Essay / Theology

Donald Bloesch and Monasticism: A Tribute

As my colleague Fred Sanders noted last week, leading evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch passed away on August 24. Though Fred has already offered an in memoriam on Scriptorium, I feel compelled to do so too. Why? Well, Donald Bloesch was a friend of mine. Don (as he insisted on being called) and I finally met in person in October 2004 though we had corresponded with one another since 2000. Sometime during that year, while working on my doctorate, I re-read Don’s A Theology of Word and Spirit (the first volume of the seven-volume Christian Foundations), which I had first read as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1995. The text struck me quite powerfully, so much so that I felt compelled to write Don a letter. Don never used e-mail so off my letter went by snail mail. Some weeks later a return letter arrived and near the end Don wrote, “Please come visit me some time in Dubuque, I would love to talk further.” As it turns out, Don meant it; he liked to have visitors and to talk theology. In October 2004 after an especially trying time at the church that I worked at I asked Don if I could come visit. “Of course,” was his reply. I spent the better part of a week talking with Don about theology (in particular my impending move towards Anglicanism) and reading nearly everything contained in his archives at the Charles C. Myers Library at the University of Dubuque. Most importantly, however, Don and I spent nearly all of that time talking about monasticism since Don, right from the start of his career, has been advocating the re-introduction of monasticism into the evangelical church. In fact, Don’s first book was dedicated to this topic (Centers of Christian Renewal) as was a second book published a decade later (Wellsprings of Renewal: Promise in Christian Communal Life). To ignore this aspect of Don’s life’s work would be to miss, I believe, the authentic Donald Bloesch. My time with Don that week led me to write “The Place of Monasticism in the Thought of Donald Bloesch,” which I read at The Monastic Institute: Church, Society and Monasticism in June 2006 at San Anselmo’s in Rome, Italy. (San Anselmo’s is the international Benedictine house of studies.) That was subsequently published only this past year in the conference proceedings [Eduardo López-Tello García and Benedetta Selene Zorzi, ed., Church, Society and Monasticism: Acts of the International Symposium, Rome, May 31 – June 3, 2006 (Analecta Monastica 9) (St. Ottilien: EOS Klosterverlag, 2009): 261-274]. Mailing Don a copy of the published paper was the impetus for our last correspondence this past spring. Weeks after mailing him an offprint of the article I received a letter from him addressed to “Dear Friend in Christ.” It read:

Thank you very much for your letter and essay on my ruminations on monasticism. You rightly note that I make an important place for the monastic vision in Christian theology, but you do not sufficiently comprehend its necessary role in the formation of a new theology that is both firmly Protestant and stalwartly Reformed. The goal of my theology is the reform of the church in the light of the gospel, and special working fellowships have a pivotal role in this endeavor, but they are not the source of grace nor a means of grace. It would be more correct to say that I seek for its regeneration or revivification. I believe that both Catholics and Protestants need to reopen the discussion on the monastic life and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in the renewal he is already working within the church. Within a few weeks my newest book on my personal theological reflections will be ready for publication. I would appreciate receiving your evaluative comments on this particular volume. Let us plan to keep in touch, and if you are ever in this area we can perhaps get together for a theological visit.

There are several aspects to take notice of in this letter. First, I hadn’t understood Bloesch as well as I thought in my paper! Second, right up to the end Don was concerned about the renewal of the church while also realizing that the Holy Spirit was already doing the work. Third, Don thought that the evangelical church (that is, the “firmly Protestant and stalwartly Reformed” church) needs to have a revivified and regenerated monasticism in its midst. Though the New Monastic movement is moving some way in this direction, Don would want more.

Don understood that religious communities and religious orders have a long history in the Christian tradition.  He also understood that the rise of Protestant monasteries and religious communities soon after the Reformation of the sixteenth-century was the result of “the deep-felt yearning in the human spirit for the kind of consecration the monasteries had symbolized [in the past]” coupled with the fact that the existence of monasteries “could not long remain stifled” (Wellsprings of Renewal, p. 35). For him, the Reformers made a mistake by eliminating the existence of monasteries: “The Reformation, in its reaction to perversions and misunderstandings of biblical truth in the popular [Roman] Catholic piety of the time, regrettably discarded much in the catholic heritage that is of enduring value. I have in mind such things as religious orders within the church, celibacy, retreats and spiritual disciplines, including meditation and silence” (The Future of Evangelical Christianity, 133). Even Pietists, Don rightly noted, saw the need for times of periodic solitude. In addition, Don held that there are three types of discipleship in the Christian Scriptures and in traditional Christian spirituality. The first is the active life, that is, pursuing a secular vocation outside of the church, the second is the contemplative or monastic life and the third type is a mixed life, that is, when one leads a religious life outside of the cloister, similar to the medieval mendicant friars or congregations of priests. In his Wellsprings of Renewal, Don presented more simply this tripartite division as two patterns of discipleship: those who are called to live in the world for the sake of the gospel whereas others “stand under the imperative to fulfill their vocation apart from the world in religious communities or in solitary witness that often entails the renunciation of family, property, and the use of force or violence” (p. 20). Simply put, Don referred to these two patterns of life as the secular life and the religious life. Instead of pitting these two patterns against one another, Don thought that they are complementary, that the church needs both since both involve inward separation from the things of the world as well as inward sacrifice.

Taken together, these thoughts suggest that, in many ways, Don implicitly recognized the historical existence of the institution of monasticism and simply expected that such an institution should exist in the evangelical church to which he addressed himself. He even affirmed that in “our controversy with Rome we as evangelicals tend to forget that the Protestant Reformation was born in a monastery.” He goes further, however, by providing theological support for the institution of monasticism as well. He writes that “Monasticism at its best, however, reminds us that no sacrifice is too great for the one who is serious about Christian commitment and that the fellowship of sacrificial love that transcends the claims of home and family can be realized in part now as a sign and parable of the coming eschatological kingdom” (The Struggle of Prayer, p. 144). Don also viewed monasticism as more of a genuine spiritual movement of renewal as opposed to an ideological movement that is only interested in serving the interests of a particular party. This being the case, monasticism serves to expand the kingdom of God since this is the primary purpose of any authentic spiritual movement.

Though more could be said, suffice it to say that in this area (as in many) Don was a man ahead of his time. Before it was cool to call yourself a New Monastic or a New  Friar, Don was saying, “We need monks and nuns!” And I couldn’t agree more. Though I lament Don’s passing, I certainly hope the book that he referenced in his letter to me makes it to publication so that we can all benefit, yet again, from Don’s wisdom. Reading one last book of Don’s would go a long way to making up for the fact that I cannot take him up on his offer to visit him again (something that I was hoping to do soon). But perhaps the best way to honor Don would be to help evangelical monasteries spring up around the world, serving as training centers, as centers of evangelism and as critics and correctors of the larger church. This is what Don wanted and he was convinced the church would be renewed as a result. I agree. Thanks Don. Requiescat in pace.

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