Benedict Option as a Way of Life
Molly Worthen writes about “the rise of the moral minority,” her term for conservative Christians who rebel against the culture-wars-as-usual strategy. Excerpts:
Yet some evangelical elites … have not shifted leftward, but they disown both the legacy of the Moral Majority and the populist demagogy of Mr. Trump in favor of a softer, more sophisticated approach to activism. They note the shrinking ranks of American Christianity but say that evangelicals shouldn’t kick and scream. They should embrace their new role as a moral minority instead.
“We don’t see ourselves as a cultural majority,” Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me. “Change doesn’t come from a position of power, but a position of witness.” Dr. Moore assured me that when he brings this message to churches around the country, “most are responding well because they see what’s happening in the culture.” But he is disappointed that so many evangelicals favor Mr. Trump.
How do you convince evangelicals to temper their political ambitions? You teach them to rethink their own identity. “Our end goal is not a Christian America, either of the made-up past or the hoped-for future,” Dr. Moore writes in “Onward,” his manifesto for the moral minority. “Our end goal is the kingdom of Christ.”
Worthen highlights the work of my friends Gabe Lyons and Eric Metaxas, and the way their circles favor the word “winsome” to describe the kind of temperament they think Christians should bring to cultural engagement. I love Gabe and Eric, and I much prefer their way of being Christian — they love Jesus, but they’re not pissed off about it — than that of the more aggressive culture warriors on our side. But something rubs me the wrong way about the word “winsome” in this context. It’s not that winsomeness is a bad thing, but I fear that too many Christians think that being nice is going to make the other side like them. As I told the Q Ideas gathering this spring, in a speech that many of them did not like, you can be as winsome as you like as a conservative Christian who holds to traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, and they’re still going to hate you, because they think you are the moral equivalent of a racist. We should be firm but kind in our dealings with the world, not because it will improve our standing, but because it is the right thing to do.
On this same general topic, Laura Turner writes in The Atlantic about the Moral Minority — and considers the Benedict Option. Excerpts:
This call for societal withdrawal marks a new turn for American evangelical Christianity, which for several decades had been mostly aligned with the political right. Increasing support for gay marriage, the declining rates of marriage, and the rise of the “nones,” all seem to indicate waning evangelical influence on American culture. In the fight-or-flight response to feeling threatened, more and more Christians are taking (or at least talking about) the road out of Rome [Note: She’s not talking about Catholicism, but about Benedict of Nursia’s leaving post-imperial Rome to head to the forest to pray — RD]. They want to regroup, immerse themselves in communities that share their values, develop more robust theology, and emerge, in a sense, stronger than before.
In this way, the Benedict Option could be just the thing evangelicals need. With their public influence waning, withdrawing from the political conversation, at least in part, and adopting a strategy of re-entrenchment could help both fortify Christianity and engage the public. Certainly, things are starting to look bleak for evangelicals who remain in the public square. Recent efforts to defund Planned Parenthood via a Senate vote failed, and some evangelical leaders are disavowing the culture wars altogether.
On the other hand, it is difficult to influence society from a position of defeat. Those who follow the Benedict Option and create sealed-off Christian communities will find themselves frustrated in their attempts to influence not only politics but also art, literature, media, science—any areas shaped by meaningful public conversation. There may be room for lament, like there was around Obergefell, but the ability for the larger church to offer its prophetic voice to the culture would be damaged.
I appreciate the opportunity to clarify, once again, that I’m not in favor of creating “sealed-off Christian communities.” I don’t think that’s either possible or desirable. Rather, when I think of the Benedict Option, I think of creating stronger, thicker communities within which traditional Christian life can thrive. That will require some separation from the wider world, and the creation of de facto barriers. A Catholic school, for example, that wanted to form Catholic children according to orthodox Catholic teaching may want to exclude non-Catholic students, and to expect parents to participate more directly in their children’s education than is usual with parochial schools. But the way I see it, if we Christians are to be salt and light to the world, we have to first learn to be real Christians, not Moralistic Therapeutic Deists with a Christian-ish gloss.
That will require rebuilding a thick Christian culture in which we and future generations can be formed. To the extent that secular modernity dissolves and assimilates Christian belief and practice, we must stand against it, creating the institutions within which we can build resilience, and developing the personal and communal habits that build resilience. Ken Myers sends me these excerpts from sociologist of religion Steve Bruce’s 2002 book God Is Dead: Secularization in the West; they illuminate the kind of mindset we have to fight:
In brief, I see secularization as a social condition manifest in (a) the declining importance of religion for the operation of non-religious roles and institutions such as those of the state and the economy; (b) a decline in the social standing of religious roles and institutions; and (c) a decline in the extent to which people engage in religious practices, display beliefs of a religious kind, and conduct other aspects of their lives in a manner informed by such beliefs.
