Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“There Is No Benedict Option,” By Bruce Frohnen

“Church in Keldur, Iceland” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I write this from Iceland, where, around the year 1000, the nation´s lawspeaker declared that henceforth Iceland would publicly follow Christianity. In making this proclamation he struck a conciliatory tone, holding that pagans might continue in the old faith, including by exposing unwanted children (to the elements and death) and sacrificing (including at times humans) to their gods, provided they did so in private. The pagans chose to abide by the new rules and, in time, essentially died out. Of course, that was until the recent revival of paganism in the West; at this writing Iceland´s government is working on building a new pagan temple.

The parallel with recent Supreme Court pronouncements is stunning. Thanks to Justice Kennedy´s adolescent philosophizing in the same-sex marriage case, the public rule now will be that love, however one chooses to define it for oneself, will trump religious and traditional views of the needs of society, children, and conscience. Vague assurances of religious toleration have been made, but it is clear that the freedom of religious institutions and communities to govern themselves has been placed on the road to extinction. One no longer may refuse to engage with the culture on one´s own terms. Bakers, photographers, and various forms of ministers will have to actively participate in celebrations going against their most deeply held beliefs, actively undermining the society in which they grew up and in which they desperately wish to raise their children. Of course, certain individuals may receive certain individual exemptions (some ministers may, for now, be exempt from officiating same-sex weddings, provided they can prove the sincerity and insularity of their institutional beliefs). But the presumptions are against them, their public voice has been marginalized and forced out of most boardrooms, and the law has been shown again and again in recent years to be a mere tool in the hands of those now in power; it will not for long protect those who dispute its wielders’ logic and purpose.

Under such circumstances it is understandable that some people, including most prominently my friend Rod Dreher, should conclude that Christians have lost the culture war and that we should embrace our new status as exiles in our own land. Understandable, but wrong. Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date. This suggestion is somewhat akin to Ross Douthat´s suggestion that Christians consider, in essence, entering into semi-Amish enclaves.

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society (the label post-Christian understates the level of rejection we are experiencing in regard to the institutions, beliefs, and practices that constitute a Christian society). Not even if we learn to build beautiful, hand-made furniture and grow wholesome, organic foods (not to mention good Amish beer) will we be able to pull off the Amish option. There are too many of us; we are too visible, too identified with the evils of Western civilization; and our calling forbids us from giving up on evangelization. Our choices, as a friend pointed out to me some time ago, consist of fighting or withdrawing into mere passive-aggressive cynicism.

Leaders of this society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just. More is demanded of us than mere quiet. We are being commanded to celebrate what Saint John Paul the Great so rightly termed a Culture of Death. This culture denies God. It treats children as disposable, marriage as a mere public expression of current emotional attachments, and faith as meanings we posit for ourselves. It cannot long abide those whose very existence testifies to the shallow, self-involved, and fundamentally empty nature of its false vision of reality.

In particular, our new culture´s leaders latch onto and distort the fundamental Christian concept of sin to paint us as bigots. We know that all of us sin, but insist that it is our duty to point out and argue against sinful conduct, while loving and praying for the sinner. Yet the lack of affirmation entailed in recognition of a natural order of being and virtue is taken, sincerely or not, as a malicious desire to harm. Recognizing and arguing against sin is not a thing Christians do, but what we are; to deny its validity is to deny our validity. It is not possible for a culture dedicated to affirmation of individual desires to tolerate recognition of a higher law according to which some acts (including, for example, abortion and adultery) are morally disordered. Christians may pose no physical, political, or legal threat to our new regime, but we pose an existential threat as evidence of its disorder. As such, it is simply wrong to expect that we will somehow be allowed to build strong, insular communities.

Dreher, of course, sees himself as taking his cue from Alasdair MacIntyre´s statement at the end of his important work, After Virtue. MacIntyre says we all are waiting for a new (and different) Saint Benedict to take us through the new dark ages that are already upon us. The times certainly are dark, and we could use all the saints we can get. But I fear that the model Dreher suggests will lead much more the way of the Icelandic pagans than the early Christians. Society in the period from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, proper, certainly had broken down. Barbarians and robbers roamed the land as rulers clung to ancient ways that no longer held communities together. But Christianity already had triumphed in the sense that it was recognized in the Mediterranean world as the true religion and bishops already had taken on leadership roles in seeking to stem the tide of violence and disorder. Christians also were working to institutionalize the faith through a system of law, custom, and administration rooted in the common faith.

