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'The Benedict Option' and Christian Higher Education

Thought leaders at two CCCU institutions consider what Christian colleges and universities can learn from a controversial new book.

Few books have attracted more attention recently than Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York Times columnist David Brooks has called it “the most discussed and important religious book of the decade,” and as of this writing, it is in the top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.

Dreher, senior editor of the American Conservative, argues that contemporary American culture is deeply and irreversibly anti-Christian. While there have always been Christian groups that have been marginalized, Dreher argues, white Protestant Christian beliefs and values that used to shape mainstream culture in America are now largely excluded from the public square. Thus, he believes, Christians should turn away from political and cultural engagement and focus instead on strengthening their families, churches, and schools so that Christian civilization can survive the new “Dark Ages” that are upon us. Just as St. Benedict led Christians living amid the collapsing Roman empire to form disciplined, separate communities that reinforced a particular way of life, so Christians face a similar task today, Dreher says: “[F]orming Christians who live out Christianity according to the Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

The Benedict option would seem to pose a significant challenge to Christian colleges and universities in the U.S., many of which have mission statements that speak of preparing students to engage, influence, or transform culture. Indeed, preparing leaders to influence today’s culture is the raison d’être for many Christian universities.

Dreher’s thesis, therefore, raises important questions for Christian higher education. Is the primary task of Christian universities preparing students to go out and change the world, or to form separate resilient communities? If it’s the latter, how would our educational practices be different? Is a turn inward a good thing for Christian universities, or is this simply a return to the fundamentalist separatism of the previous century? How do we prepare students to be faithful Christians in a seemingly hostile culture?

To ponder these questions, we have reflections on the relevance of the Benedict option for Christian colleges and universities from two leaders on the front lines of Christian higher education. Matt Bonzo is professor of philosophy and director of the Institute for Christianity and Cultural Engagement at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Trisha Posey is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Scholars Program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

Practicing with Open Windows

Matt Bonzo

Now that Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has officially been released, the reviews and reactions have been coming in fast and furious. Dreher’s proposal is rooted in the understanding that the culture wars of North America are over and that orthodox Christianity has been discredited as a culturally significant alternative in our secularizing world. While this may not be a surprise for those of us in Christian higher education, it is still hard to hear and harder to process. With the increased number of religious colleges and the expanding influence that many of our institutions have in research and other areas of engagement, we hoped we had stemmed the tide of secularity. But such a hope seems to be unfounded. In spite of evangelical colleges’ turn toward the world and increased use of the term “worldview” in institutional mission statements over the last few decades, The Benedict Option claims there is little evidence of the transformation or renewal of the broader American culture through Christian institutions.

Of course, this is not a new claim. One of the reasons Dreher’s work is not quite so startling is James Davison Hunter’s analysis in his To Change the World seven years ago, in which he argued that Christianity’s influence upon recent American culture was minimal, as most major institutions of society were already thoroughly secular. In fact, Dreher’s work draws heavily on the previous work of several academics, including a vital reliance on Christian Smith’s research development of the phrase “moral therapeutic deism” to describe the predominant worldview of today’s adolescents. Additionally, foundational to Dreher’s work is Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument regarding the fragmentation of western morality, as told in After Virtue. MacIntyre’s argument leaves western culture with a stark choice: Either we follow Nietzsche into the darkness of emotivism, or we retrieve an Aristotelian ethic in the form of something like a Benedictine community. After Virtue suggests we have been heading down the path of cultural upheaval for a long time. We were destined to find ourselves in this time of moral crisis once the modern project failed to produce a sufficient morality. Modernity could never quite find an adequate foundation from which to describe the nature and end of being human. The result is that we have become so morally fractured that it is impossible to find a common framework from which to make and evaluate moral arguments. Humpty Dumpty is not going to be put back together anytime soon.

Dreher is not arguing that Christianity can’t win an argument about the future direction of American culture; he is convinced that there are neither rules of engagement left for such an argument nor a public square in which such an argument can be heard.

The description of the modern social changes offered by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age helps Dreher explain more fully the tension he senses regarding the status of orthodox Christianity in American culture. In modernity, Taylor explains, the world has become imaginable in ways that it had previously not been. We can now imagine a world without a god; a world without limits; a world with a morally autonomous self at the center. In living into this new world, we see the rise of individualism and the dismantling of old boundaries so that the emancipated self can remake the world.

Given this current state of affairs, Dreher is not arguing that Christianity can’t win an argument about the future direction of American culture; he is convinced that there are neither rules of engagement left for such an argument nor a public square in which such an argument can be heard. The depth of the current moral and cultural fragmentation leaves even those looking for something to hold us together cynical. Dreher sees neither of the major political parties in the United States offering a solution for cultural secularization and moral fragmentation. The Benedict Option is not trying to rally the troops for one last stand. It is too late to win the culture wars; no “killer” argument can break through the battle lines that surround us. In spite of any optimism that some may have as a result of the recent election, the direction of culture in general has not been altered. The Department of Education may no longer be pushing the same agenda regarding sex and gender that it had under the Obama administration, but the shifts in culture that produced such an agenda have not suddenly disappeared.