Following Durkheim, [sociologist Bryan] Wilson argues that religion has its source in, and draws its strength from, the community. As the society rather than the community has increasingly become the locus of the individual’s life, so religion has been shorn of its functions. The church of the Middle Ages baptized, christened and confirmed children, married young adults, and buried the dead. Its calendar of services mapped onto the temporal order of the seasons. It celebrated and legitimated local life. In turn, it drew considerable plausibility from being frequently reaffirmed through the participation of the local community in its activities. In 1898 almost the entire population of my local village celebrated the successful end of the harvest by bringing tokens of their produce into the church. In 1998 a very small number of people in my village (only one of them a farmer) celebrated the Harvest festival by bringing to the church vegetables and tinned goods (many of foreign provenance) bought in the local branches of an international supermarket chain. In the first case the church provided a religious interpretation of an event of vital significance to the entire community. In the second, a small self-selecting group of Christians engaged in an act of dubious symbolic value. Instead of celebrating the harvest, the service thanked God for all his creation. In listing things for which we should be grateful, one hymn mentioned ‘jet planes refuelling in the sky’! By broadening the symbolism, the service solved the problem of relevance but at the cost of losing direct connection with the lives of those involved. When the total, all-embracing community of like-situated people working and playing together gives way to the dormitory town or suburb, there is little held in common left to celebrate.
The consequence of differentiation and societalization is that the plausibility of any single overarching moral and religious system declined, to be displaced by competing conceptions that, while they may have had much to say to privatized, individual experience, could have little connection to the performance of social roles or the operation of social systems. Religion retained subjective plausibility for some people, but lost its objective taken-for-grantedness. It was no longer a matter of necessity; it was a preference.
In sixteenth-century England, every significant event in the life cycle of the individual and the community was celebrated in church and given a religious gloss. Birth, marriage and death, and the passage of the agricultural seasons, because they were managed by the church, all reaffirmed the essentially Christian worldview of the people. The church’s techniques were used to bless the sick, sweeten the soil and increase animal productivity. Every significant act of testimony, every contract and every promise was reinforced by oaths sworn on the Bible and before God. But beyond the special events that saw the majority of the people in the parish troop into the church, a huge amount of credibility was given to the religious worldview simply through everyday social interaction. People commented on the weather by saying God be praised and on parting wished each other ‘God speed’ or ‘Goodbye’ (which we often forget is an abbreviation for ‘God be with you’).
The consequences of increasing diversity for the place of religion in the life of the state or even the local community are fairly obvious. Equally important but less often considered is the social-psychological consequence of increasing diversity: it calls into question the certainty that believers can accord their religion.
One more Bruce quote:
The clash of ideas between science and religion is less significant than the more subtle impact of naturalistic ways of thinking about the world. Science and technology have not made us atheists. Rather, the fundamental assumptions that underlie them, which we can summarily describe as ‘rationality’ — the material world as an amoral series of invariant relationships of cause and effect, the componentiality of objects, the reproducibility of actions, the expectation of constant change in our exploitation of the material world, the insistence on innovation — make us less likely than our forebears to entertain the notion of the divine.
It’s not that people cease to believe in God under secular modernity, Bruce maintains. Rather, religion ceases to be prominent in informing the social consciousness and cultural milieu of a people. It becomes a privatized thing, with diminishing force in shaping the lives of individuals and of the collective. Can anybody seriously claim that we aren’t there now?
I don’t believe the Benedict Option requires us to withdraw entirely from the public square (though I believe we will be steadily pushed out). But I do believe it requires us to abandon thinking that the point of being Christian is to “influence society” for the good. Consider again this passage from Worthen’s column:
“Our end goal is not a Christian America, either of the made-up past or the hoped-for future,” Dr. Moore writes in “Onward,” his manifesto for the moral minority. “Our end goal is the kingdom of Christ.”
Yes, this a thousand times. As an Orthodox priest and reader of this blog reminded me the other day, St. Benedict did not leave Rome for the forest with the goal of saving what was left of Roman civilization. He left because he needed to be in a place of quiet where he could hear the voice of God, and pray, and worship as he was called to do. All that followed — the founding of the Benedictine order, the writing of the Rule, and in the subsequent centuries, the spread of monasticism and the evangelization of western Europe — came because that one monk, Benedict of Nursia, put the kingdom of God first. Remember what Alasdair MacIntyre said:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
It’s like this: I would like my children and my children’s children to grow up in a free, prosperous, democratic country. But it matters infinitely more to me that they hold on to the Christian faith. Better that they live in an unfree, poor, undemocratic country, but one in which their faith is strong, than a rich one that has forgotten God. The Benedict Option is not ultimately about saving civilization. It is about saving our faith, and cultivating it so that it can live robustly in future generations, despite what I am firmly convinced will be the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.
