Worldview and lifestyle: What do you really believe?

Every once in a while I try to think about the connections between the different aspects of classic Christianity I blog about — between theology and spiritual disciplines, usually, although sometimes between different aspects of theology. One of the common teachings we find in books about worldview is that our worldview shapes how we live.

If this is true, most of us are atheists, materialists, and deniers of hell.

In the last point, I think David Bentley Hart once pointed out that if other Christians really believed in the hell of everlasting punishment that they profess, they wouldn’t waste any of their time, would they? Wouldn’t Hart’s intellectual opponents be out on the street preaching, giving away their money to mission work, turning conversations to evangelism, that as many would be saved as possible?

But most Christians don’t live like that, don’t live with any urgency that hell is an immediate possibility for ourselves and our neighbours.

In his cutting book, The Golden Cow, John White (author of the children’s fantasy The Tower of Geburah as well as several non-fiction Christian books for adults) says there are two kinds of materialist. There are the secular materialists who say that matter is all that is. And there are those who say that matter is all that matters. Many evangelical Christians, he contends, fall into this second category. We live the same lives as our neighbours. We strive for more money, for more comfort, etc., etc.

For most of daily life, most of us are what I’ve heard called “practical atheists”. We do not live as though the God of the Universe indwells us, as though any insignificant event may actually have eternal significance. We hardly set aside time for prayer. When we make non-moral decisions, we usually simply choose what is easiest or what we like best, not what is most spiritually beneficial. That latter may require discernment — but how many of us even try to discern anything in our lives?

So, if worldview impacts lifestyle, most of us don’t really believe Gospel, do we?

I, myself, attach my mind quite easily to high ideals. Nevertheless, having read Cassian and Jeremy Taylor about gluttony, I still sat down the other day and drank a bottle of sugary pop and ate 125 g of gummy candies. High ideals are nice unless I actually have to change how I live, right?

My main problems are probably acedia — listless despondency — and not even wanting this enough. That is to say, when it actually comes upon me that I should make some sort of decision for spiritual discipline rather than ease, acedia comes upon me. I feel tired. I feel soooo weary so much of the time. I do not wish to add another burden. So prayer, Scripture reading, disciplined eating …. these are set aside. Just for now. Don’t worry — I’ll do it tomorrow.

Some people say a Rule of Life is a cure for this. (Obviously besides the Holy Spirit seizing us.) Maybe that. Probably also community and spiritual friendship.

I’m thinking about how to make a Rule of Life, so maybe you’ll hear from me on that before too long.

What do you think? How can we cure our practical atheism in comfortable western Christianity?

The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Why we should all have a healthy interest in the history of Christianity

“The story of Christianity is not merely the story of a religion indigenous to Western civilization; in a very real sense, it is the story of that civilization itself. One cannot really understand the values that inform those cultures that were originally conceived in the womb of Christendom without understanding the faith that created them. Even in nations where an explicit devotion to Christian faith is on the wane, the Christian understanding of what it is to be human continues to shape imaginations and desires at the profoundest levels, and to determine much of what we hold most dear and many of the moral expectations we have of ourselves and others. For this reason alone, the story of Christianity is one we should all wish to know better.” -David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity

The Benedict Option, Chapter 2: The Roots of the Crisis

I have just completed Chapter 2 of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, ‘The Roots of the Crisis’. The crisis is primarily defined in this book as the abandonment of Christianity and Christian virtue and Christian ‘values’ and ideas in the modern world, culminating most visibly in the triumphs of the sexual revolution, from licit pre-marital sex to abortion to gay marriage to the transgender lobby.

Dreher finds the roots of the problem in William Ockham’s ‘nominalism’ — the idea that nothing has intrinsic value, but rather that its value is entirely imposed by God. That is, nothing is actually good except because God says so. This includes God. The nature or essence of a thing is ultimately meaningless without God naming it so (hence nominalism).

He follows Ockham with a potted history of western intellectual life from the Late Middle Ages to today. The narrative is the one I’m already familiar with from David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions and elsewhere (here’s my review of Hart). Basically, autonomy of the will and of the individual, with man as the measure of all things starts rolling in the Renaissance and picks up speed as history progresses.

For the discussion up to 1914, I prefer Hart’s analysis, because he sagely observes the subsuming of all things, including religion, by the state during the Renaissance and Reformation as an important step in the process. Religion is a function of the supreme state. Thus, there is no external reality to judge the state’s actions. This, I believe, is crucial when we try to consider what the role of the state is in our lives in the modern period.

