Minimalism, Purpose, and Focusing on Christ

I finally took the time to check out The Minimalists podcast. It’s a long podcast (90 minutes!), and over that time I got the impression that I was hearing more or less the entire philosophy through a few particular applications, which suggests to me that I might find it repetitive if I listened to it regularly. At the same time, that also shows that they’ve boiled their philosophy down to something clear, and that they’re consistent in their application of it – which is great, because it makes it easy for me to connect it to my own life.

Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is that they want to only have things that they will use and use well; that they get more enjoyment and use out of things that are essential, that reflect their values, when their lives are not also cluttered by all sorts of other stuff that they don’t actually use or enjoy. The great thing about this philosophy is all of the ways that it connects to so many other values and philosophies I have: for example, the episode I just listened to on parenting had a lot of stuff that sounded like RIE, our favourite approach to parenting; and the regular references to Rob Bell (despite the host mentioning that he does not share Rob’s religious convictions) underscored just how much minimalism connects with Christian ethics and tradition.

What really struck me as I was introduced to the minimalist philosophy is how much it is about refining our sense of self: the process of going through our possessions and getting rid of whatever it is that is not essential to our needs, our daily life, and even our character and values, requires that we know ourselves. The process itself also helps us to know ourselves, because when we see what we do not need, or what does not fit with our values, we have a greater sense of who we are without those things.

Things have a way of not only cluttering our lives, but also of cluttering our reality and our very selves. Parting with things can be extremely difficult because of what we have invested in them: sentimental value, a sense of security, or even a sense of self. Getting rid of something, even if you haven’t looked at it or used it in years, can feel like losing yourself. If I lose my childhood teddy bear, am I losing a part of myself, my history? If I don’t have two of everything, will I be safe or prepared if I lose something? Am I defined by having the newest, coolest stuff – and who will I be if I don’t?

The more I think about this, the more I think of the early church. They obviously didn’t live in a consumerist society in the same way that we do; first century Jews, in Palestine or the diaspora, were lucky to have their basic needs met – and Christians moreso, because they were cut off from a lot of the Jewish community that otherwise would have supported them. Early Christians relied on each other in ways that we do not, and that in itself formed the basis for a lot of their community, and the context for most of the New Testament letters. But even in a context of scarcity, the early church was minimalist.

Consider the 72 disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs:

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ – Luke 10:1-8

Jesus’ instructions strike me as being profoundly minimalist, but they are not minimalist for the sake of being minimalist; rather, they reflect the focused purpose of the disciples. They are sent out into the world with nothing but their message, leaving them with no distractions from their purpose. Where the message is appreciated, their needs would be provided for; where the message was not appreciated, they were instructed to waste no more time there.

Jesus never said that it was wrong to have possessions, but when wealthy people asked him how they might enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them that they had to give their possessions away (Matthew 19:16-30). Then we see in the early church in Acts that believers “were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything that they had” (Acts 4:32). Historically, there has been conflict within the church on the interpretation of this, with some using it as evidence for a kind of Christian communism and others finding ways to dismiss it as a non-binding suggestion for happiness or spiritual enlightenment (often in the context of a defence of capitalism). But seen in the light of the original context (of scarcity), it cannot properly be seen as a mere suggestion for personal enlightenment or happiness; and seen as an expression of the focused purpose of a disciple of Christ, it cannot be seen as a compulsory rule of community (that might be applied today) so much as the basis for that community itself.

The difference between the poor community of early Christians and the wealthy West today is so drastic that it’s difficult to directly apply any “rules” about possessions that we might find in the New Testament. They shared everything they had as a way to survive and thrive as social outcasts; we are all incredibly individually wealthy by comparison, and seek minimalism as a way of finding focus and clarity and peace in a consumeristic world. In both cases, it is an orientation toward possessions that is rooted in our focused purpose and identity in Christ (along with other often neglected disciplines and virtues, such as hospitality). But even back then it was difficult to do, which is why so much of the New Testament is about people looking to Jesus and his coming Kingdom as the example and reminder of who they are becoming. For example:

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:1-3

Minimalism, in and of itself, is a useful discipline to help us have focus. But it is also a natural outcome of discipleship, if we are willing (as the rich young ruler was not) to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven. God is calling us to the kind of focused purpose that puts all other considerations second to the goal of embodying Christ and his Kingdom, to the type of life in which we do not let any material possessions clutter our houses, our lives, our purpose, and our identity. In a society and economy focused on consuming, this is the most counter-cultural (and difficult) part of Christian discipleship.

