Christians and austerity: does it matter?

August 20, 2007 | Uncategorized | 28 comments

My husband and I were having an email exchange last week with my dad, who is an atheist and recently spent a couple of years living in Abu Dhabi. The subject of Muslim culture came up and he mentioned that he was pretty impressed with what he saw of Islam, mainly, I think, because of the seriousness with which Muslims take their religion. For example, he talked about how this past year Ramadan fell during some really hot months, and he would see people passing out in the street as they tried to function in triple-digit temperatures without eating or drinking anything all day long.

Here’s one excerpt from one of his emails on the topic:

It’s impressive to see how seriously the average Muslim takes their religion, especially coming from the U.S., where 90% of people who call themselves Christians are hypocrites. [In Muslim countries] people stop what they are doing five times a day and cleanse themselves and get on the floor to pray, and that first prayer is before sunrise. Most people who call themselves Muslims do this (at least where I was in AD). We had the little mosque outside our office and I would see flip flops and Guccis at the door. Everyone prayed, from the janitors to the General Manager.

I had been wondering what my father would think of living a place where he was surrounded by people who took their religion very seriously and followed rigid rules based on their beliefs, and it was interesting to hear of the respect he gained for his Muslim friends and coworkers.

Meanwhile, around the same time as we were having this email exchange, I came across the story of St. Dominic, who fought the Albigensian heresy in the 12th century. When he arrived in the area of France where this belief system had taken over, he saw that one of the things that had converted so many people was the extreme austerity with which the Albigensians lived. The leaders maintained high standards of asceticism, shunning all worldly pleasures in dedication to their beliefs. St. Dominic quickly found that if he had any hope of getting through to the people who had been converted to this belief system, he and his companions could no longer stay at nice inns, travel by horseback, have servants, etc. They too had to embrace a life of austerity.

All of this crystallized something I’d always noticed but had never articulated: we humans seem to have some innate sense that religion shouldn’t be comfortable. Like my dad with the Muslims and the French people with the Albigensians, there is something compelling about a belief system whose adherents do not make themselves comfortable in the world. But why? Here’s my theory, carefully formulated while cleaning the kitchen and grocery shopping this morning:

I think that humans “know” on some subconscious level that one of the hallmarks of a belief system that was actually in tune with a Creator would be willingness on the part of its adherents to experience discomfort. Throughout human history we’ve all had some kind of understanding that something in this world is amiss, that things are not fair, not the way they “should” be. So it would make sense then that if a group of people were able to tap into knowledge of some other realm, our true home, where things are “right”, where there exists the perfect justice and pure good that we all so deeply crave, that they’d have no problem blowing off all the comforts of this life and this world. Presumably, if the next life is so great and it lasts for eternity, people who have figured out how to get there would not feel attachment to the things of this life such as status, luxury, surface-level pleasures, etc. Believers would stand out from non-believers.

This is not to say that austerity on the part of believers makes a religion true. But it would seem to be a compelling data point in its favor, one that resonates to outsiders on some deep level.

I think that this is one of the reasons that Christianity has so little respect from non-Christians: at least in America, we’re pretty comfortable. We don’t fast, we don’t take pains to make Sunday a true day of rest, our standards for the kind of cars we drive and the houses we buy are no different than anyone else’s, we don’t stress if we miss church here and there, we don’t inconvenience ourselves to carve out time for prayer (many of us don’t even pray before meals if we’re in public), etc. etc. Obviously these are broad generalizations with plenty of exceptions, but there’s a lot of truth to it, truth that has not gone unnoticed by non-Christians.

And this is what I’ve been puzzling about all morning: is that a bad thing? Is it wrong that we as American Christians have, by and large, made ourselves very comfortable in the world? That in terms of daily lifestyle Christians blend right in with secular society?

I’m really not sure.

On the one hand, I could see the perspective that the main thing that matters is what’s in each person’s heart, that it’s fine that most Christians don’t turn their lives upside down for their faith so long as they’re truly seeking God in their hearts, that outsiders should evaluate the faith based on its claims and doctrines alone, that externally visible signs of devotion shouldn’t matter either way.

On the other hand, I could see the perspective that Christians shouldn’t fit right in with secular culture because we’re not supposed to be “of the world”, that amidst our decadent society you’d just kind of expect followers of Christ to stand out like sore thumbs more than they do, that true dedication to Christ would naturally result in more external signs of devotion than you currently see.

In a rare turn of events, I really don’t know what I think about this one. And that’s why I have a blog: so I can ask you! I’d love to hear other thoughts on this: does it matter that American Christians are not exactly renown for their austere lifestyles?

28 Comments

  1. yofed

    I was in Dubai for a while. It’s not a matter of austerity, really. People over there actually love their religion and are proud of it. And as your father said, you don’t find much of that here, even among the churchgoers. Over there, religion is actually SACRED. Here, for most people, it is not. It is a source of laughter for most.

    And I met many women without their veils, and they didn’t seem like victims. They were mostly nice women who will live according to their scriptures. They have a different sense of modesty. By that, I mean that there’s the outside clothing (weils, etc, so strangers don’t get to drool over these women, many of which were gorgeous!), and inside their house, or with friends, they wear normal clothings, like us…

    I really found it one of the most fascinating places!

  2. lyrl

    Material things only make you happy for a little while. If material things are a person’s main source of happiness, they can only be happy as long as they are actively consuming more, more, more. Lacking infinite wealth to continue to buy new and “better” things, a person is bound to become dissatisfied with the hedonistic treadmill, and to try to emulate people who seem to have found a way out.

    Finding something non-material to contribute significantly to a person’s happiness can break that cycle of being dependent on wealth and buying things to achieve emotional well-being. I don’t think the idea of an afterlife or existence of God would cut it – initially, yes, but like that new big-screen TV the happiness derived from these ideas would wear off with their newness. But a huge body of theology that’s challenging and insightful, that one could spend a lifetime delving into? There you go.

    Similarly, learning on any topic, from physics to history (learning is only one example of a non-material source of happiness, of course). I don’t believe a person has to be into theology or be religious at all to have the rewards of continually learning new things be a significant part of their happiness.

  3. cordelia

    it’s funny you brought this up today…i was in the library today, the woman in front of me was obviously an orthodox jew, her head was covered and her three boys had on yarmulkes and the tassle thingy under their shirts (sorry don’t know what that’s called)ANYWAY i was looking at her thinking how awesome that you can just look at them and tell they are religious,that they are not ashamed to show the world…i felt sort of lame in my flipflops and tee shirt…

  4. Woodrow

    Jen,

    I’ve read your blog periodically over the last year, but this is the first time I’ve posted. I wonder if there’s any validity to the claim that “outsiders should evaluate the faith based on its claims and doctrines alone” (and I understand you are not necessarily endorsing that view here). Jesus seems to issue a command to let our lives witness the truth to others: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 5:16 TMB). Rarely do we humans believe or commit to anything based solely on logic and reason.

    Also, the reason I don’t “stand out like [a] sore thumb more than [I] do” is because I am living in Laodicea. (Read Revelation 3:14-22). May God have mercy on me and give me a change of address!

    One last thing, I enjoy your blog.

  5. MikeF

    Very good post, Jennifer!

    As a Franciscan (Anglican) Tertiary I’m always coming up against this thought. After all, our Principles (10) state: “We as Tertiaries, though we possess property and earn money to support ourselves and our families, show ourselves true followers of Christ and of Saint Francis by our readiness to live simply and to share with others.”

    We are supposed to stick out like sore thumbs! What I’m always asking myself is, do I stick out far enough?

    The paradoxical thing is, though, that in the West (I live in the UK, in fairly prosperous Dorset) the church is so inured to its comfortable lifestyle that, living simply, we can sometimes find ourselves being looked down on by “better-off” people. This especially in true of some of the more evangelical churches, I’m sorry to say.

    I think the assumption may be that, if you’re following Christ, you will be blessed. Seeing blessing in material terms, they assume that if you’re not materially “blessed” then there must be something amiss with your “Christian walk.”

