Dazzling the Pagans
In a lovely and inspiring reflection on the Spiritual Friendship blog (a blog for gay Christians who are celibate), Wesley Hill recalls something a Duke University theologian wrote some years back, talking about how difficult, even impossible, it is to convince people in this era that the orthodox Christian teaching on marriage is true. The theologian said:
What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.
Hill wonders how the Benedict Option would accomplish this:
On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?
I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.
But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.
Hill offers some real-life examples of people he knows, including this one:
Or say you grew up gay and happily irreligious, somewhere between a nominal religious tradition and outright atheism. Say that you’re such a gay activist, so secure in who you are and the cause you’re championing, that no one would ever consider you a candidate for a conversion to orthodox Christianity. But say, nonetheless, that in college you find yourself surrounded by a group of smart, sassy, enjoyable Catholics, and you find, to your growing dismay and/or amusement, that you gradually become more sure that the Catholic Church is right in what it teaches about sex and marriage than you are in your own conviction that gay sex is morally neutral. Say that you become so hungry for Christ—literally—that you end up looking back on your conversion several years later and writing these words: “To receive the Eucharist I had to sign on the dotted line (they make you say, ‘I believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches’ when they bring you into the fold), and I longed intensely for the Eucharist, so I figured, everybody has to sacrifice something. God doesn’t promise that He’ll only ask you for the sacrifices you agree with and understand.” Such, in brief, is the experience of the lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet, one of the contributors to this blog. The experience of “burnished Catholic practice dazzling the pagan eye” happened to her, even if she might not put it exactly that way. And if it happened for someone like Eve—by her own admission, an unlikely convert—it can happen again. Such is an example of the kinds of conversions we might begin to hope for in the coming years. There won’t be droves of them, surely. But there will be some—more than we might expect right now.
Read the whole thing. There are more examples, and they’re all thought-provoking, even, as I said, inspiring. That’s the kind of Benedict Option I want to live. Hill is speaking particularly about witness to gays and lesbians, but I think his point is applicable generally. If we undertake a form of the Benedict Option that is anxious and frightening, it will not bear fruit. It has to be joyful and loving, the kind of thing people want to be a part of.
There has been some great discussion of the Benedict Option on line this month. For example, Leah Libresco reflects on experimenting with the BenOp to work out practical challenges to life in Christian community in the city. In a post from last year that I saw again recently, she defined her idea of the Benedict Option. Leah talked about what a difference it makes in her life, living in the orbit of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Excerpt:
Living supported by the Dominicans does more for me than cultivating piety on my own or even being involved in my church. The brothers (and the sisters studying at their school) offer infusions both of knowledge and of joy for us. They open up the faith so we can study in in greater detail, not just in order to amass more knowledge, but so that we can delight in beauty. They also clear out space for us to experience this delight. And they serve as a Schelling Point where we can find people we can share philia bonds with (“You, too? I thought I was the only one!”). I even went so far as to recommend to one Catholic friend (currently in law school) that he might want to prioritize finding a summer job in DC, so he could have the experience of being in such a rich and lively Catholic community, so he could decide if he wanted to prioritize living here, or someplace like it, when he did longer-term career planning.
The Benedict Option I wanted my eventually-esquired friend to try out was the experience of having some places in his life where Catholicism was an assumption, a community where asking if people wanted to pray Night Office on the way back from a bar wasn’t an unusual request, and there were ready helpers to lead us “further up and further in!”
If I were giving a very short answer to PEG’s question, I would say the Benedict Option isn’t about just working on being more pious (whether alone or in community) but about rearranging your life and community so there are spaces where joyful piety happens to you more often; a few spaces where your Catholicism doesn’t feel like an act of resistance, any more than eating does.
The danger of being besieged by mainstream culture is as much the development of a siege mentality as the actual dangers of the assault. People trapped in a siege mentality let their opponents choose the field, conceding (implicitly) that the most important parts of their faith are the ones that attract the most political pushback — after all, if they weren’t we wouldn’t spend all our time talking about them, right? Feeling besieged encourages Christians (and anyone else) to develop fear, suspicion, and defensiveness. It gives faith a cramped feeling if you mostly experience in contexts of conflict and contrast.
This makes so much sense to me. Funnily enough, we orthodox Christians (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) may well be forced to create the kinds of communities and community spaces that gay people did so the could live out being gay outside of a context of conflict and contrast.
Civilization is dying. Denizens of the manosphere attribute society’s terminal illness to numerous causes, and there are as many prescriptions as there are men, but the fact of Western cvilization’s rapidly approaching demise is acknowledged by all.
Progressive propaganda to the contrary, history is not a straight line culminating in the glorious present, but rather a cycle of various cultures rising and declining. If complete systemic collapse is inevitable, we can take lessons from another time when men saw their world crashing down around them.
In a time of deep cultural decline, Catholics are obligated to preserve the Faith in any way they can, and this includes creating communities to pass on our spiritual inheritance, as the Benedict Option recommends. However, we must not kid ourselves and think that doing so will be easy; it will take using spiritual muscles that have atrophied from neglect and laziness. If we are to take seriously our charge to pass on the Faith to future generations, we need to begin training now for the dark times that we may soon be facing.
