Retreat or Rout?

“‘Passive evangelism’ goes both ways, and you don’t look winsome to the abyss without it looking winsome back to you, or, more importantly, to your kids.”

The epigraph comes from a review of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017) by the intermittent but invariably impressive blogger known as Handel. I strongly encourage you to read the whole review here, but advise you to first brew a very large coffee, since it is very long. For those who are too harried or impatient for that, it may be enough to know that Handel says to Dreher what Aragorn said to Frodo after the calamity at the Prancing Pony.

“Are you frightened.”
“Yes.”
“Not near frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”

Dreyer’s book says that Christianity is in a bad way, that we must expect the environing culture to grow more rather than less hostile, and that Christians are in no way prepared for the existential test their faith is about to undergo. Handel’s says that, for all his gloomy foreboding, Dryer is still a Pollyanna whistling past the graveyard, and “not near frightened enough.”

In his effort to stiffen Frodo with salutary alarm, Aragorn said that the Black Riders were hunting him, Frodo; but the true object of the Nine was, of course, not Frodo but the Ring of Power that he carried. We may suppose that the Black Riders would have let Frodo return to his little house in Buckland if he would only surrendered the Ring. Of course the Shire would then have one day fallen under the dominion of the Dark Lord, but capitulation to the Nine is one way Frodo could have saved his skin.

It is much the same with later day Christians. We can prepare for persecution (which means to be harried and chased), or we can capitulate.  And capitulation under persecution will be swift for those who do not prepare. That is Handel’s basic point in the line I quote above.

According to Handle, “passive evangelism” prepares Christians for apostasy because, in these late days, the heathen world will swallow any Christians who tarries in it. The doctrine of passive evangelism denies this and encourages Christians to mix with their heathen neighbors, lead mostly normal lives, and stand apart from the mainstream only by a silent witness to Christian faith. The doctrine of passive evangelism assures Christians that their heathen neighbors will be attracted to Christ when they notice how normal, well-adjusted, and nice Christians are. What the doctrine ignores is that these heathen neighbors are also bearing silent witness, are also practicing an evangelism (and this not merely passive), and are, by the standards of our times, even more normal, well-adjusted, and nice.

If it comes down to a head-to-head contest of winsomeness, Handle says the heathens are going to win. The “abyss” of heathenism has always had its charms and these charms are nowadays made even more glamorous by artful and flattering portraits in the media, and by the high social status of the heathens. Humans in general are more imitative than rational, and their allegiance therefore naturally flows in the direction of prestige.  The inertia of large numbers should not blind us to the fact that, even in America, Christianity has about as much prestige as bass fishing or stock car racing.

This is not an unqualified disaster, since a default religion will always be disfigured by the worldly conformists that bloat its rolls, and by the worldly pageants that commandeer its sacred spaces. Christianity will be in many ways better when the heathens do not expect to use its churches as stage sets to dignify their worldly weddings, and when politicians do not feel a need to feign a semblance of Christian piety. This is something the Puritans understood, and ridding the Church of these accretions was a large part of what they meant by purification.

Every military commander knows that retreat is the most difficult maneuver. This is because falling back before the enemy feels like losing, even when it improves the strategic position of the army. This is why we find this among Napoleon’s maxims of war:

“Whatever may be the resources of an army, it will be found that a retreat will degenerate rapidly into a rout unless the general-in-chief shall succeed, by combining boldness with skill, and perseverance with firmness, in restoring the morale of his army.”

I know there are Christians who will object to military analogies, although I must note that this is not a scruple they share with the authors of the Old or New Testament. For my part, I expect a retreat but fear a route, and therefore anxiously await a display of boldness, skill, perseverance and firmness by our commanders.

39 thoughts on “Retreat or Rout?

  1. Pingback: Retreat or Route? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Retreat or Route? | Reaction Times

  3. @JMS – (I’m assuming that your last sentence was a joke.)

