apparently, my traditional views on marriage, gender and sexuality went all the way to the top.
On the upside, they hired me; on the downside, it’s strange that these conversations have to take place even at an institution like this one, with Christianity deep in its bones—and located in a region as conservative and Christian as they come. I’d be blacklisted from other types of employment, I’m sure, but I’m red-flagged even at Christian institutions.
I could be wrong, but my impression is that there isn’t a consensus on what “Christ-centered education” means for this campus. The board and administration seem solidly committed to preserving the historic, orthodox Christian faith, but there seems to be less of that among faculty. Many of the students, of course, couldn’t pick orthodoxy out of a lineup down at the police station.
Read the whole post for more. I know the person’s name and the name of their institution. It is the sort of college that most people on the outside would think of as thoroughly traditional. It’s not, though. Almost a year later, this person has had their eyes opened; the reader’s hope that this college would itself be a Benedict Option in Christian higher education has been dashed by reality. And so, this e-mail came today; I’ve edited it slightly to protect the correspondent:
The idea that [this college] could be a Benedict Option has always been a long shot — and it looks more and more naive that I once thought it could be possible here. (To be fair, that was before I worked here.)
In any case, my thinking about the Benedict Option has shifted: Instead of asking what it might look like for the college to become a Benedict Option in response to the broader culture, I’m starting to ask what it might look like for a group of faithful Christians to form a Benedict Option at [this college] in response to [this college] itself.
How do those of us who find altogether too much of the world in our Christian institutions — our churches, nonprofits, parachurch ministries, schools, etc. — form intentional, faithful relationships and communities within those institutions? How do we band together to reinforce and encourage each other; to protect and defend our values, traditions and orthodox faith; and from that position to engage and reform our own institutions? Or, do we jump ship and find those institutions that already are, or could genuinely become, a Benedict Option?
I’m intrigued by the question of the Inklings. I in no way mean to imply that Tolkien, Lewis, etc. embodied the Benedict Option (they didn’t). Only to say that in an institution that was largely hostile to their faith, they joined in fellowship with others — and they left their mark on the world (though not on Oxford, it would seem).
Friendship, fellowship, community? Conversation over pints of ale? Are these enough? My hunch is they’re not. There must be an institutional nature to any Benedict Option that hopes to last.
Yesterday I wrote a lengthy response to James K.A. Smith’s charge that the Benedict Option is “alarmist.” I would ask you readers to consider what it means that my correspondent today works in what everyone would consider to be a conservative Christian institution of higher learning, but has to consider forming a core of orthodox believers within that institution to resist that institution’s emerging heterodoxy.
This is not alarmism. This is reality. Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of The Therapeutic, wrote:
The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions.
The “special misery” of this reader’s conservative Christian college is that it no longer communicates the orthodox Christian ideal of marriage and sexuality in a way that remains inwardly compelling to many within the institution itself. Again, if you think this is going by bypass your own Christian school, church, or institution, you are deceiving yourself. More Rieff:
It may be argued against this position that Western culture was never deeply believing—at least not in the Christian manner which, in a number of its most persuasive varieties, encouraged the seeking after individual salvations at the expense of a collective one. Even so, Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves. Ernst Troeltsch was correct in his institutional title for the moral demand system preceding the one now emerging out of its complete ruin: a “church civilization,” an “authoritarian and coercive culture.” What binding address now describes our successor culture? In what does the self now try to find salvation, if not in the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions?
For colleges like the one in which my unfortunate reader works, the gradual, now accelerating, abandonment of Christian sexual and marital norms is the result of the complete ruin of “church civilization”. Even the institutions that pledge fealty to the ideals of church civilization are crumbling in their fidelity.
Better form those cells now, within those increasingly hostile institutions. And better, let us figure out how to strengthen those institutions that still stand, and to start new ones.