Chapter 3 of James Houston’s The Mentored Life is opening up to me what this book is all about, and in this post Brad Bergfalk and I will interact with this chapter on Stoicism. The Mentored Life is about “world views” that shape who we are — at least that is how I’d describe the book at this point in my read of it.
The first study was about the Heroic Mentor (the myth of the Heroic as what shapes our life) and this chapter takes on the Stoic Mentor.
Overall, the Stoic Myth is that the world is entirely rational, if we enter it in the right place it all makes sense, and that our passions can be, and should be, kept in check by reason. A major word for this is apatheia — detachment from emotions. The goal is oikeiosis — Greek for being one’s self in consistency. The “moral vision” of Stoicism is “virtue” and Houston points out how the Church, especially in the Medieval age, began to see the Christian life as the disciplined mastery of virtues. A major impact of the Stoic myth is self-sufficiency and autonomy.
Houston thinks the Christian faith has imbibed far too much of Stoicism. He not only sees the imbibing of Stoicism in the Medieval age but also in the Reformation: “the great shortcoming of hte Reformation, as of much evangelicalism today, was its naive expectation that the majority of people would be transformed morally by doctrinal enlightenment, frequently in an unquestioned Stoic spirit” (54).
Houston then appeals to the poetry of George Herbert and Jonathan Edwards (who seems to show up everywhere these days). Edwards “sought to demonstrate that the love of God is the necessary context for all truly moral acts” (60). All virtue, Edwards argues, depends on divine benevolence — and I was just waiting for Houston to speak about “embracing” grace. And virtue depends on being — our being in communion with God. [Edwards is too individualistic at this point.]
This was a strong and useful chapter for all of us.
First, it is insightful to show the connection of Stoicism to the development of medieval theology of the Christian life. Once when reading some stuff about the Italian enlightenment, and how educators sought to get their students to develop commonplace books (books filled with their favorite quotations), I was struck by how often these folk were citing the classical world and almost never the Bible. Houston’s book supports our perception of what was going on.
Second, Houston again takes us to good examples: George Herbert (whom I’ve not read) and Jonathan Edwards (whom I like to read).
Third, I need to be reminded constantly that the “moral life” or the “vision we use for the moral life” or what he calls the “mentored life” is relational if it is centrally Christian: it is not the mastery of morals, it is not the denial of emotions, but the engagement of our entire person with God. Stoicism is inherent to the male ego, so I think, and for me I imbibed Stoicism not so much from pastors but from my coaches — do it on your own, stay focused, never let your emotions show, keep your dukes up, that sort of thing. None of this, of course, prepares us for a life of walking in the way of Jesus. It prepares us for masculine Christianity that I sometimes see in Promise Keepers or on the TV screen where we hear about a “male-form” of the Christian life. I could go on but won’t.
Fourth, I am quite sure that Houston believes in relationships with others, but I find this not emphasized enough in this chapter when he was discussing Edwards. He has it at the end of one paragraph, on p. 61. The “mentored life” is not just the life in connection with God’s being but with the being of others for we are Eikons in community and not individualists on our own. Houston agrees with this, but I’m not sure the counter-examples to Stoicism he gives (Herbert, Edwards) made enough of this.
In other words, I’m not deconstructing Houston’s chapter, but the appeal to Edwards spends too much time on the “individual with God” and not enough of the “Eikon who, in the context of community, loves God.” I’ll say this one more way: is there not a tendency to deny Stoicism by replacing self-sufficiency (apatheia, oikeiosis) with individualistic relation to God?
Houston has provided me with a context for understanding the tendency
for modern evangelicals to promote and embody a “spirituality of
independence.” His discussion of the virtuous life (understood to mean
“the good life”) has direct correlation to the question of how we in the
church talk about morality in the church. In the evangelical tradition,
we find it much easier to frame our morality in an individualistic,
“pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” kind of list of do’s and
don’ts, thus focusing the central reason for moral behavior on the
moral life of the individual, rather than in response to God.
In view of Houston’s discussion on “the Stoic and Moral Mentor”, when I
preach about the character of sin, I would do well to not always frame
my understanding in individualistic terms. Perhaps seeing Christian
virtue as something more than a subtle list of moral imperatives would
make the church more accessible to those who are spiritually seeking and
tired of being brow-beaten by well-intentioned pastors? Perhaps Houston
is correct when he suggests that “true virtue” is not based in the
rational ability of the individual to overcome their sinful nature, but
rather the recognition that our disposition toward our sinful nature is
a reflection of our love for God. When it comes to virtuous life and the
Christian Church, we need to get beyond our implicit notion that if we
work hard enough at our sins, we will eventually conquer them.