By Myles Werntz
North America, in many places, is in the throes of a decadence which it cannot justify, but which it will not live without. For decades, North America has consumed more than its share of resources, and now, for a variety of reasons, this is becoming unsustainable. As housing and medical prices increase, and real wages decrease, the call toward the material simplicity of the Gospels simply makes more sense. But, for much of the North American church—unaccustomed to simplicity as a virtue—such a pursuit can be misunderstood as frugality or perhaps minimalism.
To paraphrase Acts, discount prices we know, but what is this simplicity? Simplicity and its cousins approach us in a thousand faces: the tiny house movements, in the van living of the bohemians, in New Monasticism. But simplicity is difficult to pursue, for it is easy for the Mammon at the heart of our culture to become dressed in new clothes. Vices such as materialism, after all, available in both excess and deficiency, by having more possessions than we need and by being obsessed with getting rid of them.
Theologically, an ethic of simplicity (as distinct from minimalism) can be put this way: because the life of God is undivided, we are–as creatures of God–meant to seek a unity of action, to refuse having two masters. If the works of God are not only for the flourishing of creation, but undivided in this pursuit, the works of God’s creatures should mirror this, being ordered around the things of God such that our lives are lived with a singularity of purpose and orientation, with the accumulation of goods an overflow of that singularly situated desire.
Simplicity, at one level, is certainly about one’s consumption, about paring down and decluttering. But simplicity–if it is meant to reflect who God is—goes beyond this, involving the affections, prayer, and growth in virtue. As created beings, however, we learn the things of God through the things of earth, and the two are not easily disentangled. The difficulty of simplicity is that it, like frugality and minimalism, involves a real paring down of our material goods, but for different reasons, and beyond what seems culturally gauche. It is one thing to do spring cleaning; it is quite another to give away the very things which would make our lives comfortable for the sake of prayer and service.
As a parent, material simplicity tends to be a natural state that we desire to escape from, storing away what can stored for when the younger child grows into it, or when the older child gets hungry after dinner. And so, the longer I parent, the more I approach words such as Basil the Great’s with more eye-roll than reverent awe. It is not that I don’t think that he’s wrong per se, or that the bishop of Caesarea was misguided in his theology, for empirical studies are showing now what the Scriptures have always known: wealth corrupts, and great wealth corrupts greatly. When Basil states, for example, that “the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes”, I am struck with the rhetorical force and ground to dust by the moral challenge of his words; I am laid bare in the light of Jesus’ challenging words.
And as I begin to sing Basil’s praises, a dissonant note begins to grow:
“Wait”, I remember. “Basil didn’t have children.”
As Brent Waters points out in his work on the family in Christian thought, the early church had a divided mind as to what to make of families, of how moral due to the inner workings of a social form which needs more than single people. For, beginning with Augustine—and refracted in the writings of monastics—singleness and the decluttered living which comes with it are the preferred norm of the Christian life. Free from the demands of domesticity, we are free to pursue an ordered life of prayer and service.
In the words of Basil, I am reminded, however, of Hannah Arendt’s perceptive observation about politics, that all forms of politics in the ancient world assumed that someone was staying behind to do the laundry, enslaved to the humdrum material world filled with washbasins and child rearing. For the free agent to be free and materially focused, there was someone unfree and materially divided, laboring in the shadows. To return to Basil, it is not so much that it is right for someone to own two coats, but what if—for the sake of argument—I want to pass my oldest’s coat down to the younger brother? Or, living where I do, what if winter is bitter tundra one week followed by balmy the next? As a parent, I am surely free to let my child sweat for the kingdom of God, but certainly this is also to behave unjustly toward my child. But surely, the gift of parenthood is not one to be endured as a second-class theological citizen, doomed to never reach the fullness of being a disciple, of always feeling tugged in two directions and having one more box to stuff in the attic for the younger child.
New minimalist movements, proliferated on social media, only exaggerate this tension. If we set aside the irony of paying for a “live simply” sign, the minimalist movements of van living, clean kitchens, and natural wood flooring offer at one level an aesthetically appealing vision of an ordered material life, of simplicity. Of course, clean countertops have little to do immediately with an ordered moral life. But it is not so much that these purely aesthetic forms of simplicity are wrong, for order and cleanliness are certainly not, in and of themselves, bad things. And Basil, for all of his starkness, does not intend to shame us who, seeking to be prudent, sock away a second coat for a younger child. But what about parenting could be compatible with this vision of the Gospel, of being undivided and unified in our moral lives and in our households?
Reframing the Utopian Vision
Thankfully, theological guides on this question knew that simplicity was not an idea, prizing exemplars perhaps more than pure ideas. For example, in the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, written shortly after Basil’s time, the abbot of the monastery appears to the monks as a guide, a visual example of what the spiritual life should be like. They are someone who is not young in the faith, one who has grown in wisdom, and is now able to be a guide to the younger novices in their journey. It is this kind of exemplar that I long for in the late evening, when, after my children have gone to bed, I find myself crawling penitently over Legos in pursuit of domestic order. Parenting, particularly in its mundane repetition, can be a hopeless affair on this front; in the evenings, I look around for Benedict, but usually, he has gone to bed, unfettered by dirty oatmeal bowls, unsung canticles in his head.
