Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.7


Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis (edd.), Asceticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xxxiii + 638. $125.00. ISBN-0-19-508535-3.

Reviewed by Alan C. Mitchell, Theology, Georgetown University, mitchela@gunet.georgetown.edu.

This book is the published proceedings of an international conference at Union Theological Seminary, held in April 1993. As John Hick points out in the Foreword, the book's primary focus is Christian asceticism, but aceticism in other religious traditions is also touched on. The broad spectrum of essays in this volume is cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. The richness of the essays and responses represents quite an achievement and offers the reader a treasury of reflections on a very difficult and vast topic.

The book's organization follows the design of the conference itself. The Introduction by the editors, Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, sets out the problem of previous scholarship on asceticism. Simply put, that scholarship is not comprehensive in treating the history of asceticism's development nor cross-cultural in its scope and methodology. The book hopes to remedy the problem by focusing on "the origins and development of the whole complex and range of phenomena that fall under the rubric 'asceticism'".

That is the function of the forty-two chapters that follow. Two major plenary addresses treat of General Challenges and Reconsiderations. These are "The Way of the Ascetics: Negative or Affirmative?" by Kallistos Ware and "The Howl of Oedipus, the Cry of Heloise: From Asceticism to Postmodern Ethics," by Edith Wyschogrod. The twenty-four major papers give the substance of the dialogue that ranges over four organizing themes. Each of the four sections contains six papers and is divided into two parts by an intervening response to three preceding papers. They are:

1) Origins and Meanings of Asceticism:

  • Gillian Clark, "Women and Asceticism in Late Antiquity: The Refusal of Status and Gender,"
  • Samuel Rubenson, "Christian Asceticism and the Emergence of the Monastic Tradition,"
  • Bernard McGinn, "Asceticism and Mysticism in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,"
  • Teresa M. Shaw, "Practical, Theoretical, and Cultural Tracings in Late Ancient Asceticism: Response to the Three Preceding Papers,"
  • John M. Dillon, "Rejecting the Body, Refining the Body: Some Remarks on the Development of Platonist Asceticism,"
  • J. Duncan M. Derrett, "Primitive Christianity as an Ascetic Movement,"
  • Robert A. Thurman, "Tibetan Buddhist Perspectives on Asceticism,"
  • Gail P. Corrington-Streete, "Trajectories of Ascetic Behavior: Response to the Three Preceding Papers";

    2) Hermeneutics of Asceticism:

  • Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, "Asceticism and Anthropology: Enkrateia and 'Double Creation' in Early Christianity,"
  • Averil Cameron, "Ascetic Closure and the End of Antiquity,"
  • Bruce J. Malina, "Pain, Power, and Personhood: Ascetic Behavior in the Ancient Mediterranean,"
  • Elizabeth Castelli, "Asceticism -- Audience and Resistance: Response to the Three Preceding Papers,"
  • Patrick Olivelle, "Deconstruction of the Body in Indian Asceticism,"
  • John Pinsent, "Ascetic Moods in Greek and Latin Literature,"
  • Sidney H. Griffith, "Asceticism in the Church of Syria: The Hermeneutics of Early Syrian Monasticism,"
  • Leif E. Vaage, "Ascetic Moods, Hermeneutics, and Bodily Deconstruction: Response to the Three Preceding Papers";

    3) Aesthetics of Asceticism:

  • Yizhar Hirschfeld, "The Founding of the New Laura,"
  • Patricia Cox Miller, "Dreaming the Body: An Aesthetics of Asceticism,"
  • John Stratton Hawley, "Mirabai as Wife and Yogi,"
  • Walter O. Kaelber, "Understanding Asceticism -- Testing a Typology: Response to the Three Preceding Papers,"
  • Ephraim Isaac, "The Significance of Food in Hebraic-African Thought and the Role of Fasting in the Ethiopian Church,"
  • Gregory Collins, "Simeon the New Theologian: An Ascetical Theology for Middle-Byzantine Monks,"
  • Geoffrey Galt Harpham, "Asceticism and the Compensations of Art,"
  • Peter J. Awn, "Sensuality and Mysticism -- The Islamic Tradition: Response to the Three Preceding Papers";

