Ascetical Theology 101

By Derek Olsen


A little bit ago The Lead pointed to a great speech given by a Roman Catholic Benedictine abbot on climate change and sustainability. To summarize, he championed a return to the roots of our moral theology. The only way to combat the environmental woes that assail us, he insists, is to return to the practice of the virtues that Christianity has always promoted.

Say what?

What virtues would those be—and what have we “always” said about them? What the heck is this “moral theology” thing anyway, and is it something that we Anglican types do too?

Moral theology is indeed an important part of the Anglican way, but we haven’t always called it that—nor communicated it clearly. So, in case you were out that day in catechism class (or skipped catechism class altogether) here’s a quick refresher on moral theology—what it isn’t, what it is, and how we do it…

There Are Several Kinds of Theology

Most of us know about theology. It’s usually complicated and boring. Not only is it complicated and boring but all too often it’s speculative too. That is, you can spend your whole life doing it and have no idea if you’re even in the ballpark or not. And that’s no fun.

Let me challenge this notion a bit with the notion that there are different fields within the over-all category of “theology”—and that the category as a whole does get a bad rap. Three fields that I want to focus on are systematic theology, moral theology, and ascetical theology.

Most of the time when people think (nasty thoughts) about theology, they’re thinking of systematic theology. This is the discipline that, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “investigate[s] the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith and to promote its deeper understanding.” Or, as I call it, thinking about Christian thoughts. This is the field that explores the Christian doctrine of God, tries to wrap its head around the notion of the Trinity, and deals with the theoretical links between God and creation—especially us humans. It can indeed get very complicated and very speculative. While I confess to finding parts of it boring, thankfully others don’t—because it does have an important role in our faith.

If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God—which I believe it is—then systematic theology asks: what are the contours of that relationship and who and what are we in relationship with?

Systematic theology is about the thoughts we think and how they ground our relationships with God.

Moral theology, on the other hand, while it interacts with some of the concepts used in systematic theology has a very different starting place and ending place. Moral theology focuses on human action—why we do what we do and the theological logic that grounds it. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then moral theology asks: in light of that relationship, what actions should humans do or not do? In some times and places, moral theology has taken a turn towards legalism—prescribing what we ought and oughtn’t do—and many Christians including Anglicans have often shied away from these developments and have tended more towards the roots of moral theology which are found in ascetical theology. Ascetical theology and moral theology share quite a bit of common ground and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably—but I think it’s worth teasing out a difference in order to see ascetical theology more clearly.

It’s actually this latter field of theology that Anglicans have typically embraced. Its roots are in the monastic theology that grounds our liturgies and prayer books. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then ascetical theology asks: what habits can we cultivate to nurture that relationship?

So while thoughts are involved, ascetical theology isn’t fundamentally about thinking and while deeds are involved it’s not fundamentally about specific acts either—it’s about our habits: how we think, how we feel, and ultimately how we behave towards all of the players in the relationship—God and our neighbors (which includes the whole of creation…).

Because it’s about habits it tends to be less speculative than systematic theology; because it’s about habits it tends to be less legalistic than moral theology. The flip side, though, is that it requires not just thought or isolated actions but real transformation of our habits and that makes it much more challenging and more personally risky.

Ascetical Theology Starts with Sin

Christian ascetical theology really does begin with Jesus and Paul but was expanded upon, systematized, and field-tested in the harsh laboratory of the Egyptian desert. The early monastic movement took quite seriously the notion of embodying the demands of Scripture and worked hard at the practical science of Christian perfection—in so far as that’s possible. The basis of ascetical theology, then, comes from these monastic roots particularly as systematized by John Cassian and others.

