Last week I was on vacation. I hadn’t been to the beach in years, and I spent most of the time lounging around and eating seafood. I got up early to greet the sun coming up over the ocean. I drank mint juleps. I fell in love with the local church. I watched my skin freckle despite 50 spf. I tried to ignore the news (hard week to do so). I had packed several books, but I only got one and half read. The vacation served its purpose. I relaxed, recharged, and come back with some new energy and determination to continue work.
A popular topic among the religious blogosphere lately is the Benedict Option. Author Rod Dreher argues in his book by that name [disclaimer: have not read] that the world is post-Christian, and Christians should therefore reject the world and form their own communities. Some take this to mean a strong church community committed to Christian devotion, which is what churches should be anyway and isn’t that radical. Others take this more literally, claiming that it’s time to form geographic, insular communities, where every aspect of civic life rejects the current paradigm. I dangerously find the extreme option alluring. Who doesn’t picture what their ideal community looks like? A community of pious, similarly-virtued people ridding themselves of the violence and sin and false philosophies of modern life and rather building one another up. Well, there is a reason utopia means “no place.”
First, there is no perfect place. The idea is impossible, because people are complex. They are not wholly pious or wholly evil. They are sinners, some striving harder than others. There can never be a pure community because there are not pure people. Trying to make the community pure just creates cliques, the kind of churches known for kicking people out or looking down on others. The entire Old Testament follows the Jewish people trying to maintain their pureness and failing. It’s a struggle. Isolation doesn’t stop bad ideas or bad behavior.
Second, Dreher has said, “I believe that Christians now have got to realize that we’re living in a post-Christian civilization and take measures to build a kind of ark for ourselves with which to ride out the dark ages, to hold onto our faith, and tender the faith for such a time as light returns and civilization wants to hear the gospel again.” But how will a time when light returns ever come if Christians aren’t active in bringing it? Who will want to hear the gospel if no one is there to tell them it exists?
Christians are never told to box up their faith and retreat from the world. They are to reject worldly temptations. But they also have the duty to continue to spread the word, help the needy, and be salt and light. We have to live in the times we’re given, and that means battling the heresies and temptations and persecutions of our times, not hiding the faith away. Are we really going to close in, close up, and admit that our adversary has conquered?
The Benedict Option is named such because it calls to mind the order of life of the Benedictines. Monasticism was never so exclusive as to completely reject the world. (That’s hermits, and even they had visitors coming out to the desert to seek their wisdom.) Throughout the centuries, monasteries and convents interacted with their local communities through services, trade, or sharing in Mass and religious festivals. Lay people could go to the monastery when in dire straits or when seeking the advice of a learned man. And then they would go home, back to the village or their farm, hopefully a little stronger or wiser. The monastery was a well, a respite, a source of energy, not a safety deposit box, keeping Christianity away from the dirty, sinning world.
The Benedict Option is desperate and despairing. It is an option for when there are no other options left. Yet world is redeemable, because it was created by a God who offers us redemption. We have to cooperate with his will. It is challenging work. We need to help one another in a world full of challenges, both our Christian brethren and those who have fallen into modern ideologies. At times, we need to step back and rest and rejuvenate, but only so we can return and continue the work, continue the fight. We need quench our spiritual thirsts. We need a vacation not an evacuation.
Supporters of isolation have given up on the world and written it off. I’m glad God in his mercy doesn’t think that way.