Asceticism for the Immanent Frame: Minimalism's Draw and Failure
Imagine, if you will, two friends sitting down over coffee. As they are catching up, one of them begins to confess that contrary to his relative success in life, he is incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled. “I have everything I ever wanted. I have everything I am supposed to have. Everyone around me says ‘you’re successful’, but really I’m miserable.” The other friend, picking up on a familiar problem, probes a little deeper, asking questions about the things he’s pursuing and if they are fulfilling him. His unhappy companion pipes up, “you seem really happy recently, why? What have you found that’s fulfilling you?”
Many Christians (especially those in evangelical churches) will find this a familiar scene, the all-too familiar conversion narrative. However, this is not coming from a pulpit or the stage of an evangelism conference, but from the opening scene of the Netflix documentary “Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things.” This documentary, which follows two men on a 10-month speaking trip promoting their new book is a picture of a movement, both in design and in personal philosophy, which seeks a clean, pure, and minimal approach to life. In design it promotes the aesthetic of simplicity, in philosophy the decluttering of one’s external space to reflect the supposed peace of their inner life. The New Minimalism seeks to free up one’s time, energy, money, and mental capacity to focus on “the things that really matter”, to purge, as it were, the unnecessary things from one’s life. And honestly, that sounds great. Who wouldn’t love more time, energy, money, or mental capacity?
Minimalism’s draw is obvious to anyone who is paying even half attention to life in the West today; we live in a rabidly consumeristic world where both things and people are easily disposable. In this tragedy, we are both the consumer and the consumed. The problem in the minds of the Minimalists, their original sin, is that we spend our lives trying to accumulate things that are supposed to satisfy our longings, and this game plan is ultimately enslaving both those who pursue it and those who are ground out in the economy that makes it possible. In the famous words of Tyler Durden, “the things you own end up owning you.”
And they’re not wrong. In fact this message is exactly one that those living in the West, particularly Americans, need to hear. Our materialism does immense harm to our financial stability, our mental health, our relationships, those who make and produce our cheap goods (usually the poor in other countries), and our planet. Adopting a minimalist posture towards consumer goods, one based on simple needs which takes into account the impact “stuff” has on ourselves and the world around us, can really only have a positive effect.
But that’s not how the New Minimalism is framed.
For many leaders in the movement, Minimalism is the modern equivalent to the ancient practice of spiritual cleansing. Whether in their Christian or Buddhist flavors, the New Minimalists unwittingly speak in quasi-religious language, waxing poetic about longings and desires and essences. Three figures in particular are enlightening here: Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, dubbed “The Minimalists” and the primary subjects of the documentary mentioned above, and Marie Kondo, best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which describes “The KonMari Method”, a semi-spiritual exercise of clearing your life of unwanted junk. The opening scene of Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, shows Ryan Nicodemus describing his run-of-the-mill American life, climbing the corporate ladder and going on a never-ending excursion of buying more stuff. He confesses, “There was this gaping void in my life, so I tried to fill that void the same way many people do -- with stuff”. He continues, “I was living for stuff but I wasn’t living at all.” This is grasping language, looking for words sufficient to describe the level of discontent they feel. It’s tinged with the transcendent, but it never quite gets there. Marie Kondo is even more explicit in the spiritual flavor of her brand of minimalism (and it is a brand), speaking of well-loved and used objects that “are vibrant and radiate an aura of wanting to be of more service to their owner.” Sonia Hazard, writing for the academic blog The Immanent Frame, describes Marie Kondo’s work in this way:
“Is KonMari a religion? The Method, as some followers call it, is flexible enough to accommodate multiple religious genealogies. Kondo notes that she spent five years as a Shinto shrine maiden—a training she invokes in her approach to the home as a “sacred space” with energies that must be ritually maintained. Kondo’s American promoters also use religion for branding purposes: The book is currently the bestseller in “Zen Spirituality” on Amazon. Something evangelical may be at work in Kondo’s assurances that the method will radically and forever transform life for the better. Your career and relationships will improve and you might even lose weight! That Kondo the personality has catapulted to international stardom also suggests an evangelical or guru-like charisma, felt not only by millions of readers but also her devoted following of seminar-goers and Instagrammers. Finally, her central idea that things have power sounds at least faintly “spiritual” to many of us here in modernity, though this is more often the talk of magic crystals not old socks. Do my socks respond to my caress? There is something woo-woo about it all.”
