The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

After yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage (about which more here), there’s been a lot of chatter in my Twitter feed and email inbox about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the view that we traditionalist Christians, who continue to believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman, are in a kind of cultural exile and that our calling, therefore, is to “a limited, strategic withdrawal… from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church” (as Rod Dreher puts it). In other words, a lot of my orthodox Christian friends are asking what it looks like to be faithful to Christian teaching now that the state’s definition of marriage diverges so widely from the church’s biblical and traditional definition.

One of the earliest posts I read on this approach was by the Duke Divinity School theologian Paul Griffiths, published years ago on his now (alas!) closed-down blog. Probably around 2006 or 2007, from what I can remember, Griffiths wrote this:

In the America of our day, it is about as difficult (or as easy) to make what the Church teaches about marriage comprehensible and convincing (the latter more difficult than the former) to the educated locals as it is to make the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception or the Real Presence so.

If that empirical claim is right… , then the conclusion strongly suggested by it is that the Church should not, at the moment, oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. Those who have undergone a profoundly pagan catechesis on these questions will believe and behave as pagans do; it would be good for them and for the Church if the Church were not to attempt to constrain them by advocating positions in public policy based upon the view that what she teaches resonates in all human hearts—because it doesn’t, true though it is.

What the pagans need on this matter is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

Griffiths has since the time of this writing apparently shifted his views on same-sex marriage, but I’m not interested in exploring that change here. What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

On the surface of it, I’m not sure how that strategy would work. How is it that Christians’ purifying of their own male-and-female marriages will work to convince, say, a happily satisfied pagan couple to give up their gay sex and convert to traditional Christianity? How is that, to return to the Benedict Option mentioned above, Christians’ strategic withdrawal from mainstream culture and our commitment to our own re-conversion will prove attractive to an indifferent, or hostile, pagan world?

I’m not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I am increasingly convinced those are precisely the questions to ask.

But let me go ahead take a stab anyway at imagining some answers.

Say you’re a smart, capable American liberal, attending an Ivy League university. You may have some kind of nominal Christianity in your background, but still, by the time you’re in your twenties, you’re well catechized in modern mainstream American godlessness. Say, then, that you unexpectedly find yourself drawn to a midweek Eucharist at a nearby Episcopal church. You start going regularly, captivated more and more by the Gospel—the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that you’re hearing each week. Around the same time, you start taking the Bible more seriously, because, hearing it read in the weekly liturgy, you want to get to know better the Christ of whom it speaks and whom you’re receiving each week in the Sacrament. And the more you study, the more you realize there is a canonical biblical theology of marriage. You start to see a coherence between the original creation of male and female (Genesis 1:26-28), the institution of marriage (Genesis 2:21-24), Jesus Christ’s reaffirmation of that institution (Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 19:3-12), and the apostle Paul’s insistence that it is a symbolic window onto the love of Christ for the church (Ephesians 5:21-33). And, before you know it, and cutting across the grain of your pagan past, you find yourself drawn in, captivated by this vision of Jesus, of discipleship to him, and of the meaning of marriage. Such, in brief, is the experience of the theologian Ephraim Radner, as he recounted it to me once, who now writes impressively in defense of traditional biblical sexual ethics. It happened to him. And it can happen again to people in similar places. Such is an example of what conversion might look like, how it might unfold.

Or say you grew up gay and happily irreligious, somewhere between a nominal religious tradition and outright atheism. Say that you’re such a gay activist, so secure in who you are and the cause you’re championing, that no one would ever consider you a candidate for a conversion to orthodox Christianity. But say, nonetheless, that in college you find yourself surrounded by a group of smart, sassy, enjoyable Catholics, and you find, to your growing dismay and/or amusement, that you gradually become more sure that the Catholic Church is right in what it teaches about sex and marriage than you are in your own conviction that gay sex is morally neutral. Say that you become so hungry for Christ—literally—that you end up looking back on your conversion several years later and writing these words: “To receive the Eucharist I had to sign on the dotted line (they make you say, ‘I believe all that the Catholic Church believes and teaches’ when they bring you into the fold), and I longed intensely for the Eucharist, so I figured, everybody has to sacrifice something. God doesn’t promise that He’ll only ask you for the sacrifices you agree with and understand.” Such, in brief, is the experience of the lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet, one of the contributors to this blog. The experience of “burnished Catholic practice dazzling the pagan eye” happened to her, even if she might not put it exactly that way. And if it happened for someone like Eve—by her own admission, an unlikely convert—it can happen again. Such is an example of the kinds of conversions we might begin to hope for in the coming years. There won’t be droves of them, surely. But there will be some—more than we might expect right now.

