Saturday, November 20

On the Modern Christian Ascetic Movement

Or the complete lack thereof. This really is the question. In early Christian times, a strong ascetic movement developed. Between Saint Paul's writings praising celibacy, and Christ's admonitions to poverty, the early Church through to the Renaissance had a strong ascetic culture. Additionally, the early Christian ascetic movement was a reaction to the sensual culture of pagan Rome.

Well as for that ascetic feeling, it's gone today. Today, we have Episcopal Bishops getting consecrated espousing a culture of "actualizing your sexuality" and Evangelical Televangelists telling people if they worship God their money problems will be over teaching "Get God, Get Rich". Where oh where did the hair shirts go?

I asked this question once before, and had no answer. Today I'm going to try to propose some of the reasons.

Cultural reasons

These reasons include both the culture surrounding the church and the culture and practices that have grown up inside the church.
  • Popular secular culture is perhaps as sensual as the pagan Roman society was at the time. However, the modern popular culture arose (slowly) out of the ruins of the monolithic Roman Church post reformation. It is easier to react to something that is a pre-existing (bad) thing. But harder if it comes to life alongside you. Asceticism is one possible reaction, but since we're not really reacting, hair shirt manufacturing isn't a growth industry.

    1. Modern technology gives the secular culture wings. Internet, TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio all wing their way into our life in a way which is unique to the modern world. Via these channels, the pagan secular world beams its way directly into our life. It is much harder to ignore. Odysseus put wax in his ears to prevent the siren call. That's not so easy these days.

    2. We are rich. Modern technology has given us so much wealth today compared to earlier eras. It has always been hard for the rich and pampered to give up what they have. When even the poor are rich, it gets even harder.

  • Christian cultural reasons

    1. We have no good examples. No (or few) church leaders are providing a good example. Our church leaders are wealthy, but unlike St. Thomas a' Beckett, they don't wear hair shirts under their finery (to the best of my knowledge).

    2. The ecclessial culture of denial is almost non-existent. Granted in medieval times, it got out of hand. But moderation in denial may be better than abstinence.

    3. It's hard. As Augustine said, grant me continence and chastity, but not yet.

    4. Ignorance. Especially in many of the mainline churches, Scripture is not read by the laity very much or very carefully. This tradition perhaps goes back to an age when few of the laity could read. But the leaders aren't leading us towards asceticism, and the laity isn't asking why... err, I'm asking why? but I'm a really really really small voice. Saint Paul certainly writes and espouses asceticism, but if nobody but the leaders read it (and ignore it because it's not the message of the day), nobody will miss it.

Theological Reasons

These reasons tie to how scripture and theology are interpreted. Athanasius, Augustine, and Saint Anthony's voices are not heard in today's church. Modern theological movements, liberation theology, feminist theology and post-modern theological movements have a louder voices.

Philosophical Reasons

Between humanism and post-modernism, the idea that we should sacrifice our personal well- being to glorify God has no traction. In fact, you have to read carefully of the early Christian fathers to begin to understand the reasons for it. I certainly am still in the "not yet" crowd. But, I'm trying to understand it anyhow.

So What?

That's enough for now. For the next essay(s) on this topic, I think I should start delving into an inquiry as to whether asceticism might be a good idea.