I would like to propose an alternative way of thinking of past Christianity which may help us at this juncture. Perhaps what has been historically normative for over 1500 years in the West—a Christianity enjoying worldly power and influence, broadly conceived—is in fact theologically exceptional. As such, what we are witnessing is not the overthrowing or the jeopardizing of the church but rather a return to “business as usual” as the Bible and the nature of the gospel and of the church would lead us to expect.
On Friday I had the pleasure of being a guest at the annual conference of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, to hear Rod Dreher speak on—yes, you guessed it—the Benedict Option. I had a number of questions about the details of the Ben Op, and many of these were answered on Friday. Indeed, having read plenty by Rod on the Ben Op and now having heard him, I am perplexed by those who think he advocates withdrawal from all civic engagement. Perhaps the monastic analogies he favors have gripped the imaginations of his critics and distorted their reading of him.
I have been accused of defeatist and separatist views myself, within my small Reformed subculture. Certainly Rod and I share a number of convictions. We both believe that the culture war is over and that “our side” has lost. We both believe that it is pointless simply to shout Bible verses louder, or to base arguments on the private religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, or to huff and puff that we must be taken seriously because Christianity was important way back when. And we both believe that the language of exile is appropriate for the imminent condition of Christians in the USA. But these beliefs do not logically demand that we withdraw into the mountains, dress in animal skins, and live on locusts and wild honey. Rod and I both still believe that Christians should be involved in their communities, cast votes in elections, and be “in the world but not of it.”
The talk on Friday night made all of that clear. And it offered an outline of the assumptions of the Ben Op, which might be summarized as follows:
- Conventional politics will not save us. Nota bene: This is not the same as saying that political engagement must cease. It is simply a claim about the limited expectations we should have regarding political engagement, particularly at the national level.
- The church is not the world. As Rod merely agrees with Jesus on this point, it should not be too controversial.
- Christians must retrieve their own traditions as the fundamental sources of their identities. Again, with the Apostle Paul on his side here, Rod is hardly breaking dangerous new ground.
- Christians must prioritize the local community as their sphere of action. Once more, nota bene: This is not, repeat not, the same as saying that Christians should head for the hills. It is simply to say that they should be far more concerned for what is happening in their neighborhood than on Capitol Hill.
- What we face is not a struggle within a culture but, strictly speaking, a clash of alternative cultures. This is where the language of the end of the culture war needs to be understood correctly. It is not that we are to surrender to the dominant culture. It is rather that we are to model an alternative culture. And we are to do so first in our local communities.