Contemplation, Fundamentalism, and Healthy Conflict

Another column for Patheos — this one might be a bit controversial — I originally titled it  Is Contemplation the Enemy of Fundamentalism? but the Patheos editors shortened that to the slightly more provocative Fundamentalism vs. Contemplation? There’s a bit of a backstory here. At work I’ve had a couple of run-ins with fundamentalist persons lately, usually complaining because we are a Catholic store but sell books on other religions. I also recently read a baldly mean-spirited blog post from a fundamentalist Catholic blogger that left me feeling profoundly sad. So I felt led to comment on how fundamentalism and contemplation represent two fundamentally different spiritual perspectives. I hoped for the article to be gracious; the first few comments give me cause to believe that I was, at best, only partially successful. As always, I would love to receive your comments, either here or at Patheos. Here is the link again: Fundamentalism vs. Contemplation.

The larger question here, as I said in responding to one of the comments: It’s a fine line, really. As a contemplative I believe it is my job both to love my enemy (and often, “my enemy” is not so much who I dislike, but who dislikes me) and to be compassionate toward those whose values and behavior seem objectionable to me. But where does love and compassion stop, and acquiescence and accommodation begin?

I believe it is important for contemplatives to take the high road whenever engaging in conflict with persons who hold values different from or hostile to our own. But neither should we run away from conflict, for it is only through honest and direct confrontation that we can create the space for the Holy Spirit to transform all of our lives (including our own). Of course, we need to learn how to fight fair, something that is often in short supply on the blogosphere! Anyway, I hope this article is more constructive than not — but please let me know what you think.

Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • susan


    That poem by Edwin Markham bowled me over and now firmly planted in my heart! The call to humility rose for me in a stronger willingness to be that inner circle within any fundamentalist world view. The task became more about my willingness to have the many traces of my own denied fear-based fundamentalism, my own self-created dogma exposed and shed, no matter how subtle, for the inner void-like space of my heart wisdom to expand with the dynamic and creative forces of the Holy Spirit’….the only ‘contemplative’ able to make a difference! A dogma that stirs us into unknowing and never limited by human agenda!

  • Gregory Estes

    I completely agree with your article. You have my support.

  • Alison Leigh Lilly

    Speaking of fighting fair – I’m disappointed to know Patheos altered your title. :-/ If it were a one time thing, I could shrug it off as editorial preference for conciseness – but a couple months ago, they did a similar thing to one of Gus diZerega’s columns by taking a sentence from his last paragraph and using it, altered, as a subtitle which made it look like he was saying conservatives were like Hitler. (To be fair, Gus has some strong opinions, but they’re not as unreasonable and trollish as the Patheos’ editing made it look.) Nothing drives traffic to a website like that kind of inane controversy instead of preserving subtlety and fostering thoughtful conversation.

    But anyway, I’ve said my piece about the aptly named Patheos. ;) Now going over to read your article!

  • Wayne Halford


    Thank you for writing this column! I believe you have hit the nail on the head. Your words have been my thoughts for so long and to see it expressed gave me much relief. Since I’ve been reading and studying Merton, St. John of the Cross and many others of the great mystics I’ve come to appreciate your insight and how you express yourself. The poem by Edwin Markham was the icing on the cake as I was just reading prior to this some of St. John of the Cross’ poetry.

  • Bob Martin

    I had never though of fundamentalism as spiritual arrested development. It seems appropriate though as beating others over the head with religion does not align at all with the teachings of the son of god that they worship.

    Great article. I love the poem also.

  • Bob


    Good discussion on the Patheos site. I went from fundamentalist to contemplative/mystical thinking, action and community in hope of becoming a more loving human being. I was just as dogmatic and angry in either camp. My journey went from a fundamentalist reading of Scripture to believing in “can’t we just be nice to each other” with no Faith content. Funny thing though is I went liberal theologically and moved conservative politically. Now what I affirm and believe is the Nicene Creed, 10 commandments and Jesus’s teaching. The hard part is accepting the “mushy middle” which at many times doesn’t feel strong and convincing and manly. It seems to be the best spot for me.

  • danielle baudouin castronis

    It seems that separation is the foundation of fundamentalism.

    Mystiscism opens the door to a non-dualistic relationship to life. That is when we understand Jesus’ words:” love your neighbor as yourself”, because your neighbor IS yourself.

    As you so well said, ignorance is then the cause of fundamentalism, and pride protects ignorance.

    As frustrating as it can be, there isn’t much convincing we can do against ignorance except, through our own example, to manifest the light of non-duality- a very humbling endeavour. We are needed. We have the responsibility to manifest truth, for the sake of the evolution of consciousness. We need to be seen. It isn’t a personal choice.

    It is unfortunate that those who are the most ignorant are the ones who are the most vocal and eager to act.

    • Wayne Halford

      Very well said.

  • Jeff

    I guess I am an old school fundamentalist who “embraces pre-modern evangelical beliefs” but who has no interest in a “vigorous attack on outside threats to (my) religious culture” though I practice respectful verbal disagreement with those of other beliefs and respectful sharing of my own experiences and viewpoint.

    “It seems that contemplative Christians, Jews, and Muslims have more in common with each other than with the fundamentalists who share their respective faiths” That’s because they’re all practicing variants of the Buddhist eightfold path as their raft to get to where they want to go. They don’t have the same religion as their fundamentalist cousins. Contemplative spirituality is a combination of inner mental and psychological techniques, ethical behaviors, and often physical actions (fasting, solitude, silence, sacred dance, yoga) thrown in. This is why Ken Wilber, a Buddhist based philosopher is so popular in the contemplative world as he explicitly presents this path and genericizes it across spiritual traditions.

    To my mind this replaces the living Jesus as the way to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus becomes a nice optional accessory. Contemplative spirituality is practicing an inner circumcision, a work of the law or a legalism in Pauline New Testament terms. The contemplative Christian says, “Yes, it’s good to believe in Jesus, but to be really spiritual and to know God, you need this extra feature called Contemplative Christianity to be a class A spiritual person. Faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior doesn’t really fill you with the Holy Spirit like this contemplative inner circumcision thing does!”

    I tried the contemplative approach and found it wanting compared to simply trusting in Jesus as the Savior as the way to know God and experience Him.

    Galatians 3:1-5

    1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (what they heard was the message of the crucified and resurrected Son of God)

    • Carl McColman

      Jeff, you and I often disagree, but I appreciate your civility when expressing your beliefs. Thank you.

    • Gregory

      Dear Jeff,

      I can understand your concerns about contemplation and the potential danger of leading people away from Christocentric faith. At the same time, I think you might be creating a false dichotomy between contemplation and “simply trusting in Jesus”.

      I am a fairly traditionalist Catholic and I make scripture study and vocal prayer a part of my daily life, but the discovery of contemplative prayer has quite simply saved my faith, my sanity and probably my life.

      I like to think of contemplative prayer in terms of an analogy with human relationships. In the deepest and closest relationships between people (spouses, parents and children, best friends, etc.) one arrives at a comfort level where there is no need to be constantly conversing and communicating. You grow comfortable just being in the presence of the other person. By contrast, it is when we don’t feel very comfortable with someone that we feel the need to fill in akward silences with small talk and chatter. Well, if God is our Father and Jesus is our brother (and such a dear friend that he died for us), then it is only natural for us believers to reach a stage where we can simply rest in the presence of God. If our relationship with God consists entirely of us talking at Him (asking for this or that), then that is perhaps the sign of a shallow or undbalanced relationship.

      One reads in the Gospels of the times Jesus spent whole nights alone in prayer in secluded places. Now it may be that he spent all this time in vocal prayer asking for the Father to do this or that for His people, but I am more inclined to believe that he spent at least a portion of this time just resting in silent awareness of His Father. How else could he be recharged to deal with his knucklehead disciples and all the enemies, public an private that sought to impede his ministry?

      So, we have to be rooted in the scriptures, in the creeds and the apostolic faith. Vocal prayer is still important. But, we can still have a place in our relationship with God that allows for simply spending time with him in silence.

      • Jeff

        Hi Gregory,

        Rather than further trying to explain myself I have some comments on a earlier post at this site “Contemplation and

        the Bible” that show more of how I look at things. I have no problems with believers choosing to be in silence before the Lord. After all

        the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple must have been a very quiet place. I don’t see silent/contemplative prayer as a panacea or as intrinsically better

        than verbal prayer, but just one of the ways we can be with and know

        God. It seems from scripture that Christ was quite verbal in his prayer life. Besides how he is described in the Gospels, it says in Hebrews 5:6 “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears ” But I’m not setting a specific way of prayer as being in conflict with faith in Christ. I often pray in tongues as I confess and think of Jesus as the Son of God. There’s no record Christ prayed in tongues! I often utter the classic Jesus prayer too – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner. So I am rather eclectic.

        Some of my most blessed experiences have been either in a group or by myself stilled before the Father in an atmosphere drenched with his fullness, and I am sure our Savior did the same.

        Carl, thank you for graciously putting up with my prickliness!

  • Bob

    Jeff, you bring up a good point. I tried very hard to get an unmediated experience of God. The way to do that if you want to become spiritual is by doing 2 twenty minute sits per day, according the contemporary masters. I tried and tried over the course of 2-3 years to no avail. I came away thinking I didn’t try hard enough or God chose not to bless me that way. Promoters of Centering Prayer claim how wonderful it is. I’m slowly learning that resting in Grace is the best way. I was lonely because I alienated many folks at my conservative church by being spiritual and enlightened. There was at that point in life that I didn’t need to go to Mass because I was worshipping myself. Centering prayer can lead to a closed universe and loose the transcendence of God