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The new monasticism revisited

Over three years ago I posted about the then still somewhat new movement known as “the new monasticism.” At the time I was pretty enthusiastic about the helpfulness of both this label and movement. Nowadays I’m less enthused, not, perhaps about the actual work that many of these communities are doing (after all I’m still very much a part of a church that has been included under this rubric), but about the terminology and literature that’s been put out over the last few years.

Today I am less convinced that “monasticism” is a helpful descriptor for intentional forms of ecclesial life today. Monasticism, by its very nature, at least historically, has always been a sort of special dispensation, a unique and decidedly non-ordinary  and non-normative way of living within the church as a whole. I have never really understood the call to life together under the Gospel to be something like that. This is not to say that I think a faithful form of life together can only look one way (just the opposite, actually!), but only to say that I think it is important that movements that call the church to a mode of life together for the sake of the world should not allow themselves to be written off as some new sort of “monastics” who are off doing a special little thing of their own.

Interestingly, I think many of us who have been affiliated with “the new monasticism” have found much rhetorical juice from a quote from Bonhoeffer (which I quoted in my other post mentioned  above):

The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount in the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people to this. (Letter to Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 14, 1935 in A Testament to Freedom, p. 424)

In the past I think we tended to zero in how awesome it surely was that Bonhoeffer is calling for “a sort of new monasticism.” But Bonhoeffer’s point is rather different, I think. For him the central point is that this new movement for the renewal of the church will have one thing, and one thing only, in common with monasticism, namely the “uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the Sermon on the Mount.” In other words, what Bonhoeffer wanted people to be called to was not a specifically monasticish movement at all, but rather simply to an uncompromising style of messianic life in which all of our action as Christians is given over to the sort of radical love to which Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, calls us.

What is needed today is not so much a rediscovery of “monasticism,” as perhaps we had once thought. Rather what is needed is to return all the more strongly to the message of the Gospel of the crucified, which places its call upon all humankind. We perhaps need to die to the dream of cultivating and securing quasi-monastic communities for ourselves and learn, yet again, what it might mean for us to simply give our lives away in obedience to the call of the Crucified, who calls not simply a few to a special ascetic vocation, but rather calls all of us to be completely given over to the way of discipleship, which can only be a kenotic way of life in which the call to lay our lives down must be discerned afresh in whatever contingent circumstances we find ourselves.

27 Comments

  1. Mark Van Steenwyk wrote:

    Amen. I think the terminology and literature have been generally unhelpful, actually. I’m honestly tired of folks assuming that the sorts of practices we have in our community are extraordinary. Meanwhile, as thousands of people listen to new monastics every year and thousands read books by new monastics, I’m generally seeing a trend AWAY from living in community. Not every region is the same, but generally speaking I think things peaked a few years ago. And for all the buzz and hoopla and energy in the trend, we are seeing interesting things like most Catholic Worker communities being hard-pressed for volunteers.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  2. What’s living in community? Can I buy it on amazon?

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  3. Rod wrote:

    I think we need to critically examine the theology behind the early church and the development of the monastic lifestyle. For what it’s worth, as a fan (sorta) of Clement of Alexandria, it has more to do with a Logos Christology from above that was practiced through a group of Christians who wanted to physically distance themselves from society. Class oughta be analyzed too, seems like a lot of economically privileged folk back then and now were into monasticism.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Good points. An investigation into the christological underpinnings of monasticism would probably be most interesting.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  5. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Halden — Have you read Thomas Merton’s “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives”? It’s the last address he gave before he died accidentally in December 1968. (It’s in his Asian Journal.) In it, he expressed almost exactly the same kind of sentiment you expressed in your post. And that was coming from a real monk.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    I’m not so sure, Rod. Monasticism may have come to attract those with high backgrounds but, if I recall correctly, a lot of the foundations of the movement was amongst poor people who could no longer afford their land (or who no longer benefited from it) and who then abandoned their property or tenancies and basically dropped out of the system.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  7. dan wrote:

    Are these just your personal thoughts or are they the sort of things that are percolating amongst the members of the community you have joined?

    Solidarity with the poor. That’s where “new monasticism” or “intentional Christian communities” should end up (IMO, of course).

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 7:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I believe they are percolating in the church I’m a part of. And I’m definitely committed to fostering and promoting such work amongst this people. I too agree that this is where we need to end up and continue to move towards.

    Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Rod wrote:

    I think you are right Dan. An Christological investigation would have to point out the differences between the earliest monastic movements’s view of Christ and the ones that happened later (between the 2nd and 5th centuries BCE).

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:

    There are other communities lumped in with the new monasticism.

    For me, the ‘monastic’ part has to do with the idea of a ‘monastery’ 1/ with a rule of life, 2/probably an abbott’ or leader figure(s) with vision 3/ a place where everyone gets to contribute and have a voice and 4/ a place of learning together and 5/ a commitment of a few people to live together in community.

