Sunday, February 21, 2010

Consuming Asceticism

I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes”.

It is intriguing that at a time when many, including Christians, are uncertain, suspicious or just ignorant about traditions of self-denial or asceticism, others - including, or even especially in the secular world - are embracing them with resolve.

One instance is FebFast - a charitable organization based on persuading individuals to give up alcohol for the month of February. Participants raise sponsorship money from friends and family, which goes to support research and services related to drugs and alcohol and their impact on young people.

Although FebFast’s main purpose is to raise money for charity, its publicity gives considerable emphasis to the benefits for health and wellbeing of participants. “Past participants have told us they have lost weight, saved money, found more time, energy and productivity in their day and slept better!”

FebFast’s promotional material doesn’t imply any seasonal connection with Lent – it merely emphasizes that February is the shortest month of the year – implying that this makes the challenge more achievable than ‘JanFast’ or ‘MarchFast’ would have been!

Yet even without the suggestive inclusion of the word ‘Fast’ in the title, I imagine those familiar with the Christian penitential season will notice a connection.

The lack of theological significance in FebFast is of course significant in itself. There may even seem to be a measure of superficiality in the appropriation of ascetic language as well as practice in such an exercise, however benign it is. But that may actually help us understand the practices of self-denial or discipline traditional at this time of year.

Asceticism literally means training. Traditional ascetic practices reflect the deep wisdom that the training of our bodies can also be the training of ourselves; recent study on the plasticity of the brain merely reveals the neurophysiology of what one of the desert fathers or a woman mystic of the middle ages could already have told us. Our bodily choices reflect and make our inner selves too.

Traditionally this has meant communal identity as well as individual. Every culture has its fasts and feasts, every religion its rules for avoidance and withdrawal. Christians have fasted in Lent, Jews at Yom Kippur, Muslims at Ramadan. Ask each group what they are achieving thereby, and they will give very different answers. Yet each expresses and creates its own identity through the shared experience.

We ourselves in the modern West have something of a crisis about the ascetic element in corporate human existence, because we have a crisis about culture itself. We are likely to think that fasting is like folk-dancing or falafel - something that other people do, but which we can partake of ad lib, consuming asceticism in pursuit of personal self-fulfilment, rather than engaging in it corporately as part of a culture of which we are uncertain.

Nonetheless westerners are also ascetics; every human being has his or her own forms of self-restraint and discipline that contribute to a sense of self. Monastics, sadhus and such do so more obviously, but the modern western dieter and the gym-goer are not necessarily so different, even if the self they construct seems to be.

But as these examples imply, discipline can be put to different ends, and the self can be moulded in different directions. Many saints are ascetics – but so are many dictators. Asceticism must be judged not only in terms of its technical success but in terms of its end and goal. What self is being constructed, or what community created. by our self-denial?

Ascetic practice, including fasting, does not always achieve or communicate the same thing for the participants and others, across time and space. Yet ascetic practice is arguably part of the deep structure of human culture itself, independent of specifically religious meaning. Asceticism is not so much a message as a language, which can be appropriated to convey or effect different things.

So, as Lent begins, what does this tradition of self-denial, of discipline, of crafting identity through asceticism involve? What selves shall we make, what messages send?

When Jesus declares his renunciation of the fruit of the vine he adopts an ascetic discipline, of course; he does not do so, however, to “lose weight, save money, find more time, energy and productivity in his day and sleep better”, but in preparation for sleeplessness, captivity, torture, loss of life. He does do so for the sake of others, giving up something good so that others may have something better. He does so to forge his own true self which is revealed in cross and resurrection. And his message is of the reign of God which he establishes, the great feast of the Kingdom.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Augustine and Ecology (II): The Will to Power and the Order of Love

How then are Christians to understand the character of the cosmos, including its intended diversity and its problematic imperfection, in the light of faith in the transcendent creator God?

Augustine speaks of the intended order and beauty of the world, only partially known to us in its present state, as an order of love, ordo amoris. The diversity of material and spiritual things is divinely intended, and inherently good. Any sense of hierarchy—and there certainly is one for Augustine—must be interpreted solely in terms of beauty and love; power is not itself the character of cosmic diversity, beauty is. Love is the purpose with which God creates, and the order to which God calls. When power or order serves its own ends and not those of God, it is perverse.

All things are good, in that they exist and thereby have their own way of being, their own appearance and in a sense their own peace (City of God 12.5).

The perverse employment of power is the key to Augustine’s understanding of sin itself. Since God is the creator of all, evil is not part of God’s will, yet has no source external to God (such as the Manichean alternative principle of evil, or some quasi-Christian accounts of the Devil). Evil appears solely as the correlate of freedom; since human beings (and angels) are free, they can choose, and in some cases have chosen, to act according to principles based on their own will to power (libido dominandi).

