group Conference Article
Not Far From the Kingdom of Heaven: Monastic Ecclesiology for Non-Monastics
Most Christians do not heed the call to the monastic or neo-monastic life, and many others do for only intermittent periods. Can the wisdom of the monastic tradition take substantive hold in the lives of non-(neo-)monastics? Reflecting on the visions of monastic life for the world in Paul Evdokimov and Thomas Merton, I argue that the authentic exercise of monastic spirituality in the world requires creative and practical reconceptualization of what ascetic discipline looks like adapted to the crises and limits of life in the world, as well as a notion of holy space inaugurated by this transfigured ascetic discipline. I propose the church, conceived around the idea of a “monastic ecclesiology,” be seen as a robust form of holy space. I conclude with a reflection on a monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ.
In the opening chapter of the spiritual classic Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Climacus presents his thoughts on the character of non-monastic piety to his monastic audience. He writes:
Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?” I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
At first glance this appears to be general counsel geared toward the kinds of social concerns one might have while “living carelessly in the world.” Yet just prior to this thought, Climacus remarks on the difficulty of spiritual growth in the midst of worldly affairs saying, “It is possible to walk even when tied with the fetters of worldly affairs and iron cares, but only with difficulty.” Doubling down on the chain metaphor, Climacus likens the unmarried man to someone bound by the hands alone, so “when he wishes to hasten to the monastic life, he has nothing to hinder him. But the married man is like one who is bound hand and foot.”saeculum. But read in context, it could be argued that this phrase has a more literal meaning: those who behave in such a way have started on a road that leads away from the world and toward the monastery, which Climacus describes as “an angelic state and order achieved in earthly and soiled bodies.”For Climacus the quest for spiritual growth puts one on the road to the monastery, which calls into question what he meant by the mystifying phrase “you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” Derwas Chitty argues that this statement reflects Climacus’s broadening perspective on the spiritual life in the face of socio-religious shifts in the East, granting legitimacy to the sanctifying life found in the
In these thoughts Climacus follows a principle basic to the monastic life: the relationship between spiritual growth and separation from the world. The first three chapters of The Ladder—(1) On Renunciation; (2) On Detachment; (3) On Exile—concretize the logic of this break, emphasizing the necessary space that the monastery provides for spiritual growth. Climacus writes, for instance:
It is worth investigating why those who live in the world and spend their life in vigils, fasts, labors and hardships, when they withdraw from the world and begin the monastic life, as if at some trial or on the practicing ground, no longer continue the discipline of their former spurious and sham asceticism. I have seen how in the world they planted many different plants of the virtues, which were watered by vainglory as by an underground sewage pipe, and were hoed by ostentation, and for manure were heaped with praise. But when transplanted to a desert soil, inaccessible to people of the world and so not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity, they withered at once. For water-loving plants are not such as to produce fruit in hard and arid training fields.”
In one sense Climacus lends credence to his former advice for those in the world. Instead of practicing a “spurious and sham asceticism,” aim to achieve what is possible and peaceable amid an abundance of social cares. At the same time, he offers one example of how the monastic “soil”—holy spaces separated both physically and spiritually—cultivates growth in the spiritual life in ways that ordinary life does not.
This sense of the necessity of monastic separation is key for discernment in the present, as monastic spirituality has become a major influence on modern piety. This ressourcement manifests directly in neo-monastic and other missional or vocational communities such as Catholic Worker homes or Bruderhof Communities. Even these communities, which seek a deeper integration with mainstream society are premised upon various commitments and structures that require both a conceptual and physical separation at some basic level in order to cultivate fruitful and faithful engagement with the world in which they live and serve. Yet, Climacus’s insight suggests that imitation of monastic discipline ripped from spiritual manuals or diluted to suit a busy schedule of life in the world may create more inner problems than it solves or warp entirely into a Weberian inner-worldly asceticism in which ascetic discipline is enlisted in pursuit of economic and social advantage.
