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The Meaning of Austerity: Theological Perspectives

by The Revd Dr James Walters

Posted: 05 Mar 2013

In 2010 the Merriam-Webster Dictionary named "austerity" its Word of the Year and today it remains a defining word in the Government's deficit reduction policy. But it is a word with a lot of religious connotations that are rarely explored. Austerity is linked to ancient themes of purification, atonement and sacrifice, religious themes which, even in our more secular society, may continue to hold much power.

Austerity in the New Testament

In New Testament Greek the word austeros comes from the verb meaning "to dry up" and it seems to be used metaphorically to imply a strict or severe disposition in someone. One lexicon describes it as "an exaggeration of a virtue pushed too far rather than an absolute vice". So it is used in the Parable of the Talents in Luke's Gospel by the third slave who is afraid of his master and buries his talent in the ground saying, "For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man (anthropos austeros)". In the New Testament usage, therefore, austerity implies this harsh, stern treatment of others.

Austerity and Asceticism

But at some point austerity seems to encompass more than just this strict manner. It develops associations with the early Christian practice of askesis, "asceticism", that is the extremely rigorous religious practices of self-discipline and abstinence. So the dryness shifts from a manner towards others to being a way of life to which people submit themselves. In Christian history this first comes to prominence in the desert fathers and mothers of the mid third century. The most famous of these is Anthony of Egypt who is believed to have sold his possessions, given the proceeds to the poor, and then gone out into the Scetes desert to pursue a life of solitude. But he was part of a movement of people who formed early monastic communities in the desert, dedicated to a life that could certainly be described as austere.

This movement was very significant because their way of life was to have a profound influence on future Christians, particularly St Benedict in the fifth century. After himself spending three years in a cave, Benedict founded a community of men at Monte Cassino, living according to a Rule that he drew up, a Rule of prayer, work and study that was certainly austere but not punitive. Growing out of these first Benedictines, the monastic way of life would come to have enormous influence on the character and pattern of European Christianity and that continues even within the Church of England today in our patterns of prayer.

Austerity and Imitation of Christ

So why is this strand of austere asceticism so strong and what is it seen to achieve? I think this question gets to the heart of the deep tension in Christian history between the simplicity of the life of Jesus (one who we are told had "nowhere to lay his head") and the probably inevitable complexities of subsequent church and social life. Just think of the debates we have today about whether or not Britain is (still) a Christian nation. Part of our confusion over this is surely the fact that there is very little in the teaching of Jesus to tell us what a Christian society would really look like. For the most part we read a lot of personal moral injunctions, some very demanding and austere, such as in Luke's Gospel: "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions". There is a call to a radical detachment, as in the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?"

In Christian history, all of this becomes much more challenging after the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the beginning of an attempt to create a holy empire consecrated, somewhat ironically, to this man - Jesus of Nazareth - who seems to be the antithesis of imperialism. So what monasticism comes to represent is how, within this seemingly compromised Christian society, there remains an ideal of austerity (defined now as the opposite of opulence) that is exemplified in the religious orders. In his famous Imitation of Christ in the early fifteenth century, Thomas Kempis holds up the monastic ideal. He writes: "Observe how many behave, who live strictly under the monastic discipline... they work hard, they talk little, they keep long watches... Consider the Carthusians, the Cistercians, and the monks and nuns of the various orders, how they rise each night to sing praises to our Lord."

The Carthusians and Cistercians were fresh attempts in the eleventh century to renew the Benedictine ascetic ideal and a further wave followed in the twelfth century with the mendicant friars like the Franciscans. So we have these waves of renewal, a repeated calling back to the austerity of the life of Christ. But this pull away from opulence to austerity is not exclusively Christian. It is present in some of the Sufi writings like al-Ghazali's writing on the austerity of the Prophet Muhammad. And it's even present in the mythology of Rome at the time when Christian thought is forming. The non-Christian historian Ammianus Marcellinus is typical of those in the fourth century blaming decadence for the fall of the Roman Republic to the Visigoths. Rome had suffered worst disasters and survived them, he wrote: "But this was because the sobriety of ancient times had not been infected by the effeminacy of a laxer way of life, and there was no craving for ostentatious banquets and ill-gotten gains."

