I wrote in my last blog about the danger of activism in living the Christian life. For me, growing up as an evangelical in the South, this meant sharing my faith in order to get people “saved.” This really was the most important thing you ever did. Week after week I heard sermons that ended with, “Come to Jesus. Walk down the aisle while we sing this closing song and he will save you right now!” I tended to always feel rather guilty about this since I had not done enough to keep my friends from going to hell. Even though I did my fair share of witnessing, and inviting the lost to come to my church, this culture never sat well with me. I wanted to be more like Jesus but did not understand what this had to do with growing into the freedom of grace.
Over time I understood that there was a necessary tension, a tension that ran through all Christian practice for over 2,000 years, between form and freedom, or structure and spirit. The more I met Christians from different backgrounds, especially as a student at Wheaton College (1969-71), the more I realized how much we differed, at least on some of these matters that touched on form and structure. Yet we agreed on freedom and spirit. I was confused by this disagreement and wondered why it was such a big deal. I have to admit that a general dislike of spiritual freedom had colored my development. Later I would encounter practices like liturgy and formal prayer, or “the fixed hours” of the church. Here I found great freedom in structures. I began to realize that form and freedom were not in stark contrast if true spirituality was at work in a person or a community of people.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who increasingly came to my rescue the more I broadened my circle of teachers, wrote in Meditating on the Word: “It is wrong to say that we are being ‘legalistic’ when we are concerned with the ordering of our Christian life and with our faithfulness in requirements of Scripture reading and prayer. Disorder undermines and destroys faith.”
Can deep spirituality, or true freedom, co-exist with form and structure? Of course they can, as we’ve seen in the Galatians 5 text that I quoted from in my previous blogs. We need to understand what true spirituality really is if we are to escape this type of problem. Today I would define Christian spirituality in a more classical Christian way as: “The Christian’s ascetic and pious struggle against sin through repentance, prayer, fasting and participation in the sacramental life of the church.”
This word “ascetic” was quite foreign to my Christian background. It is an important word in classical Christianity. It comes from the Greek word askesis, which originally comes from the world of athletics. It refers to a life of struggle. This is what Paul means when he speaks of crucifying the desires of the flesh in Galatians 5. Through askesis we actively fight temptation to sin and thereby grow in the inner experience of God’s grace.
When the church began to embrace more and more of the regal and political power of the world around it (after Constantine was emperor) a movement committed to serious askesis arose. We call this movement monasticism. Monasticism got a bad name in my own background. Even at Wheaton College I had some professors who made fun of this emphasis, suggesting that it was almost always inclined to excess. The Reformation formally rejected much of classical monasticism. The reason for this rejection was that they saw it as something that particular persons practiced in order to gain their own salvation. But for Eastern Orthodox Christians asceticism has always been seen as a normal and integral part of the Christian life. I have come to believe that this is precisely what Paul is writing about in Galatians 5. We are not all called to be monks. Few, if any of you reading my words, will ever live inside a monastic community. (I hope more of you might visit one and learn from the monks much that will benefit you!) But all of us are called to live “monk-like” lives in the daily routines and ordering of our personal and family world. We fear this term, and the related ideas, because we see it as legalism, as structure that will destroy our freedom. This is, quite simply, not true.
A prominent twentieth century Eastern Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), has helped me develop my own understanding of this subject much more deeply. Florovsky was a Russian philosopher, theologian, ecumenist, patristic scholar and historian. He had a long and distinguished academic career. He left Russia, because of the Bolshevik Revolution and spent most of his life teaching and writing in America. In the Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity, the entry on Florovsky notes that, “