The great temptation of exemplars of simplicity—secular or saintly—is hagiography, telling their lives as if their accomplishments were without struggle. Basil was a man of church politics, as was Benedict, with skeletons in their ecclesiastical closets. It is with deep gratitude that we have the letters of Basil, for example, which tell us of his sorrows, of his church struggles. This is what is, in many ways, missing from modern minimalism, for every podcast and parenting blog curating an image of material perfection and simplicity hides the outtakes and badly lit hallway organizers. But exemplars of material discipline—whether theological or secular—offer us a valuable image even when they do it badly: the gift of aspiration. And yet, apart from these outtakes, apart from Basil’s letters, the icon of Basil becomes an impossible image, burdening rather than freeing.
Scripture itself knows this danger, and thus, offers its examples in this self-effacing way. In Acts 2:42-47, we find a glittering description of the post-Pentecost church, in which we find the worship practices of the early church—their adherence to teaching and their lives of worship—bookend the radical vision of sharing all things in common, of giving to each as they had need. Repeated again in Acts 4 (and echoed in many of Paul’s assumptions about how churches should give to other churches, how work should be done, and how meals should be eaten), one can easily see where Basil is able to tell his congregation with a straight face that having too much property is the same as theft. But like Basil’s letters, Scripture also contains unvarnished descriptions of how hard this challenge is, and how many times this vision comes up short. We are treated to the divisions between rich and poor in Corinth, questions of what to do about the lazy in 2 Thessalonians, and the challenge of wealth in James. As Peter Brown demonstrates, our pious wishes about the early church evaporates when we realize that, nearly 400 years later, the divide between the wealthy and the poor had become greater inside churches.
Visions of material simplicity captivate us, but can only truly lay claim to us when we see that this is not a utopian vision, but a struggle ahead of us. To have an audacious vision is not the same as having an audacious vision become a part of our daily desires and monthly budgets. It is significant, then, that the struggle is encapsulated within Scripture and the theological record not as an embarrassment but as an internal dynamo of the vision itself. Basil’s politicking in church was, in other words, part of making the dream real, as is Benedict’s acknowledgment that sometimes monks get kicked out, as is Scripture letting us hear about Annanias and Sapphira.
These behind-the-scenes glimpses of utopias-in-via are important for a parent pursuing simplicity and a unity of their life to hear, for the direct examples to us on the question of simplicity are few within Scripture. There are no parents struggling to hear and act on Jesus’ words to sell everything or to share everything that is in common; the rich young ruler and Zaccheus are, we assume, married, but safely immune from the audacious offers of giving away half they own. The struggle as a parent is this: as a parent, I am both disciple and teacher, student and master; I bring them along with me in my journey, always aware that they cannot bear as much as I can. And so, the parent does not simply live the journey of discipleship, but bears it in our own body, being torn between what we can bear with, and the allowances we must make for my children, the strong for the weak. Much grace is needed for parents here, I think, as bearing the burdens of another, to the outsider, can look like putting our hand to the plow and then looking back.
The radical material vision of Scripture, divesting ourselves of our goods, is one which is meant for our liberation; we have lost sight of the early church’s teaching that, as Basil indicates, wealth is poisonous to us. But utopian visions of simplicity—good news for the affluent single person–become burdens for the prudential parent, creating a utopia in which I always in the outer darkness for the sake of my children’s stability. What is needed is not to abandon the vision, but to remember that it is always on the way, that the vision is the best and aspirational built on countless hours of practice and false starts.
Retaining the Material Vision
If over-idealizing simplicity is the most obvious danger—one which tempts us to despair—there is a second and opposite danger as well. In Acts 2, the radical vision of the material life is coupled with practices of worship and liturgy, to indicate that the apex of this vision (sharing of goods) is not possible apart from being a part of a worshipping community. And here the temptation emerges here: over-reading the passage, rather than accepting the simple challenge of it. For who could fault a parent for wanting to teach their child that passages such as these—as hard as they are—are really about having the right heart? In reading the utopian depictions of Acts, some early interpreters recognized that the danger at having materialism at the center of the one’s theology, being concerned with the world at the expense of one’s soul. Or, as it plays out in my world, what does it matter to share your trains with your brother if you pout about it the whole time? To give something away is hard; to love giving something away is an act of grace, the image of the perfection we strive for.
In his treatment of the famous passage of Jesus confronting the young man of great wealth, Clement of Alexandria proposed that what Jesus meant was not to literally give away everything, but to ensure that one’s heart was right, that one loved the right thing. In interpreting the passage this way, Clement was trying to demonstrate that what is truly at stake in our materialism is our soul. But in doing so, Clement unwittingly gave the justification which undermines the force of Jesus’ words: the condition of the heart. What matters, Clement thought, was the ordering of one’s desires, and how one loves God. The Christian, in other words, was in no danger from wealth, provided that they served God in their affections and not Mammon. And so, following Clement’s lead, I allow my attic to fill with boxes of potential loves, of prudently socked away bins of the next size up, stored away against the coming hordes of next year’s growth spurt.
