I knew going into the interview with Paula Huston that she had a different perspective than Bruno Barnhart, and I was (and still am) glad to be able to offer listeners diverse of points of view on the subject of the current status and future possibilities of monasticism. What surprised me, however, was how stridently and single-mindedly she put forth her views. Whereas she sees the fruits of the Romantic Movement as continuing to exercise a corrosive influence on modern/postmodern culture, making the flourishing of traditional monasticism or any deeply committed, highly disciplined way of life all but impossible, I wondered if she herself wasn’t operating from an exaggerated idealization of monastic life. So I put the question to her and am publishing her response below, which I think is a clear, concise summary of her main point.
On a personal level, this interview perplexes me in so much as it’s likely the one thus far wherein I find the most to disagree with, while at the same time am sympathetic to her argument. Hence, while Paula and Bruno’s views on everything from art and creativity to theology and monasticism can seem diametrically opposed, I personally cannot take a side. Rather, I see Paula’s caution and skepticism toward new developments, and reverence for ancient patterns, a necessary compliment to Bruno’s dynamic, revolutionary approach. On a deeper level, this perception of complementarity reflects how this journey is stimulating my own wrestling with the tension between attraction to “emerging communities” on the one hand (dynamic, creative, spontaneous) and “ancient roots” on the other (depth, stability, historical continuity). Paula tips the scale strongly toward the latter and I welcome that contribution, even while I cannot give it my full assent.
Paula Huston: “The word “romanticism” is another term that in common usage has been robbed of its original meaning, or at least its literary meaning, and has come instead to serve as simply another way to say “idealization.” As I said, I was using it during the interview in this much narrower literary sense. Though the British romantics did indeed idealize the past, particularly the ancient pagan world and high Medievalism, they did so for a different reason than the one at work in my own high view of the past. They sought (or created out of thin air) previous cultures that seemed more passion-driven and connected to the earth than their own. Much of this was driven by a rejection of the preceding era, the Enlightenment, which looked to Reason for salvation. The goal of these young romantic rebels was to follow their passions wherever they led, which put them in direct conflict with the wisdom of the classical Greeks and ancient Christians, who BECAUSE they had such great respect for the power of the passions (and their ability to fragment us and destroy our lives), stressed self-discipline as the path to self-preservation. Obviously, monasticism has its root in this second view. Monastic ascetical practices would have been anathema to the high Romantics (and especially the most romantic of the 19th century philosophers, Nietzsche). What the romantics bequeathed to our era were 1) an automatic resistance to moral and spiritual authority, 2) a rejection of traditional wisdom about the dangers of unrestrained passion and desire, 3) an almost religious worship of “the natural” vs. the institutional or dogmatic, 4) a strong focus on the self and its perceived needs as opposed to focus on the community and its needs, and 5) a belief that truth is individual and to be found “within” rather than in any exterior or transcendent form. Actually, they bequeathed a lot more to us, but these points constitute the essence of my beef with them. This romantic attitude toward life, coupled with the unbelievable technological mastery we’ve become heirs to in the 21st century, has created, in my mind, a culture that suffers from an extreme form of what the ancient Greeks would call hubris. We have been convinced that we need to look no further than our own selves for wisdom and truth. Modernism, to a large degree, is about self-worship.
This is what I meant when I said that contemporary monasteries are engaged in a death struggle with modernism. Within the modern framework, there is absolutely no place for a philosophy or religion that depends upon sources of moral and spiritual authority outside the self. This is why people come to the monastery, are briefly intrigued, then drift on to something else more interesting. They are in the business of “experiencing” life, the business of discovering their own wants and pleasing themselves rather than seeking to break out of this narrow cocoon of self-absorption in order to actually find their place in the Body of Christ. The two worlds represented in this culture clash are so far apart at this point that it really does require crossing a great and frightening gulf to be willing to live in this radically alternative, monastic way. And, as a side note, this is why I don’t have a lot of optimism about the current new monastics. Just as all of us are in the post-modern world, they (and we) are absolutely soaked in the philosophy of self-pleasing. Self-sacrifice is a completely foreign concept. And so (of course) they will be tempted to set things up in a way that’s comfortable for them, that doesn’t challenge them in any real way, that doesn’t get at the core of self-worship. They will call this way of skirting the hard work required of real monastics (and real Christians, for that matter) “creativity.” The hard stuff, the truly challenging, soul-changing stuff, is too “rigid” or “authoritarian”–or it is simply “not me.” Hence my sincere admiration for people who are called to traditional monastic life and actually stick it out–the long, boring, confining years when it seems as though life has completely passed them by and they are dying on the vine–but they stick it out because they can look back over 1700 years and read about people who did the same and not only survived but were transformed. It is SUCH a hard life, if it is truly lived this way, that I know I could not do it myself. But I can certainly honor it and do my best to defend it when I’m asked for my opinion.”