What about university?

Dreher’s chapter about education in The Benedict Option also addresses university. Here, the idea essentially revolves around young men and women living out the chapter on the church as village. That in order to keep from devolving into the party culture, sex culture, porn culture, drinking culture, hedonism, relativism, and general social disorder that characterises the ‘freedom’ of young people at secular universities, young Christians need to create and seek out intentional community.

He does not call for only sending them to Christian universities, in part because some of these are being challenged in various ways, such as (to use a famous Canadian example) Trinity Western University whose code of conduct includes not engaging in extra-marital or homosexual sex acts. The bar on heterosexual activity doesn’t get you in trouble, but the bar on homosexual activity gets you branded bigot these days (this is not the point of this post, so please stay out of that debate in the comments).

Anyway, this portion of the chapter was, I think, done well. Throughout the book, one of my issues has been the randomness of the anecdotes, most of wish only point to symptoms of the problem, or the fact that the interviews with people simply give their views on life and strategy, rather than showing their success. These even counts for his interviews of monks at Norcia.

However, in this section as well as a few parts of the chapter on community, Dreher actually gives concrete examples of Benedict Option successes. He tells of various groups of young Christians at different universities, some Protestant, some Roman Catholic, and how they banded together to form communities that supported them throughout their time at university and helped their faith grow strong. He even tells of how one such group’s existence contributed to the church’s mission of making new disciples. So for this I am glad.

As a person who works in the university, I want the Christians to come to university to be able to come to secular institutions and get their degrees with a robust faith and even spiritual growth at the other end. There is no reason why the university should erode or destroy your faith. Sure, it will challenge it. I certainly had my share of challenges as a Christian in undergrad, but having the critical thinking skills and resilience to resist should be part of the young person’s journey through university.

I admit that I had good community as an undergrad, and this probably helped, besides my own determination to come to grips with arguments and ideas that challenged what I believed. I belonged to a supportive church community, was active in IVCF, and had a great group of Christian friends who were willing to talk matters of faith and of import.

Speaking about secular universities, the university should resist the urge to become secularist. Rather, universities should be pluralist, creating an atmosphere where the conservative Christian and the atheist and the Hindu and the Muslim and the liberal Christian can co-exist, make friendships, and have respectful, lively debate on topics that really matter. That was my experience as an undergrad 12 years ago, and I hope it is still the case. (I currently hold a research post, so I can’t say for sure, but it looks like my current place of employment would fit this model.)

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Benedict Option education

Rod Dreher recommends that parents pull their children out of public schools and either homeschool them or enrol them in classical Christian academies. To most people, this probably seems too radical. However, one of the points from the previous chapter is that your children’s peer group has an enormous influence on the development of their character.

Here I address the ‘conservatives’, the orthodox who adhere to biblical and traditional Christianity, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox (that is, the people for whom Dreher wrote this book): Do you want your children going to a school where their peer group includes children in grade 5 accessing pornography on their smart phones? Or where 1/3 of the girls in their middle school homeroom see themselves as bisexual? Or where the sexual revolution is taking over sex ed, going beyond the basics of biology to the creation of gender identities?

Also, and this is far more central to Dreher’s point in this chapter, do you want your children to grow up formed in the image and likeness of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? Do you want to see children who see all of knowledge as an integrated reality founded upon the Holy and Undivided Trinity? Do you want the Bible to be fully integrated into their thought life? That is, do you want your children to truly be educated, in the classical and medieval sense, as those in Benedictine schools (such as Bec where St Anselm taught) were?

Moreover, do you want your children to at least be, frankly, educated in any meaningful sense? As in, do you want them to learn critical thinking skills? To learn logic and dialectic? To have a grasp of the roots of western society and culture? To be able to write in cursive? To not simply be given ‘subjects’ as mere data (for no such thing as mere data exists)? To be freed from a system that is more concerned with socialisation than education?

For the latter two paragraphs, you could potentially supplement their public school education. For the first paragraph, pull them out. Now.

I want my son to grow into a compassionate, loving man who is committed to historic orthodoxy. I have rich doubts that the current public school system will only hinder that goal.

Burchard of Worms on the distracted mind

From the preface of Burchard’s Decretum (ca. 1012-1023):

I was unable to proceed [with this project] for two reasons: because of various and inevitable ecclesiastical obligations, which emerge daily just as waves of the sea, and, moreover, because of responsibility for secular affairs relating to imperial commands. These greatly blunt the mind of one zealous and striving toward higher things, because the mind of anyone, while it is divided among very many things, will be weaker for each one. (Trans. Somerville & Brasington, Prefaces to Canon Law Books in Latin Christianity, p. 100)

This final clause is exactly the result of spending too much time on social media and not enough time in deep reading and personal interactions.

