Posts tagged with: asceticism

Today at Ethika Politika, Fr. Gregory Jensen, a contributor to the PowerBlog as well as other Acton publications, explores the potential of the Orthodox Christian ascetic tradition as a response to the paradox of American individualism:

We come to know each other in our uniqueness “only within the framework of direct personal relationships and communion…. Love is the supreme road to knowledge of the person, because it is an acceptance of the other person as a whole.” Unlike the more theoretical approaches we alluded to above, to say nothing of our own neurotic strivings, love doesn’t “project on the other person” our own “preferences, demands or desires.” Rather love accepts the other as he or she is, “in the fullness of [his or her] uniqueness.” This is also why our highly individualistic culture struggles with a whole range of problems related to sexuality. It is “in the self-transcendence and offering of self that is sexual love” where husband and wife learn to live in mutual acceptance of each other’s uniqueness (Yannaras, p. 23).

For the theological anthropology of the Orthodox Church, “‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person” (p. 22). Christian asceticism has as its goal the liberation of the truly personal from the merely individualistic. In the full and proper sense, moreover, the liberty that ascetical struggle offers is not simply an absence of constraints (a “freedom from” if you will) but a “[p]erfection and sanctification” that makes possible the person’s “restoration to the fullness of [his or her] existential possibilities” and so to be what he or she “is called to be — the image and glory of God” (p. 109).

Read more . . .

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “A Passion for Government Leads to Neglect of Our Neighbor,” I examine how the disconnect between desires and deeds with reference to helping the needy among us perpetuates unbalanced budgets and spending on debt to the detriment of future generations. I highlight how St. John the Baptist came to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children” (Luke 1:17) by exhorting people to look to their neighbors and the small but practical ways they can serve them in love:

During his ministry, John’s message to everyday people, according to Luke, was remarkably simple: “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collector, he warns not to take more than is due, and to the soldier his counsel is “be content with your wages” (cf. Luke 3:10-14). This was “the way of the Lord”?

I conclude by recommending the same for us today. The problem is not that people do not care, it is that we have forgotten with whom responsibility for the work of caring for the needy among us lies first of all. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Tuesday, February 26, 2013

With the most recent fiscal cliff approaching this Thursday (February 28), it is worth asking, “How did we get into this mess?” My answer: a little leaven works its way through a whole lump of dough….

Touchstone Magazine
(March/April 2013) recently published my article, ”The Yeast We Can Do,” in their “Views” section (subscription required). In it, I explore the metaphor of yeast in the Scriptures—how little things eventually work their way through our whole lives and can lead to big consequences. In some cases, I point out, this is a bad thing. For example, I write,

According to Evagrios the Solitary, one of the early Christian hermits of the Egyptian desert, our spiritual struggle can be summarized quite simply: it is because we have first failed to resist little temptations that we eventually fall to greater ones. Following John the Evangelist’s warnings against succumbing to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16), Evagrios identifies three “frontline demons” in particular: gluttony, avarice, and seeking the esteem of others.

Little by little, when we give in to small temptations, they eventually work their way through our whole lives, leaving us vulnerable to bigger, related areas of temptation.

Now, how does this relate to our over $16.5 trillion national debt and annual deficits over $1 trillion for the last four years that brought us to a looming sequestration deadline, with little time to come up with some solution to drastically cut spending to get our finances under control, adversely affecting the lives of millions? Well, as I said, a little leaven works its way through the whole lump of dough. (more…)

So … what happened? With regular coverage of the US “Fiscal Cliff” running up to the new year, PowerBlog readers may be wondering where the discussion has gone. While I am by no means the most qualified to comment on the matter, I thought a basic summary and critique would be in order:

  • With six minutes to read this 157 page bill, the US House of Representatives passed it. (Note: either I’m an exceptionally slow reader or none of them could possibly have read it.)
  • According to Matt Mitchell at Neighborhood Effects, the bill itself, comically titled “The American Taxpayer Relief Act,” has three strikes against it:
  1. “It ignored the evidence that tax increases are more economically harmful than spending cuts.” The bill puts the Cliff’s spending cuts off for two more months. (I see a sequel in the works: Fiscal Cliff  2: The Reckoning, perhaps?)
  2. “It opted to raise revenue through rate increases rather than loophole closings.” Why is this bad? “Put simply, a rate increase has deleterious demand and supply-side effects, whereas a loophole closing only has deleterious demand-side effects.”
  3. “It actually expanded corporate tax loopholes!” He continues by adding some valuable substantiation to this claim: “On the last point, don’t miss Vero’s pieces here and here, Tim Carney’s pieces here and here, Matt Stoller’s piece here, and Brad Plumer’s piece here.” The point: the primary (and likely the only) taxpayers who will see any relief from “The American Taxpayer Relief Act” are crony capitalists.
  • Small businesses, on the other hand, will be hit the hardest by the bill. As Eileen Norcross writes at The Spectacle Blog,

With tax rates raised on those earning over $400,000 some may imagine that only a rarified tier of high earners will be forced to fork over more income to the federal government. However, tax increases in this category also includes [sic] small businesses. These hikes will affect decisions over hiring, expansion, and wages. The outcome — slower economic growth for all.