Or say you grew up intensely, conservatively Christian. But say that you also grew up gay, knowing you were mysteriously drawn to the same sex even in childhood and, by adolescence, you were regularly falling in love with your same-sex friends. Say that as you grew older and encountered more liberal, progressive forms of Christianity, you also encountered strong arguments for changing your mind and abandoning historic Christian teaching on marriage and sex. But say, too, that you were loved so well—mainly by Christian married couples, some of them with children and some of them without, all of whom upheld the traditional Christian teaching—so that your embracing the biblical teaching on celibacy (Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7) began to seem like a real possibility for living your life full of love, friendship, and hospitality. Say that as you were asked, repeatedly, by Christian couples to become a godparent to their children, and as you were invited to move in and share a house with another Christian couple, you found yourself beginning to really believe the biblical model of celibacy in which living without marriage and sex is a path toward community, not away from it. Say that one day you would sit down to write these words: “Jesus has given me brothers and sisters and mothers and children. Knowing my celibate lifestyle, the Christians I’ve befriended have committed themselves, through the unity secured by the Holy Spirit rather than through biological ties, to being my family, whether or not I ever experience marriage myself. They have invited me into their homes, taken me on vacation with them, and encouraged me to consider myself an older sibling to their children.” Such, in brief, is my story of finding my eye—partly pagan as it is, like everyone else’s in America these days—dazzled by the burnished practice of Christian marriage. That happened to me (or, perhaps I should say, is happening, since conversion is never finished in this life). And it could happen to others too, I believe.

I don’t know exactly what Benedict Option evangelism might look like. I don’t know what kind of diminished numbers of converts we might see in the coming decades as a result of the collapse of American “Christendom.” But I do imagine that if Christians decide to do what Griffiths recommended in his blog post—if we begin to polish and attend afresh to our own practices of discipleship and faithfulness—we may end up seeing many more people embrace what the church teaches about marriage as both comprehensible and convincing. It has happened already for some, and it will go on happening, please God.

28 thoughts on “The “Benedict Option” and the Dazzled Pagan Eye

  1. I’m currently reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from Prison. This idea of the “Benedict Option,” sounds very consonant with some of Bonhoeffer’s own ideas in the last years of his life. I haven’t read a lot of the book yet, but in the introduction, the editor writes of Bonhoeffer’s theology:

    “it was [in the future] necessary that the church recover the ‘arcane discipline’ (disciplina arcani) of the ancient church, whereby the mysteries of the faith are protected from profanation…In this way, prayer, worship, the sacraments, and the creed would remain hidden at the heart of the life of the church, not thrust upon the world in some triumphalist manner.”

    (Citation: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison DBW Vol 8 (Kindle Locations 1095-1098). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.)

    I think “hidden,” here doesn’t mean that Christians aren’t clear about their stances vis-a-vis marriage, just that they don’t carry this expectation that the whole world embraces it, nor that the state affirms it. Neither do they “lead with it,” so to say, when they interact with the outside world.

    On a personal note, I find it interesting that many of the Christians with a traditional/conservative sexual ethics who bemoan the Supreme Court decision, carry with them the expectation that church theology will be consonant with state law. Many expressions of the church (in China, say, but also in Western Europe) do not have the luxury of this expectation. Sometimes this expectation reaches to the point that commentators conflate, to some extent, constitutionalism with biblicism or Canon Law. I’m no legal scholar, and don’t have a definite view on this, but it is possible that constitutional law may guarantee the right to same-sex marriage, while not being permitted in an orthodox Christian sexual ethics. That is to say, one might need to consider the possibility that the justices made the correct *legal* decision, while not considering homosexuality appropriate within a Christian context.

    • Your personal note resonates deeply with me – as an outsider, there was always something detached about the conservative Christian approaches to and arguments on the issue of same sex marriage. The primary reason, or so it seemed to me, their arguments don’t hit the mark is because they were actually talking about something very different to what their pro-gay marriage opponents are but didn’t seem to realise it (which sounds very arrogant, but I’m not sure how else to express it).

      Of course, I’m biased as I couldn’t see how the constitutional law meant that the orthodox Christian sexual ethics couldn’t be maintained (I don’t think the law of the land necessarily has to defend the sacraments, for many reasons including the rarely unproblematic transformation of receptacles of Grace to a form of Legalism), so that certainly contributed to my at best bemusement and at worst outright befuddlement.

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  4. I think marriage, as traditionally understood, is not the concrete, definable reality many Christians take it to be. It is a real concept, but it is a concept that hinges on the notion of “family resemblance”, in the Wittgensteinian sense — roughly, the idea that all the things we call marriage don’t have ONE thing in common, but they all do have a sort of indescribable similarity or kinship.

