Conflict Between Neo-Benedictines
(Did you see Part I of the dialogue between New Monastic leader Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Your Working Boy? Read it, then you’ll be ready for Part II, here:)
Rod Dreher: Well, hang on. I don’t agree that the most important commitment of any religious movement must be to not further fracture the Church. It’s not that I think division is a good thing, but rather that I think unity that is not based on shared belief is superficial and unsustainable. You indicate that the members of Rutba House worship at local congregations. Do you mind saying which ones? Are there serious theological divisions among the congregations represented in the Rutba House community, and if so, how do you resolve them?
Along these lines, I don’t believe that it is dangerous to retreat with “those who share our bias about the world”; in fact, that is largely (but not entirely) the point of the Benedict Option, in my view. One man’s “bias about the world” is another man’s creed. I would see a red flag in a community that insisted that everyone agree in lock-step on every single issue. But it’s clear to me that there must be a substantial and fundamental unity among a community’s members about what constitutes truth, and what our authority for discovering that truth is. For example, it strikes me as a recipe for fragmentation and disaster if you put small-o orthodox Catholics in the same community with committed progressive Catholics; it is hard to get them to agree on a lot of things, not because one side is better than the other, but because in practice, they lack agreement on a common authority. You are right back to MacIntyre’s square one. I know this from my years as a Catholic, engaging in debates both friendly and unfriendly with progressive Catholics, most of whom, in my experience, did not believe that the Church’s Magisterium (teaching authority) was binding on their individual consciences.
About “other-ing,” I don’t like the term, especially used in context of the Ben Op. It strikes me as politically loaded. True, all Christians have to be very careful about drawing lines between us and others, lest we fall prey to the temptation to see them as less than human. That said, to be a member of any community is to draw lines around that community, so that we can know what it means to be part of it. The sociologist Philip Rieff said that a culture is defined by its “remissions” — that is, it’s “thou shalt nots”. That’s a simple but useful definition, I think. Every community has them. What are Rutba House’s thou shalt nots? Where do you draw the line and tell someone, in charity, “Sorry, brother, but you can’t live among us if you hold that belief”? If a sincere fundamentalist Christian presented himself at Rutba House’s door and asked to join the community, could you afford to let him in? Maybe you could; I don’t know how your community is constituted. But I’m betting there would come a point at which you all asked him to leave, not because you are nasty people or because he is a nasty person, but because the gap between his beliefs and the community’s is simply too great to overcome, and the lack of fundamental unity is impairing the community’s ability to function.
As you know, the Christian response to LGBT folks is a point of sharp division among contemporary Christians. I know where you Red Letter Christians stand; small-o orthodox Christians (including us big-o Orthodox Christians) stand with the older belief — which we do not feel we have the liberty to reject. If your community is fundamentally committed to LGBT equality, you can’t afford to have one of us in your community — and vice versa. There are other baseline issues too, but I think you and I can agree that the moral and theological status of LGBT is the most heated one in our time and place. Churches are dividing over it, and for good reasons on both sides of the controversy. It is not a minor issue, not at all. Though division is not to be sought or celebrated, it is inevitable in our fragmented world, don’t you think? We ought to own that. If we consider our communities — New Monastic or something less intensive than that — to be in some way “schools for the Lord’s service,” we have to have a basic agreement on the ends to which we are headed. To return again to the sharpest source of division in the contemporary church, what does serving the Lord require of us in terms of governing our sexual lives? Can there be morally licit sexual activity between unmarried people? Between people of the same sex? How can we know the right answer? These are not issues on which a community can simply agree to disagree, it seems to me.
Wilson-Hartgrove: Let me tell you a story. Some years ago, a man named Roy was living at Rutba House who’d come home to the neighborhood from prison—mid 40s, African-American, gregarious. He had a lot of experience in sales… most of it illegal. But he was a changed man. He’d met Jesus and turned over a new leaf. A life of praying and eating regularly with other people helped him stay focused, he said. So he stayed.
Like Benedict says, community life is mostly praying and eating. And meeting. Roy came to meetings and participated. He was intrigued by our process of building consensus.
I’ll never forget the evening I brought a request from Tim to come live with us. Tim wanted to come from San Francisco to live here for a couple years while he studied at the seminary in town. He wanted everyone to know that he hadn’t been in school for over a decade, so the transition might be hard for him. And he wanted us to know that he was gay.
