Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: catechesis (page 1 of 1)

seeds and means of renewal

895px Giotto Legend of St Francis 06 Dream of Innocent III

In a recent column, David Brooks writes extensively and thoughtfully about the prospects for the renewal of the moribund evangelical movement. He cites some reasons for hope — though the signals are weak at the moment — but also points to some concerns:

Over the past few years, I’ve joined and observed a few of the conferences and gatherings organized by Christians who are trying to figure out how to start this renewal. Inevitably there were a few sessions diagnosing the problems, then a final one in which people were supposed to suggest solutions. I would summarize the final sessions this way: “Mumble, mumble, mumble. Well, it was nice to see y’all!”

Yeah. I think the primary reason for this confusion is that evangelical leaders are the products of the institutions of that movement — colleges, seminaries, various parachurch organizations — and those institutions either have failed to provide serious intellectual equipment or, when they done their jobs well, their voices have been drowned out by the entrepreneurial/marketing noisemakers who insist that the building of churches is exactly like the building of businesses.

If the evangelical church, or the church more generally, is going to be renewed, it will need to find leaders who are (a) deeply grounded in Christian theology and practice, (b) attentive to the contours and demands of our ambient culture, and (c) able to think imaginatively about the complex ways that (a) and (b) interact.

For the last several years, I have, on this blog and elsewhere, tried to create a framework for how to do just this kind of work and in the process begin to renew Christ’s church. As far as I can tell, this project has had absolutely no impact on anyone. I am not sure why. I just know that my writing has always been much better received by non-Christians than by my fellow believers; the latter seem not to know what to make of my ideas — perhaps because they don’t obviously belong to any particular school or tradition? I dunno. Maybe I just don’t have anything useful to say. But I keep trying anyway.

Let me gather together links to some of my thinking on these topics, in what I think is a useful order:

There’s much more if you follow the tags on this post.

the breaking of the inherited vessels

But the Enlightenment has for us a strange form of continuing life: everything about it seems alien, and yet everything about it seems familiar; it is simultaneously dead, undead, and full of life. The reason for this, I will suggest, is that we still live within institutions and practices created in the eighteenth century, the institutions and practices of the free market, of free speech and freedom of religion, and of the written constitution. These institutions and practices embody ideas, and the ideas they embody are those of the Enlightenment paradigm. The institutions, the practices, and the ideas are intertwined and inseparable. The Enlightenment lives on in us, even as we attack it or deny that it ever really existed, because Enlightenment forms of life (to adopt a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstein) continue to be our forms of life. Those forms of life are certainly under strain, and it would be wrong to assume they will survive indefinitely. Indeed their life may be coming to an end. In a postindustrial, digital world, a world of artificial intelligence and of boundless supplies of energy, new categories of thought and new institutions may supplant them; and perhaps we can see more clearly now what the Enlightenment paradigm was precisely because we are beginning to emerge from it. As G. W. F. Hegel said, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” 

— David Wootton, from Power, Pleasure, and Profit (p. 13). This insight seems to me relevant to Christian life also. There is a kind of mismatch between the forms we have inherited and what we believe — what we believe because we are being catechized in certain beliefs by a culture of ambient propaganda. This tension between the ancient vessels of culture and what they contain is not indefinitely sustainable: in the long run, either we will adjust our thinking and feeling to match the shapes of our familiar institutions, or we will reshape those institutions so that they suit our thoughts and feelings. The latter is quite obviously what’s happening, because new institutions — the catechizing and propagandizing ones, which cunningly present themselves as non- or trans-institutional — are co-opting the old ones. “The media creates us in its image” — but the existing institutions are incompatible with the shape in which we are being remade. So they must either be transformed or destroyed. 

learning from Rod Dreher

My buddy Rod Dreher has a book coming out soon called Live Not By Lies, and it’s about what American Christians can learn about living under an oppressive regime by studying what believers did under the old Soviet Union. I think this is a story that Christians ought to be interested in, whether they agree with Rod’s politics or not. Every thoughtful Christian I know thinks that the cause of Christ has powerful cultural and political enemies, that we are in various ways discouraged or impeded in our discipleship by forces external to the Church. Where we differ is in our assessment of what the chief opposing forces are.

