In the late modern era of the West political activism is touted as the mark of the true human being. The popular forty-fourth President of the United States set an example by serving as a community organizer in Chicago for years following his graduation from Columbia University. One of the aims of many elite universities is to shape students to be citizens who engage in community service and political activism. According to current slang, the ideal activist is “woke,” awakened by a political epiphany to invest her or his life in the cause of social justice. Even whole areas of life that were once out of bounds for political expression—much of entertainment and sports—have become politicized.
This cultural move toward activism has been coming for decades. In his 1968 book, Man the Believer, Samuel H. Miller, a former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, observed that “the center of believing has moved from the focused center of the church to the more generalized area of secular activity in the world,” especially politics. He added that believing, and the concern with heresy and orthodoxy, had migrated from religion to politics: “tolerance and humor tend to vanish; angry citizens draw up petitions demanding the dismissal of professors who dare to sponsor a candidate of the opposite political party.” Miller says, “Believing, in the political arena, has become the act of absolute judgment, of heresy and orthodoxy, of demonic fears and inquisitional ethics.”
In his article, “After the Fall” in First Things, written just prior to the 2016 presidential election, Michael Hanby of Catholic University of America, warns that modernity is “the attempted elimination of every form of transcendence” except politics. He writes that “political order itself becomes the transcendent horizon, assuming sovereignty over nature, truth, and morality–over anything that would precede, exceed, and limit it.” It is no wonder that politics has consumed more and more of life in the West and that “woke” activism has made its grand appearance on stage.
Politics has always been considered important in the West. Aristotle begins his influential text, Politics, acknowledging that “man is a political animal” because human beings are not merely social beings like bees and other animals, for we are endowed with the gift of speech which is expressive of human awareness of good and evil and of justice and injustice upon which we act (translation, Benjamin Jowett).
Even though the Greeks emphasized the importance of politics for living a life of virtue, they also celebrated contemplation. The verb theorin in classical Greek meant “to look at,” and the noun theoria meant “a looking at, contemplation.” For the Greeks, theoria encompassed the whole realm of searching for the truth, what today includes both the natural sciences and theology, philosophical theory and spiritual contemplation.
In Nicomachean Ethics, X.7, Aristotle, who believes that “reason is divine,” advocates for a life of contemplation of the truth and says that for human beings “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man” (translation, W.D. Ross). In his Metaphysics, especially Book Alpha, Aristotle celebrates the “theoretical” life of the pursuit of the truth (which is also “contemplation”), affirming that the most excellent and divine science is the knowledge of God whom Aristotle considers to be both “the beginning” of all that is and also “the Good” (translation, Richard Hope).
If the late modern preoccupation with activism by the shapers of public opinion–higher education and the mass media–is viewed against the classical heritage of the West, something is askew. While Aristotle and other Greeks pronounced that the highest occupation in human life is contemplation of the truth, many today think that honor belongs to political activism. The “woke” activist is considered an ideal because she or he is making history and bringing about a social revolution that can enable human beings to flourish.
The irony is that, in the name of human flourishing, the celebration of political activism may depreciate the wholeness of human life. Putting a top priority on political activism is an ideological reduction of the human being to little more than an “agent” of social action. This is no surprise since reductionism is a characteristic of all ideologies, which is why they are so de-humanizing despite their alleged objectives to bring about a more utopian way.
It is interesting how the Jewish and Christian traditions converge with the classical tradition of the West in affirming that the life of contemplation is the highest human vocation and that without it there can be no human flourishing.
A rather thorough exploration of the Christian tradition of contemplation is made by Thomas Aquinas in his treatise on the active life and the contemplative life in Summa Theologiae, Part II of Second Part Q. 180-182. Thomas reflects on the tradition he had received from Aristotle, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. As Augustine argues in City of God, XIX.19, love compels us to embrace the tasks of the active life, but the highest vocation in life is contemplation of the truth. The demands of the active life should never supplant the “love of truth that looks for sanctified leisure” (translation, Henry Bettenson). Even if we are thrust into the active life, as was Augustine himself when he was ordained to the busy life of a bishop, Augustine insists that we should not entirely “relinquish the sweets of contemplation” (translation, Marcus Dods).
