The question of Christianity’s place in a rapidly changing society seems to be on everybody’s mind. Barely a day or week passes that even mainstream press is picking up on an undercurrent of conversation happening amongst religious conservatives.
The discussion takes many forms and comes to expression most fully around the increasingly sclerotic issue of sexual morality. According to some, same-sex marriage represents the formal severing of America with its Christian roots. Are the days of the Religious Right dead? Will they be paid attention to like they once were by the GOP, or is that relationship dead, too? Do Christians have a place in the future of electoral politics? Are Christians to welcome or shun their newfound “Moral Minority” status? What is to be the posture of Christians who now find themselves as resident aliens in a culture that is quickly shedding itself of any vestiges of its Christian past? Or, with the surge of All-Things-Pope-Francis, is the decline of Christianity really even happening?
At a granular level, it seems that with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling, insiders and outsiders to Christianity are all recognizing that a symbolic pendulum swing, of some sort, has taken place. A new order has arrived, and Christians are now forced to find new ways to preserve their doctrinal and ethical distinctiveness.
Therein begins “The Benedict Option” proposed by my friend Rod Dreher. I don’t want to spill a lot of ink rehashing all of Dreher’s eloquent explanations of “The BenOp” as he calls it. The BenOp represents a strategic withdrawal of sorts built on the proposition that if Christians hope to survive to the next generation and outlive culture’s collapse, such survival will require greater attentiveness to forming deeper Christian identity and in turn, community. The BenOp, as I summarize it, represents a turn to deliberative Christianity.
Dreher’s BenOp is provoking a lot of discussion online, at conferences, and in churches. I accept this as a good sign, because it shows that Christians are thinking critically about themselves and their place in culture.
Dreher’s proposal has also received a lot of criticism. Critics accuse Dreher of a newfound and rebranded quietism or pietism—a Christianity that shirks social responsibility and instead retreats to the hills. These critics often hail from the transformationalist camp of Christianity, a paradigm that believes that Christianity must always engage with the forefront of culture for the sake of mission or else it will run the risk of disobeying the inherently transformative nature of Christianity. Many look to the 19th century Dutch polymath Abraham Kuyper as the forerunner of Transformationalism or neo-Calvinism. For our purposes, let’s refer to this as the “Kuyper Option.” I’ve even heard this sentiment referred to as “The Wilberforce Option” at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the Gospel and Politics conference in honor of William Wilberforce whose Christian presence in 19th century England helped bring slavery to an end as an institution.
In some sense, the debates we’re having today echo back to the timeless question of how Christianity and culture relate to one another. It may be that Dreher is recapitulating the themes that H. Richard Niebuhr classic Christ and Culture raised in the 1950s.
The purpose of the present essay is to argue that the Benedict Option and the Kuyper Option (i.e., Transformationalism) don’t have to be at odds with one another. I like much of what the Benedict Option emphasizes and view its recommendations as quite necessary if Christian identity is to survive the secularist winter. I also consider myself a proponent of the Transformationalist paradigm. I’m a Calvinist who believes that the success of Western culture—measured in terms of past commitments to human dignity, the rule of law, and humane institutions—is inextricably linked to its Christian roots. Now that we find ourselves slowing witnessing the displacing of a vaguely Christian consensus, it may mean that the sun is setting on the so-called “Christian West.”
Now, I’m fully aware that in my earnest desire to bridge disagreement, I could be misreading what the advocates of each side are really saying. But what I do know is that Christianity is often victim of hackneyed “either/or” false antitheses. Sometimes, “either/or” polarities need to occur. Open Theism and Calvinism, for example, are polarities and reconciling them cannot be done. I don’t see that as necessary in the debate happening right now. Instead, I see elements of overlap in the proverbial Venn diagram.
Must the Benedict Option and Transformationalism be at odds? Or, what would a Transformationalist Benedict Option look like? Because that’s what I think we need.
First, the Benedict Option has been wrongly construed by many as surrender. After reading and speaking with Dreher, I continue to sense that surrender is not inherent to the BenOp. The Benedict Option as Dreher tells it is Contra Mundum, Pro Mundo—“Against the World, for the World.” Any oppositional position that Christianity takes toward the world is ultimately aimed towards displacing falsehood with truth. The Benedict Option is advertised as awaiting the inevitable ruins of societal self-destruction while looking to the church looks to strengthen its own pillars. The church must try to stave off the ruins, but once the ruins are present, it seeks to rehabilitate a broken culture with the truth of Christianity. In that sense, the BenOp is a patient, long-suffering transformationalism.
The Benedict Option, rightly construed, may then be seen to be referring to the interior self-awareness of how the church sees itself pursuing deliberate growth in Christ for the sake of forming deep communities that can withstand secular advance. This is why you see in so much of Dreher’s articulation the idea of community formation seeded by a virtue ethic that looks to the practices and habits of community in forming its people.