One might be tempted to think that for a spiritual/existential crisis of this sort, there would be a spiritual/existential answer. But for the New Minimalists, the problem is not the desire but merely the apparatus, and the solution is not reordering or renunciation but only a change in technique. This purging of consumer culture’s cheap but tempting goods, this curation of a few “well-loved useful objects” can be seen as a form of asceticism, but for the immanent frame, for a world with no imagination for the divine. We all know something is wrong, but it must be merely cosmetic. The problem is that you have too many shirts, not that your desires are disordered.
The preeminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, in his landmark book A Secular Age, describes our age being caged by an “immanent frame”, by which he means an inability, or simply a refusal to think in terms of anything other than the natural, observable world. Taylor writes,
“And so we come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order; or better, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social and moral… these orders are understood as impersonal. This understanding of our predicament has as background a sense of our history: we have advanced to this grasp of our predicament through earlier more primitive stages of society and self-understanding. In this process, we have come of age… The immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent.”
But it doesn’t have to. The convenience of our age is that we can choose where to let in bits of spirituality, as long as it suits our needs (what he calls “the buffered self”). Taylor continues,
“...the immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent. But it doesn’t necessarily do so. What I have been describing as the immanent frame is common to all of us in the modern West, or at least that is what I am trying to portray. Some of us want to live it as open to something beyond; some live it as closed. It is something which permits closure, without demanding it.”
Our “buffered selves” can therefore describe our problems as spiritual or existential, but still relegate all solutions to observable, material explanations. For the New Minimalism, this means that although the problem is that we try to fill our lives with material goods, the solution is simply fewer, better material goods. Ultimately the New Minimalism is a really nice band-aid placed over a tumor.
The consensus in problems like this is that we tend to think we can hack this problem, that all it takes is a little understanding and ingenuity. Minimalism is seen as a response to this, a way to direct your desire towards better things. But they’re still things. By their very nature your problem and solution can’t be the same thing. Our problem with materialism cannot be solved with a better materialism no more than an alcoholic can treat his alcoholism with better liquor. 15-year Scotch will not solve this.
And yet we persist. We continue searching for an explanation that fits our immanent frame. Psychologists interested in this persistent and tenacious longing for fulfillment also try to describe this problem in immanent, even biological terms. Rick Hanson, Neuropsychologist and Fellow at UC Berkeley see minimalism as a healthy reaction to the unsatiated hunger of materialism, drawing on evolutionary biology to make his point:
“At a time when people in the West are experiencing the best standard of living in history, why is it at the same time there is such a longing for more? I think of that as sort of biologically-based delusional craving. That auto-craving is a good strategy to keep animals alive, including early human animals in really harsh conditions. But in these days, today, it creates a disconnect. You’re like a puppet whose strings are being pulled by Mother Nature and evolution reaching back tens of millions of years. We still feel restless.”
He makes a valid point. Restlessness has been stirring in the background, reflected in the testimonies of former consumerists and on the lips of minimalist gurus. We’re all looking for rest, and for the New Minimalists, the answer is something akin to a better mattress. But we must admit that the restlessness we feel is not something that can be cured by memory foam. For how many of us lie awake at night in our comfy beds, unsettled. To settle this, the New Minimalists charge their novitiates to purge their life of all unneeded and unloved goods, to enlighten themselves with books and TED Talks. If they are truly devoted, they can move into a tiny house where they can live a life of simplicity and environmental consciousness. Augustine of Hippo, himself the author of an ascetic rule, famously struggled with this restlessness, declaring at the outset of his Confessions “Oh God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find our rest in you.”
In the immanent frame this restlessness is an evolutionary tick that just needs to be hacked, in the Christian tradition it’s a signpost that leads back to our true home in God. But contrary to some Pie-In-The-Sky theology that would shirk off the material world and its accoutrement as a hindrance to the true spiritual life, Augustine has a simple but elegant line of thought that baptizes the things of this world as further signposts to the kingdom of heaven. He distinguishes between objects “which are to be enjoyed, others which are to be used, others still which enjoy and use”. He continues,
“Those things which are objects of enjoyment make us happy. Those things which are objects of use assist, and (so to speak) support us in our efforts after happiness, so that we can attain the things that make us happy and rest in them. We ourselves, again, who enjoy and use these things, being placed among both kinds of objects, if we set ourselves to enjoy those which we ought to use, are hindered in our course, and sometimes even led away from it; so that, getting entangled in the love of lower gratifications, we lag behind in, or even altogether turn back from, the pursuit of the real and proper objects of enjoyment.”