Ascetic theorist Richard Valantasis argues that asceticism is “any performance resistant to an externally projected or subjectively experienced dominant social or religious context . . . in order to inaugurate a new and alternative subjectivity.”As opposed to an utilitarian theory of asceticism, in which ascetic acts are a temporary means to an end, asceticism names those performances which simultaneously resist a dominant context and constitute the modes of living proper to a new context. “Asceticism initiates the practitioner into the new culture and initiates the practitioner into the social and psychological systems that activate the culture.” Monasticism by this definition is a new culture constructed through the exercise of renunciatory vows. In that respect, monastic separation is not a prerequisite of spiritual growth but the result. Just as Climacus implies, those who seek a virtuous life in the world will inevitably be drawn out of it, “near to the Kingdom of Heaven”—whether this be the monastery or some alternative holy space. Climacus’s notion of proper non-monastic life highlights the kinds of performances that resist the nature of ordinary human life “in the world” and imply conceptual and social separation from it.
It is straightforward enough how the monastic impulse manifests in formal monastic orders or in neo-monastic, missional, intentional communities. It is less evident how monastic spirituality can translate meaningfully for people whose lives do not involve the strict forms of separation as these monastic communities. I argue that the authentic exercise of monastic spirituality in the world requires creative and practical reconceptualization of what ascetic discipline looks like adapted to the crises and limits of life in the world, as well as a notion of holy space inaugurated by this transfigured ascetic discipline. I propose that the church conceived around the idea of a "monastic ecclesiology" is a robust form of that holy space.
Climacus was writing to monks and so seems happy to leave the non-monastic life at a distance. Many modern spiritual writers, however, have taken up a constructive task of rethinking monastic spirituality beyond the cloister. I have chosen to focus on two of those voices: Paul Evdokimov and Thomas Merton. Their rich and substantive conceptualizations of how monastic spirituality may be appropriated for non-monastic life offers a robust basis for further reflection on the kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality cultivates in the world.
Paul Evdokimov and Interiorized Monasticism
The Orthodox lay-theologian Paul Evdokimov begins his seminal work Ages of the Spiritual Life with an analysis and critique of the spiritual conditions of mid-twentieth-century Western civilization. On the one hand stands the atheism that purports to reduce religion to its ideological underpinnings and places in its stead a “serious and truly tragic” extreme subjectivism in dialectical materialism or totalitarian Marxism. Evdokimov sees in this atheism a sincerity that responds primarily to shallow expressions of Christian or otherwise religious faith. Evdokimov writes, “There is a considerable obstacle that comes from Christianity itself. It is the latent atheism of ordinary believers, drowsy in their own inspired good conscience, which out of thrift, avoids conversion of the heart. . . . It is time for the religiosity of Christians to cease being as easy for them as atheism is difficult for atheists.” On the other hand stands this “latent atheism of ordinary believers” in which “anything religious provokes in sincere souls immediate responses of boredom, with services and ceremonies performed in an archaic language, or with childish hymns proclaiming a joy devoid of meaning.” Such boredom is not the undisciplined restlessness of modern people who spend too much time on their phones but rather the kind of existential boredom as shallow experiences that used to tantalize begin to wear thin. Evdokimov concludes with an air of repugnance: “There is the mediocrity of ‘the faithful,’ who take themselves far too seriously and impose on others their own mentality, formed by edifying discourses and sermons characterized by empty formulas and verbal excess. A religious life that has been domesticated, socialized, democratized, has the least attractive appearance.”
The starting point of Evdokimov’s construction of the spiritual life is a critique of or perhaps a disenchantment with the world in both its atheistic and religious manifestations. These critiques are reminiscent of the monastic critiques of a worldly “spurious and sham asceticism.” Yet Evdokimov’s solution differs from that of Climacus. Instead of calling the seeker out to the monastery, he reimagines what asceticism might look like in the world. He writes, “Christian asceticism is only a method in the service of life, and it will seek to adapt itself to the new needs. In the desert of the Thebaid, extreme fasts and constraints were imposed. Today the combat is not the same. We no longer need added pain. Hair shirts, chains and flagellation would risk uselessly breaking us.”
