In his comedy sketch about “Stuff,” George Carlin joked that the whole meaning of life can be described as “Trying to find a place to put your stuff!” After all, that’s what a house is: it’s a “place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff!” I doubt Carlin would have been a self-described minimalist, but his description of a consumerist mindset perfectly articulates the motivating principles of the popular minimalist lifestyle movement. Scroll through any social media platform with some variation of #minimalism, and you’ll encounter millions of pictures of sparsely decorated living rooms, tirades about the psychological harm of consumerism, and evidence of the glory of a life with fewer material possessions, world without end. Amen.
Minimalism, like many popular lifestyle trends, tends to produce an enthusiasm in its disciples that mirrors the zeal of religious converts. Not only do new converts to minimalism feel the liberation that comes with siphoning off their junk, they also have a new set of guiding principles for their lives going forward. The decluttering process is an effect of a newfound moral clarity, a phenomena Dorothy Sayers might describe as the drama of minimalist dogma.
Sayers wrote her essay, “The Dogma is the Drama,” in response to critics who failed to see how the dramatic appeal of her play, Zeal for Thy House, is rooted in the traditional Christian Creeds, Gospels, and offices of the Church. A similar principle is at play in the ongoing cultural obsession with minimalism. The mounting horror followed by a sense of relief and joy evoked by an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo proceeds from a set of philosophical assumptions, which, despite their religious overtones, often sounds a dissonant note when transposed into the context of traditional religious beliefs and practices.
Every minimalist knows “the worthlessness of pursuing less for the sake of less,” because any decision to make a significant change in your life will not last if the reasons for that change are not clearly defined.
Like any good self-help plan, minimalists refrain from being too prescriptive. Instead, they focus on the idea of living a meaningful life by prompting readers to consider what things add “value” to their lives and contribute to their desired “lifestyle.” Joshua Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, from the Netflix documentary Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things, define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people . . . add value to their lives” by focusing on “the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” The five values listed at the end of Millburn and Nicodemus’s definition are ambiguous enough that every person can uniquely determine how each value contributes to a personalized and fulfilling lifestyle.
At the end of their book Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life, Millburn and Nicodemus raise the obvious question prompted by their definition: if living a meaningful life is purely subjective, how can a person know if he or she has achieved meaningfulness? They argue that it would be impossible to answer questions of this sort in a way that is universally applicable: “there are different sets of criteria and internal rules each of us place on these questions. We might think you’re smart or good or happy, but what we think doesn’t matter. Only you know for sure.” A person must seek a meaningful life by turning inwards, reflecting on inner thoughts and emotions–an exercise best accomplished in the absence of possessions. No one else and no external reality can determine the values to which another person should adhere.
Millburn and Nicodemus are not the only ones who argue that the values which promote a meaningful life depend on the “internal rules” each person sets for himself. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes that the true goal of decluttering and tidying up “should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.” Joshua Becker, in The More of Less, argues that by embracing minimalism, “we are immediately freed to pursue our greatest passions.” In New Minimalism, Cary Fortin and Kyle Quilici encourage their readers to find “your own wonderful, decidedly unique middle path” in the journey toward living a meaningful life with fewer possessions. 
The underlying philosophical motivation to live with fewer things in order to maximize personal fulfillment resonates with the popular early twentieth century philosophy of emotivism. Emotivism posits a separation between the realm of morality and the realm of fact. Whereas facts can be judged true or false through rational criteria, moral judgments are expressions of feelings or attitudes which are neither true nor false. Alasdair MacIntyre summarizes emotivism as “the doctrine that all judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude and feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” Within an emotivist framework, moral disagreements are not settled through an understanding of an objective moral order, but by simply reproducing an attitude/feeling in others.
Emotivism continues to exert its influence in the lifestyle trends of today. In its utilitarian and altruistic emphases, minimalist philosophy fits neatly within the emotivist frame. It respects individual experience without overt coercion through universal moral claims. Each of us determine for ourselves the “criteria and internal rules” for answering the questions that provide some sense of moral guidance and meaning to life. The language of personal “values,” “passion,” and “lifestyle,” reflect an unwillingness to make judgments about whether such values, passions, or lifestyles are morally wrong.
As the animating force behind minimalist philosophy, emotivism is an effective solution for the mindless consumerism endemic in twenty-first century American culture. Studies have shown that the American addiction to a consumerist lifestyle since the 1950s has resulted in an overall decline in well-being. But the desire to acquire more “stuff” continues to define American culture: credit-card debt continues to rise, and self-storage facilities continue to pop up across the country. Minimalists help people step away from the dopamine inducing “Buy now with 1-Click” Amazon button by redirecting their attention to self-examination and reflection on what “values” matter most to them.
In Walden Pond, the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau observed that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” His observation is as poignant today as it was in 1854. By encouraging people to reflect on their own buying habits and on the quantity and quality of their possessions, minimalists attempt to model a life based on Thoreau’s dictum: “Simplify, simplify.” Like Thoreau, the goal is “to live deliberately . . . to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” But unlike Thoreau, minimalists don’t encourage people to spend a year in the woods. Instead, they emphasize that a person can live intentionally and deliberately anywhere, even with wi-fi. The goal is to live only with those things that heighten your awareness of your own values and vision of the good life, those things that spark joy, and that instill some sense of purpose.
