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Leviathan vs. Benedict

Brian Mattson quotes the historian Christopher Dawson (d. 1970) criticizing the possibility of the Benedict Option in modernity — that is, in a modern state [1]. From Dawson:

So long as an overwhelming majority of member of the American Congress are at least nominal church members, there is little possibility of the State adopting an actively anti-Christian policy. But the prospect for the future is more disquieting. For the more completely secularized public education becomes, and the more the State acquires an educational monopoly, as it is bound to do, considering the growing cost of education, the more the Christian element in our culture will diminish and the more complete will be the victory of secularization as the working religion, or rather counter-religion, of the American people. Even today the public school is widely regarded not as a purely educational institution in the nineteenth century sense – that is, as an elementary introduction to the literary and scientific traditions of culture – but as a moral training in citizenship, an initiation and indoctrination in the American way of life; and since the public school is essentially secular this means that only the secular aspects of American culture are recognized as valid. It is only a short step from here to the point at which the Christian way of life is condemned and outlawed as a deviation from the standard patterns of social behavior.

Mattson adds:

You will not be left alone to huddle with like-minded people. You are an enemy of humanity and society, and you will be given no quarter. By all means, gather with other Christians and strengthen your community. But this is not and cannot be an alternative to social and cultural engagement.

I appreciate this very much. I really do. I have been kicking around Benedict Option notions for years, but have never felt compelled to think through it in a hard and systematic way, until recently. This kind of thing is very, very helpful.

I’ll say this, though. Not long ago, a senior figure engaged in legal strategy on religious freedom issues told me that we cannot disengage from court fights and politics, because we have no choice but to keep fighting to protect ourselves. But we should not be under any illusions about the prospect of any kind of solid or lasting victory, nor should we deceive ourselves by thinking that winning lawsuits and elections is any kind of alternative to doing the hard, long, necessary work of building a strong, resilient Christian culture.

Not “either/or” but “both/and”. What else is there to do?

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63 Comments To "Leviathan vs. Benedict"

#1 Comment By Herenow On May 13, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

I hold some religious beliefs that you would probably consider very strange. And I am quite comfortable talking about them in my day to day life, business and the social. People just think I’m a bit eccentric, and don’t take my religious views very seriously. I suspect, though, that this is not what you are aiming for.

I wonder if you could sketch out, possibly in a future post, what a successful Benedict Option would actually look like, for an individual, a family and a community? One is supposed to start any new undertaking with a clearly defined vision and set of goals. What would be the vision and goals of the Benedict Option?

No doubt you have many other priorities, but it would be interesting to hear you talk about your aspirations.

Thanks

#2 Comment By Antony On May 13, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

You can’t piss and moan about being cut off from the institutions of the modern world while the entire premise of your cohesive religious existence is standing against the modern world. To use one of this site’s favorite mascots: There won’t be any Amish universities shut down for not recognizing same sex marriages. That’s how you stand against modernity. By not being modern. At all. No Whole Foods. No college for the kids. No conventional finance or employment. No public school. No public library. Bourgeois Crunchy Conservatives will always be dissatisfied because they won’t reject modernity and secular community even while they reject Modernity and The World. If you’re reading this, and it wasn’t printed out or copied down in fine carolingian script by a helpful heathen neighbor, I guarantee you’re not happy and won’t be soon.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 14, 2015 @ 1:51 am

“PS: That’s all to say, “Yes, we definitely lost.”

this is a peculiar comment. no one is going to outlaw fundamentalists anytime soon, even as a plot to get to everyone else.

#4 Comment By Passing By On May 14, 2015 @ 5:03 am

You’ve got a theory that when traditionalist Christians become a minority, the modern state will oppress them. Believe whatever you like, but the empirical evidence is against you …

First, America has a wide array of religious minorities that ask some distinct “traditional” behaviors from their adherents–LDS, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Amish, Santeria, Buddhist, etc. etc. And most have further sub-divisions, minorities within the minorities, who ask for even more traditional behaviors. All of these groups are much smaller and more-exotic than traditionalist Christianity will ever be. On your theory, an oppressive state should have ground them down to powder long ago. In reality, they’ve flourished in America.

Second, many countries in Europe have moved much further than the USA towards what you call “post-Christianity”. On your theory, those states should be oppressing their Christians; but they don’t.

You may want to re-consider your theory …

#5 Comment By Grumpy realist On May 14, 2015 @ 7:42 am

Dominic–I hadn’t thought about the number of teachers , although that seems to be a problem at the lower levels. I had been thinking more about the quality of professors. If your religion doesn’t produce great doctors, physicists, biologists, linguists, etc. etc. and so forth, you’re always going to find yourself at a disadvantage when it comes to staffing your university if you want to keep it purely among those of your belief system. Unless you pick the best, regardless in which case you get into the whole question of how much can the university insist their employees follow religious doctrine and all that mess.

#6 Comment By Anne On May 14, 2015 @ 11:16 am

“What would they really have to offer that anyone would want?”