    4) Politics of Asceticism:

  • J. Giles Milhaven, "Asceticism and the Moral Good: A Tale of Two Pleasures,"
  • Fedwa Malti-Douglas, "Gender and Uses of the Ascetic in an Islamist Text,"
  • Robert L. Wilken, "Maximus the Confessor on the Affections in Historical Perspective,"
  • William E. Deal, "Toward a Politics of Asceticism: Response to the Three Preceding Papers,"
  • Vasudha Narayanan, "Renunciation and Gender Issues in the Sri Vaiava Community,"
  • Daniel Boyarin, "Body Politic among the Brides of Christ: Paul and the Origins of Christian Sexual Renunciation,"
  • Charles Kannengiesser, "Athanasius of Alexandria and the Ascetic Movement of His Times,"
  • Dianne M. Bazell, "The Politics of Piety: Response to the Three Preceding Papers."
  • Part Six, entitled The Discourse Refracted, comprises a paper by Elizabeth A. Clark, "The Ascetic Impulse in Religious Life: A General Response." There follows an appendix of six miscellaneous papers and one panel discussion:

  • Jason Beduhn, "The Battle for the Body in Manichean Asceticism,"
  • Verna E. F. Harrison, "The Allegorization of Gender: Plato and Philo on Spiritual Childbearing,"
  • Michael L. Satlow, "Shame and Sex in Late Antique Judaism,"
  • Richard Valantasis, "A Theory of the Social Function of Asceticism,"
  • William C. Bushell, "Psychophysical and Comparative Analysis of Ascetico-Meditational Discipline: Toward a New Theory of Asceticism,"
  • Ann W. Ramsey, "Flagellation and the French Counter-Reformation: Asceticism, Social Discipline, and the Evolution of a Penitential Culture,"

    "Practices and Meanings of Asceticism in Contemporary Religious Life and Culture: A Panel Discussion," Moderator: Richard Valantasis, Panel: Paul Julian, Gillian Lindt, Elaine H. Pagels, Peter H. Van Ness, Ehsan Yarshater.

    This book records a conversation, one that grew out of a seven year conversation among scholars of late antique religion and flowered into an international conference. As ambitious as the project is, it is clear from the intentions of its conveners that these essays do not represent the last word on the subject of asceticism. Rather, it is the beginning of a hoped-for extensive, probing, and diversified discussion of a pivotal phenomenon that cuts across a variety of cultures and the religions found therein. To that extent this book wants to chart the way for future investigations of asceticism, which will re-examine the categories under which it has been studied. The two plenary papers and the subsequent essays assess not only the state of the question but point the way for future, fruitful exploration. According to the editors, this direction will move along three major lines: the reassessment of the cultural construction of asceticism, the recovery of the ethical ground of asceticism, and the renewal of the ars ascetica by which they mean the refashioning of asceticism and not merely its modernization. This refashioning will come about with the aid of anthropology, spirituality, and interfaith dialogue. Striking in all of this is the anti-ascetic tendency of postmodern indulgence that marks the program of ascetisicm's future. Asceticism's traditional self-denial, self-enclosure, and self transcendence are re-cast in the post-modern ambitions of comparative asceticism, the raison d'être of this book. While one may find that objective curious in relation to asceticism, it is not altogether inappropriate, when one considers the value of inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding that has resulted from the publication of these essays.

    The editors suggest that the best way to work through this volume is to read the responses to the papers first. They not only summarize and focus the main issues of each essay, but they also tie together what can be connected among the papers and indicate directions for further investigations. Faced with the daunting task of reviewing these 600 pages, this reviewer is grateful for the editors' suggestion and will organize this review accordingly.

