Derived from the Greeks, the contrast between the contemplative and active life early on became a Christian commonplace. It was systematized by Thomas Aquinas, who regarded the distinction as both “fitting” and “adequate.” Fitting, because each human being, as a rational being, occupies himself with what is most delightful to him, whether that is the pursuit of knowledge or a life of active service. Adequate, because Jacob had two wives and no more, and Lazarus had only two sisters.
Both sides can make a good case. Activists point out that true religion and undefiled is to visit orphans and widows in distress. They stress that faith without works is dead. Activists emphasize that the First Great Commandment to love God is worthless without the Second. Contemplatives point out that true religion also involves keeping ourselves unstained by the world. They emphasize that we are justified by faith apart from works. Contemplatives point out that Jesus didn’t call it the First Great Commandment for nothing.
Theoretically, the two ways are not in competition. Augustine insisted that Marys and Marthas are “both pleasing the Lord” and saw them as phases of one life rather than two ways of life. In this age, we have to be bustling Marthas, but we live in hope of future Marian serenity. In practice, though, activists and mystics haven’t always gotten along. Activists think mystics are too heavenly minded to be any use in their program. Contemplatives charge that activists are so busy with many things that they miss the one thing needful.
Having sketched this cartoon, I immediately want to scrap it. It’s true enough that believers lean in one direction or the other, but ultimately the choice is a false one. No one is a pure type, nor should anyone want to be. Activism without communion becomes a social agenda without much of anything to do with Jesus. Mysticism without activism is indeed dead.
But the way we scrap the cartoon is exceedingly important, and we can do it properly only by thoroughly purging the toxins of our world. On the assumption that religious passion is dangerous when it goes public, modern civilization has done its best to keep mysticism and activism from spending too much time together. Contemplatives have their own private standards, and these have to be left at the gate of the public square, where common standards of public accountability rule. Let the mystics loose, and you’ll see the square fill with suicide bombers or the White House occupied by a fundamentalist wingnut who keeps his itchy apocalyptic finger near the nuclear button.
Christians have accommodated to modernity at this point, as at so many others. Sometimes, we politely cloak our religious convictions to make them palatable in secular society. But we adjust to the naked square in subtle ways too. Believers often think, for instance, that the key is to maintain a balance of contemplation and action. There’s a ditch on each side, and we need to stay in the middle, on the road. But we can balance the two only if mysticism is separate enough from activism to put each on one side of the scale. When we try to balance them, we still regard activism and contemplation as two things. We hold inactive contemplation with the right hand, while we cling to uncomtemplative activism with the left.
I think the resolution has to be more radical, rooted in basic Christian convictions about God and his relation to the world. It was one of Karl Barth’s great insights to see that the Christian doctrine of election is essentially about God’s self-commitment, and only by implication about God’s decisions regarding human beings. Election means that God has eternally committed himself to make and to keep certain promises to chosen people in chosen places and times. This is the God he has determined to be, and, having determined to be this God to his world, this is the God he is. We cannot contemplate this God without immediately contemplating his promises and the wracked world that, we are given to hope, will finally be enclosed by those promises.
Even more fundamentally, Christian convictions about God’s nature break down the barrier between contemplative withdrawal and activist intervention. So long as we think of God as a distant deity, safely withdrawn from the mess, it makes sense for us to want to snuggle up with him in his cozy cabin in the woods. This is not an option for Christians, for the God we want to withdraw to is a God who has refused to withdraw, a God who has entered fully into our condition. Christians confess that God sent God to become flesh, and as a result we confess too that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.
That confession cannot help but alter what we contemplate when we contemplate God. Robert Jenson has spent a fruitful lifetime reminding us that the Triune God of the Christian Scriptures identifies himself by and with historical events and persons—the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the “I am the one who brought Israel from Egypt,” the “Father who raised the Son from the dead by the power of the Spirit.” Contemplation of such a God can never be a mere or permanent retreat. Every mystical moment doubles back to the world by which the Triune God identifies himself, since we cannot contemplate this God without musing on Abraham and Moses, without remembering the dusty roads of Galilee, the Upper Room, the cross and empty tomb.
At the same time, Christian convictions transform activism. We don’t take a break from communion with God to picket an abortion clinic or write a letter to the editor or help out at the food bank. We don’t become self-sufficient Pelagian agents when we step into the public square. God is the original activist who agitates a self-satisfied world severely enough to provoke a murderous backlash, and so our activism is an act of faith. Christian activism happens when believers are swept up by the Spirit to participate in God’s own activism. If that makes activism sound like mystical ecstasy, well, that’s my point. The contemplative Christian must act because he comes to share God’s desire to redeem creation. The active Christian must contemplate because he knows that only God can redeem it.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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