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.

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.

Book Review: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a historical survey of religion and violence.  I was drawn to the book when it was announced last year, having previously read Armstrong’s History of God.  I have great respect for Armstrong’s ability to capture the broad currents of religious history, so I was very interested what she would make of the difficult and important topic of how religion relates to violence.  The book did not disappoint: it is an excellent popular treatment of the subject, deep in its investigations and amazingly ambitious in its scope.

Armstrong’s major thesi seems to be this: the relationship between religion and violence is complicated; don’t over simplify.  In particular, she is writing against the popular polemic coming from Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. el, that religion is the primary source of violent behaviour throughout history and violence is reduced by reducing religion.  (This of course is not a new thought; Armstrong mentions version of this polemic as early in the modern period as the modern definition of religion, specifically the secularism of the French revolutionaries.)  Her consistent argument throughout the book is that religion has been invoked both for and against violence as long as religion has existed and that all religion wars and conflicts also have political, social and economic causes.  From my perspective, this is a completely sensible and almost painfully obvious thesis; however, I can appreciate the need for  a popular book to speak against the aforementioned polemic.

Even though I’ve just presented her thesis as `almost painfully obvious’, there are many subtleties explored in the book. Among these is the observation that the machinery of cities/states/nations/empires absolutely requires violence.  This idea is presented in the first part of the book dealing with ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China.  She recognized the non-violent themes in the great sages of the Axial Age: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, the Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew prophets, among others.  Most of these non-violent teachings morphed into official religions of kingdoms and empires, all of which used them to justify their status quo of violence.  Typically, I’ve viewed this as empires co-opting and perverting religion.  Armstrong would mostly agree, but gives some thought to the reasons and mechanisms.  Particularly through the example of Maurya Emperor Ashoka in India, Armstrong makes the observation that the leaders of these empires may have consciously realized that their entire political structure was completely impossible without its systemic violence.  The only alternative they could imagine to the domination of empire was the anarchy of constant fighting between hundreds and thousands of local princes, warlords and thugs.  The choice in early human history (and perhaps in all of human history) may not be violence/non-violence, but which kind of violence.

This part of the book is where Armstrong leans most strongly toward the thoughts of René Girard.  She mentioned Girard explicitly at the very start of the book and end the last paragraph with Girardian language; however, I was hoping for more explicit interaction with Girard throughout the book.  There is a strange and powerful Girardian thesis that the original idea of sacred was violence made holy through a scapegoating processes saving early communities from their own destructive in-fighting.  I was fascinated by this idea when I read Girard last year and  I was hoping Armstrong would deal with it explicitly.  I was mildly disappointed on this score.

Armstrong writes as a very broad generalist, a style which I found somewhat unsettling in this book as in `History of God’.  She covers huge swaths of human history in a 400 page book; by necessity, she summarizes everything.  I’m much more accustomed to reading something in detail on a particular topic; the constant summarizing feels strange and often superficial.  While I’m sure that historians and theologians could argue with the necessarily simplifications of almost every summary, I appreciate the goal of trying to talk about currents and trends throughout many eras and locations of human history.  It seems to fit her goal of writing a holistic and accessible work (though even at that, the focus is almost entirely on Europe, the Middle East, Persian, India and China).  The overall effect of getting small pieces of stories and summaries from thousands of years of human history is a powerful effect.  It’s also has a very useful humbling effect in that it remind me how little I know about all the many details, events and causes of human history.  Impressively, this is accomplished without the tone of the book feeling distant or patronizing; many, many names are mentioned without giving the sense of name-dropping to establish authority.

The later half of the book focuses on modern and contemporary examples, particularly the recent history of Islam, terrorism and jihad.  This isn’t surprising given her goal to address the current of thought which blames the religion of Islam for much of the violence of the modern world.  Armstrong does excellent work giving just a brief introduction to many recent violence histories; enough to remind us that the simplistic narrative of our newswriters and politicians are not necessarily well informed, that much of the violence of the middle east cannot be understood without also considering secular movements, economic exploitation and colonial repression.  Moreover, she reminds us that Islam (like all major world religions) has inspired great peacemakers as well as reprehensible warmongers. Religion and violence: it’s complicated.