Voluntary Simplicity Part 2

In the previous post, I spoke about restraint and practices of `voluntary simplicity’.  In this follow up post, I’d like to talk about the religious motivation for such a choice.

I associate religions with all the more severe and extreme forms of voluntary simplicity.  The obvious monastic examples include poverty, chastity, silence, and stark simplicity in food and shelter.  The whole idea of monastic retreat from civilization is a form of voluntary simplicity: going without the established culture of your time and place in history.  What is it about religion that inspires these choices, particularly in these extreme forms?

My answer to that question comes from Ken Wilber’s understanding of stages of spiritual development.  (Obviously, this is not unique to Wilber; he’s just the writer from whom I’ve learned this material).  In a healthy childhood and early adulthood, the establishment of a solid, secure and healthy ego is necessary and desirable.  However, once this stage is attained, the great moral traditions of the world inspire a person to learn and grow away from her own ego.  They teach us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow.  I don’t necessarily think that self-denial looks like Luther’s bleak pessimism about the depravity of humanity: we’re not worms.  Hence self-denial follows the establishment of a healthy ego.  Religiously, we are all precious children of the Most High.  But after the establishment of a healthy ego, some amount of self-denial is a worthy goal in itself.  The ego, for all its usefulness and necessity, is a powerful and selfish creature.  It demands satisfaction and, left to its own devices, values that satisfaction above all else.

I believe it is one of the great universal moral teachings to say that satisfying the ego is not the ultimate purpose of human life.  We are called for more: we are called to serve the happiness of our fellow humans, even to the detriment of ourselves.  In religious language, I like the idea that we are called to be a blessing in whatever situation we find ourselves in.  I think this calling is the main source of the religious call for simplicity: the part of the process of denying ourselves, of striving to go beyond the ego, it part of this greater calling to serve instead of being served.

Much of my own motivation these days comes from reading (and practicing) the mystical dimension of religion.  A major insight across the mystical traditions is the conclusion that all reality is unity.  As much as this takes many forms and languages in many traditions, I’m persuaded that the unity expressed by the great mystics is a common core idea.  At its fundamental core, the universe is is not-two.  This gives a direction to going beyond the ego.  The ego insists on, and is constructed on, the fact that it is a separate identity.  Going beyond the ego needs a great goal, a noble purpose; the Golden Rule is simple to state but difficult to motivate.  I find motivation for the Golden Rule in the idea, however strange and unreal, that the divisions between us are illusionary.  in particular, the division that creates my own ego, which is necessary for my development, is also illusion.  To limit myself in order to allow more for the world is the same as growing myself if, indeed, the world and I are not-two.

There is an entirely different religious direction I could see taking this discussion.  Perhaps this voluntary simplicity isn’t as much about denying the self as it is about building a less distracted lifestyle.  Religion, when healthy and whole, can be about building a new set of glasses with which to see the world, a set of glasses where the first are last, the meek are to be praised, and peacemakers will inherit the earth.  This is a difficult perspective to see in the midst of a busy, hectic and distracted life.  I’m under the impression that a major monastic motivation to leave the world was to avoid being caught up in the assumptions of the world.  In the midst of the frantic activity, it is very difficult to analyze and understand the assumptions which drive the world.  Stepping back gives the necessary perspective to see those assumption and challenge them, should we want to.

Lastly, I think religion offers a useful path towards realizing either a meagre or ambitious goal of voluntary simplicity and self-denial.  This path is through religious practices and disciplines.  This is quite ironic coming from me, since I’ve given up on almost all of those practices. But I see the value in them even though I’ve chosen to distance myself, and the meditation practice which I have chosen is motivated by hope in its long-term effect on my mind, spirit, choices and behaviours.

Book Review: Joseph and his Brothers

Everyone time we go on a vacation of more than a week, I take a lengthy book.  On vacation, especially at the pace that Steph and I usually prefer, there are frequent periods of some hours to fill.  I prefer to fill them with reading.  Moreover, I find that the long hours on planes or trains allow me to jump into a long, detailed, thick book (though some selections are much more ambitious than others).  I can still associate books with some vacations from the last few years.

  • 2006 Cycle Tour Vernon – Edmonton: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • 2008 Cycle Tour Nova Scotia: War and Peace by Leo Tolsoy
  • 2009 Cancelled Bicycle Tour due to injury (Stay at home vacation) – Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter
  • 2012 Quebec (including sitting on a train across the country): Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • 2013 Croatia: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 2014 Anne’s Wedding: Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • 2014 Washington State Bicycle Tour: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The summer 2015 monumental book was Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann.  Published in four volumes in the 1930s and 1940s, the book is a 1500 page dramatic retelling of the second half of the book of Genesis, starting with most of the major events of Jacob’s life and finishing with his death.

The book is ambitious.  Among its many goals and accomplishments, I’d like to focus on four aspects that particularly struck me.

First, as you might expect for a book turning a 20 page story into a 1500 page novel, the characters are extensively filled out from their relatively sparse biblical descriptions.  All of the major characters in the original story, as well as some of the minor ones, are given detailed, rich, psychologically complex characterizations and motivations. Perhaps the most notable is the effort and detail given to Eni, Potiphar’s wife.  (Unnamed in the original, Eni is one of several names given to the character in Mann’s novel).  Given only three words in genesis: `Lie with me’, Potiphar’s wife has become a caricature of woman as temptress.  Mann goes to great lengths to redeem her character from that unfair and simplistic description.  Given a full 200 pages, the story of Eni and Joseph is expanded into a deep, complicated three-year tragedy of unrequited love.   The blame for the eventual crisis between Eni, Joseph, Potiphar is shared among all three characters and several other minor figures.  It’s compelling enough that I often found myself hoping for Joseph to give himself up to the affair and I felt heartbroken for both characters by the end.  The novel felt like a real story about mythologically-influenced by psychologically human characters.  This shatters the simplistic distance of the original myth in a marvelous way.

Second, the story is put in a vivid and intricate cultural context.  Extensively researched, the story connects the characters and their settings with the various towns, cities, empires, cultures and religions of the particular historical period that Mann has chosen.  Biblical scenes which give only the most basic details are now full of secondary and tertiary characters.  A good example is Joseph’s time in prison, where we are given great detail on the warden, his living situation, the role and organization of the prison, the location of the prison and its culture and atmosphere.   There is a temptation, probably from deeply buried impressions of childhood Sunday School stories, to see the biblical stories as isolated.  It never occurs to me, even rereading as an adult, to visualize the complicated surrounding world.  Mann does an amazing job giving that world in great detail.

The first two points are perhaps exactly what you would expect for a novelization of myth.  Myth has a sparse, simplistic form; a novel should extend both character and setting in a natural way.  Mann does this well, but I would have expected a similar effort from any talented writer.  The last two observations are much more surprising and particular to the goals of this author.

Third, Mann takes stories and archetypes from throughout both biblical testaments and mixes them into his story.  I noticed dozens of such examples and I’m sure I missed others due to lack of familiarity.  To give a sense, the stories and archetypes of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abram, Sarai, Eliezer, Jonah, Job, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and others are applied to Jacob, Joseph and many other characters.  In particular, Joseph is more strongly set-up as a Christ figure than I have ever seen.  A long, complicated reason is given for treating his mother as a virgin, hence giving him a virgin birth.  Both his experiences in `the pit’ (the literal pit for three days before being sold, and the prison in Egypt) are treated as death and resurrection narratives.

Joseph as a Jesus-figure is an idea I have heard before, but Mann isn’t content with conventional parallels.  One of the more amazing and surprising choices was his mythology of the Pharaoh under which Joseph serves.  Mann has chosen the historical Pharaoh Akhenaten to be Joseph’s Pharaoh.  Akhenaten was historically notable for enacting a temporary shift in focus in the Egyptian pantheon, away from the previous sun-god Amun to a new sun-god Aten.   Aten is a more abstract deity (one of the few Egyptian deities to be represented as an object, in this case the sun, instead of a human or human/animal hybrid) and Mann makes Akhenaten’s story about searching for a universal monotheism.  A great part of the appeal of Joseph to Akhenaten is his monotheism, delivered in mythic stories about Abram turning his back on his Chaldean gods and seeking `the Highest’.  This, in itself, is fascinating, but when Akhenaten starts preaching about Aten, his quasi-monotheistic sun-god, the language Mann has chosen is a exact parallel of the the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Akhenaten himself is cast as the word-made-flesh.  The pharaoh, as mythologically the son of the sun-god,is on earth to show the glory of the One and Only.

Lastly, it’s not only biblical archetypes that Mann incorporates.  The surrounding archetypes of many ancient religions are also included with playful exuberance.  Moreover, they aren’t cleanly separated from the biblical archetypes.  Quite the opposite: the biblical stories are very intentionally presented as re-interpretations and adaptations of the stories of the surrounding religions.  All of the Christ-figure discussion of Joseph is also the story of Osiris and Horus and the death/tomb/rebirth narrative of ancient Egypt.  Likewise, it is also the story of the Cannanite and Babylonian gods, where death and rebirth are frequent themes.  The overwhelming impression given by this mixing is that the stories of Joseph are anything but novel.  Growing up with the Sunday school versions and becoming aware of historical biblical criticism as an adult, I found this impression absolutely fascinating.  One of the greatest things about reading this novel is getting a sense, through fiction, of one way the Hebrew stories might have originated among a rich cultural tradition of myths and archetypes, as opposed to the Deus-Ex-Machina delivery of the bible out of the ether that my childhood self tacitly assumed.  Mann does give the Hebrews some claim to originality when talking about the monotheistic idea of a singular higher power above all the Gods, though even here, he finds that same tendency in the Pharaoh Akhenaten.  The book is full of lovely mythological play between the surrounding culture informing and donating the stories of the bible and the Hebrews re-interpreting this gift in the understanding of Abram’s goal of serving a singular Highest.