The monastic teachers inevitably started with sin. That is, if we go back to our definition of ascetical theology—what habits nurture the relationship with God and neighbor—the monastics found that it was much easier to identify the negatives—those habits that prevent us from nurturing a mature relationship with God and neighbor. Assisted by good things that they learned from Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy (after all, we Christians didn’t invent the notion of healthy relationships…), the monastics found that the great majority of the countless ways that we injure ourselves and each other can be classified under eight broad headings which they called the principal vices:

• Gluttony

• Lust

• Covetousness

• Anger (used as a technical term for an attitude—not a feeling)

• Sorrow (ditto)

• Acedia (an anxiety or weariness of the heart)

• Vainglory

• Pride

(Another way of grouping them is the Seven Deadly Sins which bundles Sorrow and Acedia together into “Sloth”)

Remember, these are broad headings that describe the ways that we distort our relationships. Just because “Lust” makes the list doesn’t mean that these can be rejected with a dismissory, “Oh, he thinks sex is bad—we’ve moved beyond that now…” Rather we need to recognize that the ways that we use and express our sexuality can and do damage relationships—just as how we consume can, or how we think about and act towards other people can.

We’ve All Got a Favorite

All of us participate in all of these vices to one degree or another. And, many of these tend to interconnect with one another. However, the monastics discovered that most people tend to favor one or two of these more than the others. You have to deal with them all sooner or later, but you’ve got to tackle the big ones first—and “the big ones” are different for each one of us. I’d suggest—returning to the abbot’s speech that touched this whole thing off—that societies are no different. While we can think of a whole host of ways that Western society enacts each these eight vices, I’d suggest that the one that is presently most lethal is gluttony.

The Western way of life is consuming ourselves to death—and we’re taking the rest of the world with us, too.

But There’s a Fix

Thankfully the monastic experimenters didn’t just identify and classify problems, they worked on solutions too. After identifying the habits that get us into trouble, they studied those habits that can counteract these destructive tendencies. These are the principle virtues:

• Temperance

• Chastity

• Prudence

• Justice

• Fortitude

• Faith

• Hope

• Love

Just as the vices are interrelated and are broad categories for a host of acts, the same is true of the virtues. The monastics taught that to grow in one virtue was to grow in all of them since all of them point to and are wrapped up in love. Love is the sum of the virtues.

Sometimes specific virtues can be used to counter certain vices. For instance, temperance can directly oppose gluttony—but this rarely succeeds if we attempt the virtue by itself. Love is the sum of the virtues, and if we find that we are enacting one of the virtues in a way that doesn’t exhibit the others and that doesn’t ultimately lead us into love, chances are we’ve figured out another way to call vice virtue! Temperance without justice, without hope, without love, may not be temperance at all but repression masquerading as virtue.

We need to cultivate temperance on a societal level, but to do it without justice, hope, and love would be to make our problems simply different and not better.

We’re Not Alone Either

By this time the little Lutheran who lives in my brain is jumping up and down, waving his hands wildly, shouting “What about grace! Isn’t this just works-righteousness by another name!”

Thankfully, no—it’s not. The monastics insisted that no part of this process of transformation can occur apart from God and apart from God’s grace. After all, this isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about relationship-improvement and the One to whom we relate wants this to work out even more than we do. God’s grace begins, assists, and completes the process, but there’s still a role for us to play too. In one memorable part of John Cassian’s writings a student asks that if God begins and ends it, what’s left for us to do? The older monk gently corrects him with the wry remark that things with beginning and ends have middles too—and that’s where we come in. God offers us grace but we have to recognize and accept it too. God constantly offers us ways to improve our relationships with him, with our neighbors, with the whole creation—but we’ve got to take him up on it.

We’re not saved by cultivating virtue, by forming holy habits. We’re saved by God’s free gift of grace. But God invites us to improve the relationship, not to just let it lie. That’s the point of ascetical theology—to help us form the holy habits that make the relationship deeper, stronger, and more dear.

Holy habits are the habits that build love, that build compassion, that build respect. And those are the qualities that we need as individuals and as societies if we expect to make a difference in our world. Climate change, sustainability—those are just pieces of a much larger mess that we’ve all participated in creating. Just as the Abbot of Worth suggests, maybe these habits are what we have to offer the world.

So ascetical theology really is an Anglican thing to do. It may even be an American thing to do… But deeper than that, it’s the Christian thing to do—to respond to the grace that God freely offers. To take our relationships with both hands and to do the hard work of embracing holy habits.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Past Posts