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Asceticism and Bad American Religion

Review of Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (ISI, April 2012) ISBN: 978-1439178300. Hardcover, 352 pages; $26.00.

Among other things, Ross Douthat argues in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, that Americans have become a "nations of narcissists." He sees the evidence for this in our becoming a "nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough" (p. 25).

Looking around, it is hard to dispute this. The free market is no longer really and truly free but distorted by crony capitalists who collude with government regulators to further their advantages at the expense of their neighbors. Likewise under the guidance of a materialistic anthropology that merely seeks to throw money at the tragedy of human suffering, our social safety net is no longer safe or social for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

And yet, while I appreciate his analysis, I'm not sure I agree with Douthat that we have become a nation of narcissists. It isn't that I don't agree that narcissism is a problem in America, it is, but it is not an American problem as such. Much less is it unique to our era. Self-absorption - one of my professors in graduate school referred to it as selfaggrandizement, is constant temptation in our fallen state. The central struggle of our life in both its personal and social dimensions is precisely to resist the lure of our self-centered and self-aggrandizing desires.

The danger of misdirected desire is a central theme in the Orthodox Church's ascetical and mystical tradition. For example, in the Canon of St Andrew the Great that the Church sings during Lent, we hear:

"Be watchful, O my soul, lest while searching for/thine animal desires thou shouldst overlook the Kingdom of Christ" (Ode 7).

We hear variations of this theme throughout not only the Eastern Church's celebration of Lent but in the classical spiritual writings in both the Christian East and West. This life of self-watchfulness and struggle against my own "uncontrolled desires" (Ode 8) which "have disfigured the beauty of my mind" (Ode 2) is at the heart of Gospel's true therapeutic method, a method that stands in marked contrast to the merely palliative goals of the Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) that Douthat and others have so ably discussed.

In Christ we have true and lasting healing because we are restored to a life of communion with God and, as St Augustine reminds us, in God to a wise and true love for each other. Just as MTD is a distorted image of what we are offered in Jesus Christ, narcissism is a distortion of that virtuous self-love that, as St Bernard of Clairvaux says, is possible for us because we have first been loved by God. Whether of neighbor or of self, love is only truly and fully itself when it is rooted in obedience to God.

It isn't a surprise—and this is the heart of Douthat's argument—that I justify theologically my self-absorption. As with narcissism and self-aggrandizement, heresy, and I would add idolatry, are anthropological constants for fallen humanity. So yes, it is also no surprise that we have become, as the book's subtitle has it, "a Nation of heretics."

Going back to the passage I cited above, Douthat makes an observation that I think needs to be more fully explored not only by public intellectuals and commentators concerned with the moral health of American society, but more broadly by our various Christian Churches and communities.

The narcissist may find it easy to say no to others, but he's much less likely to say no to himself—and nothing defines the last decade of American life more than our inability to master our own impulses and desires (p. 25).

Douthat's words resonate deeply with me as an Orthodox Christian and as a priest. If the more remote anthropological foundation of our culture's embrace of narcissism is original sin, the more proximate source is our loss of what I would call our personal and cultural ascetical sensibility. By asceticism, I mean those habits of thought and action that fosters the "inner transformation of the human person, in his being" so that he becomes willing and able to live a life that is "progressively conformed to Christ" (see, Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, #42).

Historically, Christians of various traditions have embraced what I'm calling here the ascetical life. Yes, we have disagreements among ourselves as to the exact methods by which we conform ourselves to Christ, but we have all agreed that such conformity is necessary (see Romans 8:29). The tragedy of contemporary American Christianity is not simply that we have lost our ascetical sensibility but, having lost our commitment to self-denial, we more and more are losing our commitment to living according to the image of the invisible God (see Colossians 1:15, 2 Corinthians 3:18) and our taste for theological orthodoxy.

Asceticism, at least as a way of life, is not uniquely Christian; it is foundational to human life. While the goal of asceticism is radically different, ascetical struggle is central to both the other Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam. Likewise, though again with different goals, it is central to the great religions of the Far East: Hinduism and Buddhism. Indeed, at least in its popular etymology, the word religion itself has an ascetical connotation (religare "to bind fast.")

Just as sin is a human constant, so too is the life of ascetical struggle. This is why St Paul can so easily draw a parallel between the shadow boxer and the unrepentant sinner, on the one hand, and the victorious runner and salvation in Christ on the other (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Looking more broadly, is there any human excellence—in the trades or professions, in business, the arts, athletics , academia or marriage and family life—that is NOT the fruit of saying "no" to our transitory desires in pursuit of what endures?

In the Garden, we are given specific charges by God. We are to "be fruitful and multiply," that is to marry and procreate. Likewise we are called "to fill the earth and subdue it," (Genesis 1:28). We are passive stewards of creation but in the Creator, creators of wealth and beauty call to make of the creation what Pope John Paul II called "a fit home for humanity" (compare, Centesimus annus, #31). But all of this is marred, though not wholly undone, by our refusal to hold to one other commandment: "of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'" (Genesis 3:3).

Then as now, in America as in the Garden, the refusal to live ascetically corrupts human life and radically distorts our relationship with God, His creation, our neighbor and ourselves. Asceticism is not an afterthought, a mere response to human sinfulness. It is rather the prerequisite for a life of human flourishing. If as Douthat observes, Americans have lost sight of this, we ought not to despair. Why? Asceticism is intrinsic to our nature and it is something which we can come to value once again.