Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Active, The Contemplative, and Social Justice

Ever since Ben Gleck (for speaking his name just gives him more power) declared that being concerned for the well-being of the poor, the widow, and the orphan makes you a Stalinist, progressive Christians have been a raging hornet's nest of fury. Well, that's not quite right. It's been more like an open, inclusive, and relational hornet's nest of respectfully stated disagreement. Not nearly as satisfying, but that's how we roll.

That finally waning kerfuffle did stir in me an old tension. It's the way to find balance between spirituality and social justice, between contemplation and action, between the "love of neighbor" that manifests itself in efforts for systemic justice and the "love of God" that expresses itself in prayer, worship, and meditation.

Honestly, progressive Christians haven't really proven themselves to be the best at finding the knob on the "spirituality" door. As a laddie who was raised in a very social-justicey church, there was a great deal of emphasis on social equity and the rights of the disenfranchised. There was...well...rather less effort put into developing a sense of God's presence. More significantly, there wasn't an intentional development of the connection between the two, establishing the connection between those two aspects of the central ethic of our faith.

I was reminded a bit of how much faith and action can be divided while reading through the writings of an unknown 13th century English mystic. I'd been intending to read "The Cloud of Unknowing" for a while, but finally got around to it after a friend mailed me a copy (thanks, Jonathan!). Though I'm glomming on to large portions of the book, I'm not sure I quite embrace the occasionally binary approach to Christian faith that the author proposes. For all of his wit and insight, he tends to split the faithful into the "contemplatives," who sit like Mary at the foot of Christ, and the "actives," who fret about in the kitchen like Martha and kvetch about their slacker sister.

I just can't quite buy into that whole binary approach. Contemplation is not just for "contemplatives." Action is not just for "actives." We have, as human creatures, an admixture of gifts and needs. Though some of us may trend one way or 'tother, most of us require both time to ponder and time to get our hands dirty.

Giving care and seeking justice for the oppressed flows forth from contemplation, and contemplation is where we are called to go when the quest for justice seems too overwhelming for us to handle. In that balance, I think, is where we most effectively serve the Kingdom.


  1. A book that has helped me think about this split is Elizabeth O'Connor's Journey Inward, Journey Outward. The others who seem to keep their eye on both balls and unite them into a single spirituality/activity are followers of Abraham Kuyper

  2. Dear Frater Dave,

    Check out "The Practice of the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. There are several translations available, both in print and on-line.

    Brother Lawrence practiced a deep contemplative spirituality and was a true heir of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Yet he did all this while serving as the cook of a good-sized monastery. His day was spent either in the marketplace or in the kitchen, yet the spiritual and political elite of Paris came to seek his advice.

    And since you are such a Celtic vibe kinda guy, check out George MacLeod, an active contemplative responsible for the restoration of the contemplative community on Iona. His writings make this connection and should be right up your alley.

    And finally, one of my favorite and most explicit examples of making the connection between action and contenplation is Henri Nouwen's "Peacework: Prayer, Resistance, Community."



    -Frater Dawg

  3. I'm a Celtic daily prayer fan myself. I recommend David Adam's stuff. I've been reading through his "The Rhythm of Life" for the last year or so; morning, midday and evening.

    My all time favorite for putting it all in perspective though comes from the much maligned Puritan's and a book of meditations called "The Valley of Vision". That one's a constant companion.

  4. Just a note, I must have been half asleep when I read this post. Great googely moogely, I missed your mention of "The Cloud...". Mea culpa.

    I am slow, granted, but that was beyond slow; perhaps cognitively impaired on my part? Anyway, I can see how our anonymous brother from the Middle Ages could be interpreted as severely delineating but I really didn't get that upon reading him. Of course, it is a contemplative/mystical work so that's at the forefront, but he does speak of action and the 'body and the spirit' working together in service to others and thus ultimately to God.

    As you say though, balance is the key isn't it?