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Thinking Out Loud

The World Within, Part 1

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 27, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

The World WithinThe Benedict Option
There's been a lot of talk recently among some Christians about finding an alternative to contemporary society. Some people are discussing what it might mean to flee "the world" for the sake of their Christian Faith. One approach discussed is represented in the new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

Dreher's alternative is not all that different in spirit from the perspective proposed by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon several years ago in their book, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon, expanded 25th anniversary edition, 2014), although Hauerwas and Willimon are more sophisticated in their theological outlook and much more subtle in their ideas about how a "resident alien" interacts with secular society. Their perspective shares something of a theological stance discussed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic study, Christ and Culture, under the category of "Christ Against Culture." So does Dreher's proposal.

Evoking the name of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), the founder of the first monastic order, brings a new perspective and fresh energy to this conversation, especially given the conservative social and political perspective represented by Dreher and the appeal of his proposal among some Evangelical and Non-denominational Christians. Indeed many people, and from a variety of theological perspectives, are seeking the sanity and balance of what are often called "intentional communities." And, while many of us who would not share Dreher's conservative politics and social agenda, his assessment of what's wrong with contemporary society or his understanding of a well-lived Christian faith, we would probably find some of his observations interesting, even compelling.

When, for example, he writes of conservative Christians in America who define themselves almost entirely by being against "abortion and gay marriage" while accepting uncritically the "radical individualism and secularism of modernity," I find it difficult to imagine who among us might not agree with him. And when he goes on to say of his own Christian tribe, "We seemed content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing a sense of what it means to be Christian," not only would I say "Amen", I would want to take care to examine the beam in my eye. Dreher has listened to a lot of Christians, especially self-described conservative ones, in recent years who want to flee a society they see as increasingly hostile to "traditional values." (Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 2) His arguments deserve our attention, whether or not we agree with his judgments.

In light of the popularity of Dreher's new book (David Brooks, the New York Times columnist recommended it in a recent essay) and the conversations going on about his ideas, it seems to me a good time to revisit one of the great themes of the early hermits and monks of the church, many of whom sought to flee the world, to put behind them the tangled webs of human civilization, the deceit, the violence, and the vanity of the world they lived in.

In particular, however, I want us to reflect on the motives these early Christians gave for the monastic flight, because I think motives make such a big difference in the efficacy of any action. And it seems clear that the motives of the early monks, including Benedict, were rather different from those articulated in Dreher's book.

The Monastic Flight
The first wave of Christians to flee society, the Desert Fathers, were leaving behind centers of culture where the church had traded its status as a forbidden and intermittently persecuted faith for that of an officially recognized and often favored religion. In some ways, therefore, their experience parallels ours nicely.

Our American culture is certainly secular, in that it views faith as a matter of choice, an option which may be taken or left (as Charles Taylor has demonstrated), but if we doubt that Christianity (in the form Christianity takes metaphysically and mythically underpinning American civil religion) is the default religion of the contemporary American empire, we are kidding ourselves. If you'd like to test this argument, I encourage you to ask a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Hindu, or a card-carrying atheist what they think about Christianity's de facto role as the "normative religion" in American society.

Contemporary American culture may only be superficially, conventionally, and reactively "Christian," in the sense of Søren Kierkegaard's anemic 19th-century European "Christendom," but that only makes it more like Byzantium in the days of the first Christian monks and hermits. But even more than this, Christians are not the outsiders, the aliens in America. Not by a long shot. They are favored and privileged. And it is fascinating, I think, and it is troubling, the way conservative Christianity continues to flex its cultural and political muscles while claiming to be a small persecuted minority.

By the time that St. Benedict came along in the sixth century, social conditions in Europe and Asia had dramatically deteriorated. You wouldn't be speaking metaphorically if you said, of Benedict's time, that the Barbarians were at the gates. The "bar-bar-barians," as the Greeks mockingly named the northern tribes whose language sounded strange to sophisticated Hellenistic ears, literally were at the gates. In fact, they had already breached the gates. Rome had been sacked by the time Benedict was born. What was left of classical civilization was in tatters. And the church was splintered apart, shattered by controversies, schisms and heresies.

For Benedict, to leave this mess must have felt like jumping overboard a sinking ship. Previous generations of Christian monks had mourned the worldliness of culture and civilization in cahoots with a favored and rich official church and had fled the world for the deserts. Benedict was fleeing a worldliness compounded by chaos in the church and violence everywhere.

As many early Christians had already discovered by the time Benedict came along, however, it is one thing to flee Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria or even Barbarian hordes, and it is quite another thing to flee "the world." We can change our geography without changing ourselves spiritually. We can trade physical addresses and still have the same baggage, because we carry the world inside of us wherever we go. It is not only the toxins around us in our environment that threaten to kill us but the malignancies within. This is as true of matters of the spirit as of the flesh. The early Christian monks knew this better than anyone.

More than one early monk bore witness to the fact that the most difficult pilgrimage wasn't over sea and land, but across the rugged terrain of the solitary heart. To be worldly might mean many things, including assessing the value of human life (our own and other human lives) based on how much one acquired and what one controlled: whether the "much" consisted of wealth and possessions, offices, power or authority, knowledge or even external virtues. To be worldly might have to do with dominating others, manipulating others, allowing our souls to become captivated by the forces that diminish creation.

One might even say that it was the very impulse to keep score (spiritually speaking, to judge others) and to make an image of oneself (spiritually speaking, to worship a false god made of me) that was at the very core of worldliness. This is why pride is the biggest vice of all, and self-righteousness is such a deadly trap. Worldliness often does not look "worldly." Some of the worst aspects of worldliness can be disguised as piety.

The early Christian monks sought to clear away the clutter in their lives so they could better pay attention to God. They sought to find a place where nothing could distract them from the "real" in distinction from the "illusory," the "eternal" from the "transitory.”

The earliest monks went into lonely wilderness places so that they could narrow their focus to "God alone" (a phrase that echoes throughout monastic literature and history). Their renunciation of goods was intended to free them so they could face God with open hands. The fasts they undertook and the rigorous lives they lived were intended to discipline them so they would not feast upon one another in anger, jealousy and envy. But try as they might - and many of the early monks gave themselves to the disciplines of silence, solitude, prayer, contemplation, fasting and celibacy for decades upon end - they bore witness to the fact that the world was resident in them although they saw themselves as resident aliens in the world. And they never ceased to wrestle with the world within.

It is true that a great wealth of wisdom and knowledge was preserved in monasteries, Benedictine and Celtic, through barbaric ages. And while much additional classical wisdom and knowledge, including vital scientific and medical knowledge, only came into Western civilization through Islamic culture, it is important, as Dreher points out, to remember the role Benedictine monasteries, especially on the edges of Europe, played in preserving the culture of the past.

But this wasn't the purpose of the monasteries. And it wasn't the motive of the monks to preserve a set of values we might describe as "traditional." They sought to focus their entire lives on "God alone," an orientation of life and faith that would as quickly call into question a "traditional value" as it would any other thing that might claim our attention, our loyalty, or our worship. Their motive was not so much to keep the world out, as to discern God in the world.

For those of us who have long been inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's belief that the time may be upon us for new forms of monasticism that focus our lives upon God alone, it is clear that any such intentional community is also grounded in a worldly Christianity, a faith in a fully incarnate God who created the world in love, never stopped loving it, and refuses to walk through it today holding his divine nose.

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