Recently at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem I was struck by an Orthodox nun who queued to kneel by Christ's tomb in a very pious way, to be ushered out after only a minute or so by a monk whose job it was to ensure a regular flow of pilgrims. Her journey was a kind of asceticism, along with her prayers and kneeling on the hard stone, but perhaps the greatest asceticism she undertook was, for her, the disappointingly short time she had before the tomb; hardly enough time to kiss the icon of the Theotokos or say a prayer. The intensity of her devotion sharply contrasted with the twenty-first century routinization of the site. Our nun's asceticism seems to have little cultural resonance or importance for our future and yet she bears witness to a culture of abstinence, attested from ancient times, that is remarkably resistant to erosion by modernity. Ascetical abstentions are still cultivated in religious and political traditions often in the service of fundamentalisms that seek not only personal soteriological goals but also broader political re-framings of the world. There are, of course, cultures of abstinence fostered for purely secular ends such as health or beauty, and a broad sense of asceticism has been placed at the very roots of culture, (1) but it is religious and political asceticism that demands our attention, for while asceticism in a broad sense is a resource for human achievement, when used in conjunction with some political and religious ideas it can become part of a threat to human communities. Both Theravada nuns and devout Moslem suicide bombers practice kinds of asceticism.
Over the past few decades, academic discourses including Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies have addressed asceticism partly to account for its persistence in late modernity and partly to understand the place of asceticism in a broader sense in contemporary culture. These disciplines have offered accounts both in terms of a discourse about power and in terms of a discourse about cognition and evolutionary psychology. While many of these accounts offer fresh ways of understanding asceticism, both kinds of account are problematic in so far as asceticism remains resistant to explanation in purely materialist terms. We need to hesitate before accepting such accounts as they are often based on restricted descriptions that are too limited by the horizon of the world within which they are formulated. In this paper I wish to outline what I see as central features of religious asceticism that, in my view, point in the direction of more adequate descriptions, and secondly to suggest that accounts of asceticism which fall under two kinds of reductionism are inadequate. We might call these reductionisms, cultural reductionism which seeks to explain asceticism in terms of politics and control of the body linked to power structures in a particular society, and eliminative reductionism which seeks to explain asceticism in terms of neurology and evolutionary psychology. While both kinds of reductionism are in many ways compelling, both are problematic and ultimately inadequate as explanations tout court for the kinds of subjectivity or inwardness that asceticism entails. We need, rather, to understand asceticism in terms of a tradition specific inwardness and in terms of ritual. Indeed, this shows us that varieties of asceticism shared across cultures are formative of ideas of self and that such ideas pose a challenge to modernity and yet are also potential resources for modernity and the challenges facing human beings in the future.
General Features of Asceticism
But what do we mean by 'asceticism'? On the one hand we have a broad understanding of asceticism and its function within human culture as the necessary condition for all human endeavor. Freud, following Nietzsche, formulated the idea that civilization is based on the renunciation of the instincts and so all culture, in one sense, is ascetical. …