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Benedict And Nothing

Why Christians are going to have to learn to love the Benedict Option

Funny piece from Matthew Loftus over the weekend, offering a Q&A for people who hate the Benedict Option. Excerpt:

Scene: A small cafe in a coastal urban city. BOB, a boring old believer, and his friend BEN are sipping their coffees as the autumn breeze ruffles the collars protruding from the necks of their sweater vests.

Bob: Thanks for inviting me out here, Ben. So tell me about this “Benedict Option” thing?

Ben: I’m so glad you asked! I’m really excited about it! Well, I’m not excited that it’s come to this. See, we have to start with understanding the cultural forces that have made orthodox Christianity so abhorrent to so many people, including the children of believers. A variety of historical shifts in art, education, and politics have precipitated a loss of cultural power for the Church in the West, so we have to study how our culture rejects orthodox belief for a syncretistic mixture of Christianity and either capitalistic nationalism or pseudoscientific progressivism.

Bob: Oh, you mean, like, missiology?

Ben: Yes, well, as I was saying, we’re at this unique cultural moment in history where orthodox faith is under attack from all sides and we’re barely communicating our faith to the next generation. Whether you’re in a strict fundamentalist and traditional church that drives your kids out the harder you try to control them or you’re in a loosey-goosey evanjellyfish congregation that tries to be more entertaining but only ends up looking less cool than the next flavor of the week, it’s just a disaster. We need a strategic attentiveness—a withdrawal, even—to focus internally on how we preach, teach, and catechize.

Bob: Oh, you mean, like, ecclesiology?

Ben: You’re not letting me finish. Anyway, but we aren’t just heading to the hills and bunkering up!

Et cetera. If I understand his point, he’s saying that the Benedict Option is nothing more than a fussy, entirely unnecessary repackaging of what Christians have always thought about: ecclesiology and missiology. He’s right, to a certain extent; I have tried to be clear that most of this is just basic church-being-church stuff.

There are a couple of important distinctives, though, that I don’t think Loftus, who is an Evangelical, gets. I say this with hesitation, because a guy who lives with his family in the West Baltimore ghetto, where he ministers, and who is preparing to move to Africa to serve as a medical missionary, hardly needs a lesson in Christianity from a flabby-butt bourgeois like me. Nevertheless, here they are — and if he has written about them elsewhere, please someone send them so I can be corrected.

From the satirical Q&A piece, I don’t get the idea that Loftus sees practices as key to formation and discipleship, and certainly not traditional Christian practices. Maybe this is what he means by “ecclesiology.” By “practices,” I don’t mean “actions”; plainly he’s a man who acts boldly and sacrificially for his faith. I’m talking about engaging in the kinds of ritual, repeated practices (like I wrote about the other day) that instantiate a particular Christian vision and memory within a community, and make it possible to pass it on from generation to generation.

Over the weekend I was at an event listening to a couple of Evangelical friends from the same denomination talking about how much things have changed in terms of worship practices within their churches over the years. I didn’t get to hear the end of the conversation, but when I stepped away, one was noting her concern that the main lesson her children are getting from church is that it is supposed to be entertaining. I would put a finer point on that, and say that this model of church makes us think that church is there to meet our needs, not that we are meant to pour ourselves into forms that have been established over a very long time. How can you have continuity with the past, and into the future, without durable forms and practices?

Second, though Loftus snarkily name-checks in passing Alasdair MacIntyre at the end, in fact MacIntyre’s critique is the genesis of the whole Ben Op project. If you ignore him, none of the Ben Op will make sense. How do you do ecclesiology and missiology in a culture in which Christian belief is think, and one that believes in nothing much more than the sovereignty of the Self? I don’t believe Loftus needs metaphysics to serve his neighborhood as he’s doing, but I do believe an indifference to metaphysics will hurt Christians trying to figure out how to hold on in the long term.

Here’s a glimpse of what I mean. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says that the challenge Christians face after the catastrophe of modernity is more daunting than most of us realize, and will require strong medicine:

For Christians, then, to recover and understand the meaning of the command to have “no other god,” it is necessary first to recognize that the victory of the Church in history was not only incomplete, but indeed set free a force that the old sacral order had at least been able to contain; and it is against this more formless and invincible enemy that we take up the standard of the commandment today.