The Buckley Option will put a value on political wins, but its primary goal will be cultural sustainability. Within my own Southern Baptist ranks, I’ve noticed a newfound dedication to parent-child discipleship and catechesis, one that places a huge responsibility for child discipleship in the family, rather than outsourcing it solely to a youth pastor on Wednesday or Sunday nights. On this, Buckley and Benedict might well raise their glasses with one another.
The Buckley Option will be distinguished as much for its disposition and attitude as its philosophy and theology. It will stand athwart liberalism and decadence yelling not only “Stop!” but also “Repent!” It must be resolutely orthodox, thundering a joyous defiance as it scoffs at its cultural persecutors.
Every movement needs a distinguishing attitude. The Buckley Option will be as gregarious as Bill Buckley himself. It will simultaneously laugh at, cry for, predict, and counter the silly, harmful messes caused by progressivism. It will embrace good-natured ridicule and satire as a modus operandi for debunking the silliness and incoherence of progressivism. The Buckley Option will shout that the Emperor has no clothes, conquering the Apostles of Secularism with a good dose of laughter and eye-rolling.
Proponents of the Benedict Option must come to recognize that the primary means of opposing the destructive elements of modernity is through the shared pursuit of common goods. How can Dreher’s project, which has been almost exclusively framed in moral and religious terms, adequately account for one of the most important themes of After Virtue: the relationship between socio-economic structures and ethics?
The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.
St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other. Giving credence to Benedict’s insight in our time demands radical efforts to develop new institutions where work and other mundane activities can serve as both a means of cultivating the virtues and as a preparation for the Gospel.
That’s a great point, and for me, one of the most difficult issues I will have to confront as I work this idea out in a book.
Jock McGregor, my tutor during my second term at L’Abri, explained it to me this way: He said that L’Abri is a place that challenges it’s non-Christian students by sharing the Christian faith with them while also welcoming them with a hospitality that is directly attributable to that faith. So as these students consider the intellectual claims of the faith they can’t simply look at the teachings of the faith in an exclusively intellectual way. They are not just principles to be affirmed or rejected. These students are forced to reckon with the undeniable delight of the place and the fact that the people who have created it say it all comes from Christianity. You are, essentially, being asked whether you believe in apples as you enjoy a slice of apple pie.
This is, of course, how all evangelization ought to work but most of the people reading this essay, Christian or not, will have had the experience of being lectured by a boorish believer about why their religious beliefs are true. In such circumstances it is easy to dismiss the person with an exasperated wave of one’s hand. L’Abri, however, is a place that resists such simple dismissals of religious life.
In light of recent conversations, you might reasonably think that L’Abri sounds an awful lot like Rod Dreher’s much-discussed Benedict Option. It’s an intentional community in which people, many of whom are Christian though not all, share life together in a way that resists the accelerated pace and materialist values of the modern west. Indeed, the word “retreat” has often been used to describe L’Abri and L’Abri itself may even invite that characterization since it’s name is the French word for shelter.
But it’s significant that L’Abri’s impact has not been limited to its own institutional life. Nor can L’Abri’s work be reduced down to the thing that a former resident learned while living there or the way it equipped a former resident to do market-focused task X. These are the measures of many modern institutions, of course. They are most notably the measure of the modern university which has become as much a part of the post-industrial “knowledge economy” as Wall Street. But it is not the measure of L’Abri. Rather, L’Abri has become a different world and it has begotten other places like it, places like Littlefield Abbey and Toad Hall.
The begetting is the key. The Benedict Option cannot simply be a refuge or haven from the forces that exist outside of it. It must also be an incubator, a place that remakes the world. If the Benedict Option is not an incubator as well as a retreat it will fail. The world outside does not regard these places with benign indifference. It will either attack them directly as we may see in the post-same-sex marriage world or it will simply eat away at them over time through more gradual but no less deadly means.
This is why Dreher rightly insists that the Benedict Option would be necessary even without the added challenges posed by same-sex marriage. The technocratic, materialist west will grind these places down into nothing just as the industrial economy has obliterated the idea of human people existing as creatures in a family.
Yet this work is not hopeless. The 60 years of L’Abri tell us what can happen in time as these places transform the minds and hearts of the people who come to them and help them to imagine another world. The work of L’Abri is no longer confined to those dozen places that are explicitly affiliated with the institution. It does continue there, but it has also unleashed the people touched by those places to remake the world in their local contexts. Thus it moves forward in places like Littlefield Abbey and Toad Hall, places where the possibility of another world seems immediate and tangible thanks to the warmth, tenderness, and delight that seems to almost exist innately in the place.
Read the whole thing. I can’t do it justice by simply quoting it here.
I’m deeply grateful to everyone for their contributions to developing the Benedict Option idea. We shall dazzle the pagans yet!
Hey, readers, I am leaving this morning for Siena, Italy, where I will be doing some Dante work, but also seeing the Palio. On the weekend, I will be in Lyon, France, meeting James C. for some sightseeing and manger. I will be taking my laptop, because I can’t help myself, but posting will be light, and approving comments will be sporadic. Please be patient. I’ll post something from Siena when I arrive on Monday. Ciao!