Rod Dreher: A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian world

Editor's note: The following is adapted from the author's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation" Sentinel (March 14, 2017).

The future of Christianity in the post-Christian West hangs in the balance.  If the faith is going to survive within churches and communities, then Christians are going to have to become far more serious and intentional about education.

“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.

“The point of monasticism was not simply to retreat from a corrupt world to survive, though in various iterations that might have been a dimension of it,” he continues. “But at the heart of it 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.”

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.

Building schools that can educate properly will require churches, parents, peer groups, and fellow traveler Christians to work together. It will be costly, but it will be worth it.

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.

The kind of schooling that will build a more resilient, mature faith in young Christians is one that imbues them with a sense of order, meaning, and continuity. It’s one that integrates knowledge into a harmonious vision of the whole, one that unites all things that are, were, and ever will be in God.

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 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—as C. S. Lewis would say, to the things that are— 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. Saint Benedict, in his Rule, called the monastery “a school for the service of the Lord.” This was no mere figure of speech.

In the Benedictine tradition, learning is wholly integrated into the life of prayer and work. 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.

Educator Martin Cothran, a national leader in the classical Christian school movement, says that many Christians today don’t realize how the nature of education has changed over the past hundred years. The progressivism of the 1920s involved using schools to change the culture. The vocationalism of the 1940s and 1950s tried to use schools to conform children to the culture. But the traditional way of education, which reigned from the Greco-Roman period until the modern era, was about passing on a culture and one culture in particular: the culture of the West, and for most of that time, the Christian West.

“The classical education of the pagans that was transformed by the church attempted to inculcate in each new generation an idea of what a human being should be, through constantly having examples of ideal humanity set in front of it, and by studying the great deeds of great men,” Cothran told me. “This was a culture with a definite and distinctive goal: to pass on the wisdom of the past and to produce another generation with the same ideals and values—ideals and values based on its vision of what a human being was.

“That’s what education was for over two millennia,” he continued. “It is now something that retains the old label, but is not the same thing. It is not even the same kind of thing. It has been abandoned in the modern school— including many Christian ones. Even many Christian parents who do not accept the political correctness of today’s schools have completely bought into the utilitarian concept of education.”

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 in with students’ intellectual and spiritual lives, they’ll be at risk of falling away through no fault of their own. As John Mark Reynolds, who recently founded Houston’s Saint Constantine School, 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.

If it’s true that a simplistic, anti-intellectual Christian faith is a thin reed in the gale of academic life, it is also true that faith that’s primarily intellectual—that is, a matter of mastering information—is deceptively fragile. Equipping Christian students to thrive in a highly secularized, even hostile environment is not a matter of giving them a protective shell. The shell may crack under pressure or be discarded. Rather, it must be about building internal strength of mind and heart.