Two men walk into a bar to discuss minimalism. Here’s what they said:
Ryan: Alright, so we’re talking about minimalism. We read about this guy who put everything in storage and took out one thing a day to throw away. Does that appeal to you, Chris?
Chris: Does the idea appeal to me? Um, no. Not at all. Do I want to put everything in storage and be running through the snow, naked? No, I don’t. I think it’s a good idea to get attention; the sort of attention that this documentary is looking for. But that sort of quest doesn’t appeal to me. The idea of scaling down does, though.
Chris: I think recently all I want to do is get a log cabin in the woods. And all the mod-cons I love: they’re great, but there’s a real part of me that wants to be back to basics and sitting around a fire. One of my favourite weekends last year was when my wife Sarah and I went camping in a woodland glade, and we had a fire, no games, a tiny tent – which was far too small – and we just sat around the fire talking. And we talk still about how that was the best weekend of our year. We didn’t have anything, really. Michael Ramsden said: “You’re not made happy by what you acquire, but by what you appreciate,” and what I appreciate is quality time with the people I love. Saying that, I do like stuff. I like buying stuff. So there’s a tension.
Ryan: So what was removed on that weekend? What did that free up for you?
Chris: Well, I didn’t wash for that weekend.
Ryan: So that was fun.
Chris: Well, I normally have two or three showers a day! I actually really, really like being clean. But going back to basics – that was quite fun, because you’re camping. But it was just a massive sense of peace. It was very much like, I could get out of my performance mentality. I didn’t have to be a certain way. My inhibitions were gone. I even got out of the tent naked, for a laugh. I made sure there was no one else around! But yeah, there was a sense of freedom.
Ryan: I guess in a way, you were getting away from everything and it brings into clarity what really matters. The clutter’s gone, the white noise is gone – all that stuff that claims our attention and time and energy and thoughts – and all that was left was something really pure. There’s something spiritual about that. It’s like they say, when you come into the world and when you leave the world, it’s just you and other people really. That’s all you have.
Chris: Ok, so the question back to you is: does the idea appeal to you?
Ryan: I think it’s really about the why, for me. We love our little fads as a society, but what’s the spiritual attitude that we’re trying to get to, what’s the spiritual reality behind the fad of minimalism? Are we enough as people, when we put our strategies and materials and noise aside? Do you know that you’re enough, on your own?
Chris: Yeah, all our stuff is just makeup. It’s the stuff we use to make ourselves more attractive and likeable. If I’m more attractive, then that’s where I get my affirmation from. I suppose that’s what minimalism is really asking: am I comfortable when all this stuff is taken away?
Ryan: I love the fact that in the documentary, the guy starts off naked. There’s something so true about that – we all come into the world naked. The truth is, we already are enough and we already are valuable, in our naked state. For me, one of the really interesting stories I have, is when you and I went off to ministry school, and in following what we felt was our calling, we lost a lot of material stuff. Moving overseas, we saw our finances dwindle a lot. We realised pretty quickly that what we did have wasn’t going to get us far, and we needed God to provide for us. And actually being naked – and what I mean by that is not having those resources – made us come back to some fundamental truths. I remember you saying to God that your money was going to dry up pretty quickly, and you really needed God to come through, so you could stay in ministry school. That must have felt like quite a naked moment for you…
Chris: I needed about £2,500 to finish the course, and I had about £500, and I felt like God said to give away that last £500. And I remember giving it away, and feeling such a release. I felt like all the pressure went off me, and onto God, to provide. It was amazing and scary. Then a friend came up to me the next day, and gave me £1,000 and that just carried on. The money got completely sorted. But it was the release, the letting go. But we can create doctrines and theologies around that as Christians where we think we need to give everything away. God doesn’t always say we have to do that.
Ryan: God is not constrained; He’s safe, but He’s wild. He has us. It’s about relationship: knowing who you are and who God is. That’s so much more important than having some formula. So is minimalism just another formula?
Chris: Yes! I remember you saying once that as human beings, we fall in love with rules.
Ryan: Yeah, we want God to tell us what to do.
Chris: Right, and I think with minimalism or other doctrines like the prosperity gospel, people make formulas. And the only real formula that counts is that daily connection with God. In this instance, something might be right and in another, wrong. Truth is held in tension. So, why do we clutter up our lives? What is it that makes me want to go and spend my money, when I’m actually much happier with a campfire?
Ryan: And what is the authentic, real me? The heart issue is always more important than the practice of what we do. We focus so much on doing, but what’s at the heart of it is this ability to be vulnerable; to not have to surround myself with things that give me comfort.
Chris: And sometimes God puts you through seasons where you need to strip back. So you need to know your season in a way. It’s back to that heart attitude of how we see God.
Ryan: I think my concern with minimalism is that it can be pseudo-spirituality. Like, you’re trying to get close to God by being a minimalist, without actually really encountering God. But the secret of that vulnerability we’re seeking is relationship. It’s like Adam and the fig leaves. We all have those fig leaves. Decluttering our life may be a way of stripping down and may look like vulnerability, but what we really need to do is to let God strip us down and then build us back up again. That’s true vulnerability.
Chris: Yeah, it becomes about that formula again, when it’s actually about relationship. Bono said: “Religion’s what’s left when God leaves the building.” On the flip side, I do like a spiritual discipline! But when that becomes a goal in itself, it’s wrong.
Ryan: I think ultimately God wants to bring us back into that space where we know that we’re loved and cherished. That’s what brings life and its part of our design. That stuff’s fuel for humans. If you start stripping back and becoming minimalist because of a formula, you’re just fuelling that feeling of – well, of being like an orphan, of earning love rather than accepting it – and it just makes everything worse. And God doesn’t want the same thing for everyone, all the time: sometimes it’s good to strip away, sometimes it’s good to add.
Chris: Yeah, it’s back to ‘know your season’ again. One of our friends Angela, wrote an article on minimalism recently – and maybe God is talking about that to some people: maybe we need to strip back, collectively. I’m sitting here with my beanie and a beard, and it’s all a bit like, I love wood man, and I love patchouli oils – I mean come on, we can be a bit hipster as Christians sometimes. Maybe corporately, God is saying something to His people about stripping back. But we need to figure that out through relationship, I think.
Chris and Ryan are friends of threads, and very wise and handsome men in their own right. This is the first in a new series of conversations they’ll be having around some of our key themes in 2016. Let us know what you think of what they had to say below.