Those whose intellectual heritage lies in the Enlightenment find in the contemporary world the furthest reach of an inexorable progress against forces of primitive and reactionary religious belief. What is “religious liberty” to them but a sanction for oppression?…
Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, is not due to be released until March 14, but it has already been generating considerable attention. On February 17, for example, the Wall Street Journal’s weekend Review section had a feature on Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, Oklahoma—its example of Mr. Dreher’s point that small, traditional communities, deliberately cutting themselves off from the larger world, are the future of Christianity in an increasingly post-Christian world.
Wyoming Catholic College has frequently been associated with the Benedict Option, perhaps for good reason, perhaps not. We have several current students who came to us from the Clear Creek community, and at least one of our graduates has taken vows at the Abbey. We are a small College, in some ways distinctly counter-cultural; we are faithful to the Magisterium, traditional in our educational emphasis on the Great Books, and so deeply centered in the good of community that we prohibit cell phones on campus.
But the question is whether we have accepted the fundamental premise of Mr. Dreher’s Benedict Option, which he bases on St. Benedict’s withdrawal from the larger world after the fall of Rome at the beginning of the Dark Ages. Is it true that Christians today “must read the signs of the times, abandon hope for a political solution to our civilization’s problems, and turn their attention to creating resilient spiritual centers that can survive the coming storm”? Is that in fact what WCC is doing?
Certainly, we are creating a center of genuine spiritual, intellectual, and physical hardiness, but our work is not so much a defensive hoarding of resources as a gathering of powers. Our aim is intentional coherence, as one of our new Board members recently commented; most colleges and universities make no attempt at coherence. Our students experience the transformative effect of a real education—not indoctrination in current notions, not job-training, but active engagement with the central questions of being human and knowing God. Our integrated curriculum gives them the means, not to withdraw from the cultural fight, but to reconstitute community in the contemporary world.
But, as I have written before, we are engaged in the long game. Contemporary thought did not come about overnight, and it will not be changed in a generation. In fact, where we are now is the result of a major cultural change that first took on real strength in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, “which typically emphasized freedom of thought and action without reference to religious and other traditional authority, proposed a deistic understanding of the universe, [and] insisted on a rationalist and scientific approach to the understanding of human society,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.
Those whose intellectual heritage lies in the Enlightenment find in the contemporary world the furthest reach—gay marriage, transgender rights—of an inexorable progress against forces of primitive and reactionary religious belief. What is “religious liberty” to them but a sanction for oppression? Across a great abyss from their position, those of us who find our center precisely in religious belief, which is neither primitive nor reactionary but full of light and charity, find it hard to believe how much, with such arrogant forgetfulness of the past, the culture has darkened.
Are the “culture wars” over? Some would say so. But if the contemporary world were simply a lost cause, the education at WCC would have a diminished merit. Even if our whole civilization is teetering on the brink of a new Dark Ages (this time with smartphones), there must be those who know a better way, and we are doing our best to educate them. The point is not abandonment of the world but finding the lost and feeding the hungry. And when in our nation’s history have there been so many who are intellectually malnourished and spiritually astray?
One final note: In a recent book about the speed of change in today’s technological society, the authors write that students who go to college to major in the field that offers the most jobs when they enter are often the very ones who lose out. By the time they graduate, the market has been glutted, and the real opportunities are elsewhere. Better, they say, to pick something few are doing and to get in on it in its early stages. When it comes to the real needs of the world, isn’t that exactly where our students are?