Chemin Neuf and the Community of Bose
A New Monasticism

What could monastic life today look like? Two attempts at reimagining how it could thrive in the twenty-first century.

Published on: October 1, 2014
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  • kentgeordie

    Slight factual correction – Anselm was born in 1033, and became Abp of Canterbury on 1093.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Peter Berger’s “A New Monasticism” detailing the quest for a modern empirical basis of Christian community in a postmodern world reminds me of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, albeit dense, doctoral dissertation “Sanctorum Communio” (Saintly or Sacred Communion).

    Sanctorum Communio is a synthesis of sociology and theology wherein Bonhoeffer viewed the empirical community objectively from the perspective of interpretive sociology (re: German sociologist Max Weber). Like Weber, Bonhoeffer saw the religious community as not from the standpoint of an outsider and not reducible to sociological, economic or psychological factors.

    First, Bonhoeffer overviewed different concepts of the person such as the Aristotelian rational person; the stoic’s “submitting to a higher obligation”; the Epicurean quest for pleasure; and the idealist notion from Immanuel Kant that the person is a perceiver, which comes closest to postmodernism. Bonhoeffer was averse to the idealist notion that personhood was entirely subjective. To Bonhoeffer the person is formed when “he is passionately involved in a moral struggle, and confronted by a claim which overwhelms him” (Re: Rudolph Otto’s “numena,” Friedrich Schliermacher’s feeling of “absolute dependence”).

    Man is separated from God and from community by a “barrier”. The greater the recognition of the barrier or separation the greater one’s self understanding of “I” and “Thou” (Re: Martin Buber). One cannot know oneself as a “Thou” or another person as an “I”. The person is inherently social, albeit in an awareness of his vast separation from God and thus from others.

    Contra idealist philosophy, Bonhoeffer sees sin or separation as an empirical reality. Thus man needs community. Bonhoeffer’s central proposition was: “A Christian who stays away from the assembly is a contradiction in terms.”

    There were three types of community to Bonhoeffer: the community, the society, and the mass (Re: Ferdinand Tonnies “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft”). “Where life is lived” is community; where rational action takes place is in society and markets; and where there are no binding social bonds there is the mass. Since community needs to be willed it is critical to understanding the church.

    Anti-community or fractured community is a consequence of sin. Sin cannot be reduced to biological terms. The community is in sin because each “I” is in sin. Thus, each person is in the same position as Adam or Eve. And there is the sin of collective persons.

    However, Bonhoeffer breaks with the concept of the Christian church as “Holy” (Rudolph Otto) and sees the only way to community is through revelation. The revelation of Christ is only available in the church, ergo in Christian community. To Bonhoeffer Christ exists and persists as the church, in which the Holy Spirit dwells. The acts of community are: confession, self-renunciation, intercessory prayer, and forgiving. Unity is not the same as oneness in faith, baptism, or creed. Thus oneness is conformity and unity is diversity or plurality. Unity is exhibited by diversity in the Spirit, thus there is no purity of doctrine.

    Presaging Berger, Bonhoeffer attempted to find the empirical basis of the church community. He rejected the “gathered church” or “national church” concept of Lutherans. The church’s main functions are worship, preaching, the sacraments, and infant baptism that does not necessarily sanctify the child but the congregation.

    To Bonhoeffer the church was a reality sui generis or independent of institutions as held by Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and others. The church is one of a kind. The church was not class bound but must transcend its bourgeois makeup. What form that would take was not altogether clear.

    While others are concerned about “secularism” and “postmodernity”, Berger has for some time been preoccupied with experimenting with a “plausibility structure” (Berger’s term) for the church by the Protestant Parsonage, the Protestant academy, the Indian concept of “joint family,” and the work-live monastery. Bonhoeffer’s “Sanctorum Communio” is a possible source for such ecclesiological experiments.

    None of these would equate to the American Evangelical notion of the church as a community recreation center with bowling clubs, gym clubs, and hi-tech media connections.

    In Orange County, California, a bastion of unrecognized secularism, Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral with his “positive thinking” gospel has been closed and the facilities sold to the local Catholic archdiocese, coincident with the collapse of the speculative debt economy on which it was based. For some experiments in new types of Christian community perhaps we can probably be thankful. We only can hope that more meaningful experiments emerge, although this would not be what some Evangelical Christians call “the emerging church,” housed in a coffee house or day care center in your local community and propagating a social work gospel.

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  • Gary Novak

    In the earlier piece to which Berger provides a link (“Pentecostalism Invades
    Lambeth Palace”), he mentions that the Taize practice what they call
    “Christian presence.” Without seeking converts, they practice their
    monastic offices and “make their Christian witness by simply BEING
    THERE.” Presumably they do not have in mind Woody Allen’s doctrine that
    90% of life is simply showing up. They must be there “Christianly.”
    The power of this “adverbial Christianity” (if one may call it that)
    is that it does not lean too heavily on doctrine to define the Christian
    “lifestyle.” Christian existence must speak for itself without (or
    with minimal) interpretation. If you love God and your neighbor, it doesn’t
    matter what you say. If you don’t love God and your neighbor, it doesn’t matter
    what you say. In short, it doesn’t matter what you say. No doubt that’s a
    little TOO short, but I think it captures the idea of what Christian presencing
    is all about.