In order to conclude the culture wars are over, Dreher also depends on reports from the daily lives of those who reside on the frontlines where secular culture and faith collide. From examples of business owners losing their businesses because they maintain a traditional idea of marriage, to pornographic images being shared via cell phones on elementary school playgrounds, The Benedict Option records stories of how bad it may be out there.

These “how bad it is” stories seem to be the point at which several critics react against Dreher’s analysis. Dreher is viewed as an alarmist who is too negative and too limited in his descriptions of secular society. There is wide agreement that the cultural power that Christianity once held in the west has diminished and that the Christian faith itself is being challenged by these changes. The influence of orthodox Christianity has been pushed to the margins. By no means does this mean that individuals don’t still believe, but there is a range of positions regarding how much of a threat a secularizing culture is to the how and the what of orthodox Christianity.

For Dreher the threat is real and imminent. The Benedict Option argues that our secularizing culture poses enough of a danger that the time has come for a change in approach. We can longer be satisfied with participating in institutions whose policies and practices undermine the faith. The time has come for a much more intentional approach to Christian community. The spiritual formation of the followers of Christ must be at the heart of these communities. Without such an intentional formation, the next generations will not be prepared when the real darkness of secularism descends.

Being skeptical of the severity of the threat does not allow us to avoid the question of, “What do we do now?”

As someone who grew up in a small Baptist church in the 1970s, my childhood faith was shaped by “how bad it is” stories. As someone who has interest in environmental issues, I continue to hear “how bad it is” stories, such as those given by several speakers at a recent conference, where it was proclaimed we have 15 to 20 years before a complete environmental collapse. Today’s “how bad it is” stories are just as hard to process as those of my youth. Part of the skepticism regarding Dreher’s warning that orthodox Christianity in the U.S. is at risk may be that there is no easy way to navigate our way through “how bad it is” stories.

However, some “how bad it is” stories are right. Being skeptical of the severity of the threat does not allow us to avoid the question of, “What do we do now?” The Benedict Option forces us to recognize that we in the western world are left to deal with Christianity as it remains: the remains of Christianity. Are these remains the dried ashes of the church, consumed by a fragmented and secularizing age? Or are these remains the seeds of a withered stalk that holds life? At the core of Christianity is the belief that out of death comes life. The kingdom of God is likened to a seed. And though it is scattered upon various types of soil and among the weeds, in faith we know that the kingdom will continue to take root – just maybe not in our garden.

 As followers of Christ in any given age, we are called to continue to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. The Christian university exists to do this exact work and thus seems to be exactly the sort of Benedictine community that Dreher is imagining. In a recent article in Comment magazine, Covenant College President Derek Halverson noted that most of CCCU’s members are best described as liberal arts colleges instead of research universities, and liberal arts colleges find their historic precedent in medieval monasteries. It would appear that the monastic practices are already written deep in our identity as institutions – perhaps even coded into our DNA. Even as our existence is questioned in our pragmatic and cynical age, our identity demands that we continue the slow, seemingly inefficient formation of lives. How does one quantify the removing of rocks from the soil of a self utterly malleable to the whims of a consumeristic, globalizing corporate economy? Such “measurements” can only be taken over generations, not in a handful of years.

May our educational communities build strong enough walls to protect and encourage the practices of our faith, as well as form us as members who live in faith, hope, and love. But may our walls have windows and doors so that we offer the wisdom of living in faith, hope, and love to those watching.

The monasteries that were the forbearers of the Christian university produced not only insight into theology but also into the science, politics, and economics that served the world. Likewise, they also formed faithful followers of Christ. Given our current condition, Dreher emphasizes that Christian education must continue to form people like John Paul II and Vaclev Benda – people who learned how to live faithfully while in exile. Living for a good that reaches beyond the walls of monasteries is no endorsement of a secular agenda. Israel continued to tell its version of history and sing its songs in a foreign land. Given our cultural exile, the Christian university will need to help its members lament our losses, yearn for home, and live a hope that connects the two. Discerning points of contact and openings in a diverse cultural context into which wisdom can speak is itself a practice learned in community. Even advocates of The Benedict Option and its critics are subject to the disciplines of a community that speaks in love.

The reader no doubt remembers the story of Daniel. Raised in exile, Daniel was educated to serve the king and was doing quite well until the force of Babylonian law came down on him through the manipulations of a few co-workers. Daniel 6 records his response to the edict that all people must pray only to Darius: “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

Daniel is not praying to be seen (and praised for it). He is engaged in the practice of his faith behind the wall and in front of the window, and he suffers the consequences – but those consequences are used by God to glorify his name and spread the truth of his power.