Makes me seriously consider taking another techno-fast, or getting off Facebook & Twitter altogether…

Extract from Burchard’s Decretum, taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The Idea of a Christian Village (Benedict Option, ch. 6)

The sixth chapter of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, is about building strong Christian community from the family to the local church to local ‘grass roots’ ecumenism between conservative believers. Rooted in Scripture and tradition, drawing strength from those who have gone before, we turn turn to fellow believers around us to nourish and strengthen our faith and grow in Christ.

I don’t know how to respond personally to this chapter. I recommend it to you to see how it would work in your situation. I certainly find appealing the idea of turning my home into a domestic monastery — that is, where my wife and pray and live with discipline and intentionality and raise our son ‘Christianly and virtuously’ (to quote the BCP).

But some of it won’t work for us now.

We are victims of our atomised culture and the economy of how universities are run. I am not interested in retreating from secular academia just yet (thankyouverymuch, chh. 7 & 8), so that means working within the broken system to provide for my family, taking one-year contracts as they come and building up my CV to land a permanent job.

That means that we are living in a new city with a 4 1/2-month-old baby with no settled church, no community for both of us, no local ties so no ecumenical ties. Besides, I’ve felt on the fringes of church for a few years now (whether my own local community or the wider Anglican world), so this is a hard chapter to apply. Just who on earth am I supposed to be living closer to? With whom will I start a study of the great classics of the Christian faith?

I don’t know.

Helping people get rooted in old stuff

Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris

In response to my last post, William asked how we expect people to present ancient/medieval/early modern — historic — Christianity ‘in modern or po-mo parlance’. This is a good question. We have to admit that there is a remove between ourselves and the pre-modern world, first of all. We have much in common with our forebears in the faith, being human and Christian and all that.

But our educational background, our educational system, our politics, the religion of our non-Christian neighbours, the philosophy of the surrounding culture, what art is — these things are different.

Two approaches to groundwork, then.

First, acknowledge the difference between us and St Augustine and discern accurately and lovingly our surrounding culture — the spiritual but not religious, people who actually like Brutalist architecture (or claim to, anyway), the hedonists, the perfectly happy agnostics and atheists, as well as groups that include both Christians and those who have yet to know Christ — feminists, vegetarians, Republicans, New Labour, the French.

What are these people’s desires and aspirations? For those who reject Jesus, why? What do they think of Him?

Then, if you know the Great Tradition, you can speak its truths in ways that will make sense. What does that look like? It looks like the Gospel as your close friends would like to hear it.

This sort of approach is what Robert E. Webber did with his ‘Ancient-Future’ books, consciously trying to use patristics to speak to postmodernity.

The other is almost the opposite. I, personally, gravitate towards this. Simply try to make the doctrines and practices of the ancients comprehensible. Ask yourself, ‘Why does this matter? What exactly is this doctrine saying?’ Rewrite a doctrinal statement in your own words. Or learn the ancient languages and translate the texts for yourself. Having digested them, try simply to talk about them as a normal human being. (This is hard for me — I am not normal.)

This second approach is more like Christopher A. Hall’s three books from IVP, Reading Scripture with the Church FathersLearning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers  or Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, that simply try to be straightforward introductions to the Church Fathers.

A bit like both is Chris R. Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians.

These books could be recommended to friends, parishioners, study leaders, whomever. Start a patristics study group and use one of these as an entry point. Or you could run a seminar for your church, like I did for Nicosia’s Greek Evangelical Church in 2013.

For me, though, I’ve always enjoyed grappling with the texts themselves. I really appreciate the books above and how some of them ushered me into the world of patristic thought. But in the end, people like me don’t want to see congregations reading books about the Fathers and medieval theologians, or about spiritual disciplines. We want to see fellow believers enriching their lives with the ancient, medieval, early modern texts themselves, and applying spiritual disciplines to their own lives.

To this end, one might need a budget and a bit of discernment. Or a good research library! Because I think annotated translations and commentaries being used by study groups are the next step. The naked text, as in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, can be hard to digest. Newer translations with footnotes or endnotes are extremely valuable. We use these for the Bible (and Homer and Cicero), so why not for the ancient and medieval inheritance of Christianity?

Of course, we’ll never agree with everything the ancients say. This is life. But if we aren’t seeking to be rooted and nourished by the living God as He has acted in and through his Church for the long centuries leading up to now, we will find ourselves caught up in all the fads of contemporary thought.

This final point is one that Thomas C. Oden made in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy — all of his best, radical ideas from when he was a liberal turned out to have already been done by the Fathers.

Help your church survive the future by rediscovering the past

Chapter 5 of The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher is ‘A Church for All Seasons’. In this chapter, Dreher takes on the fact that not only is our culture around us shifting and changing and rejecting Christianity, but our churches are shrinking and have, frankly, something of a limp witness to the Triune God Who made all the things.

This chapter is in many ways perfectly in tune with the spirit of St Benedict’s Rule, and some of the recommendations are definitely from the Rule. Others, I think, are simply the way pre-modern Christians did things. I don’t think they are special to Benedict, and sometimes he wouldn’t even have thought there was a question about doing church this way.