Rod is primarily worried about the rise of a “soft totalitarianism” of the left, what James Poulos calls a “pink police state.” Other Christians I know are equally worried, but about the dangers to Christian life of white supremacy, or the international neoliberal order. For me the chief concern (I have many) is what I call “metaphysical capitalism.” But we all agree that the Church of Jesus Christ is under a kind of ongoing assault, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect, sometimes blunt and sometimes subtle, and that living faithfully under such circumstances is a constant challenge. Why wouldn’t we want to learn from people who faced even greater challenges than we do and who managed to sustain their faith through that experience? Isn’t that valuable to all of us?

I felt the same way about The Benedict Option, which was mostly not an argument but rather a job of reporting, reporting on various intentional Christian communities. I read the book with fascination, because I was and am convinced that the primary reason American Christians are so bent and broken is that we have neglected catechesis while living in a social order that catechizes us incessantly. What can I learn from those communities that would help me in my own catechesis, and that of my family, and that of my parish church? I read The Benedict Option with the same focus I brought to my reading of a marvelous book by another friend of mine, Charles Marsh’s The Beloved Community. Charles’s politics are miles away from Rod’s, but their books share an essential concern: How can the church of Jesus Christ, how can Christ’s followers, be formed in such a way that they can flourish in unpropitious conditions?

That’s exactly the right question, I think, and both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies introduce me to people who help me — even when I don’t agree with their strategies! — to think better about what its answers might be. (And The Beloved Community as well. Christians under Marxism and the Black church under Jim Crow offer remarkably similar kinds of help to us, a point that deserves a great deal more reflection than it is likely ever to get in our stupidly polarized time.)

Often when I make this argument people acknowledge the force of it but tell me that Rod is the “wrong messenger.” I understand what they mean. Rod is excitable, and temperamentally a catastrophist, as opposed to a declinist. (That’s Ross Douthat’s distinction.) Like the prophet of Richard Wilbur’s poem, he’s gotten himself “Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,” and I often think that if he writes the phrase “Wake up, people!” one more time I’m gonna drive to Baton Rouge and slap him upside the head.

Also, when Rod rails against “woke capitalism,” he clearly thinks that “woke” is the problem, without giving real assent to the fact that Christians are susceptible to woke capitalism because they were previously susceptible to other kinds. He perceives threats to the Church from the Right, from racism and crude nationalism and general cruelty to whoever isn’t One Of Us, and writes about them sometimes, but they don’t exercise his imagination the way that threats from the Left do. I can see why people whose politics differ from Rod’s don’t what to hear what he has to say.

But, you know, Jonah was definitely the wrong messenger for Ninevah — he even thought so himself — and yet the Ninevites did well to pay attention to him.

And if you think Rod has a potentially useful message but is the wrong conveyer of it, then get off your ass and become the messenger you want to see in the world. Lord knows we need more Christians, not fewer, paying attention to the challenges of deep Christian formation. Wake up, people!

Kathryn Tanner’s altar call

Consider this a follow-up to my recent posts on metaphysical capitalism and some stories about the commodification of emotion and connection — and also a kind of pendant to Derek Thompson’s story in the Atlantic on the religion of workism. This one’s gonna have some long quotations.

