Thursday 14 January 2010

Active vs contemplative: Round 2

Hopefully you've got a rough idea now of the distinction between the active and contemplative lives. We've already noted that Thomas thinks that different people are more naturally attracted to one or the other, but is one of them better than the other? According to Thomas, yes: the contemplative life basically kicks the ass of the active life (or it would if that weren't such an outwardly directed action). He uses the example of Mary and Martha: while Martha ran around in the kitchen making dinner, Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to him, and Jesus said it was Mary who had chosen the better part. Thomas gives nine reasons why the contemplative life is better. The first eight he nicks from Aristotle (who was talking about the contemplation of the Good and the Beautiful rather than of the Christian God specifically), and one he gets from Jesus:

i) For Thomas, the mind is the best part of human nature, and contemplation is all about the things of the mind, ideas, whereas the active life is all about external, physical things.
ii) The contemplative life is, apparently, more continuous, although I'm not sure why this would make it better.
iii) The contemplative life is more delightful than the active life.
iv) In the contemplative life, all you really need is yourself and God, whereas the active life involves you in the complicated worries of the world. The contemplative life is more self-sufficient, and therefore better.
v) The contemplative life is an end in itself: contemplation of God is the best thing we can do, whereas the active life is much more indirect - we do X so we can achieve Y, so that we can become more Z, and eventually so that we can flourish i.e. get to be with God and contemplate him. The contemplative life is a more direct root to what's good for us.
vi) The contemplative life is about rest in God, unlike the active life, where you're always running around and stressing.
vii) The contemplative life is about divine things, whereas the active life is about human things.
viii) The mind is what makes humans special and distinguishes us from the animals. A lot of the active life is just doing the same things the animals do, so is less uniquely human and therefore less good.
ix) The contemplative life is eternal: contemplating God is what we'll do forever, even after we die. The active life will come to an end with this life, so is more temporary, more fleeting, and therefore less valuable.

Thomas also briefly discusses the fact that sometimes mature Christians are called away from their contemplative lives to serve the Church (Church history abounds with reluctant bishops and churchmen, who are dragged out of their quiet contemplation to do church-y things). Sometimes love demands of us that we sacrifice our prayer-time for people-time. This bothers me: I can't help feeling that when spending time with people becomes an unwelcome distraction from the real business of doing prayer, something's a bit out of joint.

I think the problem here is Thomas' idea of what it means to be human. He lives in a world which arranged in a hierarchy consisting of four groups: physical things like stones at the bottom, which just exist; plants, which both exist and live; animals, which exist, live, and are conscious; and human beings, the climax of creation: we exist, live, and are conscious, but we also have reason and intellect. For humans to be at their most human, to be who God created them to be, they should do the things that only humans can do: reason, think, love. Doing the things we share with animals, or doing things which don't involve reasoning, thinking or loving, is a step down from what's best for us, a falling short.

My problem is this: Thomas ends up suggesting that what we really want to do is leave our bodies behind. In an ideal world (and in the world to come), we wouldn't need to eat, drink, sleep etc., we'd just contemplate God, intellectually. All the time. Thomas would probably be a bit offended if you suggested to him that he didn't think that our bodies were good: they are, God made them, and they point us to God. But they end up a bit like signs along a road: you reach a sign, it points you where you want it to go, and then you leave it behind, because the ultimate good doesn't have space for trees and mountains and babies and food: there's only really space for you and God.

All this ends up undermining rather badly Thomas' earlier attempts to suggest that the active and contemplative life are equally valid options, and people just happen to be more disposed to one or the other. What that ends up meaning is that some people are more disposed to God than others. Thomas wants to affirm the goodness of the world whilst also saying that God is good-er than any of the things in the world, and I don't find his attempts to do so very satisfying. I think he ends up saying that everyone who really loves God will express that by wanting the contemplative life more than anything, and I think that rather devalues, y'know, most of human life. What do you think?

Next time: some more positive thoughts about the contemplative life.


Jeremy said...
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Jeremy said...

Who says one has to pick? Christ perfectly accomplished both. I would suggest that a truly good active life finds its raison d'etre and energy in contemplation. I think a lot of these guys paint themselves into a corner by unnecessarily opposing these. Interesting how, while Jesus is rebuking Martha and praising Mary, he himself is living a contemplatively active life, visiting and teaching.

Gabriel Smy said...

I think – Lord save me from the contemplative life. It sounds horrendous. I don't think I'd be very good at it. Please don't make me do it for eternity.

Why don't we show those pebbles/wysteria/dalmatians a thing or two by doing all the four things – exist, live, be conscious and think – all at the same time.

Otherwise we'll be like some kid at Christmas who gets a present that no one else gets and plays only with that one, over and over again, saying 'nur-nur' to the other kids and neglecting his other gifts.

And that would just be silly.

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