Considering the Benedict Option

I have been following with some interest over the last year (or so) the musings on the right — particularly the writings of Rod Dreher — about “the Benedict Option,” the withdrawal (strategic more than tactical) of conservative Christians in the face of successive losses in America’s ongoing “culture war,” particularly same-sex marriage.

I’ve been following it all with some amusement. I understand for those who are cultural conservatives — I am not, though I am sympathetic to social and cultural conservatives in some important ways — this is a serious business. I cannot take seriously the “fight” for religious liberty, given that not all that long ago, many Christian Conservatives didn’t really believe in religious liberty — certainly not for non-Christians and likely as well for non-Conservative Christians — and long wanted to legally establish and privilege church membership and practice. Attorney General Ed Meese, in fact, argued for a bit in the 1980s that the Constitution did not prohibit states from establishing official churches — something that conservatives occasionally muttered well into the 1990s. (This is both true and ignorant of supreme court precedent from the 1920s which extended the language of the 14th Amendment to the states, and thus did effectively prohibit state establishment.)

(And let us not even speak of Rome and it’s long profession of “no freedom for error.”)

But no matter on this. I may not trust the motives of religious conservatives, but the fight for “religious liberty” is a pointless, rearguard action. But otherwise, I’m really supportive of “The Benedict Option.” I think it’s something American Christians should have started thinking about long, long ago.

However, I have done so from my reading and understanding of the biblical story. And not from this realization so brilliantly put by Damon Linker in The Week:

Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

So, here is my take on what is happening, and how American Christians should think about it, react to it, and live in the world. (A note to my editor — I’d like to write a whole book on this!)

The most important presupposition I have here is that the history of Israel in scripture — especially the Deuteronomistic History — is our history, and is the best way of morally understanding what is happening to us and why. I see this history as the story of Israel’s elevation to and failure as a polity. That failure was entirely internal, and it was the result of and a product of Israel’s wealth and power. When we want to understand what is happening to us — the church — I believe this story, and only this story, gives us the tools to understand what is happening, why, and how God might be present.

But this is only a metaphor. I’m not arguing some form of “all this has happened before and it will happen again.” But I do believe the history of Israel tells us some important things: about how God is active in our history as a called community of people, and how human beings cannot help but act.

That’s less set-up than I’d like, and we can argue this out (for example, I really don’t know what to do with the sense that Jesus changed Israel’s history forever) in the coming days. But here’s my thesis.

Christendom was an accident of history. That is, it is to the church what Israel’s demand for a king was in 1 Samuel 8 — a rejection of God as Israel’s ruler. That thing Israel should not want but wanted anyway. (As much as I admire Andrew Perriman, I do not agree with him that Christendom represented the judgment of “the nations” and their being placed under the rule of Christ. I don’t know what that judgment was, but I don’t think it was Christendom.) And it was wrong for all the reasons Samuel tells Israel in 1 Samuel 8:10-18.

But we get Christendom, and through it, there are incredible blessings. Again, God gives Israel the king God says Israel should not want — the king God says IS Israel’s faithlessness — and then proceeds to make promises to Israel through that king, particularly David (2 Samuel 7). In this, God shows that He is willing to work with the most faithless of human desires toward the salvation of the world.

In fact, I think one of the more audacious questions to ponder is: what if Jesus really did speak to Constantine, and really did tell him to conquer?

Such it is with Christendom. It allowed for the creation of a high civilization that would go one to conquer much of the world. But just as Israel’s wealth and power encouraged idolatry (especially with Solomon, and the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel) and a faith in a standing army to protect Israel rather than trust in God. (The revolt that Jereboam leads against Solomon’s son Rehoboam is the direct result of heavy taxes and forced labor to support that large army and the huge royal court — all things contained in Samuel’s warning.) What I see scripture saying here is: power and wealth are their own undoing.

Modernity and Enlightenment are products of Christendom. The church birthed and nurtured them. They arose, much like medieval natural law, in a Christendom context. But unlike Christendom, which makes God-centered/Christ-centered truth claims, modernity makes world-centered and man-centered truth claims. And these are frequently at odds with the truth claims of the church. (I owe the radical orthodox this understanding.)