Well, Roy was kind of like you: he said you have to draw the line somewhere, and given his experience, this was it. “I done dealt with homosexuals in prison,” he said. “I ain’t living with a gay man.” This is what we call “blocking consensus.” It felt like an impasse.
But Roy agreed to talk to Tim, then agreed to try life in community with him, “as long as we’re not living in the same house.” They prayed together and ate together. Eventually, they learned that they both liked pool, so they played an occasional game together. I don’t know that Roy ever “changed his mind” about homosexuality, but I do know that when Tim moved back to San Francisco, Roy was the first person from our community to go visit him. They’re still good friends today.
The main reason I believe in the Benedict Option is that I know from experience that it creates conditions in which we can gain a new perspective on the language and categories of our age. Sure, the church must always remain committed to both truth and unity. You know the line attributed to Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty…” The rub, of course, is that we have to figure out what’s essential—and do it, as all things, “in love.”
And this is precisely where I think much of American Christianity has become captive to the spirit of our age. For two millennia the Church has blessed the marriage of man and woman (as well as man and Jesus or woman and Jesus—let’s not forget the monastics!). For a few decades, the Church has had members asking it to bless the marriage of man and man or woman and woman. I completely understand that a fragmented Church would have differences of opinion on how to respond to this change. But who told Christians in America (liberal or conservative) that who the government allows to marry is an essential of our faith?
This is where I’m grateful to have mentors in the black church tradition (and where I think you’ve misunderstood the assumed “Red Letter” position on gay marriage). When a Constitutional Amendment against gay marriage was proposed here in North Carolina, Rev. William Barber—a mentor with whom I’ve written a book on moral witness—came out against it. But he was very clear that his opposition was neither an affirmation nor a condemnation of the morality of gay marriage, but rather a moral defense of equal protection under the law. He looked back to the NAACP’s position on marriage between black and white people in the 1960’s. For liberal Christians at the time, it was morally wrong to bar people from marriage based on race. For conservative Christians, it was morally wrong to mix races which, as they said over and again, God had separated. Rev. Barber pointed out that the NAACP had never declared a position on the morality of interracial marriage. That was not the purview of a public moral witness. What they had said clearly—and he insisted that this applied to gay marriage as well—was that whether citizens in this country can enjoy the legal benefits of marriage in public life is a matter of equal protection under the law. The moral obligation of a Christian public witness is not to legislate one community’s understanding of marriage but to ensure, to the best of our fallible ability, equal protection under the law.
This is where I worry that a Benedict Option, uncritically applied, could further exacerbate the Church’s captivity to a left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal framework. You asked what congregations members of Rutba House have joined. Most of us are at two, which are both in walking distance of our houses. One is the classically liberal white Baptist church in town—welcoming and affirming. The other is a traditional, conservative black Baptist church in Walltown—neither affirming nor very welcoming of homosexuals, to tell the truth. I’m a minister at the latter, so the fears that are stirred up among conservatives on this issue are familiar to me. But I have watched how the Republican party has tried to manipulate our people, using “moral” values to win votes while immorally suppressing the minority vote here in North Carolina. If a Benedict Option is to lead us toward the gospel way in our time, I think it has find a way to resist precisely those divisive powers.
Rod Dreher: I’m with you on the question of depoliticizing Christianity. I am a cultural conservative but a registered Independent. I tend to vote Republican for national offices, but if I thought the Democrats had a place for people like me — socially conservative, but economically moderate to liberal — I would be much more likely to vote for them. I do not understand why the Democrats are so resolutely pro-choice, calling the extermination of the lives of unborn children “freedom.” I don’t believe either political party is blameless, from a Christian point of view. In any case, I don’t like the idea of the church being a political party at prayer. I was surprised back in 2010 to learn from reading Bob Putnam and David Campbell’s book “American Grace” that research finds religiously liberal churches are even more politicized than religiously conservative ones. It’s unhealthy for the church either way.
That said, I see no necessary conflict between being charitable towards a gay man, and holding to Biblical teaching about the meaning of sexuality. I don’t want to be part of a church that tells gays to stay out, or tells me that I cannot be friends with gays. On the other hand, I do not want to be in a church that compromises on truth for the sake of unity, which would in that case come at too high a price. I think one reason I feel so strongly about this is because it was my own disordered love — my refusal to sacrifice my sexual liberty — that kept me away from Christianity for years as a young adult. I wanted to be a Christian, but I didn’t want to obey the teaching about keeping sexual expression inside marriage. I briefly attended a church that didn’t care what I did with my sex life, but I knew that was dishonest. Eventually I yielded, and I’m grateful for the unfashionable witness of the Catholic Church on this point. The four years of chastity between my conversion and my marriage were a desert, but I thank God for them, because the ascetic practice rightly ordered my heart.
