Hermits as Anarchists

In recent years there has been an increasing interest in spiritual, and specifically Christian, anarchism.

Most writers considering Christian anarchism, after brief reflection on the Gospels and the earliest Christian community, go to figures like Adin Ballou (1803–1890), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) some eighteen hundred years later. And yet the earliest Hermits were clearly anarchists. They sought to separate – usually physically – from the institutions of both Church and State. Thomas Merton in his introduction to a translation of the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” describes the early Hermits as “Truly in a certain sense ‘anarchists,’ and it will do no harm to think of them as such.” [Thomas Merton “Wisdom of the Desert” Abbey of Gethsemane Inc. 1960. p.5]
desert fathers 2
The Hermits were, originally at least, radical individualists, with little, if any, interest in the bureaucratic rules and structures that came increasingly to characterise the Christian Church. They reflected, in practice if not in formal theology, the view later taken by Nikolai Berdyaev:
“There is absolute truth in anarchism and it is to be seen in its attitude to the sovereignty of the state and to every form of state absolutism. … The religious truth of anarchism consists in this, that power over man is bound up with sin and evil, that a state of perfection is a state where there is no power of man over man, that is to say, anarchy. The Kingdom of God is freedom and the absence of such power… the Kingdom of God is anarchy.” [Nikolai Berdyaev, “Slavery and Freedom” (1939), p. 147]

It was probably inevitable, given the nature of governments, religious and secular, that Hermits came to be increasing pressured out of their anarchistic state and into formal institutions, like monastic communities and orders, where individualism was the exception, if not defined as “sin”. With the resurgence of the (individual) eremitical life in modern times, churches have struggled to find appropriate responses. The incorporation of the eremitical life into current Roman Catholic Canon Law [Code of Canon Law 1983, Section on Consecrated Life, Canon 603] may be seen as long overdue recognition – or an attempt by the “State” to exercise power.
religious anarchism
“The original message of the great religious teachers to live a simple life, to share the wealth of the earth, to treat each other with love and respect, to tolerate others and to live in peace invariably gets lost as worldly institutions take over. Religious leaders, like their political counterparts, accrue power to themselves, draw up dogmas, and wage war on dissenters in their own ranks and the followers of other religions. They seek protection from temporal rulers, bestowing on them in return a supernatural legitimacy and magical aura. They weave webs of mystery and mystification around naked power; they join the sword with the cross and the crescent.”
Peter Marshall in Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, ed. “Religious Anarchism: New Perspectives” [Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011] p. xx. “Introduction”

“We Christian anarchists sometimes exude an unhealthy cynicism. As anarchists our cynicism is justified. But as Christians we are also creatures of hope. Living in the creative tension of those two equally legitimate dispositions shapes our political discipleship. Anarchism need not be seen as merely political. As practiced by Christians, anarchism can become an essential spiritual practice that not only directs our engagement with the world, but also powerfully forms and develops our own spiritual maturity. How is this so?

The practice of anarchism calls us to the critique of false absolutes. The first commandment is a fundamental Christian anarchist principle: no other gods. But of course other gods are always arising, always being promoted, always holding forth, always shanghaiing new slaves to injustice. We remain constantly aware that even our own Christian anarchist hearts are prone to the worship of false idols and the false worship of the one true God. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us of our own potential for self-deception.

The practice of anarchism, more than any other political philosophy, forces us to take responsibility for our own actions. Moses declared “Choose you this day whom YOU will serve.” There is no getting around that necessity. The existential reality of choice is not reserved for a few twentieth-century French philosophers. “Repent” is a prerequisite for the “kingdom” that the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church preached about. It is a recognition, an invitation, and a command to keep turning and moving into the right direction – moving into the freedom of God. Because self-deception is a constant trap repentance is a constant necessity. Indeed, repentance becomes the escape hatch to renewed freedom as we leave the seeming determinism of an ill-chosen present and move into the undetermined, still open, and therefore hope-filled future of God. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us that there is always something we can do.

The practice of anarchism is a call into recognizable communities, where alliances and coalitions are formed around shared commitments, in-depth dialogue and conversation, and corporate decision-making that keeps our ambitions and projects small, real, and therefore more effective. Anarchism has no room for personal grandiosity or totalizing metanarratives. It is if anything a politics of finitude, but not therefore a politics without vision or even (dare we say it?) ambition. Because it is the most open-ended perspective on politics it is also the most open to hope. Anarchism as spiritual practice keeps reminding us that wherever two or three are gathered God is there as well. And wherever God is there is no telling what might happen!”
For an introduction to Christian anarchism, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_anarchism :
“Christian anarchism is a movement in political theology and political philosophy which synthesizes Christianity and anarchism. It is grounded in the belief that there is only one source of authority to which Christians are ultimately answerable, the authority of God as embodied in the teachings of Jesus, and thus rejects the idea that human governments have ultimate authority over human societies. Christian anarchists denounce the state as they claim it is violent, deceitful and, when glorified, idolatrous.”
tolstoy 4
Probably the best known Orthodox Christian anarchist was Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й) (1828-1910), also known as Leo Tolstoy. See “Tolstoy the peculiar Christian anarchist” at http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bright/tolstoy/chrisanar.htm
Another eminent Orthodox Christian anarchist was Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (Russian: Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев) (1874 –1948). a Russian religious and political philosopher: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Berdyaev Berdyaev’s philosophy has been characterized as Christian existentialist. He was preoccupied with creativity and in particular with freedom from anything that inhibited creativity, whence his opposition to a “collectivized and mechanized society”.
See further http://www.berdyaev.com/
solitude and society
Nicolas Berdyaev (Author), George Reavey (Translator), Boris Jakim (Foreword) “Solitude and Society” [Semantron Press; Enlarged edition , 2009]
“In this work, Berdyaev tells us that man’s “I,” his consciousness, is thrust up against a world of impersonal objects (the “objectified” world) and thus finds itself in a condition of alienation and isolation. In five ontological and epistemological meditations Berdyaev clarifies this condition of “objectification” and suggests ways it can be overcome, based on his “personalistic,” “existential” philosophy. He shows how this philosophy can serve to counteract objectification and human isolation. Emphasis throughout is placed on modes of human communion and solitude in society. The Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) was one of the greatest religious thinkers of the twentieth century. His philosophy goes beyond mere thinking, mere rational conceptualization, and tries to attain authentic life itself: the profound layers of existence that are in contact with God’s world. Berdyaev directed all of his efforts, philosophical as well as in his personal and public life, at replacing the kingdom of this world with the kingdom of God. According to him, we can all attempt to do this by tapping the divine creative powers which constitute our true nature. Our mission is to be collaborators with God in His continuing creation of the world. This is what Berdyaev said about himself: “Man, personality, freedom, creativeness, the eschatological-messianic resolution of the dualism of two worlds – these are my basic themes.””


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