May our educational communities build strong enough walls to protect and encourage the practices of our faith, as well as form us as members who live in faith, hope, and love. But may our walls have windows and doors so that we offer the wisdom of living in faith, hope, and love to those watching. Whether we end up in the lion’s den or in the king’s palace – or both – only God knows.

Matt Bonzo is professor of philosophy and director of the Institute for Christianity and Cultural Engagement at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

Is the 'Benedict Option' the Best One for Christian Universities?

Trisha Posey

I must admit I am conflicted about the Benedict option and its implications for Christian colleges and universities. When Dreher (quoting Alasdair McIntyre) talks about constructing “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained,” when he rages against the wholesale acceptance of moral therapeutic deism, and when he talks about the need “to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents,” I want to shout “Amen!” like the good Baptist I used to be. I’d like to believe that in my own life, I’ve lived consistently with my beliefs about these matters. As an administrator at a Christian institution of higher education, I also see the value of the Benedict option in forming my students. And yet I hesitate to see this as a complete model for my institution and my teaching, for both practical and philosophical reasons.

To understand why we’re even considering the Benedict option at this time, we need to look briefly at the recent history of Christian higher education. Coming out of the fundamentalist movement of the early to mid-20th century, Christian colleges and universities faced the challenge of reclaiming their heritage of Christian intellectualism. In the 1980s and 1990s, Christian scholars such as George Marsden and Mark Noll dared evangelical Christians to embrace the life of the mind and to seek a “seat at the table,” so to speak, in places of academic power. Their work was not simply focused on transforming academia, however; they also believed that leaders of the evangelical church had a high calling to woo back followers to right belief and practice through the transformation of their minds.

It’s useful for us to think of the ways in which Dreher’s vision of education in the historic tradition of Christianity and the development of shared liturgies in community might strengthen our institutions and our students for the work at hand.

At the same time that Christians in the academy were doing this work, the broader evangelical church was seeking cultural influence through politics. The Moral Majority of the 1980s and early 1990s sought to bargain their way to power through participation in – and domination of – the political process. While Christian academicians sought authority through the strength of their ideas, Christians in politics sought power through the strength of the ballot box. And given the relative numbers in each group – a few thousand in the academy compared to a few million in the broader church – the approach of the wider evangelical community was bound to dominate.

In the end, the church lost the “culture wars.” The reasons for this are complicated – too complicated to explore here – but when we look around, it’s patently obvious that Christianity has lost whatever influence it once had in American culture and society. In this new era, Christian educators have to find a new way, and Dreher’s Benedict option might help us forge a path forward. Dreher defines the Benedict option this way: “The Benedict Option is about how to rightly order the practices in our Christian lives, in light of tradition, for the sake of intellectual and moral formation in the way of Christ.” It’s useful for us to think of the ways in which Dreher’s vision of education in the historic tradition of Christianity and the development of shared liturgies in community might strengthen our institutions and our students for the work at hand.

If we were to refocus our energies from influencing culture to pursuing the Benedict option, then one of the central tasks of our Christian institutions would be to develop ourselves and our students in sound doctrine and Christian history. I am consistently dismayed by my students’ lack of knowledge in basic Christian doctrine. This, I would argue, means that we must maintain a robust theological education as a central component of our general education requirements.

I’d like us to consider, though, that an even broader appreciation for church history might be required for our new age. Instead of teaching our students only a triumphalist story of the Western church, for example, we need to expose them to the Eastern branch of the faith. We might teach our students about the life of Theodore Abu Qurra. He was a ninth-century Christian who offered an apologetic for Christianity as a minority member of the emerging Muslim empire in northern Mesopotamia. His story might help our students understand how to live faithfully and hopefully as members of a religious minority.

Teaching more church history is a fairly self-evident proposition to those of us who teach at Christian colleges and universities, but orthodoxy must be matched by orthopraxy. We must develop students who not only understand doctrine, but who also live out the truths of that doctrine in their ethical and intellectual lives. This means helping our students understand the value of solitude, Sabbath-keeping, charity, attentiveness, prayer, and community. These habits of being are completely counter to the messages our students are taught by the culture they’ve been steeped in their whole lives, which means that their education in spiritual practices must pervade every element of their experience on our campuses.

This is where things get difficult. There are both practical and ideological challenges to developing shared liturgies on our campuses. Practically speaking, crafting a common experience for our students that would mimic the communal worship of the monastery would require an enormous amount of coordination at our institutions, coupled with a deep commitment to a shared vision of moral formation. It would mean that every faculty and every staff member and every student would need to agree to this objective for the educational process. We have a great deal of work to do as institutions to develop curricula, pedagogies, and co-curricular programs that reinforce these liturgies.