In summary, the bill—which the House had only six minutes to read—does almost nothing to address our debt and deficits, and what it does do is mostly negative and/or sub-optimal (unless you’re a crony capitalist, that is). Not only does this bill negatively affect most Americans today, it puts off, yet again, any hard decisions of reigning in our unsustainable spending addiction. We now have two more months before we careen over that cliff, but with how much time Congress had to negotiate an alternative deal before settling for a poorly designed, 157 page bill they only had six minutes to read, I’m not holding my breath. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Friday, December 28, 2012

388px-The_Last_of_the_Spirits-John_Leech,_1843Matt Mitchell at Neighborhood Effects offers an interesting perspective regarding the fiscal cliff. As we hurriedly approach the edge, Mitchell’s insights ought not to be ignored, whatever the outcome of today’s last minute meeting at the White House. Evoking the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he writes,

At the risk of mixing metaphors, we should think of the fiscal cliff as the Ghost of the Fiscal Future. It is a bleak lesson in what awaits us if we don’t get serious about changing course.

Mitchell goes on to hint at the serious issue of intergenerational justice that our government’s current fiscal behavior will affect if it continues unchanged:

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office [CBO] now projects that, absent policy change, when my two-year-old daughter reaches my age (32), revenue will be just a bit above its historical average at 19 percent of GDP while spending will be nearly twice its historical average at 39 percent of GDP. This is what economists mean when they say we have a spending problem and not a revenue problem: spending increases, not revenue decreases, account for the entirety of the projected growth in deficits and debt over the coming years. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
posted by on Thursday, December 13, 2012

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Sophia Institute annual conference at Union Theological Seminary. This year’s topic was “Marriage, Family, and Love in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.” My paper was titled, “What Makes a Society?” and focused, in the context of marriage and the family, on developing an Orthodox Christian answer to that question. The Roman Catholic and neo-Calvinist answers, subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, respectively (though not mutually exclusive), receive frequent attention on the PowerBlog, but, to my knowledge, no Orthodox answer has been clearly articulated, and so it can be difficult to know where to begin. To that end, it is my conviction—and a subject of my research—that a historically sensitive, Orthodox answer to this question can found be in the idea of asceticism, rightly understood.

While I will not reproduce my paper here, I wanted to briefly summarize two of its main points that might have broader interest. First of all, what is asceticism? Second, how can asceticism be viewed as an organizational principle of society? Lastly, I want to briefly explore—beyond the scope of my paper—the relevance of this principle for a free society. (more…)

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Today marks the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the fathers of Western monasticism. One of his most famous dictums was ora et labora: “pray and work.” His Rule served as the standard community rule for monasteries in the West for hundreds of years.

Consistent with his dictum, the Rule of St. Benedict contains some wonderful passages about the value of work in addition to other pious practices. For example, Benedict writes,

Idleness is inimical to the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be occupied, at
fixed seasons, with manual work and again at fixed seasons with spiritual reading….

Knowing the spiritual dangers of idleness (such as boredom, depression, and gossip), Benedict prescribed regular daily work for the monks of any monastery that followed his rule. However, he did not absolutize the value of work, recommending time for rest and “spiritual reading.”

Furthermore, he offered consolation for those who labor in poverty:

And let them not be distressed if poverty or the needs of the place should require that they busy themselves about gathering in the crops with their own hands; for then are they truly monks, when they live by the work of their own hands, as did our fathers and the apostles.

Yet, he tempered even this by adding: “Let everything be done in moderation however on account of the faint-hearted.”

Indeed, we can see in St. Benedict’s Rule an excellent expression of the basic Christian view of the merits of work as well as its limitation for the sake of the worker:

To weak and delicate brethren let there be assigned such suitable occupation and duties that they be neither overcome of idleness nor so oppressed by exhaustion through work that they be driven to flight [from the monastery].

Due to the current economic condition of our country, many have had to settle for less than ideal work in order to make ends meet. St. Benedict provides a wonderful reminder about the honor inherent in all honest work, especially when enlivened with prayer.

