Written by Chesterton House

June 11, 2008

I just returned from Envision: The Gospel, Politics, and the Future. The conference was a mixed bag; there were some very good talks and presentations, and there were some of the other kind. Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith and Justice gave a terrific and inspirational talk entitled “Theology of Shalom,” including a short theatrical reading vividly depicting the poisonous effects of the Fall. In the beginning, all things were good–not just in the Platonic sense of goodness, but in a more Hebraic, relational sense of holding together in perfect harmony. In the beginning, there was Shalom. Harper recast the biblical motif of Creation, Fall, Redemption as Shalom, Shalom lost, Shalom Regained.

In the panel that followed, Bart Campolo said something to the effect that he used to believe “all that shalom stuff,” but now that he lives among children who are born into the world disadvantaged and die before they ever have much opportunity in life, he doesn’t really buy it anymore. Simply put, he said, “my theology did not survive my experience.”

For the record, I am a strong believer in learning from experience (I worked in the field of Experiential Learning for twenty years), and yes–I have experienced the disillusionment that comes from unsuccessfully trying to help those with great needs. But as philosophers have noted almost since the beginning of time, the danger of giving experience too privileged a place in one’s epistemology is subjectivism. Miroslav Volf, another panelist, responded to Campolo by saying in effect that there are more constructive and subtle ways of making sense out of one’s experience than simply jettisoning the wisdom of Scripture and tradition. I begin with the assumption, Volf said, that the church with its 2000 years of accumulated wisdom is smarter than I am. Hear, hear!

The conference speakers were largely activists–folks like Campolo who live sacrificially in the service of others. Activists have a special place in the Christian tradition. The God of the Bible is not merely transcendent, like the impersonal God of so many traditions or the indifferent watchmaker of the deists. The God of the Bible is rather the God who acts. He is on the move. In the defining event of the Hebrew Scriptures, his people follow him through the wilderness. In the New Testament, Jesus says over and over “Follow me.” There is in Scripture an affirmation of human agency and action in the world, with no small emphasis on service to the poor.

As someone who lives in an academic community relatively removed from urban ills, I need activists in my life. Nevertheless, when I hear activists “normalizing” their particular calling, and privileging doing over being, I am reminded that action and activity need to be grounded in a larger vision. Such emphasis on social action, we might say, needs a dose of contemplative correction. Toward that end, here is a bit of wisdom from contemplatives of diverse backgrounds . . .

The nature writer John Burroughs once wrote:

I have gone a-fishing while others were struggling and groaning and losing their souls in the great social or political or business maelstrom. I know too I have gone a-fishing while others have labored in the slums and given their lives to the betterment of their fellows. But I have been a good fisherman, and I should have made a poor reformer. . . . My strength is my calm, my serenity.

Burroughs is (here) perhaps too opposed to activism and reform; vision without action is mere mysticism. But he does capture the notion that not all have the same calling. Somewhat more subtle is Edward Abbey’s famous “One last paragraph of advice.” Abbey, a student of Wallace Stegner’s, was an environmental activist and writer. He was, however, an activist who understood that activism leads to burn out if it is not grounded in something greater than itself.

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am–a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Here (as elsewhere) Abbey demonizes rather than loves his enemies. In any case, the insight that comes through these passages is that reform work, by nature of it being a means to an end, inherently runs the risk not only of burnout but “loss of soul.” What is needed to balance the reform instinct, then, is something that is an end in itself. To Abbey and Burroughs this is fishing and hunting. To the Christian, of course, it is worship. Abbey’s quote has always reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s line that captures all of this more wisely and succinctly still: “A man can’t be always be defending the truth; there must be a time for him to feed on it.” (It should also be noted that in Lewis’s “sacramental mysticism,” worship would be understood broadly so as to include, rather than exclude, things like fishing and hunting.)

What to make of Campolo’s battle scars and disillusionment with the theology of shalom?

At the end of the last chapter of Orthodoxy, commonly considered his best book, Chesterton writes that the very ground for his faith is that the tradition he embraces is wiser than he is. Citing celibacy as a church teaching that he does not naturally understand, Chesterton writes, “This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” And so “I simply conclude that I am wrong, and the church right; or rather that I am defective, while the church is universal.” Chesterton, like Coleridge before him, would put reason in its place. As Coleridge put it, “Scripture is like the sun, while reason is like the moon.” As with Volf, then, Chesterton and Coleridge alike would have us distrust our disillisionment.

Activists tend to be impatient. That is not all bad; we ought to be impatient with injustice. But that impatience needs to be grounded in a vision of human flourishing that sustains the activist’s labor. Although God at times works more slowly–more patiently–than we would wish, the Scriptural vision of Shalom Regained is a compelling example of such a vision. The confession Our World Belongs to God strikes the balance well:

With tempered impatience,

eager to see injustice ended,

we expect the Day of the Lord.

And we are confident

that the light which shines in the present darkness (1 Cor. 15)

will fill the earth when Christ appears.

Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev. 22:20)

Our world belongs to you.

Hear, hear!

Chesterton House Painting