Anyway, I don’t see how the gay question can be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides within the church, because it doesn’t strictly have to do with homosexuality, but with the meaning of human sexuality and the human person. You and I don’t need to go deeply into this here, but I do think — and I bet you do as well — that this is not one of those issues on which we can agree to disagree within the bounds of a community. Sexuality is so foundational to Christian anthropology. A Christian community that affirms homosexuality is going to seek different ends in some respects than a Christian community that does not. The division is based on something real, and consequential. Could you be part of a church or an intentional community in which the group was committed to living out the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality (hetero and homo)? Or would that strike you as compromising on a fundamental matter of justice? For us on the traditionalist side, it is a matter of justice too, “justice” being the right ordering of things. Noncelibate gay partnerships and gay marriage doesn’t make sense within our Christian conception of order, and I’m guessing that for your Christian conception of order, denying gays the moral right to partner and the legal right to marry is irrational and unjust.
We get right back to MacIntyre again, don’t we?
Wilson-Hartgrove: Nicholas Wolterstorff taught me that there’s a basic difference between understanding justice as the “right ordering of things” (i.e. “justice from above”) and understanding justice as a systemic effort to listen to the oppressed (i.e. “justice from below). His Reformed colleagues in South Africa justified apartheid as “the right ordering of things.” They forced him to reimagine justice biblically as God hearing the cry of Israel in Egypt.
I like Cornel West’s way of putting it: “justice is what love looks like in public.” I’m glad you wouldn’t be part of a church that tells you you can’t befriend a gay man. But when I listen to my gay friends—when I try to love them not just as friends, but as fellow neighbors in society—I find myself saying, “Of course you should be able to speak with your kids’ teacher at school. Of course you should be the one talking to the doctor at the hospital when your partner is in a car accident.”
I have enough friends who think they are conservative to know that this is not what they’re thinking about when they say Kim Davis is right to conscientiously object to signing marriage certificates for gay folks. People who think themselves conservative think about tradition and the normative function of law. If we change the “traditional” definition of marriage, it will change our culture, they say. And they are right.
But if we’re honest, we know very little about how Christianity will be affected by a culture that recognizes the legal right of homo and heterosexual people to enjoy the benefits of marriage. Your question about how a biblical anthropology helps us to imagine what our bodies are for is precisely the question I wish Christians were talking about, whether we imagine ourselves conservative or liberal.
But that’s not the conversation we’re having—neither in public nor in many of our churches. What I’m trying to say is that our cultural captivity isn’t to the “liberals” who’ve gone and messed up traditional marriage but to an ideology that says liberals and conservatives could never be Christian together. You said you thought I would agree that this is not one of those issues where we can agree to disagree. But, as I was saying earlier, I live in community—daily shared prayers, meals, meetings, and money, etc.—with people who have radically different views on this—and are all Christian. Indeed, I think this is one of the most important ways a new monasticism can bear witness to the gospel.
Whatever its form, if the Ben Op doesn’t help us imagine something new, then it will inevitably become a fortress of the left or the right. I’m not interested in new monastics as “special forces” to perpetuate the culture wars.
Rod Dreher: I don’t agree with your thinking on justice, but we are both running out of time, so I’ll pass on that. I do agree with you on the need to imagine and live out a Christianity that is not captive to the culture war. Our problem is not so much with liberals (= Democrats and their fellow travelers) as it is with liberalism as an individualist mode of thought and politics that emerged from the Enlightenment. Conservatives — that is to say, Republicans and their fellow travelers — are as captive to liberalism, in this sense, as are their political opponents. That said, religious conservatives like me may not be interested in the culture wars, but the culture wars are definitely interested in us. I am certain that both the state and corporate interests will do what they can to make life harder for traditional Christians, both individually and with our institutions, who dissent from the new consensus on homosexuality. Sex is not the whole of the Gospel, of course, but fidelity to Scripture on sexual purity is precisely the area on which the world will push hardest against us. The Benedict Option must do many things, but one thing I hope it will do is teach us traditionalists how to endure without losing our faith or our peace, and without returning hatred for hatred. My hope is that our Christian brothers and sisters on your side of the divide recognize our right to be wrong, and stand by us when things get hard.
(Cross-posted at Red Letter Christians.)