The Benedict Option despairs of redeeming postmodern Western Civilization and counsels a Christian retreat into separatist communities to rebuild Christian culture through faithful discipleship. The model obviously is St. Benedict, who founded a vibrant monastic movement in the ashes of the imploding Roman Empire.
No doubt the Body of Christ and wider culture would benefit greatly if more Christians were to pursue some form of the Benedict Option, creating centers of self-denying devotion, prayer, learning and charity, even celibacy. May this movement, to the extent it fosters Christian growth and witness, grow and prosper!
But just as in Benedict’s day, roughly 99 percent plus of Christians will decline to actively pursue this option. Maybe some don’t have the spiritual insight and discipline. But many more likely don’t have the calling. Throughout the church’s history most believers have had a vocation to live and work within the world, with all of its temptations and snares.
Too often Christian thinkers issue summons for all Christians to follow a particular path of faithfulness. Christians must become politically active! Christians must withdraw or take a break from politics! Christians must engage secular culture and arts! Christians should create alternative institutions! Christians should litigate in defense of their rights! Christians should reject lawsuits! Christians should eat organic food! Christians should abjure clothing and live au natural in the woods eating berries and honey!
In truth, hundreds of millions of Christians globally and tens of millions nationally don’t all have the same lockstep calling. Scripture and Christian tradition indicate God’s appointment of Christians to highly varied and sometimes seemingly contradictory callings. While some Christians in the early church suffered martyrdom at Caesar’s hands others were serving in Caesar’s household. The Lord had purpose in both places and many others.
So let’s be hesitant to proscribe universal cultural, political and vocational instructions to the Body of Christ, which will not and should not be universally heeded. The church encompasses a wide diversity of callings, to its everlasting glory.
Although very few will be called to actively practice the Benedict Option, many others may subscribe to its rhetoric as an excuse for indifference and even contempt for cultural and political engagement, which would be dangerous. There is at loose in American Evangelical Christianity, at least among some elites, a spirit of apathy towards civil obligations.
Supposedly, even amid our unprecedented wealth, comfort and numbers, we live in very bleak times. Widespread Christian engagement didn’t create Zion in America, therefore it was all for naught. The earlier generation of Christian culture warriors are now supposed to have been an embarrassment for which the church should now atone. But no amount of apology will forestall the imminent apocalypse, which mostly includes critical internet commentary about Christianity and the occasional same sex rite at the local court house or empty Unitarian church. Woe is us as we drive our SUVs into the parking lots of megachurches in prosperous suburbs. Scary times indeed!
Of course, the secular culture does and has always posed serious threats to faithful Christian living. This spiritual warfare is permanent until the parousia. But all in all, Christians in 2015 America, even as the Devil still roams about like a roaring lion, have it better than any previous generation. Who among us would really prefer to live in 1950, 1850, or 1750, when America and Western Civilization were supposedly more Christian, never mind slavery, segregation and a thousand other social wickednesses countenanced by society and church?
Here’s my Methodist counsel for one form of Christian social witness and discipleship: a Wesleyan Option. Keep in mind at no point were Methodists ever anywhere near a majority among British or early Americans, nor among Christians at that time. John Wesley, who was unapologetically apostolic, believed in the universal church and neither he nor his followers expected all Christians to follow Methodism. They were, in a rough comparison to Catholic lay societies, a particular spiritual order within the Church of England. Yet their influence was profound, they transformed society and the church, and there are roughly 70 million Methodists globally today, perhaps several hundred million if Pentecostals are included.
Benedictine Option enthusiasts should like the Wesleyan example because it was built around small, intensely committed prayer and accountability groups with rigorous discipline who created distinct communities within a pervasively corrupt society and spiritually lax institutional church. Evangelism, discipleship, self-denial, service to others, and Christian joy were central emphases.
Wesleyans weren’t just focused on the spiritual charisms of their own movement. They self-consciously envisioned their vocation for spiritually renewing society and temporal polities. Wesley himself kept his movement out of direct political engagement. But he knew that as Methodism preached personal and social holiness throughout Britain and America there would be societal and political fruits. Wesley saw his times and culture as part of Christendom but also deeply in rebellion against God. He used the available foundations of a “Christian” nation, which included a relative legal religious liberty, despite howling hostile mobs, to proclaim the Gospel.
Early Methodism in America seized much of the frontier, where religion, formal or otherwise, was often absent. Methodist populism and revivalism, with its concern for social redemption, helped create America’s self-understanding of its democracy. It also contributed spiritual tools within civil religion for perennial social and political reform movements that continue to this day.
To varying degrees Methodism has repeated much of this process of personal and social renewal in once non-Christian cultures in Asia and Africa.
Methodism saw its surrounding culture as often wicked and hostile to the Gospel, which is perennially true, even in ostensibly Christian societies. Yet this challenge did not inspire cultural withdrawal but challenged Methodists to aggressively confront and work to change the cultures it spiritually invaded.
In short, Methodism offers a robust example accessible to all Christian traditions of intense counter cultural communities of discipleship alongside vigorous work for cultural and political reformation. Early Methodism, unlike the monastic Benedictine movement, was always for large numbers of regular people active in the world, mostly laborers, housewives and merchants, along with the occasional clerk, lawyer and soldier. Admittedly as a lifelong Methodist, I am very partial, and also chagrined that my own denominational branch of Methodism does not itself currently offer a good exemplar.
But I also propose that our own times are more similar to Wesley’s, which was a corrupt nominally Christian society that scoffed at serious devotion, than St. Benedict’s, which was still mostly pagan despite a century of imperial Christianity. Of course, both Benedict and Wesley were providential tools for their time and place. We can all learn much from both of them, and the accumulated grace from their faithfulness still bless the church and world centuries later.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. You can follow him on Twitter at @markdtooley.