New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas.

However, “even if the church in America is the dead and broken body of Christ, God can resurrect it” (12). And he has often achieved this resurrection through movements of “new monastics.”

Walter Capps (theologian), in The Monastic Impulse, said “Monasticism [is the West’s] most powerful and enduring instance of counter-culture”:

“When I think counter-cultural, I usually think punk rocker with a nose ring, not nun in a cloister. This is a pretty incredible claim that capps makes: not only does monasticism last longer, it is also more powerful than any other form of resistance to mainstream society we have seen in the West. If that is true, then the real radicals are not quoting Che Guevara or listening to Rage Against the Machine on their iPods. The true revolutionaries are learning to pray. If Capps is right, they always have been” (12).

I dunno about this. In a culture (of Christendom) with a long history of affirming asceticism and a clear understanding that many aspects of living “in the world” are toxic to our souls, monasticism hardly seems to have been revolutionary or counter-cultural. Rather, I think we have misunderstood the degree to which medieval Christian culture was both ascetic and biblically practical–living out the gospel counsels both in daily life and in the specialized environments of the monastic life.

Second, Wilson-Hartgrove’s account underestimates the degree to which monasticism was involved in and compromised by the world. R. W. Southern talks about this complexity in Western Society and the Churches in the Middle Ages:

“Everywhere in the history of the religious Orders we find that associations which were founded as a protest against the world and all its ways had their destinies shaped for them by the society in which they had their being. [So far so good, as far as the accuracy of Wilson-Hartgrove's account goes.] There were many forces which shaped them, even against their will: their property, their family connexions, their secular functions, and the opportunity which they offered their members for advancement to the highest places in the social order. The ‘worldliness’ of medieval religious communities has often been remarked and generally criticized, and it is true that anyone who looks at these communities for a pure expression of the aims of their founders must very often be disappointed. The states of mind and aspirations expressed in the Rules and Foundation deeds of the various Orders were not realized in any large measure. The driving forces in their development were quite different from those of the original founders” (215-16).

Now I would qualify this: Southern is deeply interested in the political maneuvering and power plays of the medieval period. Think Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. With that focus, one can’t help but see a disjunction between the monastic orders’ ideals and the realities that they lived. A history of mysticism, however, such as is reflected in Dom Jean Leclercq’s Love of Learning and Desire for God or Bernard McGinn’s multi-volume The Presence of God: a History of Western Christian Mysticism, will naturally reveal ways in which the founding ideals did continue.

What we should conclude, I think, is that monasticism worked inside of the same ecclesiological messiness as does the church today, in which worldly patterns of sinfulness are constantly interfering with spiritual ideals. It is too simple to say either of the things Wilson-Hartgrove is saying in this article: either that we in the American church have completely “lost our way” (there are still plenty who have not “bowed the knee to Ba’al”!) or that monasticism has always been counter-cultural.

Wilson-Hartgrove goes on to tell the tale of Antony of Egypt, well and winsomely. However, his conclusion is hampered by several mis-emphases:

“Thus monasticism was born. During a time when Christianity was transitioning from the persecuted faith of a minority to the state-sponsored religion of the powerful, the monastic impulse drove Desert Abbas and Ammas out into abandoned places to learn God’s power by fighting the devil face to face. They helped the Church discover new forms of faithfulness for a new time. But even more than that, they set a precedent for how the Church remembers the power of God when the powers of this world are in transition. They introduced the monastic impulse to relocate and reimagine our role from the margins of society.”

  1. Antony and the first desert monastics entered the desert before Constantine legalized Christianity
  2. Even once that legalization occurred, Christianity did not suddenly become the “religion of the powerful.” For example, those who after the Council of Nicea (325) the majority orthodox party, which supported the decision of the council against the Arians, often found themselves censured and exiled by emperors with Arian sympathies.
  3. More seriously, the early monastics were not protesting some state cooptation of the church. We hear nothing in their literature to suggest that this was the case. Nor did the desert monastics spend their time writing and preaching against the Egyptian church as significantly compromised by wealth and power. These are largely imaginative fictions born out of our own (American) need for these things to have been true.
  4. Wilson-Hartgrove talks about the “abandoned places” of the desert Christians. This resonates with the new monastic phrase “abandoned places of Empire,” but it means something very different. The “abandoned places” of the Abbas and Ammas were not inner-city slums overlooked by capitalists and politicos in favor of more remunerative hotbeds of economic activity. Rather, it was the hot, scorching desert, abandoned for the commonsense reason that it was very difficult for humans to live there!

A clue that the relationship between monasticism and the surrounding culture and supposedly “constantinianized” church is more complex than Wilson-Hartgrove implies shows up a couple of pages later in his own article. He points out that “we do not know very much about Benedict [of Nursia]’s life. We would not know anything at all were it not for the fact that a fellow named Gregory, who became a monk at a monastery that Benedict started in Rome, went on to become Pope Gregory the Great. He wrote a biography of Benedict and, more importantly, held up Benedict’s Regula, or Rule of Life, as a model for community life. After that, new monastic communities spread across all of Europe” (15).

This is exactly right. The administrative and spiritual head of the supposedly sold-out, constantinianized “religion of the powerful” himself wrote the only known biography of the founder of Western monasticism, and himself promoted that monasticism throughout the western world. Hardly a movement “from the margins”!

W-H then goes on to laud the monasteries as “pockets of freedom” in an age when “there was little to no social mobility.” Monasteries were places where “rich and poor were treated as equals” and “women could choose not to remain in their father’s house or marry into another man’s house. They could choose to share life and even have the possibility to lead in a house of fellow sisters” (15).