    That kinship does not have much to do with romance. So a culture that understands marriage as centered around romance simply HAS NEVER ENCOUNTERED THIS CONCEPT OF MARRIAGE. It is as if we failed to find necessary and sufficient conditions for what a game is, and so we decided (by law, no less) to say that things like eating tacos or polishing shoes were a game.

    The traditional notion of marriage is such a subtle thing that it took 10-15 years of immersive education to teach it to children, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It turns out that 24/7 media influences that focus on romance are more than enough to drown out the Church on this one.

    Another way of putting this: I became almost constitutionally incapable of understanding objections to gay marriage when I listened, rapt, to narcissistic love songs as a boy in the 1980s.

    “In your eyes, I am complete” is a wonderful slogan for our relationship with God, but a TERRIBLE slogan for our relationship with any human being!

    • You make a good argument against codependence that is common in music and media but not really one for a traditional marriage ethic coming back. I think Amanda Marcotte pretty much defined it in her blog post responding to Douthat on the SCOTUS ruling:

      “n this sense, Douthat isn’t wrong that “support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop.” To accept same-sex marriage is to accept this modern idea that marriage is about love and partnership, instead of about dutiful procreation and female submission. Traditional gender roles where husbands rule over wives are disintegrating and that process is definitely helped along by these new laws allowing that marriage doesn’t have to be a gendered institution at all.”

      Traditional marriage is and has always been about treating women as chattel. We romanticize it today but that is what it was always about. Fathers trading a resource (e.g. daughters) for a dowry to a man so he could make miniature versions of himself and ensure his empire live on, using her as little more than a simple catalyst for his own needs. That is the truth of God ordained marriage as it has always been before this century. You would have a hard time finding supporters for that sort of God or covenant these days, though.

      Reading the feminist side has opened my eyes a lot to what is actually being discussed when we talk about returning to “tradition” on this point. I have to believe most don’t realize what they are truly fighting for in this.

      • Have you looked at levels of self-reported happiness among women in traditional v. nontraditional societies? If your thesis were correct, the women in nontraditional societies would be MUCH happier. We find nothing of the kind; in fact, we often find the opposite. How do you explain that?

        (Mightn’t there be a type of feminism that gives women rights without giving them freedom *from their own bodies*?)

      • “How do you explain that?”

        Stockholm syndrome or simply getting by, I suspect. Many of these traditional societies harbor a system that has no alternative so the women know they will face vicious punishment at the hands of their husbands if they report, truthfully. I have a hard time believing the women of Saudi Arabia (a perfect example of true traditional marriage) are happy, looking at the life they lead. Alternately, the lack of alternatives means the women don’t know there is more to life than being property of men. You will find in some places like Iran and Iraq, what was once not distinguishable from Saudi Arabia has changed. There a story I heard on NPR about a woman working in secret to help abused women escape their husbands, for example. Which is good. Sedition works best from the inside.

        As for the unhappiness of modern women? While feminism brought women out of their gender roles, men are only beginning to break free. Modern women are unhappy about men being childish and noncommittal but I would wager the only reason men are acting this way is they were raised to believe if they got a good job, were a nice guy, and did the right thing they were assured a good wife and life. But women aren’t things any more and many men are finding that isn’t enough. They have to be interesting now. And with that comes the bitterness, often directed at women in general by your Men’s Rights types.

        The true thing making them unhappy is the obsolete gender role they were assigned and raised to believe in. Society betrayed them. As a gay man, i was spared this fate, but I do feel for the angry, lonely straight guys I see.

  5. Wesley, I fear that the “biblical manhood and womanhood” gospel (that’s very sloppy shorthand for a decades-long, multifaceted movement, but maybe you know what I mean) may have created a kind of “burned-over” district in which it will be very hard for anyone to hear about Christian marriage imaging Christ and the Church without a lot of distracting background noise about strict gender roles. For the record, I have been happily married for 38 years to a fellow Christian, and in a lot of ways it looks very traditional, so no axe to grind on a personal level. This is reminiscent of a conversation I had with a young pastor, explaining why, to Baby Boomer evangelicals, the word “shepherding” has some bad history.

  6. In a specific way, I find the SCOTUS ruling to be liberating. In the last few years, I’ve become more and more aware of how “entrenched” I feel in American culture; the noise, the pace, the slavery to money, the constant assault of an over-sexed atmosphere, the nastiness and the social atomization. All of this, I find, adds up to spiritual paralysis for a lot of us.

