Culture

Dynamic Christianity vs. the Benedict Option

(Photo: Petarneychev/Dreamstime)
Believers, the culture needs you.

Jesus Christ was not a politician. His Kingdom was not of this world. Nevertheless, his political savvy was on full display on the final day of his mortal life. We generally don’t urge political appointees to be “Christlike” in their confirmation hearings, but perhaps we should.

Face to face with the conviction-hungry Annas, Jesus avoids testifying about his actual teachings by pointing out that half the city has heard him preach. He knows that the high priest is terrified of the court of public opinion. Standing before the Roman prefect, Jesus immediately seizes the upper hand by proving that he fully understands the swirling political currents prompting this fateful trial. Pilate, who does not understand, breaks down at once. (“Am I a Jew?” he explodes in frustration. “Your people have brought you to me. What have you done?”)

The entire Passion narrative presents us with a remarkable juxtaposition of profound, world-altering events and petty politics. We get glimpses into the motivations of all the major players: the Sanhedrin, wanting someone else to handle the dirty work of silencing this shrewd social critic; Pontius Pilate, a harried bureaucrat, reluctantly answering their wish because he is terrified of being labeled an “enemy of Caesar”; Jesus Christ, adroitly getting himself convicted without violating earthly law, to save mankind from their sins.

We are not the first people in history to grapple with a confusing interplay between sweeping eschatological narratives and the tawdry tangle of temporal affairs.

In our day, American Christians struggle to juxtapose a narrative of cultural decline against a faith that they believe will endure to the end of time. This past month, that discussion took an interesting twist following the release of several books that were written when most of us expected to be living under the enlightened reign of our first female president. Sober and bracing, these books explore the question of how Christians can remain Christian in a libertine, secular society. Suddenly religious conservatives found themselves in a conversation they would have had probably with far greater intensity had the Democrats won last November.

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been particularly influential, igniting controversy with the suggestion that “the culture war as we knew it is over” and that Christians should focus their energies on building families and smaller communities that are self-consciously countercultural. That book was complemented in interesting ways by Anthony Esolen’s apocalyptic Out of the Ashes and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s less extreme but still bracing Strangers in a Strange Land, which offers advice on “living the Catholic faith in a post-Christian world.”In concert, these books have thrown Christians into a debate about the wisdom of radical withdrawal as a means of coping with cultural loss. Should Christians stay engaged in political and cultural battles? Or is it better to accept our losses and focus on the higher things?

The Benedict Option was controversial in large part because religious conservatives are already very attracted to quietist modes of thought. Quietism, a posture of spiritual detachment, has appeared in various forms throughout Christian history and culture. It gains force when a culture is in decline or elites become overtly hostile to Christianity. Withdrawal holds appeal, not only because the world is hard but also because Christians believe themselves to be the inheritors of a rich tradition that promises something better. To Christian faithful, life is first and foremost a quest for eternal redemption. If the mainstream culture seems uncongenial to that journey, there will always be some who judge it best to give up the fight for the world and to focus instead on forging a less perilous path for themselves and their loved ones.

American Christians struggle to juxtapose a narrative of cultural decline against a faith that they believe will endure to the end of time.

Throughout Christian history, many believers have withdrawn from the world for such reasons. But quietist movements are also a familiar part of American tradition; our nation’s history is peppered with self-segregated faith communities. Some denominations, like the Anabaptists and Hutterites, explicitly prescribe a more segregated lifestyle. Other communities identify with a larger denomination but collectively commit to a prescribed countercultural lifestyle. Americans are a people with a robust religious foundation, a strong commitment to freedom, and relatively shallow cultural roots. Experimenting with faith in community seems natural to us.

It’s been fascinating to read of late the multiple firsthand accounts of modern experiments that haven’tgone well. Worldly withdrawal is a hard row to hoe, which is why we probably needn’t worry too much that droves of Americans will suddenly decide to “go Benedict.” There will never be so verymany who want to give up modern comforts and securities to become turnip farmers, and it’s not necessarily bad to have a few. Traditionalist experimentation can yield benefits for society, just as other forms of innovation can be beneficial. Tiny, traditionalist communities may succeed in uncovering or preserving certain salutary truths that have been lost to the culture at large. In any case, a free society should be able to make room for a few such endeavors.

Christians may still have good reasons, though, for resisting the spread of a new quietism. Mass migration from mainstream culture is unlikely — far more serious is the risk of demoralization. While “the few” exert themselves to answer the quietist call, “the many” may just lay down their swords without picking up their ploughshares. Might not Dreher’s grim analysis persuade religious conservatives to disengage from public life, passively allowing the progressive Left to consume their remaining cultural strongholds? Instead of a network of vibrant faith communities, we could end up with a diffuse population of embittered reactionaries, clinging in isolation to whatever shreds of tradition they think they can manage to save.

