Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Lindisfarne Option: A Celtic Interpretation of the Benedict Option

Now that Archbishop Charles Chaput has proposed, in response to Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, what amounts to the Augustine Option, I'm reticent to offer another Option, since there's just way too many Options going around.

I'm for fewer Options, not more. That's why I don't like Subway, where they give you so many options that you basically have to construct your own sandwich. After I have answered about the fifth question about what I would like on my sandwich, I'm ready to ask them to pay me for it. It's also why I don't like going to the Cheesecake Factory: The opportunity cost is just too high.

So maybe we should call it the "Lindisfarne Interpretation" of the Benedict Option.  But for convenience sake, we'll use the shorter title.

The Island of Lindisfarne became the center of the Church's evangelical operations in Britain in the 6th century. And I think the nature of the island contributed to the effectiveness of what the Church did there.
Lindisfarne is a tidal island. This means that it is an island when the tide comes in, but connected to the mainland when the tide goes out. It is therefore isolated half of the time, and engaged the other half. 

I have never been completely clear on the exact nature of Dreher's idea. There seems to be an element of retreat in it, but, as he recently said in response to Chaput's remarks (and has said before), "the Benedict Option is not really about actual, physical withdrawal (though it could entail that), but about learning how to live as orthodox Christians, resiliently, in an anti-Christian culture."

Actually, I think that withdrawal is not a bad idea if done the right way. It certainly didn't seem a bad idea to Our Lord, who was wont to practice it on frequent occasions.

An army needs a rest. A painter or a writer sometimes just needs a walk in the woods. I write for a living, and when I get stuck, I'll go pick up my guitar and play for a couple of minutes. Ask my wife (who has to listen to it, but sees its tonic effect on me): It works.

I think the PR problem with the Benedict Option is that people don't know how to view it except as a proposal to retreat. And the people for whose ears it is intended don't want to retreat, since retreat means they have to unwillingly pick up their cultural things and move further back and they have been doing too much of that recently. And a plan to do the same thing willingly doesn't seem like much of a solution.

I know that my friend Rod is working on a more extensive explanation of his idea, but in the meantime I would propose the Lindisfarne Option as a way of clarifying this.

I think cutting ourselves off from the culture about half the time--and engaging it the other half--would be a great idea. And the reason is that we get so involved in our culture that we live our entire lives on the cultural mainland. 

I see it all the time among socially conservative people. They get so caught up in the news cycle (Which is what now? Hourly?) that they lose all historical perspective. This is largely due to the prevalence of technology. It certainly has many benefits, but it has the tendency to speed everything up. It traps us in the Now. And it's hard to see, from the perspective of the Now, that there was also a Then, and that, very soon, there will be another Then.

But in the technological Tyranny of the Now, everything looms large. Every good event is a final victory, every bad event a hopeless defeat. If we win, we celebrate, and if we lose, we panic.

I helped pass Kentucky's Marriage Amendment. I'm the one who walked in into the state senator's office, who then filed it. It passed and was ratified by voters. And when the Supreme Court struck it down (it was one of the cases decided in Obergefell), I wasn't too happy about it. Not only do I not like to lose, but I don't like to be cheated. And that's what the Court did to me and to the voters of a number of states who put these laws in place through the agreed upon rules that the Court changed ad hoc and ex post facto.

But I didn't panic. And the reason I didn't panic is because of my front porch. That's where I sit on summer afternoons, away from the television. Away from the Internet. Away from my smart phone.

Away from the World.

I sit in my oak rocking chair looking out on about 20 miles of corn fields and cattle pasture. After a day of enslavement at my computer, I sit there free, with a glass of bourbon, and I read. I read a lot of different things--novels, literary criticism, philosophy, poetry. But one of the things I read a lot of is history. And when I read history it makes realize that things change, sometimes, historically speaking, very quickly.

History tells me that the victories that seem so definitive now will last for a day, and the defeats that seem so crushing and permanent today will be forgotten tomorrow. It is the lesson of Shelley's "Ozymandias." Every ruin testifies to it.

History tells me that what seems to permanent today is always temporary, that the course of history can change in a historical instant--with a death, with a word, with a mistake, with a rallying cry, with the single act of cowardice or courage of one man.

In fact, what strikes me most is how a battle can be lost with the mere loss of one man, and can be won by the mere return of another. If you read history, you see this again, and again, and again. This is what the so-called conservatives who have bailed on the marriage issue don't see in their Now-induced panic: that with the mere application of a little courage, even one of them could change the course of history.

But, again, this requires courage, and courage is hard to come by in the Now, where our leaders have let themselves be trapped.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I do not trust any politician (not to mention anyone else) who does not take his leave of the Now and give himself time to read. Books. With actual pages. On their porch (Computers or Kindles don't count).

There are few porches on the mainland, where the houses have only basements in which to hide.

And yet the answer to the problems of our time isn't to abandon the mainland. It is to get away from it for a while, so we can understand it better. If we decide to leave it completely, if we retreat to an island, we give up on it. But if our lives are a tidal island--"an image," says Richard Foster, "of withdrawal and engagement, of the base and the field, of prayer and action"--it will increase, not diminish, our influence.

We will not have our base in the middle of the battlefield (if we can vary the metaphor), where it is vulnerable, but behind the lines, in a place from which we can see the whole battlefield and know better what we should do.

Perhaps a porch would serve the purpose.

1 comment:

Michael W. Towns, Sr. said...

Outstanding thoughts. As I have thought about the Benedict Option (and other options), I seem to think that we ought to stay engaged in the fight, regardless of how hopeless it looks. I think that is what God expects of us.