Evdokimov rejects a facsimile appropriation of the monastic life. He implies agreement with Climacus that the one who lives in the world ought not to become preoccupied with penitential disciplines or overburdening rituals. For Evdokimov, the asceticism of the desert fathers and mothers was not a universalizable norm but a period of ontological catharsis and purification effective for humanity as a whole. “When humanity had sunk below itself, monastic asceticism raised it above its own nature.”Evdokimov holds together a dialectical view of history with the work of God who stands both within and outside history directing it. Monastic spirituality inaugurates holy spaces that bear witness to this presence and work of God in humanity and all of creation. In this age, however, the work and witness of monasticism must be found in what Evdokimov calls “interiorized monasticism,” in which the monastic vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty are worked out in relation to life in the world. “Poverty frees from the ascendancy of the material. . . . Chastity frees from the ascendancy of the carnal. . . . Obedience frees from the idolatry of the ego.”
What does the holy spaces of interiorized monasticism look like? In an important passage, Evdokimov provides a sketch of these spaces:
Today mortification would be liberation from every kind of addiction—speed, noise, alcohol, and all kinds of stimulants. Asceticism would be necessary rest, the discipline of regular periods of calm and silence, when one could regain the ability to stop for prayer and contemplation, even in the heart of all the noise of the world, and above all then to listen to the presence of others. Fasting, instead of doing violence to the flesh, could be our renunciation of the superfluous, our sharing with the poor and a joyful balance in all things.
It is important to see how this description clarifies what Evdokimov means by “interiorized monasticism.” It does not imply, for instance, an individualistic definition in which spirituality is focused primarily on the self and only accidentally on the social domain. Nor does it imply a formal break with the world, at least at a physical or social level. Instead, interiorization rethinks the renunciatory impulse of monasticism relative to the spiritual needs, or crises, of the age. Interiorized monks are formed in resistance to the dominating ideological impulses of modern societies. These holy spaces are characterized by attention to the conditions of humanity in modern life—the creation of holy spaces within society by resistance to the temptations toward self- and social-destruction, and the cultivation of habits that bring healing, sanity, justice, and flourishing. Rather than withdrawing from the world and then initiating this practice, the break with the world is made through the exercise of these interiorized monastic vows. For Evdokimov, monastic spirituality must be reimagined to attend to the contours of life in the world. The practices of formal monastic communities cannot be transplanted into ordinary life, but they can be transfigured or reimagined in order to effect the breaks and resistances necessary for the cultivation of holy spaces in the world.
Thomas Merton’s writings offer another robust vision of monastic spirituality in and for the world. Nothing is more central to Merton’s vision of monastic appropriation in the world than the notion of the saint as one who has come to terms with personal weaknesses, fragilities, imperfections, and limits. Merton writes: “Until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word “saint.” . . . Hence sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than other men. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.”The spiritual life is a stumbling block for humanity. At whatever point we might seek, or be forced, to face ourselves, we experience the impulse to fix our mistakes, nullify our sins, cauterize our wounds, or even transcend our finitude altogether. The irony is that these impulses undermine the spiritual life in their fear of vulnerability and thirst for security and power. Merton suggests that “the mere fact that men are frightened and insecure, that they grasp at optimistic slogans, run more frequently to Church, and seek to pacify their troubled souls by cheerful and humanitarian maxims, is surely no indication that our society is becoming ‘religious.’ In fact, it may be a symptom of our spiritual sickness. It is certainly a good thing to be aware of our symptoms, but that does not justify our palliating them with quack medicines.” Even the flight toward the monastery, or the desire to appropriate monastic discipline, can reflect a kind of spiritual sickness—a moral nausea brought on by a sense of one’s own weakness and failures that manifests in a need to attain self-mastery and a rather imaginative notion of perfection.