Seeing it as something difficult that we’re called to do is not particularly encouraging, so it’s important to see the benefits of this kind of minimalism: in a sense, it can serve as a gateway to better living out other values. For example:

  1. Giving away items we don’t need helps us develop the virtue of charity;
  2. Becoming more aware of our own needs helps us to become more aware of the needs of others;
  3. Living outside of a secure state of self-sufficiency leads us to share more with others, building a community of sharing;
  4. Reducing the things we own and do to just the things that we value most can revive traditional skills and communities, such as food preparation and preservation, repairing items, gardening, etc. – things that we can do rather than buy;
  5. Reducing the things we buy and keep helps us to be better stewards of our finances, which ultimately belong to God, and help us to be more aware of God’s providence;
  6. Similarly, minimalism helps us to lower our footprint on the planet, living lightly as better stewards of the earth and seeing how that duty is central to our identity and purpose as human beings and Christians;
  7. Having a stronger focus on the things we really value, and forming communities around charity and sharing, and having a greater sense of our role as stewards of the earth, also helps orient us to be respectful toward other people; showing restraint in the things we buy helps us to show restraint in how we respond to others; etc.

So don’t treat minimalism as an all-or-nothing requirement of Christianity, as if you’re the rich young ruler trying to prove himself to Jesus; like him, I’m pretty sure we’d all walk away under that mindset. Rather, see it as a gateway to greater clarity in your life, your identity, and your purpose as a follower of Jesus, and a practice that supports and enables other virtues to grow and flourish. And look to Jesus, constantly, to renew your sense of purpose and identity: behold what you are, become what you receive.

For other help and ideas, check out The Minimalists podcast, blog, documentary, books, etc.

My Journey to Political Theology

I’m back from another brief hiatus. This one was caused by taking on a political campaign for the Green Party in our riding’s recent by-election, which gives me a good opportunity to bring up two of my favourite topics: stewardship of creation, and political theology. You may see these as recurring themes here in the future. Today I’d like to talk about why I’m interested in politics, and maybe later, why I’m interested in Green politics. (I haven’t forgotten about the post on Original Sin – that’ll come eventually!)

My journey toward politics has been a bit of a zig-zag as I follow the ethical implications of my theology (guided largely by the theology and ethical thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). God demanded that human beings act justly and love mercy, and told us how to do that; when we didn’t get the message, Jesus showed us how to do it. At the same time, he painted a picture of what the world would be like if we all did it, and he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom isn’t here in its fullness, but it appears, however briefly, when we gather together in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. In short, the Kingdom appears whenever the church acts like the church is called to act.

That said, there are glimpses of the Kingdom outside the walls of our local congregations. The Spirit goes where the Spirit wills, and God has implanted notions of justice and goodness in the hearts of human beings, and there are a lot of people out there who are doing good things. This, too, glorifies God and gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m trying to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by enforcing Christianity through the state! Far from it: I believe strongly that Christianity is something that must be chosen by individuals (see Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship for an account of that confrontation). I keep referring to the Kingdom because the picture that Jesus paints of it contrasts sharply with our present reality, and acts as a character foil for our social systems and personal choices. It’s the reality that I’m trying to live in, and it makes injustice in the world stand out all the more. It’s what gives me the ability to see that something is wrong, and it’s what calls me to do something about it.

In short, the Kingdom of God has made me an activist. Well, at least a slacktivist.

I say slacktivist because being a true activist involves going out and doing something about society’s ills. I’m much more prone to stay home and blog about it, sign petitions, and even occasionally donate small amounts of money. I feel called to do more because Jesus has given me a glimpse of a better world, but the media has shown me the extent and depth of this world’s dysfunction and distress, and I’m overwhelmed by it. My little acts of kindness and mercy, the outward marks of my discipleship, seem like a drop in the ocean. Perhaps if I could see the church organizing to do something about these issues in a bigger way, I’d be content to have the church be my only political affiliation (and make no mistake, becoming a Christian is a highly political act!); sadly, I don’t see that happening very much. I think that the church has been failing in its divine mandate to hold the other divinely instituted mandates in check (government, work, family – see Bonhoeffer’s discussion in Ethics), and I think that’s partially because Christians from across the political spectrum (with the exception of the far right) have stopped engaging in politics.