After 1914 we have WWI and the rupturing of western society. The already-present liberalism of the elites infected everyone, basically. What matters now, after seeing the horror of alleged Christians on the battlefields of Europe, is making and keeping the pure, autonomous self happy.

This is the triumph of voluntarism — again, better discussed by Hart. In Hart’s book, we are reminded of the classical and Christian idea that freedom resides in our ability to live according to our own nature. This is even a famous saying of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. Simply willing, simply being ‘free’ to do as you choose is not necessarily true freedom. Rather, willing in accordance with your true nature, in accordance with the good or the beautiful or with God — this is true freedom. All other alleged freedoms are simply slavery to your passions or your circumstances or your upbringing or your parents. You just don’t realise it.

Now, there is scope for a certain amount of voluntarism in making the law. Immorality and crime are not the same thing. Nonetheless, to make it not only a question for the law but the highest good of society that we are able and free to will whatever we choose, and that anyone who would dare tell us whether what we will is actually good or not is a villain — well, that’s a problem.

Writing this last paragraph, I cannot help but think of the time that after one of the Kardashians appeared nude somewhere, Pink called her out and said that she should be setting a better example in a world where women are objectified and body-shamed. Someone else whose name escapes me said that Pink shouldn’t have done that — not because Kardashian was in the right but because no grown woman has the right to tell another grown woman what to do. There are no moral standards.

As I say, this is what Dreher is driving at, but I don’t feel he always expresses it as clearly as Hart. Certainly not with the magnificent style possessed by Hart, even when Hart is not skewering his enemies with rhetoric that would make St Athanasius or Jerome proud.

Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesAtheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the intellectual side of ecclesiastical history, and Hart’s goal is not simply to debunk misconceptions that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have been spreading abroad (without cease, despite this book having been out for 8 years) but also to introduce the ancient Roman world and what distinguished the Christian revolution from its pagan predecessor and how it impacted western culture in Late Antiquity and beyond.

For those interested in some of the deep debates about philosophy and the history of ideas, the notes are few. Hart says this is because the book is really an extended essay. Nonetheless, this choice is too bad, because I suspect that some of his judgements regarding Late Antiquity would be challenged by other scholars (not just Ramsey MacMullen, whose misuse of evidence Hart takes on with full force). But this is not really a book to win converts, anyway — the title is too provocative, the prose, at times, too biting to allow its opponents the peace of mind to engage deeply. This is not a criticism — it strikes me that Hart knows the audience for such a book as this, and it is not Richard Dawkins.

One strength of the book is that, while Hart (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) believes in Christianity and the Christian gospel, and thus Christian morality and ethics, he is not triumphalist about certain aspects of the story he tells. For example, the Emperor Julian is duly noted as, in terms of general character and policy, more ‘Christian’ than the Christian emperors of Late Antiquity. He also sees the transformation of Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire as a great disaster — for both Christianity and the Empire.

Yet he sees with clear eyes the glories of the Gospel and what Gospel means for society. God became man; in fact, he took on the form of a slave, according to Philippians. This casts the pitch of biblical anthropology an octave higher than the glorious truth that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1) — God has partaken of our nature. He loves each of us. All human beings, finite and changeable and weak and powerless, are of infinite value, beloved by the infinite God: men, women, slaves, free, Jews, Gentiles. What we gain from the Christian revolution, that paganism never (and, in Hart’s view, never could) gave is the human person.

What we gain, then, over centuries of a culture imbued with this charity — despite all the many failures of the institutional church and of particular Christians — are the abolition of slavery, hospitals, advances in medicine, human rights, innumerable charitable organisations, love of the unlovely, justice for the unjust, and more.

The great cloud that hangs over the final chapters is: Will we lose all this in a post-Christian society? He notes ethicists such as Peter Singer who calls for the abortion and infanticide of the severely disabled. To what end is it morally acceptable to kill, to murder, to destroy people with Down syndrome? People who, as Hart observes, despite any suffering they endure, are often much more filled with joy than we who lack disabilities. Why should they not have the right to life?

The book ends with a reminder of the Desert Fathers who, at Christianity’s alleged ‘triumph’, retreated from the institutional church into the wild to seek to live out pure prayer, perfect charity, and purity of heart, to gaze upon God and the world with the luminous eye. He does not say that we need a new monastic movement, but that the same high impulse that drove many of the Desert Fathers (setting aside the human failings of certain members of the movement, of which Hart is aware) might inspire us to find ways to live with Gospel witness and courage on the fringes of post-Christendom. I wonder what he would say to fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option? (Not having read Dreher, I have no clue, but from what I’ve heard, Hart has a much more secure grasp of the intellectual history of the period.)

View all my reviews