Here’s how Kathryn Tanner describes her task in her new book Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism:

Whether amenable to capitalism at its start or not, my own Christian commitments as I hope to show are inimical to the demands of capitalism now. I am critical of the present spirit of capitalism because I believe my own, quite specific Christian commitments require it. But I also suggest over the course of the chapters to come that the present-day organization of capitalism is deserving of such criticism whatever one’s religious commitments, because of its untoward effects on persons and populations, its deforming effects on the way people understand themselves and their relations with others. Every way of organizing economic life is flawed. Besides having especially egregious faults (relative to other ways that capitalism has been organized, this one foments, for example, extreme income/wealth inequality, structural under- and unemployment, and regularly recurring boom/bust cycles in asset values), what is unusual about the present system is the way its spirit hampers recognition of those faults. The present-day spirit of capitalism needs to be undermined, therefore, in order for the current system to be problematized — seen as a problem amenable to solution, an object of possible criticism requiring redress. And in order for that to happen, in order for the spirit of present-day capitalism to be effectively undermined, it needs to be met, I suggest, by a counter-spirit of similar power. Without the need any longer of religious backing, capitalism may now have the power itself to shape people in its own image; its conduct-forming spirit may now be its own production, in other words. But as one of the few alternative outlooks on life with a capacity to shape life conduct to a comparable degree, religion might remain a critical force against it.

That bolded sentence is a reminder that, as I often say, “the liberal order catechizes,” and that it will catechize us right out of Christianity altogether if we don’t provide what I call a “counter-catechesis,” a radically different “conduct-forming spirit.” Tanner makes a very similar argument at length.

In so doing, she repeatedly reminds us that Christianity is, among other things, a counter-economics. Everyone knows how thoroughly economic language is woven into the fabric of the Christian story: we are bought with a price (agorazo); we are bought out of slavery (exagorazo). Though Tanner doesn’t do exegesis in her book, it’s clear that she wants her readers to understand how completely the biblical picture reorients, or ought to reorient, our self-understanding. In a capitalist order it becomes easy, even natural, to think of God as a metaphysical banker, keeping our moral accounts as thoroughly as the hidden gods of capitalism track our FICO scores. But if we can escape that tendency, if we can understand God as the one who has delivered us from bondage, then “rather than being tallied against one’s account, one can be assured one’s sins are forgiven, their burden erased, when casting them upon Christ’s mercy in confession. One can honestly admit faults without fear, assured of God’s mercy in Christ. It is not the lapse that threatens to separate one from Christ but the refusal to confess it, out of fear and a lack of trust in God’s graciousness.”

But if we cannot manage this reorientation of our understanding, then we can come to be terrified of the future and at the same time confined to an understanding of the future as a mere continuation of what now exists:

In order to profit from the difference between present and future, or at least to prevent it from doing any harm, one employs financial instruments that collapse the future present — that is, what the future will turn out to be — into the present future — that is, into the present view of the future…. By virtue of such a collapse of future into present, the future one anticipates loses its capacity to surprise; the future to come simply reduces to the future it makes sense to expect given present circumstances. Those circumstances themselves become a kind of self-enclosed world, as one learns to hope for nothing more from the future than what the given world’s present limits allow, what it is reasonable to expect from within them, assuming their continuance.

To live within these constraints — constraints which our capitalist order teaches us we must think about constantly if we are to be rational actors and responsible citizens — is to be deprived of both imagination and hope. What is required, for those of us so bound, is to be redeemed from this bondage, to be bought ought of slavery to it, and that requires conversion.

So I was delighted to find, at one important juncture in this book, this liberal Episcopalian giving her readers what amounts to an altar call. I’ll close with that call:

The present does not, however, become urgent here due to scarcity. One has everything one needs — more than one needs — to turn one’s life around: the grace provided in Christ. In marked contrast to the efficiency-inducing scarcities of finance-dominated capitalism, it is the very fulsomeness of the provisions for conversion that makes the present an urgent matter, an opportunity to be seized with alacrity and put to good use. There is no point in looking longingly to any past or future with the capacity to make things easier: the time is ripe for action right now and never has been or will be any better. Delaying a present decision to turn one’s life around, and neglecting to make the best of what is currently on offer out of a distracted sense of what was or might be, suggest one is simply never likely to turn one’s life around, no matter how many times one is offered the opportunity to do so in the future. Any such distraction from the present moment is always available as an excuse in the future, so as to produce thereby a never-ending deferral of decision. The present is urgent here not because the opportunities of the moment might be lost but because they are just so good, so perfectly suited to the predicament one is in and the needs one has, because of their not-to-be-passed-up character, so to speak. Instead of being here today and gone tomorrow, what allows one to turn one’s life around in the present — the grace of Christ — is permanently on offer. It has no fleeting character. What prompts one to seize it right away is not the fear of missed opportunity, then, but the immediate, overwhelming attractiveness of the offer…. No failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy of a grace designed specifically to save sinners…. There is thus no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future — the present is one’s only concern. Not because one cannot do anything about past mistakes or about an uncertain future — because neither is under one’s control — but because one can let go of the past without consequence — one’s sins are forgiven — and because the future will never be any more threatening than the present is. Contrary to the Stoic-inflected temporal sensibility of financial players, the present is no more under one’s control than the past was or the future will be: at every moment in time, one is enabled to turn oneself to God only by God’s grace and not by one’s own power.

Preach it, sister!

dare to make a Daniel

In a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Adrian Vermeule offers an alternative to Deneen’s plea for a renewed localism, and to the related counsel of Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Vermeule sees in a handful of biblical figures a model of civic engagement for Christians to follow:

Joseph, Mordecai, Esther, and Daniel, however, mainly attempt to ensure the survival of their faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession. They do not evangelize or preach with a view to bringing about the birth of an entirely new regime, from within the old. They mitigate the long defeat for those who become targets of the regime in liberalism’s twilight era, and this will surely have to be the main aim for some time to come. In the much longer run, it is permissible to dream, however fitfully, that other models may one day become relevant, in a postliberal future of uncertain shape. One such model is St. Cecilia, who, forced into marriage against her vows, converted her pagan husband; their joint martyrdom helped to spark the explosive growth of the early church. Another is of course St. Paul himself, who by the end of Acts of the Apostles preached the advent of a new order from within the very urban heart of the imperium.

Here too there is no hint of retreat into localism. There is instead a determination to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core. It may thus appear providential that liberalism, despite itself, has prepared a state capable of great tasks, as a legacy to bequeath to a new and doubtless very different future. The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism in pursuit of a mirage of depoliticized governance may, by the invisible hand of Providence, be turned to new ends, becoming the great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.

This is a powerful and in many ways beautiful vision. Perhaps the most attractive element of it, to me, is the commendation of limited goals on our part — the mere “attempt to ensure the survival of [our] faith communities in an interim age of exile and dispossession” — that may, in the providential wisdom of God, lead to something much greater: the transformation of a “decaying regime” into a “great instrument with which to restore a substantive politics of the good.” One should never expect something like that but it is meet and right to hope for it.

But I think Vermeule’s vision is missing one absolutely essential element. My question for him is: Where will these Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels come from? People who are deeply grounded in and deeply committed to their faith tradition who are also capable of rising to high levels of influence in government and education don’t exactly grow on trees. Vermeule’s model reminds me of someone who says he knows how I can become a billionaire: “First, get a million dollars….” Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels can indeed do great things — if we can come by them. But how are Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels produced?

What Vermeule is overlooking, it seems to me, is the simple fact that the liberal order catechizes. One of the wings of the liberal order that does this especially effectively is graduate school. Time and again over the years I have seen idealistic young scholars-in-training say, “Oh, I don’t really believe all that stuff they try to inculcate you with in grad school; I’ll just learn the language and use it until I get my PhD, and then I’ll be free to be myself.” But then “until I get my PhD” becomes “until I get a job”; and then “until I get tenure”; and then “until I get promoted to full professor.” Sooner or later — and often sooner — the face becomes indistinguishable from the mask. And this kind of gradual transformation of personal sensibility happens in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different cultural locations.

