Why we need something like monasticism again today – part III: The moral argument concluded

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1932) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




This post continues the series from a section of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis that argues monasticism is part of our “usable past.” Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

To recap, my argument in this chapter has been that we will continue to be both disinclined and incapable of the effort necessary to practice ascetic disciplines unless we, first, have something of the passion for Christ that animated the monks and, second, have a strong traditional foundation on which to build our practice. I have been trying in this book to describe the foundation the medievals had, in their passion for theological knowledge, their understandings of Incarnation and Creation, the balance they held between Word and world, their whole-person devotion, and so on. We need both the passion and the tradition if we are to do the discipline.

In particular, the morality chapter speaks to the argument of this one: If we, like my pastor whose question is described at the beginning of that chapter, do not know how to put a Christian ethic into practice[1] – that we are paralyzed by grace—or rather, by misunderstandings of Reformation teachings on grace. We are kept from applying the practical insights of medieval monasticism by a dimly understood sense that whatever the Reformation was about, it was about destroying monasticism (and it did end up doing that in some European countries). But with nothing to put in place of that practical monastic wisdom—though the Pietists tried to replace it, as did the Puritans—we will fail to practice spiritual disciplines as the monastics did.

Deep down we have counter-rationalizations, arguments in our heads that say “Oh no, that’s not something we need to do. We can achieve virtue in other ways besides spiritual disciplines. We can achieve virtues by some sort of spontaneous overflow of holy emotion derived from our devotional life. We can achieve them by claiming scriptural promises about holiness and waiting for a ‘second blessing’ experience. Or we can achieve them through education and the direct application of intellect.”

This last one is probably the most common dysfunctional view: the assumption that all we have to do is educate ourselves in the good, and once we know that in our head, we’ll proceed to do good and not evil. As Jonathan Haidt and others have shown: this view is based on a faulty understanding of human moral development and the human psyche. We do not understand first and act out of that understanding. We are, on the contrary, “trained up” over a long period of time in the midst of a community of practice. That training becomes deeply embedded in our hearts. And we act out of that training automatically and indeed passionately—only applying moral reasoning after the fact to rationalize (or sometimes to understand and even to modify) what we have done and the reasons we have done it.

Moreover, the fruits of the church’s failure in this area have been amply demonstrated in the supposedly Christian West. As we have gotten smarter and smarter scientifically and technically, we have apparently gotten stupider morally. And the period that claimed the most for intellect was the modern period of the World Wars, in which demagogic leaders touting rationalist scientific schemes for the improvement of humanity (as we saw in the compassion chapter) pushed the world to the brink of cataclysm and killed millions of people. This experiment has been tried. It does not work. The rationalist moral philosophy is a piece of modernist hubris that has resulted only in death and misery.

Therefore, since there is not a straight line between an intellectual understanding of morality and the application of that understanding in making us better people, we must ask: How do we get past “mere orthodoxy” to orthopathy (right emotion or right “heart”) and orthopraxy (right action)? What is the training, what are the disciplines? I have suggested in the tradition chapter that part of the answer must be: we must imbue ourselves in the Christian tradition.

Monasticism looms as the medievals’ primary answer to this question of how to achieve orthopraxy, and thus bears close scrutiny in the mode not just of antiquarian curiosity on our part, but in the mode of actual application. We need to listen to one of the premier ethicists of our day, Alasdair McIntyre, when he says that we are waiting for a new Benedict. And to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he says that we need a new monasticism. These are moderns who have understood that the only way to break this spiral of sin and vice in our society is to apply to ourselves spiritual disciplines: Askesis, in its actual meaning, which is “discipline.”

[1] Reminder: The distinctiveness of a Christian ethic may be understood mostly in the particular ways we discipline ourselves toward the Good and the spiritual help we believe we can get in that discipline, not by and large in the shape of the ethic itself, which as Lewis teaches us in Abolition is largely a matter of universally shared understandings: we must not steal or kill, we have a moral imperative to protect the innocent from harm, and so forth. In other words, it is not particular moral injunctions (which are more or less universally shared between cultural and religious groups around the world) but rather the animating “theological virtues”—faith, hope, and love—that distinguish the Christian ethic from other world ethical systems.

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