Ascetical theology is the organized study or presentation of spiritual teachings found in Scripture and the Church Fathers that help the faithful to more perfectly follow Christ and attain to Christian perfection. The word ascetic is from the Greek word askesis, meaning practice. The English term ascesis means "the practice of self-discipline" (OED). Christian asceticism is commonly thought to imply self-denial for a spiritual purpose. The term ascetical theology is used primarily in Catholic theology; the Eastern Orthodox use distinct terms (see below) and other religious traditions conceive of following Christ or God differently from either Catholics or Eastern Orthodox (see below).
Table of contents
Who is Christ, and what reason is given for following
Christians believe, in the manner of affirming rather than supposing, that Jesus Christ, the historical individual, is the eternally- and only-begotten Son of God, and that He (usually capitalized) emerged from the Hebrew faith tradition, which, Christians hold, was given by God so as to prepare mankind for Jesus. The reason given for this preparation for and arrival of Jesus is to be found within the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Genesis, in which it is said that man fell from God's graces by being proud and making his own choices, particularly in seeking to have the same knowledge and freedom as God has. Christians believe that in his mercy, God sent a savior to redeem mankind from this fallen state, that is, redeem those who would be willing to believe and have faith, theoretically possible to all. Jesus was sent to provide mankind with a way to be re-linked (re-ligion) to God. Christian theology teaches that those who truly follow go to Heaven, where there will be no religion (or re-linking) because love for God will be the ubiquitous and permanent state of the people so fortunate as to be in Heaven. We need religion in our fallen state, continues the theological stance, because our nature is disordered and we cannot see clearly what to do: so we must have faith, and live the way shown to us by Jesus. This is the self-stated purpose or essence of Christianity: to provide the means by which to follow Christ so we may enter the eternal bliss that God intended us to live with Him. Whereas God, according to the same Scriptures, is indicated to be love, Christian perfection is a perfection of charity, i.e. a perfection of love. Attaining this love involves rejecting (or denying) that which is disordered within ourselves, learning to love and trust God, and growing in prayer life toward union with God. This may or may not be accompanied by mystical experiences such as visions, rapture, or miraculous events such as levitation or bi-location (held to have occurred in some cases). This progression and the various means by which to traverse it are described in the field of ascetical theology.
Essential concepts in ascetical theology
- Dogmatic theology
- Dogmatic theology treats of what the religion affirms as truth. It relates to ascetical theology by answering the question, what are we following? What do we know about God, our nature, and our redemption? Ascetical theology depends upon dogmatic theology for a foundation. For example, if the religion didn't teach that we have a fallen nature, ascetical theology would be premised on an erroneous assumption and may then be unproductive compared to other approaches to God.
- Moral theology
- Moral theology treats of how we must behave. It is the behavioral dimension, expounded. Here are developed the implications of the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and other precepts of the faith. These are especially important for guiding the faithful through the first phases of prayer life, and for being certain one is on the right path: if one believes oneself to be growing in holiness yet still violates the basic precepts of the faith, one is not understanding the process. Moral theology, then, guides the ascetic who strives to live these moral truths that are informed by the dogmas of the religion, and who also seeks also to go beyond moral requirements.
- Mystical theology
- In the various theologies pertaining to following Christ, it is common to refer to the soul, which Christian theology affirms to be eternal. It is the soul that makes progress toward God, it is the soul that is called by God. Mystical theology addresses the aspects of the soul's union with God that are specifically not produced by human agency or effort. In the earlier stages of prayer life, aridities are experienced, which are moments during which the zeal for prayer seems lessened. In later stages, passive trials such as the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) are experienced. In these phenomena, God is said to be purifying the soul, making her (the soul is feminine in Catholic theology) continue on the basis of sheer faith rather than any palpable feeling derived from prayer. These and other experiences are studied in mystical theology. Christian dogma does not teach that mystical phenomena are necessary to be granted a place in Heaven.
- Perfection is a Christian duty
- To be granted a place in heaven, it is necessary to be "in a state of grace" at the moment of death. A state of grace means that a person is genuinely sorry for sins committed — preferably sorry because they offend God and not simply on account of a fear of Hell — and to have not committed grave sin since the last apology or confession. Given that one does not know the hour of one's death, and assuming one to have a loving disposition toward God, one is encouraged to actively live in such a manner as to reduce sin and increase sorrow for sin and love for God. It is plausible that without such an effort, one will encounter the moment of death without appropriate sorrow and love, simply by being out of the habit. It is in this sense that perfection is said to be a duty of Christians. The Scriptures encourage perfection (e.g. Mt 5:48), and the value of charity or love would mitigate against a minimalist understanding of the Christian life, as does the testimony of the Church Fathers.
