In the past year, I’ve read with both pleasure and profit Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option. Mr. Dreher, a popular conservative columnist and Orthodox Christian, offers many helpful observations in this work and the book is one which needs to be read with care by Christian leaders across the variety of traditions. I nonetheless have significant reservations about the foundational aspect of Dreher’s observations and conclusions in regard to culture and civilization, namely the irreversible collapse of what is commonly referred to as Western Civilization. This ‘culture’, rooted in the fertile soil of both Christian and Enlightenment Europe, is vanishing before the onslaught of an aggressive secularism that will redefine the very species and shape the future in very anti-Christian ways.
The de-Christianization of the West is an idea reinforced by the abandonment of Christian shaped culture-building institutions like marriage, among others. Does this mean the West has only just now entered some new, dark season of collapse? What about WW2 and the 20th century? For Churchill, the Second World War was a battle for the survival of Christendom and he was correct, largely considered. That era witnessed the wholesale slaughter of millions by war and genocide. Is our time worse now? Some will say so. It is not clear, however, that we’ve never had it so bad.
The assertion also lacks a global perspective. The Gospel is thriving in many places in the southern hemisphere and the East. Just because it is declining in influence in the white west doesn’t mean a new dark age is descending. That belies an old parochial – even colonial – way of approaching the problem. Perhaps the Church in Europe and the US is being ex-communicated by the culture it abandoned through hypocrisy and neglect. That’s not surprising. Culture warriors in the US tend to see the retreat of the Church from the positions of cultural prominence and the decline of attendance and membership in believing communities as signs of impending doom; indeed, in the eyes of many that the doom has already come. Is that a fair assessment?
St. Benedict’s time saw the collapse into chaos of the entire social order; we may simply be seeing the judgment of God on his house. In that regard, Ben Op observations have some healthy suggestions: the internal renewal of a covenant culture for the Church, the continued baptizing and preserving of what is good in the world, and the creation of new ways of doing community Christianly are urgent necessities. These are aspects of Dreher’s work which deserve special attention.
In my view, Mr. Dreher needs a healthy dose of Lesslie Newbigin, Tim Keller, and mission as a focus of the renewed community. That noted, I also think Dreher is badly misunderstood as advocating for retreat (he’s not) rather than internal renewal. Benedict himself would add ‘for the sake of the world’ to any call to internal revivification. In the end, we need internal communal renewal, reclaiming the fading but still fiery embers of a forgotten history, discovering new ways of doing ancient practices, while existing for the sake of the world, embodying love for God and neighbor.
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