There's been a lot of talk lately about the Benedict Option. I want to be fair to it, so my first duty is to give a disclaimer: I don't like it. At the risk of doing it an injustice, we can say that the Benedict Option encourages the Christian community to look inward to our own nourishment, rather than to look outward toward evangelizing society. The Benedict Option encourages us to take up a new monasticism, whether literal or figurative, for the whole Christian people. Its original proponent is Rod Dreher and I am probably not doing him justice. My apologies.
I can't abide this approach because I do not see it in the Gospel. To me, it seems to be something of the attitude of the Jews after their return from the Babylonian Exile. They interpreted their exile as a punishment from God for mixing with their pagan neighbors. As a result, they became very fastidious about, above all else, not marrying foreigners. They kept to themselves after they returned to the Holy Land. They despised the Samaritans for having staying behind and intermarried with the heathen.
In the Gospel, I read of Jesus's journey among the Samaritans (John 4, Luke 9). I read Jesus warn his disciples that people would reject us (Matthew 10) and that prophets are not honored among their own people (Mark 6, Matthew 13). In spite of all this, I read Jesus give the great commission at the end of St. Matthew's gospel (Matthew 28). The question for us, though, is how to do those things in our own context. To answer this question, in contrast with Mr. Dreher's proposed option, I propose the option taken by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas was born to very powerful Italian family at a time when Europe was rife with vicious conflict and strange currents of thought. The foundations of society were being undermined. He did not hide from the world's troubles with a smug self-satisfaction. He worked and prayed and walked out into the world. He chaired the department of theology at the premier university in the world. He duked it out with people whose ideas rationalized much of what was going wrong.
Clarity of Thought
A lot of us have spent a lot of time learning apologetics. That's a good thing. We learn common objections to our holy religion and we learn good responses to those objections. There are problems though. This pattern can break down into rote memorization. It can also leave us flummoxed at new objections or at the objections to our responses. We can't script out a whole discussion in advance and expect it to go our way. It would be better to learn to think. This was St. Thomas's way and I propose it now to you, dear reader.
Learn to think. But I can think, we all respond. It’s those other idiots… Of course. Everybody thinks he or she can think. And of course we can. But we all have room for improvement. This is the path of philosophy and it was the path that St. Thomas and his cohorts used to address the theological confusion of their day. A good grounding in philosophy is important because they help us to know truth: reality as it is. Philosophy is also important because it helps us to see where we have gone wrong, where our neighbor is going wrong, and to discern the corrective. Theology feels more flashy, but theology is really just philosophy reflecting upon the deposit of faith. Apologetics isn't a bad discipline. It's an entryway to theology. It is Theology 101. But you will never go higher or deeper without learning to think.
I'll break down this pursuit into a few bullet points and encourage you to pursue them.
● Logic teaches us to reason in a way that, given certain premises, yields true or likely conclusions. It helps us understand why, Mary being the mother of Jesus, and Jesus being God, Mary must be the mother of God.
● Ontology (aka ‘metaphysics’, but not what they call ‘metaphysics’ in the bookstores) addresses questions of reality, what reality is, and what it means to exist and be. It helps us understand things like how God the Father can be a father without being a man.
● Epistemology addresses questions of what we can know and how we know it. It helps us understand how faith and reason can point to the same truth in different ways.
● (Philosophical) Theology addresses questions of what we can figure out about God without God revealing himself to us directly. It’s really important because it helps us answer questions about whether God exists and whether his will is relevant to human life.
● (Philosophical) Anthropology deals with questions of what it means to be a human and what is our true nature, the nature to which we ought to conform. It helps us address many of the questions about sex and relationships that our society wrangles with.
● Ethics addresses questions of how we ought to live with our neighbors. It helps us understand why acts are right or wrong without falling back on religious arguments that non-religious people won’t even hear out.
● Politics addresses questions of how we ought to live within and organize our community. It helps us understand why we should use our conscience in voting as much as in the confessional.
We need to work on understanding our opponents’ thoughts and ideas - even better than our opponents themselves do.
Charity to Adversaries
While we’re on the topic of opponents, let’s talk about how we understand other people. How do we understand those who argue, work, and fight to overthrow, stop, or crush everything we hold dear?
These people are not our enemies. I don’t even like the word "opponent."
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Our enemies are the unclean spirits that wage war against men’s souls. Nobody else. Everybody else is a brother or sister with whom we one day wish to be reconciled and even to be comrades in arms.
If “liberal” is a bad word to you, you’re doing it wrong. We should all want to see people liberated from external and internal oppression. We will never help “liberals” or “traddies” or whoever, nor will we ever be helped by them, if we make it our focus to oppose them.
St. Thomas Aquinas did not fight people. He fought ideas. He probably fought wicked spirits. And his chief weapons for fighting them were:
We need to empathize with people even as we critique their arguments. That will help us see what their deeper fears and concerns are, and help us speak and act in ways that address those as well.
One of St. Thomas’s “tricks” was to understand and put their arguments into clearer terms than they could themselves. They must have been chagrined to see him articulate their views better than they could. This is only charitable and just. We do not want to be misunderstood and have our words be twisted. We should not do that to others.
Part of thinking clearly is thinking precisely, carefully, and minutely: hair-splitting if you will. But think about it: if splitting an atom can destroy a city, what harm can be done by splitting a hair the wrong way. The difference between one theological phrasing and another, apparently very close to it, can be all the difference between night and day.
When we speak truth in love, we must remember to say and write things in the way most likely to make them heard. That means we must be clear. We should be careful to maintain a good relationship to help our listener hear. Sometimes we must refrain and say nothing at all. It is sometimes an act of hope to trust the Holy Spirit to send someone into our friend's life. Maybe our friend will trust and respect that someone more. Maybe our friend will listen to that someone more. None of us can do everything. It’s also often prudent to keep our powder dry and wait for a time when our shot will count.
Infiltrate the world
St. Thomas Aquinas was not a monk, but nor was he a worldling. Thomas was a member of an order of friars. He forswore all worldly ambition to help truth to show its splendor and to help souls see it. But he did not forswear the world.
We need to go out among the poorest of the poor and learn to respect and honor them so that we can share the Gospel with them. We need to go out among the richest of the rich and learn not to fear or worship them so that we can share the Gospel with them. We must learn foreign languages and clear thought. We must learn to be tactful, how to speak well, and when to be quiet.
We may not end up being great at any of these things, but we all have a role in sharing the Gospel. Whatever our role is, except for those few called to actual monasticism, it is not to live locked away from the world, associating only with “our own kind.” We are not mostly called to be church workers any more than we are most of us called to be monastics. But we are all called to share the Gospel in the concrete circumstances of our lives.
Ryan is a Maryland native educated in classical history, literature, philosophy, and theology. He works for Blackboard making educational software great again. In his free time, Ryan hikes, camps, travels, and plays with his drone and sometimes plays soccer badly. His two favorite places on earth are Lourdes and the Hofbrauhaus.
Photo: Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., speaking at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee.