Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Part IV: Living Generously

Okay, back to monasticism. The point of cultural contact discussed here, which could be called simplicity, is fairly straightforward, but I believe that it’s one of most important benefits that neo-monasticism can bring to American Christianity.

From the genesis of the very first Christian monastic movements, a renouncement of all worldly wealth was central. Poverty was one of the three basic vows which all monks took upon entering the monastic life. This voluntary surrender of wealth is not necessary for a healthy Christian life, but it is certainly helpful. Of all the things that now threaten Western Christianity, materialism probably tops the list. It is our narcotic against the normal, healthy pains of life.

I’m not trying to idealize poverty as spiritually meritorious, nor am I saying that wealth is a sin. The point here is that within wealth and materialism lie the dangerous barbs of a spiritual trap that can blind us to the fullness of Christian life. It is simply too easy to run away from the convicting voice of God, surround ourselves with new comforts and luxuries, and let the world pass us by.

Voluntary poverty has no spiritual merit in and of itself, but it is helpful to the spiritual life. It takes our eyes and hearts off of the ‘stuff’ that surrounds us, and sets our treasure in heaven. Unattached to material things, we are free to focus on the work of God in our lives and in the world. We in America have become a culture of consumers, but the church must learn how to be a culture of radical givers.

My main objection to wealth, though, is not merely that it softens us to temptation and dulls our spiritual senses. Rather, the global economic inequity we see in comparing America and Western Europe to the rest of the world is horrifying. Many Americans are incredibly charitable and give a great deal to development projects across the world. But it obviously isn’t enough, because the inequities continue to loom larger than ever. I am convinced that nothing will do more to promote peace in the world than to raise the standard of living in the Two-Thirds World. It is largely (though not completely) from the economically disenfranchised that most militant movements, regardless of faith, draw their followers. And even beyond mere political incentives, the Bible is replete with commands to give to the poor and the outcast. It is an integral part of Christian discipleship.

C.S. Lewis, in his classic Mere Christianity, advises us concerning wealth and giving: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small.”

Lewis is right on the mark. The great benefit of voluntary poverty is that the church will have so much more to give away. In the new monasticism as I envision it, poverty wouldn’t be primarily for our own spiritual nurture, it would be for enabling us to live generously. If all American Christians, even for just one year, decided to live in voluntary poverty and give away all excess resources, we could change the world so resoundingly that it would shift the very course of history and bless every nation on earth. In my opinion, that’s something worth shooting for, and I’m more than willing to give up my excess comforts toward that end. As Rick Warren notes, “It’s not a sin to be rich. But it is a sin to die rich.” God endows us with blessings so that we can bless others, and the American church, while not totally complacent in this area, could be doing so much more. Our economic vitality is an incredible window of potential blessing and witness to the world, and neo-monastic poverty could help us harness and direct that blessing for the good of the nations.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amen and amen. To Warren's comment, add Wesley's axiom: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can. Btw, have you read the section on "Money" in Foster's "Challenge of the Disciplined Life?" One of the most practical, powerful, nuanced discussions of wealth in the Christian life that I've yet encountered. Further question: step back for a sec from the neo-monastic context. What can we do in our established church communities--other than preaching more sermons on the topic--to encourage this kind of radical generosity?

Timbo

Anonymous said...

I'm probably even more radical than you are on this point, min bror, because I do think that neglect of voluntary poverty is necessarily a blemish on one's spiritual health (of course, measured on a spectrum, one can be relatively spiritually healthy compared to the average while hoarding a typical American share of wealth).

As for your question, Timbo, the change in our American churches is not likely to come quickly. Sermons on the topic are indeed much needed, as are discussion forums, but perhaps nothing will speak more loudly than actually living out a lifestyle of voluntary poverty, especially if it is done in community. The challenge comes in starting such a community. American Christians are going to have to overcome a great gulf of insecurity first. There is, I'm afraid, too much faith in the dollar and not enough in Jesus Christ.

Josh Burden