Category Archives: Secular morality

The “Benedict Option” or Why the Church Must Not Serve “the Common Good”

 

“Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).

 “The Benedict Option”

In his recent book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Sentinel: New York, 2017), Rod Dreher draws a parallel between the cultural situation faced by Benedict of Nursia in sixth-century Italy and our situation today in the western world. Benedict found his culture so morally corrupt and inhospitable to authentic Christian living that he withdrew from society and eventually founded the Benedictine order of monks. The social fabric of Benedict’s day was being ripped apart by barbarian tribes waging constant war to expand their domains. Our barbarians, says Dreher, don’t wear animal skins or overrun neighboring tribes. They wear designer suits and use smartphones, but they are just as dangerous to authentic Christian living as their sixth-century counterparts: “They are at work demolishing the faith, the family, gender, even what it means to be human” (p. 17), and they call such work “progress.”

We live in an increasingly secular culture, and the minute we step outside the church door we are faced with enormous pressure to conform to the progressive vision of human life or at least to remain silent in our dissent. It is becoming ever more difficult for Christians to engage in professions such as public school teaching, the professorate or medicine. And ever-expanding antidiscrimination laws make engaging in businesses such as the florist trade, catering and photography risky for serious Christians. The culture war is over, declares Dreher; Christians lost, the barbarians won. The public square has officially become secular space, hostile territory.

In response to this new situation Dreher urges serious Christians to distance themselves from the dominant culture to form Christian countercultures. Leave public schools and form classical Christian schools or homeschools, don’t idolize university education, consider learning a trade, at whatever cost make your churches real communities that support authentic Christian faith and life, turn off the television, wean yourself away from social media, and “turn your home into a domestic monastery” (p. 124). It’s a radical vision, I know, and many will dismiss it as apocalyptic. However those who long for social space to live an authentic Christian life with their families and likeminded Christians may find in Dreher’s vision of the “Benedict option” inspiration to take action.

The Church as a Social Institution

In friendlier times the church was considered by the broader culture a social institution deserving recognition because of its invaluable contribution to the common good. Forming god-fearing, church-going, family-establishing citizens was considered a service to the nation. Traditional marriage, self-discipline and work were considered social goods. But we no longer live in friendly times, and the definition of “the common good” has changed dramatically. It now includes the ideologies of pluralism and multiculturalism, sexual license, expanded definitions of the family, gender fluidity and abortion. In certain influential sectors of culture the church is viewed as a powerful and stubborn preserve of superstition and reactionary morality. Through a combination of enticement, intimidation, and persuasion, mainstream culture attempts to move the church into conformity with its own moral standards and social goals. And its tactics are meeting with stunning success.

Especially after the American Civil War, many American denominations came to think of themselves as social institutions and touted their contributions to society. Some churches even made social utility their main if not sole reason to exist. Most churches relished and still relish such social privileges as tax exempt status and the right to own property. They value social approval and visibility. But the church’s unspoken agreement with society may turn out to have been a deal with the devil. For if a church presents itself to the public as a social institution valuable to society because of its contributions to the common good, can it complain when the public comes to expect it to behave like other social institutions?

But the most serious danger to the Christian identity of churches doesn’t come from outside the gates; homegrown “barbarians” are working from inside. Churches that sacrifice discipline and orthodoxy to pursue growth, popularity and social influence will find themselves mortgaged to the world. And mortgages eventually come due. Should we be surprised when church members and clergy who have marinated in progressive culture their whole lives press their churches to conform to that culture? Can the church retain its Christian identity while also clinging to its political privileges, social approval and community visibility? Pursuing something like “the Benedict option” may soon become the only way we can live an authentic Christian life in modern culture. Perhaps that time is already here.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage

Jesus Christ did not found the church to serve the society, and authentic Christianity cares little for secular definitions of the common good. It is not intrinsically wrong for the church to use what advantages a society may grant. But it should always keep clearly in mind that it does not need to own property, employ clergy and enjoy tax exempt status in order to exist in its fulness. It does not need political influence, social respectability or community visibility. It does not even need legal recognition. The church can get along quite well without these “privileges.” Indeed there may soon come a time when retaining its privileges at the cost of its Christian identity will become its greatest temptation. And it will fall unless it remembers that its one and only purpose is to serve its Lord whatever the cost.