The Rome Benedict fled in the late fifth century surely was chaotic and troubling. But Benedict did not flee to the woods to pray because he was told his God was not welcome in the public square. And when God refused to allow him to pray alone, sending him acolytes and fellow believers to build a community, it was as a means of evangelizing to spread the good news throughout his land and the lands beyond the borders of old Rome, into the pagan forests. Those who went beyond those borders often were martyred because they refused any tactical retreat to the supposedly safe and hospitable regions in and around Rome. They reinvigorated as well as spread the Church, because they refused to be cowed, refused to back down, and refused to retreat, instead recognizing their duty to combat the ignorance and superficial understanding of the nature of reality that ruled most of the world.

Such a vision is attacked as prideful and even oppressive today, as one would expect, given the repaganization of our culture. But it is precisely this hostility toward evangelization that must be fought. As Dreher openly admits, Christians will be persecuted in a culture such as ours has become—we will lose careers, opportunities, and even our freedom if we step too far out of line with the ruling ideology. But there will be no safe place to reorganize for the future. Should we withdraw we will merely devolve into insular groups, many run by crackpots (there already are too many examples to mention) and most so cut off from one another that they will die out. The faith will not be lost, just as the cause of a Christian society will not be lost, because no cause is ever truly lost. But our duty is not to hope for better days. It is to work for better days in the here and now, including by confronting a political and legal regime increasingly hostile to our faith and way of life.

Dreher surely is correct that faith in the Republican Party has only brought disappointment. Craven congressional leaders would rather temporize with those intent on building a new regime hostile to their own way of life than give up any of their own status and prerogatives; they have shown again and again that they value the power of themselves and their own class more than the dictates of reason and conscience. He also surely is correct that the culture is now openly hostile to Christianity. And this gives us reason to take actions that many might consider to constitute a tactical retreat—e.g., those who have children in public schools should take them out and those with students in parochial schools must be prepared to fight, hard, for their education. But voting, writing, speaking, and marching must continue and increase. The press continues to ignore hundreds of thousands who march for the unborn every year. The answer must be for more of us to march and to stand in solidarity with those whom the new system seeks to ruin financially and spiritually. We may well “lose” in the short run by the standards of this world. But our children and our children´s children need to know that we fought hard, not that we retreated in the face of arrogance and injustice. For we are not fighting for victory in this world, but to witness to the nature and reality of the next.

 

Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.

28 Responses to ““There Is No Benedict Option,” By Bruce Frohnen”

  1. Coyle Neal

    “The Rome Benedict fled in the late fifth century surely was chaotic and troubling. But Benedict did not flee to the woods to pray because he was told his God was not welcome in the public square. ”
    Right, our model should probably not be 5th Century Europe but rather 7th Century North Africa where”live quietly as Christians under mildly oppressive laws” became over time “no more Christians.” And while I don’t think we’re quite at that stage of gloom and doom yet, it may be time to remind ourselves that 1) our hope is ultimately in the City of God, not in this world; 2) even if Christianity is slowly choked out in America and Western Europe, it’s taking off like crazy other places. Perhaps China or South Korea are ready for their own “Constantine” moment out of which a Benedict might arise.

    Reply
  2. Dr. Marshall DeRosa

    I couldn’t agree more with Professor Frohnen analysis of the Benedict Option. However, there is one way out of this rabbit hole that should be seriously considered. Simply withdrawing from mainstream culture while remaining under the political yoke of its engineers is one sure way to relegate Christianity to the dustbin of American history. Why not withdraw from the Union that props up the culture so hostile to Christianity? If a State or States were to withdraw from the Union, Christians would have a fighting chance to save not only souls, but perhaps even Christian civilization. The Secession Option is the Benedict Option writ large.

    Reply
    • David Vokrachko

      I totally agree with Dr DeRosa.

      We’ve reached the “when in the course of human events moment” and this is not just about so called gay-marriage. We have a “long train of abuses and usurpations” like abortion, corporatism, indefinite detention, the fact that our President can kill an American citizen without trial, a cowardly Congress that fails to do its duty, the Empire with its 800 military bases, the dictators that our country has propped up with money and weapons, the destabilization of other governments that’s led to the death and slaughter of millions,.etc. I could go on and on with my list.

      Why stay and politically fight with people who have a completely different and irreconcilable worldview than we do? And if the world decides one day that they are not going to fund our economic ponzi, the finger-pointing between the parties that broke the country in the first place will reach levels we cannot imagine. And the same fools are going to suggest to have the answers to fix the disaster that they created. Voting Republican, especially for the Supreme Court appointment reason, will not help us as we have seen.

      Secession should be talked about! Where are our leaders??
      And let me add, this cannot be a white, southern nationalist thing. We have a better chance of Christian secession at this moment and that includes everyone who calls Jesus, Lord!

