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The Contemplative and Active Life

2011 February 3
by Julie Clawson

I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for writing this, but I need to rant for a minute about a theological pet peeve of mine. To put it bluntly I’m sick and tired of the false dichotomy theology has created between the contemplative and the active life of faith. Granted, the conversation of the vita activa versus the vita contemplative sounds a bit medieval (and I’m sure Thomas Aquinas would serve me a disputative smackdown on the subject), but the division still permeates our religious psyches today.

In its historical definition the contemplative life is the one that is focused on meditation on God. It is a life full of prayer, of the study of scripture, of divine listening. The active life on the other hand is the life of service – of caring for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. The contemplative life is supposedly about loving God and the active life about loving our neighbors. The Medieval theologians, influenced by Platonic and gnostic thought in their deprecation of the body, not only made the distinction between the two, but placed them in a hierarchical relationship. They argued that the contemplative life – the one that focused on spiritual things – was superior to the active life which was mired with its association with sinful and corrupt bodies. There, of course, was also some class snobbery involved here. Only the wealthy and the clergy had the luxury to live a contemplative life while the peasants had no choice but to live a sort of active life in order to survive (and make the lives of the wealthy and the clergy possible). By defining contemplative worship of God as superior to active service, those groups created a caste system where they reinforced their position at the top of the social hierarchy.

They, of course, supported the division with scripture, most often using the Mary and Martha story to support their position. Since Mary listened at the feet of Jesus she became the archetype for the contemplative life, while busybody Martha was associated with the active life. Once those associations had been made, using Jesus’ affirmation of Mary’s choice as the better one was an easy way to argue for the primacy of the contemplative life. This interpretation of the story is the one still supplied even in churches where the average member has never even heard of guys like Thomas Aquinas. We still get fed theology that tells us that bible study, prayer, devotions, liturgy, meditation and the like are better ways to know God than the active forms of service. We still create that dichotomy that not only separates but privileges the soul above the body.

But as I see it, that division is utterly false and creates unnecessary barriers for our walk with God. To begin with, I don’t buy into the idea that we are spiritual beings trapped in corrupt bodies. I don’t think the physical world is something to be put up with until we can escape to our true home. God created this world and called it good. My body is good. Not simply because it houses my soul, but because it is how God created me to be. I don’t have to ask if I am a spiritual or a physical creature – they are inseparable. I cannot be me if I wasn’t both at the same time. So I’m not starting with the same “spiritual=good, physical=bad” assumptions that fueled most of the contemplative vs. active debates.

But beyond embrace a holistic view of people, I also see the creation of hierarchies between the contemplative and active life to be utterly unbiblical. Those that propose such suggest that when Jesus delivered the greatest commandment, he gave two separate and ranked commands. Love God (be contemplative). And then (second and therefore inferior) love people (be active). In that view, it’s not that one shouldn’t love and serve others, only that contemplative practices are better for communing with God.

By why must the command be seen as dualistic and ranked? As I read scripture, loving God and loving people are one and the same. Doing acts of service, leading the active life, is an act of worship, a way to reflect back to God a bit of the imago dei. When we read the demands God makes of his people there is no division of the two. We are told to rest on the Sabbath so that we will not overwork servants and animals. The day was not created to spend time contemplating God, but to ensure the wellbeing of people. When Micah lists what the Lord requires of us, humble piety is listed alongside acts of mercy and justice. Isaiah goes a step further and condemns people for participating in contemplative acts of worship and while ignoring the injustice in their own community. He tells that that the worship God desires involves feeding the hungry and helping the oppressed. We are reminded over and over again that God cares for the physical wellbeing of people – if we dare claim to know and follow that God our worship should reflect that aspect of God’s character.

Acts of solemn contemplation and acts of service are both ways we worship and come closer to God. The point is relationship with God. Mary wasn’t preferred to Martha because she sat still while Martha worked. Mary sought to follow God. Seeking God is what is preferred. No need to insert gnostic lies about the evil body. No need to create social caste systems. No need to say that one form of worship is better than another. Loving God and loving people are the same thing. We can’t choose between the two. We can’t say one is better than the other. To love God is to love people and to love people is to love God. It is what we were created to do; it is what God expects of us.

So I’d really appreciate it if people would stop spewing lies about how one is better than the other. Prayer is no better than feeding the hungry. Setting the oppressed free is no better than lectio divina. All are acts of worship. All bring us into closer relationship with God. Continuing to promote the dichotomy only serves to restrict people from serving God in the fullness of who God is. Paul got it right when he chided the Corinthians for desiring what they deemed to be the greater gifts. Pretending to be holier than others by asserting that the way your worship is superior to other types (or refusing to acknowledge that anything else is worship) misses the point. The Bible says God detests such worship gatherings. So in my insignificant opinion maybe it’s high time we got rid of this petty division between the contemplative and active lives (and all the posturing that goes along with it) and start worshiping God fully. Because isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about anyway?


