What Fr. Summers is Reading

THE BENEDICT OPTION:

A STRATEGY FOR CHRISTIANS IN A POST-CHRISTIAN NATION

ROD DREHER

     First of all: I love this book!  I keep toying with the idea of a few of us coming together once a week to read and discuss this book in a casual, interactive way. 

     The author, Rod Dreher, is a devoutly practicing member of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  He is a senior editor of the American Conservative, a regular contributor to National Review, and has written three additional books, including How Dante Can Save Your Life.

     The political and cultural commentator David Brooks (who has a regular column in The New York Times and has written – among other books – Bobos in Paradise and The Road to Character) is quoted as writing of Dreher’s The Benedict Option that it is “the most discussed and important religious book of the decade.” 

     If I tried offering quotes from every chapter of The Benedict Option I greatly suspect I wouldn’t know where to stop and would end up typing here the whole book.  Since a new academic year has arrived and children young and old are returning to school, I have an opportunity to concentrate on one chapter in particular (Chapter 7): Education as Christian Formation.

     You don’t have to have children in school to find something interesting or provocative here.  Most may even strongly disagree with Dreher’s thought in this section of the book.  I do not necessarily think that this chapter faithfully captures the generous spirit clearly on display in the book, but then again, maybe it does.

     As you look this over, you may think that I have copied out Chapter 7 in its entirety.  I assure you that I have not.  There is much more in it.  Chapter 7 of The Benedict Option runs from page 144 through page 175 in the paperback edition.  Without further ado, and at the risk of overwhelming you with length, here is an extended sample from Rod Dreher’s “terrific book” (Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap, Archbishop of Philadelphia).

 

From CHAPTER 7: EDUCATION AS CHRISTIAN FORMATION

“Education has to be at the core of Christian survival – as it always was,” says Michael Hanby, a professor of religion and philosophy of science at Washington’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute.  “At the heart of monasticism [e.g. The Rule of St. Benedict] was a quest for God.  It was that quest that mandated the preservation of classical learning and the pagan tradition by the monks, because they loved what was true and what was beautiful wherever they found it.”

Today, across the Christian community, there is a growing movement called classical Christian education.  It is countercultural in both form and content and presents to students the Western tradition – both Greco-Roman and Christian – in all its depth.  Doing it right requires a level of effort and commitment that contemporary Americans are not accustomed to – but what alternative do we have?

If you want to know how critical education is to cultural and religious survival, ask the Jews.  Rabbi Mark Gottlieb says, “Jews committed to traditional life put schooling above almost anything.  There are families that will do just about anything short of bankrupting themselves to give their children an Orthodox Jewish education.”  Christians have not been nearly as alert to the importance of education, and it’s time to change that.

To that end, one of the most important pieces of the Benedict Option movement is the spread of classical Christian schools.  Rather than letting their children spend forty hours a week learning “facts” with a few hours of worldview education slapped on top, parents need to pull them from public schools and provide them with an education that is rightly ordered – that is, one based on the premise that there is a God-given, unified structure to reality and that it is discoverable.  They need to teach them Scripture and history.  And they should not stop after twelfth grade – a Christian plan for higher education is also needed.

Building schools that can educate properly will require churches, parents, peer groups, and fellow traveler Christians to work together.  It will be costly, but what choice is there?

Give Your Family a Rightly Ordered Education

For serious Christian parents, education cannot be simply a matter of building their child’s transcript to boost her chance of making it into the Ivy League.  If this is the model your family follows (perhaps with a sprinkle of God on top for seasoning you will be hard-pressed to form countercultural Christian adults capable of resisting the disorders of our time.

Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is.  In general, the mainstream model is geared toward equipping students to succeed in the workforce, to provide a pleasant, secure life for themselves and their future families, and ideally, to fulfill their personal goals – whatever those goals might be.  The standard Christian educational model today takes this model and adds religion classes and prayer services.

But from a traditional Christian perspective, the model is based on a flawed anthropology.  In traditional Christianity, the ultimate goal of the soul is to love and serve God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, to achieve unity with Him in eternity.  To prepare for eternal life, we must join ourselves to Christ and strive to live in harmony with the divine will.