- Key spiritual enemies
- world, flesh, devil
- The world is not evil in itself, according to the religion, as nothing created by God is evil. The problem is that in our fallen nature, we do not perceive things correctly, and our desires are out of alignment with the truth. For example, the world can be a source of sanctification, but to desire to please the world, and to take one's cues from the world instead of from God, is to distract ourselves from God's love. One of the graces sought during the Rosary prayer is contempt of the world, which doesn't reflect a desire to harm the world but rather affirms the belief that this is a fallen world, and that to love God is to be prepared for a much better world to come. Our flesh likewise is not evil, but without being fully united with God — which, after the fall, we are not — we do not understand the gifts of the flesh and are distracted by them; the religion teaches that we tend to make idols out of our sensations and desires. The devil is evil, but was not created so; he is a creature as we are and cannot control our will but is very intelligent and crafty. He is said to hate physical creation and to desire its destruction. Christianity does not give a complete accounting of the devil, known as Satan, but recognizes that he attempts to lure us from our goal of union with God. When confirmed into the Church, catechumens are asked, 'Do you reject the pomps and works of Satan?' Throughout the spiritual journey, even after achieving the highest union possible to man, the world, the flesh, and the devil remain as sources of temptation and distraction, and a fall into sin is always possible.
- Role of good works
- Catholic theology has received criticism for its emphasis on good works, or the performing of deeds that genuinely help others in accordance with the revealed good, but in truth good works are simply an outgrowth of faith and love rather than being a means to "buy one's way to Heaven". Faith may be analogized to the roots of a plant, love to the stem, and the fruit is the good work that naturally flows therefrom. An act is good in this sense if it is (a) carried out while in the state of grace, i.e., not having gravely sinned without repentance, and (b) done with the love of God as primary end in view. The ordinary actions of daily life are sanctifying if done in this context.
- Role of sacraments
- The Catholic sacraments, according to dogmatic theology, both symbolize and confer grace. The two sacraments that are routinely encountered by the faithful are Eucharist and confession. Grace is a rather complicated subject; see References below. The Eucharist affords a real and transforming union with God; see for example Jn 6:58. It is spiritual as well as real, and transformative. For a discussion of the spiritual implications of Eucharist, see historical roots of Catholic Eucharistic theology. Confession is purifying if the penitent is well-disposed, i.e. sorry for having offended God. It is considered essential to undertake this purifying act before receiving the Eucharist. As one progresses toward union with God, more and more problems within the soul become apparent. Habits that didn't seem sinful at first blush suddenly stand out as harmful to charity. Once confessed, new problems emerge. In this way the penitent embarks on a program of purgation, developing greater sensitivity as to what is most conducive to Christian love.
More details, e.g. about forms of prayer, to come. The foregoing is only introductory and focused mostly on purgation.
Other religious traditions
The Eastern Orthodox share the apostolic faith and sacramental life held in the Catholic faith, and have a virtually identical understanding of the nature and purpose of the Christian life, using different terminology. They refer to the practice of faith as praxis, which encompasses prayer, worship, and fasting. A form of prayer corresponding perhaps to the illuminative and unitive ways is called Hesychasm. The overall progression toward union with God is called theosis. The understanding of the Christian life, consistent with patristic and apostolic teachings and implying a start toward purgation, is termed phronema. Orthodox sources also refer to ascetical theology, with a meaning consistent with that given above.
Protestants do not share the sacramental understanding that characterizes Catholic and Orthodox faith, but use the term ascetical theology in some contexts. Without the sacrament of Confession, the purgative way is more personal, and without belief that God is literally present in the Eucharist, the unitive way is also more personal and ethereal. Protestant theology of union with God tends to be personalist, and bears much in common with self-help literature. As with the Eucharist, a wide variety of Protestant viewpoints exist regarding the way to follow Christ. This is partly because there is no one center of Protestant thought.
Islam does not regard Jesus as the Son of God but rather as a prophet, and has a different set of Scriptures. There is not an extensive evidence trail of Islam embracing an ascetical theology so called, but Islam does encourage its adherents to engage in jihad in order to perfect obedience to the will of Allah.
External links and references
- Ascetical theology in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Mystical theology in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Christian and religious perfection in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Beatific vision in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Christian asceticism in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Sanctifying grace in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Ascetic theology from 1902 Catholic dictionary