Aside from all these fears about personal survival, Christians have to face that question if we expect any real future for the faith, which is, after all, our common commission, not personal, much less familial, survival. Jesus himself wasn’t big on “family values, ” but he had a great deal to say about what human beings are looking for — namely, meaning and purpose in their lives, i.e., what man lives on besides bread.

That still is a pearl of great price. Unfortunately, too many Christians so overvalue the idea of meeting “a demanding faith” they effectively drain all the good out of the Good News. Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder much of the younger generation finds the message ultimately unappealing, a problem no amount of focusing on the “bad news” of man’s sinfulness, need for forgiveness (or even spiritual rehab), from a wrathful God. As Christian mystic Susan Pitchford has noted, that attitude comes down to “opening a trenchcoat and scaring people with the gospel.”

That worked well in late antiquity when most pagans already shared that general fear of the gods, but ironically, 2,000 years of Christian influence has convinced most people today that, if there is a God, he loves us. When young people turn on their churches, it’s most often because they think they aren’t following this central tenet. Still, without the Church, the hope of meaning and life beyond life fades, leaving people empty and still fearful when they face the big issues of loneliness and death. That’s where the Good News comes in…when Christians aren’t too busy deploring this or that to preach it.

#7 Comment By grumpy realist On May 14, 2015 @ 11:30 am

The one problem with the Amish route is they don’t seem to be producing any people in a profession that requires many years of education. How many Amish brain surgeons are there?

Which means that if the Amish need brain surgery, they’re going to have to go outside the enclave.

It would behoove those who wish to follow the Amish route to then cultivate a sense of humility and appreciation towards the rest of society that provides them with the services they cannot provide for themselves. Calling people outside the enclave “non-Amish” is okay. Saying that they are damned for eternity is not.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 14, 2015 @ 2:03 pm

Passing By, I think you’re mostly right, but suppose someone wrote a legal brief equating suppression of polygamy with condemnation of homosexuality as a sin?

Your inclusion of Mormons in the list brought this to mine. After all, the law DID essentially suppress a practice once central to Mormon doctrine.

I think the fact that the LDS church promoted an affirmative practice that violated a law of general application, whereas a doctrine about homosexuality is essentially no more than good advice, in the negative, about something people may or may not do anyway since the law does not prohibit, would provide the basis for a distinction.

A church that promoted homosexuality at a time when the practice was subject to criminal penalties would perhaps be a better comparison. But don’t underestimate the creative way legal precedents can be twisted.

#9 Comment By kermit On May 14, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

I appreciate this very much. I really do. I have been kicking around Benedict Option notions for years, but have never felt compelled to think through it in a hard and systematic way, until recently. This kind of thing is very, very helpful.

you’re welcome

#10 Comment By Rob G On May 14, 2015 @ 5:52 pm

“First, America has a wide array of religious minorities that ask some distinct “traditional” behaviors from their adherents–LDS, Jewish, Baha’i, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Amish, Santeria, Buddhist, etc. etc. And most have further sub-divisions, minorities within the minorities, who ask for even more traditional behaviors. All of these groups are much smaller and more-exotic than traditionalist Christianity will ever be. On your theory, an oppressive state should have ground them down to powder long ago. In reality, they’ve flourished in America.”

None of those faiths is/was either A) the majority or B) big enough to be any sort of threat to progressivism. Furthermore, liberalism arose within what would loosely be called Christendom, and takes many of its tenets for its own. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, has been the bête noire of liberalism since day one.

~~Second, many countries in Europe have moved much further than the USA towards what you call “post-Christianity”. On your theory, those states should be oppressing their Christians; but they don’t.~~

One need not persecute with violence when you can achieve the same results by ghettoizing and marginalizing the faithful. The goal is to prevent them from hindering “progress.” How that goal is reached is of secondary importance.

#11 Comment By Anne On May 15, 2015 @ 5:39 am

“One need not persecute with violence when you can achieve the same results by ghettoizing and marginializing the faithful.”

Keep this paranoia going, and before long even praise from progressives will be seen as another strategy for keeping the Christian majority down.

Come to think of it, couldn’t this whole Benedict Option scheme be part of their ghettoizing and marginalizing plan?

#12 Comment By Rob G On May 16, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

“Come to think of it, couldn’t this whole Benedict Option scheme be part of their ghettoizing and marginalizing plan?”

The original Benedictines were neither ghettoized nor marginalized. The monasteries, despite being “separate,” continued to speak to and influence the society around them. It’s precisely this speech and influence that progressivism doesn’t like.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On May 18, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

I think Anne and Rob G are both on to something. Bendictine communities were not a brave minority in a hostile world. They were a rallying point with substantial support among the general population. So the “Benedict Option” may be mis-named.

On the other hand, isolating people of certain views from the general population as little impotent groups of weird people may indeed be part of the plan. It worked rather well in containing the upsurge of the late 1960s, to neighborhoods like Haight-Ashbury and revolutionary sandboxes on particularly “leftist” college campuses.

I mention that as someone who grew up in Joe McCarthy’s home town, watching radicals in Madison migrate to California rather than trying to do some serious organizing that would make sense to the culturally conservative working class population I went to school with.