Filled, Not Emptied | Week 31
By: Jesse Porch
By: Jesse Porch
Our conversation this week with the Matthew and Nancy Sleeth reminded me of the current trend of minimalism. The term itself comes out of the art world, arising in the mid twentieth century as a “return to basics” that focused on shape and color without the complexity of representational or abstract art. More recently, material minimalism has come to advocate the simplification of one’s life and the reduction of material possessions.
There’s certainly something laudable about such a perspective, especially in a highly material age. Such actions strike a blow against consumerism and resist the constant message that only through accumulation of things to satisfy desires can we truly be happy. But as noble as this practice is, it strikes me as philosophically incomplete. If this “unburdening” is to help us find happiness, then by necessity all that is given up must be replaced. Abstract concepts like peace and simplicity have value, but are they enough to fill the gaping hole our consumerism tells us it alone can complete?
I think that there’s more to our nature than minimalism alone can answer. Any philosophy based on stripping out the unnecessary must assume some foundation of necessity. Christ claimed that if we are to seek first his kingdom, then all other things we’d need would be provided. But he also proclaimed that we must be willing to lose everything for his sake in order to be his disciples. In this we find a curious contradiction: to seek Christ first means a willingness to abandon all else, yet there are still human needs (physical and emotional) beyond that relationship. Our call to delight in Christ does not override the fact that we are placed within a physical creation which was declared to be very good.
In this, we find the heart of a Christian Minimalism: not asceticism, but enough decluttering to climb off the hedonic treadmill. Rather than a religion of “no” that strips life of its beauty, we have one that starts with a “yes” so complete that it frees us to say yes judiciously to things that enhance our first love. Thus such diverse concepts as Sabbath, environmentalism, and the care of the poor and elderly all build upon the heart of Christian theology: a life lived wholly for Christ has room for enough “stuff” to effect meaningful change within the world but resists being ruled by material possessions. Rather than a theology of stripping away, Christianity represents one of embracing Christ so completely that all else is secondary.
It’s fitting that we undertook such a discussion during the climax of Lent: Holy Week. This is a season of fasting as we remember the most foundational event of the Christian faith. While much of Lent is about abstinence, the motivation for this comes not merely from a desire to cut off the unimportant. Rather, Lent seeks for us to be intentional about our fasting, grounding it in a desire to be filled even more fully with Christ. It is not about cutting out something that will barely be missed, but a choice to set the important aside in light of the utmost importance of Christ. It is Christian Minimalism in action: not a stripping away, but a filling so complete that we willingly move other things aside to make room.
Such a deep perspective helps to combat an unrealistic asceticism that often creeps into our theology, but another risk of minimalism that we must zealously guard against is a false utilitarianism. The desire to streamline—to get back to basics—while laudable, makes sense only when one has a firm grasp of what those basics are and what they ought to mean in practice. Too often the church falls prey to this notion that only that which is useful is worthy of the Christian’s notice. Whether this means ignoring art that does not teach a sufficiently concrete moral lesson, or skipping observance of the Sabbath because of a busy schedule, the end result is that we strip away that which we ought to embrace.
When faced with a similar tendency within the Church, Romano Guardini condemned the need to reduce the liturgy to that which “served a purpose.” Minimalism does not merely look for the practical when it seeks to determine what makes the cut; worship is not about that which mechanically fulfills the most rules. Rather, the liturgy ought to be thought of as a way in which we come before God to delight in his presence, not to check a few boxes off of our weekly schedule. He described liturgy and true worship as “life, pouring itself forth without aim, seizing upon riches from its own abundant store, significant through the fact of its existence.”
So as we move forward through Eastertide toward Pentecost, let us keep the lessons of Lent foremost in our minds. The virtues of simplicity and temperance are great blessings, but greater still is the unending fountain from which we have been invited to drink deeply: the blood of Christ, the Living Water that quenches our thirst in a way nothing else can. We must always remember that Christ did not command us to be emptied, but to be filled abundantly and completely with himself.
Praise to the Lord, He is Risen Indeed!