One day, I asked myself: was there a better way for the church to have engaged modernity than it did? Was their something better than Friederich Schleiermacher’s surrender to the truth claims of modernity and Rome’s attempt to plug its ears and sing “la la la!” and willfully ignore modernity’s truth claims? (I say with only a vague understanding of what Schleiermacher actually did, so I may be very wrong about this.) I pondered this for a while, and then considering Israel’s history, I realized:

No, there was not.

There was no ground between surrender and avoidance. The church that surrendered became the liberal church — and here, I mean the church that came to believe in liberal means and liberal ends. The church that saw itself as playing the role of chaplain and manager of souls and wellbeing in the mass industrial, liberal state. (At some point I will define what I mean by liberalism, but I do not mean here the political persuasion, but the intellectual tradition.) The church accepted science, reason, democracy, and the state-centered society. It accepted its role in that society. This was christendom within liberalism. Even so-called fundamentalist and conservative churches have accepted the liberal consensus.

In the United States, this meant that being a Christian and being a good citizen were the same thing. There was no daylight between the two things. As an example, at the height of American Christendom in the 1950s, Jack Webb could do a public service announcement for Dragnet during Crime Prevention Week imploring listeners to read the Bible because that would make them better citizens and help make their communities safer places to live.

This is the kind of gross utilitarianism that was American Christendom in modernity.

But back to the matter of the church confronting the truth claims of modernity. (And yes, I need to spend some time fleshing out exactly what those are, but they center on human nature and human purposes.) If there was no good way for the church to confront them, that what does our collapse — an issue Christians have wrung their hands over long before the most recent Pew poll — mean?

Simple. Enlightenment and Modernity are the equivalent of Assyrians and Babylonians. They are God’s judgement on a faithless church. A church whose sins — like Israel — were idolatry and a failure to care for the poorest and weakest in its midst. Not because popes and princes and kings and presidents danced around Astheroth poles. But because we Christians came to trust in our power, our own might, our wealth, our knowledge, the world we had made with our very own hands, rather than the saving works of God.

We forgot to see where God is really at work in history. We came to think it was in the stories of nations, and wars, and struggles, and movements, and elections, and even ideas. But it isn’t. The history that should matter to us is the one we participate in every Sunday in worship. It’s in the love we show to neighbors, and the witness we bear. In becoming just one more part of “society,” we forgot that we were the body of Christ.

This realization freed me from thinking there was a way to deal successfully with Assyria and Babylon. It freed me from the fear we might lose.

Because we will lose. We have already lost.

But there is amazing good news in this. Scripture tells us several things. First and foremost, it tells us how to live faithfully knowing we have already lost.

In 1 Kings 17, the strange figure of Elijah pops out of nowhere. The Elijah and Elisha stories, along with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, tell us how to live under occupation and the threat of constant war. Elijah confronts Ahab and his idolatrous queen Jezebel, and does miracles among the Assyrians (Elisha continues this). Elijah and Elisha do not withdraw from Israel, nor do they defect to Assyria, but they confront both — Israel with its idolatry and Assyria with the promise that “there is a prophet in Israel.” This is a faithful living that seeks not its rights, its safety (yes, I know, Elijah fled Jezebel), or its freedom, but rather seeks to witness to the world the power and grace of God. And does so under incredibly difficult circumstances (read 2 Kings 8:7-15 and tell me otherwise).

Whether Elijah and Elisha knew they lived in a doomed society — worshiped in a doomed church — or not is irrelevant. They lived in the world knowing what they were called to do, regardless of what was happening around them. (I believe the same can be said of Jesus and his disciples.)

The second thing this tells me is that the church should be focusing on our own sins, and not the sins of others. This is the prophetic critique of Jeremiah, and he spends his days walking around besieged Jerusalem telling everyone who listens that fighting is pointless, surrender is better, and that the Kingdom of Judah has no one to blame but itself for its predicament. In the short term, defeat is coming, and we who survive are going into exile. And it is coming not because homosexuals can marry, but because our ancestors put their faith entirely in their own power and knowledge, and made it increasingly impossible to live otherwise. Because they sought to make a world without God. A world in which men were gods.

