Bearing Witness to the Living Christ in the Midst of Sin and the World: Against Monasticisms

It does no good to pretend like we aren’t still sinners as Christians; we can’t hide from something that is in our hearts simul justus et peccator. Monkery sought to recluse itself into an inner-chamber of cloistery intended to reduce worldly temptation and provide a safer place for devotio Christi; but this represented an abject failure. The Christian’s problem, along with the rest of the world, is that our hearts are desperately wicked above all else, who can know them?; but God. The answer isn’t reclusion; the answer is reckoning and facing our sins through the power of the resurrection. We still have monks among us; often we call them Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists can be found on the progressive left or the religious right; no matter. Fundamentalists-Right attempt to withdraw into a rationalist and rigid moralism, while Fundamentalists-Left attempt to withdraw into a libertine and anti-moralism (which ends up being just another sort of moralism). Søren Kierkegaard, via one of his commentators, Andrew Torrance, had thoughts on the effectiveness (and whimpyness) of the monk’s procedure. Torrance writes of Kierkegaard’s view:

A further problem with monasticism, for Kierkegaard, was that it invited Christians to deal with their anxiety over sin by trying to escape the secular world, by binding themselves to a uniform Christian environment in which it is much easier to copy Christ’s ascetic life and avoid worldly temptation. The problem with this approach is that it avoids what he saw as the highest Christian calling: to imitate Christ by remaining in the world, as a witness. For him, the Christian is not called to hide herself away like a hermit, avoiding the world’s opposition and persecution, but to stand out as a Christian before God and the world – ‘in the middle of actuality before the eyes of all’ – and suffer the consequences that follow. Nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that the Christian should try to avoid temptation (Fristelse), so long as it did not entail hiding away from the spiritual trials that he felt were so essential to the Christian life. The Christian is called to ‘go straight toward’ spiritual trial, ‘trusting in God and [Christ]’. This means voluntarily choosing to enter into situations where temptation will be a real factor: situations in which overcoming temptation will itself be a spiritual trial that needs to be faced: ‘one of the most painful forms of spiritual trial’. In these situations, the Christian must turn to Christ to find the strength and courage to endure temptation and be delivered from evil. If, however, he anxiously looks to other means, such as the safety of a monastery, there will be an extent to which he is avoiding Christ. He will be attempting to deal with his sin-anxiety through a worldly retreat from temptation. Under these circumstances,

Even if he prays, calling upon [Christ’s] name fervently, [Christ] is still no savior to him. He fights on his own as well as he can, uses all of his rational powers uprightly, if I can put it like that, to avoid temptation and thus really does avoid temptation and perhaps brings it all gratefully to [Christ]. But he doesn’t have the faith that [Christ] will help him triumph over temptation.

For Kierkegaard, it is the Christian’s loving relationship with God that animates her in her faithful struggle to follow Christ. It is in fellowship with God that the Christian comes to will ‘as God wills’ and thereby develops the passion to follow Christ in the face of tribulation.[1]

Bearing witness in the midst of the struggle with temptation and sin—even and mostly in our many failures—is, for Kierkegaard (and I’d contest, for Scripture’s teaching), the height of what it means to walk participatorially in imatatio Christi. I’d like to place one caveat here: I would contend that to ‘imitate Christ’ is not an effort that we have the capacity or energy within ourselves to accomplish; which is what the small quote from SK, that Andrew shares, I think helps to reinforce. The point is that in our struggle with sin we are confronted with the One who has not only never sinned, but never sinned for us; and beyond that put sin, in and from His ultimacy, to a living death. In other words, we can imitate Christ only insofar as Christ has provided that reality for us in and from His vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis).

Further, and back to the original remarks to open this post: to attempt a withdraw into some sort of monastic space—whether that be in our church communities, social media cliques, actual monasteries, or what have you—can only and ever result in a vicious circle of self-reliance and delusion. Delusion in the sense that we think we have sequestered ourselves off from the ‘world’ and its temptations, when in fact the reality is that the world is in our hearts. Like I asserted earlier, this sort of moral sequestering happens on all ‘sides’ and everywhere. There is no retreat but Christ; and in Christ we have the [resurrection] energy to not only stand, but fall and rise back up in Christ—over and again. It is in this holy cycle of mortificatio/vivificatio, of failure and success canonized for us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the living God in the risen Christ is borne witness to mostly.  

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 144-45.

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2 thoughts on “Bearing Witness to the Living Christ in the Midst of Sin and the World: Against Monasticisms

  1. I totally disagree with the attack on monasticism. Monks are not hiding from anyone – they are endeavouring to set an example. Nor are they ‘avoiding trials’ – I can’t imagine a bigger trial than turning one’s back on the world and trying to conquer one’s natural desire for sin in a monastic setting. The tone of the post here almost suggests a fetish for sinning in the world, as if trying to control oneself were in itself a sin and there was some sort of glory in constantly exposing oneself to the possibility of worldly sin.

    And let’s not forget the magnificent history of the Desert Fathers and all of the great monastic traditions in Christianity at large. Anyone who dismisses that as ‘whimpy’ is completely misguided.

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  2. Well, you are certainly free to disagree, Karl. I could imagine that for someone who is involved in a Catholic or Orthodox (etc) that this would be off-putting. But like Søren, I’m a Protestant, and as such monasticism is not the best way to bear witness to Christ in the world. And yet you simply dismissed my point about the inability to ‘turn your back on the world,’ I don’t think that’s possible (given the fact that the “world” is what it is because of the state of the heart). And your fetish point might be a point you’d like to make in a post you write someday, but it’s not my point nor the gist of the post—that’s called a strawman.

    I dismissed the idea attempting to overcome sin by constructing a cave to hide oneself to minimize temptation as whimpy; and it is. Sure, we can be prudent about what we expose ourselves too; we should be. But the premise of sequestering ourselves from the world is a radical step that isn’t even biblical. Does that mean nothing good was produced through certain monastics etc? I mean as far as teachings and insights. No, it doesn’t mean that. But it would be post hoc to draw an absolute line between ideas produced and monasticism, per se.

    So you are free to disagree. But you misconstrued a large portion of the post. Which means you’re disagreeing with someone else. But again, don’t forget, this is a Protestant blog that ultimately is antagonistic towards Catholicism and Orthodoxy; even if I see value in certain theological themes in those trads. I’m not quite sure why you’d expect something different at such a blog.

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