Therapeutic Culture and Asceticism

It is perhaps a truism at this point that late modern western culture is therapeutic. ‘Self culture’, the sublime form of populist individualism described by Toqueville in the 19th century has been replaced by what Christopher Lasch referred to as a culture of ‘narcissism’. Narcissism here should not be interpreted in its common cultural connotation as ‘self-obsession’ but as confusion of the self with the not-self. In a therapeutic culture, the desires of person are transposed upon reality external to the self such that it becomes an extension of the self. For this reason, the idea that there would be authority outside the self capable of forming the self becomes a patently audacious idea. This authority must be ‘unmasked’ to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s term, exposed in its arbitrariness as a power play. The desires of the sovereign individual must therefore be given maximal extension, limited conceptually only insofar as they encroach upon the sovereignty of other individuals whose desires must also be given maximal extension. As Philip Reiff puts it:

What is revolutionary in modern culture refers to releases from inherited doctrines of therapeutic deprivation; from a predicate of renunciatory control.  Enjoining releases from impulse need, our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based on upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs. (The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 17)

One of the great achievements of ‘postmodern’ theorists has been to question the narrative of the self that gives rise to therapeutic culture. The idea that one can peel back the layers of the structures of authority in order to expose the true and authentic self is a seductive and yet deeply false one. Formation, as it turns out, is inevitable, and broad swaths of our experienced reality are socially constructed by the kinds of cultural contexts we are socialized into. Therapeutic cultures of the late modern west, while seeming to promote an ostensibly value-free ‘negative liberty’ in fact are what we might call ‘implicit carriers’ of the logic of consumerism. Individuals in the late modern west are socialized to be consumers, not only of products, but of ideas, identities, and relationships.

Once granted that formation is inevitable, if one does not want to give up realism entirely (in fact, it is impossible to do so, for in the assertion that social construction goes all the way down, one makes a realistic assertion. As Christian Smith puts it, ‘strong constructivists’ sneak in just enough realism to keep their arguments interesting), one must acknowledge that formation is either ordered or disordered.  The Christian tradition has always asserted that human desire was created ordered but has become misshapen and disordered, and that the world, the flesh, and the devil collaborate to perpetuate the disorderliness of human desire. Part of what it means to be ‘saved’ in the Christian tradition is to have one’s desires reshaped into the image of Christ by being brought into participation in the divine life.

The process of this ‘re-formation’ is what Christians have labelled ‘asceticism’. Ascetic practice is, of course, common to most religious traditions, but what distinguishes the Christian practice of asceticism from other religious traditions is the purpose for which it is taking place. In most traditions, ascetic practice entails an implicit dualism between body and spirit in which the bodily is devalued. But the Christian insistence that God the redeemer is also God the creator refuses to allow such a division. Discipline of the body is for the purposes of reframing desire such that it conforms to or aligns with divine purposes for the self in the creation.  One is seeking to purify one’s loves such that one’s love aligns with the nature of divine love. In other words, the goal of ascetic practices is that eros, human love, and agape, divine love might converge.

Describing the theology of Diadochus of Photike and Maximus the Confessor, Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth notes that for these early Christian faithers, in ascetic practice ‘The irrational parts of the soul are not cut off, when the intellect is with God, rather they are sublimated: desire into divine eros and the incensive part into divine agape. In [Maximus’] treatment of apatheia, which distinguishes it utterly from any form of indifference, and sees it as a state embracing the lower parts of the soul, we again detect an affinity with Diadochus of Photike who uses the arresting imagery of the ‘fire of apatheia” (Louth, Maximus the Confessor, pp. 41-2).  The only way to overcome the sovereign self of therapeutic culture is to embrace an even more powerful ascetic therapy of desire.