Merton defines the saint not as one who has successfully mediated their weakness but as one who has come to terms with it, even embraced weakness and vice as a fact of their condition qua human being. In this way sanctity is a gift, a quality proper to God alone, in which a person participates by becoming transparent to themselves and to God. “We must not only see ourselves as we are, in all our nothingness and insignificance; we must not only learn to love and appreciate our own emptiness, but we must accept completely the reality of our life as it is, because it is the very reality which Christ wills to take to himself, which he transforms and sanctifies in his own image and likeness.” This notion of sainthood does not imply utter passivity or apathy. “There is no spiritual life without persistent struggle and interior conflict.” Rather sainthood is marked by a resistance that, on the one hand, makes one increasingly conscious of, if not conscientious about, one’s imperfections and, on the other hand, is marked by a tragic sense struggle that is necessary but never sufficient for perfection. In the words of Joan Chittister, “The God of mercy knows what we are and revels in weakness that tries.” The holiness of the saint is not found in the transcendence of finitude but in coming to terms with one’s weakness and limits before God.
This notion of sainthood has important implications for what it means to appropriate monastic spirituality in the world. First, it resists the valorization of monastic rigor. Merton reserves his critiques of asceticism for those who would seek to use it as a technique to bend their minds and bodies to their will.This kind of asceticism Merton suggests is more destructive than many forms of unfettered indulgence. Second, it resists the impulse to romanticize monasticism as an uncompromising and untainted existence. If the saint is one who does not purify herself of all moral weakness but rather accepts such conditions as a mode of opening up to the holiness of God, then even the cloistered life entails a good bit of temptation, pettiness, ego battles, and other moral failures one would also find, perhaps to a greater degree, in ordinary life. “Sometimes very holy men have been very exasperating people and tiresome to live with.” It is a mistake to see in monastic spirituality a means to freedom from passion. What is found in monastic separation is a means by which passion might be unearthed and navigated and slowly transfigured more by God’s grace than by human will. Third, Merton’s concept of sainthood chiefly consists in an attention to God that results in modes of being that build deeper and stronger connections to people, society, and all of creation. This is the aim of the spiritual life in general and applies to monastics and non-monastics alike but manifests in different ways according to the conditions in which one lives.
Merton’s redefinition of the saint bridges the monastic and non-monastic worlds. What constitutes sanctification is the cooperation of ascetic struggle and divine grace. The ascetic discipline of the monastery is not something to replicate in secular life. Instead the saint acquires holiness through the contemplation of God in the conditions of “the ordinary temperance, justice, and charity which every Christian must practice,” which “are sanctifying in the same way as the virginity and poverty of the nun.”For instance, in his reflections on marital life Merton states, “The married life is a truly spiritual vocation. . . . It is certainly tragic that married Christians should imagine themselves somehow debarred from lives of holiness and perfection just because they find it difficult or impossible to imitate the austerities, the devotions, and the spiritual practices of [monks]. On the contrary, they should rejoice in the fact that the Church has left them free in all these matters to find what suits their own needs best.” For Merton, ascetic struggle is just as apparent in vows of marriage as it is in monastic vows of chastity. In this way not just marriage but a secular existence characterized by temperance, justice, and charity becomes a means by which we may both learn of our need for God and, as God satisfies that need in the gift of holiness, find authentic paths toward loving the rest of what God loves.