Now, without context this could easily fit in to the lexicons of Marie Kondo or The Minimalists, as if Augustine is living his best #vanlife somewhere in the Instagrammable part of New Mexico. But as with all of his writing, his gaze is turned heavenward. He goes one to explain:
“Suppose, then, we were wanderers in a strange country, and could not live happily away from our fatherland, and that we felt wretched in our wandering, and wishing to put an end to our misery, determined to return home. We find, however, that we must make use of some mode of conveyance, either by land or water, in order to reach that fatherland where our enjoyment is to commence. But the beauty of the country through which we pass, and the very pleasure of the motion, charm our hearts, and turning these things which we ought to use into objects of enjoyment, we become unwilling to hasten the end of our journey; and becoming engrossed in a factitious delight, our thoughts are diverted from that home whose delights would make us truly happy. Such is a picture of our condition in this life of mortality. We have wandered far from God; and if we wish to return to our Father's home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, that so the invisible things of God may be clearly seen.”
This can help us live in the tension between our glimmering material world and a gnosticism that demonizes it. His grounding in the goodness of creation, a goodness that reflects back the goodness of the Creator, is precisely what we need to combat a world that nevers lets us forget that there is always more stuff to buy. Augustine gives us the minimalism we need, not the one we deserve.
Now we come to the sad irony of it all. It turns out that the New Minimalism is a reversal of the ancient beginnings of asceticism. The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood the ascetic life to be the purification of the soul by renouncing the world and its goods. The New Minimalism claims it is the purification of the world and all its goods by the soul’s refined palette and the careful consumer choices it makes. In the end, minimalism is really just the pursuit of utility, asceticism is the pursuit of the Good.
Near the end of Ryan and Joshua’s speaking tour, they are confronted with a response they didn’t seem to expect. An audience member from Las Vegas, a man named Clyde Dinkins says with great vigor, “you’re the very people whom the wolves of Wall St. fear, and to me you’re removing yourself from the war. If you’re really talking about minimalism, the ultimate minimalist is a hermit, a recluse, or a monk –– and to me that’s not gonna change the world.” Here is encapsulated one of the great assumptions of our busy, distracted age: contemplatives don’t change the world, only activists do. Bu even a brief brush over Western history would show that those who devote themselves to the ascetic and contemplative life quite literally do change the world. One needs to look no further than Benedict of Nursia, Martin Luther, and a diminutive Albanian nun dubbed Mother Teresa to see this writ large. Benedict, who fled Rome to devote himself to God through a life of prayer and communal living, has been noted as “changing the face of Europe following the fall of the political unity created by the Roman Empire, inspiring a new spiritual and cultural unity, that of the Christian faith shared by the peoples of the Continent” by Pope Benedict XVI. In fact Benedict goes so far as to say that “the reality we call Europe came into being” because of the influence of the Benedictine order. Luther, an Augustinian friar, dealing with his own demons and that of his religious establishment also remade the landscape of the Continent, this time not by uniting but by dividing it. His life and writings have gone on to affect nearly every area of modern life –– not only in religion but in politics, economics, marriage, and art. Finally, Saint Teresa of Calcutta gave us eyes to see the dignity of the dying and destitute, and gave hope, even a final hope, to tens of thousands in her care for which she was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Far from removing themselves from the problems of the world, these three recognized that the restlessness in their own hearts were not going to be solved by anything the material world has to offer, although that same material world points headlong towards the God who fills all in all. They all came to a counterintuitive truth: You need a deep inner well to draw from in order to engage the world around you, and this means spending lots of time doing nothing. In our age of distraction it can take a long time for the still, small voice of God to break through, and we rarely sit still long enough for our hearts to hear it. The New Minimalism says “imagine a life with less…”, and that’s exactly what we need, it’s certainly what I need. I could certainly do with fewer possessions, less busy work, and more time to do the important things. But the New Minimalism’s lack of depth and inability to understand the true nature of materialism stops it short of any real fundamental change. The hamster wheel will keep on spinning if the cage is all we know. Caught in the immanent frame the problem, especially for a middle-class white male like myself, is going to look like a “complete makeover” when really it’s just rearranging the furniture. It’s all I know how to do. But when the immanent frame is broken by the Word become flesh, the light shines on the objects of our world and we can see them for what they really are: mere tools for work in the renewal of all things.