    Berger notes that the term “presence chretienne” is of Catholic origin, but
    it seems to have a positive resonance for Lutherans as well. In his exposition
    of the Apostles’ Creed (“Questions of Faith”), he writes: “The
    Spirit mediates the experience of Christ, making Christ PRESENT– that is
    transforming an event of the past into an event occurring today. . . . This
    view of the role of the Spirit differentiates Luther both from the arid
    Biblicism that has characterized so much of later Protestantism and from the
    Catholic understanding of the sacraments operating mechanically regardless of
    the circumstances.” Berger notes that Luther did connect the inner word of
    the Spirit to the outward word of Scripture– suggesting that we should become uneasy
    if what the Spirit “says to us” departs too much from Scripture. But,
    however much one respects Scripture, “one must recognize that Luther’s
    understanding of the Bible is difficult to accept fully in the wake of modern
    historical scholarship.” One cannot make sense of the Spirit at all
    without placing a good deal of importance on experience in the
    tradition/experience nexus, for experience is where the Spirit speaks
    (including the experience OF Scripture).

    My sense is that this “adverbial Christianity” is Christian anarchism
    and may resist any form of institutionalization– or, rather, any form of
    institutionalization that imagines that it has overcome the problem of the
    rountinization of charisma. Charisma may appear in unlikely places and
    disappear in likely places. Perhaps the most saving church will always be
    invisible. (That is not an argument against new forms of monasticism any more
    than it is an argument against that little institution we know as
    “Religion and Other Curiosities.”)

    I agree with Berger’s observation that loneliness is more of a problem for
    celibates than is sexual frustration. Nor can Christian presencing be
    understood as a substitute for or sublimation of sexual desire. As C. S. Lewis
    says in “Surprised By Joy,” “Those who think that if adolescents were all
    provided with suitable mistresses we should soon hear no more of ‘immortal
    longings’ are certainly wrong. . . . Joy is not a substitute for sex; sex is
    very often a substitute for Joy.” It may be “only natural” to seek human
    companionship, but can one be truly lonely in the presence of God? Perhaps
    adverbial Christianity is the best defense against loneliness—better even than
    the happiest marriage. (But that is not an argument against happy marriages.)

  • jiminboulder

    “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” (John 17: 14-15) There’s no such thing as Christian monasticism. Be holy and engage with life!

    • Super Genius

      When asked whether he believed in infant baptism, Mark Twain replied, “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!” I think the same sentiment applies to Christian monasticism.

      • jiminboulder

        Good one by the old reprobate, SG! Seriously, if having “seen it” qualifies something as Christian doctrine nowadays (especially since the ’80’s), is there anything out there that DOESN’T qualify? I mean, we’ve seen it all!

  • wpm327

    Can anyone tell me the name of the painting that is on top of the story?

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      From Wikipedia:

      The Monk by the Sea (German: Der Mönch am Meer) is an oil painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. It was painted between 1808 and 1810 in Dresden and was first shown together with the painting The Abbey in the Oakwood (Abtei im Eichwald) in the Berlin Academy exhibition of 1810. On Friedrich’s request The Monk by the Sea was hung above The Abbey in the Oakwood.[1]

      After the exhibition both pictures were bought by king Frederick Wilhelm III for his collection.[2] Today the paintings hang side by side in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

      For its lack of concern with creating the illusion of depth—which had been a traditional aspect of landscape painting—The Monk by the Sea was Friedrich’s most radical composition. The broad expanses of sea and sky emphasize the meager figure of the monk, standing before the vastness of nature and the presence of God.[3]

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The “New Mosasticism” may have also produced what is being called a “counter postmodern culture” challenge to the growing digital way that “most of us currently interact with scripture.”

    A decades long project called the St. Johh’s Bible by British calligrapher Donald Jackson (an official scribe of Queen Elizabeth II) and St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota (which is a center for calligraphic arts) have produced an oversized version of the Old and New Testaments (2′ x 3′) in hard paper rather than electronic pixels displayed on an iPad.

    The monks that produced the first version have now turned to producing a trade edition for purchase by Christian congregations to display in religious sanctuaries to be read from, as well as by universities and individuals. This calligraphic version of the Bible is being used not only for display as a work of art but in worship services, promoting a sense of community in the process.

    I’m not big on the infallibility of Scripture; to the contrary I believe God may have even used infallible Scripture to bring about the “Sanctorum Communio.” And this version of the Bible may be used as a neo-conservative effort to search for greater certainty in Scripture than a more Pascalian-like wagering religious faith (coincidentally Blaise Pascal was also one of the first two inventors of the mechanical calculator called the Pascaline). Nonetheless, the byproduct of a Christian community that results from the monastic St. John’s Bible project may be another example of Peter Berger’s observations about “The New Monasticism.”

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