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Visions of Exile: Christian Communitarianism, Christian Secularism, and Faithful Presence

January 13th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Emily Wenneborg

How can Christians live faithfully in an ever-changing and increasingly pluralistic world? How can we maintain that faithfulness, both over the course of our own lives and from generation to generation? What sort of formation do we and our children need for the task of faithfulness, and what sort of Christian community makes possible formation for faithfulness?

One source of guidance for faithful living in the midst of a culture that does not recognize the one true God is the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon. Though the condition of American Christians in the twenty-first century is hardly a perfect parallel for that of the exiled Israelites, various thinkers have sought inspiration and direction for our day from the Biblical accounts of the Babylonian exile. Indeed, there is precedent for this Christian re-interpretation and application of the category of exile, as the apostle Peter and other New Testament writers address both Jewish and Gentile Christians as “exiles.”

However, contemporary writers do not all conceive of the condition of exile in the same way. In this essay, I examine three different “visions of exile” offered to American Christians today. Rod Dreher, D. G. Hart, and James Davison Hunter all see the exile in Babylon as highly relevant to the experience of Christians in late-modern, pluralistic America. Where they disagree is in the particular lessons they draw from the idea of exile.

Christian Communitarianism

In light of contemporary American society’s increasing hostility toward Christians and Christian values, journalist and Eastern Orthodox convert Rod Dreher calls faithful Christians to “embrace exile and the possibility of martyrdom.” He offers the Benedict Option as “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ [i.e., physically remaining in America but living as though it is no longer home] and form a vibrant counterculture.” And he tells stories of “faithful orthodox Christians . . . who know that if believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death.” The picture here is of retreat from a sinful, worldly society into communities that can faithfully preserve the church’s teachings and practices until a time when the world will once again welcome them. Dreher acknowledges that, “This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world….If the ancient Hebrews had been assimilated by the culture of Babylon, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church” (emphasis added). Therefore, he insists that the faithful response to the experience of exile is to withdraw from broader society into intentional communities of orthodox believers.

There is much that is praiseworthy in this communitarian stance toward the modern-day exile of the Church. Dreher’s emphasis on community provides a much-needed corrective to the individualism and voluntarism that is characteristic of so much of American Christianity and American society more generally. Most Americans, whether religious or not, view religious identity as something that one chooses freely, even if after it has been chosen it comes to dominate one’s life. In contrast, Dreher and other Christian communitarians understand individuals to be already members of a larger religious community by virtue of birth and upbringing (though conversions and deconversions are of course always possible), a reality that many Christian traditions display through the practice of infant baptism.

Moreover, BenOp communitarianism not only insists that community membership is pre-voluntary; it also recognizes the hard work required to build and maintain thick communal bonds in the context of late modernity. In fact, the difficulty of the task is the reason for the insistence on separating from the larger American society and its corruptions. Such separation can involve living in intentional communities (whether rural or urban), though it also includes less radical forms of separation, such as selective limitation of technology use and media consumption. Moreover, Dreher also encourages Christian parents to seek out non-public education, whether in like-minded private Christian schools or through homeschooling, and to participate in the revival of intentional education that is both Christian and classical (meaning, rooted in the “classics” of Western civilization). Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of Dreher’s Christian communitarianism is its emphasis on the call to discipleship and Christian education over the long haul, rather than narrowly focusing on evangelism or the quest for political power.

These strengths notwithstanding, the BenOp response to exile falls far short of the Biblical pattern of how to live as faithful exiles. The language of survival and the fear of cultural loss appear on almost every page of The Benedict Option. Many of Dreher’s specific recommendations are not necessarily wrong in themselves: focusing on educating children in the faith rather than gaining short-term gains in the “culture wars,” rediscovering the riches of historic Christian worship, thinking deliberately about the ways that we are shaped by how we use technology, and so on. The problem (as is so often the case in the Christian life) is not with actually doing any of these things, but with the motivation for doing them. Are we motivated more by fear of cultural loss and marginalization than by genuine wrestling with and love for the radical call to Christlikeness and faithfulness in all of life? In the case of The Benedict Option, the answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes.