The Reformation

An important thing to say about European monasticism is that the emphasis on austerity is linked with the primacy of prayer. The point about the Rule of St Benedict and all the subsequent religious orders is that they cultivate a kind of austerity in order to make more room for God. Manual labour is important in the Benedictine Rule but only for four or five hours a day (well within the European Working Time Directive!); the primary work is the Opus Dei, the work of God that is prayer and worship.

Here the Reformation seems to represent a significant shift. The reformers rejected the notion of special communities dedicated to religious life and sought to bring religious ideals into the everyday. And with that, certainly in Puritanism, there seems to be a new focus on austerity as a core virtue in itself, not as a particular vocation for the hermit or the monk as an aid to prayer.

The rather unfair caricature here is the figure of Lady Whiteadder, the wealthy Puritan aunt of Edmund Blackadder for whom chairs and mashed turnips are all inventions of the devil. But it's no coincidence that that sitcom portrays Lady Whiteadder as wealthy. Max Weber's famous study of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism explores the impact that Puritan austerity has on the accumulation of capital. Central to his argument is how ascetic living makes room, not for prayer like the monks, but for work

So there is a particular link created at this time between austerity and work and productivity. Weber looks at St Paul's injunction in 2 Thessalonians: "if any would not work, neither should he eat". For Thomas Aquinas (pre-Reformation) this is an instruction to the community as a whole and there are many individual exceptions. But for the Puritans, Weber writes, "...the most important thing was that... labour came to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God. St Paul's [injunction] holds unconditionally for everyone. Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace." So Weber argues that, although Protestants were opposed to the notion of justification by works, the fact that you worked hard appeared to be a sign that you were part of God's elect and because spending it frivolously was also viewed as a sign of moral corruption you ended up accumulating a lot of money!

This helps us begin to explain how we move to the situation we are in today where austerity has shifted from being defined as the opposite of opulence to effectively being defined as the opposite of generosity. It has gone from being a vocation to be embraced in imitation of Christ and a deepening of prayer, to something imposed on those who are perhaps judged as deserving of it - deserving of it because they do not work or because they are perceived to be profligate or in some ways irresponsible.

Some of these religious tones have even come out in political discussions in Europe in recent months, the idea that the lax southern Catholic European countries need to have austerity imposed on them by the more fiscally strict northern Protestant countries. Actually that's a hopeless simplification taking no account of the fact that Iceland is Protestant, Greece is in fact Orthodox, and so on. But it is an attitude which seems to reflect something of the Puritan understanding and, interestingly, takes us back to the New Testament definition of austerity I began with, the anthropos austeros with the severe, punitive disposition.

Does austerity work?

Since the loss of the UK's AAA credit rating more people are beginning to ask the question, does austerity work? Obviously that's being asked in the economic sense. But does austerity work in any theological sense? And maybe the two questions aren't so far apart. In 1 Corinthians St Paul cautions us against empty ascetic heroism: "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." There are clearly spiritual benefits to austerity but it should not be an end in itself. And I think Francis of Assisi was right in his emphasis that the Christian ideal should not so much be austerity (with its connotations of punishment either of ourselves or others), but rather a kind of simplicity of life

Complexity is sometimes identified as one of the causes of our current financial crisis. That wasn't the complexity of the poor but the complexity of the rich. So perhaps a better reading of the theological tradition tells us that our society and our economy need a new kind of simplicity - a simplicity that reconnects the generation of capital with social purpose and material realities. But that simplicity does not begin with the poor. So I think Anthony, Benedict and Francis would all tell us that we have misunderstood austerity and that we are focusing it in the wrong direction.

About this author

The Revd Canon Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics and Director of the LSE Faith Centre. He is an Associate of the St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.