Less Is More? What Minimalism Can (and Can’t) Teach Us
I must have always been a minimalist at heart. As a teenager I would periodically initiate a purge of unused and well-worn clothing. I would also routinely clean out my closet, throwing out the old to make room for the new. Now as an adult, I still enjoy the art of decluttering. I feel alive when I can throw together bags for donations or toss something in the trash. When I was first married, I impressed my decluttering ways upon my husband, helping him loosen his grip on baggy clothes from the ’90s, which he kept for sentimental reasons. (Interestingly enough, my husband has always had double the number of shoes I’ve had; when he was single, he would buy a pair of shoes a month.) Now my husband always wants to get rid of things too, though I still have fewer shoes and clothing than he does.
Christianity’s path doesn’t run toward an idea, but a person, a person who is spirit but who came in material form.I guess I was cool before it was cool to declutter, or, as some like to call it: simplify. Now minimalism could be called a trend or a movement. And though it is about decluttering and simplifying, it is also much more. One of the leaders in the minimalist movement, Joshua Becker, defines it this way: “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it” (25). For most of us, the term minimalism conjures up images of stark white walls, a solitary chair in the living room, bare countertops, and a cold hard mattress on the floor. It’s an extreme picture, though it could be true for some who call themselves minimalists. What Becker and others like him are trying to do is make minimalism more balanced and fit for everyone, not just bachelors. Minimalism is not just about decluttering, but owning less. It’s about letting go of your possessions before they possess you. It’s about simplifying your life and schedule, not just physical objects around your home. But all of this is done so you can pursue the things that do matter in life, whatever it is you value.
Another aspect of this movement is reminiscent of the beat generation from the ’50s and ’60s, whose many followers were turning up their noses at the 9-5 grind and conventional life in general. Granted, minimalism is free of drugs, partying, and experimental sex, but there is an attitude underneath that communicates, “We don’t want to be told what to do by society at large.” Much of this has to do with the anti-consumerism theme. Most minimalists know that to consume is human, but what they are against is compulsive or mindless consumption. Minimalism is about being deliberate and intentional with everything you buy and everything you do. Beatniks, or should I say minimalists?
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus released a documentary last year based on the minimalist message of their blog and podcast. Much like beat writer Jack Kerouac, and his book On the Road, Millburn and Nicodemus take to the road on a spiritual quest. They left behind promising corporate careers to share the gospel message of minimalism.
Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, opens with Millburn and Fields sharing their stories (or, as we Christians like to call them, testimonies) of their lives before and after their conversions to minimalism. There is a religious undertone in the documentary reminiscent of evangelism as they set up chairs for speaking engagements and speak at conferences. Millburn even addresses this in the film: “I’m not out here to proselytize or convert anyone to minimalism. But I do want to share a recipe and see if there are ingredients that other people can get value from and adapt those ingredients to their own life.” Whether they are evangelists or not, minimalists do share a message, or at least make a promise—a promise much like the ones we get from advertisers selling the latest gadget. Minimalism promises happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. In the documentary, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, says, “We’re trying to fulfill the void by shopping, but this hunger never gets satisfied. It will not make you more of a whole person. We want to feel whole. We want to feel content.” It’s true to say material things won’t make you feel whole, but will minimalism make us feel whole instead? Have we finally found something to satisfy that hunger?
I personally like many of the ideas that minimalists like Millburn and Field and Joshua Becker have advanced. I believe many of the minimalist ideas are biblical ideas as well. Christians should be somewhat anti-consumerism; we must sift through modern societal pressures and conventions, and we are told to “lay up . . . treasures in heaven.” If anything, minimalism reminds us this world is not our home. God does not want us to find our identity in material possessions or, as Becker puts it, “The American Dream,” which “has been defined in dollar signs and square footage” (46). God also wants us to deliberately and intentionally examine our lives, seek after him, and love others.
Christians can also get behind the message of valuing people and relationships over things. As Millburn says in the documentary, “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.” Minimalism can help find meaning outside of material possessions, status, and success defined by fame and riches. It’s a good path attempting to drive people away from destructive habits and mindsets.
But while it is a strong start, the movement too is an end in itself. Where it could lead is to diverging paths of individualistic values and beliefs based on subjective authority. It takes us away from finding happiness in material possessions, but then where does it go? Minimalist leaders don’t tell us where to find meaning in life, except in the idea of minimalism. This is where minimalism threatens to become its own religion and part ways with Christianity.
Minimalism does help us see that we are too easily fixated on the material things of this world. It leads us to a deeper unseen realm of spirituality. We are more than material. We have a soul as well as a body. Minimalism seeks the soul of life, because minimalists are seeking for deeper spiritual meaning in immaterial things. At the heart of human existence is the desire to put faith in something larger than human existence as we know it. C. S. Lewis discusses this elusive feeling in Mere Christianity—this moment of longing that fades away into reality; a desire for a world we have not seen. According to Lewis, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. . . . Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing” (138). Minimalism shows us that owning more stuff cannot satisfy, but the idea of minimalism by itself will not satisfy in the long term either. This movement just points to the reality of human existence: we long for something we don’t have yet. And this is designed by God, not to lead us to stuff or minimalism itself, but God himself.
Christianity’s path doesn’t run toward an idea, but a person, a person who is spirit but who came in material form. Finding satisfaction in relationship with this one person will bring true happiness and fulfillment. He created us to long for him, but we try to fill this longing with other things. When we find ourselves in right relationship with him we are beginning to feel the void be filled, but only partly. The void will be perfectly filled forever when the soul leaves the body to be fully united in the person of Jesus Christ, one with God. And then the soul will inhabit an imperishable body. Our final state will be the perfection of material and spiritual. This is the end for every sinner turned saint, but it’s also just a beginning.
Image by PIRO4D at Pixabay.
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