Your article on the “Benedict option” truly grasps one central question – “the” central question, I would say – of contemporary Christianity: how to live as Christians in a (now) non-Christian world.
This was also the problem of the Church of the first centuries: how to live as Christians in a (still) non-Christian world.
There is one factor that was very much present to the conscience of Christians back then, and instead today tends not to be recognized anymore, while it is decisive in the manner of confronting it: it is that of “krisis,” meaning the judgment that is capable of “bringing into crisis” the worldly culture, and of “chresis,” meaning the capacity to “use in the right way” that which this culture possesses but no longer knows how to use correctly.
The “Benedict option” overcomes the risk of becoming a self-ghettoization if – as I believe is in the author’s mind – it is armed with this strong “critical capacity,” which is the opposite of closure, and on the contrary is the true form of dialogue with the world that Christians, explicitly called be Christ to be the leaven, salt, and light of the world, can and must conduct.
Together with other scholars of the Church Fathers I have been working for a number of years on this theme of “krisis/chresis.”
Next autumn is supposed to see the publication, because of the interest we have taken in it, of the Italian translation of the fundamental work by Christian Gnilka, “Chresis. Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der Antiken Kultur,” Basel, 2012, to which we will also dedicate a conference in the spring of 2019, probably in Bologna.
Moreover, there has just come out, from the publishing house of the University of the Holy Cross, the proceedings of another conference we held in Bologna in 2016: A.M. Mazzanti-I. Vigorelli eds.), “Krisis e cambiamento in età tardoantica. Riflessi contemporanei”, Edusc, Rome, 2017.
In it is present a contribution of mine, which was in fact entitled: “‘Cottidie obsidemur.’ Living as Christians in a non-Christian world: the proposal of Tertullian.” I think that something will be found in it that is pertinent to the debate underway.
Thank you. With great cordiality and esteem,
Dear Professor Lugaresi,
It is I who thank you. And I offer to the readers of Settimo Cielo the following illuminating extract from the introductory part of your presentation.
LIVING AS CHRISTIANS IN A NON-CHRISTIAN WORLD. THE LESSON OF THE FIRST THREE CENTURIES
by Leonardo Lugaresi
Christianity was, at least for the first three centuries of its history, that which in sociological terms can be defined as a minority group, even though it was growing rapidly.
Still at the beginning of the 4th century, when Constantine decided to “open” to Christianity by taking it as the culture of reference for his political project, his was an audacious political wager, because he was betting everything on an entity that was certainly significant in sociocultural terms but was still firmly in the minority in the big picture of the Roman empire.
It therefore seems correct to approach the Christian history of the first centuries primarily with an interest in seeking to understand how a minority group handles the problem of its survival in a context that is culturally and socially foreign, if not hostile, and inevitably exercises on it a sort of intense and permanent osmotic pressure, that sense of “siege” to which Tertullian refers: “cottidie obsidemur” (Apologeticum 7,4).
We are accustomed to thinking that the conduct of minority groups under conditions similar to those of the first Christians normally tends to become polarized on one of these two opposing trajectories:
– either toward a growing assimilation of the cultural models prevalent in the environment to which it belongs;
– or, on the contrary, toward an attitude of increasing exclusion of the outside world, toward which the group enacts a sort of identitarian entrenchment.
One extreme manifestation of this second attitude, which could also be classified as a third option, is that which results in the attempt to exit completely from the sociocultural context in which one is inserted, realizing a certain form of secession: collective (with the resulting search for a new homeland, a “promised land”), or individual (through anacoresis, the “flight into the desert”).
So then, during the course of the first three centuries Christians did not do any of the things that we have just said:
1) they did not assimilate, because if a full and complete assimilation of Christianity into Hellenism had truly taken place, we today would not be here talking about it as a reality still existing and clearly distinct from the Greco-Roman cultural legacy;
2) they did not separate and close themselves off in a world apart, and did not take on the logic of the sect (at least when it comes to “mainstream” Christianity: there have been sectarian tendencies, but these have always taken, in fact, the way of new formations, which, significantly, have exercised their separatist criticism above all toward the “big Church” that has compromised with the world);
3) much less did they dream of, let alone plan, an exit, a secession, from the Roman world.