    Asceticism is, to some degree, part of our Christian calling, part of the way we can be “salt and light” in a damaged world. We forget this to our peril, and risk becoming like the rich young man in Matthew 19.15-25, who, unable to accept Jesus’ call to asceticism, “went away grieving, for he had many possessions…”

  6. Jonathan

    I so look forward to reading your blog each day. Thank you.

  7. Aliocha

    I believe it does matter, and a lot.

    In my opinion, the source of the practical abandonment of Christianity is due to the rise of protestantism (as a long-term effect).

    In the early Protestant Reform, and overreacting against hipocrisy, reformers held external signs of devotion in such little importance, compared to personal, intimate devotion, that they opened the way for the present state of things.

    St. James clearly points out what is wrong in this attitude, when he speaks about faith and works. Faith without works is dead. I think among these works that reveal faith to be alive, the manifestation of faith is essential. But Martin Luther described St. James’ epistle as an “epistle of straw”.

    Since the external and communal expressions of faith lost importance, faith itself has started to decline, because liturgy actually “feeds” our personal intimate devotion.

    I don’t argue that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin had a tremendous faith. But they all were raised as Catholics and as they tried to reform the church, and stop the abuses inside it, they left to the next generations a poorer church, one less capable of fostering, nurturing and expressing communal faith.

    At the bottom of all this I believe there is a lot of pride. God calls us to be saints, but the path to holiness is not a lonely walk. No one can do it for me, but I cannot do it alone. There is no way we can make it without leaning on each other. Focusing exclusively on the individual we have destroyed the communal aspect of faith, which could be visible in exterior manifestations of faith, and we have let this world go astray and turn into an “environment” which is terribly hostile to anyone trying to live out the christian faith.

  8. La gallina

    I love this post. I have often felt the same way seeing Muslims or Jews who are visibly religious. My Catholic (but not very religious) husband was very impressed by a couple of Muslim men in a fast food place where he was having lunch. In the middle of their meal, they got up, went to their car, took out their prayer mats, and knelt down right there in the middle of the parking lot to pray.

    I am not a person who wants to go around saying, “praise the lord Jesus loves you,” to people I meet just so they know I’m Christian. (One of the reasons I fit in better at the Catholic Church.) But I wouldn’t mind if the Catholics I knew were a bit more dedicated to their Faith.

    When I first converted last year, even though I didn’t feel very religious myself at the time, I wished that the Catholics around me had more convictions.

    Instead they complained about the old days and eating no meat on Fridays. They complained about Lent and being forced to “give up.” My Catholic friends party just as hard as anyone else, and only show up for Mass on the holidays. (Wearing shorts and flip flops in this TX beach town.)

    It was nearly a year after my conversion when I discoverd Catholic blogs that I found out that there actually are many dedicated Catholics who love God and the Church.

    Now I have totally fallen in love with the Church. I love to follow her teachings and traditions. And I pray that more and more Catholics will re-learn their faith and fall in love as well.

  9. newhousenewjob

    Hmmm. I’m going to give a slightly alternative view here. Jesus enjoyed a party – the first miracle we read about was at the wedding feast at Cana, when he turned water into a jolly good wine. He also said that when you fast, you should not make a big song and dance about it like the pharisees did, but put on your best clothes and invite people round. And he said the left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand is doing, and our Father will see all that we do in private.

    I wear a cross, I don’t dress indecently, and anyone who spends any time in my company knows I’m Catholic. But does not eating meat on Friday mean I should not socialise on Fridays, or make other people feel bad because I’m doing something ‘holy’?

    I agree that the practice of your religion should be like breathing – something that you do naturally, all the time. It’s not something that should be restricted to an hour each week (or month or year) in church. Yes, we should be conscious that people who know we are Catholic are going to look at how we behave, and some of them will judge Catholicism and the sincerity of Catholics by the behaviour that they see from us.

    Is a religion that has many outward manifestations better than one that doesn’t? Well, which is the better outward manifestation – to try 24 hours, 7 days a week (and yes, we’re all going to fail often, but at least we keep trying) to live a life which is in accordance with the teachings of your church, treat other people with dignity and respect, help those less fortunate than yourself, value life and promote respect for all human life, etc, or to make sure everyone knows when you’re praying and fasting?

