How Contemplation Shapes Action (and Vice Versa)
Today on The Feed, we hear from Moyo Team member Ben Rawlins, who discusses how contemplation and action shape the Christian life.
By Ben Rawlins
At Moyo talk a lot about how contemplation and action are not separate pursuits. We say that integrating them makes for a fuller experience of faith. But you might be asking: How can these two things work together? And what does this integration look like?
For some, the word contemplation connotes a kind of spirituality that is solely individual. After all, focusing on things like prayer and meditation are practices that can easily devolve into navel-gazing. On the other hand, others argue that focusing only on Christian action in the world ignores the personal connection with the divine that is vital to faith. These perspectives see action and contemplation as a dichotomy, as if they can’t work together. But this dichotomy is false. In fact, contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin.
So, how can we see contemplation and action as integrated? Parker Palmer helps on this point. He writes, “Rather than speak of contemplation and action, we might speak of contemplation-and-action, letting the hyphens suggest what our language obscures: that one cannot exist without the other. When we fail to hold the paradox together, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness.” Parker suggests that there is an intrinsic connection between contemplation and action, and that seeing them as separate pursuits deflates the power of both. By bringing them together, our action and contemplation take on a deeper, more powerful reality.
By bringing them together, our action and contemplation take on a deeper, more powerful reality.
Now, what does this integration look like? For me, these two aspects of the Christian life mutually inform each other. Worship, spiritual practices, and other aspects of the contemplative life allow us to encounter God. In these experiences, God is revealed to us in this life. This means that through contemplation this world can be a place that we encounter the divine. Because this life is where we encounter God, our contemplative experiences allow us to see the world differently. Not only does it allow us to perceive God in the world, but we can also recognize where God’s presence is not. In other words, our contemplative lives – our prayer, study of scripture, and worship – allow us to see and understand what human action to which God says “yes” and what actions God rejects. However, as Christians we should be careful. This way of seeing can easily be something that we distort or abuse.
Nevertheless, this contemplative vision that comes through encounter with God gives us a responsibility. If we see something that God says “no” to, then we have the responsibility as Christians to address it. Our contemplation leads to action. For example, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, many U.S. governors say they will not accept any Syrian refugees. Based on my experiences with and understanding of God, this attitude is not one to which God would say “yes.” Rather, because these sentiments our based on fear, it runs counter to my understanding of who God is. And as Marilynne Robinson tells us “contemporary America is full of fear,” but “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” When I hear the fear mongering that has been common during this political cycle, I know that God says “no” to it because of my experience with God in worship, spiritual practices, and contemplative aspects in my life. Because I recognize God’s “no,” I should feel responsibility in addressing this destructive fear. It should change my actions, my daily interactions with others, and it should push me to think about how I can address this fear on a larger scale.
When I hear the fear mongering that has been common during this political cycle, I know that God says “no” to it because of my experience with God in worship, spiritual practices, and contemplative aspects in my life.
All this to say that the contemplative life is inextricably linked to our action, for it is our encounter with God that allows us to see what God says “no” to and pushes us to act. When we recognize the responsibility this way of seeing gives and act on God’s “no,” our contemplative lives will also blossom in ways we could never expect.