Morality Looks Inward

The Christian Church has a long history of telling people what to do.  During many periods of history, the priests and hierarchies of various denominations have considered it their responsibility and obligation to proscribe and dictate the moral behaviour of their populations.  This rhetoric is alive and well in North American politics, though much more virulent in the United States than in Canada.  Take the US religious right on marriage equality: they feel that marriage outside of a conventional cis-gendered heterosexual context is morally evil and they feel they they have the right and responsibility to insist that their moral conclusion be imposed upon the general populace by force of law.

The argument I wish to make today, which many have made before me, is this:  the idea that social authorities (governments, churches, priests, teachers, leaders) have moral responsibility for their membership or the general public is at odds with core teachings of the Christian tradition.  There is a very reasonable reading of Jesus, Paul and various Christian writers through the centuries that leads to the conclusion that morality must be directed inward.  The most explicit source for this (at the risk of proof-texting, which is dangerous at the best of times) is in Matthew 7 (NSRV quoted):

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’

I interpret the passage as saying this: other people’s sin isn’t really my business.  My role is not to set myself up as judge over their sin; my role is to worry about my own actions.

I’m most concerned about this for the sake of inclusion in community, hence the focus on social authorities.  Once a community has decided it has the moral authority and responsibility to police its members, it almost inevitably uses that authority to enforce boundaries: to decide who is welcome and who must be shunned.  Letting aside numerous enormous problems with implementing such a scheme (the focus on particular sins, mostly notably sexual sins, the inevitable hypocrisy of the process, the inevitable corruption of welcome to the powerful, etc.), I feel the idea of centrally held moral authority is incompatible with the image of the community of God.

One of the great revelation of Christianity is the fact that we all are sinners; the community of God is a community of sinners.  Christianity should seek to break down barriers and say that all, really all, are welcome.  We are all welcome as we are with no strings attached.

Some have taken this to mean that all penitent sinners are welcome, but evidence of contrition is first required.  This attitude still requires the community to stand in moral judgement; now, instead of moral judgement over particular sins, it is moral judgement over whether or not you display an appropriately contrite attitude.  Moreover, this becomes impossible to separate from an appropriately submissive attitude to the authority of the community and leads to the same problem of exclusion.  The result is often the same: barriers and boundaries arise since the leadership claims to stand in judgement and can decide who is welcome.

Instead of this community of judgement, I feel the core Christian teaching is the opposite.  Judgement is not our responsibility; instead, hospitality is our responsibility.  And hospitality is welcome, completely regardless of status, evidence of the appropriate level of contrition, or submission to an authority.

A recent inspiration for this kind of thinking comes from my readings in various mystical traditions.  As far as I can tell, the theme of non-judgement is very strong in the mystical traditions.  Many of these traditions focus on meditation to get beyond the categories of the world; this includes the judgement into categories of sinner/saint. For example, I recently read a collection of aphorisms from the 4th century desert mystics, collected by Thomas Merton.  I was struck by the extremely strong focus on non-judgement in those aphorisms: many of the quotes focused on the need to avoid judgement at all costs and the greatest saints where those who stood in judgement over no-one.  The renunciation of retreat to the desert is not just a renunciation of wealth and worldly standing; it is also a renunciation of judgement.  For example, here are two such aphorisms:

One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community.  So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them.  He, however, did not want to come.  The priest sent him a message, saying: Come, the community of brethren is waiting for you.  So he arose and started off.  And talking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand, and carried it behind him.  The elders came out to meet him, and said: What is this, Father?  The elder replied: My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another!  The, hearing this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him.

And important caution must be noted in what I’ve written: the targets of this criticism are those in position of power who stand in judgement (myself included, having been born into a position of great relative privilege).  Those who find themselves in positions of authority in communities are those who must refrain from judgement, since they have the power to create the boundaries.  The Jewish and Christian traditions are full of holy, prophetic voices calling for justice for the marginalized: the poor, sick, and socially powerless.  Here there is a strong role for judgement, but it is the judgement of the oppressed calling out against their oppressors.  The call for non-judgement should not be used as a tool to silence those who point out the injustices of the world.