So a key question arises: If you need people who are sufficiently skilled in negotiating the liberal order to work effectively within it, but also committed to its transformation, and who can sustain that difficult balance over decades, you have to figure out how to form such people. And it is just this that the churches of the West — all the churches of the West — have neglected to do, have neglected even to attempt. With the (in retrospect quite obvious) result: the accelerating collapse of participation in church life.

What is required, in the face of a general culture that through its command of every communications medium catechizes so effectively, is the construction of a powerful counter-catechesis. Who will do that, and how will they do it? The likely answer, it seems to me, brings us back to the very localism that Deneen and Dreher advocate and that Vermeule rejects. Though I also might reject certain elements and emphases of the communities that Deneen and Dreher advocate, I don’t see a likely instrument other than highly dedicated, counter-cultural communities of faith for the Josephs and Mordecais and Esthers and Daniels to be formed. Those who do see other means of such rigorous formation need to step up and explain how their models work. Otherwise we will be looking in vain for the people capable of carrying out Vermeule’s beautiful vision.

The Sacraments and the Honey of Love: A Second Bleat

In one of his posts on the possibility of a Benedict Option for Christians, Rod Dreher made a really, really important point:

This is not the fault of mainstream culture. This is the fault of the church. We have done a dismal job preparing our kids, and preparing ourselves, for the postmodern, post-Christian world in which we live. We have to do better — a lot better. These are not normal times. Once the faith departs, it’s very hard to recover it.

I have two points to make about these sentences, one brief and one long and complicated.

The brief one: in response to Rod’s statement that “these are not normal times,” a number of people have said that these are too normal times, or that these are pretty good times for Christians, or that the times are never normal for Christians. Any or all of these may be true, and there could still be the need for a Benedict Option — because whatever it is we’re doing clearly isn’t working very well. Even the Christians who do the best job of making their communities attractive for both longtimers and newcomers aren’t succeeding by any reasonable standard of communal health. So “normal times” or not, it’s time to rethink our standard practices in the hope of genuinely thriving.

And now to the long one. I want to describe a case study in pastoral care, in the Episcopal Church. It involves a gay married couple in Orlando who want to have their child baptized but have met resistance from those who believe that the couple is disobedient to classic Christian teaching about sexuality and therefore cannot really affirm the whole Baptismal Covenant. For instance — so the argument goes, as I have heard from people closer to the situation than I am — those who are openly living in sexual sin cannot honestly answer “Yes” to the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

I think that child in Orlando should have be baptized (and indeed, eventually he was). I’d like now to spell out my reasons, in a way that would also suggest a Eucharistic theology.

My understanding of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which I take to be a standard (if not the only standard) Anglican understanding, is that they are not just signs but means of grace: “spiritual food and drink,” as is said in the prayer book. It is by and through the sacraments that we are enlightened and empowered to be the body of Christ in and for the world. And of course it is only through the sacrament of Baptism, in which we die along with Christ, paying the due penalty for our sin, and are then raised to new life in Him, that we are so reconciled with Him that we may participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. And as John Wesley wrote, “The chief of these means [of God’s grace to us] are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

Therefore to deny people the sacraments is to deny them one of the primary means by which they can receive the enlightening and empowering grace by which they can come to know God and follow Him. For the Anglican with a high sacramental theology, it is to deprive them of the “spiritual food and drink” that should be our regular diet. This strikes me as a massively dangerous thing to do. How can we expect people to think as they should and act as they should if we are denying them access to this empowering grace? If we could think and act as mature Christians without regular access to the sacraments, then what need do we have for those sacraments?

So on what grounds might one deny Holy Baptism to that child in Orlando?