This is why I’m getting involved in politics: my discipleship makes me sensitive to injustice and demands action, and I want the action I take to have a far-reaching impact. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on small, personal acts of justice and mercy; on the contrary, those little acts of discipleship, and my formation in a community of worship, inform and inspire the action I want to take on a larger scale. But one act of personal kindness can feed one person for one day (or teach them how to feed themselves, as the old adage goes), but one piece of legislation can set up a program to teach a whole nation how to feed itself forever. I don’t think any government has the ability to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can certainly hold it up as an ideal as we work toward a more just society.

You may still think that I’m somehow trying to enforce my Christian ideals on people – well, all politics is about enforcing some kind of ideals. The trick is, what kind of ideals are we enforcing? People tend to have a problem with faith and politics mixing because, as I said above, religious commitment is a very individual thing that should not be coerced. To put it another way, you can’t enforce morality (at least not effectively, and not in a way that respect’s the Other as other – that is, as a human being who can make their own moral choices). But there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than just a certain morality; in fact, Bonhoeffer once preached that Christianity is distinctly amoral.  So it doesn’t follow that politics inspired by, or even enforcing, Christian ideals or values must actually enforce Christian beliefs or morals.

Besides, providing a moral example is something that the church has, more or less, done fairly well. If anything, the church tends to put too much emphasis on morality, especially in regard to sex (but that’s a post for another day). It was the same in Bonhoeffer’s Germany: in Letters and Papers from Prison he talks about how the church has been reduced to moralism, with nothing relevant to say to society except to dig through people’s drawers and closets in search of secret sin. He argued that our lived morality (that is, ethics) needed to be the primary witness of the church, rather than merely preached morality (moralism). He called this “religionless Christianity,” and it’s still necessary, though it’s not everything the church must be.

Another major way that the church is supposed to impact society (and the other divine mandates) is through its worship of God on behalf of the world; this is the one way that the church in North America is still fulfilling its function. We love to worship! Unfortunately, we tend to have “worship services” that are heavy on worship and light on (or devoid of) actual service. God scolded Israel for this through the mouths of his prophets, saying that their worship without the accompanying acts of justice and mercy was repugnant, wicked, evil. This is the reason he gave for the destruction and exile of Israel.

So here I am, a disciple of Christ and a member of his church. I want to continue to worship God, but for that worship to be genuine it must also involve service to my fellow humans; and for that service to be most effective it requires an organized effort that the church (with notable exceptions such as MCC, Kairos, the EFC, etc.) isn’t really making. Meanwhile, governments are charged with ordering society in a just manner, but often lack the ethical foundations that Christ is actively building into his disciples. This seems like a match made in heaven: someone (like me) who is based in a community focused on ethical formation, self-sacrifice, and social responsibility would be an ideal candidate to serve the function of ordering society justly in an organization (the government) known for its misuse of power and lack of ethical grounding.

Once again, lest you be concerned that a Christian could not function as a representative of all of the people of their political riding, who may or may not share in the Christian faith: the role of politics is to order society justly, not to preach morality. So long as it stays within that function, there is no danger of legislating morality; and even if there were, Christianity need not be moralistic, and may in fact be amoral (as Bonhoeffer suggests). The issues on which the broader population disagrees with Christian ethics are relatively few, and most of them fall outside of the mandate of government anyway, so it’s far from impossible for a Christian who is acting in accord with their faith to represent a non-Christian constituency.

Ultimately, then, I feel that political activity provides the best venue for the ethical, or “religionless”, aspect of my Christianity. Our current society doesn’t tolerate organized Christian groups very well, and much of the church just plain isn’t interested, but we can still fulfill this important function of the church by being the church at the same time as being citizens. These two realms, which we always seem to want to separate, complement one another in our society today, and allow each other to be fulfilled.

This is obviously a big and complex topic, so please leave your questions or comments below!