26 Responses leave one →
  1. February 3, 2011

    Preach it, sister!

  2. Tim West permalink
    February 3, 2011

    Julie, I’m right with you. A couple thoughts. One is that I don’t hear 1 John 4:20 quoted often enough. John restates Jesus’ “two greatest commandments” saying but shows how the two sayings are really one: “If you hate your brother or sister whom you have seen, how can you say you love God whom you have not seen?”

    Second, is it me or is this dichotomy still reflected in a lot of flack taken by the emerging church, for example when it’s accused of being too much on the side of the social gospel? Looks to me like rising above the whole “orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy” thing is still a major challenge.

  3. February 3, 2011

    I’m not sure why the active/contemplative dichotomy is here being construed as primarily about a body/soul division. Contemplative spirituality, even in the medieval period, is very aware of the deep link between body and soul. Active and contemplative has more to do with responsibilities. One can’t engage in a wholly contemplative life if one has to support a family, for example. A person has a body either way and the body is a both a source of temptation and an avenue of grace–as in the sacraments–whether one is engaged in the world or not. I would argue that engagement in the world, not bodily existence, is the crux of the distinction between active and contemplative.

  4. February 3, 2011

    A Bible teacher once told us that Gnosticism has been a “pernicious dandelion in the lawn of Christianity since the first century.” And although I think Anne has a good point, I agree with Julie that the active/passive dichotomy or at least hierarchy still smells of that noxious weed.

    That aside, I have always wished we could go back to the Hebrew word “avodah” (which could be translated as work-worship-service-ministry) and somehow make them one in the same and nearly inseparable in practice.

    Maybe it’s like this: each morning, when I pray for a covenant friend, I ask what is in the heart of the Father for her. And when I am given an assignment and act it out, I have worshiped and performed an inspired act of service which ministers to the heart of someone’s need. I am contemplative in order to act out God’s will. I am loved by God to pour that love into others working to make it easier for them to become more of what they were created to be. I am loved by God in order to love my neighbor. And by loving them, I am loving God. That is my avodah, and you know what? I LOVE MY JOB!!

    I am sure I will have more thoughts on this in the coming weeks (inspired, as usual, by Julie’s post). Click on my name if you are interested.

  5. February 3, 2011

    Tim – I agree. The whole idea that “the social gospel” is somehow not an integral part of what it means to worship God is at the heart of this. Serving others and caring about physical needs of people gets pushed aside and even rejected by those who see soul-care and contemplative practices as superior. Suggest the other and people assume that you are proposing a dichotomy. That either/or assumption is so entrenched in our culture that it is hard for most people to fathom that a wholistic view is possible.

    Annie – I admit that some of the contemplatives were very aware of the body connection (Hildegaard comes to mind), but they were often the oddity – known because they thought differently. You have Thomas in the link I gave citing that the contemplative life is better because it deals with the interior life and not the external. He states one enters into contemplation to ensure that one isn’t under the shadow of the temporal. And you don’t have to read far into the reasons given by numerous church fathers for why women are less spiritual than men to see our base physicality listed. From what I’ve read this division always seems to go hand in hand. For me, the body is far more than just a temptation or possible mediator of grace. To me such a definition turns it into simply a vessel that holds a soul.

    I find your distinction about responsibilities interesting. The way you phrased it presented responsibilities to others as a barrier to contemplation. That sort of escapism that ignores the needs of our neighbor and shuns relationship creates just the sort of dualistic unbalanced life I was talking about. To pursue a contemplative life alone as the pinnacle of the holy life to me seems to refuse to accept the responsibility God calls each person to to love their neighbor. We cannot love God unless we love our neighbor. We have to be engaged in the world if we truly want to follow God. The dichotomy we have created that allows us to think we can choose between loving our neighbor or loving God completely misses the point. It’s not an either/or, or a question of if we engage the world or not. If we seek to follow God there shouldn’t be a distinction, worship involves responsibility to God and others.

  6. John M. permalink
    February 3, 2011

    I think Mother Theresa points the way here. There’s a woman who was far more advanced than most of us will ever be, both in serving others and in spending time being quiet before God. The fuel for her ministry was the time she spent in contemplative prayer. I’ve heard that someone once asked her how she prayed, and she responded “I say nothing, I just listen to God”. When asked what God said to her in prayer, she said, “Nothing. He listens.” She would do this an hour a day, and that would sustain her through the other 23. That’s what enabled her to BE Mother Theresa.

