Playing off some treasured Protestant language, Greg Peters’ new book is entitled The Monkhood of All Believers. Continuing his monastic scholarship, which includes works such as The Story of Monasticism (2015) and Reforming the Monastery (2013), Peters argues that though every Christian is not a monk in the institutional sense, monastic values are central to the Christian experience. Borrowing Martin Luther’s words, a Christian can be a monk but not a monk.
In the first part of his work, Peters thoroughly defines monasticism (chap. 1), narrates monastic history (chap. 2), and then discusses interiorized monasticism—the focus of every believer to have single-minded devotion to God (chap. 3). In part two, he spells out the meaning and practice of asceticism (chap. 4) and then shows that the notion of the priesthood of all believers is celebrated by Protestants and Catholics alike (chap. 5). In the final section, the author summarizes his case for monastic living for all Christians (chap. 6) and then discusses vocation in general and monastic vocation in particular (chap. 7).
I am a fan of Greg Peters’ scholarship and I learned much in this new work from his careful interaction with a breadth of sources—from early Christian monks, Russian Orthodox thinkers, Protestant Reformers, and Anglican sources. Because of this engagement, Peters successfully shows that the monastic impulse is present across Christian traditions. My views on Christian monasticism’s fourth-century origins were challenged by Peters’ claims—via Augustine and Cassian—that monasticism can be traced to the habits of the earliest Christians in Acts 2 and 4. By arguing for first-century monastic Christianity, he does support his overall claim about the monastic-ascetic nature of Christianity—single-minded devotion to God.
What’s a review without some critiques? First, though Peters’ research is thorough, his claims for the monkhood of all believers seem to rest on the thought of selected theologians (i.e. Paul Evdokimov and Raimon Panikkar in chap. 3) rather than the broader consensus of monastic history and thought. Second, the “I am a monk but not a monk” dichotomy began to unravel for me as I continued through the book. Indeed, monastic values and practices such as prayer, Scripture reading, and work ought to shape Christian spirituality for monks and non-monks alike. This is what Dennis Okholm was after in his work Monk Habits for Everyday Life (2007). While Peters aims to go farther than Okholm, calling for all Christians to be monks, in the end I didn’t see Peters’ work being terribly distinct from Okholm’s—everyday Christians can emulate monastic living to some degree. In short, while all Christians may follow the spiritual examples of monks and emulate some practices, I don’t think that makes all Christians monks.
That said, as a non-monk who admires monastic spirituality and strives to apply some monk habits in my faith walk, I highly value this new book and Peters’ efforts to probe ancient and modern monastic thinking. I hope to see Greg Peters soon and talk about some of this more.