To be fully human is to be fully conformed to that reality through cooperating with God’s freely given grace.  To be humanized is to grow – by contemplation and action, and through faith and reason – in the love of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  These are all reflections of the Triune God, in Whom we live and move and have our being.

To compartmentalize education, separating it from the life of the church, is to create a false distinction.  St. Benedict, in his Rule, called the monastery “a school for the service of the Lord.”  This was no figure of speech.  Benedict believed that discipleship was a matter of pedagogy, of training both the heart and the mind, so that we could grow beyond spiritual infancy.

In the Benedictine tradition countless monks undertook the painstaking work of copying by hand Holy Scripture, prayer books, patristic writings, and literature of the classical world.  These men of God laid the foundation for a new civilization, and they did it because they loved God.

Today our education system fills students’ heads with facts, with no higher aspiration than success in worldly endeavor.  Since the High Middle Ages, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has been slowly separated from the pursuit of virtue.  Today the break is clean.

To be sure, there is nothing wrong in principle with learning something useful or achieving excellence in science, the arts, literature, or any other field of the intellect.  But mastery of facts and their application is not the same thing as education, any more than an advanced degree in systematic theology makes one a saint.

The separation of learning from virtue creates a society that esteems people for their success in manipulating science, law, money, images, words, and so forth.  Whether or not their accomplishments are morally worthy is a secondary question, one that will seem naïve to many if it occurs to them at all.

If a Christian way of living isn’t integrated with students’ intellectual and spiritual lives, they’ll be at risk of falling away through no fault of their own.  As John Mark Reynolds puts it, Christian young people who have had a personal, life-changing encounter with Christ, and who know Christian apologetics but have not integrated them into their lives, are more vulnerable than they think.  They have to learn how to translate the conversion experience and intellectual knowledge of the faith into a Christian way of living – or their faith will remain fragile.

Teach the Children Scripture

Because Scripture is the living word of God, creating educational models for our children that integrate Biblical knowledge and meditation into their lives is key.  Unfortunately, at this point we’re letting our children down.

Whether the college is Catholic or Evangelical, the answer is the same: undergraduates are theologically illiterate.

“A lot of our students come here from some of the most highly regarded Catholic schools in this region,” said one professor.  “They don’t know anything about their faith and don’t see the problem.  They’ve had it drummed into their heads that Catholicism is anything they want it to be.”

None of this is a surprise to anyone familiar with the social science literature documenting the widespread ignorance among Americans of Christian basics.

Parents can find a good example in Benedict.  The Rule prescribes set daily times for monks to engage in lectio divina, the Benedictine method of reading Scripture.  The saint also commanded his monks to engage in other forms of reading and study to enrich their studying of the Bible.  During Lent, for example, the Rule directs each monk to receive a book from the monastery’s library and read it.  The Rule instructs monks to read not only Scripture but the works of the Church fathers and the lives of the saints, for these are “tools of virtue” for the one who wishes to build a house of faith with a firm foundation.

The Orthodox Jewish students study Scripture not with an academic’s distance but as the bread of life and the sinews that bind them together as a community.  Achieving this level of devotion in education sounds like an unrealistic goal for Christian schools and colleges, but shouldn’t we try?  If Rabbi Gottlieb is correct, the survival of authentically Christian culture requires this or something close to it.

Immerse the Young in the History of Western Civilization

Education not only has to reset our relationship to ultimate reality, it also must reestablish our connection to our history.  That is, education is key to the recovery of cultural memory.  The deeper our roots in the past, the more secure our anchor against the swift currents of liquid modernity*.[i]

Christianity emerged from the confluence of Hebrew religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman law.  The forms and content of Western civilization come from the same roots.

Classical Christian education proceeds from the conviction that God is still preparing souls for Christ through the art, literature, and philosophy of the past, both Greco-Roman and Christian.  We cannot understand the Christian faith as we live it today without understanding the history and culture of the West.  If future generations fail to learn to love our Western cultural heritage, we will lose it.