At John Brown University, we have done our best in our honors program to create a strong curriculum that emphasizes spiritual formation among our students. But we have our honors students for only 21 out of the 124 hours they take at JBU, and at times our campus culture works at cross-purposes with us. For example, one of the central themes of our honors experience is the importance of Sabbath-keeping, but understanding this value is difficult when some study sessions are offered only on Sunday afternoons.

Moreover, parents of our students sometimes show more interest in having their children get good jobs and pursue the American dream than they do in the formation of their children’s character. Certainly they want their children to receive a “Christian education,” but the questions I receive from parents are almost always about the jobs their children will have and the salaries they will make. This focus can sometimes influence the majors that are offered and the general education courses that are required at our institutions.

In addition to these practical challenges of developing liturgies for the purpose of spiritual formation, there are ideological challenges as well. Dreher gives us the Benedict option as a member of the Orthodox Church, which values highly the shared worship experience. But such an option is a hard sell for evangelical Christians, who value things like choice, mobility, and independence; the Benedict option runs counter to these ideas. When our faculty and students actually experience the benefits of spiritual formation and true life in community, they are hooked. But for Protestant institutions, getting to that place and staying there can be a challenge, though it’s a challenge worth taking up.

The most obvious limit is that, unlike monasteries, whose members are committed for life, we have students for only a few years. This may not be a bad thing. One of the potential limits of the Benedict option is that in turning our focus inward, we may limit our students’ potential. The incarnational ethic we embrace, with Christ’s own suffering and rejection as an example, reminds us that we are called to live and suffer with those who suffer.

Instead of isolating our students in academic “monasteries,” we should develop students who can create communities in which human flourishing can take place. This requires challenging – and lamenting – the assumptions about materialism, tolerance, individualism, and the nature of the human body that are pervasive in our culture.

As a Christian professor, I’ve been strongly influenced by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s collection of essays, Educating for Shalom, written at the time when Christian leaders were preaching the gospel of cultural influence through political power. Rather than being taught to move up toward power, Wolterstorff argued that college-aged Christians needed to learn to go down toward need. In doing so, they could serve as active agents in the promotion of human flourishing.

In my opinion, this means that, in our pursuit of the Benedict option, one of the central liturgies on all of our campuses should be that of lament. In his book Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah calls the church to lament as he reminds us of God’s admonition to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to “seek the welfare of the city.” He argues that, in response to the rejection of the Christian ethos by the larger American culture, we should accept neither isolation nor capitulation. Instead, we, like the prophets of old, should cry out in lament – recognizing the death, decay, and destruction around us for what it is. And, as those who embrace the incarnation, we should step fully into it.

Instead of isolating our students in academic “monasteries,” we should develop students who can create communities in which human flourishing can take place. This requires challenging – and lamenting – the assumptions about materialism, tolerance, individualism, and the nature of the human body that are pervasive in our culture. What are the implications of this approach for our curriculum and pedagogy? It means that we have to introduce our students to the enduring questions of human existence through a strong liberal arts curriculum, as Dreher suggests. It also means that every class we teach – in science, math, art, literature, philosophy, business, theology – should respond to the normative assumptions of our culture and challenge them, if necessary. It means that we have to place before our students, again and again, the deep needs of those who suffer. In other words, our educational goal should ultimately lead to the development of students who are able to act as agents of shalom in a decaying world, and even become martyrs in the pursuit of that shalom.

So what does this look like in practice? In my first-year seminar class, “Faithful Leaders in Times of Crisis,” students learn about and practice spiritual disciplines while they learn about Christians who led during difficult times, including leaders like Galileo, John Woolman, Sophie Scholl, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For each leader, we look at a spiritual practice in which they engaged and identify the ways in which it shaped them for their difficult work. What’s interesting about almost all of these leaders is that they died as martyrs. Their understanding of the need to enter fully into the suffering of creation was central to their counter-cultural existence as persons of faith in the world. By the time we finish the class, students have encountered multiple men and women whose deeply rooted faith bent the arc of history more closely toward justice.

What should Christian education should be about? Not necessarily transforming culture, but developing Christians who live out the incarnate truth of self-abandonment, love for God and neighbor, appreciation for beauty, and movement toward the human telos of glorifying God and worshipping him forever. I think Dreher would agree with me on this. But I would go further than Dreher and argue that precisely because we worship an incarnate God, we must teach our students to walk from our campuses into the deep suffering of the world, especially if that suffering has been created by a corrupt culture that devalues humanity. Some institutions of higher education embrace that devaluation in their curriculum and pedagogies, but we can do better. Like the Benedictine monks who have given us such a strong example of faith during difficult times, we and our students can shine as a light in the darkness, both embracing and living out truth in the empire in which we find ourselves.

Trisha Posey is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Scholars Program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

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