Of course, starting at the end of the 3rd century, with monasticism there would be in the ecclesial experience a form of estrangement from the “polis” and of choosing the “desert,” which would seem to present itself as this third option. This, however, concerns an élite group of individuals and is a critical self-distancing rather than an abandonment of the city. The monk indeed leaves the urban social context, but maintains with it a relationship that is very close and incisive, because he holds onto a relationship with other Christians who “remain in the world” and makes his anchoritic existence a parameter of judgment for all those who continue to live in the urban space.
There exists, however, a fourth modality of relationship that a minority group can have with the world that surrounds and “besieges” it, and it is that of entering with it into a strongly critical relationship and of exercising – including by virtue of its own capacity to maintain solidity and consistency of behaviors with respect to the judgments thus elaborated – a cultural influence on society, which in the long run can come to the point of bringing the general order into crisis.
The fundamental question that we should ask ourselves, therefore, is not: “How did the Christians conquer the Roman empire?” but rather: “How did they live as Christians in a completely non-Christian world,” that is, perceived by them as foreign and hostile to Christ?
Christianity was in effect able to realize, over the span of several centuries, a real change of cultural paradigms – world view, models of behavior, forms of expression – acquiring a position that was bit by bit less marginal in the public sphere and increasingly influential over it.
Christianity in the ancient world thus went – over the span of about three centuries – from the stigma of “exitiabilis superstitio,” of deadly superstition rejected by all, to the recognition of its full plausibility as the religious and cultural foundation of the empire refounded by Constantine, with no need for Christians to become in the meantime the majority or even a sizable minority of the population.
It is important to clarify that since “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world may be saved through him” (Jn 3:17), from the Christian point of view the form of this judgment is not neither condemnation nor indiscriminate openness, but precisely crisis.
In its positive value of distinction between true and false, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, useful and harmful, based on comparison with a criterion, crisis is in fact the judgment that dismantles closed systems, brings out their latent tensions and contradictions, transforms the internal relationships among the elements that compose them and brings into question the rules of their functioning: in a word, it puts them to the test and opens them up to change.
The possibility of “krisis” depends on the historical fact of the incarnation of the Son of God, who comes into the world, but as other than the world introduces an element of comparison, a criterion for observation, of which human wisdom would otherwise be deprived.
Help in illustrating this concept may come from a quote from the first of the Homilies on the Hexameron of Basil of Caesarea. In that discourse, the great Cappadocian father observes at a certain point that worldly wisdom, meaning the science of the Greeks, is able to measure all of the visible, but fascinated as it is by the circularity of cosmic movement is not able to conceive of it as having a beginning in time, and so considers that the world is eternal because it is “without beginning.” What it does not know is: “In the beginning God created.” Open to an exclusively spatial dimension and closed to the temporal one, the natural philosophy of the pagans is incapable of judging the events of the world because it cannot grasp their meaning: its exponents, in fact, are able to observe, describe, count, and measure the whole world, but they have not found a single means of coming to the point of thinking of God as the creator of the universe and the just judge, who assigns the just retribution for actions performed; nor of getting an idea about the end of the world in keeping with the doctrine of judgment.
In other words, what Basil means is that without beginning (and consequently without end), the “krisis” of the world is not possible, because the world, eternally equal to itself beyond its changing appearances, cannot be placed in comparison with anything other than itself, with something or Someone who comes before or comes after it, or who is below or above it.
The “theologia physica” of the pagan philosophers is therefore not capable of judging the world because it has no point of support outside of this for producing leverage. In the incarnation of the Son of God, Christians maintain instead that they have found the point of support that allows them to activate the critical operation.
It is with this awareness of the “critical force” of creation and incarnation that Tertullian, more than a century and a half before Basil, set out to judge the reality of the world that “besieges” Christianity.
Leonardo Lugaresi, a scholar of the Fathers of the Church and a professor in Bologna, as well as being an esteemed writer for “L’Osservatore Romano,” is already familiar to the readers of Settimo Cielo through his contributions to the debates over the new forms of polytheism in contemporary culture:
And on the power of the image in entertainment-centered modern culture:
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)