“In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
Every day something is dropped.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the “Christ”—the savior—because he empties himself. The Greek word used to describe this action is kenosis. We would do well to let more of the kenotic spirit into our modern lives.
Increasingly today, the upper middle class preoccupation with lifestyle design, from influencer culture to self-help books, has taken on an ascetic character. From Headspace to the Four-Hour Workweek, from Minimalism to Marie Kondo, the last decade was dominated by the desire to optimize, eliminate, simplify, automate, and reduce “friction.” Andrew Taggart brilliantly profiles the demigods that populate our social imaginary, what he calls “secular monks”:
Secular monks inherit from Calvinism the veiling of the transcendent—in their case, the veiling of the very possibility that the transcendent could ever disclose itself. They inhabit an epistemically uncertain world and suffer existential anxiety and loneliness. Above all, they commit to work—to working on themselves and on the world—as the key to salvation. Practitioners submit themselves to ever more rigorous, monitored forms of ascetic self-control: among them, cold showers, intermittent fasting, data-driven health optimization, and meditation boot camps.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that a knowledge economy is suffused with a gnostic ethos. The cliché that our consumer society is plagued by something called “materialism” is wrong. Consumerism expresses a profound contempt for the body, for physical objects, for the earth, preferring the frictionless realm of cyberspace or the promised land of Martian colonies to the filthy business of life on earth. It chases “less” with the mindset of “more,” driven by an escapist ethos built on an extractive economy. The knowledge economy—or the gnostic economy—rests on a dangerous dualism between spirit and matter. Cyberspace depends on servers, servers depend on electricity, and electricity depends on matter, energy, and earth.
The ascetic only superficially resembles the kenotic, though both are characterized by spiritual ambition.
Where the ascetic is moved by desire, the kenotic is moved by compassion.
Where the ascetic wants to escape reality, the kenotic revels in it.
Where the ascetic ascends, the kenotic descends.
Where the ascetic is all discipline, the kenotic is abandon.
Where the ascetic is Apollonian, the kenotic is Dionysian.
Where the ascetic saves, the kenotic spends.
Where the ascetic clings, the kenotic lets go.
Where the ascetic wants control, the kenotic says yes to chaos.
Where the ascetic sees a logic of scarcity, the kenotic sees one of abundance.
Where the ascetic says let’s move to Mars, the kenotic says earth is enough.
If the ascetic spirit drives the knowledge economy, what would an economy of the kenotic spirit look like?
Perhaps a wisdom economy?
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