In the end, the question that confronts us concerns the possibility of finding some new harmony between faith and (existing) culture. The quietist is inclined to see society as a lost cause; the only reasonable course is to get busy pulling what we can from the wreckage. That image resonates with American Christians in a moment when we are facing (really for the first time in our nation’s history) a serious eclipse of Christianity as our country’s dominant cultural-religious force. At one time, our faith was widely acknowledged to be foundational to American law and culture; today Christians find ourselves battling taxpayer-funded institutions that actively undermine our way of life, even as millennia-old doctrine is reclassified as “bigotry.” It’s alarming and often bruising. A few have lost their livelihoods in the scuffle, while nearly all committed Christians find it necessary to withdraw from at least some aspects of mainstream culture, especially to protect their children.

It’s fine to discuss practical strategies for how to do this. Still, the autumnal mood of these conversations can become overwhelming. We need to remember that Christianity is a dynamic faith, not meant to be lived in a defensive crouch. The political and social challenges of our present moment are formidable indeed, which is precisely why Christians as a group must not withdraw. The society they live in still needs them. We need to bring to the table the vast wisdom and resources of our faith, charting a path forward for all our compatriots and not just the chosen few.

We need to remember that Christianity is a dynamic faith, not meant to be lived in a defensive crouch.

Is this even possible? The question ought to strike us as absurd. To those who worry that modernity is simply incompatible with Christian life, we should note that Christianity has ever been a faith of fruitful paradoxes. It has a remarkable capacity to combine pragmatic flexibility with an unbending doctrinal and moral core. Intensely communal in some respects, Christians are warned by Christ himself that they must be prepared to “hate” even their own families. The Christian philosophical and literary tradition stands majestically in the background of all Western civilization, never losing its dogmatic integrity; despite that, Christian Gospels denigrate the wisdom of the wise, and elevate young children as exemplars of celestial perfection. Christianity disparages legalism and worldly materialism. Nevertheless, Christians laid a foundation for modern commerce and democratic rule of law, even as they battled Islamic rivals under the banners of the Prince of Peace.

Some, of course, would see these “fruitful paradoxes” as just a maze of contradictions. Even acknowledging that the Babe of Bethlehem started with some admirable aspirations (to serve the poor, and to liberate his followers from the tyrannical excesses of Jewish legalism), Christianity’s detractors often characterize his followers as raging hypocrites, zealously embracing the same violence, greed, and pharisaical moralism that Jesus himself found so abhorrent. If that picture is right, we must at least say: For a hot mess of pious platitudes and contradictory claims, Christianity has remarkable staying power. Personality cults come and go, but the Jewish carpenter has held strong for nearly two millennia, today claiming almost 40 times as many living followers as voted for Trump in the last election. The lamb may look vulnerable, but he’s proven to be very resilient.

Quietist-type thinking trains us to look on our culture with an eye only for the things we cannot change. Dreher traces our current malaise back to philosophical errors deep within the modern psyche, although at the same time he also blames Christians for their own downfall, contending that they were too willing to sell their birthright for short-term political victories. Our current struggles, it seems, were somewhat inevitable; nevertheless, in Dreher’s view, we should blame ourselves and don sackcloth.

Christians have their failings, to be sure, but it seems perverse to paint ourselves into grim corners when our co-religionists (living and dead) have such a remarkable history of surviving and thriving under diverse circumstances. It’s one thing to sacrifice worldly glory for the sake of higher goals, but are our eyes really turned upward? Or are we simply reeling from recent cultural losses whose impact we haven’t yet fully absorbed? There’s no doubt that Christians have lost ground in the culture lately, and it’s reasonable to mourn those losses. But how long must we spend by the waters of Babylon, weeping for Billy Graham and Fulton Sheen? We must recall in the paradoxical Christian faith that losing can be winning, and too much winning can be the most soul-destroying thing of all.

Finally, it is important to recognize that withdrawal could represent a lost opportunity for the nation at large. The Christian tradition contains rich philosophical and cultural resources that America may need if it is to work through contemporary social crises. Consider our most pressing modern problems. Global markets have generated tremendous wealth, but far too many people are now marginalized, alienated, and lacking in purpose. Modern nation-states are finding it difficult to maintain democratic norms in increasingly diverse and polarized societies. On a more individual level, it’s difficult in our interconnected world to balance obligations toward those close to us against the claims of the further removed. Globalization has created a whole host of practical and cultural challenges, which in turn give rise to social unrest.

What philosophical or cultural tradition has experience addressing these sorts of issues? Might we find some helpful hints in a religion that’s spent the past 2,000 years bathing the globe in a message about God’s all-encompassing love, preaching it tirelessly to a divided, stratified, and wildly diverse array of humans? For centuries before our nation was even born, Christianity struggled to reconcile the dignity of the individual person with the broader need for social cohesion. Is now really the moment for Christians to throw in the towel?

Jesus Christ was not a politician. Still he was aware that the political realm can have great relevance to mankind’s quest for salvation. As we see in the Passion narrative, mere humans rarely appreciate the eschatological significance of their tawdry political struggles. God sees how they matter.

From Jesus’ time to our own, Christians have labored diligently to be salt and light to a fallen world. We never fully triumph. All the same, we should press forward with hope, believing that the best is yet to come. Even in the darkest hours, Christians are in a position to know that the sweetest victory may only be a sunrise away.

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