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Benedict Option for Progressives

Can liberal Christians really have a Ben Op of their own?

<– [Note From Rod: Yes, I know that is Shane Claiborne in the main photo. I have tried to fix this a few times, and the software is not letting me. I posted “Shane Claiborne” the very first time, and it indicates on my dashboard “Shane Claiborne.” I know it is Shane Claiborne, and Shane Claiborne I know it is. He is a progressive Christian and a founder of New Monasticism. I apologize for the error, which seems to be unfixable. — RD]

A number of you have forwarded to me today this post from Richard Beck, the first of six he promises to do about how the Benedict Option can be embraced by progressive Christians. Excerpts:

Rod is Eastern Orthodox and is a conservative Christian. Consequently, most of the discussion about the Ben Op has been among conservative Christians, from Catholic to Orthodox to evangelical.

But if you look at Rod’s description–the Ben Op as

Richard Beck, from Experimental Theology
Richard Beck, from Experimental Theology

resistance to Empire–there’s a lot in his description that resonates with progressive Christians. For many, resistance to Empire is at the heart of the progressive Christian vision. In fact, progressive Christians would argue that this is exactly the reason that evangelical Christians, in particular, are very poor candidates for the Ben Op.

The reason for this should be obvious. Conservative evangelicals have been some of the biggest religious champions of American Empire. There are no greater advocates of global American military supremacy and free-market capitalism than evangelicals.

Let’s make America great again, amiright?

In short, given their boosterism for American supremacy and exceptionalism it seems that conservative evangelicals are awkward candidates when it comes to creating Ben Op communities, communities that are, in Rod’s definition, “keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the [American] empire represents.”

Ah, but this does not hold if by “Empire” we mean the cultural imperialism of America’s individualism, consumerism, anti-familism, and sexual libertinism. Empire is not only a matter of politics, military, and economics. I would contend that progressive Christianity embraces what I consider to be a form of cultural imperialism, and calls it liberation.

More Richard Beck:

And yet, progressive Christians have their own struggles with the corrosive effects of modernity, capitalism and liberalism. For now, let me mention a few particular struggles.

First, there is often little that is distinctive about progressive Christians when compared to secular, liberal humanists. Let me be clear, as a progressive Christian I think this is a feature rather than a bug. I tend to think that liberal humanism owes its moral vision to Western Christianity. For arguments making that case see, well, see Alasdair MacIntyre’sAfter Virtue. Or Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. So I tend to see liberal humanists as cousins of Christianity rather than as opponents. There’s a family relationship.

And yet, progressive Christians are increasingly vulnerable to the cultural amnesia symptomatic of modernity. Because of this progressive Christians are increasingly embarrassed or defensive about their faith. That, or increasingly filled with doubt about their beliefs. The ranks of progressive Christians are filled with agnostics and atheists.

All that to say, progressive Christians need a Ben Op to recover confidence in the distinctive particularities of the Christian faith. Progressive Christians need the Ben Op to affirm what is unique and distinctive about being a Christian. Morally, spiritually, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously.

There’s more — read the whole thing.  I appreciate Richard Beck’s generous attention to the Ben Op idea, and look forward to his forthcoming posts. About the last passage I quoted, this is why I can’t see the Ben Op ever taking off among progressive Christians, aside from small groups like the New Monastics. That’s because, as Beck says, there is very little difference between secular liberals and religious liberals. The “cultural amnesia” Beck laments is not a bug of progressive Christianity, but a feature, in that progressive Christians do not feel bound by the past, by tradition, or by the exercise of doctrinal authority. How on earth can you have a Benedict Option when the very definition of modernity (of which progressive Christianity is the fullest Christian expression) is the denial that the past has any hold on us?

A few months back, I wrote about Paul Connerton’s book How Societies Remember, and the Benedict Option. Excerpt:

Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.

Note well: this is a problem common to all Americans, and all Christians. There is a “conservative” version and a “liberal” version. The conservative version tends to deny that there’s a problem at all with capitalism (or 100% American values), and is mystified why the faith and its structures keep eroding, except to blame liberal immoralists. The liberal version tends to say that the “problem” is actually a solution, celebrating individualized, relativized morality but failing to recognize how throwing aside traditional moral beliefs, practices, and structures actually accelerates the dominance of capitalism — and, overseas, is the cultural wedge of American and globalist economic and political power.

Put another way, the only way individual liberty can expand is through forgetting, both by conservatives and liberals, of the past and its hold on us. We all believe in “thou shalt not”; it’s a matter of how and where to draw the lines.

Anyway, read Richard Beck. This is going to get interesting.

(Readers, please only join this comments thread if you have something constructive to say, even if critical. No sniping, please.)