There is a unique challenge when talking about the subtle differences within an idea. Ideas have the potential of holding a wide range of thought or opinion. So to address ‘asceticism’ I must first define it.
Here is the definition of Asceticism from Wikipedia:
Asceticism describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals…
Those who practice ascetic lifestyles do not consider their practices virtuous in themselves, but pursue such a lifestyle to encourage, or ‘prepare the ground’ for, mind-body transformation.
In the popular imagination, asceticism may be considered obsessive or even masochistic in nature. However, the askēsis enjoined by religion functions to bring about greater freedom in various areas of one’s life (such as freedom from compulsions and temptations) and greater peacefulness of mind (with a concomitant increase in clarity and power of thought).
Okay, that’s a long definition, but I want to address it from the Wikipedia perspective because it reflects the common interpretation of our culture. You can see how the common perception is far more glamorous when you compare it to the dictionary: 1) The manner of life, practices, or principles of an ascetic. 2) The doctrine that a person can attain a high spiritual and moral state by practicing self-denial, self-mortification, and the like. 3) Rigorous self denial; extreme abstinence; austerity.
The differences are important to note because younger generations are redefining asceticism to reflect a disgust with the American dream by flirting with ancient and eastern cultures which have become sheek. The common understanding of asceticism, as reflected by Wikipedia, is very broad and fits within our post-modern society where individuals can interpret it however they want.
What makes asceticism dangerous is not the looseness in clarity, the flirting with ancient or eastern cultures, or the response to the American dream. It’s because asceticism is only half true, and as we know about half truths, the part that isn’t revealed is usually the dagger that will do you in.
Asceticism is dangerous because it is common bedfellows with gnosticism and legalism. It attempts to take a common practice from the world, usually as a result of particular values, and combine it with spirituality.
How Asceticism Is Like Spirituality
Asceticism is not a biblical principle, but it is closely associated with biblical ideas: living for the Kingdom, being bought by Christ, selflessness, etc. However, the ‘art of possessing nothing‘ does not equal the same thing as ascetic living. Asceticism approaches spirituality by first eliminating. The art of possessing nothing approaches spirituality by correcting attitudes and hearts. In this way, asceticism fails to renew the mind (Ephesians 4:23) by creating a buffer where the heart and mind cannot be tempted by what is not there.
In some ways it is good to put away (Ephesians 4:22). Certainly all sins and things that would lead us to sin should be abolished. There may even be a time when putting away video games, turning off the television, and ignoring phone calls may be critical to one’s spiritual development. However, this is really important, These are not spiritual strengths. When these things are given up, they are done so because they reveal a weakness to sin. They are not as a strength to become more spiritual. An alcoholic may need to abstain from alcohol altogether, but this is not a show of spiritual strength. It’s due to weakness that he cannot drink. A teetotaler who never touched alcohol isn’t a pillar of strength either, for he has never been tried. Only the one who drinks yet never gets drunk can be considered mature in this area. He possesses without becoming possessed.
How Asceticism Is Like Gnosticism
I doubt Paul, in Colossians chapter 2, would make any distinction between asceticism and gnosticism, but as I said before, the common view of asceticism is somewhat nebulous. The gnostics that Paul was warning the Church about where those who separated the spirit from the flesh. The flesh was evil and unable to be redeemed. Only the spirit was free to honor God. Therefore, it became spiritual to cause the flesh to suffer. Husbands would not sleep with their wives, fasting was for masochism rather than prayer, and piety was the highest spiritual standard.
Gnosticism was really an adaptation of what was popular to the culture of Colossi in pagan worship. Asceticism is probably popular today because of the cultural backlash against capitalism and greed. Young Americans who consider themselves the 99% are fighting back against society. Likewise, young Christians have responded with a monastic mindset. The current ascetic-spiritual movement, however, is more closely associated with Gandhi and eastern religion than the Bible.
How Asceticism Is Like Legalism
While I wouldn’t normally differentiate between gnosticism and legalism, our culture has separated the two ideologies and therefore demands a response. The best forms of asceticism today are based solely on values, which as my truth paradigm points out is two points removed from authority. Today, asceticism has become a spiritual standard for measuring devotion to Christ. Crazy Love and Radical are echoing our cultural cry that we ought to be more pious as Christians. Legalism is the attempt to achieve spirituality by physical means, and asceticism makes that same assumption.
I had a friend in college who had a problem with video games, so he threw his console away. A few months later, he began to reason, “There’s nothing inherently evil about video games.” So he went out and bought a new console. Logically, he’s right. There is nothing inherently evil about a gaming system, but there was a serious problem with how he used it. When the conviction was strong, the video games went into the trash, but when reason had time to think, he was back into gaming mode. There was no balance and therefore no spiritual development. Until reason and conviction meet, there will be no renewing of the mind.
Asceticism is a dangerous idea that has crept into our frame of thinking in the Church. The risk is that we will never actually achieve victory over our sin while we are simply trading one wrong perspective for another. The art of possessing nothing cannot be manufactured through asceticism. It can only be understood by those who are pursuing God through many dangers, toils, and snares. We cannot get caught up in the trappings of this world, even those which seem truthful on the surface.