There has been a lot of interest lately in the “Benedict Option.” That is, the idea of Rod Dreher (and others) that Christians in a hostile secular culture should give up the “culture wars” and outward attempts at evangelization and turn inward instead, tending to our own lives in intentional Christian communities, where in time, with purified lives, we can serve as an example to the secular world.
I haven’t yet read Dreher’s book, but from parts that have appeared online, I find myself disagreeing with it on a number of levels. I am all for purified Christian living and true intentional communities. But I think at the moment we are being called by the Church, in the person of the Holy Father, to the “Francis option,” meaning both Pope Francis and St. Francis, who both want us to “go to the peripheries,” to the least Christian and therefore most needy, to evangelize by our presence and example.
But while thinking about it, I realized I had already addressed this question eleven years ago, in January 2006, when I started my blog. I wrote an imaginary letter to my blog patron, St. Justin Martyr. It’s based on the style of another of my mentors, Pope John Paul I, and his letters to famous people. It struck me at the time and still does, that the age of Justin is perhaps the age of the Church most like our own, when Christians had grown in number, but had to face an almost overwhelming hostility from the culture around them. I called my post “a kind of mission statement for me and what I want to do. I hope others will want to adopt it too.” I still stand by it. In fact, I re-posted it a month ago on Facebook.
I didn’t call it this at the time, but for the feast day of my blog patron, here is the “Justin Option.” And do check out what Steven Greydanus wrote on this same subject today.
To: St. Justin Martyr
Dear St. Justin,
You don’t know me, but I have long been a fan of yours. It might sound strange to describe yourself as a fan of a saint, but that’s the word people would use in my culture — almost 2,000 years after your world of second-century Rome. I think you would understand why I chose it, and that’s the reason I admire you: because you were one of the first Christians who tried to build bridges between our faith and secular culture.
This is especially amazing since in your time, Christians were not only ridiculed for their faith, as they still are now, but put on trial, tortured and executed. This was the time in which you, a layman, defended the faith in public debate and in an open letter to the Roman emperor — and became a martyr. As someone who wants to reach out to our culture through media and film, I have a tremendous admiration for you.
Very little has been recorded about your life beyond what you yourself have told us in your writings. I do know that you were born around 100 A.D. in the town of Schechem in Samaria. Your grandparents were Roman colonists who had settled in the city when it had been renamed Flavia Neapolis after the Roman takeover of Palestine in 70 A.D. Your family worshiped the Roman gods. But your town also had other religious associations. Did you know as a child, as you played at the town well, that it was said to have been built by the Jewish patriarch Jacob? Perhaps you even heard that once a wandering Jewish teacher from Galilee had crossed the border and sat down to rest at that well, where he spoke to a Samaritan women about the living water that would satisfy her so that she need never thirst again (Jn. 4:14).
As a young man, you felt that thirst without knowing its cause. You tried to satisfy it through philosophical learning. Your parents could afford to send you to the best schools. But the teachers did not live up to your idealistic expectations. One dismissed questions about God as unimportant to philosophy; another was concerned only with his fees; another was only interested in whether you had taken the proper prerequisites for the course. You felt that none of your professors cared about true learning. (You probably won’t be surprised to learn that young people often feel the same about today’s educational system). You were coming to realize that true philosophy meant the study of God.
Finally in Ephesus you encountered the philosophy of Plato, who wrote about the wisdom of another wandering teacher named Socrates. You immediately decided that Plato had the true approach to God. Looking back with a smile on your youthful enthusiasm, you wrote: “In a short time I imagined myself a wise man. So great was my folly that I expected immediately to gaze upon God.”
You often meditated on Plato’s teachings alone by the seashore. One day, you encountered a venerable-looking old man there and began to discuss philosophy with him. The old man told you that Plato did not have the whole secret, and showed you how the Hebrew prophets had foretold the coming of Christ. This inspired you to study the Old Testament, and you soon learned all you needed to know to accept the faith you were unknowingly searching for. You never said anything more about that mysterious old man, but I have often wondered whether he was really human or instead perhaps an angel, or even Christ himself. I suppose you won’t tell even now!
You moved to Rome and rented a room above the public baths run by a man named Martinus. You wore the pallium, or philosopher’s cloak of coarsely woven wool, and began to gather pupils around you. Perhaps you went around the Roman forum, or marketplace, talking to people in all walks of life about truth and God, just as Socrates — and your Galilean master — had done. At that time, Christians were experiencing a period of peace under the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Christians had been savagely persecuted under Nero, and Trajan, in whose reign you were born, had outlawed the Christian religion. Trajan’s successors had made it a practice not to try people for being Christians unless they were actually denounced by someone, but Christians were still largely afraid to practice their faith openly.
Rome then was much like America today — a multiracial, multilingual culture, mad about faddish Eastern religions, but underneath rotting from moral decay. Christians in turn were suspicious of the immoral culture around them, and — as they often still do today — kept their faith secret so it wouldn’t be tainted. Not understanding this aloofness of Christians, the Roman historian Tacitus had condemned them for their “hatred of the human race.”
