Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christians and austerity of life

While I was doing my undergraduate degree at Arizona State, I began reading much ancient philosophy. I especially enjoyed the ancient Greeks for their rigorous moralism and austerity. All the philosophical schools, even the Epicureans but especially the Platonists and Stoics, prescribed a simple, austere life of spiritual disciplines and self-control for the sake of a well-lived life.

This kind of austere living is right at home in some Christian traditions, especially in the monastic quarters of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But other groups of Christians may find it morbid, an exercise in "works righteousness," or whatever. These persons insist on enjoying life and the good things of life. There's no need to be so strict and monkish!

What is the truth of the matter? What's the right way for Christians to live?

We certainly find the more this-worldly, life-embracing attitude in some portions of scripture. Consider for instance these fine sentiments taken from the Preacher of Ecclesiastes:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (Eccl 9.7-9).

This is about as this-worldly as you can get! Drink your wine, eat your food, enjoy your time with your wife, because that's all you're going to get. This is the gift given to you: a life of toil with a few compensating pleasures. The Preacher's this-worldliness is motivated above all by a deep awareness of the inevitability and -- importantly -- the irreversibility of death. Death is a grave evil from which there is no return, and the worst thing of it all is that it happens to everyone, regardless of merit:

. . .the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone (9.2-3).

The reason why the Preacher recommends an "enjoy life" attitude is because death is coming, it comes to everyone alike, regardless of whether they are good or bad. If being saintly doesn't mean escaping death any more than being horrible, then why not simply enjoy the things God has given you? Why not simply enjoy yourself while you're here for the show? There's no coming back once you die: never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun (9.6).

But it is obvious that Christians cannot share this same attitude towards death. Christ is risen from the dead; therefore we all live as well! We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and every person is going to be called to give an answer for the life they led (2 Cor 5.10). There is a return from death, and those who die will once more get a share in all that happens under the sun -- though it may be a good share or a bad share.

We might ask: how can you justify a comfortable life lived for enjoyment's sake, when others suffered and toiled pointlessly for much shorter a life than they would have liked, and it was within your power to help them? Beyond that, our inner disposition towards sin is tricky and deceptive; it may take advantage of the good things God gives us, through our intemperance and inability to control ourselves, and before long we may find ourselves using them to excess and sin all the while justifying ourselves by appeal to appreciation and gratitude for God's good gifts. A drink now and again becomes regular drinking becomes alcoholism -- it's not impossible.

Though I am far from fulfilling this standard myself, it seems to me the Christian cannot but live with a measure of austerity. Holding back, limiting oneself, denying oneself pleasures of the moment for the sake of avoiding a disastrous downfall into excess, all the while cognizant of the coming judgment where an answer will be demanded for every wasted moment -- that is Christian living in light of resurrection.