Yet perhaps the biggest problem is not what Dreher says so much as what he leaves unsaid. Not only does he seem tone-deaf toward the workings of power and privilege (as others have observed), but even more concerningly, he under-emphasizes the Christian gospel itself, the world-turned-upside-down news that Jesus saves sinners. Though he is right that Christians in America have often been content with too great a similarity to the world, Dreher’s concern to preserve the Christian faith within a holy community prevents it from reaching those who need it most, those who are most in need of a savior because of their sinfulness. It is this very sinfulness of the world outside the Christian community that Dreher sees as the biggest threat to the survival of Christianity. He pays lip service to the importance of Christian hospitality and the sinfulness of all, believers and unbelievers alike, but his overall message reveals his failure to understand that, as Rosaria Butterfield has pointed out, “the sin that will undo me is my own, not my neighbor’s, no matter how big my neighbor’s sin may appear.”

In fact, Dreher’s vision of faithfulness in the midst of exile is internally inconsistent, as he calls Christians to both “embrace exile” and “come out of Babylon” – that is, the place of exile. Not only is it unclear how Dreher expects Christians to do both of these at once, but “coming out of Babylon” is precisely the opposite of the prophet Jeremiah’s instructions to the Jewish exiles, who are instructed to remain where God has sent them and look for His blessing there. We need a different vision of exile, one that more thoughtfully applies the Biblical understanding of exile to the experience of Christians in America today.

Christian Secularism

Presbyterian historian D. G. Hart shares many of Dreher’s concerns, particularly regarding the individualism of the American Church and its narrow focus on a single moment of conversion to the exclusion of discipleship across the whole course of life. And Hart too turns to the Israelite experience of exile to find a model for Christian faithfulness in our day. Yet Hart’s reading of that Biblical precedent differs significantly from Dreher’s. To develop his vision of faithful Christian living in the midst of exile, Hart draws on the life of Daniel, whom he refers to as “the assimilated and devout prophet.” In Hart’s telling, Daniel is much more than the survivor of the lion’s den; he is “a man who had assimilated the ways, culture, and customs of a nation whose religion was false from the perspective of the Jewish people.”

Aware of not only the parallels between the Israelite exile and the experience of Christians in contemporary America but also the irony of making that comparison given the continued privileges American Christians experience, Hart points out that “Daniel was in a situation of defeat — his faith disestablished, the empire’s religion dominant. Yet he submitted to the ways and ideas of his captors and even excelled at their foreign and pagan culture.” Hart acknowledges that Daniel drew the line at worshiping any god but his own, but argues that this created no conflict with his participation in Babylonian society. This is because Daniel had no need to discover an integrated identity; rather, he was willing to accept his “hyphenated life” as both a Babylonian elite and a Hebrew exile.

To Hart, the implications for Christians in America today are clear: “Because Christians are pilgrims and exiles in this world, and long for their spiritual home, a hyphenated existence is essential to Christian identity.” Hart does not urge Christians to withdraw into communities of holiness, but rather to reject the “quest for individual wholeness” and accept a divided life, part in the secular world, part in the sacred space of the church. He expects that most Christians will continue to spend large portions of their lives in secular society, only experiencing a different kind of community when they are at church.

The hyphenated life that Hart views as appropriate for Christians living as exiles in a secular society contrasts with the stance common to American evangelicalism, which “demands and looks for evidence of genuine religion in affairs not typically considered sacred or religious.” (Hart interprets this as a mark of pietism.) In consequence, American evangelicals refuse to compartmentalize their religion or segment their lives into religious and secular spheres. Hart finds this ironic given the flourishing of evangelicalism in the formally secular United States; in fact, he argues that evangelicals’ “pietistic” impulse to extend religion beyond the realm of strictly church activities has enabled evangelicalism to influence American society and culture in ways that would run afoul of the separation of church and state if they entailed official sanction from the institutional church.

Yet Hart believes this desire to bring religion into all of life effectively subverts the proper distinction between the church and the world, resulting in “a religion that on Sunday is comfortable with the church looking like the world (such as CCM [Contemporary Christian Music]) and throughout the rest of the week insists that the world look like the church (as in family values).” Hart, on the other hand, recognizes (rightly) a fundamental antithesis between the Church and the world. Following Peter’s first epistle, he refers to Christians as “strangers in this world.” In consequence, “The church that is faithful to her holy calling will look and act differently from the world.”