    Every religion has its hypocrites and its lukewarm nominal adherents – asceticism is no panacea for that.

  10. Sarahndipity

    I agree with newhousenewjob that religion should be natural, like breathing. I do think that if we want to grow spiritually, we need to make sure we don’t get too comfortable. Which is a big struggle for me, since I love comfort. 🙂 It’s good to deny yourself sometimes. At the same time, I think some people take asceticism too far, like the people who were passing out from fasting. That seems to me like following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. I also think that asceticism can become a form of pride, so when we do ascetic practices it’s best not to advertise it.

  11. Catherine Shaffer

    I have to say there is something wrong when your outward manifestation of religiosity is intended to impress others. Remember Jennifer that when you talk about Islam you are talking about a religion that is, in Catholic terms, woefully misguided. We should no more make muslim practices our model than we should voodoo or wicca. (I mean, sure, isn’t it “nice” that all those pagans have so much respect for the Earth. Shouldn’t we also?)

    I absolutely agree with newhousenewjob that Jesus told us to fast in private, and that he also enjoyed a party. Furthermore, he only called some of his disciples to give up everything and follow him. Jesus also had many followers who were wealthy. Remember that if the good samaritan were not wealthy, there would have been no story. We each have our place in the pattern. We are called to stewardship of our gifts. And how judgmental is it to look at someone at mass wearing flipflops and judge that person as a bad Catholic. How many sacrifices are outwardly visible? You don’t know a person’s heart from their footgear.

    One reason Christians do not stand out in western society is that we have a fundamentally Christian social structure. If you were living in a muslim country, you would stand out by any number of your outrageous Christian practices, such as worshiping on Sunday, or treating all people as equals, as God intended. We don’t have anything to prove, and I find it’s a much more powerful witness if people get to know me as a good person before they know me as a Catholic.

    The last thing I’ll say is that embracing asceticism has led to more than one heresy. Remember that the Albigensians were WRONG. Their god was dualistic, and they believed all flesh was evil, and they rejected all pleasures of the flesh. When they felt the time was right, they went on a hunger strike until they died. This is just as wrong and sinful as overindulging in pleasures of the flesh. Jesus taught us to embrace our humanity by becoming man himself.

  12. SteveG

    So many thoughts on this that I think I may break up my reply in a couple different comments.

    First, and maybe this is something your dad could shed some light on, is a question regarding Muslim culture. I wonder if at least to some extent the lack of hypocrisy is only skin deep. It’s honestly a question not a claim.

    I think that in Western culture there used to be similar conformity regarding belief and church attendance and outward signs of being a ‘good’ Christian. I wonder sometimes if wealth, prosperity and freedom aren’t very powerful tools for revealing what’s really in our hearts. Once we gain them, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t need God so much anymore. That’s a scary thought and I don’t like to ponder what it says about my own choices.

    Christ said that it’s easier for a Camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. I think that’s in large part because wealth in some provides the illusion of freedom for us to pretend we are or own gods.

    All this to say that maybe we are comparing dissimilar things. If the Muslim nations ever have populations that are (generally speaking) as free, and prosperous as in the West, then we might have a better comparison.

    For now, I wonder if there isn’t a lot of conformity because of the lack of freedom to not conform.

  13. Joe Magarac

    I think your post conflates two questions that are better kept separate. First, does it matter that many American Christians are not particularly austere? Second, does it matter that many American Christians do not take their faith as seriously as the Muslims whom your dad met take theirs?

    My answer to the first question is no, and my answer to the second question is yes.

    Jesus is on record in the Gospels as not requiring austerity of His followers. He was happy to meet with people from all walks of life, and rebuked Judas for insisting on austerity for the wrong reasons. Joseph of Arimathea is portrayed as a good rich man who took care of Jesus’ burial; the Gospels and Acts allude to rich people (many of them women) who financed Jesus’ ministry and then the nascent Christian community. Jesus certainly encourages us to consider austerity – see His comments on giving up marriage for the Kingdom, or His invitation to the rich young man – but He does not require austerity.

