Which Option: Wilberforce or Benedict?

By Karl Anton Hickel - Image: Bridgeman Art Gallery; Portrait: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4215189

By Karl Anton Hickel - Image: Bridgeman Art Gallery; Portrait: Wilberforce House, Hull Museum, Hull City Council, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4215189

© 2016 Robert Osburn

Whittaker Chambers was a deeply-embedded spy with the American Communist Party during the 1930s.  After converting to Christianity, he left the Party, and, when he did, he wrote: “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism.”   Under the gloom cast by the Great Depression, and a vigorous Communist movement that seemed to be gaining ground every day (and infiltrating the US White House), becoming a Christian seemed like a mighty stupid thing to do.  In the current vernacular, Chambers chose “to come down on the wrong side of history.”

It can still feel like you are joining “the losing side” on an American university campus, at least if you are an academic who becomes a Christian (as have several faculty friends, both in their 50s and 60s, within the past decade).  After all, multiple research studies have shown that evangelical Protestants are the single most disliked group on campus.  And if you do convert, you have to learn how to muffle your voice and carefully choose your phrases.  Otherwise, you may say and think things that will earn a required re-education course for faculty who believe, for example, that gender is not malleable.

So, what ought an evangelical do when, by all appearances, we are on “the losing side” (at least in 2016)?  Two ideas are being floated.  Rod Dreher (author of the marvelous 2014 book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming) is advocating the Benedict Option, which owes its inspiration to philosophy professor Alasdair Macintyre: Faithful Christians must pull back and admit defeat in the short run, using this period of rejection to regroup in well-discipled communities where we cultivate greater love for God’s Kingdom.  In the end, we hope, by God’s grace, to re-engage the culture, sharper, truer, brimming with Christian courage and vitality.

The second cultural engagement strategy is the Wilberforce Option, of which Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner wrote in the November 2015 Christianity Today.  They counsel continued pro-active engagement focused on humanitarian agendas (e.g., reducing poverty through income generation, ending genital mutilation, etc) that will win respect from the otherwise hostile.  Like Dreher, they want love for God to be front-and-center, but counsel no retreat.  Some folks think that Gerson and Wehner are either dreamy-eyed optimists or secret Moral Majoritarians who think we can win friends and disarm foes by acting like William Wilberforce and the Clapham community of over 200 years ago.

Needless to say, with Wilberforce as our namesake, the Wilberforce Academy has a little stake in this discussion. Should we pull in our nets for the time being (a la Benedict), or should we ratchet up our efforts to cultivate people who shape creative, Christ-centered solutions to societal problems all over the world (a la Wilberforce)? 

At first glance, Gerson and Wehner’s vision seems more in line with ours. For one thing, our mission statement is all about making redemptive change agents. Secondly, outside of the West, evangelicals feel very much like they are on the winning side, as the church grows by leaps and bounds in places like Communist-controlled China.   Thirdly, Christian hope is such that you can’t turn your back on what is simply, utterly, and amazingly true: the Gospel.  For these reasons and more, we must keep preparing Christian cultural change agents.  No retreat.

But I also think the Dreher has a strong point in his Benedict Option: We ought to re-double our efforts to strengthen the intellectual and moral fiber of Christians, and that may mean modest retreat for purposes of better training in the faith and the cultivation of rich community.  The Colin MacLaurin Fellows Program that is led by Dr. Bryan Bademan and his team at MacLaurinCSF is one such effort that will pay great dividends down the road.  I fear that without careful formation (a la Benedict), evangelicals will continue flailing about in the arms of tragicomic politicians with scurrilous ethics, pompous egos, and promises to make America great again (if you are an American and have a political pulse, you know who I am writing about).  Right now, some evangelicals look so unbelievably that neither Wilberforce nor Benedict would dare claim us.

Like Southern Baptist seminarian Andrew Walker who works for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I am a “both-and” kind of a guy who thinks the way forward means taking both options seriously. Walker is right when he says we can be both Benedictine and Kuyperian (he hearkens back to another great Christian thinker, Abraham Kuyper, but he is writing about the Wilberforce Option).  He calls this the Transformationalist Benedictine Option, which will look like this when implemented:

Local churches are cultivating a Christianity with roots. Children are being catechized by parents. It will mean that children and teens are being taught the beauty of creation and the Lordship of Christ. There will be more discussion about culture proper, not just subverting culture with parroted forms of (bad) Christian culture. Churches will be full of members who are full of cultural refugees, but refugees who act as insurgents.

Insurgents, or as I would say, redemptive change agents who creatively, courageously, intelligently and skillfully apply a Christian worldview to challenges in society and the workplace.  Whether reviled or mistrusted, we evangelicals can do no less than to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).  We must cultivate God’s people and we must send them out on daring ventures of change.

Even if it seems like we are on the losing side, we keep on keeping on because:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).