By Caleb Roberts

We can do whatever we want, and yet our politics are plagued by a deep sense of paralysis and impotence. We can do whatever we want, and yet we spend increasing time either working or subjecting ourselves to regimens of self-improvement. Such are the contradictions of our age.

And in the midst of this is our anxiety about the impotence of religion. Membership continues to decline. The veneer of civil religion continues to chip away. Many are beginning to realize that a good deal of what has counted for Christianity in this country for decades has mostly been a respectable chaplaincy to the American Experiment, now in decline. All of our talk right now about formation and discipleship is coming straight out of this angst: We’ve been awakened to the fact that just getting along with our lives as decent, law-abiding citizens doesn’t automatically constitute holiness.

Since holiness is not guaranteed, more attention is being given to what hinders our progress to holiness. And not just in the Church. The present conversations around complicity, privilege, and structural injustice converge here. The upshot is that many people intuitively grasp that they need to renounce something in their lives and in our society; none of us live in a vacuum. So it is here that those disciplines of self-denial whereby holiness has long been sought — asceticism — come back into view with renewed possibility.

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Political action vs. political impotence. Asceticism vs. self-improvement. What if these two oppositions are not, in fact, separate? What if they are rather the individual and collective dimensions of a single conflict? Could they be fighting against each other as rival unities, with asceticism and politics on the one side and self-improvement and political impotence on the other?

Considering the latter, the relationship between self-improvement and political impotence is already well-established. Almost 40 years ago, Christopher Lasch diagnosed it as an essential feature of what he saw as a burgeoning “culture of narcissism.” Lasch observed that the newfound pursuit of self-improvement masked an abandonment of politics and “the growing despair of changing society, or even understanding it” (The Culture of Narcissism [W.W. Norton & Company, 1979], p. 4). Exhausted by the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, Americans had retreated back into more private endeavors. We had convinced ourselves that individual betterment begins with a basic despair about the possibilities of political and social life. Thus we entered into what the book called “an age of diminishing expectations,” in which we focus on ourselves to the neglect of society. In short, Lasch’s argument was that the various pursuits of self-improvement, “elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past” (pp. 4-5).

Self-improvement hasn’t worked out very well for us. What we have witnessed since Lasch’s analysis is not only a retreat from politics into self-improvement, but also an appropriation of self-improvement as a means of maximizing profit. Contrary to what moralizers will tell you, we don’t actually live in an age of reckless hedonism. Instead, we live in an age that exerts constant, immense pressure on us to streamline ourselves. It’s what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls our compulsive freedom, in which “freedom and constraint coincide” and we are bound “to the free constraint of maximizing achievement” (The Burnout Society [Stanford Briefs, 2015], p. 11, emphases original). We strive to achieve achievement, a project that abounds in irony. The more we attempt to render everything in quantifiable terms (to make our achievement measurable), the more circular the whole project becomes. This is our bastardized asceticism: constant self-improvement according to the demands of the market that we become ever more efficient and flexible.

This practically guarantees that self-improvement will only serve to reinforce the status quo. We cannot better ourselves out of this mess and I think we know it. Consider, for example, the growing discourse of self-care. Compared to self-improvement, self-care suggests a much more palliative, resigned approach to life under late capitalism. As with our politics, so too with ourselves: Improvement is too much to ask for. Our best hope is to counteract the toxicity of our social conditions with random doses of self-medicated luxury. Treat yo’ self.

Lasch’s analysis enables us to trace a line from the abandonment of politics to the cult of self-improvement to the emergence of self-care, which reveals the evolution of a single cultural logic. And unsurprisingly, religion has had to work tirelessly in order to make itself intelligible according to this logic. The much-discussed phenomenon of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is perhaps the form religion takes after the cultural turn to self-improvement. But to the extent that Christianity becomes intelligible as an effective vehicle for self-improvement/self-care, it will already have accepted the fundamental despair on which the status quo continues to grind. Christianity will just be yet another way of managing our diminishing expectations. As Jeremy Carrette and Richard King put it in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion (Routledge, 2004):

A religion of feel-good affluence reassures the consuming public that religion can indeed be just another feature of the capitalist world with little or no social challenge to offer to the world of business deals and corporate takeovers. Spirituality is appropriated for the market instead of offering a countervailing social force to the ethos and values of the business world. This is not to assume that we can ever escape the influence of the market, but rather to recognise that the utilisation of a ‘spirituality’ tailored for business enterprise ignores vital aspects of those traditions upon which it relies — aspects that directly challenge the privatisation and commercialisation of life. (p. 126)

This is our impasse, but it is here that we find the radical potential of the unity between asceticism and politics. In fact, a recovery of ascetical practice may be one of the few ways that we can recover the religious ground for political resistance. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, asceticism remains one of the few resources of our tradition that has not yet been converted into a religious commodity. For instance, many in the Episcopal Church still see asceticism as hopelessly penitential (a code word for bad) and therefore not worth much of anyone’s time. This unfortunate reputation may have been its saving grace, however, as few have ever bothered with assimilating traditional asceticism into our therapeutic regime.

Second, because self-improvement is a bastardized asceticism, having been enlisted into service of the capitalist virtues of efficiency and flexibility, Christian asceticism now explicitly stands as a rival project altogether. To engage in Christian asceticism requires a renunciation of the false asceticism of self-improvement.

There’s no denying that asceticism has been associated with individualist escapism and disdain for the body that can lead to an indifference to society, if not an outright contempt. While taking these pitfalls seriously, we must not lose sight of our present situation. We are increasingly losing our ability to imagine a model of human activity that transcends the logic of the market, and our religion is by no means immune. But precisely in its incompatibility with that logic, asceticism has the potential to give us the critical distance we so desperately need right now.

Ultimately, asceticism and politics are united because, as Herbert McCabe said, “there is no real unity to the world, the only authentic unity is in the struggle.” And in this struggle, asceticism establishes an analogous link between individual and collective action and thus provides a coherent model for political resistance. When one mortifies the body, one in turn mortifies the body politic. The moment that you carry on after renouncing some vestige of your false self is the moment you reveal the possibility of living beyond a false society.

It is difficult to think of a greater witness for our time than this.

Fr. ​Caleb Roberts serves as the curate of Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois.

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Chris Bollegar

Thank you for this thoughtful and incisive post. I am curious if you have any recommendations or suggestions as to which ascetic practices you think most appropriate as forms of resistance at this cultural moment? Which practices do you suspect will “open up” the possibilities of leaving behind our “false selves” and thus our “false society”? Thanks again!

The Rev. Caleb Roberts

You’re welcome! Good question. The easy answer would be all of them, as one of the implications of my argument here is that each and every ascetical act entails a social and political critique. It’s not that we have to try to append a political “upshot” on top of what is otherwise a merely private and individual practice; rather, the individual body is always a function of the collective body, such that what is done in the former is necessarily done in the latter. So, for example, almsgiving resists both the commodification of exchange as well as the logic of… Read more »

Chris Bollegar

Thank you Caleb. I understand your point that the practices you are suggesting have an inherent critique ‘built in’ if you will and do not need to be ‘applied’ per se, precisely because they have a collective force even when practiced ‘individually’–these are helpful qualifications. Thanks again.

Mary Barrett

Reading Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation” is a good pathway.