Why Christian Social and Political Activists Need Contemplation and Mystery — and Now More Than Ever

Why Christian Social and Political Activists Need Contemplation and Mystery — and Now More Than Ever May 7, 2018

Last week I attended a book signing here in Atlanta, in which Jon Sweeney promoted his new biography, Phyllis Tickle: A Life. I’ve known Jon for years — we share a love for Cistercian spirituality and he edited my book The Lion, the Mouse and the Dawn Treader. But I wasn’t there just for Jon — I’m also very much a Phyllis Tickle fan, and relished hearing stories about the woman I’ve called “the merry doyenne of the ’emerging church’ movement.”

Phyllis Tickle was a poet and essayist and also the first religion editor for Publishers’ Weekly. But in the decade prior to her death in 2015 she became famous as a writer and speaker who introduced many people to what she called “emergence Christianity” — the efforts among many Christians, primarily evangelicals but cutting across denominational lines, to articulate a vision of our faith that is in positive and creative dialogue with postmodern culture and philosophy.

A decade ago, emergence Christianity or the “emerging church” was all the rage, among writers and thought leaders like Tickle, Richard Rohr, Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Peter Rollins, and numerous others. It’s a label I don’t hear as much these days, and Jon Sweeney had some interesting thoughts as to why that might be.

He bluntly said that Phyllis Tickle was a mystic.

He went on to speculate how the mystical, contemplative dimension of her faith gave depth and perspective even to her commentary on contemporary trends within Christianity, including the so-called great emergence.

Phyllis Tickle was famous  for saying that every 500 years or so Christianity held a metaphorical “rummage sale” in which it underwent a kind of transformation. See especially her book The Great Emergence.

Five hundred years after the time of Christ came St. Benedict and the rise of the monasteries; five centuries later came the great schism separating western Catholicism from eastern Orthodoxy, and then in the sixteenth century came the age of the reformations, refracting western Christianity into a myriad of Protestant and evangelical communities. It’s been five hundred years since Luther nailed his reformation-launching 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, and so we are due for another transformation of the Body of Christ.

So, what has happened? Why has the Great Emergence seemed to have lost steam?

I’m sure there are many reasons why movements within the church gain or lose momentum. But Jon Sweeney offered his thoughts on the importance of Phyllis Tickle’s work — and the absence of her voice in the years since her passing — and suggested that the loss of Phyllis’s “mystical” voice might be a clue to why Christianity seems more fragmented than ever. And perhaps it has something to do with how the “emergence” movement (which was as spiritual as it was political in nature) has morphed into the more narrowly focussed “progressive” wing of Christianity.

Current thought leaders in so-called progressive Christianity — folks like Diana Butler Bass, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Rob Bell — often seem more focussed on the social and political implications of their faith, then on its contemplative or mystical heart. Perhaps the emergence church movement lost its momentum precisely because so-called progressive Christians have increasingly made their political commitments the heart of their faith — instead of the other way around.

I should hasten to add that I believe a similar dynamic is at work on the conservative side of Christianity. The temptation to ignore spirituality for politics seems to cut across all party lines.

If we worship our political views instead of Christ, we are idolaters.

In fact, it seems to me that in the past few years, Christianity in America is running the risk of splitting along the same fault lines of our society at large, where political loyalties become the final arbiter of group identity. Christ mandates that “we all be one” and that we “love one another,” but it seems increasingly that Christians in America are only willing to love the people who vote the same way they do.

Perhaps for Christianity to truly embody its calling as Christ-in-the-world, the church at large (not just Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, but the church as a whole) needs first to be anchored in its mystical life and from there discern how it engages with the world at large.

That’s a messy proposition, because it means that we have to re-learn the art of having conversations with people who see things differently than we do. We have to learn how to find unity in Christ even in the midst of the many ways we experience conflict and tension because of economic differences, racial and gender differences, and ideological differences.

We have to learn how to disagree while remaining in community.

History is not promising here. Catholicism often dealt with disagreement by branding the outliers as heretics, and then persecuting or even killing them. Protestantism simply accepted ever-growing fragmentation as the price of political, philosophical, or theological conflict. Unfortunately, neither the persecution of heretics nor the retreat into smaller-but-purer tribal identities will equip us to solve the problems we are facing.

To where are we being called?

Prayer and Prophecy

2015 was a rough year, in that we lost not only Phyllis Tickle, but also Marcus Borg and Kenneth Leech — two other respected Christian writers who had strong political views but always managed to remain faithful to the spiritual heart of Christianity. Indeed, Leech was perhaps the greatest spokesperson for the necessity of approaching politics prayerfully — as the title of his collection of essential writings makes clear: Prayer and Prophecy.

We are now facing the fact that the contemplative leaders of the the last few decades — Cynthia Bourgeault, Joan Chittister, Tilden Edwards, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr — are getting older (Freeman is the only one in that list under 70). They will not live forever, and so those of us who are a generation (or three) younger than them, need to be reflecting on how we can preserve the heart of their contemplative wisdom — even (and especially) in our polarized age.

I don’t care what side of the political fence you’re on. If your political and social activism is motivated by your faith in Christ, you need to ground your faith — and your activism — in contemplation and mystery. You need silence and stillness. You need time for retreat, for wondering, for reflection. This is not a matter of privilege — this is an essential ingredient for all of us. We need this now, more than ever — because if we abandon the mystical heart of Christianity, then our churches become just more tribes, more political parties, more factions fighting for ascendency in a dog-eat-dog world. That, my friends, is not the call of the gospel.

God bless Phyllis Tickle (and Leech, and Borg, etc.) for understanding this, and God bless Jon Sweeney for reminding us. Now — what are we going to do about it?

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