Insofar as minimalism takes its cues from emotivism, it asserts that “meaning” is an attitude/feeling that must be cultivated from within. The upshot of the minimalist project results in a form of self-aggrandizement—fewer possessions afford the opportunity to indulge personal passions with greater satisfaction.
The Drama of a Christian Minimalism
The Christian response to minimalism has been, on the whole, positive. Not only can Christians make common cause in the fight against consumerism, it’s hard not to hear echoes of biblical teachings in minimalist literature. In the gospels, Christ teaches that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, ESV), and that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). The apparent dogmatic overlap between Christianity and minimalism has encouraged many to appropriate minimalist practices to facilitate their faithfulness to the gospel.
Lifestyle movements, in particular, lend themselves to religious adaptation. After all, the long history of Christian monasticism would seem to suggest some parallel between Christian faithfulness and minimalism. It’s tempting to superimpose Christian doctrine onto minimalism. Yet, in doing so, Christians may slip into what Sayers calls a “trashy sentiment” that dilutes “the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.”
A helpful illustration of how minimalist philosophy contrasts with Christian dogma appears in Joshua Becker’s book The More of Less. Becker is a Christian and a well-respected voice for the minimalist movement. Although he does not use minimalism as a platform for explicit evangelistic purposes, his Christian beliefs nevertheless surface in his arguments for the adoption of a minimalist lifestyle.
Becker argues that the concept of minimalism can be found in the teachings of Jesus. For evidence, he compares Christ’s encounter with the rich young ruler and the Gerasene man who is possessed with a demon named Legion.
According to Becker, Jesus’ harsh command that the rich young ruler sell all his possessions “was not so much a test of the man’s faith or a call to superhuman sacrifice as it was a statement of truth. It was an invitation to a better way of life. The man’s possessions were keeping him from truly living!” The temptation, Becker argues, is to read the story of the rich young ruler as a universal model of the Christian life.
Becker notes that Jesus does not command everyone he heals or teaches to make the same sacrifice, and he uses the healing of the Gerasene man as an example. After having been healed of demon possession, the Gerasene man begs to follow Jesus and his disciples. Becker emphasizes that this is the reaction that “Jesus had wanted the rich young official to have,” but this time it is met with a different response. Jesus tells the man to “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). Becker concludes that the difference in these stories highlights the underlying principle of Jesus’ teaching: everyone has a different calling on his life, and that to fulfill his calling, he needs to have a healthy relationship with material possessions. Not everyone, Becker argues, is “called to abandon their homes for the sake of the gospel,” but everyone should recognize that “excess possessions keep us from fulfilling our purpose.”
Throughout his argument, Becker conflates the idea of Christian “calling” with the minimalist notion of a meaningful lifestyle. The two ideas, however, are both distinct and separate. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in The Cost of Discipleship, Christian calling evokes obedience, not a self-reflective analysis of how to live a fuller life. Scripturally, a calling does not elicit a psychological effort to understand the call. Throughout the gospels, when Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, the narratives describe each disciple’s obedient response, not the internal monologue that afforded the response. Bonhoeffer argues that the gospels are “a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus . . . Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Calling” requires obedience, and obedience implies a recognition of an objective authority to which a person submits and conforms. In the person of Christ, the call of the Christian life entails God’s divine authority over our personal desires. Contrary to Becker’s claim, the stories of the rich young ruler and the Gerasene man are not representations of how we can live a meaningful life with more or fewer possessions. Both stories present different examples of how people respond to Christ’s call and foreground the authority of Christ to call individuals to follow him.
The notion of “submission” and “conformity” inevitably run counter to the philosophy of minimalism. The emphasis on removing material possessions so that individuals can determine their own values does not allow for a transcendent reality that demands conformity. Neither does it consider the possibility that personal desires are insufficient to live a meaningful life. As Pamela Druckerman notes in a New York Times article, “It’s consoling to think that, beneath all these distractions, we’ll discover our shining, authentic selves, or even achieve a state of ‘mindfulness.’ But I doubt it. I’m starting to suspect that the joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was.” A Christian anthropology already recognizes the folly of self-discovery without divine revelation. Every person is made in the image of God, but given that we are disposed to excessive self-love and the neglect of loving God and our neighbor, that image is not easily recognized this side of eternity.
Although Becker is right to point out that not every Christian will be required to abandon personal possessions, the story of the rich young ruler and the Gerasene man ultimately function as reminders of the kind of obedient posture all Christians should have toward God. Neither the story of the rich young ruler nor the story of the Gerasene man have anything to say about the negative effects of material possessions per se. Both stories exemplify what the Heidelberg Catechism describes as the true condition of all Christian people:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
Traditional Christian dogma recognizes, affirms, and obeys the revelation of a transcendent reality in the person of Jesus Christ. The sheep, Jesus says, “hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). When Peter sees Jesus walking on the water toward the boat, he doesn’t immediately rush out to meet him. He verifies Christ’s identity by asking for a command: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matt. 14:28, my emphasis). Throughout the gospels, we encounter the identity of Jesus revealed in his commands; all of which redirect our gaze outward to God and our neighbor, and away from self-interest.
Jesus did not call the disciples to a better lifestyle. He called them to obedience. And it is the job of the Church not “to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.” Only by surrendering ourselves to the One in Whom we live and move and have our being will we become more than consumers of material products or lifestyles.