The visions of monastic spirituality in ordinary life in both Evdokimov and Merton, however robust, still leave us “not far from the kingdom of Heaven.” That is, Evdokimov’s interiorized monk and Merton’s saint name a set of performances difficult to reconcile with the rhythms of the atomized and autonomous nature of life in the world. They represent another kind of space, a new kind of person that creates new kinds of social relationships incommensurate at some basic level with the realities of ordinary life. Monastic spirituality in ordinary life is not just a matter of adding in twenty minutes of meditation in the morning or a regular fast on Wednesdays and then proceeding with life as usual. Contemplation is not a way of finding peace amid the stresses of work and relationships. The latent ascetic resistance of the sustained exercise of monastic spirituality seeks to transform these dynamics. At a fundamental level these transformations are not just abstract or interior, invisible to all but God. Rather they manifest in the creation of actual holy spaces in the form of both the exercise of disciplines and the creation of communities in which these disciplines become sustainable and their meaning becomes clarified and enriched.
The thesis advanced about monastic spirituality in any context in this essay is that the “break with the world” is the result of the exercise of the values, virtues, and practices themselves, and not the other way around. Monasticism is not separation from the world out of antipathy to the world, or a spiritual nausea at the thought of complicity in the evils of society, or a sense of superiority to the frailties and hypocrisies and compromises and mediocrities of life in the world. This attempt to integrate monastic spirituality by retreating from the world first end up imitating monasticism only at a superficial level.
For instance, Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option argues that the monastery provides a compelling model for life outside the cloister and, on the basis of philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s cry for a “no doubt very different Benedict,” calls for Christians to cloister together in robust sub-cultures in order to create stable countercultures in the midst of the cacophony and fluidity of modernity. This is not the separation of the monastery that follows a vocational call; nor is it the fluid separations exercised in neo-monastic “marks” that enable them to attend to the needs of their community in a way that is economically and spiritually enriching. Rather, objections notwithstanding, it is a community’s break for its own sake: seeking to stabilize an existing culture through homogeneous communal thought and practice (and in all likelihood racial and sexual homogeneity as well). This clumsy and often uncritical appropriation of monasticism does not so much appropriate the spirituality of monasticism as the stability, conformity, and orthodoxy that it wrongly imagines the monastery to offer.
It is possible that there are many more legitimate kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality might inaugurate in ordinary life, but an obvious place to look is the church. I have in mind the notion of a monastic ecclesiology in which the church as both a community of people and physical or geographic space is conceived as the manifestation of holy space generated through the work of monastic spirituality adapted to the circumstances of ordinary life. A full explication of this notion would require more space, time, and discernment (both personal and communal), so I will sketch the outlines of this monastic ecclesiology with reference to Evdokimov’s and Merton’s visions.
First, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by a set of mundane and ordinary practices. What is often conceived as monastic is any number of spiritual disciplines like fasting or centering prayer which can be practiced by non-monastics. What Evdokimov and Merton both emphasize, however, is that while such discipline might be helpful, a more genuine adaptation of monastic spirituality would be found in the acts of charity, temperance, and justice for which the world offers an abundance of opportunity. Such things as contemplative prayer, silence and solitude, or fasting are legitimate insofar as they can assist with that work and can be integrated in a healthy way. What is truly monastic in ordinary life, however, is not as often esoteric disciplines as it is mundane practices of simplicity, generosity, and care habituated in resistance to the dominant ideological pressures in the world.
Second, monastic ecclesiology is work toward individual and social integration in the life of God as interdependent goals. In that sense, monastic ecclesiology is work toward justice that draws relational connections between inner spiritual growth and social equity, well-being, and the creation of holy social spaces. Both Evdokimov and Merton argue that interiorized monasticism or the holiness of the saint has no meaning if it is not of any use to the rest of humanity. For Evdokimov the asceticism of the present age looks more like resistance to evils with an essentially social element, like substance abuse or economic inequality. For Merton the saint is not just someone who exercises atomized good works at a distance from the objects of his pity.
The Christian is not worthy of his name unless he gives from his possessions, his time, or at least his concern in order to help those less fortunate than himself. The sacrifice must be real, not just a gesture of lordly paternalism, which inflates his own ego while patronizing “the poor.” The sharing of material goods must also be a sharing of the heart, a recognition of common misery and poverty and of brotherhood in Christ. . . . Moreover, a shortsighted and perverse notion of charity leads Christians simply to perform token acts of mercy, merely symbolic acts expressing good will. This kind of charity has no real effect in helping the poor: all it does is tacitly to condone social injustice and to help to keep conditions as they are—to help keep people poor.
