Downsizing as a form of modern asceticism


Dawkins and postmodern ridicule miss relevance of modern asceticismThere is a scene in the movie The Da Vinci Code where Silas, the mad Opus Dei monk is seen whipping himself in imitation of the flogging of Christ, and using the cilice (a chain wrapped around either the thigh or stomach – pictured below) to cause discomfort. In fact the actual penitential practice of Opus is more restrained, but this is what many think of when the word 'asceticism' is mentioned.

You see a much more subtle form in the film Into Great Silence. For the hermit-monks of the Carthusian order, the strictest in Catholicism, asceticism consists of silence, slowing down, and of a continuous, life-long daily routine of discipline, prayer and contemplation.

Asceticism was always an essential part of Christian spirituality. The word is derived from Greek askesis meaning 'exercise' or 'training'. The term can be traced back to Stoics, Cynics, and to eastern religions including Buddhism.

It is also a core part of the teaching of Jesus. "If anyone would come after me let them deny self and take up the cross and follow me". In the gospels it contains two elements: Leaving the self behind, and following Christ. The call to follow Christ involves a constant watchfulness — "Keep awake for the Lord is coming", a commitment to the poor, and fasting. In the case of some followers it also involves renunciation of possessions and celibacy. The same ideal can be found in St Paul: "I punish my body and enslave it so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified".

In the early church and during the Roman persecutions, martyrdom was the ideal form of asceticism. After Constantine the cult of martyrdom transmuted in a cult of virginity. This began with the hermits in the desert and developed into monasticism.

Not all of these developments led to positive results. A profound devaluation of the body infected Christianity, which continued on into the Middle Ages and in some forms is still with us. Notions of asceticism were rejected at the Reformation and the humanist ideal was resurrected during the Renaissance, although an emphasis on asceticism continued in the Catholic church.

What does this mean today? Does it have any application to our lives?

Christian asceticism today is not so much about disciplining the body as living in a world where the cultural and religious structures that supported spiritual commitment in the past seem to have been stripped completely away. We live in a time when it is difficult to be a genuinely spiritual person. Post modernism deconstructs our religious symbols, theological mysteries and above all denies any sense of the sacred.

I could not help thinking of this as I watched Richard Dawkins on the ABC's Compass being given yet another opportunity to ridicule faith and transcendence. No contrary opinions were offered and Dawkins was given carte blanche to pontificate on spirituality and belief, the most complex issue which has ever confronted humankind, from within the absurdly narrow confines of his own rationalism.

Dawkins and postmodern ridicule miss relevance of modern asceticismWe also live in a world where the dogmas of economic rationalism and consumerism rule supreme. These are based on a naive belief in the infinity of growth. Kenneth Boulding has rightly pointed out that anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either mad or a rational economist! A radical spiritual commitment to justice and equality seems completely discordant in this kind of cultural atmosphere.

So asceticism today will not involve physical penance so much as a determination to undertake a deliberate downsizing, an abandonment of the notion of infinite expansion as the only way to manage economics and measure success, and a willingness to stand against much which post modern culture believes is true.

Second, it will engage Christians in a form of fasting that is constituted by eating and consuming less. Again, this involves a counter-cultural stance.

Third, Christians must promote a deceleration in the use of non-renewable resources and a halt to infrastructure development that is destructive of environment. This will mean no more dams in a country like Australia!

Finally because these stances seem so idealistic and unrealizable, believers are going to need monumental trust in God's Spirit.



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Existing comments

Great article, Paul. Re: Dawkins, I did find it a little unsettling that the arrogance and conceit Dawkins showed during his documentary were the qualities he sought to attack in his subjects.
Aurora Lowe | 31 May 2007

Great points, though I don't think Dawkins is remotely post modernist. He's obsessed with 'rationality', a real old school modernist, I think.
Luke | 31 May 2007

Very insightful! Paul restores positive meaning to the ascetism and fasting. Poverty, climate change, war are poisoning us all. How are we to live in such a toxic environment? Be still and we may again hear the small voice whisper, 'Live simply' or in Paul's words,'downsize', 'consume less' and re-use. When the voice is heard then let the Spirit move us.
Dan Coughlan | 31 May 2007

Week after week, Compass allows people of faith to pontificate. We atheists don't expect contrary opinions to be offered in those programs. Yet as soon as a bit of airtime is given to atheists, "equal time" is demanded. I believe this is the FIRST time Compass has featured this aspect of belief, and not "yet another opportunity" as you put it. I regret they did not air the three-part documentary on atheism made by Jonathan Miller, too.

