Did you know that the theologian David Bentley Hart once published a collection of short stories? I did not, until I read this fascinating reflection on one of them by Joshua Gibbs on the classical education site Circe.org. Here is how the Gibbs piece begins:
Your numbers are dwindling. Your side is losing. Your way of life is passing from this Earth. In bygone eras, your people transmitted your ideals from one generation to the next with ease. Now, you plant a teaching in the heart of your children, and all the world conspires to strip it out before it can take root. The gravity of this world now inclines away from you. When you set the things you love on the ground, they roll away from you like marbles in an uneven house. When you become tired in the evening and your eyelids lower, contrary forces rise to undo all you have accomplished in the day. Your constant worry is how to conserve the good things your people struggled for centuries to obtain, how to keep the gold that flowed toward your kind (mankind, really) in those sane years when your star was on the ascent. Now, that star has begun a scythe-like sweep toward the horizon and you fear that, when it passes from the heavens, it may pass forever. The conundrum is how to spend these years— these years when there is but a little light left, a little beauty, a few statues which remain unsmashed, a few drops of perfume to drive the stench of death and vulgarity away.
Oh, perhaps these words ring quite true to any reader who even sporadically dabbles in the news, but I wasn’t speaking on behalf of contemporary Christians. In truth, I was trying to give voice to the interior worries of Julian the Apostate, that great failed reformer and pagan conservative of 4th century Rome.
Gibbs — and Hart — compare Julian to a 21st century Christian in the West. In the Hart story, though, the emperor is contrasted with a priest of Apollo, a dignified man who keeps the faith with as much honor and dedication as he can muster, even if few others care. More:
As Christianity in the 21st century West goes the way of paganism in 4th century Europe, how will her adherents spend those last few decades of light and warmth? Will we defend our God after Julian’s fashion or after the manner of the priest?
Classical educators have a lot riding on these questions. We have all seen schools (or teachers, or parents, or administers) which trade primarily in images of keeping heads above water. The world is going mad, and we must save it! If we can graduate so many persons from our schools every year, and those graduates are good and fecund rabbits, within three generations we will have so many voters who… How can we regain the cultural upper hand? For others, the loss of the world is a foregone conclusion, and the last 1700 years of human history have been nothing more than a happy, but unexpected and unsustainable holiday from a slowly burgeoning conflagration lit by Diocletian.
Hart’s priest is uninterested in saving the City of Man because his god dwells within. Man is a microcosm, a little universe, and to save one soul (even if it is your own) is to save the world entire. Hart’s priest saves the world, perhaps, the way ten righteous men in Sodom might have saved the entire city. It is not the influence of the priest over the world which saves it, but simply his being in the world, whether recognized by other men or not.
Read the whole thing. The point of it is to explore the question of whether or not to approach the decline of Christianity as a culture warrior or a culture pacifist. If we are bound to go down, should we go down fighting a war we are highly unlikely to win, or go down with our heads held high, our swords still sheathed?
This, by the way, is the moral dilemma at the heart of the great 1980s film The Mission. The mission is going to be destroyed by the state and its people enslaved. Do they fight to the last man, though their cause is hopeless, or do they embrace their martyrdom? Which is the more authentically Christian act? I have always felt strongly that the fighter, played by Robert De Niro, has the better case, but my conscience has never been settled on that. There are no easy answers.
Gibbs’s point in his piece is to say that classical Christian educators who approach their vocation with the idea of raising up culture warriors are going about it wrong. If people do not want your God, no amount of fighting (figuratively) is going to change their minds. There are more effective forms of witness, though you must be prepared to accept the idea that defeat can also be a way of testifying to the Truth.
Many will see this as defeatist; others will see it as realistic. It gives me something to think about as I try to put meat on the bones of the Benedict Option idea. It has never been my belief that the Benedict Option is about raising up a generation of culture warriors, but rather about training ourselves, our children, and our communities in how to live out the faith so that we can hold it and pass it on through a time and a culture that is hostile to Christianity. To develop an angry, fearful siege mentality — to behave like Julian the Apostate, basically — would be to hollow the faith out from within. And yet, to accept defeat passively seems all wrong as well, given the stakes: it is one thing to lose the culture, but quite another to lose the souls of our children and our descendants.
The Benedict Option is meant to be a different strategy. It’s meant to be about how to live faithfully in Babylon, and pass the faith on to our children, and to anyone who wants to join the community of believers. That is the aim. Perhaps the Anonymous Priest of Apollo model is depressing because we know that his mission is hopeless, and we don’t want ours to be, and it really can’t be, not if our God (unlike his) is real. We Christians are told that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church.
But we are not promised that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church in all places and all times. Our defeat in the West, if that is what the spreading apostasy means, does not mean the light goes out for the whole world. But we are men and women of the West, and we have children; we cannot be indifferent to the spreading darkness. As with Julian the Apostate, much depends on how we react to the signs of the times.