The ‘Not-Secular’ Option: A Miserable Offender Responds

Stepping Into the Fray

Over the past week, I read an article printed in this journal that I believed to be in need of some gentle correction. Before I had finished my own response, however, I noticed that another writer I admire had beat me to it, only to find myself more frustrated with this response than I had been with the original. I don’t make a habit as an editor of responding to the articles we publish simply because I disagree with them, but the subjects treated in Fr. French’s “The Cranmer Option,” and the response that recently appeared at the Laudable Practice blog are so near and dear to my own research interests that I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped.

The subjects in question get at the very nature of our predicament as Christians living in a secularized society, how the Church should understand itself in relation to the same, and what we ought to be doing in light of that understanding. Many books relating to these issues have been published in recent years, and Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been a particularly potent, popular treatment of ideas from predecessors like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others. Personally, while I find much to appreciate in all of the aforementioned authors, I have my criticisms, particularly regarding their seeming collective inability to see the Reformation in anything other than a “secularizing” light. What I don’t have much time for, however, is people speaking on behalf of orthodox Christianity, who don’t see any danger in our increasingly secular society, and are unwilling to take such accounts seriously. More on this later, first let me offer a brief defense of the Reformational-Catholic theology at the heart of anything that deserves to be called The Cranmer Option on behalf of “miserable offenders” everywhere.

In those narrative accounts of secularity that don’t celebrate secularization as simply humanity’s progress of shedding religious ‘untruths’ along the glorious path towards a disenchanted and godless reality (what Taylor calls “subtraction theories”), I mean those accounts which attempt to view secularity objectively or from a Christian perspective, the path from a seemingly robustly Christian past to a thoroughly secular age always seems to involve some amount of “reformation-blaming.” The Reformers, it is said, not only complicated the social picture by forcing people to choose between multiple options of religious belief (rather than one), but also asked normal people to engage in their Christian piety at a higher level. What makes this latter part particularly difficult is that the Reformation had leaned in the Augustinian direction with regard to man’s sinfulness, so it has been claimed that Reformational theology marks a departure from an emphasis on “transformation” (theosis, sanctification, etc…) in the Christian life, partly due to what Fr. French calls this “morose message” about man’s sinful condition. Not only do I regard this characterization of Reformational theology as wrong-headed, I think it ultimately fails to deliver on the theosis it aims at, precisely because it misses the importance of Cranmer’s serious treatment of sin.

“All of this has happened before…”

These sorts of claims about the seriousness with which Cranmer’s prayerbook treats sin are nothing new. C. S. Lewis addressed them head-on in his own time when he offered a defense of such supposedly “outdated” language in an essay called “Miserable Offenders.” In it, Lewis has this to say to those who would avoid or repeal Cranmer’s legacy of taking sin seriously:

Does that sound very gloomy? Does Christianity encourage morbid introspection? The alternative is much more morbid. Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one’s own. It is the reverse of morbid. It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and really to know one’s own sins is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of the tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.

Notice that Lewis doesn’t regard the call for Christians attending prayerbook services to “think about their own sins” as some kind of obstacle for spiritual growth, but quite the opposite. Such a “serious attempt” at repentance and to “really know one’s sins” is part of “a lightening and relieving process” he says. Don’t remove the repentance, don’t forget we are “miserable offenders,” for heaven’s sake. If we do forget, we only ignore rather than remove our deep need for God’s grace, and an essential part of what propels Christians (and Christian communities) to grow in holiness and righteousness.

“…and it will happen again.”

Until Anglicans are ready to adopt a robustly Reformational-Catholic self-understanding, we (and other Protestants) will continually fall prey to unreformed-Catholic narratives about secularity, and their bias against “reform” (Taylor), Augustinian anthropology (MacIntyre), and an emphasis on individual rather than universal salvation (Milbank). Anglicans must, as Cranmer did, dare to see our own tradition as fully “Catholic,” a true heir and recipient of the scriptures, creeds, traditions, and sacramental ministry of the Apostolic Church, not “in spite of” but rather “because of” the gains won by the Reformation. One of those gains being an ability to take sin seriously (and thus, grace, seriously) without sacrificing an emphasis on spiritual growth at the personal and communal level. This brings me to the other point I want to make about The Cranmer Option insofar as it is seen as a variant of The Benedict Option. Why do certain people object to Rod Dreher’s idea entirely? Is it because they don’t fully grasp the secular situation that the Church finds itself in? Or, could it be that some of them simply don’t take sin very seriously?