Applied to the concept of an ecclesiology, this notion of ascetic resistance for the sake of justice entails that the community of faith witness to the conditions of the interdependence between personal and social wholeness, or justice. In the present age, this means especially that monastic spirituality manifests in reconciliatory practices in which histories of oppression and injustice can be brought into the light, where the community bears witness to the damage and trauma of these histories, forgiveness can be asked and given, and healing toward equity can realistically occur.Conceived in this way, monastic ecclesiology names the church as the communal life of its members, as a holy space in which justice can occur even when it does occur in society as a whole and which works constructively toward justice in the world. In that respect a church premised on monastic ecclesiology must be committed to discernment in its communal life between the boundaries and renunciations that free humanity from oppressive structures, and those false boundaries and renunciations that only exacerbate debilitating and dehumanizing injustices that rot the individual and society from the inside. This discernment is particularly important on questions of race, economic inequality, environmental care, and sexuality.
Third, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by intentional, ordered, and communal work. One should notice that the mundane nature of monastic spirituality in the world describes practices and activities that happen on a regular basis by people of all faiths or non-faiths. On one level, this is the point. It is not as if only monastics have been living according to God’s will for centuries and people in the world are just now discovering their secrets. On another level, however, one mark that distinguishes what might be properly called “monastic,” especially relative to the discussions above, is that this mundane work is ordered; bound to a rhythm in life; performed regularly, routinely, and intentionally; and worked out in community. Part of the reason for this is practical. The kind of new person that ascetic resistance creates is not sustainable without habituated practice and communal support. Another reason, however, attends to the formative process that occurs in these habituated and communal structures. Monastic spirituality does not so much proceed with the fixed goal of a new subject and community in mind—it does not define holy space prima facie. Rather, monastic spirituality seeks a deeper internalization of ascetic resistance through the habituating and formative effect of ordered, communal practice.
Fourth, a monastic ecclesiology is constituted by liturgical work. Monastic practices adapted to the world, ordered and made habitual and communal, inaugurate a new world, a holy space within a person and in the midst of a community. Richard Valantasis, cited above, described this process as the creation of an alternative culture, summoning anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture as “the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their action,” and “an ordered system of meaning and symbols in terms of which social interaction takes place.”Put simply, a holy space is a new culture with its own “fabric of meaning” that includes not just a set of values, virtues, and practices but stories, art, language, tradition, and history. Monastic practices resist the dominant context and simultaneously inaugurate this new culture, not just through the force of will or communal habituation but through the the liturgical elements of the church. The elements of the liturgy witness to this new world, these holy spaces. In the words of Alexander Schmemann, “The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view.” The holy spaces in which a community habituates monastic spirituality seek through liturgical ritual the construction and participation in the symbolic universe, a “fabric of meaning,” to which monastic spirituality bears witness.
At this point in the outline we have built up a sense of what monastic practices adapted for the world look like and the kinds of commitment (habituation, community, liturgy) in which these practices find coherence. A monastic ecclesiology as I have developed it here conceives of the church as a holy space constituted by monastic work adapted to the contours and crises of life in the world. Moreover, the church is conceived as a holy space in which these practices become habituated in the rhythms of communal life and sublimated in liturgical rituals. In practical terms, monastic ecclesiology does not entail the kinds of commitments of formal monastic orders or neo-monastic communities, but it still entails commitment to a community of faith that is realized in habituated communal rhythms.
