Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“We Have Always Been Exiles,” By Josh Bowman

“St. Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk,” by Giovanni del Biondo

After the ruling for Obergefell v. Hodges, senior editor of The American Conservative and author of Crunchy ConsRod Drehersounded the alarm in TIME in what could be—and unfortunately will be—viewed as a white flag of orthodox Christianity in the United States. He painted well a picture of the “tectonic shift” that was this case and the years leading up to it. As the dissenting justices warned, there will now be serious threats to the tax-exempt status of churches and property owned by Christian organizations and to the very religious liberty which, historically, has been a (if not the) core reason for thousands to come to America. I am deeply concerned for the very Christian schools I was blessed to attend. Our faith is being treated as a mere privilege one could simply withhold from a disobedient child. Dreher is sounding an alarm that rings just as loudly in my heart and in the hearts of millions of Americans.

His characteristic response though, calling for a “Benedict Option,” if I understand it correctly, is troubling. Dreher writes,

It is time for what I call the Benedict Option. In his 1982 book After Virtue, the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray, as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in community. We await, he said “a new—and doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

 Throughout the early Middle Ages, Benedict’s communities formed monasteries and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped refound civilization.

I believe that orthodox Christians today are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. How do we take the Benedict Option and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions? I don’t know. But we had better figure this out together, and soon, while there is time.

 Reading Dreher’s piece in TIME reminded me of the moment in the film, Return of the King (2003), where a despairing Denethor (steward and ruler of the city) looks at the waves of Mordor’s evil armies descending on Minas Tirith and yells, “Flee, flee for your lives!” Then Gandalf promptly knocks him unconscious and counters, “Prepare for battle.” I would not knock Dreher unconscious (we need him, and I happen to like him personally), but I would rip his perceived white flag to shreds. I would then share the words of the apostle Paul:

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:12)

This “fight,” as I understand it, is not a call to violence or some new crusade. It is not a call to “immanentize the eschaton,” constructing political theologies to bring to power some ideologically “pure” and ultra-politicized Christianity. Jesus told us that His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and there is no way to achieve a genuine and consistent Christian order that will not someday fall prey to the reality of sin and pride. Nor should or can we eliminate the great plurality of our time without abandoning the key tenets of love and peace Christianity holds to. Losing sight of the limitations of politics has led to dangerous and even heretical results, reducing religion to little more than a political platform with spiritualized talking points. Indeed, Christianity’s—and especially conservative orthodox Christianity’s—controversial advocacy in recent American politics may have led to decline in church membership and involvement, as Ross Douthat laments in Bad Religion (2012). There is no doubt that repentance is due from the communities which Rod Dreher and I belong to and associate with.

It would be a grave mistake, however, to respond by abandoning politics altogether. Christians are not to repent for caring about and engaging political life. We still have the capacity to impact elections, policy making, media, and the imagination. We still have the First Amendment and religious freedom laws on which to make a stand and hold back the tide as long as possible. Exploit, for example, the many fundamental contradictions in Supreme Court doctrine on marriage, speech, religious liberty, and so forth (especially after last week’s veritable mess—and not just in Obergefell). Advocate for candidates committed to liberty, law, tradition, family, life, and human dignity. Perhaps, there are some in the dugout who even need to run for office.

Former president of the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner, is fond of saying, “There are no permanent victories in Washington.” He is right! Some changes have more staying power than others, but we still have elections and the ability to organize in powerful and meaningful ways as Christians. Supreme Court justices come and go, and they have no financial or other tangible means to enforce their decisions. Legislation can still be written that protects the tax-exempt status of churches. Say what you will about “money in politics,” but there are wealthy Christians and wealthy individuals outside the church who still care about religious liberty. Let us encourage them. The Benedict Option, if I understand it correctly, fails to see this and fails to see that such despair and retreat is not prudence but ultimately escapism and a lack of faith. While we in the United States are not yet even close to broaching the intensity of opposition that Christians face in China, Syria, Iraq, and Northern Africa, I am reminded of another moment of similar peril in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Listen to the wisdom of Samwise at the end of Two Towers (2002):

Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.

 Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

 Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

 Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

There is indeed good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. There is hope, even in the imperfect, messy, and disturbing world of politics. Too many good people have sat on the sidelines for far too long. I fear the Benedict Option would keep them there.

