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The Benedict Option

from the July 06, 2015 eNews issue


“Have we been transported back to ancient Rome?” That is the question Christians of all stripes are asking. The world today is descending into an “anything goes” culture. Throughout the world we are seeing signs of decay. Within Western Culture we are seeing signs of bureaucratic decay, massive public debt and political systems incapable of responding to challenges. Many countries are pouring money into a military seemingly incapable of fulfilling its basic role of defense. We have a culture where the most dangerous place for a child is inside their mother’s womb.

Europe is seeing all these issues. Its tentative Union is falling apart. Its common defense (i.e. NATO) seems impotent against recent Russian aggression in the region. The European Union is also failing economically with Greece’s unwillingness to stop its profligate spending. Recent elections in Spain also point to a populace tired of “austerity” and is considering only honoring its “legitimate debts”, loans made in good faith by others that politicians in Spain consider “unfair”.

Southeast Asia is facing growing Chinese expansionism and is helpless against the coming onslaught. Radical Islam is advancing across the Middle East, making to secret of killing Christians and selling their women and children into sexual slavery.

The United States and Canada are also seeing all these problems. They are seeing all the problems mentioned above plus a plethora of laws being disseminated that are restricting people’s freedoms.

World news outlets have focused on the United States and the sea change that nation is experiencing. The two U.S. Supreme Court cases, one on Obamacare and one on Same-Sex marriages, have given many people pause. While some are celebrating the decisions, other are decrying them. It is not only the descent into hedonism and socialism that they disparage, but also the blatant rewriting of law, contrary to the country’s founding documents.

The world is experiencing structural collapse and rising decadence, declining religious observance, the redefinition and the resulting break-up of the family, and a general loss of cultural cohesion.

No wonder Rod Dreher, writing in Time Magazine, said we Christians must consider ourselves exiles in our own land:

Christians must understand that things are going to get much more difficult for us. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution. And we are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children, to build resilient communities.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George put the danger of creeping secularism of society succinctly:

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.

A State of Decay

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

Linker points out the religious conservatives in America are divided and demoralized as they see their former “moral majority” becoming a “moral minority”. He analyzes the political impact as right wing cultural warrior’s surrender and head to the hills to hunker down.

The mood among social conservatives has been darkening for years, as a liberal Democrat has taken and held the White House, as the Republican Party has placed greater emphasis on economic concerns than culture-war issues, and (most of all) as same-sex marriage has come to be accepted by more than half of the country and Democrats have begun to embrace it without apology.

But nothing compares to the gloom that’s set in during the weeks since the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act sparked a rapid and widespread condemnation of religious traditionalists, not only by gay activists and liberal Democrats, but also by a number of Republicans with national stature and high-profile members of the business community. Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we’re now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

Has the moral decline gone too far to reverse?

Many Christians believe it is not too late and take comfort in the words in 2nd Chronicles:

… when my people humble themselves—the ones who are called by my name—and pray, seek me, and turn away from their evil practices, I myself will listen from heaven, I will pardon their sins, and I will restore their land.

— 2 Chronicles 7:14, ISV

They believe if a there is revival in their country, like the one Israel experienced under King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), their country will be saved. Others think we are too late, we will experience God’s abandonment wrath as foretold in Hosea:

My people are destroyed because they lack knowledge of me. Because you rejected that knowledge, I will reject you as a priest for me. Since you forget the Law of your God, I will also forget your children.

— Hosea 4:6, ISV

For both groups there is an idea being thrown around which used to be thought of as a fringe notion, but is now being considered in a more serious light.

That concept is the “Benedict Option”.

The Benedict Option

Around the year 500, twenty-five years after barbarians deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustus, a young man from central Italy known to history as Benedict was sent to Rome by his wealthy parents to finish his education.

Disgusted by the dissolute and licentious life in the city, Benedict fled to the forest to pray as a hermit. From that experience, he decided he had to separate himself from the World. This was not an uncommon act. According to the author Eric Dean:

The political and social disorder that accompanied the end of the Roman Empire induced many people to turn away from society. The idea of an isolated ascetic life had developed in the East, particularly in Egypt, where St. Anthony inspired many. Some individual hermits began to form monastic communities, but for the most part the emphasis was still upon the private war between the spirit and the world.

