What Is Christianity For?

by Matthew Sitman


That’s the question Rod Dreher asks in a searching reply to my thoughts earlier this week on Christianity and modern life. Some of Rod’s response is a gentle correction to my characterization of the “Benedict Option,” which, in his original essay, he summarizes as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” To take one example, I described Eagle River, Alaska, as a remote village, while it’s actually in suburban Anchorage – I regret getting that wrong. More importantly, Rod argues that I created something of a straw man, portraying those who pursue the Benedict Option as running for the hills while the world burns. My rhetoric did slip in that direction, and there are nuances to the ways the Benedict Option can be pursued I didn’t capture in my original post. Not all who favor it, and certainly not Rod, argue for “strict separatism” as a response to modern life.

The deeper issue Rod raises, however, goes beyond haggling over this or that detail of the Benedict Option and its various instantiations. Really, arguments about the Benedict Option amount to arguments over the place of, and prospects for, Christianity in the modern world – how Christians should try to live faithfully in our day and age. Here’s the gauntlet Rod throws down:

The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?

To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for? 

Those obviously are very big questions, but at least a few points can be made to clarify how I approach these matters.

One reason I reacted the way I did to Rod’s essay is because it’s premised on assumptions about modern life I don’t share. It’s not hard to misconstrue those living out the Benedict Option, taking them to perhaps be more separatist than they are, when descriptions of what they are trying to do are prefaced with references to Alistair MacIntyre and suggestions that we are “living through a Fall of Rome-like catastrophe” or worries about “signs of a possible Dark Age ahead.” I’ve never quite bought this line of thinking, never understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task. I reject both optimism and despair about modern life.

It’s worth mentioning here that I never argued for full assimilation into modern life, for Christians to be uncritical of what they see around them. I do experience conflict between my faith and the world as it is. But that tends to take the form of deep sadness at the loneliness so many feel in our society, our callous indifference to suffering, and the rampant materialism and worship of power and wealth characteristic of our times, to name just a few examples. And yet this incomplete list betrays the tension I noted above – were there not real problems with more traditional forms of community that, while largely free of the individualism and mobility that contribute to loneliness and neglect, sometimes were repressive and too averse to change or difference? Isn’t our materialism at least partly a function of an economic system that has pressing problems, but also lifted many out of a life of mere subsistence? I don’t mean for these examples to seem trite or too easy, but they get at why, even when I feel conflicted about modern life, it doesn’t take the form of viewing it as a catastrophe or a new Dark Ages.

I admit, too, that I differ with Rod on the question of homosexuality – I hope that even conservative churches come to bless gay relationships. But as the preceding shows, I don’t think that accounts in full for my attitude toward living as a Christian in the modern world. I see it as one more issue that’s of a piece with the complexity of the world around us. The increasing visibility of gay people is a fact that must be dealt with by the Church, and even many traditionalist Christians, like Rod, would be happy to concede that they are glad gay people face better prospects, in society at large, than they would have decades ago. Sexual modernity has made many people, even traditional Christians, more attentive to the ways in which gay people and women, to take the two most prominent examples, suffered in previous eras. Traditional Christians themselves, even when holding the doctrinal line, often understand these matters in ways quite different than they did just a few decades ago, showing more sympathy and humaneness than in the past. I would go so far as to say that Christians have been taught, through the changes brought by modern life, how to be more genuinely loving and decent in these areas than they have been in the past. That is not to dismiss the deep challenges modern life poses, for traditionalists like Rod, to a conservative sexual ethic – I understand, even if I do not fully share, his concerns. I just can’t view the coming of sexual modernity simply as the triumph of hedonism, if for no other reason than that it has led to grappling with real injustices.

The word that I used to describe my approach to these matters is hopeful, and Rod wonders at my use of that term, at least with regard to Christianity’s place in the modern world. I’ve gone on at length – perhaps too long – explaining how I think about modern life because I believe it goes some way toward suggesting an answer. Living hopefully, in light of this, amounts to patiently, humbly sifting through the complexity I described. It means trying to see the truths revealed by modern life as well as working to restrain it’s excesses and problems. And I’m not sure Christians can best do this by withdrawing from the mainstream, rather than critically engaging it.

When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate. To see the good in modern life is not to deny the need for real, costly love in the world, a love that reaches out to the poor and the lonely and the marginalized, a love that looks with compassion on all who suffer and struggle. What is Christianity for? To teach us how to do that, which sounds awfully pious, I know. And that’s certainly not all that can be said about the Christian faith. But when I look around me, I can’t help but see both the remarkable achievements of modern life and, despite those achievements, a world still fraught with injustice and pain. My hope is that we can sustain and extend the former while struggling to embody Christ’s love in the midst of the latter.

(Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, 1601, via Wikimedia Commons)