    And of course, Christ Himself would sometimes leave the needy crowds behind and go pray in the desert, to get the strength to come back and minister to the crowds. If Christ saw no dichotomy between a life of prayer and a life of service, why should His followers think that such a dichotomy exists?

  7. February 4, 2011

    I love N.T. Wright’s take on the Mary/Martha story. Mary not only is in the male-only part of the house (she’s in the garage!!? Oh no!!), she is “at the feet” of Jesus. This has both a literal and idiomatic meaning. Paul studied “at the feet” of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) meaning he not only aspired to be a rabbi, but also was the star pupil. Mary is in the man-cave seated in the star pupil position, and Jesus says he is not going to take that away from her. But we have not been able to handle that interpretation, so we need to slice and dice the Truth into something a lot smaller and a whole lot easier to swallow, don’t we?

  8. Jason Lee permalink
    February 5, 2011

    This sort of relates to contemplative-active link or lack thereof: I saw on that you wrote that there is a “disturbingly high number of seriously messed up people out there serving as official representatives of Christianity and inflicting serious harm around the world.” This is an interesting observation concerning activism without a transforming contemplative life.

    My question: is this disturbingly high number your impression or do you know of data on this or studies that have looked at this? Its not a problem for me if this is your impression (its my impression too)… I’m just sincerely curious if you’ve come across studies that use any kind of data.

  9. February 5, 2011

    Jason – As I mentioned in my thread on that post here, in college where I studied missions, a classes I had on biculturalism, socio-linguistics, and intercultural communication explored the issues with missionaries and the sometimes harmful effects that can have on cultures. That scenario brings up interesting questions. Many missionaries from their contemplative practice believe that their ways of knowing and understanding God (their contemplative practices) are universally correct ways to know God. In the past missionaries (and average church members) have little training in understanding that the ways they communicate with God are dependent on their cultural heritage. They export such practices to other cultures not understanding that they are utterly foreign languages. I think that stems from the hierarchy I mentioned here. Assuming that one form of knowing/worship God is superior (be that be meditation, liturgy, prayer, devotions…) makes it very hard to allow other people to worship God through language and practice that they know best. Yes we are all to contemplate and serve God, but how that look will vary wildly from culture to culture and from church to church. I think many modern missionaries are realizing that contextualizing christianity is necessary, and the whole emerging church conversation is trying to help the western church allow for similar contextualizing within our own culture.

  10. Jason Lee permalink
    February 5, 2011

    Yes, I understand the reasons why this might be the case, but I’m specifically interested in your observation that there are disturbingly high NUMBERS. Are you basing this statement about numbers on your impressions or have you seen studies that use NUMBERS or document this in any systematic way?

  11. February 5, 2011

    yes, I was referring to sociological studies done on missions groups that I studied in college and grad school. I don’t have access to those statistics anymore, but there are reports out there on mental illness statistics and cultural conflict issues with mission groups.

  12. Jason Lee permalink
    February 7, 2011

    Huh, I’ll have to see if I can find some of those studies and see what they’re doing and what quality of samples they’re using. That would be quite striking if there are actually higher rates of mental or emotional instability among missionaries than in the general population (or some other meaningful comparison group). It would be shocking because I’m pretty sure most mission agencies administer tests such as the MMPI and others in an effort not to send unstable people. But then I’d imagine groups such as YWAM or many independently sent missionaries don’t bother with such tests. But this raises the issue as to how anyone has any sort of reliable stats on the mental health of YWAMers or independent missionaries. I doubt that any such data exist in any representative or generalizable form. Which leads me to assume that we really don’t know that there are “disturbingly high number of seriously messed up people out there.” All we likely have are some anecdotal caste “studies” or people’s impression. I think you raise an interesting idea with your “disturbingly high numbers” statement, but I suspect that we don’t actually know this.

    • February 7, 2011

      From what I learn in my studies it was because the mission agencies were discovering those trends that they started to use tests like the MMPI. Back in the mid-90’s when I was immersed in all this, there were some agencies that had embraced it (as well as having counselors available for their missionaries) and other agencies that resisted such tests (since many evangelicals still see psychology as unbiblical). My point isn’t to argue against missions, but to improve missions by bringing up the uncomfortable things that often get brushed under the table. We studied the stats in college and grad school because it was a real issue that we (as potential missionaries) would have to deal with that could potentially hurt our witness. If we truly care about those we served it is something we had to face, and yet still there were those that got upset with a “how dare you suggest (even with studies and reports) missionaries aren’t perfect.”