Moreover, we need to recognize, in the light of this history, that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism—especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers—that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture ” all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are—even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant—usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love, what Maximus the Confessor calls learning to see the logos of each thing within the Logos of God, and it eventuates most properly in the grateful reverence of a Bonaventure or the lyrical ecstasy of a Thomas Traherne.

Hart titled the essay from which that passage comes “Christ and Nothing,” by which he means that for our civilization, having passed through Christianity, the only alternative belief left is Christianity or nihilism. By this he does not mean that people believe in nothing, but rather that anything else they try to believe in won’t really stick. You can contest that, of course, but I riffed on Hart’s title to express my belief that the Christianity of the future is going to have to be “Benedictine” in the sense of being rooted in historical, early-church foundations, order, and ordered ritual prayer, or it’s not going to survive in the wasteland of modernity. Without those roots, forms, and practices, I don’t see how Christianity in the West pulls through — and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not Christianity, but a counterfeit facsimile.

UPDATE: Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik makes much the same point in writing about what is missing from Conservative Judaism. He says that if Jews abandon Torah observance, they’re not going to be able to hold on to their Jewish identity over time. Excerpt:

In his groundbreaking 1957 study of Judaism in America, the sociologist Nathan Glazer explained that Judaism is not, and has never been, a faith founded only on creed; it has always been an all-encompassing way of life, its beliefs bound up with its “acts, rituals, habits.” For that very reason, Glazer wrote presciently, “Judaism is even more vulnerable to the unsettling influences of modernity than is Christianity.” Once a Jew finds it more convenient to abandon specific observances of his ancestors, he is left with “no body of doctrine to fall back on . . . . [U]nder these circumstances, an entire way of life disintegrate[s].” Writing many years later, Elliott Abrams built on Glazer’s point by colorfully describing his immigrant grandparents: in America “there was pressure to grab a non-kosher sandwich, to work on the Sabbath, to skip a prayer here and there. And as the ritual pillars began to collapse, they brought down with them the whole structure of faith for many American Jews.”

Sociologically speaking, there is little to argue with in this analysis. But there is a deeper reason why continuity has always been joined together with and dependent on faith and its actualization in practice. Commitment to the obligations of faith is what makes people realize they are part of something larger than themselves: something that they must perpetuate through their children not merely physically but spiritually. “In perpetuation,” writes Leon Kass, “we send forth not just the seed of our bodies, but also the bearer of our hopes, our truths, and those of our tradition.” By contrast, parents with no traditions or with no belief in the truth of their traditions have little or no incentive to ensure that their own way of life will be perpetuated by their children.

Cohen is correct: in the abstract, even a secular Jew can appreciate that father and mother embody, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik put it in Family Redeemed, “the greatness of man in toto.” But Rabbi Soloveitchik goes on to note that Abraham becomes the founder of Judaism not through his desire for a biological heir but through his larger determination to transmit his calling to those heirs: “I have chosen him because he will command his children and household after him, that they may preserve the ways of the Lord” (Genesis 18:19). With reverence for religious truth comes, often, a reverence for tradition and a readiness to sacrifice for its transmission.

“It is . . . both necessary and obvious to assert,” Cohen writes in the sentence that I quoted from earlier, “that the fate of the Jews as a people will rest first and foremost on the strength and character of the Jewish family.” In the end, this is only half-true. The fate of the Jews as a people—and Cohen himself hints as much at the very end of his essay—lies in the belief that we as Jews are different: that we are called, chosen, to obey a revelation truer than any other.

If Jews believe this with all their hearts and minds and souls, then the strength and character of their families are ensured. If they do not, then no matter how much they may admire the Jewish theology of the family, their resoluteness in the face of either hatred’s fury or assimilation’s embrace will not last more than a generation or two. To think otherwise is to commit what conservatives caution against: privileging the power of ideas over the lessons of experience.

Privileging the power of ideas over the lessons of experience. That’s a powerful line. A religion is transmitted through its culture — see Wilken’s “Church as Culture” essay — and by people within that culture who are convinced that they are part of something larger that they have the responsibility both to receive and to pass on to the next generation. Religion is not simply something we carry around in our heads, and it’s not something that can be preserved without some ritual forms observed by the community, and to which the community submits.

Ritual and culture is not enough; if it were, you wouldn’t have cradle Orthodox Christians leaving for Evangelicalism because they crave an experience of the living God, and feel that He is hidden beneath the celebration of the ethnos. But we must not make the corresponding modernist error, and assume that the ideas and convictions can take whatever form we choose to impose on them, and survive over time in our families.



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