    I’ve thought about the Benedict Option a lot over the years, from a range of angles. I came across it in 1987, long before I was a Christian – when my interest was mainly in relation to ‘intellectual culture’ – which was its original focus in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

    In the current Christian iteration of the BO from RD; it has been a useful thing to extrapolate-from and clarify alternatives – in particular the weakness of bot the BO all strategic alternatives in face of the *current* situation. Because, of course, Christians are not up against ‘heathens’/ pagans or any other religion – the current situation is something essentially new in the history of the world.

    If the current situation for Christians (and Christian churches) is part of a long term *demonic* strategy, as seems pretty clear to me, then we can be confident that no possible strategy will ever result in Christians being left-alone: not least because it is hard to imagine most of the various world Christian church leaderships ceasing to work as demonic agents, with escalating civil wars inside all the churches of the West… there isn’t a viable ‘we’ to do any strategies.

    So, and again – perhaps for the first time in history, resistance will boil down to individuals. When you correctly say “Christians are in no way prepared for the existential test their faith is about to undergo.” the implication is that anyone, any individual person, who wants to survive this existantial test will need to take personal responsibility for doing so; regardless of the circumstances he may find himself in.

    And there is no doubt at all that each and every individual Christian in any possible circumstances *can* survive the coming existential test to their faith – since that is (must be) the kind of reality our loving God has made for us to inhabit.

    It may even be easier than in the past – since (with ‘things coming to a point’ as CS Lewis described it) it is becoming very simple indeed to discern Good from evil – so long as one is prepared to recognise that the great bulk of things are evil.

    • I suppose this test might be a providential means to force Christians to become more individualistic, but I have deep deep doubts about the individualistic capacity of most humans. My impression is that you are individualistic in a very high degree. You can snap your fingers at a good deal of ostracism and social shaming, and you are capable of reading and thinking your way into (and out of) philosophies, religions and worldview. I am more or less the same. But we are rarities, and it is not at all clear that Christianity would be better if every Christian was as obstinate and autonomous as you and I. And those timid conformists have souls, too.

      I expect every Christian will have to become more individualistic, but this doesn’t mean the churches should leave them to become more individualistic all on their own.

      • JSmith,
        Isn’t adopting individualism just doubling down on the defining characteristic of modernity? Modernity’s essence being the liberation of the individual from the constraints of tradition embodied in the church, locality, nation and even human nature itself. The regnant postmodern form of individualism we now contend against is the logical product of the Reformation, Enlightenment and Romanticism. For the past four centuries these ideologies developed largely unchallenged in the Anglo-American countries. Why do we now expect the “right” form of individualism to emerge if it hasn’t already?

        I understand the paradox for some who (through no fault of their own) are forced to adopt some kind of tradition because of the severe disruptions brought about by modernity. But ideally, traditionalists should emphasize a hierarchal communitarian ideal to the atomism of modernity.

      • I think Bruce was using individualism in a different sense than this. I’d say he was not describing the anomic individual of modernity, but a member of the invisible Church who is forced to operate in social isolation. Fidelity will be difficult under these circumstances, but we must find a way to endure under these circumstances if they do indeed come.

      • Well, I think he is pretty explicit in rooting himself in English Romanticism which in its essential outlook is strongly individualist and his comments about Catholicism at Bonald’s represent a strongly Protestant mindset. But it is not limited to Dr. Charlton, so many of the popular dissidents of modern liberalism like Jordan Peterson to Vox Day root their critiques (to varying degrees) in the individualism of the early modern period. Even Rod Dreher author of the Benedict Option represents the individualist mindset in his notorious church-shopping. Surely adopting modernity’s fundamental anthropological supposition is not the solution to transcending modernity. The whole point of MacIntyre’s original Benedict thesis is that we can only practice the virtues in a social context.

  4. There has already been a route. Right now you have the Vichy church cooperating and at best a forming resistance church. The question for me is if there is enough vigor to resist and if there is enough shelter with allies to reform.

      • I think two of the best things about it are that, in its time, Vichy France considered itself real France, as did most Frenchmen. (The DeGaullists don’t like this, but it’s true). Furthermore, Vichy France’s capitulation did not, in fact, save them the heartache of war, instead making them a target for both sides.

