According to David Brooks of The New York Times, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is “already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” Although the book has just recently come out, the main concern it addresses has been around for quite a while: How should Christians live in relationship to their larger society? How should the Church be in but not of the world?
What follows is a review not of Dreher’s book but of the larger issue he and his respondents have engaged ... and a question for each side.
Loving our neighbours entails sharing with them the good news of the gospel. It also entails actively working for justice and the common good in our communities. If the larger society lives according to a worldview that lacks purpose, coherence, or hope, Christians should try to help it understand the vision of God’s Kingdom. If the larger society advances evil social structures or harmful public institutions, churches should work for positive transformation.
Let’s refer to this as the biblical calling to be salt. It presupposes a penetrating engagement in public conversations and practices. It entails active mission in the world for the world’s good.
The ability to love our neighbour, however, also requires that we have something genuinely different to offer. More specifically, it entails that we are something different—i.e., that the Church lives as a community that sees, prioritises, and relates differently. In other words, the Church doesn’t love the world by living according to the world’s terms. Rather, the Church must speak, think, and act in terms of the gospel. In short, the ability to love our neighbour requires that the body of Christ maintain a degree of distinctness from our larger culture.
This doesn’t mean that the Church should withdraw from public conversations and pursuits. The distinctness referred to here is not a geographical distinctness (i.e., moving out into the desert) but a moral distinctness. The Church should live and carry out its mission in the world, but it’s identity and character should not be of the world. (Here the term “world” names not so much a place in which people live as it does a way of living--i.e., contrary to God’s purposes.)
Let’s refer to this need to live as a distinct people as the biblical calling to be light. It presupposes an alternative community that can be displayed to the watching world. It entails serving the world by offering it a visible, countercultural model.
In today’s discussion, some Christians emphasise the calling to be salt, while others emphasise the calling to be light. When the latter promote the strategy of offering a countercultural model, the former tend to be wary of withdrawal. When the former promote the strategy of active missional engagement—for example, in state politics—the latter tend to be wary of accommodation.
For any Christian considering these two strands of calling, it would be wise to consider a question that each side might ask of the other.
Question #1 For those promoting engagement with the world, the question is: how can Christians expect to offer their neighbours a different way of thinking and loving if they fully immerse themselves in their neighbours' ways of speaking and acting?
This question recognizes that the ability to see and love differently are habits formed through regular participation in a particular language and set of practices. In other words, maintaining a distinct alternative requires being shaped by a different community. And, for Christians, the formative community that should receive our highest loyalty is neither the nation nor the larger culture, but the Church. Again, prioritising the Church’s distinct language, beliefs and practices does not necessarily reveal a disregard for the world, but can actually be a condition for serving it well.
But then we must ask the second question.
Question #2 For those promoting a distinct countercultural community, the question is: how will those who live according to a different worldview be able to see the Church’s distinct witness as intelligible and attractive?
This question recognizes that communities that don't attempt to speak in a language that the world will understand, engage in her activities and debates, or work within her institutions, will likely remain misunderstood at best, and perhaps even be viewed as laughable or offensive. This question also understands that the Church’s ability to serve neighours in need and share her faith with others depends on a certain amount of legal freedom and institutional space within society. If given the opportunity to work for such protections, Christians can do so not solely for their own benefit but also for those the Church serves outside her walls. In short, if the Church doesn’t risk her own purity in missional engagement, the gospel might remain good news only to those already in the body of Christ, which risks becoming turned in on itself.
So which is it: salt or light, model or mission, counter or encounter?
Scripture calls the Church to be both. Therefore, we need to remember what each side of this conversation seeks to safeguard. We follow Christ, first and foremost, by living faithfully as members of his body—exercising what some have called “faithful presence” in the world. However, we must always remember that that presence is meant to be outward-focused, pursued not only for the Church’s sake alone but also for the world. We need to avoid the temptation of abandoning our neighbours to deceptive worldviews and perverse social structures. But we also need to avoid losing what makes us distinct, which can only be maintained in a different kind of community.
St. Augustine captured this tension when writing that the Church doesn't annul or abolish the world's "customs, laws, and institutions ... rather, she maintains them and follows them … [and] makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills … so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.” Augustine’s posture is thus one of engaging larger society, but not without qualification. What’s required is discernment to know when, how, and what to engage, and how further engagement will influence the Church. At the point at which it will undermine her distinct witness, Augustine advocates safeguarding the latter.
May we be people of similar motivation and discernment in our age and culture.
Registration is Open for
Witherspoon Fellowship 2017!
We are pleased to announce that Year 10-12 students can now register for this year's Witherspoon Fellowship. Hosted by the Millis Institute on 23-24 June, this program offers participants a 2-day course on "leadership through the liberal arts." During this time, emerging leaders take part in Socratic discussions over great texts, debate and public speaking exercises, an Oxford-style formal hall dinner, and ballroom dancing lessons!
See here for information on how to register.
Join Dr Messmore for a
Discussion of His New Book
For readers in both Brisbane and Sydney, don't miss the following opportunities to hear about Dr Messmore's new book, In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage.
On April 11th, Archbishop Mark Coleridge will join Dr Messmore for a book discussion at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Brisbane. To learn more and register for the Brisbane event, see here.
On April 27th, Herald Sun columnist Mrs Miranda Devine will join Dr Messmore for a book discussion at the Polding Centre in Sydney. To learn more and register for the Sydney event, see here.