    Under the Origins and Meanings of Asceticism, Teresa M. Shaw responds to papers by Gillian Clark, Samuel Rubenson, and Bernard McGinn. Common threads among these papers are the social and cultural dimensions of asceticism, whether they be the practice of asceticism and its impact on larger society (Clark), the relationship of asceticism to status indicators in late ancient Egyptian asceticism (Rubenson), or the difference between pagan philosophical asceticism and Christian asceticism (McGinn). Linking theses three papers is the consideration each gives to Evagrius of Pontus and the tension between Christian ascetical practice and theory. Shaw rightly cautions that one must respect the real differences between philosophical and Christian asceticism, and also that one should not divorce ancient theological formulations of asceticism too strictly from the physical discipline Christian ascetics adopted. Things left unexplored or underexplored in these three papers, according to Shaw, are the relationship of texts to the appropriation of ascetic practice in society and culture, the role of status enhancement or diminution in ascetic renunciation, and the usefulness of a distinction between asceticism and mysticism.

    Gail P. Corrington-Streete's response looks back to the papers of John M. Dillon, J. Duncan M. Derrett, and Robert A. F. Thurman. Using the filter of ascetic behavior as a response to the world, she finds a common thread in these papers where Dillon speaks of bios in philosophical terms, Derrett speaks of hodos in Christianity, and Thurman speaks of victory over instinct. The arena of these responses is the body, which can itself be seen as a metaphor for the world, at least in Western ascetical traditions. Corrington-Streete questions Dillon's and Derrett's claims that in Christianity there is a close connection between body and world and that Western ascetic traditions are dualistic. Of Thurman she asks whether the relationship between body and world in Tibetan Buddhism is really similar to that of the Platonist or Christian. Her own reading is that Eastern asceticism is less dualistic than Western. On the ambiguity of the role of the body in Platonic asceticism, whether it is a prison or a guard post, Corrington-Streete sees some help coming from Tibetan Buddhism's view of asceticism not so much as world denying but as world controlling. Christianity's view of asceticism as either world denying or world affirming manifests a similar ambivalence to that of Platonism, and here Corrington-Streete disagrees with Dillon's assessment of Christian asceticism's rejection of the physical world as satanic. In the end she sees Christianity and Platonism more closely linked in their understanding of asceticism than does Dillon. Corrington-Streete finds an interesting difference between Platonic and Christian asceticism to lie in the social status and social location of its practitioners. For the most part in the Greek and Roman philosophy asceticism is the domain of aristocratic males. Finally she takes issue with the use of the word "neurotic" by Dillon and Derrett, something which does not feature at all in Thurman's paper. Here is yet another difference between the way asceticism is characterized by Easterners and Westerners.

    Under the Hermeneutics of Asceticism, Elizabeth Castelli responds to the papers of Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, Averil Cameron, and Bruce J. Malina. After a brief consideration of the hermeneutics of asceticism addressed by each of these three papers, Castelli turns to the notion of closure as a common thread among them. While the papers are each interested in some aspect of closure in asceticism, whether that be cultural or ideological closure (Cameron), historical closure (Sfameni Gasparro) or subjective closure (Malina), it is this very notion of closure and how it is handled by each author that discloses tension among the three papers. Castelli, herself, wonders in this regard whether ascetic discourse always and necessarily lends itself to historical closure. She offers examples of ascetic movements that transcend history and appear to open it up to another reality. Although Castelli pushes further on the question of history, it is really the notion of time in asceticism that she is discussing. By interpreting the present with a view to the past and future, asceticism tries to live only in one moment, the now. The understanding of the present has been recast, however, to the extent that its value is determined by the ascetic's understanding of protology and eschatology. That can amount to a denial of history as meaningful in itself, and Sfameni Gasparro and Malina may be more correct than she thinks. Of the three essays, Castelli takes issue the most with Malina's. She questions his definitions of asceticism and the self. Malina defines asceticism simply as self-shrinkage. Castelli finds this to be "troublingly unhistoricized" and too general. In the context of a postmodern discussion of asceticism, this criticism itself is somewhat curious. Her further questions about Malina's definition of the self as a group self add yet another ironic note of criticism. Castelli appears not to be able to step out of her own postmodern social location. Yet, she is right to catch Malina in his own methodological contradiction when she asks, if the Mediterranean self was not psychological, how he can apply categories drawn from modern psychology to discuss that notion of self. Rather than accept Malina's definition of asceticism as self-shrinkage Castelli would prefer to see it as "an intensification of self awareness." Surely this cannot be the end goal of asceticism, but only a means to its true end, which is self-diminution. The tradition of Western asceticism is a tradition of agere contra, a tradition of self denial. The awareness of the self features in asceticism only to provide the ascetic with the kind of self-knowledge that enable a person to transcend the self, which often seems in the way of asceticism's goals. Castelli herself admits this when she talks about "more careful management of the self."

