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Dec 18, 2007


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Brad Cooper


Living a simple lifestyle can become a legalistic religion in itself. For many this is true.

I can't see that simplicity is ever commanded in Scripture. For some of us it is more of a necessity. For others it is an approach to accomplishing bigger goals for the kingdom. Certainly, simplicity is going to mean different things for different people and we should apply it as the Holy Spirit guides us--not according to legalistic rules or ideals.

Also, I've been wondering lately, if the emphasis on ascetism during the early centuries of the Church did not hurt the economy as a whole (and therefore the poor)--particularly, since that ascetism often meant hermitage and/or focusing most of one's time on spiritual contemplation. The result would seem to be that a large number of individuals did not contribute much to the economy. Hmmmm...Just a thought...what do you think?

Jonas Borntreger

Just wanting to say "Thank You" for the insights you are sharing in this series. JJB

Michael W. Kruse

Sorry Brad. I overlooked this comment from earlier today.

I’m still reading and learning about monasticism. Fascinating stuff. There were lots of changes in the various orders but the Benedictine order is of particular interest. St. Benedict formed the order in the sixth century and manual labor was included within Rule of St. Benedict. The autonomous monastic communities tended to locate in remote areas in Europe on large tracts of land given by wealthy benefactors. Not long after their formation, a three crop rotation farming system was discovered that created a great leap in agricultural productivity. The combined work ethic with the new methods made the monks especially prosperous a people in surrounding areas began to visit the monasteries to trade goods for there excess production. This was the beginning of the great markets and eventually many came to settle around the monasteries and form permanent communities of trade. The monasteries became so wealthy that they were the primary lenders to monarchs for their various ventures for several centuries.

The Benedictines began to lease out their land while they pursued more specialized endeavors, like making wine or producing bread. They perfected water wheel power and created rudimentary factory structures which the spread all over Europe as the founded new monasteries. They were spreading technical expertise everywhere they went. However, by the eleventh century the order had become quite wealthy and had largely abandoned its manual labor commitment for more “spiritual” studies and pursuits. That gave birth to the Order of Cistercians, a Benedictine offshoot that recaptured the commitment to manual labor. They became experts in mechanization and spread their expertise all over Europe until they were severally weakened with the loss of much of their land during the Protestant Reformation and later attacks by revolutionaries in France.

Rodney Stark argues that these monasteries were actually the early proto-capitalists. Many of the values, practices, and technologies that would set the stage for capitalisms emergence in the 18th century had their roots in monasteries dating back at least as far as the 9th century.

All that said, I do think there has been a long stream of ascetic anti-trade, anti-marketplace sentiment that has been prominent with in Western Christianity throughout most of its history and lives on in many quarters of the church today. Ironically, and foreshadowing some of John Wesley’s concerns, diligent labor with personal piety usually leads to economic abundance and that abundance can lead away from God. It happened with the monks. Wesley taught that we she work all we can, to make all we can, so that we may give all we can. This is one of the very real perils of abundance.

Michael W. Kruse

You are welcome, Jonas. Thanks for reading.

Brad Cooper

Hey Michael,

I was actually thinking earlier than the Benedictines. It has been probably 15 years since I read about them, but I believe that it was in the third and fourth centuries that there was an emphasis on going out into the desert and being hermits. If I am not mistaken, these are called the desert fathers.

It does seem that the monastic tradition generally has quite a healthy emphasis on work. And the thoughts that you bring out are very interesting indeed.


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