Not to be a mean Calvinist jerk, but the discussion of Christians leaving the cultural mainstream for a Christian enclave — the so-called Benedict Option — strikes me increasingly as just one more way that modern Christians can think of themselves either as superior or victim while paying not much heed to the idea of living quite and peaceful lives in the existing world. Rod Dreher compiles a number of quotations among Roman Catholics and Episcopalians about the Benedict Option and has extensive quotations from Ken Myers. Among them are the following, which includes first a brief against modernity:
The “counter” in counterculture sounds, as I’ve suggested, a prophetically constructive note. It is a necessary note because of the disorder of the modern West, and I think any effort to define and embody a counterculture for the common good has to work to understand the nature of that disorder. In a chapter called “The redemption of society,” in his book The Desire of the Nations, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan observes that many thinkers from diverse intellectual disciplines and philosophical or theological points of view have converged on a critique of “modernity.” They disagree about many finer points and some larger ones, but they all agree that the social and cultural phenomena of our times need to be understood as “part of a greater historical totality — one which they date variously, but always in centuries rather than in decades. What makes life in the late modern period different — its high level of technologisation, its sexual permissiveness, its voluntarisations of birth and death, its concept of politics as economic management — can all be traced back to seed-thoughts that were present at the beginning of the modern era, and are aspects of a necessitating web of mutual implication.”
I agree that modern life poses challenges for Christians (as it does for Bunk and Jimmy — ahem). But weren’t things pretty bad going all the way back to the fall? Think Cain and Abel. Well, maybe the medieval era of Christendom was better. What about Pope Alexander VI? I don’t mean to suggest that all cultures are equal and that the current moment is no better or worse than any other. I for one think that our society has declined since the 1970s. But can we really blame modernity? Don’t Christians have to blame sinners? Democracy?
To the idea that Christians should promote the common good, Ken responds:
Actively, systematically, and consistently promoting the common good will produce enemies and possibly invite persecution in modern America because our society is deeply committed to the premise that we should share no goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common. The American understanding of freedom — an understanding shared by many professing Christians — was articulated by Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At 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.” This so-called “mystery passage” has received a lot of mockery from conservatives of various stripes, but I think it is profoundly accurate statement of the flowering of a seed-thought central to the character of modern culture. This radical privatizing of all metaphysical commitment is not the tyrannical expression of an elitist court, but the precious conviction of a majority of Americans.
Is it true that our society is “deeply” committed to this premise that we share no goods in common? We may live that way de facto. But are Americans deeply committed to this the way that the Gospel Coalition is deeply committed to avoiding the question of baptism? Aaron Sorkin in his popular television shows like West Wing and Newsroom actually seems to portray an understand of America that underscores and longs for a shared understanding of national greatness and his main characters, whether presidents or news anchors, seem to operate as if such a shared vision is still possible (except for the baleful influence of the Tea Party). Ken’s description of America strikes me as a form of overstatement that you might hear from the meaner sectors of Protestantism but not within the Episcopal Church.
And speaking of the Episcopal Church, which does ordain gay bishops, is what Ken says about liberal democracies also true of liberal Protestant communions?
The orthodoxy of all liberal democracies requires that religious convictions — or any beliefs that even appear religious — be segregated from private life. Religious convictions cannot be regarded as having public consequence. As John Milbank has noted, “in principle, a state can adopt any ideology it chooses, except a religious one.” And yet, a Christian understanding of human flourishing and the common good must be founded on the affirmation of our creation by God.
So when Christians do hunker down in the separated fortresses, will Christian orthodoxy prevail? I know, having just attended my first international presbytery meeting (The Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario), that even disciplining Orthodox Presbyterians, who are generally a pretty Bible revering bunch, can be a challenge. So when the Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, or mainline Protestants withdraw into their separated spaces and ghettos of virtue, will the lack of discipline that afflicts those communions also show up? That’s another way of asking which Christian group has the chops to produce a rule as strict as Benedict’s? (And let’s not forget about reproduction and what happened to the Shakers.)
To be sure, having a society that doesn’t undermine what parents try to pass on to their kids (but which parents and which kids) is appealing. But Christianity came into the world in such a social setting. Why should we expect more than the original followers of Jesus?