I am always interested in and challenged by Greg Forster’s responses to my First Thoughts posts but this time I think he has seriously missed the mark.
Greg alludes to the Ben Op as a fad. I would concede that it is a faddish name, and as a Protestant I wish it reflected a Genevan marketing aesthetic rather than a monastic one. Of course, being a boring, middle aged Presbyterian, I find that phrases like “traditional Reformed ecclesiology” and “directories of public worship” inspire almost more excitement than I can possibly handle. But sadly we live in a day when nobody’s tribe increases without a catchy hook, and Rod has chosen “Benedict Option” for what is really an otherwise fairly mundane proposal.
It is also true that there has in the past been a lack of clarity and detail on the Benedict Option. In part that is probably because it has been a work in progress, in part because the name has been picked up by a variety of people who have different opinions about what it means and who like the idea of having a faddish label to put in the titles and tags of their blog posts and Tweets. But Rod did see my post of last week in advance and raised no objections before going on to express approval of it over at The American Conservative. Thus, I want to use my summary points (possessing as they do at minimum a Dreherian nihil obstat and quite possibly a full imprimatur) to address Greg’s major accusations: that the Ben Op presents a new form of the old politics of resentment; and that it fails to love the unholy world. So here are my original points with comment.
Conventional politics will not save us. Nota bene: This is not the same as saying that political engagement must cease. It is simply a claim about the limited expectations we should have regarding political engagement, particularly at the national level.
Nothing in this necessarily requires or implies the politics of resentment or failing to love the unholy world. It simply states something which Augustine articulated so brilliantly in The City of God. The problem, I suspect, has been that Christians in the past forgot this, especially those on America's Religious Right and Religious Left. The correction is painful but necessary and is driven by current realities and by biblical teaching on the church, not by resentment. Which brings us to Point Two:
The church is not the world. As Rod merely agrees with Jesus on this point, it should not be too controversial.
As Greg uses a church-world antithesis, clearly this is not a point of contention. It is good that he too agrees with Jesus.
Christians must retrieve their own traditions as the fundamental sources of their identities. Again, with the Apostle Paul on his side here, Rod is hardly breaking dangerous new ground.
Again, this seems to be the supposition underlying Greg’s argument. It is good that, like Rod, he agrees with Paul. So no contention here either.
Christians must prioritize the local community as their sphere of action. Once more, nota bene: This is not, repeat not, the same as saying that Christians should head for the hills. It is simply to say that they should be far more concerned for what is happening in their neighborhood than on Capitol Hill.
Focusing on the local rather than the national does not require the politics of resentment. In fact, while some forms of localism might propose such a plan (say, for example, the Ku Klux Klan holing up in a local ranch, declaring war in the federal government, and shooting strangers on sight), I did not hear Rod do so at his Friday lecture. Nor does this refocusing on the local require not loving the unholy world. In fact, it might facilitate the exact opposite, as it will actually provide opportunities for real relationships with real people. Giving your thirsty atheist neighbor a cup of water or inviting him to join you and your Christian friends for a meal in your home might be more loving than giving your money to a lobby group in Washington.
What we face is not a struggle within a culture but, strictly speaking, a clash of alternative cultures. This is where the language of the end of the culture war needs to be understood correctly. It is not that we are to surrender to the dominant culture. It is rather that we are to model an alternative culture. And we are to do so first in our local communities.
Well, could this alternative culture be resentful and hateful and revel in its victim status? It certainly could—think of that group of Klansmen holed up in the local ranch at war with the federal government—but again, I did not hear Rod advocating that on Friday night. In fact, I consider him to have said the opposite: that these new communities within the community are to be open and loving and to model what it means to be truly human.
Seriously, whatever criticisms one might wish to make of the Ben Op, it does not seem to me to be resentful or unloving. Nor, I might add, is understanding it akin to mastering rocket science.
This afternoon I speak at an official gathering of my denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, on the matter of sexual politics and its impact on our society. I close this brief post with the last two paragraphs of that lecture, which I believe capture Rod's and my common vision on this point. The reader can decide how much resentment and lack of love these contain (even though the initial image I use is that of warfare):
I believe that the battle at the national level is lost and will remain lost for at least a generation or more. But I also believe that the battle can be prosecuted successfully at a local level. Ironically, I am reminded at this point of a criticism the late New Left intellectual, Edward Said, made of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Said’s point was simple: At the local level, where people live next to each other, where they speak to each other, where they have to make their communities work because perpetual street fighting is not an option, the situation is always more complicated and hopeful than a collision of ideologies. Indeed, I might add to Said's thoughts this paraphrase of something George Orwell said in another context: It is much harder to hate a man when you have looked into his eyes and seen that he too is a human being as you are.
Therein I believe might lie our glimmer of hope. As we go about our daily business, as we make the church a community of the preached Word yet marked in practice by openness and hospitality for the outsider—indeed, as the church reflects the character of the one about whom she preaches, the one who loves the widow and the orphan and the sojourner—we may not be able to transform national legislation or the plots of sitcoms and movies. But we will be able to demonstrate to those around us in our neighborhoods that we do not fit the caricatures that the media present, that we do care for those who are in active rebellion against the God we love. And there, in that local context, we might be able to start building our counter-offensive to the dominant culture of Psychological Man and his Reichian sexual revolution.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.