Asceticism is one of the core, guiding principles of the Christian faith. It can be practiced and embodied in different ways, including monasticism. At the same time, though, asceticism itself may imply a contradiction of God’s wishes for mankind on Earth. This sample religious studies essay explores the theological and philosophical underpinnings of asceticism as well as the historical background of the practice.
Asceticism in religion
One of the foundations of the Christian teachings is based upon the idea of Asceticism. This is one of the guiding principles of which the followers of the church follow to obtain a higher state of spiritual salvation and enlightenment. This idea plays a significant role specifically in the Greek Orthodox sector of the Christian faith. The Orthodox Church has also shown that it has some of the most extreme practices related to the concept of Asceticism.
These practices include the idea of monasticism, which calls for followers to make many sacrifices in the name of God. However, is it possible that the ideas of Asceticism could be based on historical and ideological mistruths in the Bible? The church does not argue the fact that God created everything in the world. That being the case, is it possible that what God created could have been made to satisfy humanity? Under this logic, it is possible that the basic practices of Asceticism, therefore, could be in a direct contradiction with the fact that God created everything in the world to satisfy humanity.
Definition of asceticism
First, it is important to understand what the term Asceticism refers to.
Asceticism is defined as, “the practice of the denial of physical or psychological desires in order to attain a spiritual ideal or goal,” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
The origins of this practice are not exclusive to only Christianity, as it has been documented that almost ever religion has at least some trace of this practice in it throughout the course of history. In ancient civilizations, this practice could be applied to a multitude of different scenarios including athletic competition, preparation for warfare, and of course spiritual journeys for enlightenment (Encyclopedia Britannica). This ideology has been further applied to more modern religions such as the monastic beliefs found in Buddism, and it has become a common practice among the followers of religion today.
Defining asceticism within the constraints of Christianity
Within Christianity, the concept of Asceticism is used as a way to purify the mind and body in order to do the will of God. Based on the basic teachings of Christianity, the will of God can be determined by the humans if the proper amount of devotion and worship is applied on our part. It is through the practices of Asceticism, therefore, that one can discover and fully appreciate the will of God. Speaking specifically, the will of God is technically laid out for humans through the Ten Commandments in the Book of Genesis; however, there are certain aspects and items that these do not include that individuals may need in order to fully appreciate God’s will and plans.
This is where the practices of Asceticism come into play. Through the denial of desires and wants, one can achieve a higher state of awareness and gain a higher understanding and appreciation of their own spirituality and, by consequence, gain a better understanding of the nature of God’s will. Such practices of denying one’s desires usually include the practice of abstinence or the denial of sexual fulfillment, giving up certain types of food, works of charity, extreme prayer, and the denial of accumulations of the traditional sense of wealth (Knight).
The Middle Path and road to spiritual awakening
Throughout the Bible, references have been made to act upon a sort of ‘middle path.’ Take Mathew 22, 21 for example.
It states, “render therefore unto Caesar the thing which are Caesar’s; and unto God that things that are God’s,” (Orthodox info).
The basic teachings from the Bible act under a premise that we should not only accept our own weaknesses in a spiritual sense but that we should actively try to improve upon them. It is important to remember the old saying, “to sin is to be human,” however this is not some sort of blank check to become lazy and make no effort to improve one’s spiritual standing. Through certain acts of worship and devotion, however, we are taught that one’s spiritual understanding and standing in the eyes of God can be elevated.
One of the basic practices of Asceticism in an Orthodox sense is, “Orthodoxy is ascetic effort and it is life, and it is thus by effort and y life that her mission is broadcast and brought about,” (Orthodox info).
The Orthodox spirituality has one of the more extreme ways of practicing Asceticism when compared to that of most sects of the Christianity faith. Under this particular practice, one of the traditional teachings found in many world religions is monasticism. This practice is defined as the renouncing all of a person’s worldly possessions in the hopes that complete devotion to spiritual work will allow that individual to gain a higher understanding and sense of awareness of the will of God.
This practice of monasticism is an extreme case of the practices of Asceticism therefore because the individuals are denying themselves from almost all of the basic desires of humanity. By definition of monasticism, an individual that undertakes this extreme form of Asceticism cannot own any sort of material possessions, cannot accumulate their own individual wealth, and cannot take on a spouse or be intimate with another person (Rossi).
Orthodox asceticism and Protestants
The practice of the Orthodox Church can be quite confusing for those that convert into it, especially among those of the Protestant faith and people who subscribe to secular philosophies.
Protestants tend to express the feeling, “the married or non-monastic single convert is made to feel by this approach that he or she is condemned to ‘second-class citizenship’ in the Kingdom,” (Rossi).
Under this premise, there are two schools of thought that one can follow to arrive at a conclusion. First, there are fundamental differences between the Orthodox Church and that of the other sects of Christianity. This could include such factors as the difference in cultural identities that have formed where the split from the Orthodox Church and other Christian Churches are concerned, a different amount of spiritual culture development between these two similar faiths, or that the practices between these two faiths are poorly presented and understood among new converts to the Orthodox Church (Rossi).