    Another common theme Castelli discovers among these papers is the role of the audience in the hermeneutics of asceticism. She asks if there is something endemic to asceticism that requires an audience. She seems unaware of the implications of her question: if asceticism requires an audience is it really asceticism? Surely the eremitic tradition can answer her additional question: "Must an ascetic be seen by others in order for there to be asceticism?"

    Castelli concludes her response with a consideration of the ways each paper handles the question of asceticism as a cultural critique. Again she finds Malina's paper to be the most problematic in this regard.

    Leif Vaage's response to the three papers by Patrick Olivelle, John Pinsent, and Sidney H. Griffith looks at the issue of the deconstruction of the human body and the social body in the hermeneutics of asceticism. Taking issue most with Pinsent, apparently for his reasonable claim for the peculiarity of Christian asceticism over against its pagan counterparts, Vaage struggles against reductionist tendencies to assimilate varieties of asceticism to a common typology or definition. For the most part he is successful, but not always. Trying to avoid giving a definition he raises a series of leading questions, which go unanswered. Since the answers may have resulted in a kind of definition, one would have to say asceticism is left undefined. In all fairness to him he had a difficult task on his hands, responding to the three very different papers. In some ways it is remarkable that he was able to find as much common ground among them as he did.

    Under the Aesthetics of Asceticism Walter Kaelber responds to three papers by Yizhar Hirschfeld, Patricia Cox Miller, and John Stratton Hawley. His approach is two-fold. First, he abstracts from the papers the cross-cultural, even universal themes and issues pertaining to asceticism. Second, he provides concrete illustrations and examples of these themes from other religious traditions, showing that they are really cross-cultural and universal. The themes identified are: "(1) The ascetic's vision of wholeness, plentitude and perfection, (2) The ascetic's erotic life, and (3) The ascetic's relation to culture." Additional objectives are to demonstrate how the themes vary from one tradition to another and an inquiry into why the variations occur as they do. Due to time limitation Kaelber confines himself to the first three objectives. He manages successfully and succinctly to accomplish his goals. Under the first theme of the ascetic's vision Kaelber shows how the three papers all to some degree demonstrate that ascetics have an ideal self-conception that they actualize through a dialectic of envisioning the ideal and struggling against what threatens it. The ascetic's erotic life shows a fusion of the ascetic and the erotic. Asceticism's relation to culture is varied since the ascetic's response to culture may take five forms. The ascetic may challenge culture, integrate within it, transcend it, live in tension with it as in a paradox, or transform it.

    Peter J. Awn responds to papers by Ephraim Isaac, Gregory Collins, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. He finds very little that these papers share either in theme or method. He decides to examine the question of sensuality in Islamic mysticism, which relates only tangentially to the papers under consideration. Awn shows the positive estimation of sensuality in Islamic mysticism, something quite distinct from Christianity's ambivalence towards it. In addition to warnings in Sufism against abandonment to sensual pleasure there is the tradition of integrating sensuality and higher states of mystical union. Sufism is far more comfortable than Christianity is in accomplishing this ascetic ideal.

