The need for a contemplative apologetics

August 21st, 2019

One of the curious, if predictable, features of the spiritual landscape today is the frequency with which enthusiasts for “contemplative Christianity” eschew heady philosophy and rigorous philosophical argumentation. This privation is mirrored by another: writers doing popular Christian apologetics — whether from the evangelical or Catholic wing of things Christian — often give short shrift to the spiritual practices which best contextualize and noetically encourage the beliefs they elucidate, promote, defend.

I say this tendency is both curious and predictable. It is curious, because in the “great theistic tradition” — including in a pronounced way its early and even medieval Christian moments — the contemplatives and mystics are often the philosophers and theologians. The mystics are doing metaphysics, and the metaphysics has as its goal mystical union with God.

For Christians this overlapping of the mystical and the speculative is inscribed into the ground of our faith: Jesus Christ is the eternal divine Logos enfleshed, as the prologue to John’s Gospel maintains. Moreover, the letter to the Colossians instructs us, “If, therefore, you were raised together with the Anointed [i.e. Christ], seek the things above, where the Anointed is sitting at God’s right hand; Set your mind on the things above, not the things on earth. For you have died and your life has been hidden with the Anointed in God” (Col. 3:1-3, trans. Hart).

Yet it’s not just the Christians who have this integration inscribed in their classical traditions. One sees it in various ways and styles in, for example, figures as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Paul, John, Origen, Plotinus, Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus, Shankara, Eriugena, Ramanuja, the Victorine theologians and mystics, Bonaventure … and, skipping to the 20th century, Simone Weil. The list could be enlarged ad nauseam of course.

Yet the reason my cursory list skips most of Western modernity is not entirely accidental. And we come now to the reason the tendency to keep apologetics and mysticism separate is predictable. For a variety of ways investigated from a variety of scholarly angles, the later Middle Ages and their early modern sequel see an increasing specialization. This has some good results which we need not go into. Yet it has the negative result that the serious contemplatives are not often the serious philosophers or theologians. And they’re certainly not, in our time, the vocational or semi-vocational apologists: William Lane Craig isn’t keen to teach contemplative prayer, and Martin Laird’s views on the soul, for all that they echo those of Plotinus (and Origen and Evagrius and Gregory of Nyssa!), drop wholesale the “tractate” producing, argumentative streak in Plotinus which feels for all the world like the spirit of Richard Swinburne.

So why does this bifurcation matter? Why is this dis-integration a bad thing, if it gives rise to an increase in specialization and so (perhaps it might be thought) human progress on the whole? In short, because it means that apologetics is truncated into a thin and brittle rationalism. Apologetics is estranged from the spiritual practices and interior orientations which conduce to spiritual knowing. And contemplative spirituality, for its part, becomes an alternative to rationally warranted philosophical and theological commitments. Neither of these bifurcations would’ve impressed Origen of Alexandria. Neither would’ve impressed Gregory of Nyssa’s big sister and teacher Macrina. Neither would’ve impressed any of the other figures on my above list, whether Christian or not. All of these folks would tell us as plainly as Simone Weil does that the practice of contemplative attention is conducive to sharper reasoning, even as the goal of philosophical reason is attentive resting in the Good and True, the God who is beyond our comprehension.

In short, Christian apologetics needs contemplative spirituality and vice versa.

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