The problem with all of this is that again, as Southern intimates, ideals such as those described here were often not realized. Increasingly in the history of monasticism, only rich kids went (at their parent’s authority) into monasteries, and daughters did not choose to enter but were sent into convents.

Even in telling the story of the Anabaptists, W-H sets up Luther as an exemplary monk “who learned the gospel he preached form his confessor in a monastery” (16). So far so good, and this is true and often forgotten. However, he separates the exemplary Luther from “some political rulers in Germany [who] found it advantageous to declare their territory Protestant, take control of the church’s coffers and landholdings in their jurisdiction, and expand their rule in the name of religious difference” (16). W-H forgets that Luther himself encouraged this behavior, for example in his “Letter to the German nobles.”

W-H is also very broad in his brushing of “Quakers, Shakers, Baptists, Pentecostals, evangelicals” and other “radical” Christian groups as participants in “this impulse” of monasticism. To include all of these groups as monastic, one would have to stretch the term well beyond its historical meaning.

Finally, although I would disagree with the denomination of slave Christianity as “monastic” in any but the most general terms (I think W-H’s problem is that he uses “monastic” to mean “stuff that the new monastic movement now does” or “any counter-cultural Christian movement”—and therefore ends up using it in anachronistic and downright odd ways), I find helpful his brief treatment of that movement . . . especially since this will be a group studied in the upcoming Resources for Radical Living course:

“I am convinced that the most significant new monastic movement in America was the slave church that arose from the ‘hush harbors’ of plantations in the South. In the face of a white Christianity that justified the ownership of black people, black Christians founded an underground community in which holiness was stressed, citizenship in heaven defined allegiance, economic sharing and hospitality were practiced, and church was understood to be ‘first family,’ where God alone is Father” (17).

W-H then talks about his book Free to Be Bound, which I look forward to perusing. He concludes, “I often tell people that I know the black church was born of the monastic impulse because the folks at our [black] church in Walltown [a poor neighborhood in Durham, NC, not far from Duke Unversity’s east campus] call one another brother and sister, just like they always have in monasteries.” (16).

Again, I sympathize overall with Wilson-Hartgrove’s aims and especially his eagerness to turn to history for earlier models of what new monasticism is doing today. I admire him as a practitioner. And of course his article is brief–he hardly had space for elaborating and qualifying his historical claims. However, there are enough mis-steps here for me to respond:

Please, work on getting your historical facts straight!

And frankly, I would say the same thing to Stanley Hauerwas and other sources of the tired song about how “constantinization ruined the church” and supposedly radical movements . . . such as monasticism . . . were left to save that ruined church “from the margins.” While this sort of argument gets the pulses of young would-be radical Christians racing, it often involves a significant bending, on many fronts,  of the historical truth. Neither the world nor the church of western (medieval) Christendom were as corrupt and irredeemable as such accounts claim. And “radical” movements have always had their own corruptions.

Yes, we should still look to history for models. But we must do that looking in critical ways. I am reminded of the brief talk by Joel Scandrett at the 16th Annual Wheaton Theology Conference, April 12-14, 2007 (the conference, a brainchild of the late Robert Webber, took as its theme “The Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future,” and I wrote for Christianity Today this article about it). Scandrett was among several conferees who insisted that “retrieval of the tradition is not a simple matter, but requires an understanding of the intellectual context in which that tradition developed.”

While all the presenters celebrated evangelicals’ “newfound enthusiasm in the early fathers” (Williams), many warned of the dangers articulated by Scandrett: “1) Anachronism—in which the contemporary person or community naively interprets the tradition in light of its own contemporary assumptions rather than in the historical context of the tradition . . . 2) Traditionalism—in which the tradition is uncritically romanticized . . . and 3) Eclecticism—in which portions of the tradition are selectively appropriated for contemporary purposes without proper regard for their significance within their original context.”

Let’s continue this business of evangelical ressourcement. But let’s do it carefully and critically, so that our conclusions reflect the truth about human society and human history.

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6 responses to “New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history

  1. The term “new monasticism” was actually coined by Basil the Great. He wanted to distinguish his monastic foundation which was contemplative and active (service to caring for the poor and ill in local hospitals) from the extreme eremeticism of the Egyptian monastics. Some of his most faithful followers however, rejected this new monasticism for the asceticism displayed by Antony the Great, such as Evagrius Ponticus. It should be noted that the desert monastics followed the Essenes and Therapuetae, those who led a life set apart and of holiness that was an expression of the Levitical Holiness Code to care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the resident alien of the communities. What W-H, as well as many “new monastics” are replicating, is this same call to holiness, that is an ancient practice that continuously and dynamically renews itself to be expressed as a soul’s eremetical state of being – that society and institutional churches still fail to heed as a need of its participants. This spiritual calling to live the Gospel of the Mount, which is reconceptualized by Jesus from the Levitical Holiness Code and imparted to his Jewish followers and disciples, continues to be necessary even today. W-H is attempting to reanimate this tradition, as “our neighbor” still continues to be marginalized by ideologically politicized agendas. As the homeless, the poor, the “orphans” of our society continue to be oppressed by society at large, it will be the “monastics” who pick up the pieces of society abandoned to the periphery. And why? The monastic aim, from the Gospel’s time, Basil’s time, Antony’s time throughout history was to cultivate purity of heart. Purity of heart is found by those points of insertion a person wants to make Gospel contact, either with self or those in need. There is a reason why when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist that the heavens opened and it was heard, “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Beloved was not a title, but a command to be love in the world. Purity of heart calls one to be love in the world. Monasticism is the call to be pure of heart and love in the world. New Monasticsm is the echo from the Jordan. Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove heard the call. I think we can all forgive a bit of historical lapse in his work as the aim is not to teach history but to call those to a way of life that is Beloved.

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