      Where are our leaders??
      Lets pick and area and call on Christians to relocate! (the South seems best to me but that’s going to create a stir but so be it!)

      I’m ready!

      Reply
  3. scotteus

    Well, lets put it this way: Christianity has survived Classic and Pagan rebuttals; the middle ages, the Rennaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Analytic Philosophy…….I can go on and on, but what’s the point? Christianity will survive this decision and likely many more. This is coming from a non-believer to boot. Keep in mind, your faith very, very resilient; in fact, it is as resilient and Platonism.

    Reply
  4. derosa

    It’s not simply “this decision”. That aside, do we have a responsibility to posterity, or should we concede to the barbarians and permit untold generations to be swept up in the anti-Christian whirlwind?

    Reply
  5. The Rev. Terence Blackburn

    There is one problem with Professor Frohnen’s argument from my standpoint. When he speaks of Christianity, is speaking for one particular branch of our religion. There are many of us who are Christians and who rejoice at the Supreme Court decision. We understand the Bible to be the inspired word of God, but it also must be set in the context of its time. To open the Bible and read it without trying to understand the book or passage in its proper context is actually to do the Bible a great disservice. It is crucial to understand that God’s revelation to humankind did not cease with the last word of Scripture. God continues to reveal God’s self to us in surprising ways, perhaps even in the great justice of marriage equality

    Reply
    • Janet

      Well, sir, you leave us to fight out the heresies here in a com box. You may call yourself Christian, there’s no law against it. Pardon me if I do not.

      Reply
      • Ben

        Your comment can basically be summed up as “you’re not a Real True Christian because reasons”. I can’t say that I find it all that convincing.

    • Gordon Hackman

      Most conservative Christians I know understand the importance of reading the Bible in its context and they still understand it to condemn same sex sexual activity. In any case, the importance reading the Bible in its proper context is not some kind of magic wand that allows us to dismiss its claims when they happen to be inconvenient or out of sync with the spirit of the age, which is the way it seems to be used here.

      Reply
  6. smack41

    Professor Frohnen has not studied the Amish well enough. The Amish are currently experiencing a population explosion – they have neither “withdraw(n)ing into mere passive-aggressive cynicism” nor are they “insular” “led by crackpots” or “cut off from one another”. The Benedict Option is the only way forward for the remnant. “Peter (Professor Frohnen) put down your sword!”

    Reply
  7. Ryan

    There are many levels here. Benedict ‘s primary purpose was not evangelization, it was fleeing the world to be a hermit and grow in holiness. This appealed to people, other men for sure who would join him, but families too. The families came to the Benedictines, drawn to their holiness and industry after the decadent fall of the economic roman enpire, but more importantly because of the unique vow of stability that Benedict made his monks take. There were many Benedictines for sure who were matryed, but it wasn’t a missionary order like the Jesuits or Dominicans. It was a simple motto, Pray and work (in the same place). Families, many of them pagans (the latin word paganus means rural dweller because the Christian faith had such a hard time overcoming countryfolk religions) were converted through the example of Benedictines who prayed and worked next to them for generations. However, the monastic movement, even by its very etymology, is a separating of oneself from others to achieve sanctity. To think that the desert fathers who influenced Benedict were out to evangelize the heathen is to fundamentally misunderstand the early monastic movement. Further, this idea that Catholic families are required to evangelize the culture of death by living directly in it, is a distortion of the evangelical mandate – the Church has never expected lay families to be some type of super-missionary in the frontlines of the culture war. Leave that to the priests, nuns , consecrated, religious, etc., the true frontline troops of Catholicism. It used to be said that for every man on the front of WWII, there were 12 soldiers in support. That support role is the Catholic family’s proper milieu. And even better than WWII, the Catholic family, especially large Catholic families, produce more front line soldiers. And if those front line priests, nuns and religious need years set apart in seminary or a convent to prepare to help with the salvation of the world, how much more should our children be protected at a young age? No, Catholic families are not served by embracing and living in the culture of death. Just check out the hundreds of parishes closing and the state of the Catholic family – if you can find one. It is precisely Benedict who sought to live apart in a rural area in order to get closer to God which brought about a true revolution of faith, especially in the average Catholic family. This in turn ensured the transition of the crumbling roman empire to the glory of medieval Christendom.

    Reply
  8. Janet

    I’m for fighting. I wish anyone reading these comments would study the example of Hungary, who amended their constitution with a very large majority–an unheard of majority, 2/3 on every issue–to put God back, first of all, to support pro-life, to honor natural marriage. They also have made several interesting financial moves, including some restraints on the international bankers who are presently feeding off all the poorer nations. FIDESZ is the party’s name. It is a coalition between protestant and Catholic elements (but none of their Christians seemed to support any kind of homosexual ‘rights’) We could do that. The American public is fed up.

