Christian asceticism: one thinks immediately of monks living out in the desert or a rugged individual living on top of a pillar, rejecting all worldliness and devoting oneself to God, living in caves and denying social living – one thinks immediately of Athanasius’s Life of Antony or the choices St. Simeon. These tales of incredible self-sacrifice are often accompanied by a biographical origins story where the ascetic individual(s) receive a distinct call from God, often in the form of a mystical narrative of some kind. Perhaps the individual found a demon and fought it off, or he saw some kind of vision – the point is clear – this is an irrevocable summon from the Lord himself, and one has to drop everything one is doing and follow suit.
The ancient Christian ascetics became the norm for what any Christian ought to aspire to be: they are the living examples, the heroes of the faith, and the ones to follow. They were also a bit like modern day celebrities – people would come from all over just to hear them preach, meet them, and simply to see how they live. It became an odd form of entertainment: here is something out of the ordinary, individuals truly devoted to God. How does one know they are devoted to the Lord? Well, it’s simple: an obvious calling which defied the social norms, an obviously different lifestyle that denied the world and its pleasures. These men, heroes, were holy precisely because their callings were undesirable, not fun, detached from daily living, and “supernatural.”
One can easily critique this form of Christianity – its a syncretistic understanding of the faith that combines scriptural notions of holiness with neo-Platonism (where the material world is seen as evil, and piety and wisdom are to be found in the spiritual realm through contemplation and physical self-denial), it was a reaction to a wealthy Christendom of the past – sure enough. But this is all behind us, isn’t it?
Not so quickly: it is always of interest to me every time I hear pastors or theologians tell us their stories of how they came to embrace their calling. One day I was asked how I knew that pursuing an academic theological career was my calling – my response was simple: I like reading, I can write, I don’t mind sitting down for hours on end in a library, and theology is the most practical and foundational discipline there is. I remember, also, occasions where the recipient of my response was disappointed – “what?” – they would say, “Isn’t a calling of your kind supposed to be something that you did not want, something that was demanded of you, despite your inclinations?” Ah. I thought – surely, then, the best theologians and teachers are the ones who are dragged in by God kicking and screaming?
This is a remnant of the dualistic thinking found in asceticism: the pastoral/theological vocation is seen to be distinct, specifically pious, holy, and therefore its origin in the life of the called cannot be ordinary, surely? One can discover one’s calling, if, say, one is pursuing business or the arts by seeing if one likes it, but surely not for theological studies? It’s a “sacred” calling, distinct from the “secular” ones.
This sort of understanding is still very present in the Chinese-Indonesian culture in which we live. Pastors are often paid wages that are lower than the supermarket clerk – with the insistence that a truly “holy” person would not demand for more (contrary to 1 Tim. 5:17). Pastors are seen as “hamba-hamba Tuhan” (servants of the Lord) in distinction from the “ordinary Christian” – which reeks of the sacred clergy/layman distinction in Roman Catholicism – and theologians are expected to “suffer” in a physical way that is only befitting to their “holy” callings. What happens? Pastors start to encourage one another to “pray publicly” for things that we need, so that individual congregation members will give them “love gifts” that are much higher than one’s wages anyway – they start doing “favors” for congregants – in a culture where being perceived as “religious” is still a socially advantageous situation rather than not, having the pastor in one’s pocket can only be good for oneself. Or, pastors are lifted up in society as incredible followers of God, in distinction from the other “normal” people living “mundane” lives.
Alas, vestiges of neo-Platonism still abound – this time in a different form, that of Confucian austerity being expected of the “holy men.”
It’s time to call it what it is: rubbish. Merely an instantiation of the baptizing of a non-Christian philosophy, and implementing it into daily Christian living. Christian faith became something of a spectacle to be watched by the ordinary laymen, detached from life, science, and art. Theologians are segregated from society, and no more. In this, as Herman Bavinck says, “The Christian life was often seen to be alongside, sometimes above, and occasionally even at enmity with human life.” (Certainty of Faith, 49).
In contrast: “A Christian’s confession is not an island in the ocean but a high mountaintop from which the whole creation can be surveyed. It is the task of Christian theologians to present clearly the connectedness of God’s revelation with, and its significance for, all of life. The Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2: 330). Here, there is much work to be done.