don’t know much about the Middle Ages

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 4 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 4 of 20

I definitely don’t know much about the Middle Ages. But I’ve spent the past couple of weeks reading up about monasticism—especially because the contemporary discipleship conversation often harks back (implicitly or explicitly) to monastic spirituality.

I’m acutely aware that a few weeks of reading far from qualifies me as a world expert or anything remotely like an ‘insider’ — notwithstanding the near-monastic rigour of waking at 4.30am all week with my congested three year-old son.

But I’ve found some interesting tensions in the way Ernst Troeltsch handles the phenomenon of monasticism in his landmark study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.

If you don’t know anything about Troeltsch, fear not — neither did I. Until I Googled him.

Apparently, he was a very influential late nineteenth century/early twentieth century philosopher, historian and theologian. Barth regarded Troeltsch as the ultimate nineteenth-century liberal theologian, possibly a little like Jesus regarded John the Baptist as the ultimate Old Testament prophet — for each brought their respective tradition to its (dead) end.

But some of his ideas exercise ongoing influence. Like the important distinction he makes between church and sect — which is the assumed framework for Miroslav Volf’s famous article, ‘Soft Difference’.

And monasticism plays a particularly fascinating role here.

On the one hand, Troeltsch sees monasticism as incorporated — if not fully integrated — within the richer whole of the medieval Corpus Christianum. Indeed, he discerns what Michael Banner calls an ‘otherworldly worldliness’ in its ascetic withdrawal from the world that enables monastic spirituality to contribute positively to the unity and stability of the medieval synthesis (pages 243-5).

According to Troeltsch, monasticism founds a home on the church side of the church/sect divide during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, when he comes to systematise his distinction between church and sect, monasticism appears on the other side of the divide — as an agent of disruption and radicalisation rather than of social cohesion.

Although Troeltsch’s description of sectarian radicalism reads like a blow by blow account of sixteenth century Anabaptism, he admits that in the Early Church it was embodied “above all in monasticism” (page 329).

But he quickly moves to contain this admission.

He labours to maintain that (as he had previously argued) the sectarian energies of monasticism had been pressed into service of the church by the Middle Ages. Except that now, far from a mutualism benefiting both church and monastery, Troeltsch says monasticism was merely “tolerated” (page 330).

All of which yields a much more negative assessment of monasticism, which overturns his best insights into the ‘worldliness’ characteristic of monastic spirituality (pages 332-3):

“The ascetic ideal of the sects is fundamentally different from that of monasticism, in so far as the latter implies emphasis on the mortification of the senses, and upon works of supererogation in poverty and obedience for their own sake. In all things the ideal of the sect is essentially not one which aims at the destruction of the sense life and of natural self-feeling, but a union in love which is not affected by the social inequalities and struggles of the world.”

The ambivalent and liminal status of monasticism as Troeltsch handles it here, crops up repeatedly whenever the contemporary discipleship conversation looks back to or attempts to retrieve the ‘otherworldly worldiness’ of monastic spirituality.

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