*          *          *          *

Still, I would be remiss if I did not say that there is a welcome implication of Dreher’s work for orthodox Christians. We are long overdue for turning back to our faith communities to strengthen and serve them. Our political and cultural engagement risks marginalizing religion if it is not rooted deeply in communities of faith committed to prayer, scripture, service, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A Benedictine withdrawal from the so-called “Civil War by other means” is not needed to do this. Intentional, engaged communities of orthodox faith can still recover the resources of a rich tradition that teaches and challenges us to deepen and defend our faith no matter how dark the times. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (possibly Paul) encourages us:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Orthodox Christians have always been exiles. And for centuries we have been following Benedict’s lead and the lead of other saints—if imperfectly—in churches across the country. The light of faith burns deeply in small communities all over this nation. I, and a small group of friends in the Anglican Church of North America, for example, have been working hard to feed fellow Christians starving for intellectual and spiritual foundations and to hear from that “great cloud of witnesses” who give us strength, courage, and resources to press on in dark times. In addition to courses on scripture we have (as Aragorn had to do in Return of the King, summoning the help of a dead army, as it were) been teaching classes on Tocqueville and Religion, American Religious History, Understanding Islam, the thought of Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr, a class on Christianity’s Critics, and I recently completed a course on Imagination and the Christian Life. (Interestingly, a number of these courses in Virginia and Michigan included prominent journalists, educators, business and non-profit leaders, and elected officials.) Churches are devoting themselves to prayer and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we have done time and time again. And like every time before it God is faithful and will continue to be so. G. K. Chesterton writes, “At least five times…the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”

Still, anyone with eyes to see can recognize that the church at large seems quite unprepared for what lies ahead. Sophisticated Sunday school classes are not enough. Many denominations, following the lead of liberal theology in accommodating non-Christian culture, have not only raised the white flag on marriage and most other issues but have more or less handed over their Bibles and asked nonbelievers, “You tell me what it says. I give up.” They seem to forget the words of T. S. Eliot who said, bluntly, “between the Church and the World there is no permanent modus-vivendi possible.”

Others, holding firmly to orthodox Christianity, have either been too busy reading portents to actually do something or they have simply been afraid to respond at all. This will no longer suffice, but neither will retreating to small quasimonastic communities, lighting candles, and reading scripture and Dante while we wait for the drones to come (though I do love reading scripture and Dante). Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “The task of redeeming Western society rests in a peculiar sense upon Christianity.” I doubt he had in mind a Christianity hiding or on the run.

A Christianity that is not in a cultural and political exile has lost its sense of being “in and not of the world.” A Christianity that is comfortable and complacent, and which doesn’t make anyone else uncomfortable, deserves to be convicted by the Holy Spirit and the sixteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

In closing, I would encourage Dreher, as my brother in Christ, to take a look at Jeremiah 12.[1] Here we find the prophet complaining to God about not giving the wicked their due. “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you,” Jeremiah writes, “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” Then God answers beginning in verse 5: “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?”

Let’s bring this closer to home. If dealing with hostile Court rulings, cultural marginalization, loss of tax-exempt status, and the repression of speech is moving you to a Benedictine retreat, what will you do when things get really bad? We’re racing with men right now, Rod. The Church in China, Syria, and Iraq is racing with horses. Can you imagine the great things that could come from a Christian China as the number of faithful there continues to explode and finds political footing? We desperately need community and preparation, but retreat must never be an option for orthodox exiles.

 

Josh Bowman is a PhD Candidate at the Catholic University of America. He lives, writes, and fishes in southeast Michigan.

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am deeply indebted to my friend, Micki LaFountain, for drawing my attention to this passage and its timeliness.

4 Responses to ““We Have Always Been Exiles,” By Josh Bowman”

  1. Rob

    On what basis can one engage in a non-violent, i.e. “let us reason together,” political fight? The judiciary has, a long time ago, defined the institution, “the United States of America” and its Constitution. In a word, it is a proposition state, revolving around the concept of individual (as opposed to any kind of communal) liberty. And this is its shibboleth: “[A]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The judiciary has foreclosed any questioning of this by the democratic process–and long before Obergefell v. Hodges.
    It would seem to me that the Benedict Option is not abandoning the fight, but holding the forts and sallying forth to convert the countryside, via social means.

    Reply
  2. Mark Gordon

    A fine article, and perhaps I’m mistaken, but the subtext seems to be that we should throw in our lot with Republican Party and it’s brand of right-liberalism. But Liberalism itself is the problem, whether economic and political or pelvic. In fact, the former is the feedstock of the latter, and in that sense Olbergefell isn’t a betrayal of the liberal order but it’s fulfillment. The arguments Republicans make about property are the same arguments Democrats make about sexual identity: everything is couched in the language of “liberty” and not in terms of virtue and the common good. Add to that the idolatry of American Exceptionalism and you have all the ingredients for the toxic stew we find ourselves in today. If you are proposing a politics based on the whole teaching of the Church then I’m in. But if you are suggesting that we align with right-liberals against left-liberals I ask, “What’s the point?”

    Reply
  3. Mark Gordon

    For alternatives, see the book, “Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis,” at Amazon, and especially my essay, “Babylon is Falling: Recovering an Exilic Christian Consciousness.”

    Reply

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