Unless one is completely out of touch, we are very aware that studies and statistics show that Christianity is on a serious decline in America (and even more so in Europe). We see church attendance falling, more people checking "none" when asked about their faith, fewer young people are going to church or claiming Christianity, and other similar indicators are also discouraging.
While we know in many countries Christianity is not only under siege, but Christians themselves are openly attacked — the Persecuted Church is not just a label for an atmosphere of hostility, but one of open warfare. We have read the stories; seen the pictures.
Although in our own country, we don't witness the open and physically threatening, many do interpret the decline of Christianity as evidence that our faith is under siege — under siege of a growing and more powerful secularism bent on destroying — or at least denigrating — Christian culture. Christians, as this picture paints, are victims of an atmosphere akin to war ... and we are losing.
A Christian author who sees this decline and the threats causing it is Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative. Dreher also promotes a strategy for dealing with the decline and threat: he describes his response as The Benedict Option, which serves as the title of his best-selling book of 2017 (especially among Christian audiences). In short, Dreher views that we are losing the battles and are entering a sort of Dark Age of public morality, where the Christian strategy now should be to retreat to a sanctuary of like-minded Christians where the faith can be protected, nourished, and grow for future revival.
Dreher's title and strategy grows out of the life and work of Benedict of Nursia (c 480-537), who later became Saint Benedict. Benedict was educated as a Christian in Rome, but, disgusted with the city's decadence, left after the empire's fall. He lived as a hermit, prayed and gathered like-minded men and formed monasteries, where Christian culture could be nurtured and have a rebirth. Through the Dark Ages, these Benedict-type monasteries kept the faith alive.
I must confess that I have not read The Benedict Option, but I have read several articles about it including a very extensive one by Dreher himself in Christianity Today (March 2017). I think I get his general ideas: American Christianity is beset by challenges to religious liberty by a rapidly secularizing culture, departure of young people, and a watered-down pseudo-spirituality. He cites losing the so-called Culture Wars as the strongest evidence of the seriousness of this decline.
In Dreher's view, the main culture wars have centered on and sprung from the sexual revolution of the 60's, now resulting in the rise of Gay Rights and especially legalization of same-sex marriage. That Christians are, and will become more, ostracized and discriminated against is the "inevitable" fate for which Christians must prepare. Rather than continue to waste energy on what he sees as unwinnable wars to make a morally purer society, Christians need to withdraw from public life into protected communities to preserve virtue for a future flowering of civilization: "The Benedict Option." Failure to do so will "doom our children and our children's children to assimilation."
I do understand what Dreher is saying in The Benedict Option, and there have been times when I wonder whether any of our efforts — our Christian efforts, programs, and institutions — are really worth it. Am I — are we — making a difference in society? Are we able to move even a bit toward advancing the Kingdom? Why not just throw up our hands. Or maybe as Dreher recommends: retreat and regroup.
But, I see Dreher's view as one of despair. If I find anything in my Christian faith, I find it telling me not to despair. "I am with you!" To stop reaching out, to remove oneself from the public square, to retreat seems not to be of the Gospel of Jesus ... certainly not of the Great Commission: "Go therefore and make disciples ...!" I respect Dreher and totally "get" The Benedict Option. But, it just doesn't seem to be what I think is God's way.
Also, I find this "time to retreat" response upsetting on a personal level. I refuse to think of us Christians, especially in our country, as victims. I tire of hearing Christians and Christian leaders place us in the role of "playing the victim." It may just seem this way to me, but it's often many of the same people who complain about minorities or poor people always "playing the victim role" that are the first ones to see themselves as victims of anti-Christian bias. And frankly, I've never thought of "winning" so-called culture wars as a goal in our call to spread the faith. (Even if that were a goal, I doubt I'd see myself on the same side as Dreher in many of these "wars".)
There has to be a healthier, more positive, true-to-the-gospel way of responding to this decline of Christianity than by retreat and protectionism. Surely, there is an alternative to pining for or trying to return to what we might think were the good old days of faith. Can Christianity be positively reclaimed?
Then I came across another book, Disarming Beauty.Disarming Beauty (Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom), by Julián Carrón, University of Notre Dame Press, 2017. Carrón's book is a series of essays by this Spanish Catholic priest and theologian related to how Christians can convey the "message of Christ" in a positive and hopeful manner in today's diverse world. This one, another 2017 work is by Julián Carrón, subtitled Essays On Faith, Truth, And Freedom. Carrón is a Catholic theologian, priest, and leader of a movement called Communion and Liberation. (He took over leadership of this movement after the death of its founder Luigi Giussani in 2005. Giussani was a prolific Catholic writer, theologian, and predominately an educator.)
While not written as a rebuttal to The Benedict Option, Carrón's Disarming Beauty may well be that. And, in my reading of it, a very welcomed view of how Christians can respond and react in today's real world.
