Benedict Option is not an Option
By Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I study Church history for a reason. History is the only place where Christian theology and practice becomes possible. Any real knowledge about God, in terms of Christianity, needs history. Our knowledge of God is within a context. This is owing to the fact that Christianity, at heart, is incarnational.
Because of this, we cannot limit Christian history, or indeed theology itself, within the confines of a narrow faith community. On the contrary, Church history and, indeed, Christian theology and practice, must in some sense be placed within the wider context of human history. This is to say that we must place this sacred history and the theology which surrounds it within the political, social and spiritual context to which it belongs. For the early Church, this means looking at the Middle East, the realm of the Roman empire, the Jewish community of the day and the philosophical systems then in vogue. For the Church of the middle ages and medieval monasticism we must look to the rise of the feudal system in western Europe, the rediscovery of Aristotle and the emergence of centralized political authority in the persons of kings and princes.
As we study the Reformation Church, we recognize that it is impossible to view the events, personalities and emerging theological perspectives without also taking in the emergence of nation-states, the transformation wrought by the printing press, or, indeed, the troubled marriages of England’s Henry VIII. In the modern era, it is almost impossible to separate the Enlightenment from the evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries. The tension between enlightenment ideals and religious faith has marked the last two centuries. This has resulted, I believe, in the very often “ahistorical” manifestations of Christian faith and practice exercised in many quarters. Our identity has become defined by “what we are against” rather than what we affirm.
Whether we recognize it or not, the last thirty years, with the emergence of digital technology and instant communication, has ushered us into a new era. It is a new era of not only human history, but of Church history as well. Martin Luther may or may not have recognized the contribution to his work made by Johannes Gutenberg, but the dissemination of Reformation ideals would have been near to impossible without him.
As I sit writing this small piece of theological reflection, I realize that my ability to gain a readership today is in large part owing to a Buddhist named Steve Jobs and a semi-Atheist named Bill Gates. In this new era of Church history, we are confronted with new challenges. The first and foremost challenge is that everybody has a voice. Now, please note, I did not say that everybody has expertise, only that everybody has a voice. They may use that voice to share profound insights or, they may use that voice propagate nonsense. The cacophony of voices – informed, ill-informed and uninformed – fills our television, computer and smart phone screens on a moment by moment, second by second basis without the benefits of a filter or a pause for reflection.
As we confront this new era, it seems to me that we need a moment to “step back”. Living in the history of the moment, it is hard to see the larger context, but I think we need to make the attempt. We need to make the attempt, because it is in the here and now that God is making himself known. He is making himself known in this moment of history as he has done through the millennia. I think this is part of the attraction, for some, of the so-called “Benedict Option”.
More than just a withdrawal from society at large, it represents a desire for the things we have lost of late – time for study, prayer, reflection, the nurturing of expertise, the desire for community, the intrinsic value of work, some disengagement from the myriad of voices surrounding us. On the other hand, this is not sixth century Umbria, it is America in the twenty-first century and we are called to deal with the challenges of our own time.
For me (and I can only speak for myself) withdrawal from society at large is not really an option. Additionally, I would submit that the confrontation between Christian theology and enlightenment ideals is a battle that is over. Society at large has made its choice and they did not choose Christian theology. If we continue fighting this non-existent battle, the only result will be the further alienation of rising generations as the Church shouts into the wind and wonders why it is not heard. On the other hand, complete engagement with current norms creates not only theological issues, but a practical problem as well.
Let us be true to ourselves as the Church and say that Christian doctrine and practice is not established by the vote of fifty-one percent. By making this simple statement, we have already placed a gap between ourselves and civil society that cannot, and, indeed, should not be bridged. In terms of practicality, perhaps it is enough to say that “if you wed yourself to the present, you will be found a widow in the future”. Or, perhaps, more prosaically, if you think you’re hip and trendy today, you’ll look a bit silly in ten or twenty years time. (Just think of the photos of yourself wearing those… bell bottoms, peasant skirts, wide ties, skinny ties, etc.)
Looking over the course of Church history and the development of Christian doctrine, it seems to me that the Church has done best in doing those things that society has left undone. The early Church confronted the Roman empire by adopting its own moral code from the Gospels and apostolic letters and creating communities in which class distinctions were ignored. Benedict established communities which not only became centers of learning and stability in a tumultuous age, but also taught farming and crop management to those in the surrounding area. In a time of unfettered clericalism, Luther placed the Scripture and the greater part of the liturgy into the vernacular for the benefit of the common believer. He demonstrated clerical marriage by his own example and encouraged the education of lay people. John and Charles Wesley, in a time of latitudinarianism, created a “Holy Club” at Oxford, the members of which fasted, studied the Greek New Testament each evening, visited prisoners and the sick and received Holy Communion each week.
So, what has been left “undone” in 2016? I’m sure each of you will have a list. I certainly have mine, but let me say first, these few suggestions are only meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive…
* Education in many quarters has become vocational, rather than the centuries old concept of “learning to learn”. It has resulted in the death of expertise in some fields (especially theology) and a lack of regard for education among many. Perhaps a return to mentoring and the joy of learning is in order.
*In our ever more connected world, loneliness is endemic. We see it among young and old alike. A sense of community and of belonging is desired (and sometimes feared) by many. Perhaps we need to ensure that church is no longer a “spectator” experience.
*In a time in which anything can be said, courtesy and civility is being lost. We see it in politics, but we also see it in our churches and in our theological discussions. Have we forgotten how to “consider others as more important” than ourselves (Phil. 2:30)? Courtesy and civility provides the space for real conversation, for growth, for learning.
Learning, community, conversation… the list could go on, but you get the idea. I think if we begin to look for that which is “undone” in this time of history; if we look for the “broken places” in society and apply an incarnational approach to our theology in addressing them, we could be amazed at the result.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD writes for The Project