Asceticism & Love

5th century asceticism

In the late 18th century, Jane Attwater (a pious Baptist) agonises over feeling too much love for her fiancé; she is concerned about loving him too much.

” I fear I dread too fond an attachment to any earthly object O my God thou knowest the weakness of my heart suffer me not to incur thy displeasure in this way but with all submission to thy will may I thankfully receive & enjoy the blessings thou bestows upon me.”

Attwater expressed a sentiment which was common in this day – namely, a concern that your love of any person should never exceed the love one has for God. Indeed, if love for any friend of family member was to exceed love for God it was believed that God might remove that person from their lives as a mode of discipline. Such was the view of the widowed pastor’s wife of Samuel Pearce, who lost a child not long after the death of her husband –

“…no sooner am I deprived of one comfort, than I Grow insensibly to another, – till, disappointed again of this, I am compelled to feel the vanity of all below…it is my most earnest prayer, that [my heavenly Father] would not remove his chastising hand till the end is accomplished for which it is laid upon me…but surely I must be an untoward child to need such repeated and severe discipline.”

Instead of prioritising the need to always love God more, the passage in Scripture which indicates that you should love God so much MORE that you ‘hate mother, father sister brother, etc’ was taken too literally – it was believed that all earthly forms of love should be loved less. And if these earthly loves were, potentially, loved more than God – it could be potent for one’s salvation. This is why Wesley advised his ministers of the new Methodist movement to refrain from marriage. A married man might be overly concerned with this family and this would then become a snare, distracting him from the more important missional ministry. Even salvation could be on the line, if a man loved his family too much – more than God.

This type of Asceticism was not new, nor its association with love. As is typical amongst adherents to this principle, they begin well, In the case of the 18C, they began with the notion that they must love God the most, per the ‘greatest commandment.’ However, they proceeded to take it too far, by presuming that anything which distracted them could be a danger. In essence, relationships had the potential to be evil and must be avoided or held onto very loosely. This wasn’t the first time that ascetic views jeopardized intimate relationships.

Sex = Sin

In the 11th century, through the influence of Gregorian Reforms to the church, views on sex which had proliferated occasionally before this period became vogue. Sex was viewed as a potent element which must be avoided entirely; even practicing it once within marriage might damage one’s soul. This was due to increasingly Ascetic views which believed that sex could be sinful (yes, it can) and therefore concluded it is always sinful. However, understandably this was problematic – since coitus is needful for reproduction. Therefore, sex became acceptable within marriage – but no pleasure should be derived from it. This viewpoint shifted with the introduction of ‘courtly love’ which sought to ‘domesticate’ and therefore render sex a virtuous practice within marriage. (For more information about courtly love, see my post here).

Emotions = dangerous

Asceticism in the late 20th century took a new form via the ‘emotional purity movement’. This movement produced a plethora of highly rated authors who heavily advocated for strict boundaries concerning all types of relationships, lest you ‘pollute yourself’ by becoming too emotionally involved. Once again, the sentiment begins well – the intention being to prevent swathes of frivolous dating situations which only end in heartbreak. Pressure was placed on ‘dating God’ until your future spouse was (somehow obviously) revealed, and to avoid any intimate connections until you had ‘peace’ that this had occurred.

Once again, intimate relationships were placed in jeopardy. Men and women fretted over having relationships which were too close, lest they be too intimate. This sentiment carried on into married life, where married men and women grew increasingly anxious if friendships with the opposite sex developed, or were even perceived to exist.

Interestingly, this last movement has been re-evaluated by one of its main proponents – Joshua Harris – who has, ever ample investigation, ‘recanted’ some of his more aggressive writings on emotional purity. (See here).

While each of these movements differs tremendously, they have one thing in common – the tendency to ascetic extremes. We should always be mindful of what things in our lives are causing distraction, but this can be addressed without rendering the thing which distracts us as actually or practically evil in itself. Hebrews tells us to throw off sins – not become hermits. And as the pendulum swings, we should be mindful which extreme we are holding to – whether that be a humanistic hedonism, or its alternative and equally potent view – asceticism.



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