I for one have worked at plenty of restaurants and factories and cleaned my fair share of toilets. Looking back, the best jobs (until I got my job here, of course) were not necessarily those at which I was the most comfortable but those in which I embraced St. Benedict’s dictum and united my labor with prayer. On this, his feast day, I hope others too, through him, can find satisfaction even in less-than-ideal jobs, embracing the vocation of prayer even if their desired vocation of work remains out of grasp.

All quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict are taken from The Rule of St. Benedict, translated into English. A Pax Book, preface by W.K. Lowther Clarke (London: S.P.C.K., 1931), which can be found online here.

Today marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. Not simply a fast, it is a time for that true asceticism which, according to Fr. Georges Florovsky, “is inspired not by contempt, but by the urge of transformation.”

There is something of this true asceticism, even if imperfect and incomplete, at the basis of all human society. One must, even to only a small extent, renounce self-will to be a member of a family, a clan, or a tribe, not to mention a city, state, or nation. No community can exist or has existed without some semblance of this asceticism. Every member must deny some part of his or her self for a perceived common good in order to form any community, in order for society itself to exist.

Thus, asceticism is not and never has been reserved for monks in the history of the Church. As Florovsky notes, “Ascetical virtues can be practiced by laymen also, and by those who stay in the world.” Interestingly, Vladimir Solovyov even goes so far as to identify marriage as one of the first ascetic practices inasmuch as it constitutes a “limitation of sensuality” that results in increased “control of carnal passions.”

In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife likely find that the level of self-renunciation necessary to maintain family life extends far beyond the sensual as well. Indeed, during his address at Acton University this summer, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America remarked,

Is there any greater ascetic than a young mother, a new mother, who has to get up at all hours, night or day, to feed the child, to change the diapers? That’s the image, that’s asceticism—it’s total self-giving in love. All real asceticism is self-giving in love.

On a personal note, my wife and I are currently celebrating the birth of our first child, and (to my wife’s credit) I can confirm the truth of His Beatitude’s statement. (Don’t worry, I change diapers too, but my wife deserves far more credit for “get[ing] up at all hours.”) According to Florovsky, through asceticism “a new hierarchy of values and aims is revealed.” Certainly, any other new parents would agree with me that having a baby literally changes one’s whole world. Suddenly things I used to value seem so insignificant.

Through marriage I was transformed into a husband. Through the birth of my son, I am now also a father. As Christians, both of the East and the West, embark on the ascetic, spiritual journey of Great Lent that culminates in the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, I hope that all of us will also be spiritually transformed according to the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love.

My wife Kelly and our new little son Brendan.

After 50-plus years of social unraveling, many reformers still see the “therapeutic model” as a cure for what ails American society. Or would a return to the classical virtues, as a means of healing first the person and then the culture, be the way of renewal? Rev. Gregory Jensen offers some thoughts in this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 22), spurred by the reading of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Overcoming the Merely Therapeutic: Human Excellence and the Moral Life

By Rev. Gregory Jensen

In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue that for many young adults in America, the spiritual life is understood in moralistic terms. But where orthodox (and Orthodox) Christianity focus on the necessity of “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers …” — many teenagers don’t see it that way. They, Smith and Lundquist say, worship “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

My pastoral experience suggests that adherence to this model of the spiritual life is common not just among teenagers but also their parents and even their grandparents. Given Philip Rieff’s observations about the triumph of the therapeutic in Western culture, this should come as no surprise. Therapeutic and medicinal imagery are dominant in our culture. That Christians have uncritically, and in my view unwisely, adopted this language is unfortunate but again not a surprise.

This is not to reject the use of medicinal or therapeutic imagery in conversations about either the spiritual or cultural lives. These metaphors have deep biblical and even pre-Christian roots. No, the problem occurs when such imagery comes to dominate at the expense of other, equally valid, ways of speaking about human experience (as for example the juridical model of salvation).

This brings me to Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (2012). Murray’s work offers a response to the increasingly unbalanced use of therapeutic imagery. His book is provocative but this is not a bad thing; it is a call to the reader to re-examine the cultural and personal foundations of human thriving and to see them as fundamentally moral undertakings.

Looking at the American scene, he singles out four virtues as essential both personally and socially for “the feasibility of the American project”: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity. Until very recently (Murray not wholly arbitrarily indentified Nov. 21, 1963, as the “single day” that demarcates “the transition between eras”) these four virtues were the common cultural inheritance and personal project of the vast majority of Americans. Whatever were their differences in religion, education, wealth or geography, most Americans lived lives built on a respect for hard work, honesty, marriage and family life and religious faith.  Both social institutions (public schools being chief among them) and popular culture – Murray draws examples from movies and television — likewise supported the virtues that made American “civic culture” not only possible but “exceptional.”