    Without rambling on given the over-culture’s view that to be a traditionalist Christian is to be a “total bigot” as I just saw several times on my facebook page, the SCOTUS decision might just be the Church’s off-ramp from the more toxic parts of our culture. We can stop trying to stay part of the over-culture: The over-culture does not want us.

    Poor Rod Dreher sees the BenOp as a defensive, survival strategy. If the gates of Hell will not prevail against Her, the Church will survive Upworthy and Gawker. She will also survive any worst case scenario we can dream up.

    I see any possible manifestation of the BenOp as a recuperation of all that modern living has stripped of us.

  7. This is exactly what I have been saying to my husband and friends. I am neutral on gay marriage. I don’t think it is holy, but I also don’t think it is good, or Christ-like to deny gay people civil rights conferred by state-sanctioned marriage. Too many gay people have been refused to see their dying loved ones just because they weren’t considered close (married) relatives. Is that really what God desires?

    No, quite the opposite. God desires that the church loves people so much and moves so greatly in good works that everyone is drawn to Him just as they are. In my personal experience as a traditionally married woman raising a son, the conservative church I attended and helped lead kicked me and my husband out with threats on our life after someone found out we told a gay friend that God wasn’t sending him to hell for his gay feelings. I shudder what would have happened to me if I had been gay. As it was, I lost everything as we were forced to flee town and we became homeless with our small child. All because of the church response to the gay question.

    I think God is exposing the sins of the church through the Supreme Court decision. How can the church condemn gays as unholy, when they are driving gay people into homelessness and hopelessness? Which is more unholy, being gay or practicing hatred and murder? How can the church condemn gay marriage when the church model of marriage is filled with divorce and infidelity to the highest levels of leadership? If the church wants to stone and stop gay marriage, why not stone and stop divorce (rhetorical question because, obviously, in cases of abuse women MUST leave the marriage).

    God is testing the church through this decision. Will she choose the way of love, including holy examples of committed marriage, as a light on a hill, or will she choose darkness, hatred, and bringing death to others?

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  11. The Church isn’t wrong to recommend the world obey natural law.
    Then again, the old pagan world had notions of marriage that were quite different from the Church’s, and the Church survived.

    • By the same token, it is fair to say the world is not wrong in politely declining to play into the Aristotelian construct called “natural law” when we live in a world governed by science and evidence, not philosophy and tradition.

      • “Science and evidence” determine moral laws? Care to explain how?

        Or do you claim that morality is bunk?

      • And what scientific reason could the state possibly have in regulating the private relations of homosexuals by means of the traditional institution of marriage?
        The state enforces marriage contracts because it has an interest in the care of children. It has no rational interest in homosexual relationships.
        And the modern world is not governed by science and evidence any more than the ancient was governed by philosophy.

      • dpmonohan

        “The state enforces marriage contracts because it has an interest in the care of children.”

        Care to cite where, explicitely, in the Constitution or any State Law of the USA where children are specified as the reason the state enforces marriage contracts? This argument would have more weight if it were grounded in civic reality, not just an assumption on the part of traditionalists.

        “It has no rational interest in homosexual relationships.”

        Men in relationships tend to live longer and healthier lives than single men. Ergo, they pay taxes longer and are a lesser tax burden on society as they age since their partner can care for them in lieu of the state. So, there are to rational interests the state has in homosexual relationships.

        The counter argument would be that there is no guarantee that a gay relationship will last. Well, that is true, but there is also no guarantee that your kid will grow up to be a successful contributing member of society and not a rapist serial killer or a welfare mooch. Even still, it is in the best interest of society to allow the option that maximize the possibility of making more money or saving money.

        “And the modern world is not governed by science and evidence any more than the ancient was governed by philosophy.”

        Fair enough. Philosophy is the lesser form of science and ruled the ancient “first world” of places like Greece, Rome, China, etc. Sure, most of the ancient world was not governed by philosophy just as there are plenty of yahoos (Creationists, Fundamentalist Muslims, etc) who hold us back scientifically today.

      • Daniel

        Morality should be based on evidence. Evidence of harm, to self or others, and so on. The rest can be covered by conscience. I would take that over these nebulous systems where we bow before the guy with the biggest hat or the oldest books. I would definitely rather have such people for my neighbors.

        I grew up in Oklahoma yet now live around secularists/atheists and a few pagans and I know I would sooner trust people who know right from wrong due to empathy and reason over the people who know right from wrong because of mere theology. I recall classmates in my childhood comparing being gay to being a rapist: that is the sort of moral bankruptcy that trusting too much in theology and tradition brings you.

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