The sub-headings are: ‘Rediscover the Past’, ‘Recover Liturgical Worship’, ‘Tighten Church Discipline’, ‘Evangelize with Goodness and Beauty’, ‘Embrace Exile and the Possibility of Martyrdom’. He doesn’t actually argue that any living American Christian is going to be martyred, but he does recommend preaching, teaching, and living the path of suffering in our churches rather than self-fulfillment.

I am broadly in agreement with all of this. It’s basically what this entire blog is about. By rooting ourselves in the Great Tradition, by seeking beauty and God wherever we can, by learning the history of theology, by singing old hymns and praying old prayers and engaging in ancient disciplines, we forge an identity that is connected to that of our forebears in the faith and radically different from the world around us.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about how we need to communicate historic Christian truth afresh to each generation. For the Roman Catholic to say, ‘Ah, we have St Thomas for that,’ simply isn’t enough. Yes, read St Thomas Aquinas. Get filled up with him. And then express him, urgently, beautifully, winsomely, in a way that will communicate the best of Scholastic theology for today’s Christian.

I admit to being the sort of person who thinks, ‘Well, the best book about the Council of Chalcedon is the translation of the acts by Richard Price and Michael Gaddis.’ I mean, it is — but what normal Christian is going to put up with three volumes of arguing bishops? Better even a 6-page pamphlet that someone will actually read and which gives Leo in a nutshell, Cyril in a nutshell, who Eutyches was, why Nestorianism was rejected, who dissented the results of the council and why as far as the life of the local church and normal human Christian is concerned.

Of course, of course, of course — we should challenge our brothers and sisters to read, if not conciliar acta, at least books like St Augustine’s City of God or an abridgement of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae or St Athanasius On the Incarnation or the Rule of St Benedict or Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer or Bellarmine/Luther/Lancelot Andrewes/Calvin (depending on your tradition).

But perhaps we academics should also help the local church get plugged into the Great Tradition, through book studies or lectures or our own writings or, I dunno, blogs?

Anyway, rooting ourselves in the tradition through beautiful worship and rich theology and the pursuit of holiness will help keep us moored in the midst of liquid modernity.

Benedict Option politics: Local and religious

I am blogging my way through Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, just now. Today, some brief thoughts on Chapter 4: A New Kind of Christian Politics.

Honestly, this chapter points to a different background from what I’m used to, although possibly a similar future. That is, I am a Canadian who lives in England (after 7 years in Scotland). So the religion and politics and religious freedom issues, and the American idea of ‘values voters’ as well as the conservative Christian alignment in the USA with the Republican Party are not things that resound with me in the same way.

Theological conservatives I know of from Canada vote for the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party (which is farther left than the centre-left Liberals), and sometimes Green. I have an ‘evangelical’ English friend who is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. I know Free Church Scots (‘Wee Frees’) who vote for the Scottish National Party. I know one Canadian Christian who has voted for the Greens, Liberals, and Conservatives. All things being equal, she’d probably vote NDP one year. It depends. Our issues at the polling station are often different.

I think Christians need to consider things like how best to care for the poor, the marginalised, the outcast, and which political party will be more likely to produce a situation that will make care for said people a reality.

However, some of the issues Dreher points out are likely to start making headway into Canada and the UK because of the corrosive influence of the Internet. Thus, we need to ensure that religion is allowed to have a public face and voice in national affairs; this is actually a concern in Canada, where the Governor General seems to think that theistic belief and rational science are enemies. Other secularists are out there, not always from Quebec, sometimes journalists. However, given that the new federal head of the NDP is a turban-wearing Sikh, we are not the USA yet.

Nonetheless, we need to protect freedom of religion, and here is where Christians can try to leverage pluralism to our advantage. It’s true that pluralism hasn’t always panned out like everyone said it would at the turn of the millennium, but it’s still worth fighting alongside Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, et al., for each other’s right to be weird. Because that’s what Christianity is in Europe and the white Anglophone world — weird.

Dreher’s other recommendation, besides fighting for religious freedom as a main issue, is to be more local. This is an interesting idea. Indeed, it is at the local level where a lot of the down-to-earth practical realities of Christian conviction might come out. For example, Christian city councilors fighting for a housing program like the one in Medicine Hat whereby no one is homeless and everyone seems to win. Or to be a public Christian who simply works for the public good — better roads, better water, etc., etc.

He also calls for unofficial politics. That is, simply fighting for a better world. This is, of course, what the politically conservative always call for. Our duty is not to wait for the government to care for the poor. We are to care for the poor whether the feds will or not.

Who knows if this sort of politics will actually do anything besides keep Christians Christian? I feel like a number of us have already been trying it for years.

Finally, I see how this fits the subtitle of the book re ‘strategy’, but am uncertain how it matches up with St Benedict of Nursia.