This cannot be reversed. No repentance will avert this. The Babylonians are at the gate, besieging the city. We will be overrun and sent into exile. We will mourn and weep along the banks of a foreign river. There is no avoiding it. Blessings and curses. It is unfair, but it is the way of God. (We should read Lamentations, especially chapter three, often.)

But Jeremiah, the most gloomy of prophets — who in the midst of war counsels defeat, refuses to support the troops, and says those who surrender and flee will gain their lives — also tells us redemption will come. “There is hope for your future,” he said. “Your children shall come to their own country.” Because of the promises God made to David — promises God made to a king we should never have wanted — redemption is coming.

I do not know what that means. I do know that in Christ, who fulfills and is the fulfillment of all promises made to Israel, we have hope for the future. (Again, the weakness in my metaphor, and therefore my story, is the place of Jesus. I read the Old Testament christologically, with Jesus as the foundation, but in many ways, Jesus is something of an add-on to my argument here, and I’d like him to be more.) But not tomorrow. Some will be carried away by the Assyrians and never heard from again. Some will perish at the hands of the Babylonians, who will destroy much. And some will be carried off to Babylon, and languish in exile.

But redemption is coming. Because we are not a people who trust in survival, who fight tooth and nail to live so that we may exist and ensure. We are a resurrection people. We trust that just as God raised Jesus out of the tomb, so will God give life to dead bones and gather those who have been scattered. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not in my lifetime. But someday.

I trust God. I trust God.

And we need to live like people who trust God.

So yes, by all means, form communities to hold on to knowledge, raise and train children, and pass on what needs to be passed on. Create places where we can cultivate and live out Christ-centered lives. Heck, bargain for our place in society — something churches have always done in non-Christian polities. But let’s get the story right and really understand what is happening here. We are not suffering because somehow the world has abandoned us. We are the generation unfortunate enough to see the consequences of our own past sinfulness as church, our own idolatry, an idolatry manifest in our worship of ourselves and our faith in the things we can do. (Or worse, think we ought to be able to do.)

And so, this brief essay is a very rough outline of what I’d like to be my contribution to the whole “Benedict Option” discussion. I think I can get a book out of this. A short one — 150 pages, maybe.

2 thoughts on “Considering the Benedict Option

  1. First, I wanted to say that all this is magnificently expressed, and your connecting the church to Israel in this way is on target, for what my view is worth.

    I’ll try to add a few thoughts with the aim of developing Jesus as more than an “add-on” as you say. I have been greatly influenced by the book “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews” by Madigan and Levenson. They aim among other things to establish a sort of continuity in the idea of resurrection and eternal life between Temple Judaism and Christianity. In spite of the absence of a clear doctrine of an afterlife in the Hebrew scriptures proper, there is certainly great value attached to life, and a distinction between those who “go down to Sheol” and those who live in the favor and presence of God. Death is separation from God, and from the divine image and nature. The authors claim that the repository of Life with God is the Temple itself, a place where (in some sense, at least) the power of death has been cast out, and the vitality, purity and peace of life with God is maintained, and can be accessed by mortal men. For Jews, the temple is now manifested in Torah and especially in all the community and family observances which recreate the sanctuary of life. For Christians, Jesus has become the embodiment of the Temple. It has been a few years since I read the book, so I may be mixing in some ideas from other sources here, and leaving out some important ones, but that is the gist I wanted to convey.

    A promise of life was given to Abraham, in terms of the number of his descendants. To David was given the promise of the Kingdom. With the building of the Temple by Solomon (apostate he may have become notwithstanding), the anti-Sheol is established in Israel’s midst – the place where moth and rust do not corrupt and thieves do not break in and steal. Up to a point. In fact, eventually, Babylon did break in and steal the people and temple artifacts and all. But promises were made which reaffirm the power and eternal quality of life with God.