      • As you know, I am sure, the project of Vichy was national regeneration (“national revolution”), and was attempted over a couple of years, but it relied on the Germans’ non interference, which, of course, was determined by their interests, not those of the French, and so was short lived.

  5. Thank you for your article. The Benedict Option has much power to the modern Christian imagination, and it is profitable for us all to discuss its full meaning.

    To my eyes, the Benedict Option is the response of an American Christianity that would like to continue living its incomplete gospel of libertarian morality. The nostalgic Christian believes that spiritual life in America was much simpler when non-Christians and Christians left each other alone. Therefore, there is no use arguing and fighting about “who is right”, really everything would be better by returning to that arrangement. If Christians are allowed to exist in their own hermetically sealed safe spaces, the good and righteous souls among the heathens will see that Christianity is best, and they will convert.

    It’s a pretty picture, but anti-Christian to its core. Both Christ and the Church calls us to bear witness not only as a passive example but through both sacrificial love and the preaching of the truth. As Christ says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Does Christ not call on us to do the same throughout the Gospel?

    But I see the true roots of “passive evangelism” as deeper than the American desire to be left alone. Christians have stopped fighting for the truth because many have stopped believing in the ultimate metaphysical truth of Christ. Modernism has dealt a mortal wound to Christian confidence, and Christians have largely retreated from the public sphere to lick their wounds and sulk in bitter fury against the atheist and postmodern professors who gloat and preen in the academy.

    To return to active evangelism, therefore, requires us to heal the wounds dealt to the faith by Modernism. We cannot cede the intellectual battlefield to atheists and give up hope of incorporating the real developments – as opposed to fevered hypotheses – of modern science into the traditional Christian worldview. Christianity demands that we not hide from a complete account of the truth as best as we can articulate it, and without a commitment to that truth, our faith withers away into impotence and heathens rush in to fill the societal void.

    • Christians have an explicit direction to shake the dust from their feet when they leave the house of a family that rejects the gospel. This signifies that they will not return to that house. In the case at hand, the relevance is that the word has now been heard in all the nations, the great commission has been completed, and the great age of evangelism and missions is over. I am not positive we have reached the end of that age, but we have good reasons to believe that age will end, and good reasons to believe that time is now. Behind the Benedict Option is the belief that we have entered on a new age in providential history, and this new age calls for new forms and new measures. To use a football metaphor, the other team now has the ball, and we must now learn to play defense. I know people say that the best defense is a good offense (they say the opposite as well), but playing offense when the other team has the ball is madness. I will be delighted to learn that you are right, and that redoubled effort is all that was needed, but I think there has been a sea change and we need to adapt ourselves to it.

      • I share Handel’s frustration with most of criticisms of the BO–talk of evangelism often serves as an excuse to avoid thinking about the hard choices we need to make for the Church to survive at all. Anyway, whether and how we try to make recruits is a separate question from whether or not we should be building Christianity-affirming social spaces. When one restricts attention to the latter question, the answer is obvious: we should if we can.

        My problem with the BO is that it’s not clear to me how it’s supposed to work in practice. For that matter, I’m not even sure what would be entailed by the “run for the hills” alternative (see the linked review). Suppose we stipulate as a thought experiment that a family or small number of families is willing to make real sacrifices. We hope it won’t come to that, but just to think through an “if worse comes to worst” fallback option. Suppose a Boston family fled Massachusetts, at great financial loss, when it became the first state to recognize gay marriage. A couple years later, that family would be feeling pretty foolish. Their sacrifice accomplished nothing, because the enemy can advance faster than we can flee. Dreher says that Christians may need to give up certain professions, but before somebody does that, it’s reasonable for them to ask what’s a safe job to flee into, at least for the next decade. Is there any job that we can be confident won’t be requiring a sodomy loyalty oath very soon? I used to think that the government-business establishment would have to leave some jobs alone. After all, it’s not feasible to have half the population barred from employment. But now I’m not sure that they think they need to allow a situation that is livable for us. They’ve seen how quickly the majority can yield to pressure. If it’s only one percent of the population that is recalcitrant and must have their livelihoods destroyed, the other 99% probably can live with that. If a minority is large enough, then the majority is forced to allow a situation, not necessarily that the minority likes, but that it finds bearable. I’m not sure serious Christians are a large enough minority anymore to warrant that consideration.