  13. Jason Lee permalink
    February 7, 2011

    I appreciate your measured response to my somewhat blunt comment. To be clear though, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t study such things (to improve missions etc). I just doubt that we’ve looked at such things enough. I’d guess that a few agencies did some in-house studies of mental health, comparing their results to some national study. This is suggestive, but not a basis for broad claims about missionaries generally. I actually suspect that you’re right (but that the difference isn’t dramatic). I’m just saying that I doubt that anyone has actually documented this in any generalizable way (e.g. using a broad sample).

    • February 7, 2011

      Do you have some actual basis for your skepticism about these studies, considering that you’ve never seen them and only have Julie’s account of them to base your judgment on? Seems kind of a strange thing to doubt.

  14. Jason Lee permalink
    February 7, 2011

    Mike: The thing that caught my eye was the statement in the Sojourner’s article about: “disturbingly high number of seriously messed up people out there serving as official representatives of Christianity and inflicting serious harm around the world.” Wow, that’s quite a dramatic statement! To your question, the basis of my skepticism is twofold: 1) curiosity; and 2) sensational Christian writers.

    I assumed that there were specific studies the author was thinking of when talking about disturbingly high numbers. I wanted to know so I could read them too. When the author was unable to list any, this raised my skepticism.

    I hear a lot of Christians using sensational adjectives to decry the decline of Christianity in various ways (e.g., in terms of morals, character, or simply adherents). Sometimes such writers also reference numbers or statistics. What’s interesting is that when social scientists (e.g. Christian Smith or Bradley Wright) come along and look at data, they find no such dramatic shifts in many cases. Differences between groups are usually very incremental and small. The big differences and shifts make headline news. But social scientists know that most differences and shifts are small and change slowly. So this tendency of popular Christian writers to make sensational claims (often referencing numbers) has made me automatically skeptical whenever I read a dramatic claim. I immediately want to know what the dramatic claim is based on. I kind of think its a matter of responsibility for popular writers to be measured when making general claims, especially in widely read publications. Otherwise what are we writing? What are we consuming? If we aren’t referencing actual data, then its all just politics, no? If its not just politics but its based on theology then reference theology. If you want to use numbers, then really do the numbers well. It doesn’t seem helpful to reference numbers as a rhetorical device when you don’t know where your numbers are from or what they mean. The following is a good warning to this effect:

    My concern is not so much with the particular case of this sojo article that I read, my skepticism comes from the accumulation of seeing a lot of Christian writers who don’t seem to care where their numbers are from or what they mean.

    • February 7, 2011

      I see. So your problem is really just with the language she used? I wonder, how high would the statistics have to be for them to “disturb” you? You can’t just trust that they were high enough for them leave an impression on her from a class she took a decade ago, without demanding that she “prove” that they were sufficiently large to justify her concern?

      Anyhow, you have access to Google, just like anyone else. Why not look them up yourself before accusing her of dishonesty and sensationalism?

      • Jason Lee permalink
        February 9, 2011

        Mike, “your problem is really just with the language.” But don’t our words matter?

        How big of a difference? …. Just the standard cutting point for statistically significant differences between groups in the social sciences would be fine (P<.05).

        Uh, yes, I have the internet, but anyone who's searched for research literature knows that sifting through journal articles takes forever. If you see that a knowledgeable person has already reviewed some of the key research articles, then getting their references is a huge time saver. So the sojo article led me to believe that the author was a knowledgeable person on the subject she was making general about…. someone I could ask for some starting point references from. This is a common practice and knowledgeable writers are usually excited to share with you the homework they've done on a subject, or at least point you to one or two research articles or studies they read.

        Where did I accuse anyone of dishonesty?

        My main concern with that sojo article is that if a writer is going to say there is a disturbingly high number of messed up missionaries out there doing damage in the world, then this shouldn't be based on a vague impression from grad school. If you've done your homework, you should be able to show it (at least at some basic level). Otherwise just reference your impressions of missionaries or reasons why you think something MIGHT be the case. Referencing numbers is a powerful rhetorical tool. You should only do it if you have in mind something specific to support your reference. I'm not saying that there is any deceit involved. No, clearly anyone can misplace notes or not remember the name of a study or what the P value of a chi-test was. Fine. Just don't use social science studies to back up your writing if you don't keep up with your notes to the specific studies you're basing your statements on. I think the issue here is just careless writing, or trying to sound too authoritative. It's a tempting thing to do if you're trying to make a point. It's tempting but not responsible. This doesn't mean can't say anything, you just need to be more measured, accurate, and transparent, e.g.: "I seem to have some vague memory of my prof back in grad school talking about how mission agencies were surprised that they had a lot of members with mental problems. If that's true then there may be quite a few unstable people out there representing Christ." See, I'm letting the reader know what it is that I'm basing my alarming scenario on. Good journalists do this all the time. They make a strong (sounding) point, but attach it to a qualifier somehow. The point may lose some of its authoritative sound to the careful reader, but then if all the alarming scenario is based on is memories of notes from grad school I don't any specific on … then maybe I shouldn't sound so authoritative.