These sort of beliefs follow an ideology that the Orthodox Church’s fundamental differences with regards to other religions can simply be resolved through new ways of teaching and informing its followers, especially new converts, as the specific practices that the Church follows and why it is important for an individual to live their own life in that specified way. Other Christians have a more platonic view on this subject, however.
Another possible explanation for the apparent disconnect between individuals and that of the practices of Asceticism in the Orthodox Church can come from perhaps a misinterpretation of what the practices of Asceticism should include and when they are necessary at all. It could be possible that the Orthodox Church’s practices of Asceticism are too extreme and based on a fallacy of logical understanding of the will of God. The argument for this takes the following form. It is assumed that everything that God does has a plan and a purpose in our world. Based on this assumption, God cannot and does not create something that does not fit a specific role.
Therefore, some of the things that God has created that give humans a sense of pleasure should not be treated as necessarily evil or poor displays of spiritual character because God did, in fact, create those types of actions when he created everything from the beginning of time and history. Based on this argument, one does not need to deny either the mind or the body from undertaking such actions. Applying this to the practices of Asceticism, one must conclude that the extreme practices, such as monasticism, are not a necessary practice of spiritual devotion because a person is only denying something that God provided for as a source of pleasure for humanity.
Evil actions and reasoning
To make such a bold claim, a fundamental line of reasoning must be defined and explained. This sort of logic does not deny that there could exist evil actions and deeds that humans should not undertake or perform.
One who, for some reason or another, enjoys murder cannot continue the practice citing the logic, Well God made this possible by creating everything, and it gives me a source of pleasure. So, I’m going to keep doing it,” because there are still fundamental laws and orders from God that a person must apply to their lives.
Christian ethics does not deny there are inherently evil acts that have been put into the world with the direct reason for tempting mankind’s will either. These actions are ones that tend to lead to the harm of an individual though and they are usually already discouraged through the most basic teachings of the church (as well as most other forms of religious teachings as well).
These would include common laws of the Church such as the Ten Commandments and some of the teachings from scripture. The general message of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” still is applicable, but there is no call for denying a person many of the pleasures that really do not hinder anyone. This could include such acts as abstinence, the accumulation of wealth, or the possession of worldly materials.
Application of ascetic morality to the theory of good and evil
Based on this sort of logic, a general call for the removal of the practices of Asceticism is not being made. What is being made is more of a revision to this time-honored practice. The idea of Asceticism, mainly that of achieving a higher spiritual sense of the world and the will of God, is not a fundamentally poor idea. In fact, the practice of raising one’s spiritual standing is generally saw as a good practice. What can be made then is a general revision to the practices of Asceticism. Perhaps the practices associated with Asceticism should be remade into a system that does not call for the denial of pleasures but simply a system that calls for the use of moderation on the part of a practicing individual. For example, it is not an inherently evil ideal that drives a person to want to accumulate wealth.
In fact, many gain wealth to provide for themselves and their families. There does exist a line, however, where the individual may harm or impede other’s ability to achieve a similar goal that advances their interests. This is what should be discouraged. An individual should be allowed to please their own desires but should show a sense of moderation when attempting to achieve them. He or she should never put their own desires above that of another person. Under this idea, the practices of Asceticism can refer to that of an individual living a much more enjoyable life without causing harm to someone else.
Conclusion: Gaining truth from religious rules and ascetic principles
Humans may fight about what it is that God wants ultimately for humanity, but there are certain known truths that religions will not fight over. A higher power’s creation of the world and its order is not something that can be denied by any follower of either Christian or Catholicism’s faith. Both will follow through on an idea of generally living a good life in order to obtain a higher spiritual standing and a place in the Kingdom of Heaven upon death. However, there is a difference of opinion on the practices of Asceticism between different faiths and sects of these religions. The Orthodox Church takes a relatively extreme view on the practices of Asceticism that go so far as to push the practices of monasticism.
The questions can be raised whether or not this extreme practice should be entirely followed on or if the nature of the role of Asceticism should be reexamined and redefined for the Orthodox Church. The Church can learn from ascetic principles applied to secular Buddhism. It is not necessary to deny oneself from all the pleasures of the world considering that God has made these actions pleasurable for humans for a reason. Perhaps instead we as humans should embrace these actions and simply apply a sense of moderation to the worldly pleasures that God has provided for us.
The new meaning of Asceticism, therefore, could be just to use a sense of moderation in one’s life, not a complete denial of some pleasures. Whatever the true path for defining and practicing Asceticism may be, however, humans cannot deny that the basic concept behind this term is grounded in a good practice of a faith. One should attempt to gain a higher understanding of their religion through worship, and if that calls for certain sacrifices, then the individual must be willing to make them.
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Asceticism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2012. ;http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/37864/asceticism.
Knight , Kevin. “Asceticism.” New Advent. 2009: n. page. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm.
Orthodox Info, . “Living an Orthodox Life: Ascetic Struggle.” Orthodox Christian Information Center. n.d. n. page. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/pr_ascetic.asp&xgt;.
Rossi, Vincent. “Asceticism: The Bridge between Marriage and Monasticism in Orthodox Spirituality.” Again Magazine. 1996: n. page. Web. 12 Dec. 2012. http://walkinwisdom.wordpress.com/ascetic-bridge/.