Viral Theology #9 – An Asceticism for the Masses?

Many religious traditions have ascetic streams. The ascetic take on life is essentially that we need to deliberately give up things that appear to be satisfying in order to contribute to a flourishing world and find a deeper sense of satisfaction.

Christian asceticism draws on a number of biblical themes, but usually highlights two. First, there is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 6. There Jesus urges his followers not to be obsessed with wealth, saying “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  A little later, Jesus adds this: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

Second, there is the example of the early church. As recorded in the early part of Acts, these folks met together regularly to eat, pray and consider the teaching of the apostles. They also shared their possessions and in various other ways organized their lives (gave up a certain amount of autonomy) to overcome harmful social divisions.

I’ve been thinking about asceticism lately. The obvious reason is that many of us have been forced into a sort of monastic existence. Our concerns are simpler now. When and how can we get groceries? Do we have enough income to pay the next round of bills? Can we connect with one or two people today? Our church programming is more basic too. Many of us are learning how to worship and pray with our households. Things are a little less frenzied. There are less appointments.

But I’ve also been thinking about asceticism from an ecological perspective. Is there a mode of economics that fits the fundamental ecological realities of Earth? For all the schemes to green businesses and produce things with less environmental impact, it’s hard to see a way around the need to lower our consumption. Whether we know it or not, that is fundamentally an ascetic thing. It involves a voluntary renunciation of some forms of satisfaction in order to attain something of deeper value.

One book I’ve read recently referenced a “Mennonite asceticism” (fn. 5, c. 8 in L. Rasmussen’s Earth-Honoring Faith). I think I know what the author is referring to, but it’s odd that I’m a Mennonite pastor and not entirely sure. However, I also think that value within Mennonite communities has waned over the past few decades. More with Less isn’t as pervasive a sentiment.

The challenge for us is the challenge of asceticism everywhere: saying no to some things and yes to others in ways that don’t line up with the culture that forms us. In addition, though, there is the challenge of popularizing this ascetical impulse. How can we renounce consumption without becoming dour and self-righteous? Is there a model that works for more than the monastic elite? Can we find a joyful asceticism that works for families and people with jobs in the ‘real world’? The “new monasticism” has produced some inspiring examples, but hasn’t reshaped lived Christianity as much as many of us had hoped.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think it’s something worth contemplating, especially at a time like this. What we need are not a theoretical answers or new philosophical jargon, but modern saints—people who have lived the kind of lives we seek, people who have lived with joy and satisfaction, people who make it look possible.

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