Note: This essay is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Three Views on Women in Church Leadership: Should Bible-Believing (Evangelical) Churches Appoint Women Preachers, Pastors, Elders and Bishops?

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“It Takes a University to Produce Ideas this Dumb”

One day last week as I was reading my local newspaper and drinking my morning coffee I came upon a story lamenting a recent series of incidents of some type of bad behavior, a sort of secular jeremiad. Whether they were cases of racism, sexism, bullying, physical and verbal violence against women or LGBTQ people, I don’t recall. What struck me as worthy of note was not the particular list of sins condemned but the author’s diagnosis of the root problem and the response advocated: ignorance remediated by more education!

What’s wrong with that? Nothing per se. Every parent knows and all ancient moralists understood that human beings need to be taught the difference between right and wrong; they need discipline, training and practice. But everything depends on what you teach! Secular approaches to moral education, such as the one advocated by the author I read, leave out the most important part of morality. They assert moral rules without foundations or inner coherence. Of course the moral training of a small child, a two-year old for example, must begin with parents laying down rules backed up only by parental say-so. A young child cannot understand moral theology or philosophy. But at some point in our lives we need more than arbitrary rules backed up by threat of punishment to sustain a moral life worthy of mature human beings.

Here is what struck me about the story: the secular moral educator cannot get beyond two-year old morality. That is to say, the secular moralist can only make assertions backed up by implicit or explicit threats. If students ask a secular moral educator why they are obligated to follow the asserted rules, sooner or later they will be confronted by a humanly legislated law or an administrative regulation that has the force of law. This is the adult form of “Because I said so!” (Those who have had to complete institutionally required workplace sexual harassment training understand what I am saying.) The secular moralist may assert certain rights or invoke the concept of justice. And what if you ask for the basis of those asserted rights and claims of justice? You will receive one of two answers. Either the original assertion will be repeated at a higher decibel level or you will be directed again to legislated law.

By definition, secular morality cannot appeal to any moral standard that transcends human desires, wishes or assertions of power. Such appeals would have to mention the will and purpose of God or some spiritual reality that determines the meaning and end of human life. It cannot successfully appeal to natural science to ground its moral assertions, because science only describes things and cannot tell you what ought to be.

And because secular morality possesses no unifying philosophical or theological vision of the world and human life, it cannot bring unity to its asserted rules. Sometimes it invokes principles such as individual liberty or community solidarity to give its rules a semblance of coherence. But as you can see, these two principles often come into conflict and call for a higher principle to harmonize them. And apart from a higher unifying principle, individual liberty and community solidarity are just as much arbitrary assertions as is the incoherent list of secular rules.

Moreover, secular moral education is as weak psychologically as it is philosophically. Why would you expect racists, sexists and bullies to change their minds and reform their ways simply because a teacher, professor, supervisor or celebrity asks them to do so? It’s laughable. Such changes of heart require something more persuasive than appeals for niceness. Genuine moral convictions must be grounded in a clear vision of truth. Moral reformation must arise out of a powerful perception that one is out of tune and out of touch with what is truly good and right, misaligned with the way things ought to be. And for most people moral reformation must be accompanied by religious conversion; for God is the creator and lawgiver of human nature and of the whole world. You can’t get right with your neighbors unless you get right with the Creator of your neighbors.

Christianity’s moral vision acknowledges the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to be the unifying center of all reality, metaphysical, physical and moral. The scriptures teach us that to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves are our highest duties. And Jesus Christ has set us a perfect example of what it means to love God and neighbor. This vision of the good and right is not an empty and arbitrary assertion. It is grounded in the eternal being of God and revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God. And those who see it don’t need a secular educator’s special pleading or threats to motivate them to not to do violence to their neighbors. They are already way beyond that stage.