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The Francis Option

By May 12, 2017 4 Comments

Lately, there’s been much debate about the Benedict Option, a Christian response to secularism in the West. The focus is on a withdrawal from secular life in order to establish formative communities that support faith through a shared set of practices. There’s good things about this, namely, the recognition that our identity is formed and shaped by the communities we inhabit, and the language we use to give meaning to the world. I wonder, though, if it doesn’t concede too much. Secularity has a positive dimension, freeing the creation from the burden of having to be more than what it is. The mystery of radical transcendence gives way to the mystery of this world, the mystery of human life. Rather than an upward focus, secularity directs us back to the dirt, the grass, and the ordering of this world. This doesn’t have to exclude transcendence, but it does re-direct or redefine it.

A week from now I’l be walking with a group of students through the back country of Italy, making our way from Assisi to Rome. We will be walking in the footsteps of St. Francis as he made his way to Rome to see the Pope. Thinking I was being creative, I wondered if anyone had thought of the “The Francis Option”… only to find it’s already floating around the internet. My version? Instead of withdrawal, the Christian community should move out into the unmapped spaces of secular culture. The basis for this is St. Francis’ view of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and the way in which that revelation reverberates in and through the creation. In this context, the creation is not something other than what it is, it’s what Barth calls a “secular parable” in which the creation functions as a sign of God’s love. The beauty, majesty, and mystery of the created world functions poetically—a sign of God’s love for the world, God’s love for humanity, and God’s love for all creation. Here we see that the emphasis is not on “going up”, it’s not on keeping ourselves cloistered, it’s to recognize the traces of incarnation already present in the creation. Creation is God’s speech to us, not as some form of natural revelation, but as a sign of the incarnation – a sign of God’s grace and love revealed in Jesus Christ.

This will be my first pilgrimage, so I can say more on the other side. From this side I wonder if the practice of walking, sweating, and having a sore body is an important practice of secularity. By this I mean it is a practice that will force me to pay attention to my body, to the creation, to my place in this world. As we walk we will encounter, not only my connection to the material stuff, but also new people, different cultures, and hopefully good food. Of course we will pray, read scripture, and attend worship, but in this experience these practices are about attuning ourselves to the presence of Christ in the world, and not some transcendent “out there”. A “secular spirituality”, if I can call it that, in a good way…if there is such a thing.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Jason, I am wholly (holy?) envious of your pilgrimage. God’s blessings be to you and your fellow pilgrims.

  • john k says:

    Or is it living fully human in full recognition and acceptance of the Creator. Living in relationship with him who is also Creator of all our surroundings everywhere and in Italy. All of creation, including you & everything we sense sharing an innate commonality through our Creator. As such may you all experience the sweetness of communion and relationship with our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

  • Thomas Boogaart says:


    You talk about creation as a sign of God’s love, and sign is one of those words with a wide range of meanings. In my experience, people generally see creation as a “sign-board” alerting them to information that they need to think about rather than creation as a “sign-sacrament” through which the life-giving power of God is made available to them

    The latter, “sign-sacrament” is closer to what the people of Israel saw as a sign. For them, signs were the “means or openings” in creation through which the glory of God filled the world. This is also what Calvin meant, as near as I can tell, by identifying the world as the theater of God’s glory. It is this sacramental world view that we Calvinists today are losing, and in losing it we are losing our ability to balance the transcendence and immanence of God, the Infinite Creator God who at the same time embraces us and draws us into his presence (coram deo).

    • jsonlief says:

      Agreed! In fact, I’m meeting with students right now wrestling with how protestants might reclaim a way of speaking about creation as a sign. I certainly don’t mean it in the first way you describe… I love Barth’s “secular parables” approach to culture, when applied to the creation I feel we need a similar poetic approach. Does Jean Luc Marion’s “saturated phenomenon” help us as protestants? I think it does… now I’m just rambling.

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