Contemplative Elitism: Part 2, There Is No We, Just Me

A standard criticism of evangelical piety and soteriology has been that it is too individualistic. Regarding salvation, for example, the sole focus is upon my relationship with God, being forgiven. The social and political of aspects salvation tend to be downplayed, marginalized, and ignored. Relatedly, a lot of criticism has been directed at the self-centered focus of modern praise music. The first person pronoun "I" predominates over "us" and "we." 

These criticisms are legitimate. And yet, you rarely hear anyone level similar criticisms at contemplative practices as used by many Christians. 

For example, one of the longstanding concerns of contemplative practices within Christianity, especially from within Catholicism, has been that contemplation provides unmediated access to God. You see some of this concern, for example, in the worries the church expressed about the teachings of Meister Eckhart. In his contemplative teachings about the Son of God being birthed within our hearts and "breaking through" to the ground of being where God and the soul "share the same ground," Eckhart appeared to marginalize, if not outright dismiss, the role of the church in mediating grace via the sacraments. To this day, such teachings make Eckhart, along with other contemplatives within the Christian tradition, very popular with the "spiritual but not religious" crowd. If the soul can have direct, unmediated access to God, then "organized religion" is superfluous. The church is irrelevant. The Bible a nuisance. For the Christian contemplative, nothing stands between the soul and God. And while there is promise, freedom, and adventure here, there are also some temptations. 

The point I want to observe here is that, as individualistic as evangelical piety might be, at least you have to go to church. The "spiritual but not religious" contemplative Christian, by contrast, can ignore the gathering of the saints, along with other corporate sacraments like the Eucharist. No one is needed beyond yourself. All one needs to make contact with God are a few contemplative practices you can engage with all on your own. There is no we, just me.  

To be clear, this isn't an indictment of Christian contemplation wholesale. This is simply the observation that, as practiced by some, contemplative practices can devolve into spiritualized individualism. Worse, it can produce an elitist autonomy, instilling the belief that you don't really need other people and can pursue God all by yourself. The messy and hard work of Christian community can be completely sidestepped.  

And related to my last post, this sort of autonomy is perfectly suited to a bougie, self-care approach to contemplation, similar to how mindfulness practices have been extracted from their Eastern religious context and repackaged as Western self-help techniques. Call this the consumerization of contemplation. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply