In the wake of Obergefell, I expect we'll be talking for quite some time about the “Benedict Option” Rod Dreher is proposing. At least I hope so. I'd like to see how it might work, for evangelical Protestants as well as for Roman Catholics.
The Catholic challenge seems clear: if the way forward depends on intentional communities of Christian formation rather like Benedictine monasteries, then what shall we hope for from the parishes located, as it were, outside the monastery walls? What is the task of a parish priest and other leaders in a congregation with many members who are passive or active supporters of a cultural regime that does not understand marriage, the sacredness of human life, or the value of religious liberty?
Evangelical Protestants in America face a similar problem, which is especially evident in their youth. The next generation is more likely to side with the new regime than their parents are. This poses a mortal challenge to the predominant strategy for retaining the youth in growing evangelical churches: get them involved in an emotionally powerful youth group and convince them that the experiences they have there are a great thing they can only have with Jesus. The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.
It's a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They've adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today's evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can't the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?
Something crucial drops out of our religious experience when we make the theological turn to experience. We fail to learn from external authority, which is to say the authority of an Other. Americans are not good with external authority, and American evangelicals have for quite some time been quietly dropping—in practice though not in theory—their old love affair with the authority of Holy Scripture. They are trying to be “personal” in a way that ends up losing the sense that God is a real person who comes to us from outside our own lives. They forget the old Protestant conviction that Christ comes to us in the external word of the Gospel, as a Bridegroom promising himself to his Bride.
In our common efforts to learn how to do Christian formation under the new regime, evangelicals could do other Christians a great service by reigniting their love for the authority of this word, knowing that the Beloved we seek is found in our hearts only when he is first found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when we love the authority of this Other, this real person who comes to us from outside ourselves, will we find ourselves glad to obey his commandments.
Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University.