    The two communities I have first hand familiarity with are in England Cincinnati respectively–

    http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/
    http://www.vineyardcentral.com/

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  11. roger flyer wrote:

    Both of the communities I mentioned also utilize a Daily Office, another monastic staple.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink
  12. Bud Atwood wrote:

    You complain a lot.

    Friday, November 12, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, sorry to be such a wet blanket.

    Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  14. Geoff wrote:

    Hey Halden,

    How much do you think that the spiritual disciplines play into discipleship under Jesus Christ?

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Geoff, the best I can briefly say about that is that ascetic disciplines can play at best a tentative and tertiary role in a proper account of discipleship (cf. Col 2:20-23).

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  16. Geoff wrote:

    I’ve thought that too, but I some times wonder how it is that we “by the Spirit, put to death the actions of the body.”

    I think that following Jesus requires very close attention to, and discipline to do…all the while of course realizing that our discipleship is simply the result of the grace of God in Christ, who moved us from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son.

    I’m assuming that what you mean by ascetic disciplines is not “disciplines that take effort” like regular prayer or going out of my way to do what Jesus said, but things like all night vigils, retreats, and bodily abasement.

    What do you think of the more gospel centered ones like Bible memory, study, regular prayer, Matthew 6 style fasting, etc?

    I’m just curious about how we actually go about living like disciples in light of all this theologizing we do…on my desk are an absurd amount of theology books ranging from Nate Kerr, to Brunner, to Augustine and John Wesley, and where I feel like Barth, Brunner, and the like got grace right, they missed the human end of regularly doing what Jesus said and training ourselves to do so…which Wesley and Augustine seemed to understand quite well!

    I know this comment is too long, but you read a lot of the same theologians as myself and I’m wondering what you make of this particular issue, especially after your experience with the New Monastic label.

    Monday, November 15, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  17. roger flyer wrote:

    @ Geoff. I like it that you’re taking this thing out of the academy into the streets…er church? ;)

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  18. Geoff wrote:

    haha, I recently preached through the sermon on the mount and it ends with, “you may have cast out demons and talked really well about theology in my name but I will say, ‘I never knew you.’

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Geoff, I think I’ll devote a post to this in the next day or so, as I think it is an important question, but one that needs a more thorough answer than I can give in the comment thread. I will say two things, though. First, I think that thinking of discipleship (following Jesus and his way) primarily in terms a program of practicing various forms of self-discipline, however that be construed is problematic. The core of discipleship is not discovering modes of self-disciplining, but rather of simply following Jesus and his way (obviously I need to say more about this — I will do so).

    Second, none of this is to imply that we do not work out our salvation with fear and trembling, or that we don’t have to devote ourselves, with depth of perseverance and effort to the hard work of following Jesus in contemporary contexts. Indeed, I don’t see the disconnect you seem to see in terms of the theologians you mention. It was from Barth and Bonhoeffer that I learned what obedience and following Jesus meant. To be sure they didn’t give programs or exercises that are supposed to inculcate us into holiness, which perhaps you could find in Aquinas or some readings of Wesley, but I think that reflects not a “missing” of “the human end” but rather a disagreement about the nature of the gospel itself. And that disagreement is of the utmost importance if we are to really get at the theological issues that all to often covertly shape and mandate programs of “spiritual formation” that often operate in contrast to the gospel rather than in service to it and its proclamation.

    I’ll try to get at some of these issues more thoroughly soon, since its not the first time this question has come up in the last few months.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  20. roger flyer wrote:

    The Message?

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  21. roger flyer wrote:

    Actually, being ‘known’ by God is a big deal if you look at the Psalms.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  22. roger flyer wrote:

    Halden-
    Bring it on!

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    You know, Roger, I’ll be out with Nate to hang with Ry and yourself in May. Its been a long time coming.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  24. Geoff wrote:

    I just paraphrased it that way because a bunch of theology students and professors attend the church where they haphazardly let me preach Sunday nights.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  25. roger flyer wrote:

    What? Excellent! When are you guys coming?

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 5:19 am | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    Haven’t set a date yet. Sometime in May.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  27. Geoff wrote:

    Halden,

    Thank you for the response and I get what you mean. And Barth and Bonhoeffer have been super helpful no doubt. I did not mean to slight them.

    And I do hear you about making discipleship about actual obedience to Jesus and not some specific program…that undoes the liberty we have in the gospel. But I guess I feel that the need for advice on “the human end” still matters.

    And I just included Kerr because the book was in front of my face, not because I saw that disconnect, I only have the one book.

    I look forward to the post. In Barth’s volumes on Reconcilation, we do see his focus on being redeemed in Christ as the undoing of sloth. And I really believe that is true and that it matters. I’ve just been more concerned lately the “fear and trembling part.”

    The best definition I’ve seen of a disciple is somebody who is willing to regularly revise their affairs to obey Jesus Christ.

    Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

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