Christianity and Asceticism
by Matthew W. Bassford
The other day, I got a text from my brother. It read in part, “If you want a mental exercise, compare and contrast Christianity, Stoicism, and the “Dokkōdō”. See any commonalities?” I’ve read my Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, so I have a handle on Stoicism, but I’d never heard of the “Dokkōdō”. Turns out it’s a set of 21 life precepts written down by the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi shortly before he died. It’s basically Buddhist in outlook.
There certainly are similarities between Stoicism and the “Dokkōdō”. Both are suspicious of earthly pleasure, indeed of earthly attachment of any sort, and warn that it leads people astray. Marcus Aurelius counseled that when you put your children to bed at night, you should tell yourself that they will be dead by morning. Similarly, the fifth precept of the “Dokkōdō” reads, “Be detached from desire your whole life long.” Both are essentially ascetic philosophies.
However, despite many ascetic outgrowths of Christianity through the centuries, Biblical Christianity itself is not ascetic. Instead, its perspective on both fear and desire is much more nuanced. This begins with Christianity’s understanding of the physical universe as the good creation of a good God. Though creation has been broken and marred by sin, it has not become fundamentally evil.
To the Christian, physical enjoyment is basically good as well. Every good thing given comes from God. He satisfies our hearts with food and gladness. He has provided these things so that they can be gratefully shared by those who know and believe the truth.
Similarly, the Bible celebrates the joys of human love and relationships. Your family, friends, and brethren are supposed to matter to you. If they don’t, that’s not wisdom. It’s a spiritual problem.
This is true even of the supposed bugbear of Christianity, sexual pleasure. An entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is a frankly erotic celebration of married sexuality. Sex is a good gift too!
Problems arise when these pleasures, basically good as they are, begin to lead us away from God. Sin is never an invention but rather a corruption and a distortion. Sex is a blessing in marriage, but outside of marriage, it becomes an expression of selfishness that harms all involved. It’s good to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but when we forget God and are unwilling to help others, those gifts have become a trap.
More fundamentally, any blessing becomes a trap when we set it up as our god. This distinction is most apparent in Ecclesiastes. The Preacher spends the last ten chapters of the book encouraging his readers to enjoy themselves: let your clothes be white, don’t let oil be lacking on your head, and so forth. However, in the first two chapters, he describes all earthly pursuits as the height of vanity.
The problem is not pleasure. It’s trying to make your life about pleasure. In the end, such efforts will prove to be empty.
Interestingly, the Bible says the same thing about human wisdom. It too has its place (the Preacher notes that all proverbs are given by one Shepherd), but it doesn’t provide the answers to existence either. Death proves human wisdom to be vain (Is dead Musashi any better off than a dead medieval peasant?), and such wisdom also is likely to dismiss the spiritual wisdom of the gospel as foolishness. Biblically speaking, asceticism is no better than pleasure-seeking because it too is focused on the wrong things.
Rather than focusing on the severe treatment of the body, Christianity focuses on Christ. He is the lens through which we see everything else. With His help, we can savor what is good and shun what is not. However, our hope is not in the savoring or the shunning but in His promise and His mercy. We look for new heavens and a new earth, set free from this present corruption, and we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory. Once all these have been purified from sin and its consequences, only what is holy will remain.