  15. Jason Lee permalink
    February 7, 2011

    Another thing is that in science you don’t need any basis for skepticism. When considering the relationship between two things, scientists assume that the two things are not related until its shown that they are related. This is called the “null hypothesis.” Scientists never assume what you’re saying, that two things ARE related until proven otherwise. The reason why I reference science is because saying that there are a “disturbingly high number” of unstable missionaries is a statistical statement. There must be some data showing this, otherwise we should assume that the null hypothesis is true (ie, that the % unstable missionaries is no different than the % unstable in the general population). At the least, Christian writers should know that readers with a philosophical or science background are immediately thinking these things when such empirical relationships are stated.

  16. February 7, 2011

    Another thought here . . . as a very busy social justice minded person, I often struggle to find time for the contemplative, or even time to rest. At times, it’s been implied (not here!) that doing so is selfish, weak, unproductive. The balance goes both ways. It’s a beautiful thing to pour yourselves out for the sake of others, but only in so far as you are connected to your source, so what you are giving is of true value and pure motive. I find it somewhat arrogant to think that what we have to offer is so important that the world cannot wait for us to breathe and center. Contemplation and connection feeds pure and holy action, and vice versa. I love the mention of Mother Theresa here, such an inspiration and model of how this can look.

  17. February 8, 2011

    I loved this post! As I have been practicing yoga this last month, my focus has been on integration, and bringing together that deep divide that I feel between body and soul. I feel that there has been deep damage by this divide in the Christian world–our concern to “save souls” but not be of physical good (or only as a means to the spiritual end), our personal inability to meet God in our physical activities, and our discomfort with the extent of the physicality of Jesus’ good news.

    Being weak on history, I was interested in the discussion of contemplatives. When I think “contemplative”, the people that come to mind are Mme Guyon, Fenelon, and Brother Lawrence. I think of the ways these teachers are sometimes shocking to evangelicals in their encouragement to integrate activity with contemplation. Seems like a lot changed between Thomas Aquinas and them. Interesting how the strengths and weaknesses of all these diferent groups have shaped our cultural expression of faith today….

  18. December 4, 2012

    As an Active~Contemplative, I just want to say thank you! I am asked time and again how I can justify living as a solitary contemplative yet carry on an active ministry. My simple answer is, because that is what God has called me to do!

  19. peter permalink
    April 10, 2013

    It is said that one of the ways to help the souls in purgatory is through alms giving. What a better way to say that being contemplative in nature is also being accompanied by caring for the beggars. Always let the left hand knows what the right hand is doing.

  20. Flashing Yoshi permalink
    May 28, 2013

    LOL you would indeed get a full-blown smackdown from Thomas Aquinas. I, for one, would also like to see the sources in question for the statistics, though. They seem a bit off.

  21. September 11, 2015

    It’s both. The contemplative life, abiding in God’s love, is the inspiration for the active life (fruit).
    However, the contemplative life is that which is too often ignored or underdeveloped because our outer life demands action. Almost no one can do nothing, but we can easily ignore God’s love. We will reflect the love we experience with God to others if our contemplative life is healthy. It comes naturally.

  22. Sunny Z permalink
    December 19, 2015

    As Paul said as an intro to 1 cor 13, but more humbly, for I suggest it and Paul asserts it, “May I suggest to you yet more excellent way” That is, the way of the soul annihilated by true love. For contemplatives labor in prayer, and actives labor in deeds. No doubt the two cannot part, for faith without deeds is death. No doubt to love your God will all your heart and soul and mind and strength , and to love your neighbor as yourself are equal, for Jesus said it himself (The second which is equally important). But the soul annihilated in love does nothing for God, yet leaves nothing to do for God. All its work is a labor of love. This can seem as a paradox at first since there is no labor in love in the sense of striving. The son says to the father, come here now see how hard I have labored for you. Yet he has no ground to stand on. For the father is eternal and the works are eternal and the inheritance is eternal. It is my prayer for all who labor strivingly that they would find rest in Jesus, that good works may about and breakthrough may flourish.

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