Since November, 1963, however, American civil society has been “unraveling.” As a culture Murray says we are “coming apart at the seams — not seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” More and more the historically key virtues of American civil society are only those of the new upper class. These same virtues are no longer forming the daily lives of the lower class, that is of working class or blue collar Americans. As a result we see two increasingly different Americas. But again, the difference is not racial or ethnic or even economic but social, a difference in the values by which members of both group live their lives.

The social problems facing Americans now are the fruit of this “cultural inequality.” Switching from descriptive social scientist to advocate, Murray says that we must do something about it:   “That ‘something’ has nothing to do with new government programs or regulations. Public policy has certainly affected the culture, unfortunately, but unintended consequences have been as grimly inevitable for conservative social engineering as for liberal social engineering.”

Instead of more “government assistance” we need a widespread cultural “validation of the values and standards” that once made American civil society so exceptional. How? Well, Murray says the “best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.’ Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Murray’s book is about virtue and we know that the virtuous life requires balance. I can’t cultivate one virtue at the expense of the others. Temperance cannot matter to me more than Fortitude or Justice more than Prudence. St. John Chrysostom said that more priests have fallen from compassion than lust. This, or so it seems to me, is the pastoral analogy to Murray’s social critique. We have fallen because we have given ourselves over to an unwise compassion. True compassion suffers with others and so helps us understand how we can alleviate their pain. Unwise compassion is about sentiment; it is about feeling good about myself. True compassion comforts and ennobles the other person; false compassion is merely one more expression of my addiction to pleasure and my willingness to take my pleasure no matter what the cost to self or others.

When as Americans we talk about poverty, its cause and its consequences, we do so primarily not in moral terms — save insofar as some would advocate for the government to “do something to help the poor,” or to “win the war” on drugs or poverty or whatever — but medically, therapeutically.  But a medical model divorced from morality is not only ineffective but destructive. It is so because it is anthropologically unsound and so a gentle cruelty.

The traditional model of salvation assumes a personal commitment to the ascetical life. As classically understood in both the Christian Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West (and even I would suggest among many of the heirs of the Reformation), the healing I am promised in Jesus Christ requires from me ascetical struggle. This is why today Roman Catholics and many Protestant and Evangelical Christians are celebrating Ash Wednesday and why next week Orthodox Christians will begin the season of the Great Fast. Asceticism does not add to the work of Christ. Rather it prepares me to receive again Jesus Christ and to deepen my relationship with Him.

Physical discipline does not exhaust the content of the ascetical life. In addition to spiritual disciplines such as fasting and almsgiving, asceticism has an intellectual aim; it teaches me to understand my desires in light of the Gospel. I need to repent of, and struggle against, those that are sinful. Important though repentance is, it is more important still that I come to see more clearly even my legitimate desires in light of what God wants from me.

Seen in this way, asceticism is an essential component of a life open in love to our neighbor. This is how we understand that our actions, if thoughtless, may impose a cost to our neighbor. This is how we will heal the human heart scarred by sin and so in turn the broken social ties that Murray identifies. In short, I cannot love you unless I am willing to lay aside even my otherwise legitimate plans and projects.  Whether in the physical, moral or cultural realms, real healing requires an understanding of both the ends of human life and the means appropriate to those ends.

Religion & Liberty’s summer issue featuring an interview with Metropolitan Jonah (Orthodox Church in America) is now available online. Metropolitan Jonah talks asceticism and consumerism and says about secularism, “Faith cannot be dismissed as a compartmentalized influence on either our lives or on society.”

Mark Summers, a historian in Virginia, offers a superb analysis of religion during the American Civil War in his focus on the revival in the Confederate Army. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict. With all the added attention the conflict is receiving, a piece focusing on faith is especially poignant. “The Great Harvest” by Summers notes that the revival was “homespun,” meaning one that was organic in nature and spread among the common soldier.

I offer a review of Darren Dochuk’s new book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Dochuk tells the tale of the great migration from the American South to Southern California. This development ultimately transformed evangelicalism and national politics. It also helped in wedding many religious conservatives to economic conservatism.

“The Separation of Church and Art” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art by Abraham Kuyper. Available for the first time in English, Christian’s Library Press will publish Kuyper’s work in November. The Acton Institute has played a tremendous role in the translation project. You can find out more about that role here.

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is American Founder Oliver Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a strong proponent of federalism was instrumental in the shaping of our Republic. American President John Adams called Ellsworth “the firmest pillar” of the federal government during its earliest years. In a new biography about Ellworth, author Michael C. Toth argues that Ellsworth’s Reformed faith not only shaped his personal life but the model of federalism he supported also had deeply religious roots within Connecticut.

There is more content in this issue. Past issues of Religion & Liberty are also available online.