You felt that the only way this could be remedied was for Christians to stand up for their beliefs. In 150 A. D., you made the daring decision to write an open letter to the emperor, known as the First Defense of the Christian Faith (or the Apologia). You described the Christian concept of God, pointing out it was compatible with those of Plato and other philosophers, and in fact, the true fulfillment of those beliefs.
You even debated publicly with a well-known pagan philosopher, a Cynic named Crescens. Cynics were famous for rejecting all government, philosophical and religious systems and practicing extreme individualism — another thing familiar to us today. Crescens ridiculed Christian beliefs, but you were able to demonstrate that he knew nothing of the teaching he was mocking. Crescens grew angry and threatened your life.
In about 155 A.D., you wrote your second Defense to the Emperor and Senate, in which you continued to insist that Christians should not and could not be alienated from the culture around them, in words that have been remembered ever since: “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”
By the time Marcus Aurelius began his rule in 161, Christians were increasing in numbers, and popular feeling against them was growing. Rome had now had enough. No one knows exactly who denounced you — though my money would be on Crescens. In 165, you and some of you pupils were arrested at your school and brought before the Roman prefect, Rusticus. You were in your sixties then, but when threatened with death if you did not sacrifice to the gods and the genius of the Emperor, you boldly proclaimed Christ not only as the greatest teacher of truth, but the Savior. Do you remember how it ended?
“You are supposed to be a learned man,” the prosecutor sneered. “Do you really think you will rise up to heaven and receive a reward?”
“I don’t think it,” you replied, “I know it!”
Rusticus quickly pronounced you and your companions guilty, and you were taken outside Rome and beheaded.
Not every Christian today, of course, can be an intellectual or a philosopher as you were. But those of us Christians today who want to reach out to modern secular culture could learn a great deal from you.
Learn about the culture around you. Some Christians feel that secular culture is either evil or has nothing to offer them. This really hurts our efforts to evangelize. We rightly complain that our opponents are ignorant of the Christianity that they attack, but how much do we know about postmodernism or other beliefs people hold today? It is up to us who live in this culture to know what it values, as you knew the values and interests of yours. You cited not only Plato, but Homer, Epicurus, and other philosophers, poets, and playwrights of your time. Beginning the conversation with the things — some of them true things — people already cared about enabled you to approach them with more of the truth.
Approach the culture in a positive way. Too often we Christians are quick to condemn and slow to praise. It doesn’t hurt to recognize that people other than Christians want to feed the poor or work for justice. And we are too smug about our hold on spiritual truth. You realized that not everyone in your time was a Crescens, who was unable “to recognize any good but indifference.” In the same way, more and more people today have lost faith in materialism and are searching for something more. Many without any religious background still thirst for the waters of eternal life.
There is a delightful illustration of this in the recent film Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov. In it, the ghost of a nineteenth century French marquis wanders the modern galleries of Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum. When he comes to El Greco’s enormous portrait of the apostles Peter and Paul, he drops to his knees, crosses himself reverently, and then notices a young man in modern Russian dress gazing enraptured at the elongated figures of the apostles with their narrow ascetic hands. The marquis asks: “Are you a Catholic?”
“No, why do you ask?” (This young man, like most of Russia’s youth, had spent his early youth under Communism, probably without religious training). The marquis continues:
“It seemed to me that you were deep in thought while admiring the images of the founders of our Church.”
The young man says, “I looked at them because I like them. Someday everyone will be like them.”
“Really?” says the marquis. He bears down on the young man, who backs into the corner. “How can you know what will become of people if you don’t know the Scriptures?”
All the young man can do is reply: “Look at their hands!” as the camera goes to a closeup of the apostles’ hands. “They are good and wise. . .”
“So?” The marquis retorts? “You don’t know the Scriptures!”
There are more than a few Christians today who have the same superior attitude towards unbelievers. We have to encounter a great deal of foolishness, but we may well meet unbelievers who can tell us things we don’t know. Especially in regard to understanding the arts, where pagans often put us to shame, while we cling to a narrow intellectual approach. But we should have nothing to fear in this regard. After all, “The truths which men in all lands have rightly spoken belong to us Christians.”
Respect others when you dialogue with them. Today’s Christians could learn from the way you acted in conversation with a Jew named Trypho at a time when bitterness and suspicion between Christians and Jews were at a high point. It was a no-holds barred debate, but carried out in a spirit of fundamental respect. Both you and Trypho learned from each other. You learned that Jews did not believe the outrageous charges that many pagans made against the Christians; in fact Trypho himself had read the New Testament writings. At the same time, Trypho learned about your belief that those Jews who believed in Christ but held to the Jewish law could still be saved.
Don’t compromise on the truth – even when the truth hurts. Understanding the beliefs of others need not mean compromising our own. You pointed out the foolishness of many pagan religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular this might be. You spoke candidly about the immorality in Roman culture. But you were also willing to admit that many Christians did not live up to the teachings of Jesus.
Take risks. You took the ultimate risk when you spoke the truth to the people of Rome. When we do the same today, we are not risking martyrdom; we only risk being laughed at and called “fanatics.” But that is a small price to pay if it means giving people the water of eternal life.
I think that we would do well to imitate your method, because it is the method of great men like Socrates, and most of all, Jesus himself.