From the perspective of the church, monastic ecclesiology means developing a sense of habituated communal practice centered around the kinds of monastic spirituality adapted for the world outlined here. It also entails openness to the kinds of transformation of conceptual, physical, and relational holy spaces that monastic spirituality inaugurates. From the perspective of the individual, monastic ecclesiology means making the commitments and sacrifices in one’s life that are necessary to be a part of such a community of habituated practice. Monastic spirituality is not found in the individual’s clumsy imitation of practices ripped from ancient ascetic manuals. At a certain point the non-monastic must come to terms with the fact that they are not called to the monastic life (and that the monastic life is not as enticing or transcendent as it often appears from the outside). The idea of a monastic ecclesiology, however, seeks to attend to what is common between monastic and non-monastic life and to what extent monastic spirituality is concerned with humanity as a whole. In this respect, we are seeking a more genuine imitation in which monastic spirituality adapted to the world becomes an ascetic resistance to all within society that disfigures, numbs, or destroys the image of God within humanity. Monastic ecclesiology is the creation of holy spaces ever-nearer to the kingdom of heaven.
I will conclude by reflecting on the notion of a monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ as a tradition steeped in the legacy of the American Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century. In an important respect the idea of a monastic ecclesiology is not bound by any particular denominational structure. There are certain advantages that many ecclesial traditions have over Churches of Christ, however. The kinds of institutional life cultivated in formal denominations, expressed in shared liturgical and lectionary calendars, customs, creeds, and ritual language go a long way toward the “habituated, communal” practices that create holy spaces. Moreover, the rich liturgical traditions not just found in the high church liturgies of Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy but in many low church liturgies of denominations such as Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal offshoots effectively shape the symbolic universe of their communities. Because Churches of Christ lack institutional structures and emphasis on liturgical development, some elements of a monastic ecclesiology may be harder to cultivate.
There are ways in which the restorationist legacy of Churches of Christ lends itself toward a monastic ecclesiology. Alden Bass offers compelling evidence in another essay in this issue of many of the practical and substantive elements latent in Churches of Christ that lend themselves toward missional communities.In addition to Bass’s argument, I offer an interpretation of restorationism as premised on an ascetic impulse and limit my reflections on monastic ecclesiology in Churches of Christ to the legacy of that ascetic impulse.
The Restoration Movement was steeped in the logical world of Enlightenment rationalism, which is often taken as the major premise that leads the primitivist hermeneutics of Stone and Campbell into hermeneutical circularity. “Each of these primitivist groups saw everyone outside its clearing in the woods as being colored by its assumptions. The restorationists simply did not see and would not recognize that they also brought their own.”This may be the problematic result of the general implications of Enlightenment rationalism on Stone, Campbell, and others. But Stone and Campbell applied their rationalist assumptions about the Bible and its common-sense simplicity and accessibility as a means of resisting the hermeneutical hegemony of learned elites in universities and denominational boards. The common-sense rationalism of these Restorationists undermined the liberal rationalism they saw at the heart of denominational accretion and the disunity it concretized. The Bible was freed from one version of Enlightenment rationalism by another version of the same. Importantly, however, the primitivist hermeneutics of the Restorationists enabled them to see in the Bible principles that resisted the liberal rationalism that made unity all but impossible, not on the grounds of abstract argument but in terms of spiritual and cultural corruption. Stone writes, for instance:
A preacher who has a large church and a large salary, could not easily deny himself of it, nor rejoice to see his people forsake him, reject their Creed and party name, and flow together in Christ, taking his word alone for their creed, and his name alone for their name. . . . A preacher in great esteem and honor among his party, would feel it a cross too heavy for nature to bear, to deny himself for truth’s sake of the honor and friendship of the world, and to submit to be despised and rejected by his party, his friends and relatives. Yet this must be done by preachers and people before the parties can unite. A preacher in wealth and honor and ease is the farthest, in human view, from reformation and union. . . . To make religion wealthy, and honorable in the view of the world, and to confer on it worldly ease and comfort, were among the first causes of its ruin and fall; and while these things are sought after, it will never rise.
