Thursday, June 01, 2017
I have not yet read The Benedict Option. But I have been exposed to quite a bit of what Rod Dreher (who is Greek Orthodox) has to say in the book, which has been foreshadowed in his very readable and informative blog. He has boundless energy and often good judgment in assessing political and social questions. Above all he is concerned with the survival of the Christian faith and Christian culture alive in the current American climate. He writes against the background of the sudden disappearance of ‘Christian America’ and the withering of the assumption that with the right appointments in the Supreme Court, and the electoral success of the Republican Party, the safety and prosperity of the Christian Church in America would be assured. Not so, as we clearly see. See in the US and (with the corresponding changes), and see in the UK and in Western Europe more generally.
The link with St. Benedict and the monastic life with Dreher’s proposals of what to do is a bit misleading, I think. It suggests (despite protestations to the contrary) to Reformed Protestants the formation of groups who flee to the wilderness, and who set up a monastery, or similar, devoted to the liturgy of the Church and to works of charity But I think that the substance, or the centre of gravity, of the BO is rather different. This is not an argument to flee from all that is anti-Christian. Dreher’s recommendation is not this. He is concerned with the Christian family, with the education of the young, with the inter-generational support of the young and the fear of being lost or at best marginalized. Particularly he is concerned with the induction of the rising generation in the traditions and identity of the church, and of being a Christian. And to weigh these of things against a manner of life that will currently and forseeably leads to Christian compromise.
But there will be no advice from Dreher to instruct one’s Benedict group in 2K and its implications, for he adopts a more relaxed view to church traditions. After all, his is a reaction to a situation in which Christianisation of society is declining. It is an exercise in re-christianisation.
Take for example the issue of education. Forty or sixty years ago the state system could be relied on to uphold a general moral framework, regarding behavior, language and sexual morality. So that to seek Christian education for one’s children by attaching them to a Christian school was regarded by the education by the state system as over-protection. The simple argument was ‘If sooner or later children grow up and have to take their place in the wider world, the sooner they meet such knocks as they’ll receive when they grow up the better’. The state school was regarded as a microcosm of wider society. Knocks received at school foreshadowed the wider knocks of life. We did not realize that what was then regarded as normality, permanence, was rather fragile and rose-tinted. ‘Normality’ was in fact the last waltz of Victorian and Edwardian social mores, kept in place by legislation. Remove that legislation (as it is now largely removed) and it lost its support in the new generations. What was change to the older was normality to the newer. One of the features of modern western societies hastening change is how they have come to identify morality with legality.
If it is self-consistent, 2K takes a different generational approach than this. The presence of two kingdoms is a fundamental teaching of Jesus, not a political re-positioning for tactical advantage. The Benedict Option does not recognize it as mandatory. In Christianity there is always the kingdom of God and of his Christ, and the kingdom of this world. In not recognizing this the BO was making a serious error.
It is not that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ is a woolly metaphor for which by alliances with kings and emperors, with the ‘elites’ as we now talk, the church can ‘Christianise’ politics and so protect its own identity, and secure its flourishing, is a serious theological error. Christ refers to ‘his kingdom’ as having spiritual, ethical and political consequences, and it is defined or characterised without any positive references to the kingdoms of this world.
A glance at data in the NT shows that the kingdom of God, or of Christ, is closely integrated into the work of Christ for us……It is the subject matter of his teaching, and of umpteen of his parables, in which the growth of the kingdom - secret, inexorable - is emphasized, and its sharp contrast with the kingdoms of this world is clearly defined. It has a manifesto, but not one such matters as housing, or social care, or Brexit, or the cost of domestic electricity. Not even policies on education. For it is a kingdom that is not of his world, ‘else would my servants fight’, or drum up electoral support, or identify it with certain political or social initiatives, or a foreign policy for the Middle East.
Its central soteriological significance can be seen in texts such as Luke 7.28, Christ’s assertion that whoever is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. The kingdom is a dispensational matter. Or ‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.' (Rom.14.17) Glossing that, we might say that the kingdom of God has not to do with social policy of any kind, particularly, (in this instance) with dietary regimes. Being obese or skinny is not a matter of the kingdom. Or how about ‘He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son’? (Col.1.13). Being in the kingdom is the result of the enlightening and vivifying work of the Father. Or, ‘Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fail. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. (2 Pet. 1.10-11) The qualities referred to are the various virtues outlined earlier in the chapter.
What such data underline in the reference to 2K, is that there is a serious equivocation of ‘kingdom’ as between the this-worldly kingdom and other-worldly kingdom. A person with a British and a Swedish passport (say) may be said to be a member of two kingdoms, but this is not a case of 2K. Such a kingdom may be a member of the United Nations, but Christ’s kingdom can never be. How we relate to a decaying culture and society is a matter of the individual Christian and the family. You may think that the Benedict Option is for you and your house. Others may be able to make a career in Caesar’s household, or as a slave, or as tentmakers, (to give New Testament options). Let everyone be fully persuaded in his own mind.