        You’re right to bring up the gospel’s given procedure for those who reject it. The speculation that the age of evangelization is coming to its completion is bold, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I sense something unserious about the Church’s feeble attempts at evangelization. They hardly seem aimed at intellectual conversion at all and often focus on those least likely to be receptive to our message, such as confirmed sodomites. The story of the lost sheep is taken as a reason to disregard any concern for making optimal use of very limited resources. Behind it all, I suspect, is a clergy that esteems others by the standards of men rather than God and would far rather consort with high status perverts than with deplorables.

      • I don’t know much about H., but a quick glance suggests that his reign might be described as the beginning of the end for Byzantium.

      • Bonald @ One model for survival would be Talmudic Judaism under the diaspora. That obviously worked as a survival strategy for that despised minority in a hostile culture, but it is also radically (and rabidly) anti-Christian. It would be very hard to shove a universalistic religion of love into the form of a particularistic religion of hatred. That last word may be too strong, but the survival of Judaism certainly depended on a very robust contempt for gentiles. I don’t think contempt is an option for us, but I do think Christians could create some much needed social distance if they represented the secular world as ludicrous. We should teach our children to laugh at secularism! And we should, as you say, direct almost all of our limited resources on our young core members.

      • Byzantium survived the end of his reign by another eight centuries,
        outlasting the Arab Caliph monarchies in Damascus and Baghdad.
        Though its death blow was struck by the Latin West (Fourth Crusade),
        it still managed to stagger on for another two and a half centuries.
        However, after Heraclius Sassanid Persia was a hollowed out shell;
        which succumbed to Islam in pretty short order. Byzantium did not.

      • Indeed, our goal is to become the Jews of the new era. Isolating ourselves on the one hand, infiltrating and critiquing the majority culture to death on the other. This is very difficult to do. One wonders whether anybody is capable of being “the Jews” other than the Jews.

      • ‘One wonders whether anybody is capable of being “the Jews” other than the Jews.’
        The Americans, building upon the long established English traditions,
        are making a mighty attempt to succeed to the position
        by damning everyone else who “isn’t them”.

      • I agree with Handel that Dreher often appears to skirt around some issues or to back away from some questions without having answered them definitively, but I am less disturbed by that than he is. I do think that Dreher is effective in raising the alarm and describing some of the courses the anti-Christian mob will pursue (or have pursued since the book’s appearance), and I’m not sure that his leaving the question open of whether one should “run for the hills” or remain in Babylon to provide witness is as blameworthy as Handel suggests. If committed Christians are made aware of what they face–and Dreher does much to raise that awareness–then they will decide on their own whether to run for the hills or remain. Where I really found myself disagreeing with Handel was his response to Dreher’s (and others’) comments on the importance of character in political leaders we choose to support. Handel describes it as a matter of brute survival, that supporting squeaky-clean leaders and adopting only highly principled means is meaningless if we don’t survive. But it occurs to me that, if we simply become a mirror image of what we claim oppose, survival is meaningless.

      • I think Christians need to listen when Handel tells them: the heathens are converting you (and yours) faster than you are converting them. With that said, I’m not at all sure if there are any hills into which we can run. The political question is difficult, but American Christians cannot begin to answer it until they shed some illusions about democracy.

  6. JSmith,
    I know there are Christians who will object to military analogies, although I must note that this is not a scruple they share with the authors of the Old or New Testament. For my part, I expect a retreat but fear a route, and therefore anxiously await a display of boldness, skill, perseverance and firmness by our commanders.

