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.