For us traditionally-inclined Christians, it is time for a Great Relearning of what we have forgotten in modernity. And for that, we are going to have to revisit the Fathers of the Church, and learn from the experience of how the early church formed disciples within a hostile culture. Here’s a 1998 interview with church historian Robert Louis Wilken, in which he talks about this very thing. Excerpts:
What are some of the lessons we can learn from the early church about evangelizing our culture today? For example, should we do apologetics today as the early church did?
A lot of early apologetics was not defense but simple explanation. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr gave an account of Christian worship. He also talked about baptism. He didn’t try only to establish a link to the larger culture or prove Christianity true. He also tried to tell people what Christians actually did in worship and what they believed.
Today I believe the most significant apologetic task is simply to tell people what we believe and do. We need to familiarize people with the stories in the Bible and to talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive. Many people are simply unaware of the basics of Christianity. They’re rejecting something they don’t know that much about.
But apologetics then and now has a limited role. We must speak what is true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We’re really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people.
What about the tightly knit early Christian community—what can we learn from that?
I think that should be a main strategy of Christians today—build strong communities. The early church didn’t try to transform its culture by getting into arguments about whether the government should do this or that. As a small minority, it knew it would lose that battle; there were too many other forces at work. Instead it focused on building its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.
How did the early church build their community?
It built a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture. There were appointed times when the community came together. There was a distinctive calendar, and each year the community rehearsed key Christian beliefs at certain times. There was church-wide charity to the surrounding community. There was clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues. All these things made up a wholesome community.
Did the church strive to be “user-friendly”?
Not at all—in fact, just the opposite.
One thing that made early Christian community especially strong was its stress on ritual. That there was something unique about Christian liturgy, especially the Eucharist. It was different from anything pagans had experienced.
The worship was architecturally different. The altar at a Greek temple was in front of the temple and represented that worship was a public event open to all. In Christian churches, the altar was inside. Worship was something the church gave one the right to enter into.
Furthermore, in Christian worship there was no bloody sacrifice. Prayers and hymns were taken out of the Bible, a book foreign to pagans. And then there was a sermon, an unusual feature in itself, with historically grounded talk of a dying and rising God.
Pagans entered a wholly different world than they were used to. Furthermore, it was difficult to join the early church, besides the social and cultural hurdles: the process for becoming a member took two years.
Do you think we ought to adopt this strategy today?
Yes. I think seeker-sensitive churches use a completely wrong strategy. A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time should feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for “seekers” is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it’s a discipline.
Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well.
Read the whole thing. For Christians who create within their own tradition — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — a Benedict Option, it will be above all a way of life that is about initiation into the kingdom of God, and a life of constant discipleship and formation in love, mercy, repentance, and traditional Christian living. If this means fewer of us get to participate in public life in late imperial America, well, so it does. That is not the most important thing.
After I explained to him what the Benedict Option was, Father Cassian Folsom, the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, told me that he thinks in the years to come, Christians who don’t take some form of the Benedict Option aren’t going to make it through the long darkness now upon the West. He’s right. It is a time for choosing, a time for preparation, and a time for un-learning and re-learning. After all, the real battle is not political, but spiritual.
I’ll end with these photos of the kind of Christians I hope we in the spiritually dessicated West can be. Here is a photo of my friend Father Silouan Thompson, a missionary Russian Orthodox priest in the Philippines. He is chrismating a new Filipino Christian, who was just baptized in the ocean:
Fr. Silouan writes on Facebook:
By our count 187 people were baptized in the ocean this morning [Saturday Sept 26] at Kiamba, Sarangani province. Fr Stanislav Rasputin and I baptized despite unusually boisterous waves. At times it felt like playing with a kennel full of 200-pound mastiffs: You get knocked down repeatedly :). One particularly strong wave took Fr Stanislav’s epitrahil (stole) right off his neck and washed it out to sea; we think it’s halfway to Malaysia by now.
Kiamba is in an area where the Moro Nationalist Liberation Front (Islamic secessionist group) is quite active, and a number of foreigners have been abducted this week by various groups of evildoers; so we were grateful for the escort the Philippine National Police provided for our sacrament and our procession from the church to the beach and back (even if their machine guns were a little strange to American eyes.)
One hundred and eighty-seven Filipinos received baptism in a single day — and they risked their lives at the hands of Islamic terrorists to do so! The Holy Spirit goes where He is wanted.