Benedict formed a monastic society, dedicated to prayer and fasting away from the distractions and evil influences of society. This society is known today as the Benedictines. Some people think Benedict’s experience applies to today. The Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre believes Benedict showed it is possible to build “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained” in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.

For MacIntyre, Western Civilization is entering a period like the Fall of Rome. The decline is not being felt acutely as the Romans did because it is being masked by the illusion liberty and prosperity. Once liberty and prosperity are irrevocably eroded will the true nature of the fall will be felt.

In his 1981 book After Virtue, MacIntyre argued the Enlightenment’s failure to replace a dying Christianity caused Western Civilization to lose its moral coherence. Like the early medievals, we have also been cut off from our roots, and a shadow of cultural amnesia is falling across the country.

A disease in what can be called The Great Forgetting is taking a particular toll on American Christianity, losing its members in dramatic numbers. Those who stay within churches often succumb to a theological relativism where moral precepts will change over time and worship is characterized with a feel-good message during a service rather than the Word of God. They are forgetting the moral principles that lie at the heart of our faith.

Sociologists call this “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is destroying historic Christian moral and theological orthodoxy.

A recent Pew survey found Jews in America are being drawn into the secular progressive narrative even faster than Christians. Orthodox Jews are resisting the trend and many are doing this by living in separate communities that adhere to practices and traditions distinct from the World.

Hence the Benedict Option.

Fight or Flight

Christians are considering whether they should stay engaged with the world or withdraw from the mainstream. These people believe they need to be modern day Benedicts. They are certain the Culture War is lost. They consider their only salvation is to unplug themselves from the culture to protect their faith and their family from the corrosive effects of modernity and taking a more orthodox approach to life. They think the only way out is to build their own communities in an atmosphere of internal exile.

This is a false premise and has been tried before. For centuries Jews lived in isolated communities (ghettos) and separated themselves from society at large. That plan did not work out well for them. Consider the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. They tried to withdraw into themselves and felt they were beyond the reach of the outside world. It was only too late they found out they were wrong. The Nazis first enforced the self-isolation, then they built barricades to keep them in, then they stormed the enclave and took them to the ovens.

If Christians do this they may face the same fate.

The first mistake we made was entering the Culture War too late. We believed if we practiced a modified Benedict Option by hiding in our churches, we would be safe. We did not confront evil, we accommodated it. We practiced “tolerance”. Once a non-Scriptural idea took hold and was at our doorstep, then we wanted to take action.

By then it was too late. The new narrative was “woven into the fabric” of society.

Just as the Jews of Warsaw operated under the delusion of separation equaling safety, so to Christians who think they can wall themselves in with their beliefs and be safe are delusional.

The Battle Lines are Being Drawn

The key is to engage. Not only engage with those who share our beliefs, but also engage with those who disagree. For as the Holy Spirit through Paul writes, we need to be strong in the Lord and rely on his strength. As one person put it, “The battle lines are being drawn.” God is placing us in a position to take a stand. People are taking a stand. In the latest assault on Christ’s teaching, same-sex marriage, Christians are walking away from their jobs and their livelihood. In one case, the entire County Clerk’s office of Decatur County, Tennessee has resigned, rather than issue homosexual marriage.

Each one of us may have to make the same decision the Decatur County Clerk’s Office did. Do we aid in the moral decline through our actions (or our silence) or do we take a stand like Martin Luther did when he faced the Diet of Worms to defend his writings:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.

We need to put on the Whole Armor of God because our opponents are not of this world. We need to protect ourselves with truth, righteousness, faith, the assurance of our salvation, and the Word of God. Most of all, we need to pray. Prayer of all sorts. Prayers for wisdom, guidance and prayers for your fellow saints — saints that are suffering both the hard persecution of the body and the soft persecution of the soul.

Then, as written, will we be ready to go, as one chained to the Lord and boldly preach the Gospel in both our words and our actions?

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