Although the primitivist hermeneutics of the early Restorationists were still grounded in common-sense rationalism, in an odd way they radicalized their Enlightenment legacy by finding their most compelling arguments not in appeals to reason as such but in using common-sense reason to demonstrate the ascetic principles at the heart of biblical religion and exposing the kinds of rationalist ploys that sought to circumvent such renunciations.
The lasting error of the Restorationists, however, was to domesticate the Bible in their own way. The high view of Scripture found in Restorationists like Stone freed Christians from the doctrinal binds of creeds and confessions only to enslave Christians in their own, often competing, versions of what the Bible really says. This did not solve the problem of disunity and doctrine so much as shift the goal posts. The Restorationists may not have debated “doctrine” like those they criticized such, but they debated biblical views just as vehemently and frequently.
What I have tried to demonstrate in general terms is not just an ascetic reading of the New Testament in figures like Stone but the ascetic impulse latent in primitivist hermeneutics, which creates holy spaces of Christian unity through subversive, democratized readings of the Bible. Churches of Christ need not be committed to the fatal flaws in common-sense rationalism, at least as they were manifest in the early restorationists, in order to maintain that subversive edge. The problem with the high view of Scripture in primitivist hermeneutics was that it was not high enough. The basis for unity for the Restorationists was conformity to their own reading of the Bible. Today the basis for unity is a commitment to Scripture as witness to the kinds of holy spaces that monastic spirituality attempts to tap into and cultivate. Unity is not premised on homogenous readings of the Bible or doctrine, nor is it premised on commitment to a missional community or monastic ecclesiology. Rather, it is manifest in these holy spaces; and this fundamental sense of the unity of all things is extended as a principle of service and care for society. Buried deep, perhaps very deep these days, within the religious DNA of Churches of Christ is an ascetic impulse in which Scripture stands over against all human attempts to control or domesticate Scripture itself or the spiritual life in general. A monastic ecclesiology for Churches of Christ requires that we to tap into the spiritual roots of our primitivism, in which what is restored is not the early church as an institution but as a holy space in which the Spirit of God is at work transforming the image of God into the likeness of God.
Brandon Pierce is the Senior Minister of the Stamford Church of Christ in Stamford, CT.
1 John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press, 1978), 1.21.
2 Ibid., 1.20.
3 See Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert A City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), 173.
4 Climacus, 1.4.
5 Ibid., 2.6. Cf. 2.9; 3.24.
6 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other writings on the Rise of the West, 4th ed., trans. Stephen Kalberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); see also the development of this notion of asceticism in idem, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
7 Richard Valantasis, The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 101–2.
8 Ibid., 13.
9 Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, trans. Michael B. Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 45.
10 Ibid., 17.
12 Ibid., 64.
13 Ibid., 134; cf. 115–18.
14 See John Zizioulas, “Ecological Asceticism: A Cultural Revolution,” Sourozh 67 (1997): 22–25; John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz, eds., Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).
15 Evdokimov, 139.
16 Ibid., 64.
17 Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness (New York: Image Books, 1963), 24; emphasis original.
18 Ibid., 19.
19 Ibid., 68.
20 Ibid., 116.
21 Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2014), 66.
22 Merton, Life and Holiness, 25, 113.
23 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), 59.
24 Merton, Life and Holiness, 14.
25 Ibid., 110.
26 See Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).
27 Rutba House, ed., School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2005).
28 Merton, Life and Holiness, 90.
29 See, for example, James W. McCarty III, “The Spirit of Reconciliation,” Leaven 22, no. 3 (2014): .
30 Quoted in Valantasis, 10.
31 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 44.
32 Alden Bass, “Radical and Restorationist: Stone-Campbell Resources for Christian Intentional Community,” Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2018): .
33 Martin E. Marty, “Introduction,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 7.
34 Barton W. Stone, “An Humble Address to the Various Denominations of Christians in America. No. III,” The Christian Messenger 2, no. 3 (1828): 50–51.