a convergence

I don’t know, maybe I’m eventually going to get used to writing on a phone….

I just want to take a moment to emphasize again how strongly I agree with Matthew Loftus’s insistence that if any particular version of the BenOp is not oriented towards the core mission of the Church, then it will fail as a Christian movement even if it succeeds in numerical terms.

But I also want to suggest that there are elements of the BenOp strategy as it is formulated by Rod Dreher and like-minded people that missional endeavors like those Loftus commends should also keep in mind and learn from.

People often criticize proponents of the BenOp for acting out of fear, but in general I think that American Christians are, as Aragorn said to Frodo, insufficiently fearful. (“You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet.”) Their fears are sometimes misdirected, to be sure; but it is not irrational to fear when you live in the neighborhood of something more powerful than you that does not mean you well, even when it genuinely thinks that it wants the best for you. (I refer not to Nazgul but to disenchanted modernity.)

In such circumstances I believe we do well to fear our enemies, but even better to fear ourselves — our internal dividedness, our weakness. About four hundred years ago, Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medici:

I have no genius to disputes in religion: and have often thought it wisdom to decline them, especially upon a disadvantage, or when the cause of truth might suffer in the weakness of my patronage… . Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity; many, from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth. A man may be in as just possession of truth as of a city, and yet be forced to surrender; ‘tis therefore far better to enjoy her with peace than to hazard her on a battle.

And with that in mind, I’d like to say that the most important question we can ask about projects of mercy and charity and neighborliness like the ones that Loftus commends in his post, or that my friend Charles Marsh describes in his wonderful book The Beloved Community, is: Why do they so rarely last? Why do they tend to fall apart after a few years of effective ministry?

One reason, of course, is that such work is tiring, and people wear out. But I think another and more important reason is that people get involved in ministries like this out of what Browne calls “inconsiderate zeal” — zeal that is not fully considered. And what people typically fail to consider is whether they are prepared, whether they have been formed as Christians in such a way that they have adequate resources to withstand the temptations and the challenges and and plain old exhaustion that accompany any long-term attempt at genuinely Christlike love.

I don’t think Christians reflect nearly often enough on the fact that Jesus, who at the age of twelve was able to enlighten the rabbis in the Temple about Torah, did not begin his public ministry until he was thirty. What a waste of years! Think of all he could have accomplished!

What did he do in that time? He studied, he prayed, he trained in and worked at a job, he “grew in grace and in favor with God and with man.”

This, I think, is where BenOp strategies and “missional” strategies ought to converge: on a commitment to ministry to the whole world that recognizes that people can only carry out such ministry if they are well and properly formed, and formed not just by going to church most Sundays but by deeper, more ancient, more demanding practices of the Christian faith. This is why I have insisted on the necessity of paideia and catechesis: without such formation exciting missional enterprises will spring up quickly, but in the heat of the day they will wilt and die.