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The Prophetic and the Contemplative | Provoketive Magazine
30 Nov 2011

The Author

My wife and I are natives of Austin, TX, having recently been exiled to the great city of Los Angeles. I got my degree from Baylor University in Economics and Spanish, toiled around with the idea of law school, but eventually ended up at seminary. These days I'm slowly pursuing a PhD in philosophy of religion while working as a youth director with some awesome kids at Santa Clarita United Methodist Church. I'm also a part-time tutor for a test prep company.

I'm interested in pastoral theology, spiritual formation and justice issues at the intersection of faith and politics. Things I enjoy besides writing are movies, speaking Spanish, coffee, cigars, reading, football, skiing, surfing, and being with family and friends.

I'm grateful for the chance to participate in conversations like the ones here at provoketive, and I especially want to hear from others, so please join in.


The Prophetic and the Contemplative

People like to emphasize different aspects of Jesus’s life and teachings.  He taught that the pure in heart would be blessed, for example, seemingly indicating that the inward life is what truly matters.  Yet the miracles, warnings about judgment, and commands to care of the distressed and outcast are equally stressed.  A few weeks ago we discussed this passage at church from Mark Scandrette’s newest book, Practicing the Way of Jesus:

The baptism of Jesus provides a compelling picture of the kind of intimate union with God we were created for.  As he stepped out from the water, he heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).  The Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness where his identity as the beloved was tested.  He emerged after forty days a resolute son prepared to do “his father’s business.”  Subsequently, Jesus often withdrew to gardens and other lonely places.  In the most difficult hours leading up to his arrest, torture and crucifixion, he went into a garden one last time, kneeling to pray, “Abba, not my will but yours be done.”  A hidden life of solitude fueled his courageous public acts of love and service (p. 105).

Maybe it could be said then that the Christian life is meant to be lived out on the razor’s edge between prophetic action and contemplative reflection.  And it is not so much that one of the steps in this dialectical process must come before the other.  Nor do they necessarily coalesce, really, but remain in tension and are mutually reinforcing.  They form the two pillars that buttress discipleship.  Politically speaking, for instance, we can therefore work for justice and even invest ourselves in certain legislative reforms, electoral changes and grassroots movements.  The role of the contemplative in this case, however, will be to keep our expectations and emotional attachment in check and somewhat disinterested.  The contemplative reminds us that at the end of the day, a Christ-follower still must ultimately find rest in her Sustainer rather than in the outcome of political proposals.[i]  Duke theologian Paul J. Griffiths calls this approach “political quietism.”[ii]

On the other hand, the contemplative gives inspiration, energy and vision to our prophetic and “courageous public acts of love and service” (see above).  It enables one to meditate on the “agonistic weight of the world.”[iii]  At the same time, it also serves to critique and safeguard the extent to which our identities can become too closely aligned with nationalism or any other parochial allegiance.  It is the corrective to all our idolatries.  Accordingly, a Christian citizenship then is understood to be a revoked and “crucified” vocation – that is, it is self-emptied.  We act, but we act with a knowledge that the problems we face in this world can at best only be imperfectly resolved.  As she surveys the bloodshed in our world, it’s not easy for the Christian citizen to really expect the proposal she advocates to substantially curtail all the violence and oppression.  Occupy Wall Street might be a good example of this – a movement with so much positive potential but the lasting effect of which is still to be seen.  Thus, Griffiths also talks about three other  “notes” of Christian political agency: skepticism, hope and lament – skepticism with regard to over-realized eschatological promises, hope for the coming Kingdom, and lament over the real and terrible suffering in the meantime.

Activism remains, and indeed we must act – especially in solidarity with those on the underside of history – but it is only the spiritually and prayerfully formed person whose heart is prepared for the trials of a cross-bearing lifestyle.  Too often we are content with the contemplative or running dry in the prophetic.  May we remind and spur each other along to traverse the path between the two.

How does this tangibly play out in the rhythms of congregational and communal life?

[i] I’m using the term political here in the broadest possible sense to include practically all corporate civil activity – not just official or formal participation.

[ii] Douglas Harink, Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others (Cascade Books, 2010), 190.

[iii] Mark L Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

  1. Hi Bill. Your cousin Carolyn put me onto this article. Well done. In my experience human beings tend to want to resolve tension rather than to one end of a polarity or another. Learning to manage polarity in a way that holds tension gives life. Thanks for holding that up for us.

    • Thank you, Jim. I think you’ve just summed it up well. And thanks for some of your work that has guided many others in a similar but much bigger way! It is voices like yours that remind me of the importance and transformative potential of service through the church – and that keep me vocationally committed to this.

  2. I truly enjoyed this piece. The two aspects I see as the synergistic action of the soul, a tension like in that of opposing muscles making any movement or action possible.
    Where I live the vast majority of Christian appear to find the “contemplative” too mystical, the stuff of those “Babylonian” Catholics.

    • I find this to be true as well, Tom. There are also people who have never really been exposed to or pastored through it. And then there are those like myself who believe they need the contemplative but struggle to practice it consistently.

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