    Under the Politics of Asceticism, William E. Deal responds to papers by J. Giles Milhaven, Fedwa Malti-Douglas, and Robert L. Wilken by asking whether there is a universal category "asceticism" that applies cross-culturally. Acknowledging that the participants of the conference do not share a common definition of asceticism, Deal concedes that there is some degree of shared understanding of the term that has permitted the conference to be convened. Still Deal opts for phenomenological description rather than definition. But even to do that implies some kind of normative definition and hermeneutic, as Deal admits. On the politics of asceticism Deal suggests that asceticism must be seen in context, and when it is the particular acts of an ascetical tradition operate in relation to the controlling behavioral norms of culture. Therefore there is no universal asceticism, only particular asceticisms. Every particular and contextualized asceticism has political implications, which amount to the politics of asceticism. The three papers under discussion address the politics of asceticism when they take up gender issues in asceticism (Malti-Douglas), ethical issues (Milhaven) or theological issues (Wilken). To add yet another cross-cultural note to his response Deal includes a Japanese Buddhist example of the politics of asceticism drawn from the Heian period (794-1185 CE).

    Dianne Balzell's response to the papers of Vasudha Narayanan, Daniel Boyarin and Charles Kannengiesser addresses the politics of piety, i.e. the politics of ascetic practice. Since ascetic practice takes place within some form of community it is political, especially when it involves separation from society, when it manifests resistance to community, or when it highlights distinctions among communities. Each of the three papers she responds to touches on these political aspects of asceticism.

    Elizabeth A. Clark's general response to all of the previous twenty-four essays shows the difficult contours of the conversation at the heart of this volume. The great diversity among the papers indicates the lack of a common definition of asceticism. Yet each of the essays and groups of essays have provided salient information about the theory and practice of asceticism that shows some common understanding. Some help may be gained from examining structure in asceticism, such as the structure of reciprocity that offers something positive in return for what the ascetic renounces, or by considering the function of asceticism in its critiques of the society in which it is imbedded. Some of the essays focussed on the question of nature and culture in relation to asceticism, showing that the dichotomy between the two is not a useful tool for enhancing a cross-cultural conversation on asceticism. In the end the various essays have shown that (1) asceticism is not only a religious phenomenon, (2) the sources of ascetic tradition, theory and practice are varied and flexible, (3) asceticism often involves a relationship between texts and persons, (4) paradox is an important element of some asceticisms, (5) asceticism is sometimes understood in relation to discipline other than the religious, such as anthropology, sociology and psychology. Clark's essay is critical in this volume for the way it locates each of the essays on the broad map of this cross-cultural conversation. Without dissolving the real differences among these essays, she relates them to one another intelligently, showing the broad lines of the conversation on asceticism that was the objective of the conference itself.

    The Appendix, Ascetica Miscellanea, covers topics like the body, gender, discipline and shame, which would have fit comfortably within the four-part structure of the major papers. It is not clear why they are placed in an appendix. They are as interesting and important to the discussion as are the papers and responses which precede them.

    This volume on asceticism is interesting, challenging, and remarkable. It is also difficult to work through. One needs plenty of time to engage the rich treasury of ideas on ascetic theory and practice that it offers. One needs also patience to allow the conversation to unfold. As the published proceedings of a conference, this book represents a conversation that is itself quite noteworthy. Attempting a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary conversation on a topic as difficult and elusive as asceticism and on the scale of the one represented by this book must have been for the conference's organizers a frightening prospect. Even with the frustrations evident throughout the conversation and the difficulties of carrying on discourse across the various scholarly and cultural boundaries represented in this book, it is a project well worth pursuing. The resulting book is destined to become a standard work to be consulted as the conversation on asceticism continues.