Like Dreher, Hart offers – in contrast to much of American evangelicalism – a vision of the church’s purpose and worship that does not make evangelism the ultimate or only goal. As he argues, “The Great Commission is not only about evangelism, nor is it mainly about evangelism. It is bigger….The goal and purpose of the church is to make disciples. Evangelism is only part of the commission Christ gave to his church.” He symbolizes the difference between evangelism and discipleship by contrasting the anxious bench and the catechism. The anxious bench refers to a technique developed by the early nineteenth century revivalist Charles Finney, whereby a particular pew at the front of a church would be designated “for those under conviction to sit and receive prayer.”

For Hart, the anxious bench symbolizes the quest for a single, cataclysmic moment of conversion based on individual choice. The catechism – the practice of training young people in questions and answers that summarize the basics of the faith – likewise symbolizes something much larger: “a more comprehensive and churchly system of Christian practice that revolved around sermons, teaching in the church, pastoral visitations, and, of course, catechesis.” In the latter system, Christian faithfulness is not reduced to a single choice but instead plays out over the entire course of life, as the community collectively and holistically forms its members — both old and young — though a process in which individual choice plays a limited, though not unimportant, role.

This contrast also manifests in differing conceptions of worship: the anxious bench embodies worship as “a means of evangelism that either generates new believers or sends older ones out either in search of other converts or performing good works of a reformist nature,” while the catechism sees “worship as a means of nurture that edifies the faithful weekly and throughout the various stages of human life, from birth, through to marriage, child rearing, and bread winning, to death.” Hart does not consider it wrong to hope that evangelistic efforts, conversions, and good works will result from participation in true Christian worship; but to see these as the only purposes of worship is to have a limited view of worship. Though coming from vastly different worshiping traditions, both Hart and Dreher emphasize the formative power of worship, especially worship that is traditional, liturgical, and sacramental. In fact, Hart’s Christian secularism improves upon Dreher’s BenOp by calling Christians to invest in lifelong discipleship and to recover the riches of Christian worship as worship while eschewing the BenOp’s more troublesome protectionist motivation.

However, while avoiding the protectionism of Christian communitarianism, Hart runs up against the distinct yet complementary danger of privatization, as he pairs his high view of the Church as Church with a deep distrust of any attempt to influence wider society. Appealing to the religious neutrality of the American political order, he claims that, “The reality of secular America, however, is that its citizens need to find values other than religious faith to achieve a common purpose.” Many Christian thinkers, such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Oliver O’Donovan, have criticized the tradition of political liberalism for requiring precisely this sort of privatization of religious citizens.

Whether pushed by a liberal such as John Rawls or a fellow Christian such as Hart, the result of privatization is always a diminishment of the scope and totality of the call to Christian faithfulness. In order to privatize their faith, Christians must compartmentalize their lives into “Christian” sectors governed by the authority of the Bible and the Church and “secular” sectors governed by the authority of the state, the secular academy, market economics, etc. To compartmentalize in this way is to deny the relevance of the teachings of Christianity for all areas of life, including politics, higher education, business, health care, and more.

The source of this trouble may stem from a false dichotomy between two forms of religion: one that seeks control of and through politics in a way that is illegitimate for a secular, religiously pluralistic society, and one that restricts itself to the Church’s institutional activities (such as worship and discipleship). Yet the Church can have a healthy, positive influence on society without either imposing itself on politics or neglecting its proper duties. This can happen through individual Christians being good neighbors, coworkers, and friends, through Christians in positions of leadership pursuing policies that promote the well-being of others, and through Christians coming together to build institutions that put into practice a distinctively Christian vision of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Hart acknowledges the existence of this counterargument (as he does for the other critiques I have raised in this section), but does not seem to feel its full weight. Discussing sociologist Christian Smith’s research on evangelicals, Hart accuses Smith of “attempt[ing] to skirt the apparent inconsistency of his findings [by] distinguish[ing] between personal and legal forms of evangelical influence.” Hart goes on to quote two respondents from Smith’s study who advocate personal influence and persuasion, but he never argues why this distinction is problematic, instead shifting the discussion to a critique of an entirely different book by a different writer. It may be the case that some evangelicals are disingenuous in claiming to pursue personal influence while really seeking (illegitimate) political control; but that does not mean that individual Christians’ desire to be a Christian influence on those around them has no place in a vision of Christian faithfulness.