The will to power, rather than to love, is the desire to act as though we are gods, ends or goods in ourselves rather than solely in relationship to God and God’s will to love. This misunderstanding of our own place and the actions arising from it amount both to our own fall and to the set of ways in which we exploit, rather than steward, what God has given.

All forms of moral evil can be understood, directly or indirectly, in these terms. Oppression and violence among humans reflect our will to power, and our failure to discern, accept and live into our intended place of immense dignity and responsibility relative to one another.

It is also not hard to see how environmental degradation is a result of this ‘will to power’ on the part of humanity. God’s intention is that human beings exercise reasoned and loving power in creation, not on behalf of themselves but as part of this order of love, which is God’s. A sustainable beauty is therefore God’s plan.

Although recent ecotheologies have criticized the way classical theology gives humanity a unique place and destiny within creation, the reading suggested here actually requires a sort of 'anthropocentrism', but of a very specific kind. The historical reality of human existence reflects the distorted attempt that human beings have made to dominate one another and the earth, but Judeo-Christian tradition inescapably bestows on humans a pre-eminence which is intended to reflect and foster the order of love which is God’s will.

The ethical challenge for humankind does include recognition of our affinity with the earth (Gen 2:7), but also a unique calling (Gen 2:15) among its creatures. It is not the intended pre-eminence of humankind as a self-transcendent, creative and intelligent being which is the source of the earth’s woes, but the will to power which involves rejection of the divinely-intended role for another—at once a more vaunted but less responsible one.

Given the objectification and exploitation that characterizes much human behaviour towards the natural world, ecotheology is justified in seeking to re-emphasize the theme of affinity between humans and other creatures that has a genuine and important place in Christian thought and practice; the shared ‘creatureliness’ relative to a transcendent God is, as we have seen, essential to Augustine’s classical Christian position also.

However the rejection even of a relative or modified anthropocentrism such as that suggested above is problematic, if it entails a call for practice based solely on human participation in, or even identity with, the natural order. Not only is this avoidance of the distinctive calling of humankind too far removed from biblical witness to be useful for Christian ethics, it also involves a collapse of subject and object whose implications for any sort of ethics are unhelpful.

Just as the ethics of gender and of race require the negotiation of affinity and difference, rather than romanticized over-identification with the ‘other’, so too environmental ethics requires acceptance of the uniqueness of humanity as well as affirmation of our affinity with other creatures, and the particular relation of grace and power required of human beings living on earth.

Seeking the Fruits of Ecumenism: A Letter from Rome


In Rome last week the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity brought together a group of ecumenical consultants to take stock of the work of dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and its Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran and Methodist partners.

These dialogues began in the late 1960s, stimulated by the decree Unitatis Redintegratio (1964) of the Second Vatican Council. This year also marks the centenary of the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, often seem as forerunner of the formal ecumenical movement that later became the World Council of Churches.

The Symposium in Rome focussed on the recently-published book Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (Continuum, 2009), itself a synthesis of those formal bilateral dialogues by Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council.

The Symposium was in part an attempt to remind the participants in these dialogues of their achievements. These include the agreement in 1999 between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of Justification, which was at the heart of the disputes of the Reformation. Anglicans and Roman Catholics have likewise been able to make progress on divisive issues such as the Eucharist and ordained ministry.

Yet it is fair to ask though whether ‘fruition’ or ‘harvest’ are actually convincing or appropriate metaphors for ecumenical achievement in the present.

Indeed many have come to view the current time not as about harvest but as a sort of ‘ecumenical winter’, in which past progress on mutual understanding and convergence in doctrinal and sacramental issues have been overshadowed by the emergence of newer points of difference over issues such as women’s ordination and human sexuality.

Yet the challenge goes beyond those current hot-button issues. The Symposium itself acknowledged that, even leaving aside new difficulties, churchgoers and even church leaders often do not really understand or act on the formal positions that have been adopted on their behalf in ecumenical dialogues. Although issues have been examined, and progress deemed to have taken place, fundamental questions of ‘reception’ remain even on the matters of relative success or convergence.

The ‘Harvest’ language, while an understandable attempt to claim and encourage progress in convergence, implicitly privileges a pattern of conversation, drafting and publication, which tends to give the necessary processes of reception second place.

Further ecumenical conversations could involve deeper reflection on how the inspiring and surprising experiences of dedicated ecumenists in these dialogues actually conspire with failures of ‘reception’.

Dialogue participants may be inclined to think and say that an issue on which they found new understandings in dialogue has been addressed, when to those not present it has, for other intents and purposes, simply turned into an obscure publication. In fact other members of the relevant Churches may hold anything from strong disagreement to complete ignorance of the issues. Protestations that the Churches should receive these processes and documents more seriously are not without moral force, but no more effective for that.

