With society becoming less hostile towards gays and other minorities, and Christians everywhere losing the privileges that previously allowed them to flout the First Amendment with impunity, a few conservative Christians are beginning to think it’s time to abandon society and head for the hills.
That’s what St Benedict did. By the end of the fifth century the great Roman Empire had completely collapsed. The center of government had moved to Constantinople. The Vandals and Goths had sacked Rome, and the church and people had drifted into decadence and despair.
As a young man Benedict went to study in Rome, but soon gave up and retreated to Subiaco to live as a hermit.
Conservative writer Rod Dreher thinks it is time for American Christians to consider what he calls the “Benedict Option”. He contends that Christians have lost the culture wars, predicts that persecution of Christians is right around the corner, and recommends heading for the hills.
Because having your bigotry called out in public, and losing legal protection for your bullying of others, is totally like having actual armed, barbarian invaders sack your capital city and carve up your entire nation into feudal fiefdoms.
Of course, I kind of like the idea of Christians going into full retreat, not that I think many are going to take Dreher up on his historically-ignorant proposal. Contrary to the parallels Dreher thinks he is drawing, the end of the fifth century was a time when Christianity was dominant in the Roman Empire, and rapidly growing even among the barbarian invaders. Persecution of Christians was long over; persecution by Christians was just warming up.
The corrupt society Benedict was withdrawing from was the one modern conservative Christians say they want to create here—a marriage of church and state, giving the church free rein to use government for its own purposes (and vice versa). It was so bad even the Christians ran away from it, and in fact never, in going on 2,000 years of trying, has there been a union of church and state that has not ended badly. Dreher is right that Roman civilization was bad and getting worse, but it wasn’t because Christian influence in society was waning. Quite the contrary.
Of course, Dreher has his own theories about what’s going wrong in America, and it’s all the fault of those pesky liberals and their modern ideas about not persecuting people who are doing no harm.
In the face of increasing secularization, Islamic extremism, urban violence and economic uncertainty, many Christians are feeling nervous and threatened. Furthermore, they not only feel that they are on divergent paths with the culture, but they increasingly feel that discussion is pointless because discussion is impossible.
It’s impossible, according to this line of thinking, because the powers within academia, the media, big business and government have been caught up by what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism.” At its most fundamental, relativism rejects the idea of objective truth, thereby making any real debate impossible. If there is no truth, there is nothing but an exchange of opinions.
By “objective truth,” of course, he does not mean science. He means Christian dogma being treated as infallible fact. He feels threatened by secularism (aka “living in the real world”), Islamic extremism (brought to you by theists who also want to unite church and state), urban violence (caused by racial and economic inequities that liberals are trying to fight, and conservatives are trying to deny or even protect) and economic uncertainties (caused by the ruthless, greedy “job creators” so admired by conservatives). And all of these woes, he blames on liberals being “relativists”.
What he fails to realize is that he has things completely backwards. Secularism means basing our world on the things we all have in common. The laws of gravity, of cause-and-effect, of logic and reason, are things that apply to everybody, regardless of religion. Embracing secularism is the first step towards understanding objective truth, because objectivity requires us to approach the evidence without letting our understanding be biased by preconceived dogmas. It’s because believers define “objective truth” in terms of religious dogma that they end up being the real relativists, interpreting everything relative to whatever beliefs seem right in their own eyes—just as Dreher is doing with his inept historical analogies.
The real threat Dreher is feeling is that the Internet is exposing more and more Christians to the real world outside their little bubble of faith, and thereby exposing the conflicts that arise whenever faith collides with reality. Dreher’s desire to retreat from the world, and to withdraw into an isolated, remote hermitage, is really an attempt to close his eyes, plug his ears, and shout “I can’t hear you!” to reality itself.