Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why This Won't Work Part IV

This part continues the previous post, exploring the objection that minimalism is a good thing. Part III maintained that two distinctions were necessary and addressed the first, that of aesthetics. The second distinction (below) speaks of pragmatism.


When speaking of art, design, engineering and other arts, theories of minimalism do relate to theories of aesthetics: “Minimalism is efficient, and that is beautiful.” However, when we speak about religious matters, minimalism is not an aesthetic as much as it is an excuse for pragmatism and efficiency.

As a philosophy, pragmatism is grossly misunderstood and simplified to be mean, “Doing what works and no more”-- a synonym for practicality. The Good, the ideal activity is that which works for the effect one wants—and no more. This view sees little value in activities for their own sake.

Take, for example, the act of planing wood. The traditional method was to give a piece of raw lumber to an apprentice, who would take the hand plane to it. He would begin with the scrub plane which would eventually be traded for the jack plane, and that for the smoothing plane. When the apprentice had a square, flat board of the required thickness, his job would be done. This was the job for an apprentice because it was back-breaking, sweaty work.

When power machinery was invented, the traditional hand planes became unnecessary. An apprentice could place the lumber in a power planer and immediately have one or two smooth, flat faces. A power jointer would square the edges, and the board would be ready. Most of us would say the power method is superior, taking less time and work. After all, what value was there in the apprentice scrubbing a board for hours?

There is extraordinary value, though. The apprentice planing a board several hours learned about the wood. He learned how wood grain can change direction half-way through the length, and then change back. He learned which direction to plane to emphasis the burl in walnut, and how to bring out the curls in maple. He learned to appreciate the value of that one board and how much work it would take to find another if the board were ruined somewhere down the line. He learned how to work. He learned patience. He grew stronger, more muscular. He learned how the tools affected the wood, and how the wood affected the tools. He learned the importance of tool maintenance and care, the value of a sharp planing iron and the method of getting a tool sharp enough to use. Later, when he was assigned the task of cutting dovetails--an exacting job, he had the fundamentals of woodwork from the years spent with the handplanes.

How does this work out in the LCMS?

In the Small Catechism, Luther writes, “Who receives this Sacrament [of the Altar, i.e., the Eucharist] worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: 'Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'

In the LCMS the emphasis many of us seemed only to hear the words “But...truly.” Luther does not deny that fasting is good preparation. But he miminalisticly determines that faith is a necessary and sufficient condition for receiving the sacrament. In other words, if one has faith in the words, that is enough, that is sufficient. Fasting is neither necessary nor sufficient; one may receive the sacrament “worthily” without it.

Would the Reformer agree that is is beneficial? No doubt—he says it is good preparation. Would he have gone so far as to say that one who despised fasting for preparation was despising the Sacrament itself? Perhaps. Did he himself fast before receiving the sacrament and at other times? Most likely. Yet this minimalistic definition, heard as minimalistic as possible.

So we hear what is sufficient and make this the standard. In this scheme, fasting before the Sacrament is neither sufficient nor necessary, and so it need not be done. It is extra, and therefore unnecessary. Schooled in the way of minimalism and practical considerations, Lutherans today blanch at doing something that is unnecessary. Why take the extra step? What's the value in doing something that is not necessary?

My answer, and the answer of Christianity going back to the Didache and to the word of Christ itself is, “Fasting is good for you and is basic for spiritual preparation.” Asking if it is necessary is missing the point. It is good and beneficial, even as Luther admits.


  1. Anastasia Theodoridis said...

    Love is maximalistic. Love wants to do it all and then think of more to do.

  2. -C said...

    The concept of minimalism, especially as it relates to matters of faith and tradition is an important one.

    Many of the things of faith (fasting, the saints, etc.) which had been minimalized - adiophorized? - right out of my previous faith tradition are things which have enriched me beyond measure now, and are things which help me to continue to grow in faith.

    You have hit upon an important truth, I think.