For Evangelicals, debates about Christian cultural engagement largely occur within Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and culture” rubric, which calls into question most forms of institutional Christianity on the one hand and pietistic Christianity on the other hand. There are serious problems with Niebuhr’s formulation, which is why the current debate about the “Benedict” and “Dominican” options offers an interesting alternative in its appeal to religious orders as a lens for cultural engagement.
I’m not sure, however, that C. C. Pecknold’s construal of Benedictine monasticism as entailing a form of withdrawal is entirely correct, at least historically speaking. His post points toward older debates surrounding the relationship between the active and contemplative lives as well as relationships between urban and rural landscapes in the construction of culture. If one defines Benedictine monasticism as encompassing all religious orders that follow the Rule of St. Benedict, then these orders have been mostly a rural phenomenon in keeping with the early medieval context of their birth. Yet, they have been just as responsible for the construction and maintenance of a Christian culture as other religious orders.
The important difference between the so-called preaching orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, etc.) and the so-called contemplative orders (Cistercians, Benedictines, Trappists, etc.) is not whether one is more active and the other more contemplative, but precisely how and where each lives out a vocation to construct a Christian culture. The question of mode concerns whether the vocation implies a more peripatetic lifestyle or a stationary one while the question of place points toward an urban context or a rural one.
Moreover, we should not forget that part of the challenge of the New World for Catholics has to do with the way the Spanish crown attempted to organize it. The preaching orders were sent and the contemplatives were told to stay in Europe. This was an unfortunate move that dichotomized these forms of Christian existence and privileged a certain construal of the active and contemplative lives. The fast-paced, highly mobile nature of preaching orders was preferred to the slow, steady rhythms of the contemplatives amid the local flavors of country living. Furthermore, the idea that the leader of an order could be outvoted or replaced as in the Dominicans or the Franciscans would better fit the democratic style to the more autocratic leadership of the abbot.
No doubt, the efficiencies of the preaching orders lent themselves to the challenges of forging a new world with its industrialization and rapid mobilization, but one wonders if this happened at the expense of the view of contemplation central to Benedictine spirituality. Quietism has never fit well with the pragmatic American ethos and from one angle the Benedictines smack too much of quietist withdrawal. From the view of Washington D.C. (or the urban environs of major American cities), the Dominicans probably look like the best option, especially since the Franciscans have experienced some contraction of late. In the American heartland or in the shades of the South, one wonders if that’s the case.
At the core of Benedictine life is rootedness. Benedictines carve out institutions from the rural landscapes they inhabit. They thrive in local cultures and seek to develop those cultures by providing institutional and spiritual continuity over extended periods of time. All of the rhythms of Benedictine life flow in and out of rural life, anchoring it with a deep institutional foundation that centers its life. Centering prayer is simply an application on the individual level of the deep-rooted nature of Benedictine life. For the Benedictine, contemplation requires the slowing down of life so that one can begin to penetrate its mysteries and probe its depths.
Sometimes out of the resources of the local and the regional, Benedictine spirituality will blossom outward to impact the broader cultural ethos as it did with the creation of All Souls’ Day or in the wisdom of spokespersons from Bernard of Clairvaux to Thomas Merton. This is certainly active cultural engagement, but such engagement largely privileges the rural and local over the urban and the national. It speaks the simple language of the farmer or the shopkeeper and revels in the work of the folk artist. It is why historically Benedictines engaged in primary education.
The ethos of the preaching orders differs because of their creation as the urban centers of Europe were forming. The idea of itinerate preachers who combined contemplation and community with mobility worked well in the cities or in the challenges of massive immigration with its confluence of cultures. From the urban context of Paris, Aquinas found ways to get behind the religious culture of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula by probing foundational philosophical and ethical questions. Rather than privileging local cultures, Dominicans and other preaching orders prize cosmopolitanism. The kind of cultural engagement they espouse deals with the ethical challenges of cultural conflicts and urban existence. The philosophical and theological training at their studia thrust these preachers into an examination of the foundations of human thought and action.
Both forms of cultural engagement remain relevant in today’s climate. Indeed, it is probably better to understand the religious outlook of these diverse forms of Christian existence as coalescing around the construction of Christian culture. They each build institutions but for different reasons and with different parts of the cultural life in view. To opt for the Benedictine may be to privilege local cultures and a rootedness to the land, whereas to prefer the Dominican is to privilege urban centers of power and the cosmopolitanism they contain.
The beauty of Christianity has been that cultural engagement emerges from the variety of charisms that the Spirit bestows. Those charisms come about as believers launch out from the bosom of the Church to forge new forms of Christian life. There will always be a Benedictine option and a Dominican option.
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