A Progressive Vision of the Benedict Option: Cruciformity Over Culture

Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option is now out with lots of reviews and commentary appearing online.

As regular readers know I've made the argument on this blog that progressive Christians need their own version of the BenOp. In fact, progressive Christians already have a rich history with the BenOp, witness the Catholic Worker and the New Monastic movements.

That the BenOp is as important for progressive Christians as it is for conservatives, though for different goals and reasons, is highlighted in Ross Douthat's review of Dreher's book:
And [the BenOp is for] not only conservative churches. The basic model could be applied just as easily to non-Christian faiths, and it could be embraced by the progressive Christians who find Dreher’s vision — and Chaput’s, and Esolen’s, and Russell Moore’s — too dogmatic and rigid and anti-modern.

Being a bit of a dogmatist myself, I’m skeptical that a robust institutional Christianity can be built on the premises of contemporary liberal theology and the cultural shifts that it accommodates. But that’s all the more reason for liberal Christians to set out to prove the conservatives wrong, to show that monasteries and missionaries can come forth from progressive fields, to effectively out-Benedict Option the reactionaries and force us to concede that we misjudged them.

In doing so they wouldn’t be abandoning political engagement, but they would be laying a foundation for faith’s endurance when political activism fails. As fail it so often does, as both progressive and conservative Christians have learned at different times across the last few decades — and may soon learn again. 
That's exactly the point I've been making about progressive Christianity's need for a BenOp, how our imagination for resistance has been captured by statism.

But as Kaya Oakes points out in her review of Dreher's book, there will be big differences between conservative and progressive versions of the BenOp.

Specifically, Oakes highlights the point I've made, that a progressive BenOp will live into Jesus' practices of radical hospitality. This, I've argued, combats the temptations toward phariseeism in conservative calls for the BenOp, the same temptation that Jesus battled in his debates with the Pharisees concerning their rival visions of the BenOp in the gospels. To highlight this difference I've called the progressive vision of the BenOp the Franciscan Option, as the early Franciscans were an intentional monastic community who specialized in living among and caring for lepers.

Basically, a progressive BenOp will look the same way Jesus' BenOp looked to the Pharisees: A community that embraces the unclean, privileges empathy over piety, isn't overly pious, and is the friend of sinners.

Again, read my summary post highlighting why progressive Christians need a BenOp and how a progressive BenOp differs from the conservative version.

But for this post I'd like to simplify and distill the contrast.

The basic contrast between a progressive and conservative version of the BenOp is this: cruciformity over culture.

Whenever you hear Dreher and other conservative Christians talk about the BenOp the focus is on preserving and investing in Christian culture. The focus is on doctrine, orthodoxy, values, moral codes, spiritual practices, Christian institutions, and liturgy. The conservative vision of the BenOp is focused upon creating a group of Christians who are appropriately orthodox and pious.

By contrast, a progressive BenOp is focused upon cruciformity, people who are spiritually formed to exhibit the self-donating love of Jesus--for enemies, lepers and the sinners of the world.

As we all know, orthodoxy does not produce cruciformity.

Neither does piety.

Neither does liturgy.

A progressive Christian BenOp isn't interested in preserving Christendom or medieval monasticism. A progressive Christian BenOp is interested in forming Christ-followers who care for the least of these, a people who locally practice the works of mercy.

From a progressive Christian perspective, then, preserving Christian culture, in and of itself, is pointless. Worse, it's Pharisaical. Jesus wasn't all that interested in orthodoxy, piety or liturgy. The Pharisees were, but Jesus wasn't.

So why do progressives need the BenOp?

Progressives need the BenOp because you don't fall out of bed loving the way Jesus loved. Cruciformity requires practice, discipline, intentionality and communal accountability.

More, to cut off a conservative objection, cruciformity also requires holiness, as holiness, in the progressive imagination, makes us increasingly other-oriented and available to each other. (My deeper exploration of the connection between holiness and love is in Chapter 12 of Reviving Old Scratch). For progressive Christians holiness is kenosis.

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because social justice, while vital and important, isn't the same as cruciformity. Progressive Christians need a BenOp because being a Democrat isn't the same as cruciformity. (Similar to how, for conservative Christians, piety, liturgy and orthodoxy aren't the same as cruciformity.)

Progressive Christians need a BenOp because you can be right on all the political issues, but unless you're sharing life in a local leper colony, an abandoned outpost of empire, practicing the works of mercy, you're not living into the cruciform life of Jesus.

We need a BenOp because a worshiping community caring on the edges of empire is vital in forming cruciformity. And here I agree with the the work of James Smith, but with a crucial difference. (For more on this point this is my progressive twist on Smith's "you are what you love".) Witness the hospitality of the Benedictines and Franciscans, along with the Catholic Workers, the New Monastics and Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. These expressions of radical hospitality flow out of shared community and a culture rooted in gratitude, promise-keeping, truth-telling, and hospitality.

And on that distinction, creating a Christian culture as a means toward forming cruicformity versus preserving a Christian culture as a pious and orthodox end in itself, is the contrast between a conservative and a progressive BenOp.

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