Christians must be countercultural — but our countercultural stance must be balanced by two principles a lot of Benedict Option enthusiasts aren’t big on.
Not another “option.”
Not another half-thought-out counterproposal to the Benedict Option to add to the heap, along with the Francis Option, the Dominic Option, the Augustine Option, the Gregorian Option, the David option and even the Catholic option.
Now, along with the Ben-Op, we’re going to talk about a Justin option? A “Just-Op,” as in “Just Stop”? (There, I said it first.)
Believe me, I get it.
I’ve read a number of critiques of Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option, and I’ve read a number of defenses. I appreciate the moral seriousness with which Dreher has approached and tried to address the problems facing serious Christians in the world today.
I find the whole Ben-Op debate fascinating, and in the end I have no particular brief either for or against the Ben-Op in itself — partly because, for all I’ve read about it, the concept is still somewhat fuzzy to me. (This may, indeed, be part of the point: that we are in a new situation and don’t yet know exactly what to do.)
Insofar as I may have a critique, or at least a contrasting or supplementary point, it’s not so much aimed at anything in particular Ben-Op advocates or enthusiasts say as what I don’t see them saying, at least not a lot.
I admit up front my reading has not been exhaustive, and I could be missing a great deal. But the relative silence that concerns me is clearly a feature of a lot of conservative dialogue among what could be called the Ben-Op constituency — at least, and today seems like the perfect day to address this.
That’s because today is the memorial of Saint Justin Martyr, best known for his First Apology (or Apologia), addressed to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, and his Second Apology, addressed to the Roman senate.
Among Justin’s briefs for the authorities of his day is the contention that Christians are not enemies of the state or the civil authorities. On the contrary, he maintains that good Christians are good citizens — though Justin frankly admits that not all Christians are good Christians, and urges authorities to punish wrongdoers but not to blame Christians as a group.
Justin advocates a vision of Christianity as a fundamentally rational philosophy that puts Christians in accord with all reasonable men; in fact, to the extent that men have spoken or acted in accordance with reason, that is, the Logos, that is incarnate in Jesus Christ, they can be considered “Christian” in a way, even if they lived before Christ.
I think it’s instructive to consider Justin’s approach in light of what many Christians today seem to experience as a dilemma between Benedict Option and culture war.
I think I agree with Dreher on two points: First, “culture war” is no longer (if it ever was) a viable or helpful approach for Christians living in the world today. Insofar as Christians, particularly Christian conservatives, have defined our mode of engagement in terms of “culture war,” we’ve lost.
Second, I’m in favor of “intentional communities” that foster a consciously countercultural ethos and a critique of the mainstream culture. (My parish is one, or rather there are intentional communities at our parish.)
Yet insofar as the Ben-Op is understood to entail, or at least correlates with, a strategic retreat or withdrawal from engagement with mainstream culture, I have concerns about where it leads.
I understand that Dreher has been at pains to deny that the withdrawal he has in mind means a “head for the hills” physical withdrawal. Well and good.
From what I’ve read of Dreher and other Ben-Op enthusiasts, though, I think I can speak of what might be called a Ben-Op mindset characterized by a) a lot of engagement with the likeminded, among whom b) mainstream culture is invoked primarily in a polemical mode, in terms of what’s wrong with those outside the fold and the world they want.
To be sure, we need engagement with the likeminded. And, since our faith is countercultural, we must be clear both what we believe and where we think the culture has gone wrong.
But we must also be doing two other things that I don’t see a lot of from Ben-Op advocates, and certainly from many among the Ben-Op constituency.
First, like Justin Martyr, we must be directly engaged not only with each other but with the mainstream culture. We need to talk — a lot — to people with outlooks very different from ours.
What’s more, our engagement must not be dominated by countercultural polemics and negativity. We must be countercultural, but we must balance our countercultural stance with positive engagement.
We must be able to step out of our comfort zones and recognize when and where those outside the fold (even people we may consider ideological opponents, and who may return the favor) have been touched by the “light that lightens every man” and arrived at valid insights and reasonable views. (I don’t imagine Dreher would deny this, but with notable exceptions I don’t see him doing a lot of it myself, and certainly there are a lot of Ben-Op enthusiasts who don’t seem interested in doing it at all.)
Second, inseparably connected from the first, we need to do something else that has become far more pressing today than it was in Justin’s time: We must acknowledge frankly, both among ourselves and to the world, the extent to which individual Christians and even Christian leaders, organizations and communities have been part of what’s wrong with the world instead of the solution to it.
Justin admitted to the emperor that there were bad Christians — but he lived just a few decades from the age of apostles, at a time when Christians were powerless, often despised, and occasionally persecuted. Times have changed.
A lot of water has gone under the Milvian Bridge since Constantine legitimized Christianity in A.D. 313 and Theodosius made it the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. Christians have much to be proud of in our 2,000-year history, but also much to be grieved over and to make amends for. Justin could afford to suppose that the odium fidei of his time was inspired by demons. We no longer have that luxury, alas.
It’s true that Christian history has often been painted overly black by the Church’s critics and by critics of Western culture generally, particularly in academia. It’s also true that Christians, particularly Christian conservatives, tend to err in the opposite direction.
We must recognize that sometimes the problem isn’t “them,” or not just “them.” Sometimes the problem is us. Not just those Christians over there — bad Christians — but our own communities (yes, even our intentional Ben-Op communities!) and potentially even our own hearts.
We must balance our countercultural stance with ongoing self-critical frankness. (Once again, Dreher wouldn’t deny this, and on some topics he is more than willing to critique the failings of Christian communities and leaders — notably, and rightly, on the Catholic clerical sex-abuse scandal. But I don’t see him emphasizing the need for this self-critical spirit in the Ben-Op communities he advocates. And, again, many Ben-Op enthusiasts are completely uninterested in anything of this sort.)
If we can’t do these two things — if we can’t balance our countercultural stance with positive engagement and self-critical frankness — then what we call our countercultural stance will devolve into mere tribalism.
We must transcend tribalism to make the case to our culture, as Justin did in his, that good Christians are good citizens, and a world that makes room for Christians will be a better world than one that crushes us underfoot.
Frankly, even this involves what has become in some ways an uphill battle. There are some who will never accept us. It may be tempting to focus on our most implacable opponents, shrug our shoulders, and say, “No sense even trying.”
But this would be a disastrous mistake. Progress is possible. If we cannot reach all, we can still reach many — beginning, perhaps, with our own children.
In the long run, I suspect, our children will be less likely to keep the faith we wish to impart to them if they grow up with a one-sidedly countercultural, negative view of the world outside the fold and an insufficiently self-critical view of ourselves.
Reality itself will educate them as they learn that the people we taught them to think of as ideological enemies could be more reasonable than we allowed. And they will certainly discover the flaws in ourselves, and in the intentional communities in which we raised them, that we didn’t want to acknowledge or think about.
Saint Justin Martyr, ora pro nobis.