I presume the argument is a prudential one based on church discipline: People who openly disobey the Church’s moral teachings cannot be given the sacraments until they repent and promise to alter their ways. To do otherwise is to empty out the authority of those teachings. I don’t think that’s a strong argument for several reasons:

  • It is extremely unlikely that any of the people involved have been well-catechized in the Faith. We all need to face up to the fact that almost no churches in the Anglican tradition, conservative as well as liberal, have taken catechesis seriously for a long time. To deny the sacraments to people the Church has failed to catechize is to make others suffer for the failings of the Church’s leadership.
  • Almost everyone in our society — with the exception of monastics, the Amish, and a few fundamentalist Protestants — has been deeply and persistently catechized by the mass media into a very different model of sexuality than the Christian and biblical one. We should have the same compassion for them as we would for people who have been raised in a brainwashing cult.
  • I cannot see the justice or lovingness of denying a child the sacrament of initiation into Christ’s body because of any shortcomings of his or her parents, especially if those parents have not themselves been well-catechized. Not only is the child being denied initiation, but the congregation is being denied the sacramental task of praying that child into full Christian faith. (Some may say, “Well, they can pray anyway” — which they can: but if that’s the whole response, then what good is Baptism? In my understanding, it is the wedding garment that allows entry to the Great Feast; the person who lacks it is in a dangerous place, and even the prayers of the faithful cannot wholly compensate for that lack.)
  • Moreover, even in cases where church discipline is called for, the denial of the sacraments is the “nuclear option” of discipline — the most severe penalty a church can administer. This seems to be wholly out of proportion to the sins involved.
  • The model of Jesus is here, as everywhere, vital: the man who scandalized the Pharisees because of his willingness to have fellowship, indeed table fellowship, with sinners. We should remember that Jesus did not say to Zaccheus, “Repent and I will come to your house tonight.” Rather, his determination to sit at table with Zaccheus was what prompted Zaccheus’s repentance.

My concern here is that Anglican leaders whose theological instincts are sound and good, who feel the enormous pressure by our society (including many in the Church) to alter ancient Christian teaching to suit contemporary preferences, are allowing their pastoral theology and pastoral practice to be warped by these controversies. We are surrounded by sexual revolutionaries who insist that sexuality is fundamental to identity, is the most important thing imaginable — and in order to resist them we end up agreeing with them, and elevating disputes on sexuality to a level of importance which properly speaking only should belong to credal questions.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that sexuality is something that Christians can “agree to disagree” about — it is too important for that, affects too many lives too profoundly — but rather that our disagreements on these issues should not lead to the “nuclear option” of denying people the sacraments. (I would note that questions surrounding what Christians do with their money are just as important, and in historical terms even more contested, and yet never lead to the denial of sacramental participation.)

To put the matter briefly and bluntly: I fear that in rightly attempting to “hold the line” on sexuality we are in serious danger of allowing something very close to a Donatist spirit to creep into our pastoral theology and practice. And I think this is very dangerous indeed — dangerous to us and to the people whom we would deny sacramental participation. We cannot stress too strongly, it seems to me, that none of us is worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s Table. And we should remember that the task of re-catechizing the Church is going to take a very long time — decades, perhaps centuries — and in the meantime we must be generous and loving to those who have been brainwashed by the world, and not prevent those who desire it from taking the true spiritual food and drink on which we were meant to live. As Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Honor and glory belong to God alone, but God will receive neither if they are not sweetened with the honey of love.”

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.

withdrawals and commitments

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn’t say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn’t say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn’t say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I … I … — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

Although I started this project as an exercise in historical theology, a constructive thesis emerged: when Christian doctrines assert the truth about God, the world, and ourselves, it is a truth that seeks to influence us. As I worked through the text, the divisions of the modern theological curriculum began making less and less sense to me. I could no longer distinguish apologetics from catechesis, or spirituality from ethics or pastoral theology. And I no longer understood systematic or dogmatic theology apart from all of these. In the older texts, evangelism, catechesis, moral exhortation, dogmatic exegesis, pastoral care, and apologetics were happening at the same time because the authors were speaking to a whole person. Our neat divisions simply didn’t work. Eventually the distinctions between historical and systematic theology and between theology and biblical studies began to weaken, too. I realized that I was uncovering a norm of theological integrity that had become unintelligible to the modern disciplines.

— Ellen Charry, from By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine