Lent, contemplation and revolution

March 27th, 2019

Lent is, among other things, an opportunity for self-examination. This, perhaps, creates the opportunity to simplify in such a way that our humanity, and that of our neighbors near and far, is affirmed.

This kind of self-examination leading to affirmation initiates a different kind of journey through the Lenten desert than a self-punishing ascetic spirituality embraced for its own sake. Negation, properly, serves a deeper affirmation, the divine rest and plenitude abiding in every human being and in every moment.

Contemplative prayer — a fine version of which travels under the moniker Centering Prayer* — conduces to the sort of collected, rested clarity from which objective self-examination can proceed. Contemplation is the clear afternoon sky, the starry moonlit night, the warm bed of sand and cool sip of water in our Lenten pilgrimage.

Contemplation is thus the beginning of the road to the radical transitus, the total revolution: resurrection.


Micah White is a former Adbusters editor and one of the initiators of Occupy Wall Street. His 2016 book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution (Knopf), fascinatingly recounts both the success and the failure of Occupy. Of the former, White writes: "Occupy Wall Street was a political miracle, a rupture moment that redefined reality, pushed the limits of possibility and transformed participants into their best and truest selves. Without leaders, we all became leaders. Beautiful ideas did not have to wait for approval..." (2). To shed light on Occupy's failure, White quotes a criticism of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: "Occupy Wall Street had such limits because the local authorities were able to enforce, basically in our imaginations, an image of what proper civil disobedience is — one that is simply ineffective" (2). White comments:

Snowden is... right to suggest that contemporary activists must share the blame for their role in perpetuating failed protest behaviours and outdated social change theories. All too often, protesters recycle tactics that have been overused for decades and are simply destined to fail today. Authorities encourage these nostalgic protest rituals because they follow a predictable script that is easy to control. (3)

This diagnosis frames White's introduction of a new paradigm, a new theory, of social change. He calls it "A Unified Theory of Revolution," and it is, surprising as it might be for some, theologically engaged, intriguing and suggestive. The unified theory contains four different theories and articulates the relationship between them. The four theories are labeled voluntarism, structuralism, subjectivism and theurgism. Voluntarism is the idea that "certain collective social behaviors have unique political power" and that "voluntary actions are the dominant factor in revolution" (75). Structuralism is the view that "human action is irrelevant, or largely insignificant, to revolutionary success"; "structuralists see revolutions as a process that emerges out of the complex interaction of interrelated systems, such as the global economy or consumer debt or the effects of climate change" (80). These first two theories "constitute the bulk of... the left that traces its lineage to Communism and Marxist historical materialism" (81). With the third theory, subjectivism, things start to get spiritual rather quickly. "The external world is a mirror of your internal world, says the subjectivist activist" (90). "Believers in this theory of revolution maintain that active contemplation and meditation (from an outside perspective this may look like passivity) is superior to physical action" (91). The fourth theory, theurgism, is the view that God or divine forces create revolution: revolution is an "objective supernatural phenomenon" (93). White notes that this view is not taken seriously by many revolutionary theorists, yet it seems to be the view out of the four with which White now most intimately identifies.

Yet, despite sharp tensions at the level of theory, White holds that these four theories admit of a certain integration or unification: there's an ascending flow about them, such that each one prepares the activist to be inducted into the next. The mature and spiritual revolutionary, seeing the ascending character and cyclical nature of all four draws on the wisdom of each at the appropriate time. For my present purposes, what is most interesting is the relationship White points to between subjectivism and theurgism:

Convinced that protesting is ineffective when the time is not ripe for change, the wise activist embarks on the journey of inner liberation. By shifting her perception of the world, the rebel casts off the negativity that has dominated her practice. Meditation leads to purification of the spirit in preparation for an epiphany.... In the final stage of the ascension, the activist transcends the limitations of subjectivism and expands her spiritual practice outward.... The activist understands that divine power renders all things possible. (101)

"Meditation," which is for White associated with subjectivism, is analogous to Christian centering prayer, or contemplation. Meditation, for White, purifies the spirit and contains an inner dynamism towards its fulfillment in the ability (which White associates with theurgism) to see and act in the world as the theater of objective divine action.

Here's how I'd christologically reframe what White's given us: the objective divine act of Jesus Christ's living, dying and rising in history is the miracle which grounds our subjective response to it, and participation in it. That's where centering prayer comes in. In centering prayer, we abide in the life of the ascended Lord, suspended in attention yet at rest, poised for revolution.

* For the method of centering prayer, click here.

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