Thomas understands that the contemplative life consists of the full range of the exercise of reason, including philosophy, but it also includes prayer, study, meditation, and hearing. He views the active life as that part of human life which issues in practical acts, including doing justice, performing charity, and teaching. Thomas observes that prudence is a virtue that belongs both to the active life and the contemplative life, which indicates how important it is that those who rule over others seek this virtue that consists of exercising wise discernment and sober judgment. In his treatise, Thomas seeks a balance between the active life and the contemplative life. Indeed, part of his argument is the insight of Gregory the Great that the active life makes us seek the contemplative life because, in living the active life in the world, we become aware of our need to tame the passions that enslave us and also of our need for the spiritual rest that can be found only in contemplation. Yet Thomas never views contemplation as a mere tool for living the active life, which would reduce contemplation to being a mere resource for pursuing the active life, but he always acknowledges that contemplation in itself is the highest pursuit of human beings.
The reason that the distinctive Jewish and Christian traditions elevate the life of contemplation is because they confess that human beings are made in the image of God, and that the first commandment that must be obeyed is, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. Mark 12:28-34).
The Christian tradition, once honored during Christendom, now increasingly appears in the West as peculiar, odd, and counter-cultural. Perhaps the most counter-cultural aspect of the Christian tradition is its elevation of contemplation–the life of prayer, study, and intellectual reflection on the truth, supremely of God’s revelation of God’s nature, personhood, and purposes.
Jacques Ellul, a French university professor of law and history and also a lay theologian, declares in Prayer and Modern Man, “Precisely because our technological society is given over entirely to action, the person who retires to his room to pray is the true radical” (translation, C. Edward Hopkin). One could not imagine a more counter-cultural thought than this.
Genuine Christianity which balances the active life with the contemplative life, and also places the contemplation of the truth as the unique and supreme calling of humankind, can offer something that the West needs in the late modern era.
For many people, especially the young, activism is embraced as an attempt to fill an existential void that can be filled only by the contemplative way of faith in the one true God. From a Jewish or Christian perspective, whenever any creaturely thing is treated as the ultimate, when it becomes an idol, there is disorder. But when people have no need for a secular religion of activism, human beings can work for greater social justice without losing the sense of balance that is absolutely necessary not only for personal wholeness but also for societal well-being. Mob behavior, desecration of public property, hatred for the dead, and issuing imprudent manifestos do not occur among those who are seeking the whole truth and the healing of their own passions in the radical act of contemplation.
The Christian tradition of contemplative spirituality in all its forms has proven to be both a spur to social justice and a restraint on hatred and revenge because of social injustice.
The great African-American minister and teacher, Howard Thurman, was very close to his grandmother who was born a slave and lived until the Civil War on a plantation near Madison, Florida in north central Florida. Perhaps much of Thurman’s deep and winsome spirituality came from his grandmother. His grandmother told him over and over about her experience when a slave minister would hold secret religious meetings for the slaves (since the slave-holder only permitted services to be performed by his white minister). Whenever this slave minister preached, she would quiver with raw energy every time he reached the triumphant climax of his sermon: “You—you are not n_____s. You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children!” In the contemplative act of worshiping and hearing—hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ freely proclaimed—she found the ground of personal dignity that protected her from the spiritual violence of slavery and guided her when political emancipation came.
Howard Thurman’s grandmother’s kind of experience has been repeated over and over since the institution of the church. I have witnessed this same transformative power of hearing the gospel in services of worship in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.
At the same time, the Christian experience of contemplation restrains the passions of revenge and hatred that usually accompany revolutionary movements. At the heart of Christian contemplation of the truth is Christ crucified. At the cross, we meet the true human being who represents the suffering of humankind because of the evil of injustice and of human stupidity. At the same time, this true human being is the incarnate Son of God who represents God’s reconciliation of sinful humankind to himself. Gazing upon Christ crucified in contemplation, we are healed of both our lack of empathy for those who suffer and also our resentment and hatred of those who inflict harm. We are called to care for others and also to forgive–to forgive those of the past who sinned, those who sin against us, and also our own selves because all of us are sinners who misuse our freedom daily.
Because contemplation of the truth in all its forms goes to the heart and the soul, and it enables us to look upon ultimate reality, it is the most radical act we can perform, the act that transforms and heals us and our world at their roots.
Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.