Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Book Review - The Story of Monasticism : Retrieving Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality

Tracing the contours and defining the meaning of "the new monasticism" is a work in progress. The results, as with all living histories, are somewhat tentative and the whole notion of "new monasticism" cannot seem to shake the stain of artificiality from its back. It is a term applied by observers belonging to a religion with a clearly identifiable monastic tradition (or at least those highly sympathetic to monasticism), but may or may not be rejected by those involved with it depending upon their confessional persuasion.

Greg Peters' The Story of Monasticism : Retrieving Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality is another foray into "new monasticism" from the perspective of Benedictine oblate and Anglican pastor writing as an observer of the phenomenon for evangelical Christians. Peters was raised Southern Baptist and became attracted to monasticism in college. The personal context of the author is important, providing as it does a glimpse into the sociological factors (e.g., the porousness of religious life in the United States) that have enabled a loosely defined monasticism to exert influence in traditionally non-monastic circles.

Peters' target audience is evangelical Christianity with the intention demonstrating that monasticism's principles are genuinely biblical in origin. Evangelical Christians can, therefore, accept the principles of monasticism, recognizing that some of its historical applications have occasionally strayed from the scriptural ideal. When the biblical principles are upheld, one finds numerous aspects to monasticism that are not only acceptable to evangelical Christians (or Christians in general), but indeed have special relevance for our contemporary context.

His thesis works in parts, however the whole narrative does not always convince as the data seems somewhat skewed from the start.

Monasticism in the context of this book is defined, by and large, by the noble Benedictine tradition. As a consequence, the monasticism described in the book is very much a Western or Latin monasticism, complete with its contemporary nods to the most basic points of Orthodox monasticism. Whether contemporary monasticism or "new monasticism", the whole conversation has become nearly self referential, continuing on a particularly contemporary path without much desire to submit its tenets to the scrutiny of the Orthodox tradition.

The historical narrative presented in the book rests on the presumptions of Reformation Christianity. Even though the author calls evangelicals and other Reformation inspired Christians back to reexamine monasticism, one has to accept the premise that there were historical and theological problems which the Reformation corrected in order to follow the author's narrative without critique. His target audience will likely find this palatable, however, other readers may well disagree with how the other frames Christian history in his discussion.

Much like many contemporary Catholic monastic authors, there is a serious question as to whether or not the author is honest about the relationship between asceticism and monasticism. This becomes especially crystalline when the author discusses Barth's perspective on monasticism and his proposal of a "proper understanding of asceticism," although one could also argue it was manifested earlier on by the comparatively sparse presence of Orthodox sources and the somewhat facile treatment of John Cassian. Again, there is a Reformation hermeneutic at play here, one that has become popular among many Western monastics. This ascetic-lite monasticism proposed by Barth questions the traditional vows of monasticism and understanding of asceticism's purpose in the life of the monk. The notion that the asceticism unfolds the process of physical and spiritual purification leading to the contemplative vision of God. Instead, a concept of monasticism emerges which glosses over the asceticism of its history. This monasticism pivots away from ascetic discipline in favor psychology (have a calm and pleasant demeanor) and engaging in charitable/social work. The  relative devaluation of asceticism (expressed both by Reformation inspired authors and by new monastic movements) both abandons monasticism's tradition and seems incongruous with tenets of contemplation held by many new monastics. Asceticism was traditionally seen as the process by which to prepare oneself for and enable contemplative vision. What is contemplation without asceticism? Neither "new monasticism," nor its proponents have engaged in a rigorous dialogue with the ancient sources  to satisfactorily consider this question, let alone attempt an answer.

Peters highlights what makes the "new monasticism" possible: asceticism has been abandoned in favor of psychology and social justice. When Peters reaches the point of discussing contemporary practitioners or purveyors of the "new monasticism," one finds a monastic vision grounded largely in social justice causes, including fairly specific approaches to the local economy. One wonders where the Catholic Worker movement is in his account of "new monasticism," as every example Peters highlights seems to be operating off of the movement's platform since the death of Dorothy Day.

Peters is convinced that monasticism, presumably by means of the "new monasticism," will persevere and has a future, even among evangelicals. Plainly, Peters sees monasticism as part of Christianity's mission in the post modern world. Whether or not the "new monasticism" the book seems to point towards is that future model remains to be seen. Although Peters does a fine job identifying aspects of early monasticism that could be incorporated into a Reformation based tradition, he does not engage in critical examination of the social, political, and economic mission statements of new monastic movements. The extreme temporality of new monastic movements, a serious long term weakness, is left unaddressed.

Ultimately, The Story of Monasticism is a satisfying read. It is about as comprehensive as one should expect from an expose` of a contemporary religious movement. Although, the author could have set his book apart by offering more of a synthesis and theoretical proposal for greater integration of the new monastic impulse into the broader Christian body.

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