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Contemplative Spirituality & Active Mission

F. Earle Fox

This article was written in response to a call from The Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care at Biola University for articles on the subject of "Christian Spirituality & Christian Mission", to look at the relationship between the two.  


The contemplative spiritual life and active evangelism have at times been taken to be at odds, but I think that is not the case.  What, then, is the relationship between the contemplative and the active life? 

It seemed obvious to me right from the start of my theological education that theology must have clear relevance to life in the trenches, but it appeared to me that much of theology did not.  Reading theology did little for my spiritual life.  It seemed abstract and distant.  It had little relevance that I could see to the average working man, to a house wife, to a mother or father, to a growing child, or to me as a budding theologian. 

It began to dawn on me that this was due partly to theology being imbedded in the tradition of Hellenic philosophy, which is fundamentally and irredeemably abstract (I had majored in philosophy in college).  That is the nature of the Graeco-pagan worldview out of which Greek philosophy sprung.  The basic realities of this worldview are abstractions, indeed, the most abstract of all possible entities, such as Plato's "Ideas".  The theological mysticism of Neo-Platonism carried this to (and mystically beyond) its final logical abstract end.  The Greek concepts used by Christians in the creeds to denote the fundamental nature of God, such as 'substance' (Greek 'ousia'), illustrate that abstract character.  The three persons of the Trinity were all of "one substance".  It was not a notion that lent itself easily to describe personal relationship with a personal God. 

Even on a non-intellectual level, this clash appeared in the 3rd century AD withdrawal of the desert fathers into the wilderness to find their peace with God.  Sexuality and "the flesh" were thought to be especially problematic. 

The effect of the split between inner spirituality and active local community life on Christian theology was to compromise the personal character of God.  Inner spirituality was drifting in a mystical, non-personal direction.   Attributing a personal character to God was deemed by many theologians to "anthropomorphize" God, seeing God in human terms, not as He really is.  That was usually nevertheless thought, condescendingly, to be acceptable because that is what we lowly humans must do to make sense of the Biblical account of our relationship with God.  But those "in the know" would realize that the true God was beyond all human categories.  That was good Greek philosophy, but very poor Biblical theology. 

Science arose in the Middle Ages, inspired by the union of the Hebraic appreciation for the particular, historical, and personal world of time and space with the Greek gift of abstract philosophical thinking.  The Hellenic tools of thought were slowly being separated from the Hellenic worldview.  It led to a freemarket of ideas which was institutionalized in the growing universities of the great cities of Europe -- Paris, London, Cambridge, Oxford, and others.  That had never happened before.  Out of that union came what we call science. 

But enough of the wrong worldview stuck in theology to cause continuing problems for Christians. 

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey makes this point strongly, that our Greek inheritance, which was probably inevitable given the cultural situation in the Roman Empire, was nevertheless a disaster waiting to happen.  It happened slowly all through Western history, leading eventually to the rejection of Biblical faith by Western intellectuals.  What they were really rejecting was the Hellenic worldview to which Christian theology had attached itself in its effort to use the intellectual tools of abstract reason.  The secular "Enlightenment" of the 18th - 20th centuries captured the Western mindset, totally unaware that there was a Biblical enlightenment waiting in the wings, inspired by no less than the Biblically rooted rise of science


It has been only in the last 20 or so years that a recovery of Christian intellectual credibility has begun to rescue Christianity from its fortress mentality, hiding behind church walls from exposure to the public arena.  It remains to be seen, however, whether this revival of apologetics will discover also the truth that the Hellenic tools of logical and factual rational inquiry work much better, produce far better results, when employed in the Hebraic-Biblical worldview than in the Hellenic worldview in which they were discovered and, to a large degree, perfected.  Christian theologians should have adopted the Greek tools of abstract thought, but not the Greek worldview itself where abstractions were the ultimate reality. 

Or, as one of my college professors, Edmund Cherbonnier said, the Biblical worldview is the only logically consistent worldview there is, a common sense, in-the-trenches Christianity.  I graduated from Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, with my theology and worldview well established and intact, which enabled me to survive the poor theological education I received in seminary in the late 1950's. 

Years later, in my parish (St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in East Haddam, CT., 1971-81) as I was trying to make sense of the near total (and continuing) collapse of Christian testimony in the public arena from the 1960's on.  We Christians seemed to have lost our public identity, and were not typically raising up strong men and women. 

