Monday 9 July 2012

Celibacy and asceticism - the single life


The traditional Christian idea was (perhaps) that celibates (the unmarried, the single) ought to be ascetic - disciplined, regulated, self-denying of pleasure - and that such a life was (for most people) best done by living in community, under discipline.

The modern idea is pretty much the opposite: that singles in a sense ought to live lives of self-indulgence, pleasure maximization, willfulness - and that the single ought ideally to be autonomous, live alone, without discipline or constraint.


So, the 'college' for the residential education of young people has gone from being an ascetic 'monastic' institution to an hedonic institution - a complete reversal.


Asceticism used to be the highest ideal of holiness; yet it makes no sense to most people nowadays - it seems almost perverse.

Christianity is about theosis, sanctity, holiness - conformity to an external standard - and humans are seen as intrinsically prone to sin; hence the necessity of groupishness to save people from themselves.

Modernity is about self-development: asceticism gets in the way of this, the ideal is freedom of the individual will. Even when the individual will leads to misery, depravity and destruction - this outcome is accepted (even celebrated) since no higher goal than untrammelled self-expression can be imagined.


Moderns can hardly stand the idea of life without the distraction and anaesthesia of unconstrained and open-ended self-indulgence.


And modernity in its characteristic form of bureaucracy has made the collegial idea almost impossible, since authority is now a committee.

Spiritually, obedience to a committee is qualitatively different from obedience to a person: obedience to a committee is necessarily merely yielding one's will to superior force, while obedience to a person can be an act of love.


If there is to be a repentance - the revival of the broadly 'monastic' ideal of ascetic, disciplined and communal living for the unmarried will surely be a part of it.



J said...

I always wonder where the ideal of monasticism has suddenly disappeared in the West.

It is a big loss.

Where are the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans? Jerusalem used to be full of them, now the monasteries are empty. I havent seen one in ages.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - I'm thinking more of the Benedictine or Eastern Orthodox monasticism than wide-ranging religious orders such as Jesuits and Friars, who perhaps have a greater tendency to run wild on their long leash, due to lack of oversight, and also to indulge in the good things of life.

I also think this is a big problem for celibate priests unless they live in quasi-monastic communities - they often become (or else the celibate priesthood attracts) people who are over-keen on eating, drinking, smoking, gossip and an epicene lifestyle.

But any revival of Christian asceticism and discipline for celibate men and women - especially in a group context - would be a very worthwhile start.

And despite their suspicion/ dislike of monasticism, evangelicals could lead the way on this; by founding self-funding 'boarding houses' on this basis - with oversight from a base church.