Theologian George Lindbeck made reflection on this ‘disconnect’ between ecumenical dialogue and ongoing Church doctrine the starting point for his influential book The Nature of Doctrine in 1984. Suggesting theology could be viewed in ‘cultural-linguistic’ terms, arising from specific historical experiences and shaped by context, Lindbeck (who was a Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council) argued for the possibility of affirming simultaneously doctrines which belong to a particular tradition and experience, which function as ‘rules’ for that community, as well as reconciling them with opposing ones in the context of ecumenical dialogue.

If Lindbeck is right, either ecumenical dialogue is viewed as a separate ‘language game’ which is defensible but remains at a distance from its respective partners and traditions otherwise, or else convergence and reception actually require reshaping context and experience, not merely the construction of agreed statements.

And in fact many Christians find their most powerful and transformative experiences of ecumenism in experience, in shared prayer and mission. Real progress depends on making new connections between specifically theological and intellectual forms of practice such as the formal dialogues, and other more practical and pastoral experiences. These are the conditions of bearing fruit, and the fruit itself.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Augustine and Ecology (I): Dualism


[First in a short series related to discussions among members of the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia on the Church and Ecology]

Dualism refers to any philosophical or religious system where two fundamental realities (such as matter and spirit, or good and evil) are understood to co-exist, either eternally or at least in general experience, and often in some tension.

In the strictest sense dualism is incompatible with orthodox Christian theology, which claims the transcendent God is the only ultimate and self-existent reality. ‘Dualism’ can also be used more loosely, however, of systems where strong but less absolute distinctions are made between aspects of being. The most common, and most relevant, dualisms of this sort involve a distinction between material and spiritual principles or realities, especially where the spiritual is valued more highly than the material.

The most radical forms of dualism tend even to correlate spirit and matter with good and evil, respectively. The ancient religious tradition known as Manichaeism, for instance, suggested that matter was inherently bad, and that the believer’s hope was effectively to escape the material world. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), bishop of a relatively obscure North African town, but one of the most influential of all Christian theologians was for some time an adherent of this movement, admiring its ascetic seriousness and the account it gave of the obvious evils present in the world. His awareness of this position later helped inform his very different cosmology, whose articulation is one of his great contributions to Christian thought.

Although the Christian account of creation is fundamentally different from Manichaean dualism, readers of the Bible will recall echoes of such radical distinctions. Most obviously, the Pauline language of ‘flesh’ and the Johannine terminology of ‘world’ use these particular ideas as metonyms – words related to the thing they are concerned to speak of, but used as though they were the thing itself.

This is rhetorically powerful but easy to misunderstand. Although John’s Gospel at times speaks of the ‘world’ as shorthand for human and cosmic evil (John 7:7, 8:23, 14:17) at other points it is clear that the ‘world’ is precisely what Jesus has come to save (above all, of course, 3:16; cf 6:33, 8:12 etc.).

Similarly, Paul’s use of ‘flesh’ to speak about forms of human life that are self-serving and egocentric does not actually entail a rejection of human embodiment (see Rom 7-8; cf. 1:3, 9:5); Paul can also speak of the body as a temple (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 3:16-17) and he looks for the renewal of embodied existence in the resurrection (1 Cor 15).

Yet this language does reflect a widespread ancient view that matter itself was not only a lesser sort of reality than spirit, but inherently problematic. Greek and Roman philosophers tended to see matter as eternal, not created; it had existed along with spiritual things for ever, but was formed or animated into the cosmic order we know by the infusion or imprint of spiritual or heavenly reality. This logic does not make matter evil, but certainly draws a stark distinction between its value and that of spiritual and intellectual things.

Some forms of Christian belief have even seen the very fact of material existence, and human embodiment in particular, as reflecting the biblical view of the human and cosmic condition as sinful or fallen. Yet of course the Judeo-Christian account of creation depicts the material world, including human bodies, as an intended part of the divine order. The fact of material existence says nothing in itself about what ails us as human race, or as fallen universe.

A more authentic Christian understanding rejects a strict dualism of matter and spirit, granted that it may make other important distinctions between them. It would be better, at least initially, to think of Christianity as a distinctive sort of ‘monism’, a system affirming one sole ultimate reality. All spiritual and material realities alike then come into being through God’s gratuitous creative work, and all are contingent, having their original source and their ultimate meaning from and in God. God is the sole self-existent reality, utterly transcendent of creation, but bringing it into existence as a free act.

In that case, the differences between one element of creation and another may be significant for many purposes, but not relative to the shared dependence all things have on God. Recognition of God’s uniqueness and transcendence has a levelling effect on assumptions that would devalue one set of created things relative to another. Theologies which assume that the spiritual is in itself superior to the embodied or material, and which derive ethical norms from such observation, are dubious. Yet this recognition does depend on making a very strong (even 'dualistic') distinction between God and creation itself.

'Dualism' is therefore not necessarily the easy target some eco-theological discourse makes it; it is just as important to consider what sort of dualities are being proposed, and why.