Rather than see the secular public square as the enemy and a reality to fight or retreat from, Carrón writes that Christians should lay down their arms and "enter the public square with joy and confidence." He definitely doesn't see contemporary society as a new Dark Age. Nor does he see the challenge of Christianity to fight (and win) the culture wars; in fact he strongly cautions against the "perennial temptation to use power instead of love to spread faith, a temptation [and unfortunately often a strategy] to which Christians frequently succumb." New York Times columnist David Brooks seems to echo Carrón's view. In a column about The Benedict Option, Brooks writes: "To me, the real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism [like Dreher's] that can't tolerate difference because it can't humbly accept the mystery of truth." (See Brooks' column link in Resources below.)
A key to Carrón's view is the importance of freedom. Rather than trying to impose Christian views, and what we might see as Christian moral behaviors, on others, he says that "freedom is the most precious gift heaven gave to humanity," and that there cannot be a real faith without the freedom to reject that faith. In considering the ways of Jesus, Carrón says that Jesus recognized that "real faith must always pass through the free desire of the human heart." Carrón sees it central to the our Christian faith is that every human heart has a desire for the infinite, such that every other desire remains unsatisfied until a relationship with God is formed. Instead of coercion, Jesus' approach was to offer people a bigger, more engaging love.
Carrón does not address the issue of fighting and winning the "culture wars", but does say that Christians should embrace the "drama of freedom." He writes that it is clear that returning to a society "based on Christian "The church, fighting only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world." Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters and Papers from Prison laws is against the very nature of Christianity." Throughout the book, he emphasizes that Christianity did not begin with a moral system or acceptance of dogma, but it always began with Jesus, the Jesus who offered his companionship. Our "politics" should be one of friendship to others, sharing the reality of our relationship with Jesus and inviting the other to fall in love with this same Jesus.
Carrón's views are greatly influenced by Luigi Giussani, mentioned earlier. Giussani died in 2005, and at his funeral, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI, said of him: "Giussani understood that Christianity is not an intellectual system, a pack of dogmas, a moralism; Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event." Giussani always stressed the key importance of this relationship with Christ: "While morals and doctrine are both important they are not the central event of faith. The central reality of faith is a relationship with Christ as He becomes visible within reality."
Carrón sees Jesus' interaction with Zacchaeus as the model of how we shouldn't retreat from others or force others to change. (You remember Zacchaeus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus.) In the gospel story, the Pharisees "The faith is not given us in order that we preserve it, but in order that we communicate it. If we don't have the passion to communicate it, we don't preserve it."Fr Luigi Giussani judged Zacchaeus as someone with bad morals who needed correction. But Jesus instead puts his trust in a real relationship. "To the great chagrin and scandal of the Pharisees, Jesus simply asks to eat at Zacchaeus' house!" Jesus sees the tax-collector with all his imperfections and confusions and still loves him. The key was forming a relationship. And, we know from the rest of the story, Zacchaeus became a changed man. Like Jesus, Carrón emphasizes that the importance of forming this relationship with Jesus was why the earliest Christians did not focus on saving civilization, but desired to mix with Jew and Greek, to present to "everyone a truly desirable humanity."
The strategy for dealing with the secular and increasingly pluralistic nature of American society, is not try to win wars of coercion, establish a system of Christian laws, or retreat to preserve the faith from the outside. As Carrón writes, we have something of beauty, an attractiveness, and a hope that we have found in our own lives. And in sharing our stories, we reclaim the power of Christianity. And importantly, "the authentic Christian is not afraid of having to live in today's cultural pluralism without special legal privileges to do so."
Jesus didn't tell us to build a wall around our light of faith, to protect it from the wind and rain. Or keep it safe for future generations. No, "put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house." (Mt. 5:15) The Benedict Option may be an option for some. But, I don't think that is the option God would have me choose. I think God would say "Fear Not! You know about and have experienced My love ... share it with the world!"
One reviewerJason Blakely, in America: The Jesuit Review. June 14, 2017. The Book Christians Should Read instead of The Benedict Option. Link of Disarming Beauty says it well: "Over and over again, Carrón seems to ask: If Christianity is true, what do Christians really have to fear?"
This past Sunday was Confirmation Sunday in our church. Seeing more than 20, mostly teenagers, publically commit their lives to Christ and the church inspired not any sense of Dreher's despair, but a strong hope for the faith's future. My mind was also trying to conclude this Reflection, and the words and stirring music of the closing hymn, Tell Out, My SoulTell Out, My Soul is a Christian hymn written by Timothy Dudley-Smith in 1962. It's lyrics paraphrase the Magnificat (Song of Mary) (listen in Resources below), hit me as the song God's people should be singing in this present age. We shouldn't live in fear of the present world, not retreat to preserve our faith in the safety of those just like us. We have a story to tell, a story of a relationship that has changed our lives. We should sing boldly:
"Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord!
Unnumbered blessings give my spirit voice!"