by Evan B. Howard
Evangelical Vision, Eremitical Tradition
Part I: The Pursuit of True Religion in Fourth-Century Monastic and Related Expressions
If there is any element that is characteristic of evangelical spirituality it is the emphasis on “true religion.” D. Bruce Hindmarsh, in his survey of the contours of evangelical spirituality, for example, states that evangelical piety was “characterized by a focus on ‘true religion’ over against nominal affiliation to church establishments and a religion of law and custom.”1 Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries frequently distinguished “true” or “real” Christianity from a number of counterfeits. Scottish theologian Henry Scougal (1650-1678), for example, introduced his influential The Life of God in the Soul of Man with a discussion of common “mistakes about religion.” The errors he enumerates include, for example, viewing religion as merely “orthodox notions and opinions,” considering the faith to be a matter of “external duties,” and thinking of it primarily “in the affections, in rapturous heats and ecstatic devotion.” Scougal argues that all these have a “resemblance of piety and at the best are but means of obtaining it, or particular exercises of it.” “But certainly religion is quite another thing,” he proclaims. True religion is, as he puts it, “an union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul; or, in the Apostle’s phrase, it is Christ formed within us. Briefly, I know not how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed, than by calling it a divine life.”2
This estimate of religion as something which is not–which indeed cannot and ought not be–identified with particular doctrinal nuances, religious experiences, ecclesiastical affiliations, or spiritual disciplines, but is rather identified with a sincere relationship with Christ and others is, I believe, one of the important aims not only of evangelicalism, but also of the early monastic experiments of the fourth century.3 Many are aware of the intensity and extremes to which fourth-century desert elders pursued their faith.4 The desert elders themselves were aware of the dangers of those extremes. Like good athletes of the faith, however, most viewed their spiritual disciplines as training for the actual combat with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and to the finish line of victory and full maturity in Christ. Others were not so wise, however. Some sought to mimic the austerities or the experiences of the religious life without really comprehending their meaning. Consequently, we read in the literature of early monasticism stories of the “old men” or the wise ones who creatively deconstruct the false religious lives of those who were less wise. What I find, as I read the literature of fourth-century monasticism, is not a program of formal teaching about true religion, much as one might find in Scougal’s treatise. Rather, as I read carefully between the lines of this odd collection of stories and aphorisms, I hear a familiar voice, a voice calling me beyond mere experience, doctrine and affiliation to something more, something “real.” This literature speaks of the early monastic value of true religion. As Dominican historian Simon Tugwell argues:
Although the casual reader of the literature from the Egyptian desert is likely to come away feeling that the monks were primarily interested in excesses of austerity and in fantastic battles with demons, this is not really the kernel of their message. The austerities, whatever their significance may have been in earlier kinds of asceticism, are not viewed by the main tradition of the Egyptian desert as a way to become superhuman, nor as ideals in themselves. They are very firmly subordinated to much more fundamental values, such as humility and fraternal charity.”5
By reading and reflecting on these accounts–some of them strange and foreign to us today–we can learn something of the character of true religion from a fresh perspective. For this reason I have collected a few stories under a few headings appropriate to the consideration of true religion. I have only given a brief sample of this literature. Nonetheless what I offer is, I hope, sufficient to give the reader a taste of the heart of early monasticism and its resonance with this evangelical concern.