Friday, June 3, 2016

When Christianity is at its best.

The Benedict Option is making the rounds this week, and this far corner of "the interwebs" was cited by Rod Dreher in a recent post.

Dreher's proposal, by his own admission, is still a diamond in the rough. It is in the early stages during which entrance into the sphere of publicly discussed ideas will elicit the intellectual reaction to refine it.

As it stands, the Benedict Option is part of a relatively young intellectual current emanating from voices that would normally be defined as "conservative." It is still somewhat disparate and perhaps inchoate, but united in a common theme that (roughly) centers around the necessity for Christianity to leave a (dying) model built on institutional relevance behind in favor of communities that run contrary to the dominant culture and provide the means for transformation by the dynamism of the gospel. These are not monastic communities (although monasteries would certainly be a welcome feature), and there is no expectation that one would disavow engagement in civil responsibility or the job market.

The intention is (as I see it) to form Christians such that they are recognizable as participating in the public sphere but living in a manner and pursuing goals (for themselves and individuals and their community) that run with unwavering defiance to the culture where it deviates from the principles laid down (we believe) by divine revelation. Yes, it will be political, but it will not betray itself to any particular political agenda for a few scraps of advancement. It will be a counter-cultural alternative that offers men and women another way, a different way from the dominant mode of life in the culture. And the thought here is that in act of so doing, Christianity will throw the terms of engagement with the culture into disarray.

Do proposals of this kind bother people? Assuredly they do. Traditionalists, neo-Conservatives, and liberals (all inadequate terms, but they will suffice for the moment) all function off of a model of Christianity that is at its base founded as a cultural institution. Liberals want Christianity fully reconciled with the culture. neo-Conservatives and Traditionalists want (to one degree or another) Christianity to exert political dominance of the culture. In either case, such views fundamentally see Christianity in terms of the culture, not as a force unto itself. Christianity is entwined with the culture, not parallel or contraction to it.

Such an orientation towards culture is a comfortable relationship, but it also leads to a fully domesticated Godhead and a compromised position towards the state. We should be honest here: Christianity, more often than not, is the whipping boy of political interests, used for political advantage or expediency as seen fit in the moment. It serves no one in this capacity.

It is sometimes said the Church is at her best when she is persecuted for Christ. I would flesh this out a bit. I would argue that Christianity is at its best when it a) fulfills the religious aspirations of its people and b) makes the culture tremble with self doubt. God Incarnate was not crucified for piously praying or healing the sick. He was crucified because he made institutional religions and cultural powers tremble with doubt by setting forth a new praxis for life, something running counter to the dominant power and culture. For the first three hundred years after his death, the Church was able to follow this example. Since then, she has done so in fits and starts. Perhaps this is sometimes justifiable - situations and circumstances chance and the witness men and women need is something totally approachable within the culture. At other times, the Church needs to return to her source of origin and re-learn how to live and thrive by going around or contrary to the dominant culture.

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