Faithful Presence

As deep as the difference is between Dreher’s and Hart’s visions of exile, they are more similar to each other than might at first appear. Both seek an outlook and a set of practices that will sustain longterm Christian faithfulness. Both exhibit a laudable desire to focus on the formation of Christian character in both children and adults, particularly through worship. And both express disgust with the “culture wars” that will resonate with many. At the same time, both seek to avoid the challenges and tensions of life in the midst of a pluralistic society, either by withdrawing Christians themselves into intentional communities or by withdrawing countercultural Christian convictions into the limited sphere of the institutional church.

The similarity between Dreher’s Christian communitarianism and Hart’s Christian secularism can be seen more clearly through contrast with a third exilic vision. In advocating a stance of “faithful presence,” sociologist of religion James Davison Hunter draws on the advice that the Lord gave to the Hebrew exiles in Babylon through the prophet Jeremiah. In contrast to the false prophets who said that the time in exile would last only a few years, Jeremiah wrote that it would continue for at least several generations. Yet the length of the exilic period was not to be a cause for either nostalgia or insurrection.

According to Hunter, “For Jeremiah, exile did not mean that God had abandoned Israel. Rather, exile was the place where God was at work. . . . For this reason, his counsel was for them to settle in for the long term: ‘build,’ ‘plant,’ ‘marry,’ ‘have children,’ ‘take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they also may bear sons and daughters.” More than this, they must “seek the welfare” of their enemies, the Babylonians, for “As they pursued the shalom of Babylon, God would provide shalom for his people.” In other words, Hunter explains, “The people of Israel were being called to enter the culture in which they were placed as God’s people — reflecting in their daily practices their distinct identity as those chosen by God. He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good.” Hunter goes on to reference further passages from the New Testament letters of Peter and Paul, indicating that this command to live as exiles by seeking the good of those around them applies to Christian believers after the first coming of Christ, as well.

I want to emphasize the contrast between Hunter’s vision of faithful living in the midst of exile and the exilic visions of Dreher and Hart. In terms of the call to “faithful presence,” Dreher’s Benedict Option is not present, while Hart’s Christian secularism struggles to remain faithful. When Christians withdraw from a pluralistic culture either into holistic alternative communities or into the institutional church, they may become better able to form Christian character in themselves and their children, but in doing so they deny the relevance and potential benefit of Christianity’s doctrines and ways of life for those outside the Christian community.

Christian secularists must accept living some parts of their lives according to the values and practices of the Christian church and other parts according to the values and practices of the larger society, even if the latter contradict Christian convictions (which must inevitably be countercultural at certain points). On the other hand, Christian communitarians may succeed in avoiding compartmentalization of their own lives, but only at the cost of compartmentalizing society into those who are already part of the Christian community and those who have no contact with Christianity. If nothing else, this is a clear abdication of Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added).

It is true that Dreher does echo the language of the prophet Jeremiah in his conclusion: “We live liturgically, telling our sacred Story in worship and song. We fast and we feast. We marry and give our children in marriage, and though in exile, we work for the peace of the city. We welcome our newborns and bury our dead. We read the Bible, and we tell our children about the saints.” This passage and the vision of life it describes are beautiful indeed. Yet they are completely belied by the rest of Dreher’s message, which explicitly calls faithful Christians to “come out of Babylon” — the exact opposite of God’s message to the original Israelite exiles! Similarly, Hart is partly on the right track in his description of Daniel, who was in fact living out Jeremiah’s instructions. But if “the city” (i.e., the larger American society, the contemporary equivalent of Babylon in all of these analogies) must be governed by wholly secular norms, what grounds have Christians to seek its good, rather than simply leaving it to its own devices?

Overall, both Christian communitarianism and Christian secularism present a substantial challenge to the goal of Christian faithfulness in our pluralistic culture. They reject both the challenges and the opportunities of living with deep pluralism. Rather than trying to remake all of society according to a singular vision of Christianity, or to minimize the conflicts between Christianity and other worldviews and cultures, both responses to pluralism accepts that society in general will remain pluralistic, but insists that Christians should avoid interacting with that pluralism, either entirely (in the case of Dreher’s communitarianism) or in their distinct capacity as Christians (in the case of Hart’s secularism). Hunter’s faithful presence, unlike either Dreher’s Benedict Option or Hart’s Christian secularism, offers Christians a compelling vision of seeking the good of our neighbors in the midst of a pluralistic culture.