    Have you read some of Adrian Vermeule’s critique of the Benedict Option? He agrees with people like Dreher that we need to disentangle Christianity from the cause of (right) liberalism, but goes on to argue that Christians can’t abdicate politics altogether. Vermule, whose background is in the study of administrative law sees an opportunity in the unitary nature of the administrative state for Christians to promote the common good. To go with the military analogy, Christians should retreat from the bad ground of parroting fusionism and rather go on the offensive by outflanking the field as defined by respectable liberalism. I think there is some hope here as well. Who could have foreseen someone like Trump or the rise of the populist parties in Europe even five years ago? The ground can change we just have to stop conceding it before the battle begins.

    • I’m afraid haven’t read Vermeule. I wonder if Christians shouldn’t disentangle themselves from the cause of “the common good,” since this seems to mean cleaning up the messes in a world that doesn’t listen to a thing that we say. As you say, the ground can shift rather suddenly, but I think we must prepare to be a pilgrim people without a homeland. That means no more sentimentality.

      • ‘I wonder if Christians shouldn’t disentangle themselves from the cause of “the common good,” ‘
        Who gets to define ‘the common good’?
        There is the problem.

      • The common good is me making you into what I think is a better person. It’s win-win. It will make me happy and you a better person. Promise!

      • @ JMS: I appreciate your response is ironical, but let’s run with it…

        ‘…me making you into what I think is a better person…
        [making] me happy and you a better person.’

        Better than what? Better for whom?
        Is what you ‘think’ is a better person actually a better person?
        And why don’t I get to choose?

        The ‘common good’ morphs too easily into Common Purpose for my taste.

      • That’s my point. The “common good” is some special interest in disguise. This becomes increasingly so when a coherent society disintegrates into a population with very little in common. At that point the phrase common good is synonymous with what economists call public goods. The public good of sanitation is for the common good, but it is also a fairly emaciated version of it.

      • For the ‘common good’ to prevail, all must be radically equal.
        Such equality must be that of the lowest common denominator.
        Individuality and initiative must and will be suppressed.
        For that to occur, force will always be required.
        Of course, some animals will always be more equal than others.

      • The “common good” must not be allowed to be us promoting only those parts of Christian teaching with which the world agrees. “They won’t listen to us on abortion, so we’ll agitate on immigration and global warming instead.” Guess what, padre, they’re not listening to you on those things either. They’re just allowing you to agree with them. It would be better to say to public officials “Well, if you’ll only allow points of view that are okay with legalized abortion, then our Church has nothing to say to you about anything. We do not recognize the legitimacy of your consensus.”

      • ‘The “common good” must not be allowed to be us promoting
        only those parts of Christian teaching with which the world agrees.’
        Don’t worry. The “common good” is defined by the world – not by us.

    • ‘To go with the military analogy, Christians should retreat from the bad ground…
      and rather go on the offensive by outflanking the field…’
      Also known as ‘The Heraclius Option’.

      • If you are looking for another crusade to rob the Orthodox again,
        I’m sure the State Department would be happy to send you to Kiev.

      • It seems you’ve confused Urban II and Enrico Dandalus, or if you truly have a pope in mind, Innocent III. But as I’m sure you’ll recall Innocent III excommunicated all those responsible for the sack of Constantinople.

      • Urban II authorised Norman bandits like Bohemond and Tancred to go east in arms. The results were predictable.
        Yes, Innocent excommunicated the thieves, but he did not restore the stolen property. Indeed he sent out Latin clerics to replace the Orthodox ones.

  7. I don’t think your logic about the end of evangelism is correct. Who evangelizes the new souls in the nations which have had the Gospel preached to them for centuries? Who evangelizes those souls who are starved for truth for decades and never had the right teacher? Who evangelizes those souls who hearts have only recently softened to truth beuaty and goodness? The Great Commission was given by Our Lord, no one with less authority has a right to declare it completed.
    To my ears, talking about the end of evangelism is the pessimism and resignation of old age. I am not advocating repeated attempts to convert the hostile and those firnly within the camp of the enemy. But there are always new households to hear the message and always wavering souls that are ready to be led to Christ.

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