If I’m at all interpreting Dreher’s Benedict Option accurately, I sense that Dreher is emphasizing the communal and interior life of the church. This doesn’t mean that the Benedict Option is averse to mission, but it places emphasis on mission as springing from the interior existence of Christianity identity.
Secondly, Transformationalism is firmly dedicated to the proposition that conversionary Christianity offers the best and lasting hope for building humane societies. This proposition I wholeheartedly affirm. Transformationalism insists that a Christianity lived boldly in the public square is infused with a dynamic of hope. The Benedict Option is transformational in the sense that it believes that Christian identity, insofar as it is rooted and orthodox, can and will transform because Christianity is an exponent of absolute, indissoluble truth grounded in the goodness of God and his loving care for creation.
I see the primary difference in the two paradigms as between an interior Christianity (Benedict) and an exterior Christianity (Kuyper). Transformationalists insist upon scaling the walls of every sector of culture in order to see Christ’s Lordship ultimately stamped upon it. Here, Kuyper needs Benedict. To scale the walls, it will require a type of people that are formed and self-aware. An interior concern is conscious of who Christians must be in order to exist. An exterior approach is conscious of what Christians do to live faithfully.
Now, there may be serious disagreement between the camps between what each thinks what influence is feasible at the moment. That, I believe, might be the biggest point of conflict. Dreher is pessimistic about opportunities to see change happen and believes that the secularist advance is dominant and unstoppable in the short term. To him, we are irreparably post-Christian in the short-term. The Transformationalists, on the other hand, believe that no momentary hesitation or acknowledged self-retreat is allowable. If there’s an opportunity to influence the culture, it should be taken because Christ’s Lordship over the cosmos requires a witness heralding this lordship over every arena of life and culture. A Kuyper Option understands that Christianity, by definition, is public truth.
A congruence of a Transformationalist Benedict Option may mean, supremely, that our method and expectations change. We continue to strive to influence every sector of culture that Christians can, fully aware of the limitations and difficulties that our times will place upon us. But we do so with an eye toward understanding that the witness we offer, perceived as refuse to some (1 Cor 4:13), is really a sweet aroma (2 Cor. 2:15). This is a Christianity where paradox and contradiction may be the mode of transformation.
But let me say very soberly: There will not be transformation in the headwinds now facing us if there isn’t deep identity and resolve to orthodox Christianity. No longer can parents simply rely on an ambient culture to disciple their kids in the way of the American way of life if the American way of life means subliminal paganism. There’s a realization setting in that the faith of their childhood cannot be passively absorbed. It will require catechesis. I see this happening within my own ranks of conservative Christianity, most of which unabashedly loves culture and wants to benefit it.
What must the Benedict Option and Kuyper Option brace for and work to prevent in the day we now find ourselves? The Benedict Option must be careful to not fall into a Nature/Grace dualism that evades social responsibility. The Kuyper Option must sever triumphalism or penultimate victory from their short-term strategy. Penultimate victory may come in terms of reclaiming sectors of culture, but I don’t see that happening for a long, long time. Kuyper Option Christians must, to paraphrase Chesterton, fight a losing battle and know that they’ll not actually lose. Again, this long haul requires the habits of identity formation.
A Transformationalist Benedict Option must be simultaneously attentive to the interior identity and exterior mission of the church. A Transformationalist Benedict Option will mean that local churches are cultivating a Christianity with roots. Children are being catechized by parents. It will mean that children and teens are being taught the beauty of creation and the Lordship of Christ. There will be more discussion about culture proper, not just subverting culture with parroted forms of (bad) Christian culture. Churches will be full of members who are full of cultural refugees, but refugees who act as insurgents.
A metaphor may serve what I’m hoping to argue. If a ship is off course and going astray, I want every effort taken to send rescue boats whose compasses can put the ship back on course. But rescue boats need to have their own compasses and directional navigation properly calibrated in order to rescue. In the same way, the church must know who it is to withstand the waves while looking to rescue the wayward culture that is intent on throwing its compass overboard and dancing while the ship ventures further and further off.
This isn’t an either/or. No one is saying not to fight or engage, but the mode of engagement is going to look different. We’re going to have to take on a new mindset; we’re going to have to learn to embrace ridicule; we’re going to have to learn how to communicate our beliefs in a way that assumes nothing. We have to learn that winsomeness may not matter at all. That should not, however, cause us to hesitate at all about whether our Christianity is to be lived publicly.
I tire of the constant “The times are a changin’” refrains. They are. So what. Stiffen the spine. Perhaps we’re awaiting the ruins, but that shouldn’t cause us to expedite their presence. Work to prevent them. Christian parents, teach your children the faith. Take nothing for granted. Look to the local church as the locus of your social identity. Put down the happy clappy self-improvement book and pick up something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Look to the sky and shout, “Play the man, Master Ridley,” for everything will be alright in the end.