    We would have to build a similar party. But if we stay within the Union–not ‘secede’ as suggested above–we will have to protect ourselves by winning.

    If we seceded, we would have many choices to make, economic and social. It would be exciting, but there are a lot of issues we haven’t touched on at all. I do not think any nation can succeed without honoring God, without giving up the stupidity of ‘religious freedom’ and recognizing that every society must have one dominant morality and ethic. What we have is chaos, and who suffers most is the poor.

    Reply
  9. Woody Jones

    If memory serves Rod is not advocating withdrawal to the ghetto but a more intense formation of families and people who have the ability to interact with the culture without compromising faith.

    Reply
  10. Kevin

    Whenever I hear Christians talking about “the culture of death” it is always in the context of they vs us. Perhaps part of the reason we have arrived where we are is because we are prime movers in the culture of death. We salute and idolize any person in uniform who adminsters death both at home and overseas. We ask the state to steal from others so we can receive more of what we don´t have, we aspire to have our children in positions of power to inflict punishment with the privelege of qualified immunity and we defend the undefendable with a vehemency which should be reserved for our faith. Some steps in the right direction would be repentence, restitution where possible and a radical rethink of how we teach our children about the state.

    Reply
  11. abelian

    When I read Dreher’s Benedict Option I do not get the sense that he envisions quite what you think he does. One of the key themes of his BO is that ‘we don’t just need knights, but gardeners too’. Another key theme of BO is that orthodox religious people have to actively seek out and help one another, since they can’t rely on the surrounding culture to, even at best, treat their views with indifference. If we don’t do this, who’s going to replace the knights that have fallen and will surely fall?

    As Ryan points out, every frontline soldier has a huge support apparatus backing him. I think Dreher is trying to figure out how to build that support apparatus.

    In response to your example of the Icelandic pagans, the Japanese Catholics are small in number but have remained surprisingly faithful despite the shogunate’s attempts to destroy them – their faith was handed down through the family. I think Dreher is trying to figure out how to protect this primary method of transmission.

    Or do you have a non Benedict Option way of fighting this:

    “Our opposition has missiles, we fight hand-to-hand. This is the hard truth of the present situation, in which glib “media” shower their filth “24/7.” Parents have little time with their children under present economic arrangements, when both (if there are as many as two) are off working in environments unrelated to them, or seeking light entertainment themselves, in exhaustion from their jobs. Meanwhile the children are exposed to that filth, on average for six or seven hours per day in North America, according to the last study I saw. And this is supplemented in most cases by more hours of secular schooling, in which they are also taught the interests and attitudes which the Internet embodies for them. They are thus raised as consumers of cheap goods and opinions, the very possibility of coherent thought undermined by ever shorter attention spans.” (http://www.davidwarrenonline.com/)

    Reply
  12. Chuck Huckaby

    Reblogged this on Missio Links and commented:
    The so-called “Benedict Option” disregards, it seems, the Great Commission in favor of self-preservation. Here’s someone who has finally called its bluff.

    Reply
    • prschroeder

      Yes. The Apostle Peter was commanded not to preach Christ and his response is ours, We must obey God rather than men. The other history to take examples from for our day is the history of the Church till the Edict of Milan. Yes, the Apostles and Christians went forward with the Lord’s command to preach and baptize for 2 centuries under many levels of persecution, but it was not only individual effort but as the Church, the ecclesia.

      Another thought: Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, lecturing on restoring the catuchemenate, made the historical observation that in those first centuries the line of demarcation between the pagan world and the Church was clear and well-defined, and today, the problem is, “everyone thinks they know what Christianity is”. Many church bodies are imbued with a soft Christianity and cooperating with the world and so are soft pagans, so maybe it is a good thing in what we see happening now is that line between the futile ways of our ancestors and the Church is becoming clearer to all.

      Reply
  13. RWD

    A “Benedict Option” simply isn’t possible in battling a totalitarian ideology. Bottom line. Sooner or later this will mean literal war.

    Reply
  14. Slumlord

    One of the key themes of his BO is that ‘we don’t just need knights, but gardeners too’

    Too many gardeners not enough knights.

    Reply
  15. D Shank

    The preliminaries to the war began as much as four or five decades ago, when a few parents began, in the family circle, to teach their children the faith and all else. Those children are now, in many cases, teaching their children. Our Father has not forgotten His people. I anticipate the future with apprehension and great hope.

    Reply

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