The Augustinian Call vs. the Benedict Option

In his Comment review of Rusty Reno’s book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, philosopher James K. A. Smith diagnoses the ailments of America:

If “progressivism now seeks freedom from human nature itself,” Reno points out, then we “need to understand that these developments have sprung from the American dream of freedom.” If Christian conservatives in the United States are worried about a coming reign of terror, they can’t restrict blame to the infamous 60s. Autonomism is the fruit of seeds planted in the Revolution. And to his credit, Reno sees within this dream an inherent risk. “Anti-Americanism,” Reno rightly points out, “is a kind of hyper- Americanism.” The multicultural ideals that lament the looming constraints of American values and interests are another form of the revolutionary overthrow of constraints that gave birth to America. This is why we eat our own.

Yet Reno doesn’t recognize how the Right has played out a similar libertarian trajectory. While the Left has amplified the liberationist project with respect to social mores and traditional morality, the Right has undertaken its own revolutionary demolishment of constraints on capitalism, industry, and the economic habits that shaped earlier expressions of market practices. It’s precisely when the Right effectively sacralized the free market that it also turned it into an idol and fetishized “freedom” in a different form.

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But Reno seems more interested in Christianity than the church, more concerned with Christian social thought than congregations. It’s telling that Reno’s proposal is to resurrect the idea of Christian society. Indeed, there is a kind of intellectualism about Reno’s project: the social renewal he imagines stems from the ideas and arguments that Christians can and ought to contribute to our public discourse—as if the resuscitation of solidarity and the common good would be the conclusion to a national argument. Thus Reno regularly calls for Christians to “speak up” for the necessity of “restoring our voices as Christian citizens.” While he should be commended for encouraging Christians to speak into public discourse from the specificity of their Christian convictions, the problems that Reno diagnoses will not be solved with ideas. North American society hasn’t been argued into its egoism; we haven’t embraced the cult of independence because we were convinced by Lockean apologetics. Our autonomism is caught more than it is taught. What we have here is not a logos problem but an ethos deficiency. And you can’t fix that with the right ideas or argument.

What we’re witnessing is the erosion of habitus, the cultural scaffolding that sustained healthy, meaningful, even prosperous lives in the past. It’s not just that society needs to be convinced by Christian ideas; it needs to be upheld and supported by the habits we used to learn in the church.

How, then, should the church respond to “the erosion of habitus“? In his Comment essay, “The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call?”, Smith considers two ancient options for the contemporary church: the former involves separation from the world, whereas the latter involves integration with the world—but not accommodation. Each option has its scriptural foundations.

For the Benedict Option, we could quote the apostle Paul, who urged Christians to avoid godlessness in the last days:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:1-15)

For the Augustinian Call, we could quote the prophet Jeremiah, who exhorted exiled Jews to serve the welfare of the city during their Babylonian captivity:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

In my estimation, Smith makes a persuasive defense of the Augustinian Call. Here is a key excerpt from his essay that should be read in its entirety:

In the treasure trove of Augustine’s letters, you’ll find a remarkable, ongoing correspondence with a man named Boniface, a Roman general and governor in North Africa. At one point in his career—embattled, bitter, despairing—Boniface is tempted to abandon his post, withdraw from public responsibility, and take up a kind of monastic life. Given that Augustine founded monastic communities and wrote his own Rule, Boniface probably expected his plan to receive an encouraging reply from the aging bishop in Hippo. Instead, Augustine counsels him to remain in his post as a matter of divine calling. While some are called to lives of chastity and perfect continence and cloistered devotion, Augustine notes, “Each person, as the apostle says, has his own gift from God, one this gift, another that (1 Cor. 7:7). Hence others fight invisible enemies by praying for you; you struggle against visible barbarians by fighting for them.” His counsel is rooted in an eschatological caution: “Because in this world it is necessary that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven suffer temptation among those who are in error and are wicked so that they may be exercised and put to the test like gold in a furnace,” Augustine says, “we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” Augustine’s admonition not to “live ahead of time” is his way of saying: Don’t fall for the temptation of a realized eschatology. We pray “thy kingdom come” among those who oppose it. Indeed, it’s a prayer we can tend to forget when we dwell “with only the saints and the righteous.”

When this temptation to withdraw haunted Boniface again and he again wanted to abandon public life and retreat to a monastery to devote himself to “holy leisure,” Augustine continued to counsel otherwise. “What held you back from doing this,” Augustine reminds him, “except that you considered, when we pointed it out, how much what you were doing was benefitting the churches of Christ? You were acting with this intention alone, namely, that they might lead a quiet and tranquil life, as the apostle says, in all piety and chastity (1 Tim. 2:2), defended from the attacks of the barbarians.” Augustine the pastor is mounting a theological case for the Roman general to man his station, do his job, be faithful as count and governor. Whatever disputes or frustrations Boniface might have with Rome, he still owes a debt: “If the Roman empire has given you good things,” Augustine says, “albeit earthly and transitory ones, because it is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot give save what it has in its control—if, then it has conferred good things upon you, do not repay evil with evil.” In these letters we hear something of Augustine’s hopes for Boniface and those like him: the hope for faithful agents of the coming kingdom who answer the call to public life and administer the common good in this saeculum of our waiting.

In a sense, Boniface could be our contemporary. He lives in a fractured political context—he’s literally fighting barbarians—in which paganism still holds sway, whatever the emperor might think. What does it look like to follow Christ in such a world?

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The Augustinian counsel of stability is an admonishment to stay in the mix of things, among those in error—to inhabit our callings in what Augustine called the permixtum of the saeculum, the mixed-up-ness of the time between cross and kingdom come.



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