Why we need something like monasticism again today – part II: Moral flabbiness


monks (1)

Following on from part 1:

We need something like monasticism because we have a problem with ethics

One genius of monasticism is the way it actualizes virtue ethics—Aristotle’s description of ethics, which recognizes that without long practice so that something becomes a habitus, virtue cannot become effective in our lives. Medieval monks read Scripture all the time, and they focused on its moral sense. But a man who reads Scripture and goes away and does not do it is like a man who looks in a mirror and goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—it’s not an effective use of the moral understanding of Christianity.

And so monastic discipline went beyond just reading and became a training ground for the virtues. And whether we adapt monastic ways of doing this or find some other modes, some sort of spiritual-ethical discipline is crucial, not optional. This is because our interactions with our desires and with the material world are so fraught and so difficult, because we fall to temptation in so many ways. To give just one modern example: everyone agrees about American healthcare, that one reason the system costs so much, that there’s so much litigation, that it’s so ineffective, that it’s such a burden on the taxpayer as well as the private citizen . . . is that people are killing themselves by their habits. They are enjoying unchecked indulgence in excessive sugary drinks, unprotected sex, smoking, and all of these damaging habits, which are trading off their long-term health for their short-term pleasure. The result: many if not most of the serious illnesses that place the greatest burden on our healthcare system, from diabetes to lung cancer, stem directly from our poor habits—our lack, essentially, of virtue when it comes to our treatment of our bodies.

Now, I’m not suggesting that medieval monastics were aware of all this, or that they posed their disciplines as an answer to the problems of lack of bodily health. But I am saying that if they’ve ever been needed, the insights of monasticism are needed today. The analogy is direct: we know today that we need to bring ourselves under the disciplines of diet and exercise in order to properly value the bodies which God has given us and to order them toward a higher end. But if we become spiritually flabby and spiritually ill, then we are courting spiritual and moral crisis. In Ron Sider’s Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, we see that in fact Protestant evangelicals (to single out just one possible illustrative group) are spiritually and morally flabby. There’s no real difference in how we live compared with how others live. The divorce rates are similar. Obesity. Selfishness in use of our money as opposed to the charity we should be practicing, and so on.

One pushback against this ethical torpor is the movement that Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and Jim Houston started back in the 70s. Each of these men realized that this is a serious problem in our church culture, and tried to guide us in reorienting ourselves toward God, through “spiritual disciplines.”

The movement was popular for a season – Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has sold millions of copies. This indicates that we are aware of the problem: we know in our hearts that we need spiritual disciplines if we are not to be spiritually flabby and morally weak.

The problem has been, as Dallas Willard shared with me in an interview, that we have not integrated that practical insight well into the theological and biblical studies departments of our seminaries. In other words, seminary programs in theology and biblical studies have gone merrily on their way, teaching an orthodoxy (“right belief”) separated from orthopathy (“right feeling” or, we might say, passion) and orthopraxy (“right practice”), and leaving their students to take a few token spiritual formation classes without any sense of how that formation might be grounded in our biblical and theological traditions.

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