    With Jesus, 1) the temple is reestablished forever, 2) Christ is anointed as King forever, and 3) Israel, for all its numerous failures, is finally put right with God forever by a power beyond human capacity – by God’s own gracious self-sacrifice. These things have happened, and so in certain ways, the position of the church (and of modern Israel as a people of God) are not what they were before. From Pentecost to the Second Coming, we will always have one foot in Babylon and one foot in Heaven.

    Even Christendom was also Babylon. It was an extension of the Roman commonwealth, which made possible, by the legal uniformity and peace enforced by the oppressors of the church, the existence of a “universal” church – which of course still excluded Christians in Ethiopia and most of the Middle East and central Asia. It is amazing that Latin and Greek Christianity remained united in principle for a thousand years. Meanwhile, in the isolation of the Dark Ages, each kingdom or dominion was tempted to see itself as the new Israel, or at least the new Rome. And meanwhile the gospel was everywhere mixed with residues of local pagan practice, which were also assertions of pride and a lack of trust in God. I do believe that the existence of the Pax Romana was providential, as long as it lasted. [Tertullian, I think, went so far as to say that all Christians should dread the fall of pagan Rome, because then chaos would be unleashed on the world – the tribulation of the last days, which would be far worse than Roman persecution.] It allowed for the development (or preservation) of the conception of the church as universal and independent rather than something tied to the structures of nation and empire, which was recognized and made clear by Augustine in time to be preserved for posterity before the fall of empire in the west.

    A “Christian” nation which does not submit to the rule of Christ, or subordinate itself in some way to the (ideal, invisible) church, is still Babylon or pagan Rome. Christian ascendancy is thus an illusion, and its loss may make life harder but does not necessarily hinder the gospel itself.

    The Churches of Asia have suffered, especially in the past century, and for whatever reason they appear to be dying. There does seem to be some survival value in being protected by a nominally sympathetic empire. On the other hand, Christianity is flourishing in China, in spite of a government which has been ferociously hostile at times, and is still antagonistic. I have mixed feelings. I can’t help feeling a little secret elation about the moment in the 16th century when Calvin relented and agreed that the French Protestants could defend themselves against Royal oppression. Calvin had conditions: it had to be clear that the monarch was acting to corrupt the true gospel rather than foster it, and any rebellion against him could not be the anarchy of a rabble, but had to be authorized by a “magistrate” – someone in a position of at least local authority, who could give legitimacy to an armed struggle to defend the faithful from oppression. Calvin was driven to this position in part by the extreme cruelty of the French oppression. Once the decision was made, though the movement ultimately failed in France, the preconditions were established for the Reformed movement to assert itself in Scotland and in Holland. And, in a great variety of forms, in England and some parts of Germany. And there is a direct line of causation between these events and the American Revolution (for good or ill). I am aware of the terrible things done by these movements, and of the treacherous nature of power as a sword that can turn against the one who wields it, or brings about ends very different from what were intended. The use of force, even defensively, necessarily commits injustices and often atrocities. My default position is with the sermon on the mount; but if it comes to preventing children from being burned or the like, then I will support a militant response, all the while knowing that no such actions can succeed without God willing it so, and that there is no virtue in them unless God wills it so; instead there is condemnation.

    In any case, as I said, whether in Christendom or in exile, we will always have one foot in Babylon. So it was, in a sense, even for Israel before the captivity. After all, Israel was also Canaan, the Babylon within.

    But we are not the same as Israel in captivity. We do not have to pine for the elusive Shekinah, the divine presence. That is why Jesus is far more than an add-on. We are redeemed and justified and so made worthy of the promise. We were promised the Comforter, and since Pentecost the promise has been fulfilled. So even on the banks of Phrat (ancient Hebrew short for the Euphrates) we should not weep. The Spirit is with us, Christ is with us, and we are more than conquerors. Let the nations tremble (that’s us). For the Kingdom of God is upon us (that’s us, too, at least as sidekicks).

  2. And speaking of sidekicks ….. You non- or infrequent commenters out there are going to make me start feeling like Scrappy-Doo if you don’t join in. Do you really want me to keep spewing verbiage like this, like a chicken typing with its head cut off? Take over some of the weight here! Think of how many inane comments you may have the power to prevent by timely intervention!

    And yes, Charles, please write the book!

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