    That said, I think it matters very much that many American Christians don’t take our faith seriously, and often fail to pray, fail to attend Mass regularly, and fail to behave decorously when we do attend. Any number of converts talk about being attracted to Catholicism by the quiet and reverent way that regular people attended daily Mass (see Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day). I think that if more Catholics prayed, attended Mass, and otherwise lived holy lives, the faith would spread.

    One last point: when I traveled in Morocco in 1994, I found the people there to be as easygoing in their religious observance as many of us are in ours. I think it’s tempting, but often wrong, to assume that other religions have devout people, but ours does not. We see the flaws in our system because we are most familiar with it.

  14. SteveG

    Second, on your thought that…

    one of the hallmarks of a belief system that was actually in tune with a Creator would be willingness on the part of its adherents to experience discomfort.

    …which I agree with, is something that is also evidenced purely from a sociological standpoint.

    Rodney Stark, who is one of the worlds leading experts on how conversion take place (sociologically speaking) has done some fascinating work on the ‘economics of religion’ states that one of the nine fundamentals that they’ve seen in religions that prosper is…

    religious groups that ask the most of the members are enabled thereby to give them the most, thus sustaining the highest level of rank-and-file commitment.

    The whole theory he proposes (and unlike his critics I don’t see such an analysis as inherently insulting to religion-grace builds on nature after all) is really enlightening to this particular discussion.

    The point is that inherently, people are not drawn to religions that don’t seem to ‘cost’ them much.

    This is more or less the old adage that you get what you pay for. If you don’t have to put anything into the religion (i.e. it doesn’t cost you anything), in the end people know that they are buying into something cheap and disposable.

    When the religion is expensive, it also usually will follow that what it can deliver is tremendous. Real meaning, virtue, peace, etc.

    As a side note this is where I think Lyrl’s suggestion that learning alone can fulfill the role of religion falls flat.

    Recently Dr. Popcak summarized what psychologists are more and more beginning to understand about human nature and authentic happiness.

    As he says…

    A basic premise is that pleasure is too fleeting to be the basis for happiness. Authentic happiness is therefore rooted in the pursuit of three qualities. Meaningfulness (using my gifts to solve problems/live life in a manner that not only benefits me but makes a difference in the lives of those around me), Intimacy (being healthily vulnerable and inspiring healthy vulnerability in others), and Virtue (viewing setbacks and struggles as opportunities for growth and character development).

    And I don’t see how learning alone (as important and meaningful as it can be), can fulfill the 2nd two parameters of that.

    Human beings are made to be in relationship (whether you believe that to be created or evolved into us), and one of the reasons we are such religious creatures is because of that innate desire for relationships that fulfill all three of those things that build authentic happiness.

  15. SteveG

    Finally, back to the topic at hand…the thing that occurs to me is that Islam in many ways is a step back, not forward. It seems to me that overemphasis on external piety and ritual as the focus of our spiritual life is one of the chief errors the Jews of the ancient near east had fallen into, and that Jesus was trying to shake them out of (whitewashed tombs anyone).

    Without meaning a bit of disrespect to dad, I wonder if he isn’t doing exactly what we are not supposed to do, judging by man’s standards as opposed to God’s. You’ve already tapped into this in your post about the inner state being critical, and I think Catherine (and others) hit the nail on the head for the most part.

    I particularly agree that as many problems as we have in the modern West, the basic Christian foundational principle regarding the dignity and equality of ALL people is something tremendously unique to our society, is utterly rooted in our Christian heritage, and is in fact something that sticks out like a huge, glaring sore thumb in terms of history and all the world even today.

    But in the end, I find I have to borrow a thought from Mark Shea to get at what I really want to say.

    What we now have in front of us are two very sick spiritualities. In the west, one that at a societal level has more or less abandoned traditional Christian spirituality for a hodgepodge of new ageism, capitalism, and hedonism, etc.. On the other, we have a society that to all appearances has a tremendous devotion and piety, but in too many cases has murder in its heart and lacks a basic understanding of the dignity of all people.

