Thomas Keating on Contemplative Spirituality and Social Ethics

Living in a world in which we are complicit in so much violence, inequality, and exploitation — especially as first-world consumers and benefactors of rampant militarism that is meant to secure our economic interests — we often struggle with understanding the relationship between Christian spirituality and social ethics.  It’s tempting on the one hand to ignore our own personal sin by focusing on the systemic and abstract issues — I’m definitely guilty of this sometimes.  Conversely, many Christians are satisfied by merely attending to their “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Well, today I got to share a little bit about this tension as a guest lecturer for a class on Christian spirituality and social ethics.  So, before focusing too much on my understanding of “big problems” in general, here’s something I came across in preparation for class that identities and highlights the interdependency between spiritual formation and justice:

The Movement from Contemplation to Action according to Thomas Keating:

. . . is a question of responsibility for social justice.  What happens when the rights of the innocent interfere with the economic or territorial interests of world powers?  At the mythic membership level of consciousness, the response is, “Such is the way the world is.”  Whoever has the most money or power wins.  The national interest always comes first.  The mature Christian conscience says, “No! This is unjust!  The exploitation of the innocent by armed force cannot be tolerated.  Oppression is a collective sin of enormous magnitude and carries with it the most serious consequence.  How can I free myself from being implicated in so great an evil?”

The limitation of mythic membership consciousness [identity over-identification, tribalism, nationalism, etc], especially its naïve loyalty to the values of a particular culture or interest group, hinder us from fully responding to the values of the gospel.  We bring to personal and social problems the prepackaged values and preconceived ideas that are deeply ingrained in us.  The beatitude that hungers and thirsts for justice urges us to take personal responsibility for our attitude to God, other people, the ecology of the earth, and the vast and worsening social problems of our time . . .

The seventh beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the peace-lovers.”  The latter are people who do not want to rock the boat and hence sweep [uncomfortable] situations under the rug.  Capitalistic systems are [made uncomfortable] by the homeless and try to hide them . . . Authorities can deal with the peace-lovers by appealing to their desire not the have their lives upset by the oppression and misery of other people.  Mythic membership mindsets lead to serious injustice because they tend to disregard the rights and needs of others . . .

We cannot expect the military establishment to end war.  War is their profession.  The only way that war can be eliminated is to make it socially unacceptable . . .

One cannot be a Christian without social concern.  There is no reason why anyone should go hungry even for a day. Since the resources are there, why do millions continue to starve?  The answer must be great.  It is, for most people, an unconscious greed stemming from a mindset that does not ask the right questions and a worldview that is out of date . . .

The gift of fortitude creates the hunger and thirst for justice.  This disposition frees us from the downward pull of regressive tendencies and from the undue influence of cultural conditioning.

Keating goes on to explain that contemplative prayer provides a way out of this mess and way to receive such a gift of fortitude:

The primary spiritual practice is fidelity to one’s commitments in daily life . . . Contemplative prayer is addressed to the human situation just as it is.  It is designed to heal the consequences of the human condition, which is basically the privation of the divine presence.  Everyone suffers from this disease.  If we accept the fact that we are suffering from a serious pathology, we possess a point of departure for the spiritual journey.  The pathology is simply this: we have come to full reflective self-consciousness without the experience of intimacy with God.  Because that crucial reassurance is missing, our fragile egos desperately seek other means of shoring up our weaknesses and defending ourselves from the pain of alienation from God and other people.  Contemplative prayer is the divine remedy for this illness . . .

Anthony of Egypt discovered and organized the four basic elements of the contemplative lifestyle: solitude, silence, simplicity, and a discipline for prayer and action . . .

Contemplative prayer combines these four elements in a capsule that can be taken twice a day.  The period of deep prayer, like a capsule, acts like an antibiotic to heal the psychotoxins of the human conditions . . .

The disease of the human condition as we saw, is the false self, which, when sufficiently frustrated, is ready to trample on the rights and needs of others, as well as on our own true good, in order to ease its own pain or to obtain what it wants.  By dismantling the emotional programs [of the false self that is controlled by our natural desire for security, power, approval and affection], we are working to heal the disease and not just the symptoms.  The emotional programs were developed by repeated acts.  With God’s help, they can be taken down by repeated acts.

I am very much still a student of how to practice these “repeated acts” or spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, solitude, silence, meditation, seeking out people who are different and difficult, etc.), and I’m grateful for Keating’s reminder of just how integral the cultivation of such a devotional and contemplative life is to social ethics and helping to bring about God’s reign of justice in the world.

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