When Kuyper Meets Benedict
My Southern Baptist pal and co-conspirator Andrew T. Walker bridges the gap between St. Benedict and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the Neo-Calvinist thinker whose thought and work is highly influential among many conservative Protestants today. Walker calls the Benedict Option a “turn to deliberative Christianity.” That’s fair. Then:
Dreher’s proposal has also received a lot of criticism. Critics accuse Dreher of a newfound and rebranded quietism or pietism—a Christianity that shirks social responsibility and instead retreats to the hills. These critics often hail from the transformationalist camp of Christianity, a paradigm that believes that Christianity must always engage with the forefront of culture for the sake of mission or else it will run the risk of disobeying the inherently transformative nature of Christianity. Many look to the 19th century Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper as the forerunner of Transformationalism or neo-Calvinism. For our purposes, let’s refer to this as the “Kuyper Option.” I’ve even heard this sentiment referred to as “The Wilberforce Option” at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Gospel and Politics conference in honor of William Wilberforce whose Christian presence in 19th century England helped bring slavery to an end as an institution.
Walker says that the Ben Op and the “Kuyper Op” don’t have to be at odds with each other. He interprets (again, correctly) my Ben Op thinking as saying not that we have to become Anabaptists, withdrawing fully from public life for the sake of the Gospel, but rather that the state of the Church in post-Christianity, and the nature of our secularism, is such that some form of retreat is vital if we are going to nurture properly the inner life of the Church, so it can be the Church in the world.
The Kuyperians, or Transformationalists, are strongly mission-minded, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, and much right with it. But if they are going to succeed in this time and in this place, they are going to need a great deal more interior building.
I see the primary difference in the two paradigms as between an interior Christianity (Benedict) and an exterior Christianity (Kuyper). Transformationalists insist upon scaling the walls of every sector of culture in order to see Christ’s Lordship ultimately stamped upon it. Here, Kuyper needs Benedict. To scale the walls, it will require a type of people that are formed and self-aware. An interior concern is conscious of who Christians must be in order to exist. An exterior approach is conscious of what Christians do to live faithfully.
Now, there may be serious disagreement between the camps between what each thinks what influence is feasible at the moment. That, I believe, might be the biggest point of conflict. Dreher is pessimistic about opportunities to see change happen and believes that the secularist advance is dominant and unstoppable in the short term. To him, we are irreparably post-Christian in the short-term. The Transformationalists, on the other hand, believe that no momentary hesitation or acknowledged self-retreat is allowable. If there’s an opportunity to influence the culture, it should be taken because Christ’s Lordship over the cosmos requires a witness heralding this lordship over every arena of life and culture. A Kuyper Option understands that Christianity, by definition, is public truth.
A congruence of a Transformationalist Benedict Option may mean, supremely, that our method and expectations change.
But let me say very soberly: There will not be transformation in the headwinds now facing us if there isn’t deep identity and resolve to orthodox Christianity. No longer can parents simply rely on an ambient culture to disciple their kids in the way of the American way of life if the American way of life means subliminal paganism. There’s a realization setting in that the faith of their childhood cannot be passively absorbed. It will require catechesis. I see this happening within my own ranks of conservative Christianity, most of which unabashedly loves culture and wants to benefit it.
Yes, yes, yes. We conservative Christians are by and large not prepared to live in the world as it is now, because we don’t fully appreciate its challenges, and are not doing the contemplative work relative to these changing times. I’m thinking this morning of folks I met on this recent trip back East, who told me about educated, successful people in their own Christian communities who don’t grasp how their uncritical embrace of their lifestyle within the culture of professional advancement and meritocracy undermines the orthodox Christianity they profess, and would like to pass on to their children. Too often they conflate Christianity with the American Way of Life, and don’t see what they’re doing because they believe that personal piety suffices to cover a multitude of disorders. I confess that I am also guilty of this more often than I care to think.
See, this is why we small-o orthodox Christians need each other in this project. We are seeing the same things within the broader Church in America, and within our own churches. And we can bring our particular experiences and insights to bear on building the resistance. I don’t expect that Evangelicals interested in the Benedict Option will become Orthodox, or Catholic, but I do hope that they will be able to find things in the life and practices of the older, more contemplative churches that help root them more firmly in a structure of prayer and living. And I hope that Orthodox and Catholic Christians will be able to benefit from the admirable passion that Evangelicals have for acting in this world for the sake of the Gospel.
By the way, here’s an amusing and helpful Improbable Guide to the Rule of St. Benedict, a one-sentence summary of each chapter of the Rule. It was devised by Brandon Buerge, with whom one imagines one would like to drink a beer.