    The answer to both of these sick spiritualities is the health and vitality of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    The word that keeps coming back to me is balance. As Chesterton said…

    [T]here are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to
    Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

    …and indeed it seems to me that both sides are tipping, one to the left, and one to the right and in the end they must fall.

  16. Martin

    Pope John Paul II in his book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” wrote this about Muslims’ devotion:

    “Nevertheless, the religiosity of Muslims deserves respect. It is impossible not to admire, for example, their fidelity to prayer. The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.”

  17. yofed

    Martin, I had never read that quote before, but that’s exactly how I feel about this subject. Thank you!

  18. Therese Z

    Not belittling their call to prayer at all, but I wonder how many Muslims fall to their knees in prayer and think about the problem on their desk, or whether they will stay on their diet, or what they should have said to their husband or child.

    There is great importance in unity of action and posture and priority, and we’ve lost that in the West. But humans are humans are humans…..

  19. Drusilla

    Believers would stand out from non-believers.

    I don’t think the idea of an afterlife or existence of God would cut it – initially, yes, but like that new big-screen TV the happiness derived from these ideas would wear off with their newness.

    The thing that is missing is love. Austerity only has value if it is also love. Only love prevents those things that attract us from wearing off. And it can’t be an idea. Love must be a reality, an event that occurs in our lives: the new commandment is to love one another as Christ has loved us. If we do so, we will stick out like a sore thumb, we will impress, we will attract both new converts and persecution.

    The real need is to evidence the encounter with Someone so wonderful He has enabled us to love in a radical way. For it to be the obvious reality of our lives that His love fills us with joy that is not dependent on our circumstances. To live so that others look at us and say, ‘They have something! I want that too!’

  20. SteveG

    Here, here! Well said Drusilla!

  21. mrsdarwin

    SteveG, Catherine, and Drusilla all have very thoughtful responses to the question of the relationship of austerity and Christianity.

    In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict, in examining the Beatitudes, meditates on the verse “Blessed are the poor”. That’s from Luke; Matthew’s account says “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Benedict reflects on the tradition of poverty in the scriptures and emphasizes that material poverty in itself does not bring salvation. The value of great ascetics is recognized for their example to the world and to the Christian community of detatchment from the things of this earth. However, being “poor in spirit” transcends the material to be a spiritual asceticism — which does often find its expression in a material simplicity.

    Benedict describes the poor in spirit: “These are people who do not flaunt their achievements before God. They do not stride into God’s presence as if they were partners able to engage with him on an equal footing; they do not lay claim to a reward for what they have done. These are people who know that their poverty also has an interior dimension; they are lovers who simply want to let God bestow his gifts upon them and thereby to live in inner harmony with God’s nature and word” (p. 76).

    Excellent book!

  22. Jennifer F.

    Thank you for all your comments! You’ve all really helped me understand this issue better.

    I hope to write more addressing specific comments, but unfortunately I’m out of computer time for today. 🙂

  23. Melanie B

    It seems to me that if we Christians were to truly live our faith, even if we did all our fasting and praying in secret, not letting the right hand know what the left was doing, our faith and our love would so shine in all our actions and encounters that people would know there was something different about us. Even if the externals, the way we dressed, our material possessions, etc. were the same as our neighbors’, if our interior dispositions were truly such that we were one with Christ, it would so transform us that no one could mistake us for anything else.

    Asceticism is valuable, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The true goal is union with God. There have been rich saints and poor saints, saints who practiced extreme asceticism and those who have lived quite comfortably. What makes them saints is their love of God.

    I love the story Chesterton tells in his life of St. Thomas Aquinas about St. Thomas attending a banquet at the court of St. Louis, the king of France. One man was rich and had worldly power, the other was a mendicant monk; but they were more alike than different.