Consider the recent lament of Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen.  In an essay, Deneen said his students are nice, pleasant, decent young men and women, but they are also “know nothings” whose “brains are largely empty” of any meaningful knowledge.  “They are the culmination of Western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture,” he wrote.

These kids aren’t stupid.  Deneen, who taught at Princeton and Georgetown before arriving at Notre Dame, pointed out that none of these universities are easy to get into.  These students test well and know what they must do to make good grades and “build superb résumés” that propel them upward through the meritocracy.  “They are the cream of their generation,” he wrote, “the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.”

However intelligent and accomplished they may be, these young people don’t even know what they don’t know – and they don’t care.  Why should they?  As with their scant knowledge of the Christian faith, they are only doing what their parents, their schools, and their culture have taught them.

To be sure, this is not a new crisis.  The angry secular prophet Philip Rieff, surveying the wreckage of universities in the wake of the counterculture’s protests, unleashed a thundering jeremiad against the higher educational establishment back in the 1970’s.  In his 1973 book Fellow Teachers, Rieff, also a college professor, excoriated educators for acquiescing to trendy student demands for “relevance.”  In Rieff’s view, they surrendered their magisterial authority and abdicated their responsibility to pass to the next generation their civilizational inheritance.  “At the end of this tremendous cultural development, we moderns shall arrive at barbarism,” Rieff wrote.  “Barbarians are people without historical memory.  Barbarism is the real meaning of radical contemporaneity.  Released from all authoritative pasts, we progress towards barbarism, not away from it.”

I am a college-educated American.  In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil.  I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages.  Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare.

The fifteen hundred years of Christianity from the end of the New Testament to the Reformation were a blank page, and I knew only the barest facts about Luther’s revolution.  I was ignorant of Descartes and Newton.  My understanding of Western history began with the Enlightenment.  Everything that came before it was lost behind a misty curtain of forgetting.

Nobody did this on purpose.  Nobody tried to deprive me of my civilizational patrimony.  But nobody felt any obligation to present it to me and my generation in an orderly, coherent fashion.  Ideas have consequences – and so does their lack.  The best way to create a generation of aimless know-nothings who feel no sense of obligation beyond themselves is to deprive them of a past.

Pull Your Children Out of Public Schools

Because public education in America is neither rightly ordered, nor religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system.

Public schools by nature are on the front lines of the latest and worst trends in popular culture.

Some tell themselves that their children need to remain in public schools to be “salt and light” to other kids.[ii]  As popular culture continues its downward slide, however, this rationale begins to sound like a rationalization.  It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child.

Parents may try to counteract the effects of secular education with church[iii], Sunday school[iv], and youth group, but two or three hours of religious education weekly is unlikely to counteract the forty or more hours spent in school or school-related programming.  Nor is it a good bet that such limited measures can compensate for the anti-Christian hostility, both active and passive, faced by young believers growing up in a post-Christian world.  If we want our children to survive, we must act.

Don’t Kid Yourself About Christian Schools

Even in many Christian schools, Christianity is a veneer over a secular way of looking at the world.  It’s not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of secularism.  Too many parents use Christian schools as a way to shield kids from the more harmful defects of public schooling but have only a nominal interest in their receiving a Christian education[v].

The principal of one Christian high school told me that he and his faculty are constantly battling parents who find the serious moral and theological content of the curriculum too burdensome for their children.  “All they think about is getting their kids into a top university and launching them into a good career,” he said.  Another principal, this one at a pricey Christian academy in the Deep South, said, “Our parents think if they’ve paid their seventeen=thousand-dollar tuition bill, they’ve done all that’s expected of them about their child’s religious education”[vi].

In any case, if a Christian school is so immersed in the world that it perpetuates the poison of secular culture and cuts students off from historic faith, it will fail the children.  In those cases, even when students at Christian schools do learn the basic truths of their faith, the shallow understanding they gain doesn’t do them much good in the long run.  They remain what St. Paul called “infants in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1).  In fact, the trite theological education many received at Christian school will serve more as a vaccination against taking the faith seriously than as an incentive for it.  Pull your kids out.

