The world of the Bible feels far from us. The psalmist claims that the blessed person “meditates day and night” on God’s Torah (Ps 1:2). Paul tells us that growing in the Christian life means not just doing something but standing there, “beholding the glory of the Lord” and so “being transformed” (2 Cor 3:18).
The one thing David yearns for is “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4). David even looks to the work of the Creator to contemplate his glory: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” The drive to know God and his works, wait and not act, to contemplate spans the Scriptures and is everywhere present in the ancient world.
But not so for us. We live in an activist age, one characterized by escaping thought into action, fleeing thorny problems into political solutions, running from theology to a more practical faith.
But understanding the world and God reconciles us with reality, to borrow a notion of Hegel. When we fail to understand, Hannah Arendt claims that we enter into a sort of warfare (Between Past and Future, 7). An engineer might obsess over a problem, a carpenter a design element. How does it work? We instinctively want to know.
Yet as Hannah Arendt recounts, some in the 20th century attempted “to escape from thought into action” (Between, 8). In context, she speaks of French Existentialists. The movement from hard philosophical perplexities into political solutions made sense. If we cannot figure it out, let’s act instead.
And as thinkers and writers are often forgotten until emergencies, so such thinkers only became known to the public during a time of revolution. It is during a crisis when people listen to the thinkers. In this case, the thinkers threw in the towel. If we cannot figure it out, why try? Act instead.
I do not think we have escaped this pattern of thinking on our day. The old way of contemplation as meditation on God’s Torah (Ps 1), creation (Ps 19), and Messiah (2 Cor 3-4) has given way to the question, “is it practical?” What is its value? Here, value means its ability to work in someone’s life to improve it, make it more efficient, or grow one’s economic prospects.
We live in an activistic age. Everything must be a cause. The thinking has been done (or need not be done too much). The acting is now. Thoughts and prayers are useless. We must act! Of course, activism is a good thing for free and democratic societies. I am here describing a habit of activism that privileges acts not words, one that escapes thought into action, runs from philosophical problems to political ones.
In Canada I think of how Christians spent time and money and energy on political solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, few care about the pandemic’s restrictions. Or if they do, they do so in the normal way. Only in revolutions do people really want to hear about a new thought that leads to a new act. In this case, the thought was resistance and the act was resisting directly.
Inflation now matters more than resistance to the COVID-19 bio-political regime. The long-thinking required to resist our new-normal has not been done. It was ham-fisted. The long-thinking in one direction has not happened. Only the act.
We escaped thought into action. We fled theology to politics. The last years only represent an on-going pattern of retreat. The fact that it seems useless to meditate on God’s Torah day and night (Ps 1) or contemplate the glory of God in the face of Christ to grow (2 Cor 3-4) tells a story.
Paul knows that contemplation grows us. How? Not growth in height, but in spiritual virtue. Can that even matter anymore to us? We are practical people, after all. Canadians are the hobbits of the Western world. We like a good home, good vacations, and good beer.
But I am haunted by the words of Hannah Arendt as she describes “the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs” and “the ‘sad opaqueness’ of a private life centered about nothing but itself.” Surely, we must live for more than just brute life?
We know what that is: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). But here is the challenge. How are we doing that here and now? What aspect of our life, what driving undercurrent means that we are not just living to act and do and live and move?
Where is the deep thinking that reconciles our life with reality, with the theological necessity to live according to the glory of God? See: I am not sure theology—thinking—really is useless. I think it reconciles our lives to reality, to God and his creation. Theology means that we don’t have to suffer under the malaise of “the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs.”
We live in an activist age, to be sure. But our acts must flow from the renewal of our mind (Rom 12:1–2). “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Heb 6:1). Be an activist, but do not discount the deep need to think long and hard in one direction. Advance. Don’t retreat. Think long and hard in one direction. And do it all for the glory of the God.