  24. TaniaRocha

    I guess one should not _strive_ to stick out like a sore thumb. An example: if I were to go into a sort of competition to do the harshest sacrifices, to fast more days, and my motivation was out of pride, I would be doing a great harm to my soul and putting my salvation and my relationship with God at serious risk. But I guess trying to live life godly will always make believers stick out a little. Even just the fact that we try to love God, however imperfectly, and that the love of God is the most important think that ever happened to us, will make us noticed. I do not feel comfortable praying visibly in public places (except religious places), and I have several interests I talk about. I mean, I am not a monomaniac of religion. And I am not that saintly, unfortunately. Still, a friend once told me it’s impossible not to notice I am a believer, because I “can’t NOT speak about God or faith or related matters every half hour or so” (he was exaggerating!). And it is true. A teen in love can’t help talking about the one he/she loves. A mother/father of a newborn baby can’t help talking about the baby. I know what it was not to believe. The darkness, the confusion. I know what it was to believe that the best I could wish for would be some kind of equilibrium between pain and happiness, some kind of balance between good and evil. The changes that believing brought into my life are so big I can’t help talking about God.

    Austerity is not an end in itself, and hope I never fall into the trap of getting prideful of my austerity, should I ever become austere. But trying to change oneself to see life through God’s eyes makes one see material things differently. Which can be weird when you don’t pursue them and people feel they should help you with their counsel because, clearly, you are dim-witted as you do not feel that becoming a houseowner is the first priority in your life right now… (sorry, personal recent pet peeve)

  25. lyrl

    I have seen a couple of people speak of ascetisism as “denying” or “giving up” something, and Jen spoke of a “willingness to experience discomfort”. The extreme end of it, yes. But a more moderate ascetic (although ascetic may be the wrong word entirely here) just doesn’t value material things as highly as other people, because they have more sustainable sources of happiness in their lives. My earlier example of learning was just one, obviously, and Steve went into the topic in more interesting detail (I don’t think my comment of learning having the potential to be a “significant part of” happiness conflicts with Steve’s observation that it can’t be more than 1/3).

    A design magazine my husband and I subscribed to recent had an issue themed on small houses. They had stories on families with not much land to build on, people who lived in small houses for sustainability reasons, and a story on a soldier in Afghanistan living in his government-provided living quarters of a shipping container. I thought it was really neat.

    The magazine got a lot of negative mail from readers, however. One person said that a family residing in an 800-square foot house (one of the larger houses in that issue) was “existing, not living” and said the whole issue of the magazine was “awful”, “garbage”, and “totally useless, downright ugly and depressing.” I don’t know this person’s religious affiliation, but it saddens me that anyone is so attached to the 5,000 square foot house as a status symbol that they believe the 80% of the world with no hope of such homes might as well not be living.

    I think a comparatively austere lifestyle is not a means of finding happiness. It might be a result, so I can see where people would think austere societies are on to something.

  26. Michelle

    We live in a society in America where it is controversial to wish someone a Merry Christmas as they obviously shop for presents on December 23rd. It is difficult to not be influenced by that attitude: those who are “on fire” for God might supress their excitement just a tad, and those who are lukewarm might hide in the closet, and those who are unsure might completely lose the faith and the traditions.

    We can’t compare Christian culture in a secular country to Muslim culture in a Muslim country where societal pressures have you follow traditions whether you are die-hard or simply dead in faith.

    Also, die-hard public practices of faith have their price: extremism. There aren’t very many Christian suicide bombers or Christian posses out to get heretics. As much as I lament the seeming lack of faith in America, I’m not sure I want an opposite extreme where someone is ready to condemn me if I accidentally put bacon bits on my salad on Friday.

  27. The

    I think most serious Christians do separate themselves from society today. For people in my age group, simply taking an hour out of Sunday to go to Mass is unusual; my Catholic friends and I do so every week, daily when possible. Many people my age have multiple sexual partners; my Catholic friends and I are chaste until marriage. Many people my age take the highest paying job they can find and spend their income on material things; my Catholic friends and I discern God’s will for us in our careers and give money to the Church and to charity when we are able. And so on. I don’t think we need to look different to be different, and our actions and worldview certainly stand out from contemporary American society.

  28. Gabrielle LeBlanc

    Yes, it does. Read Christ's words to the Laodicians, in the book of Revelations. Says it all.

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