In a March 2020 First Things article, Michael Hanby writes that “Modernity is the radical and wholesale transformation of the world’s relation to the divine.” With God reduced from “first principle” to “a hypothesis,” the door was open for the Enlightenment, in the name of reason, to restrict what reason is: “reducing knowledge to power and truth to functional utility and reconceiving reason as an instrument.” In such an environment, “Understanding ceases to be an end … and becomes a mere means. Contemplation – as useless – becomes unintelligible.”
Hanby’s statement is complex, rooted in centuries of scholarly argument, and full of potential for endless discussion. My own goal is simply to focus attention on the word “contemplation”. Over time I am becoming more and more aware that I would be perfectly satisfied to spend my days contemplating God, the world he is creating, and the people he has called into being. In other words, I am becoming what might be called a “contemplative”.
What this means is that, when possible, I spend the first hour of a new day reading and absorbing the thoughts of others and allowing them to percolate through my mind. When I study the Bible, I may sometimes read large portions at a time, but more often I am caught by a single phrase, by the contrast between two statements, or by the relationship of particular words. Likewise, when I go for a walk in the woods, I dilly-dally, picking up sticks from the path, noting vines that need to be cut, or just standing silently, listening to the wind, to a movement in the grass, to a woodpecker’s hammering or a songbird’s singing, and staring intently around me, not to know and classify but to sense and understand.
What Hanby is suggesting by his comment about contemplation is that when a “vertical” emphasis on God, nature, and truth is replaced by a “horizontal” emphasis on the future and on possibility and an imagined utopia, contemplation is also subordinated to practical action. When we turn our face down from God’s face and turn our focus to the world around us, we become more concerned with how things work than in what they are.
I live in a practical world that seeks to see everything objectively and impersonally and therefore to measure everything in terms of its practical value. When I read the thoughts of others in such a world, absorbing and percolating should be replaced by applying and using – perhaps as a source of words to share with others. When I study the Bible, I should measure my worth by how many chapters and books I have reviewed, how much I have memorized, or what lessons I can apply. And when I take a walk, I should measure the number of steps I have taken, the distance I have traveled, or the number of species I have identified.
Caught in this world, I have absorbed its tacit assumptions and have learned to enjoy the sense of fulfillment brought about through completion of practical tasks. At the same time, however, I also end up feeling guilty about my desire for contemplation and understanding and the possibility of sitting at the feet of Jesus with a vial of expensive perfume in my hands as his words flow over and around me, enveloping me without sinking in or turning to practice.
Toward the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, Eustace represents modernity by observing that “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu’s response suggests that there is something more: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Through contemplation, I seek to understand what a star is.