I began putting together ideas for a Biblical psychology, a Biblical understanding of the nature of man to replace the secular version we were all imbibing -- and getting emotional and spiritual indigestion.  I needed help to do adequate preaching and pastoral counseling.  Biblical Inner Healing was published for about ten years on my copy machine, and then in paperback format.  A Biblical psychology must be founded on the Biblical worldview of freewill, moral accountability, and personal relationship, a very different foundation from any pagan worldview, and from secular psychology, which keeps getting drawn into the deterministic "drive" paradigm (e.g., Freud or behaviorism). 

I had spent four years at Oxford, 1961-64, getting my D. Phil. on the relation between religion and science, which turned into a rewriting of the cosmological argument for God, Personality, Empiricism, & God (PEG).  The cosmological argument for God, I think successfully, gives the undergirding for a Biblical worldview, showing that the cosmos is indeed personal, not impersonal, and that that is the only substantial foundation for science.  PEG is currently being updated for publication early in 2013. 

All this is to say that that the evidence strongly favors a cosmos which is indeed essentially personal, not impersonal, that the spiritual life need not drift off into abstractions, and that the view of God, not as a Something, an Abstraction, or an Idea, but rather as a Someone, a Person, has commanding intellectual credibility.  The fundamental entities in the cosmos are persons, not things, not atoms, electrons, protons, or strings (they all have their place).  Everything in the world in which we live makes more sense in that context, not in the secular or neo-pagan worldviews. 

In other words, coming from the philosophical and theological side, we have strong evidence for the Biblical personalist worldview over the secular and pagan impersonal worldviews, both of which begin out of an unknown, ineffable something-or-other -- by random chance principles.  An omnipotent, omniscient Person can rationally explain things far better than can random chance evolution.  "Chance" and "randomness" are, after all, denials of order and explanation, not examples of them. 

This bodes well, I think, for resolving some of the anomalies which seem to have plagued the spiritual life as though in contest with the active life.  If ultimate reality is indeed impersonal, then those who deal more easily with abstractions, or who can emotionally thrive in a hermit's cell, are more likely to reach that abstract, person-less heaven.  But that is not the message of the Bible, which tells  us that a very personal God created us with wisdom aforethought, that He loves us, and that He wants a personal relationship with all of us, not just those intellectually or emotionally equipped for an impersonal heaven. 


What can we say, then of our beginning issue?  How do contemplative spirituality and active mission get along? 

It can be said that the most serious barrier can be removed, a pagan cosmos in which the active life must at some point be abandoned to gain the upper reaches of the spiritual life, a cosmos in which the active life in time and space and particular relationships are only second-best, if not down right evil.  Such a cosmos is contradictory to the Biblical worldview and Good News.  If this personalist Biblical universe with a personal Creator and Sovereign is the true universe, then the secular and pagan impersonal universes are not the truth. 

The goal and meaning of heaven on the Biblical view is personal relationship.  The two Great Commandments, to love God and neighbor, define heaven as relationship.  Love is what life is about.  It is not about attainment of a blissful place or state of existence.  The bliss in the Biblical view comes from having those loving relationships, not by getting access into a heavenly bit of real estate.  Heaven does not come by change of environment, but by change of relationship with God and with one another.  The relationship makes the place heavenly, the place does not make relationships heavenly. 

Or, to make the same point a bit differently, the pursuit of good feelings will in the end destroy both good relationships and good feelings -- because the pursuit of good feelings is inherently self-centered and therefore self- and relationship-destructive.  It leads to power-struggle, not love and cooperation.  The pursuit of Godly relationships will produce moral and spiritual stability, and thus a healthy self with good feelings.  But the good feelings are the by-product of good relationships, not goals for their own sake. 

This means that the true spiritual life is focused on good relationships, which would be impossible if one were aiming at solitude per se.  Most Christian monastic traditions have a healthy round of sleep, physical work, intellectual effort (including Bible study), social time, and worship, both individual and corporate.  Such monastics might not participate directly in the public arena of commerce, politics, or family and child-raising, but they ought to spend significant time praying for people who are. 

There is virtually no area of our common active life which cannot be a service to God and to which Godly men and women could not devote themselves.  But servants in those areas of activity will not be effective witnesses for God and the Kingdom without their own spiritual discipline.  They will need some version of those activities listed above used by monastics: a healthy round of sleep, physical work, intellectual effort (including Bible study), social time, and worship, both individual and corporate. 

So there is no opposition between the contemplative and the active life.  Both require a spiritual foundation, which we call salvation and sanctification, and both require investment in personal human relationships.  The Kingdom is a community, a family, not just myself and God. 

So the distinction between contemplative and active Christian lives will be a matter of emphasis, balance, and the calling of God, not of kind. 

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Date Posted - 09/27/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 10/02/2012