If one temptation is to take material simplicity too seriously—seizing it as a utopian burden rather than a journey to enter into—the opposite temptation is to not take simplicity seriously enough. For as much as I love my children, their appetites cannot yet distinguish between sufficient and excess; I must, according to Jesus, be like them in their trust, but not in their judgment. “For the children” can, like “live simply”, be a self-justifying mantra that covers a multitude of sins: to be a disciple and a parent is to view them not as competitive notions, but as the same word.
For as much as Paul wrote to the single to follow Christ in their sexual lives, so he wrote to couples; as much as Jesus commended his disciples to leave home, so he cared for his own mother as one of his disciples. If our drive toward simplicity glosses over the difficulties of material living, and exclude the depths of our relationships, we deny the material world’s worth in the process. The challenge of material simplicity, as difficult as it is, is a challenge that parents are offered as parents. But what could this mean? How could this be undertaken?
In Praise of Christian Simplicity
Christian simplicity, embodied well, takes up the frail impulses and broken aesthetics of minimalism, completing them in ways which draw all into their fold. The attractiveness of movements such as New Monasticism, which emphasize materially simple lives, is that they do not implicitly assume that the ideal disciple is one with great means and without children, or—more bluntly—they do not pit me and my desire for simplicity against my own children in the name of Jesus. For a family is meant to engage in discipleship together, as mirrors of the church, strangers placed together by God’s grace for our own good. And so, members of these movements join with their children, simplifying their lives, sharing their possessions for the sake of their neighbors and the kingdom. Simplicity, in other words, becomes a communal effort, shared across our little domestic kingdoms. Household budgets are laid open to the community, not as a matter of piety, but as a matter of transparency before God and one another. In these communities, children learn from their parents, and join with their parents in this way toward Christ.
Networks of these communities from Evanston to Waco to Durham find ways to draw whole families into this vision, acknowledging that the care of children should not be at odds with the simplicity of the Gospel, and that these tasks must be undertaken together. What they understand is that the true obstacle to simplicity is not solely whether one achieves minimalism to a greater or lesser degree, though it is without question that the Scriptures side view an over abundance of goods as harmful to us. The true obstacle to simplicity is the pursuit of this vision as a Promethean journey, creating spiritual fire through heroic means instead of humble cooperation.
In her recent book on singleness in the church, Jana Bennett perceptively notes that frequently the ideal spiritual life is one which assumes ample material resources to do so. The single mother, for example, is expected to provide for her children in addition to attending to their piety, forgetting that two-parent families have more time and resources to fulfill both work and family obligations. The converse is true in this quest for simplicity: the drive toward material simplicity can be more easily undertaken by the single than by families with children. What would be a benefit in a bourgeoisie vision of discipleship—adequate resources to meet social and religious obligations—is here now a liability.
The true danger of the utopian vision of simplicity is not that simplicity is achievable, but that is achievable alone. What is needed, for material simplicity to not be restricted to the young or the single, is for an ethos of bearing burdens, that all might be able to live into this world which the Gospel depicts, a world imaged on Instagram as a private accomplishment but only available as a community effort. Consider again the words of Jesus in Mark as he challenges his disciples (10:29-30):
“Truly I tell you”, said Jesus, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for My sake and for the gospel will fail to receive a hundredfold in the present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields, along with persecutions—and to receive eternal life in the age to come.
In this passage, the drive toward material simplicity as a Gospel imperative is met, in the Christian economy, by an endless store of resources, as houses are opened in hospitality, family structures expand in increasing circles of concern, and resources ample enough to feed extra mouths. Modern disciples—including those with children—are drawn into an arrangement where all have what they need, because material simplicity is a journey of the community, not a heroic accomplishment of the singular saint. En route to this place, images of all kinds will present themselves, and we should take heed of their example. The van dwelling couple, who nomadically traipse from city to city, should provide inspiration without becoming idolatrously exemplars; the childless monastics and unmarried communitarians offer guidance and wisdom without becoming the singular form of material simplicity. Even Instagram movements of minimalism—intended to magnify simplicity for its own sake—can offer us Egyptian gold which can be refashioned into tools fit for the temple. What is needed is not to refuse their inspiration, but to undertake these journeys of simplicity as one body, bearing our burdens together.
Myles Werntz is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, and the T.B. Maston Professor of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, TX. He is married to Sarah, and the dad to Eliot and Arthur. He is the author of Bodies of Peace: Nonviolence, Ecclesiology, and Witness (Fortress, 2014), and the editor of four other books in theology and ethics. He is also at work on an a monograph on 20th century ecclesiology, as well as a co-authored introduction to Christian nonviolence, both for Baker Academic.