Taking the Secular Seriously

A young priest-friend once remarked online “I don’t agree with everything in the Benedict Option, but I’m highly suspicious of Christians who dismiss it.” This is generally how I feel about Christians who are dismissive of any kind of attempt to understand and articulate the secular. For everyone who has dismissed Dreher as “alarmist,” another has dismissed MacIntyre for the same reason. Somehow, John Milbank is an arch-conservative in his context, and Charles Taylor is too “theological.” This sort of critique is to be expected from those who have an interest in secular success, but from (orthodox) Christians it seems like friendly fire. I don’t want to make any assumptions about what motivates the rejection of The Benedict Option that appears in this article at Laudable Practice, but I do want to recommend a framework that might help resolve certain differences. A few years back, Aaron Renn wrote in his “Masculinist” newsletter about a recent book from author and megachurch pastor Timothy Keller:

As near as I can tell, the book flopped. Right now its Amazon ranking fluctuates in the 20,000s – not good. I searched around for reviews and such and didn’t see that it made much of a media splash. The Reason for God is actually still at 1,074 (bestsellers often have a long tail of success).

I’m not surprised to see this. I read the book myself. I rate it excellent in many ways. It’s basically applied Charles Taylor plus some other thinkers. Most people will never read Taylor, and this is a great way to engage with the concepts. I highly recommended it to every Christian with say a college degree or equivalent to help them armor up intellectually.

However, this is a neutral world book in a negative world. The pool of potential converts who are skeptical but open to the idea of faith is dwindling. Why even entertain the idea of something that, if you sign up for it, is going to incur a social stigma?

Aaron Renn writes that Keller had written a “neutral world book in a negative world,” but what on earth does that mean? Earlier in the same newsletter, Renn lays out an extremely helpful scheme for the different “worlds” (these seem similar to Taylor’s “social imaginaries”) that the Church (especially the American Church) has passed through in only a few recent decades:

  1. Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.
  2. Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had a dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.
  3. Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high-status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

I think Renn provides a useful assessment of the recent secularizing trends in Western societies, specifically in relation to Christianity. I also think this model of “three worlds” can help make sense of some of the disagreement between Fr. French’s proposed Cranmer Option and the critical response at Laudable Practice. In fact, I think Renn’s assessment leads to a critique of both positions because it assumes that the Church’s strategy for engaging culture (unlike the Church’s own self-identity and traditions) might have to adapt, according to how hostile that culture is to Christianity at the time.

Could it be that Anglicanism’s “Erastian streak” is simply the normal and appropriate posture of the Church of England while it had existed in a generally “Positive World”? Also, is there anything about the Cranmer (or Benedict) Option that is necessarily opposed to this?:

Anglicanism has traditionally sought to minister to polity and civic community, recognising how these are necessary for human flourishing, seeking to orient communal, civic, and political life towards the good, the true, and the just.

Why can’t we desire to “minister to polity and civic community” while also admitting what seems perfectly obvious to many of us, that’s not as easy to do in a “Negative World” where your father’s or grandfather’s simple belief in biblical teachings about marriage, love, and sin will make you unpopular with many of your neighbors? With Renn’s model of three worlds in mind, I think we can agree with one writer that certain non-conformists may have “ejected” themselves from the Cranmer Option as it stood at the time, while also agreeing that a “conventicle” nowadays might be the difference between ensuring your own children achieve basic biblical literacy, or not. Simply put, an Anglicanism that can rely on the broader culture to at least tolerate orthodox Christianity looks very different from one that faces outright opposition in the public square.

Again, this does feel a bit like stating the obvious, but sometimes that needs to be done. You don’t have to be a Dreher fan to agree the landscape is different, and at least entertain the thought that this might demand a different set of strategic priorities for the Church, not just for remaining faithful but for effectively evangelizing a secularized culture. Quite frankly, I think it’s possible that certain “BenOp” (‘CranOp’?…probably not) action might help transform a Negative World into a Positive World, but I’m also pretty sure the only way forward is through. We don’t have to denounce the Anglicanism of the past for having taken the necessary measure of its day, but we ought not to dismiss the possibility that a traditional Anglicanism, full-Cranmerian-BCP worship and living in all its glory, might require us to reorient to new demands in the mission field that lies outside our church doors.


Jesse Nigro

Jesse Nigro is Editor-in-Chief at The North American Anglican and lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife and children, where he teaches philosophy at a classical High School. He earned his BA in philosophy from Creighton University and MA in theology from Concordia University in Irvine. Jesse has been an editor and operator at The North American Anglican since 2012.

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