Can you believe this series started out as one hopelessly long post which I divided and then sub-divided again?
Yes, I bet you can believe it!
In my new regime, I have committed myself to keep all posts under 1500 words and so far, each one has been within that limit. So here is #4 of what I once hoped would be only five posts on this topic.
Previously, in parts 1, 2 & 3:
- Christian history looks like an aimless mess, about as linear as the path of a pinball, knocking about
- Phyllis Tickle sees order in the chaos, several distinct, deep changes, one every 500 years
- Things are lost with every big shift, but the previously challenged and often confused Christian community has successfully redefined itself each time and then expanded like crazy
- Tickle identifies four dominant Christian traditions today: Liturgical, Social Action, Renewalist and Conservative, all of which are quite set in their limited ways
- We stand at the edge of a new dominant Christianity which does not exist today but which, hopefully will recapture much of what is deep, gritty, mystical, communal, incarnational, biblical Christian practice and faith
- Some of what has been lost along the way is good stuff which we need, but no-matter; little, museum-like ‘Christianities’ curate – that is, they protect and preserve – what has been long-lost to most of us
- Richard Foster identifies twelve great disciplines which were foundational to the holiness, power and witness of the early church: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study, Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service, Confession, Worship, Guidance and Celebration
- No more than three of these ancient disciplines are practiced by any main Christian tradition today
- Six of the twelve are to be found established and supported primarily in the Catholic orders: Meditation, Fasting, Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Guidance
- Then I asked, where is God in all this?
- Then I read 3 passages in which I hear God telling the earliest leaders, ‘Do not worry what you decide; I have your back!’
- Which is different from saying, ‘Don’t worry because you are going to get everything perfect!’
- Then I went to Scripture, Genesis 37-50, the compound Joseph narrative, to show how God kept making good things come from his peoples’ lousy decisions.
Now let’s look at and expand on the questions which are still hanging around from Part Two:
1. Should the common purse have not disappeared into the monasteries?
Answer: I can say with confidence, the discipline of Submission and its common purse will be a part of the new heavens and the new earth: Submission, although anathema to both modern and post-modern individualism, is normative for holy living. The people of God will find it heavenly to be fully submitted to their king and, in accordance with his will, submitted to each other. There will be no rich and no poor in the kingdom and everyone will have what they need to live abundantly.
However, the discipline of Submission and the common purse could not endure in the chaos of post-Roman, southwestern Europe in the 6th century. Yet, since Submission would be needed again as a great signpost of the present and coming kingdom, it was hidden away in the monasteries during that time of chaos. Pragmatically, it was necessary that it disappear and so be kept alive and safe, in the monasteries for that time.
However, I think it was one of the many failures of the Protestant Reformation that Christians then failed to restore the practices of the lost disciplines. Only the communal peace churches did so and yet they did little more than create isolated communes, like so many rural, co-ed monasteries. That was not the model which had proved so successful for the Christians of the first centuries. The early community used the disciplines as, among other things, a powerful evangelical witness. The early Christians practiced the disciplines within their society, not in separated, semi-cloistered, walled-off ghettos. God never, ever told his people to abandon the society and hide from the world. The entire point and direction of incarnation is from power and safety into the midst of the chaos of broken but restorable life. We, the body of Christ, are the incarnational presence now, for the sake of society at large and everyone in it.
2. So should monasteries have been established at all?
Answer: It is my conviction that monasteries are not normative institutions in almost any sense. From the beginning, they were places where Christians began hiding from the very society which they had been called upon to disciple, to transform as yeast within each worldly lump of dough. Monasteries smell to high heaven of Gnostic dualism and of world-flight. Jesus asked his Father not to take his people out of the society but to keep them safe from evil within the society (John 17). Paul scolded the Corinthians for interpreting his teaching on ‘separation’ as meaning separation from society. In order to not associate yourself with worldly people, he wrote, “you would have to leave this world” (I Corinthians 5:10). Paul specifically said people should not leave the society, because in order to influence the world-order, one must live in it! Hiding from the society is not a normative life-style.
Moreover, in their mind/body dualistic gnosticism, the monastics insisted on celibacy from all who joined them and celibacy, when practiced as though it is a higher or better choice than marriage, spits in the face of God’s very good creation! Such celibacy is not normative either. Hence, I see nothing normative about cloistered living for its own sake. I do not believe monastic life was what God intended for early Christians nor is it what God intends for his people either now or in the new earth.
3. So, should the regular orders (the more or less cloistered groups of sisters or brothers who lived and still live, celibate lives and, among other things, share a common purse) have ever been established or not?
Answer: Pragmatically speaking, it sure was a good thing that something as wrong-headed as the cloisters existed when the Roman society was shredded by the Vandals, Goths, Saracens, Huns and Vikings! The monasteries served as places of refuge for most Christian practices during the post-Roman chaos. They were also the strategic, organizational and tactical hubs of the massive effort which resulted in the evangelization of all Europe. We gave God lemons – monasteries – and he made lemonade! And not for the last time, of course!
God’s Good Plan in God’s Good Time
So, was this all a part of the plan? Yes! Seriously, yes! Jesus said he would be with us, even to the end of our age. And he has been with us, every step of the way. Even when Christian leaders have come up with dualistic, anti-creational institutions like monasteries, God put them to good use because even in our wrong-headedness, Jesus has our back! God is good; all the time! All the time; God is good!
A final word on the ‘infallibility’ of Christian leadership: it was not that the leaders would never get anything wrong. It was that God would confirm in heaven, for a time, what might ultimately prove to be more or less wrong. God has put to good use the cock-eyed things Christians have come up with!
However, by the Holy Spirit, in each era, God has led his people another step further. God let what had been ultimately wrong in each past paradigm, whether monastic orders or an imperial papacy, rub and chafe the life of his community until we groaned. Then, led by God’s Holy Spirit, the Word of God in Scripture, the Word of God in creation and the Word of God in our hearts, began to come together in new and sometimes healthier, more normative directions, every five hundred years or so.
So now we face another quintecentennial… …in which things will be lost and much will be gained (good and bad)!
In the next post I will go back to Phyllis Tickle and to Richard Foster and look at what is right around the corner for us all.
Peace and grace, Trace
1 Back to Post In a foundational post from last month I discussed dualism. A dualism exists when any two things, derived from two separate sources, exist in tension with each other. Gnostic Christianity is chock-full of dualisms: mind vs. body, spirit vs. flesh, sacred vs. secular, earth vs. heaven, church vs. world, worship vs. work, chaste celibacy vs. sexual marriage, study and thought vs. manual labor, faith vs. reason, church vs. state and so many, many more. In the same context, the term “world flight” refers to a desire to escape society or even the earth itself. Dualism assumes either the Devil created everything “secular” or else the enemy has so damaged some aspects of life as to render them irredeemable. It reworks Christianity into a story and world-view which cares nothing for the creation which Christ calls us to conquer through love.