Start Classical Christian Schools

Fortunately, there’s a good alternative to both public schools and mediocre Christian schools: classical Christian education.  It’s built by marrying the Greco-Roman ideal that the purpose of education is to cultivate virtue and wisdom, to the traditional Christian worldview.

The classical Christian school orders everything around the Logos, Jesus Christ, and the quest to know Him with one’s heart, soul, and mind.  Classical education accepts the Great Tradition’s fundamental understanding that all of reality is grounded in transcendental ideals – in fact, in the One in Whom we live and move and have our being.

Classical Christian education takes a Great Books approach to the curriculum.  It presents the canonical Western texts and works of art to students, using a medieval structure called Trivium, which corresponds to the mental capacities of young people at certain ages of development.

The classical approach presents the Western canon in a systematic fashion that’s deeply integrated into a Christian anthropology and a comprehensive view of reality.

A good classical Christian school not only teaches students the Bible and Western civilization but also integrates students into the life of the Church.

“In the past, schools have functioned fairly independent of the family and the church.  That was defensible when our culture was more Christian, but it’s not really true anymore,” says John Mark Reynolds, President of St. Constantine School in Houston.  Believing that the school must reinforce the life of the church if parishioners and students are to grow in their faith, the school works around the church schedule, making sure that students have time and space on the calendar for their spiritual lives.

No Classical Christian School?  Then Homeschool

Though accounting for only 3.4 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren, homeschooling is growing in popularity, having increased its numbers by 62 percent from 2003 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  But as any homeschooling parent will tell you, it is not for everybody.  It requires particular skills – organizational savvy, for example – as well as intelligence and an extraordinary capacity for patience.  Plus, you need to have a two-parent family and the ability to get by on a single income – factors that put homeschooling out of reach for many families. 

But it is possible for some, provided they are willing to live ascetically.  A Silicon Valley Catholic mom I’ll call Maggie added that she and her fellow homeschooling moms are surrendering careers, success, and given the local cost of living, significant material wealth for the sake of their children.

Maggie believes it’s worth it.  So do the other moms in her homeschooling circle, she says.

“We don’t want our children to think that their only purpose in life is to get accepted to Stanford and make their first million before the age of thirty.  We need to serve something – I believe, God – greater that ourselves, and schools of any stripe, at least here, do not teach you to do that.”

The Benedict Option and the University

The need for committed orthodox Christian peers does not end at [high school] graduation.  College is also a time of moral and spiritual challenge, and not all young believers make it through with their faith intact.  Christians must not only find ways to navigate the existing university system but also look for ways to reinvent the university.

Go Back to the Classics and Forward to the Future

Those who try holding on to pedagogical forms – public, private, parochial – that can no longer shape the hearts and minds of the next generations in an authentically Christian way risk damaging their kids by leaving them morally and spiritually vulnerable.

Classical Christian education is the new counterculture.  “A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it,” said G.K. Chesterton.

Building a new Christian education system will be costly and risky.  It is a scary thing to challenge the status quo, especially if you aren’t sure if anybody will stand with you.

 

[i] Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes liquid modernity as the present condition we find ourselves in: a modernity in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.  Bauman contrast this present state-of-affairs with a concept of solid modernity: a period of social change that was still fairly predictable and manageable.

[ii] A thinking that betrays an abysmally poor understanding of human nature.

[iii] Though church attendance is inarguably not a part of many Christian parents’ educational arsenal today.

[iv] Read – as in our case – Parish School of Religion (PSR) Programs.

[v] For example, when your pastor attended a particular Catholic high school from 1972-1976, fully 100% of the students there were Roman Catholic.  Today, in that same high school, nearly all of those attending are non-Catholic – sent for the education – not because of the religion but in spite of it.  For its part, my high school long ago unapologetically surrendered its Catholic character for the sake of appealing to the moneyed and the indifferent.

[vi] The Catholic Church teaches that parents are the primary and indispensable main teachers of their children in the practice of the Faith.