Also, you may find common ground with Dawkins - he spoke eloquently about the profound beauty of the natural world. He might not like your ascetic notions as a means of protecting the environment, but as a scientist, he may well agree with the need to achieve the outcome.
Declan Stylofone | 01 June 2007


I think Paul's complaint is related to the fact that Dawkins whole platform is an attack on faith - particularly Christianity and Islam.

Compass may feature people of faith (and it is a tiny corner of the airwaves that does actually address faith) but they are usually promoting a belief, not attacking others. As many critics have said Dawkins is pretty lite when it comes to promoting a positive belief in something, he's much happier tearing apart the beliefs of others.

In that sense I suppose he could be called postmodern - despite his outdated positivism, putting all his faith in science as infallible, the fact that ultimately his position is all critique and no positive claims for an alternative position parralells postmodernism neatly.

James Ferguson | 01 June 2007

Paul Collins' article does indeed present a creative and meaningful re-interpretation of the Christian tradition of ascetism. However, it always seems to me that, in a sense, environmentalists are missing the point: mostly they seem to approach environmental issues with the same kind of individualistic thinking that got us into the mess in the first place. What I'm trying to say is, you have to think in terms of the social ecology as well as the natural ecology.

One aspect of this is that you just cannot separate environmental concerns from social justice. It's not just that it is unfair for the poor and the disadvantaged to have to bear a disproportionate part of the burden of bringing about change; it's also that, as long as inequality and unjust structures exist, there's always a danger that the powerful and privileged will appropriate the environmental movement for their own purposes. Less privileged people will be kept down by being told that their low standard of living is necessary to save the environment, whereas really the "powers-that-be" are not helping the planet, but are just protecting their own interests.

Another aspect of this "social ecology" is that many people in our society, whether because of their circumstances or simply because they lack "life-skills", are already at full stretch just coping with the daily demands on them. If not given help and support, no way will they cope with the extra challenges we are facing. I think that the counter-cultural thinking we need to develop is to accept that we really are "all in this together", as the song goes. Rather than just thinking in terms of isolated individuals doing this, that or the other, we need to think holistically and work towards building the sort of co-operative culture which, I'm convinced, provides the only hope for the world.
Cathy Taggart | 02 June 2007

Paul, the part of your article most relevant to downsizing was the bit about Carthusian contemplation. You could relate asceticism (training, exercise) to the concept of poverty encouraged by Laurence Freeman's form of Christian meditation (and related practices in other belief systems) which give prayerful application to the Lord's teaching: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' Dawkins's point was that religion is dangerous. Christ's point was that spirituality is the source of peace. That is what the Carthusians exemplify for me and what meditation seeks to bring about. There's no denying that 'Religion' has and does bring violence. Deep, ascetic spirituality and the peace it encourages is what we need more, I'd say.
John O'Donnell | 05 June 2007

Good lead-in to hasty conclusions. Seems like the latter came first. Instead of watering down the the disciplines to make them platable, it would be better to look at there usefulness for spiritual formation. Then cast them in the context of the disciple using them. How do you tell a third world, subsistence farmer to "down size"? - I realize that he is not the intended reader. But, really, the disciplines of "simplicity" and "frugality" can be applied no matter where one lives. The appeal to justice and equality is a red herring. These are not the motive of asceticism, but rather its outcome when properly engaged in, and then only on a one-person-at-a-time basis. And finally, the appeal to renewable resources is just silly. Go nuclear. Really.

Dave .... | 07 June 2007


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